BAR ITALIA SERVES THE SPIRIT OF ITALY
Bar Italia is an Italian café in Soho that has been making excellent coffee since 1949. You can also get paninis, pizzas, wine, and liquor as you watch football on the television at the back.
Bar Italia, 22 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4RF. Phone: 020 7437 4520
And now it’s morning
There’s only one place we can go
It’s around the corner in Soho
Where other broken people go
Pulp, Bar Italia
In the months leading to my daughter’s birth, conscious that I didn’t need the extra anxiety, I quit coffee. When I came back to the cup two years later, I did it in a caf in Dalston. This must have been mid-2013, and at the time I wasn’t familiar with the semiotics of dark grey walls and heavily tattooed — and heavily bearded — baristas. I didn’t make much of the ubiquity of Apple products in a given place. Nor did I pay much attention to a quirky WiFi password or the ’80s music blasting ironically from the speakers. When my coffee arrived, I was surprised by what food writer Jay Rayner would describe with grace and accuracy a year later: “The colour is right. It’s coal black and across the surface is a fine, seashore foam of copper-coloured froth, the all important ‘crema’. The taste, however, is wrong. Very wrong.” I thought that my espresso was perhaps defective and sent it back. The second cup tasted very wrong too and I attributed the spiteful flavour to me falling out of love with coffee after a long hiatus. It took me several weeks to figure out this was a new kind of coffee: light roast was the name of the offending blend.
To this day, I would rather drink molten lead than one of these sour insults to the senses. Obviously, it is a matter of taste, yes. And in this matter of taste it is “heads of coffee development” in open plan offices that allow dogs, catering to well-off and caffeinated entrepreneurs of pop-ups and startups, and influencers of the world united in their terrible love for beans that taste like defecated tar who are in charge of deciding what good taste means. And so the sour coffee revolution keeps expanding beyond the confines of hip Dalston. Soon the whole of London — if not the world — will be Sour Coffee Hell.
To avoid the disappointment of this eye-squinting sour nonsense I have recently taken a radical decision: I only engage in caffeinated adventures in Bar Italia, Soho. No, it isn’t practical. And it obviously means I can’t drink coffee every time I fancy one. But at least I get to visit Soho more often.
Bar Italia stands in 22 Frith Street. It was opened in 1949 by the Polledri family, who borrowed the money to open it — £50 — from a fellow paesano. Seventy years later, the same family continues to own it. Perhaps as a testament to this continuity the bar looks pretty much as it would have in 1949, ancient till and espresso machine included.
Back at the time of Bar Italia’s birth, Soho was an area of London popular with the Italian community. Soho, with the famous Algerian Coffee Store just around the corner, was the go-to place for those after a good coffee. One and one make two, and the bar was a success from day one. Legend has it that, on the day of the opening, a party was organised on the street with the American comedians Abbott and Costello entertaining the attendees. Since then, it has continued in this trend, becoming a favourite spot for many famous Londoners and visitors: David Bowie, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul McCartney, among many others — including many jazz musicians from Ronnie Scott, just across the road — have patronised and continue to patronise this small café. Those more familiar than me with the world of theatre and television might be able to recognise a face or two in the place as well. Interestingly, this status as a ‘celebrity hotspot’ of sorts was perhaps sealed even before the bar was born: back in 1926, John Logie Bard — the television pioneer — demonstrated his prototype in his lab upstairs, as the blue plaque outside the bar reminds passersby.
Bar Italia’s deco and atmosphere really lives up to its name. From the Italian flags, football shirts, cycling memorabilia and pictures of celebrities to the chilli peppers and garlic hanging from the walls, everything is in place to hammer Italia home. The waiters are dressed in white shirts and black waistcoats, much like in your average Roman café. And it isn’t rare to bump into hordes of Italians watching the football on the telly at the back. And if the authentic feel isn’t enough for you, there is the opening to consider: the bar closes at 5 a.m. and reopens at 7 a.m., making it a favourite of late drinkers, early risers, and those who just stayed up all night, natural or chemically-induced insomniacs — a licensing miracle fixed for posterity in the homonymous Pulp song that opens this piece.
It is always reassuring to bump into a piece of London where history hasn’t been erased and replaced by the latest fad. Soho is an area under threat both by gentrification and the CrossRail development. Many of the places that gave it its aura have gone or will be gone soon. Bar Italia hangs on — heroically. May it hang for a long time. Or I will have to quit coffee again.
Photographs by Fernando Sdrigotti