Not counting the Romans, there’s been an Italian presence in London since medieval times.
Lombard Street in the City is named after the bankers from Lombardy who moved in to replace the Jewish moneylenders bankrupted and expelled by Edward I in 1290. The street quickly became London’s banking centre and remains so to this day, although Florentines later took over from the Lombards. When Edward II met with England’s seven top merchants in 1314, two of them were Italian.
The early nineteenth-century clowning pioneer Joseph Grimaldi was a second-generation London-Italian. His father Guiseppe, a prominent actor known as “the Signor” (theatre posters billed him as “Sig.” rather than “Mr.”), had come over from Italy in the 1750s, and was apparently the queen’s dentist before he took up acting. A man of dark moods, he suffered from taphephobia (fear of being buried alive), and made a particularly gruesome specification in his will regarding his body. Son Joseph, an actor as well as a clown, became so famous that his memoirs were ghost-written by Charles Dickens.
In 1818, Grimaldi moved to Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. By then a new wave of Italian immigrants were moving into that neighbourhood, escaping economic hardship in rural north Italy in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Gradually they were joined by political refugees working for the Risorgimento – Italian unification and freedom from foreign rule. Prominent among them was the movement’s most influential thinker, Giuseppe Mazzini, who ended up living at a total of ten different addresses around London, most notably at 10 Laystall Street, off the Clerkenwell Road in the heart of what was already then London’s Little Italy. Even after the Risorgimento, Italian political dissidents still took refuge here. The fact that many were staunch opponents of Fascism did not stop them being rounded up during the Second World War for internment on the Isle of Man as “enemy aliens”.
Little Italy was centred around Saffron Hill. St Peter’s Italian church on Clerkenwell Road, built In 1863, complete with mosaics, remains to this day the focal point of London-Italian culture, holding a procession in honour of Our Lady of Mount Carmel every year on the Sunday after 16 July, which is her saint's day. Sherlock Holmes in “The Six Napoleons” refers to “Saffron Hill and the Italian quarter”, and back in his time, it was a down-at-heel neighbourhood with crowded housing and poor sanitary conditions. Many of its residents scraped a living as itinerant musicians or street ice-cream sellers. The area still has an Italian presence today, including some Italian businesses that date back to the nineteenth century.
Like so many inner-city immigrant groups however, as they went up in the world, Saffron Hill’s Italian community tended to ship out, often just a little bit further, to places like Islington and Highbury. Others headed south across the water, and as it happens, south London has its own Italian church, the Holy Redeemer, in what was once a tram depot at the Kennington end of Brixton Road. Around it, a handful of cafés and delis constitute south London’s own “Little Little Italy”.
The other neighbourhood where Italians have made a big mark of course is Soho, opening low-priced restaurants in the area from back in Victorian times, with Italian delis and eateries still dotting its streets to this day. Algerians may have beaten them to the coffee, but Italians had the last laugh: the Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street, founded by a Mr Hassan from Algieria in 1887, has been in the hands of a London-Italian family since 1946. The Bar Italia at 22 Frith Street opened in 1949, but it was the Moka Bar, just down the street at number 29 (now gone, partly thanks to Beat novelist William Burroughs), which boasted London’s first Gaggia espresso machine. Installed in 1953, it started a whole Soho coffee-bar craze, of which the Bar Italia, outdating all of them, is now the last survivor. The 1950s is also when pizzas – then known as “Italian rarebit” – first became popular in London.
In fact, London-Italians have made a big mark on our food culture, well beyond pizzas and pasta. It was actually a Ticinese (Swiss Italian) by the name of Carlo Gatti, rather than an Italian as such, who introduced ice-cream to London (and Ticino is of course known for its spaghetti harvest). Sadly, the famous London-Italian ice-cream firm, Marine Ices of Chalk Farm, is little more than a brand name now. Meanwhile, that most Cockney of institutions, pie and mash, has a big London-Italian connection, with the Manze family in Bermondsey running London’s oldest pie and mash shop. And London continues to welcome Italians, of course, to this day: benvenuti.