Welcome to Little Gems, a series by photographer and author Melanie Dunea that reveals the food and restaurant wonders hiding in plain sight.
I was lonely. On a series of gray Sunday mornings in the early ‘90s, I tried to kill time, walking around London’s Soho district near my hotel, while my stepfamily did family things. The streets were mostly deserted except for the earsplitting clatter of garbage trucks picking up last night’s bottles. The sidewalks were slippery with the remains of Saturday night’s revelry. The 1980s “clean-up” of London was supposed to tidy and tame this neighborhood, known as the hub of sex and debauchery. But the naughtiness is still there; just not so brazen.
It was in a tiny cafe called Bar Italia, at the top of Frith Street, that I found my solace. I happened upon the café partially because they opened at 7 a.m., but mostly because I overheard a rumor that Mick Jagger was a regular. This could be urban legend, but even so, I know he would have chosen to sit on what soon became my preferred perch: the red leather stool just to the right of the front door. From this vantage point I could simultaneously observe Firth Street slowly waking up and the chaotic bustle inside the cafe. While the cash register clanked and the green Gaggia espresso machine choked away, chattering customers paraded before me as if on royal review.
This was nirvana: A frothy cappuccino would gently ease me out of my jet-lagged haze as I lazily thumbed the juicy English tabloids. Stacks of cannelloni, cheesecakes, juicy sandwiches, and sheets of tiramisu beckoned from the pastry counter across the room. But during my frequent and subsequent visits I never had appetite for food; it was too early. My loss, I’m certain.
Turnover seems fast in this classic cafe: People throw back their espressos and run. I seem to be the only one who lingers, which is not hard to do when a decor so eclectic mesmerizes your attention. An enormous Italian flag has been nailed flat to the ceiling while smaller ones stand proud on the counter. Huge prosciutto legs, sausages, and braids of garlic dangle from above vying for whatever space remains. Clusters of photographs adorn every inch of the walls. The waiters tell me that the pictures change frequently and randomly, at the whim of the owner — except one, which is above all and larger than life. It is a huge black and white photograph of Rocky Marciano, the former American heavyweight boxer, his face set in a scowl; he looks, not surprisingly, like he is spoiling for a fight. The photo is rumored to be a gift from Marciano to the original owners, as a thank you for their endless hospitality.
When Lou and Caterina Polledris opened Bar Italia in the winter of 1949, they wanted it to be a refuge for Italian immigrants, a place were their fellow countrymen and women were assured a good cup of coffee, the latest news from Italy, banter about Italian soccer, and leads for potential jobs. That spirit of community and kindness has carried on to today and is kept alive by the current owner, Antonio Polledris, grandson of Lou and Caterina.
As the cups clatter and occasionally shatter, I realize that like so many before me, I come to Bar Italia to feel like I belong. “This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world,” Dave Stewart, the lead singer of the Eurythmics and a Bar Italia regular, told the BBC in 2010. In that interview, Stewart revealed he was working on a musical inspired by the cafe; though one has yet to materialize: “It’s about la famiglia — about an Italian family out of place in the middle of Soho, where there are strip joints and everything, and they’re a little Catholic family opening a coffee shop.”
Out of place in the middle of Soho? Sounds familiar, but I didn’t feel that way anymore. I came for a brilliant cup of coffee, to escape my loneliness, and to belong to this famiglia, even if just for a brief time.
22 Frith St., Soho, London W1D 4RF, UK
+44 20 7437 4520
Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.