A familiar face on Frith Street, Paul Robinson - Bar Italia's night manager - is a man devoted to his job. Jason Holmes met up with him over an espresso
Billy Zane finished his latte and walked to the bar, glass in hand. The man behind the counter wore a wide smile. As the Hollywood star approached, and before Mr Zane could speak, the man rang the bell that hung from the ceiling above the tray of cornetti and asked: 'Another one, Billy?'
That was the first time I laid eyes upon Paul Robinson, Bar Italia's night manager and long-serving friend of the Polledri family who have owned and run the Frith Street institution since 1949.
Paul, 43, was born in Cricklewood, north west London, and now lives in Hertfordshire. But it was at school in Hendon as a teenager that he and his brother first met Antony Polledri and his younger brother Luigi. They soon cemented a fast friendship that lasts to this day.
Antony and Luigi's grandparents - Lou and Caterina - emigrated to London in the 1920s from Piacenza in northern Italy, and prior to owning Bar Italia, had a café just off Long Acre in Covent Garden. Bar Italia was where London's paisani would meet to socialise and swap bits of post-war news about the old country.
Tonight, Paul sits opposite the Gaggia machine and keeps an eye on things, glancing occasionally at himself in the wall length mirror and fiddling with his cufflinks. The crowds are beginning to gather at this time of the evening. It's a little after 9pm and the evening is beginning to hot up, and it's not just the humidity of the June night. On Frith Street there's always a sense that anything can happen after dark.
'You know, the history of this bar is incredible,' says Paul. 'John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of television upstairs in 1926. Not many people know that.'
Just then a young waiter rushes up to us and whispers something to Paul, and without a word he disappears downstairs. Two minutes later he reappears with a tray of food and personally carries it across the road to the Arts Club where a private party is in full swing. Such old-world care in helping out a neighbourhood tradesman in an emergency made me stop and think where else I might see such an act of professional kindness in London. The answer is: nowhere else.
Paul is Italian on his mother's side and began working in the bar in 1988. 'The bar has two main periods of business,' he says. 'The day, which is when the families come along with the lunch crowd, and of course the media and advertising folk. Then at night you get the clubbers, tourists, musicians and of course the odd film star. And to be honest, you still get families turning up at midnight ordering cake and coffee. So it's incredibly diverse, a very unique atmosphere, not only for a London restaurant or bar. It's got an inclusive Mediterranean vibe. The coffee is the best in Europe in this bar, no question, which is all down to the Gaggia machine which doesn't have a softener on it so there are no salts running through the machine; and of course, it's the best blend of coffee beans put together by our long time supplier, Angelucci.'
A.Angelucci opened his shop in 1947, and used to occupy the premises next to the bar, but he relocated a couple of years ago to run his business out of north London.
'The blend of beans is a secret,' says Paul with a wink.
When talking about how Soho has changed over the years, he says: 'Soho is much cleaner now than say 20 years ago, and as a result, yeah, a bit of the old charm may have disappeared, but Westminster city council have done a fantastic job in the clean up.
'There are a lot of young people coming here, a brand new generation who are discovering the bar for the first time. You know, for many people it's where they first meet the world. The cross-section of society you get here, I mean, if I think about the people who have walked into this bar, from Abbott and Costello to Rocky Marciano, Francis Coppola, David Bowie, Sade, Evander Holyfield, The list is endless. They come here because they know the coffee is the best.
'But the old faces are still here. And you have to respect them,' he says, suddenly serious. 'You had men by the names of Maltese Joe or French Lou or Joe 'the Crow'. But those days are long gone. But still the character of the bar carries their memory.'
When asked where he sees Bar Italia in 10 years time he says: 'Here, doing the same thing. The third generation of the Polledri family is running it now: Antony, Luigi and Veronica are doing a fantastic job in keeping the bar unique. It's kept its tradition. The fact that this bar is still as popular as it ever was is testament to how the family has maintained the highest standards in catering.'
'The sporting crowds are great,' says Paul ordering another espresso for us both. 'When Italy got knocked out of the World Cup last year, the sense of loss was terrible, but they come for the camaraderie and they're as good as gold. There's never any trouble. The boxing too. We've screened every great fight over the years. The atmosphere has always been electric.' And as if speaking to himself, he points at the floor: 'There's history right there.' The bar still has the original tessellated floor that was laid in 1949.
A customer in a leather jacket is sipping a latte by the door. Paul points at him.
'This guy here, I saw him drop a pound coin once and as he bent down to pick it up, it hit him on the back of the head. Only joking George!' he says to the man's exiting back. 'That guy, twenty years we've been friends, no sense of humour,' says Paul shaking his head.
Luigi Polledri has emerged from Little Italy and is making a beeline for Paul from the rear with his index finger held to his lips to silence me, and as he reaches Paul he reaches out and gives him a sharp shove before walking away quickly laughing to himself.
'Hey!' shouts Paul, startled. The warmth of their friendship is plain to see.
I ask him if he likes his job and he replies without hesitation: 'Yeah, no question. I'm known to everyone here. I'm Paulie and the Polledri family is my extended family, and long may it stay that way.'
And Rocky Marciano looks down askance from the wall - the poster a present to the bar from Marciano's widow Barbara - his left jab permanently extended, his expression impassive, his 49 victories and zero losses an unstained record never to be beaten. Paul sees me look up at the poster and says: 'Now if you don't mind, it's Saturday night and I'm very busy!'
And then he's off, checking his paisley neck scarf in the mirror so that it's furling just so, before stepping onto the pavement to take in the crowds and Soho's night air.
© Jason Holmes 2011 (firstname.lastname@example.org)Suggest a correction