It seems like every Saturday afternoon when I was growing up, around the time that the football was kicking off , I would find myself sitting in my Dad's car outside an Italian deli somewhere in South London. My old man would vanish inside and wouldn't emerge again until at least half time. He would appear laden down and it was the contents of those bulging white plastic bags he was carrying that would keep me from complaining too much about being left in the car for what felt like an age. On the way home I would sit in the back feasting on fresh bread rolls (those little ones made up of segments with a central round bit) crammed full of delicate thin slices of mortadella, prosciutto and salami straight out of the greasy paper wrappers. Rifling through the rest I'd find chunks of Parmesan, tubs of mascarpone for tiramisu, ricotta and pack after pack of dried pasta and probably the odd bottle of pretty good Barolo. Close to Christmas and the back of the car would be laden down with dozens of pannetone in their shiny blue boxes.
Back then it took time and effort to find a decent mozzarella. You had to know where to look. Soho was always a pretty good bet, I remember being led by the hand through what seemed like rabbit warren streets dominated by strip clubs, sex shops and Italian cafes, butchers and delis. There was one particular butchers shop in Soho, that was pointed out to me on numerous occasions that made salsicce so good, that Cubby Broccoli, the late great James Bond film producer would insist on having them flown out to LA when he was there. Later, I recall sitting in the corridor like cafe El Panino whilst grown men cried into their Gazzetta Dello Sport and the owner handed out free coffees laced with grappa, all of us having watched Italy lose the 1994 World Cup final to Brazil on penalties. Despite the fact that Soho is now full of bars and restaurants of every hue there are a few relics of Soho's Italian immigrant past still standing and thriving.
Bar Italia still dominates the top end of Frith Street, unchanged for as long as I can remember, all comings and goings forever overseen by the towering portrait of Rocky Marciano behind the bar and where they serve panini milanese so huge you want to cry when they put it down in front of you. Yeah, the coffee probably isn't as good as you'll find in more rarefied areas of London but it's fun to watch people use jarring Italian on the predominantly eastern European baristas and it still feels more Italian than any other coffee bar in Soho. I Camisa and Son on Old Compton Street is probably the mould from which all Italian deli's are forged, and you will not find a better tomato anywhere in this city. Lina Stores on Berwick Street is still famed for it's fresh pasta and faded 1930's facade.
Italian food is ubiquitous now, there is nothing remarkable about being able to find rocket and speck in the supermarket. The tiny dark deli's of my childhood, with dried produce on floor to ceiling shelves and prosciutto and salamis hanging over the chilled cabinets of cheese and meat, tucked away on some folorn shopping street are being overtaken by the slick, modern and of course, media savvy. Carluccio's chain of delis always irritates me. OK, so the produce is generally good and the fresh pasta is just fine. It is more the fact that I have to stare his gurning mug at every turn that annoys me, that and the shocking price of everything in the place. I was in one earlier in the week and every single set of shelves in the shop had his face staring back at me, the self same toothy grin and twinkly eye. That nice fat Italian man who loves his mushrooms from the telly. After ten minutes I felt like Pauly from The Sopranos in that episode when he goes to Starbucks and "liberates" a stove top coffee maker.