Estimated reading time:8 minutes, 6 seconds
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Opened in 1920 Alfredo’s café was an Islington landmark for years, sited at the end of an 18th century terrace at 4-6 Essex Road. It was probably best known as a fabulous working man’s café (then reborn as the S&M café, now Meat). But it wasn’t just the big plates of food that made it special says Nina Marcangelo, who was born in the flat above the café, and is still one of the owners of the property. Interview by Nicola Baird
Nina Marcangelo started working at Alfredo’s in 1953, only leaving when she married Elio and moved to run a café with him in Barnet High Street. “At Alfredo’s I’d be up at 5.30am and start preparing all the food. We had fry ups, steak and kidney pudding, steak pies, braised steak, braised liver, apple pies and bread pudding,” she says. Everything was made at Alfredo’s, including the famous vanilla ice cream*, except the bread and rolls delivered by a German baker called Mr Dickens.
Nina’s family are Italian so they know how to make great food. Many Londoners also got their first taste of spaghetti and minestrone here.
The generous portions and amazing tile interior attracted all sorts of punters – including music hall stars Marie Lloyd and Max Miller when they worked at Collins Music Hall (now Waterstone’s book shop on Islington Green, see photo).
Even the Kray twins were customers.
UNTIL 3/1/13 there was a pic here which I put up mistakenly. It was of a scene from Quadrophenia shot outside Aflredo’s Cafe. The caption said “Alfredo’s biggest claim to fame is surely starring in the cult ’70s film about Mods & Rockers, Quadrophenia. Pic sourced from www.classicafes.co.uk/Best.html” The moment I received a letter from Getty’s legal department (3/1/13) I instantly removed this photo.
But Alfredo’s biggest claim to fame is featuring in the classic cult ‘70s movie Quadrophenia. The café starred as the Mods’ London hangout. “The scenes had to be shot at night so the café could stay open as normal (from 6am-6pm six days a week),” says Nina.
Alfredo’s also played a star turn in the less-well known film Mojo (1997).
“Daddy bought it in 1920 from my Grandfather Vincent de-Ritis. Actually he was called Alfonso, but he thought Alfredo’s sounded more business like,” says Nina, now 75. “Daddy was born in England. He was a Londoner who wouldn’t leave Islington. Mum came over from Italy when she was 21 to work with her sister, who had a café in Hackney,” says Nina warmly. “When I was little Mum used to stand me on a box to do the washing-up (these are the days before dish washers),” says Nina. “At the end of the day (when I was older) I’d collect all the tea towels and scrub them on a board until they were really white, then ‘spin’ them on the mangle we kept downstairs in the cellar.”
The interview is taking place on a scorchingly hot July day, reminiscent of an Italian summer, in Nina’s sitting room in Barnett. Pride of place goes to a painting of Alfredo’s and, on the opposite wall, a giant photo of her mother’s picture perfect hilltop Italian village home, Picinisco, between Rome and Naples. “Whatever house you go into they all cook amazing,” insists Nina. To prove her point Nina shows me her “favourite book ever’ Dear Francesca (and also Dear Olivia) cookbooks by Mary Contini whose family also hails from the same village.
There are also framed photos of Nina’s parents meeting the Pope, socialising with champion boxer and Question of Sport TV star Henry Cooper (who “married an Italian girl”) and family snaps of her daughters, Lisa and Rita, and the grandchildren Leo and Rosa.
“Life felt very Italian. Mum always spoke Italian to me. We bought pasta at Gazzano’s, an Italian deli down Clerkenwell Road.” The family also went to church at St Peter’s in Hatton Gardens which Nina says “is like a miniature Vatican inside.” As the years passed the Italians around Clerkenwell moved. Nina says they went to “Highbury, then Finchley and then on further afield. There’s a very big community in Hoddesdon, Herts.”
“I had wonderful parents,” says Nina with a big smile. “My mother was a very friendly lady. Within minutes she knew your life history. I think Daddy tended to spoil me – at 21 he bought me a brand new red mini!” But her early years were tough – the youngsters (Nina’s the third child in a family of four, and all the rest are boys) were evacuated during the war to Tamworth, Staffordshire. “We were all near but not together,” remembers Nina. “My parents did it for safety, they stayed in London. But I had a wonderful five years as the people (I stayed with) looked after me like a princess – I stayed in touch until they died. There were no animals, but there was a lovely big field to play in. You’d hear doodle bugs pass over. I think they were heading to Birmingham. And we had bomb shelters – it’s where I learnt to knit and do jigsaw puzzles.”
Once it was safe to come home to Islington Nina went to school at St John’s the Evangelist in Duncan Terrace. “I loved it,” she says. “I wanted to go to the school my brothers were at, Brompton Oratory, but mother said it was too far for a girl. What could I do? It’s not like now. You had to do what your parents said.” The result was secondary at St Aloysius near Euston. And then on to work at the café full time.
“When it was quieter I’d start preparing for the next day. I loved to go to the meat market (at Spitalfields) as the chaps made a fuss of me. There was no nastiness. I used to drive down and then had to give a two and six tip*. I was 17 when I took my driving test, and only 18 when I drove my mother to Italy. My dad had such confidence in me.” Here she laughs, adding, “To be truthful there wasn’t the traffic. Driving was great fun – once a week I used to drive Mum to the West End, park the car, and we’d go shopping!”
Despite being an early car fan, Nina and her husband are now carless. “We’ve got bus passes, save on insurance and can always catch a cab,” she says practically – showing the insight that led to classic Italian dishes – spaghetti bolognese and minestrone – being added to Alfredo’s menu because “It’s what I thought English people would have a go at.”
“My favourite customers were the builders – as long as you gave them a big plate they were happy,” she says. Nina still remembers where comedian and singer Harry Secombe sat when he tipped her after a fried breakfast. “The Kray brothers used to go there too,” Nina adds more warily. “When you read the terrible things they did it’s a surprise. They were charming – you wouldn’t think butter would melt.”
“When I was a little girl Islington was a right dump. If people asked you where you came from you’d say very quietly ‘Islington’,” says Nina. “Now I’m quite proud to say I come from Islington.”
- London still has working men cafes, but nothing beats the experience Alfredo’s gave. You can find more info about it at http://www.classiccafes.co.uk.
- Alfredo’s site is now occupied by Meat – a posh restaurant and cocktail bar which cooks meat sublimely, and offers veggie options – at 4-6 Essex Road, N1. http://meatpeople.co.uk
- To enjoy a taste of Italian life in Islington on the Sunday around 16 July each year at 3pm (“an Italian three o’clock,” warns Nina, “so it may be nearer 3.30pm or 4pm”) there’s a religious procession along Clerkenwell Road and past St Peter’s church. There’s always lots of pizza, clothes, tops and seeds (for your garden).”
Vanilla ice cream/gelato – Alfonzo had a place over the road where he kept his ice cream making equipment.
2/6d is two and six (two shillings and six pence).
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.