THE BLOG
15/05/2014 10:57 BST | Updated 14/07/2014 06:59 BST

The Soul of Soho: Bar Italia Turns 65

"I do worry about the family-run businesses who are struggling with the rising rents," says Antony Polledri (pictured), owner of Bar Italia in London's Soho. "They're clinging on by the skin of their teeth, and with the coming of Crossrail, the impact in Soho will be massive. Small businesses will be chased out. It's only a question of time."

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We look out onto a busy Frith Street from Bar Italia, the Soho grotto that is 65 years old this year and which keeps safe the city's sacred heart. But this is no time for retirement. Opened in 1949 by Antony's grandparents Lou and Caterina Polledri - natives of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna who met and fell in love in London - today the bar is an idyll in a concrete jungle corroded by a vacuous modernity.

You can still turn the corner into Frith Street from Shaftesbury Avenue and find a place where the world is at peace with itself. Bar Italia is a jewel set in the rusted London crown. It's the fruit of immigrant toil, a place that makes a laughing stock of Farage and his followers.

"My grandmother was a strong woman and decided that she and my grandfather should open another café," says Antony. "They'd already opened a greasy spoon on Langley Court in Covent Garden that catered to the fruit and veg market. They were used to hustle and bustle."

The story starts when Lou and Caterina borrowed fifty pounds from a West End iceman - ice being an important Italian trade in the West End in those pre-refrigerator days - and opened the bar at 22 Frith Street with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on hand to help serve drinks. It's original incarnation was as a social centre for waiters and waitresses. "This quarter of Soho was predominantly Italian, full of artisans, so the bar was a social hub for Italians wanting to stay in touch with the old country. It was also a place where you could find employment."

The Bar Italia that Londoners have come to know hasn't changed since '49. The coffee remains tip-top, the calm of the bar a place for reflection and sustenance. The original terrazzo floor, laid by Antony's great uncle Torino Polledri, buckles gently from the door to the back wall with a Roman permanence, a stage trod by millions.

"Bar Italia always allowed pop stars and actors to have time to themselves," Antony tells me. "No one bothered them here. Whether you were David Bowie or Sade, you could walk into Bar Italia and be in a slice of Italy."

As kids, Antony and his younger brother Luigi were introduced to the bar on weekends by their father, Nino. "The vibe here was very different from the suburbs of Finchley. We'd look after people's fruit stalls while the owners would nip round the corner to the bookies. We'd help count the bar's fruit machine money. And Bar Italia itself, always with the door shut to keep out the cold, was thick with woodbine and cigar smoke.

"Everybody wanted to be a tough guy in the 1970s because you had to live on your wits. Getting into business was difficult. So big cigars were the fashion. My brother and I gained an insight into how business was done."

Antony tells a story of how he and Luigi once witnessed how a workman on Frith Street had his hand cut off with a meat cleaver by a couple of gentlemen keen on old-style retribution. But those days are long gone, mean streets giving way to a café society. Nowadays, the nearest you'll get to such an experience is when you hand over a fiver for a pint in a Soho pub.

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"In the 1980s, there was a clampdown on sex shops in Soho and as a result more cafés appeared. Soho went from being a black and white scene to one of colour. It was a place that stayed open later with the café society and nightclubs like The Wag. And the music industry came here."

The bar occupies a special place in the hearts of many. With the likes of Evander Holyfield, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul McCartney making a beeline for the bar when in London (Macca often orders coffee at the bar before walking to his office on Soho Square), the priceless cachet the bar has acquired means film deals are cut here amid the lovers, eccentrics and artists. Tony nods. "The 1990s was a time when businesses first opened on an industrial level. Before, it had been strictly family-run businesses in a village atmosphere. But to my dismay, the chain coffee shops opened up which meant we had to acquire a night café licence."

A lucrative night-time economy in the heart of Theatreland and Clubland saw people coming through the bar's door. "We had to work harder and smarter, and we still do," says Antony.

The irony is you still have to live on your wits in Soho. But for anyone who has slugged an espresso under the cool of the ceiling fan and the even cooler gaze of Rocco Marchegiano, the surrounding Soho streets growing more sanitised and duller by the month, we know in our hearts that if Bar Italia falls, London shall fall. And if London falls...

Photo 1 by Andy Fallon / photo 2 by @JasonAHolmes

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