Sometimes, you don’t want a polite portion of pasta. Sometimes, you don’t care whether it’s handmade. Sometimes, a five foot pepper grinder is more important than whether the cheese is parmesan or pecorino. London has lots of old-school Italian restaurants and cafes, from the family-run and fun to delis and long-term distributors of ginormous chicken escalope sandwiches. Will you find carbonara at these restaurants? Yes. With cream? Never. Just don't be offended if there's a pizza or two with pineapple on.
Da Mario has character. It’s got Princess Diana on the walls and a don’t-give-a-cavolo attitude about using cream in their rigatoni. The Kensington restaurant is on the corner of Gloucester Road, in a building that loudly mixes Venetian and Gothic styles with a homely classic Italian interior. This is a loud, messy, group dinner kind of spot, for people who aren't going to critique their pasta. Yes, it’s a bit lawless. And no, it’s not the best Italian food you’ll eat in London. But it’s perfectly satisfying, well-priced, and the chaos is all part of the charm.
Every time we’re on the bus going down Holloway Road or coming up towards Highbury Corner we get a pang of anxiety. ‘Where’s Trevi?’, we think. We can’t see it. It’s gone. The Garage has eaten it. Or has it been absorbed by the little Waitrose to make it a big Waitrose? ‘Wait, no, there it is. It’s there.’ Every time. Phew. Exhale. That’s how inconspicuous this no-nonsense Italian is. The lasagne is sloppy and the spaghetti is al dente. There’s Moretti on tap and the wine has given us heartburn umpteen times. But Trevi is hearty and delicious, its wooden booths always keeping regulars and randomers warm and (very) well-fed.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
Old-school is an adjective. A descriptor of something that tends to be more attitudinal than anything. But E. Pellicci isn’t just old-school in the Ray Winstone way. It’s also just plain old. The Italian café in Bethnal Green—first run by the Pellicci’s, and then by Nevio Snr, and now Nevio’s son—has been about since 1900 and is that rare and happy mix between tourist attraction and local artefact. Fry-ups are essential but the Italian favourites: a puddle of marinara and bechamel-covered lasagne, a shovel of tiramisu, escalope-filled toasties, are also great.
Italia Uno is a haven. For bedraggled students, haggard workers, exhausted delivery drivers and shouty Neapolitans. Before the advent of delivery apps the ramshackle deli in Bloomsbury would be filled with football-lovers and undergraduates with a ratio of five cigarettes and three Napoli shirts to every one vaguely-fingered copy of The Waste Land. Coffee and cold cuts are standard, but our best memories are of mortadella paninis, sloppy melanzane, and blaring Serie A on screen.
We’re big fans of Il Portico, not just for the heavy curtain at the entrance that keeps the cold air out, or the intimate booths at the back that are perfect for date night—though we really like those too. No, the reason we love Il Portico is because this Italian spot in Kensington maintains the old-school white tablecloth, black-and-white-framed-photograph situation, while serving comforting plates of nutmeg and walnut gnocchi. Nor is it too precious if you want a dish tweaked. Want a vegetarian pasta that’s not on the menu? No problem! Want to swap the tagliatelle for strozzapreti? They’ve got you.
Ciao Bella, come for the spaghetti al cartoccio, stay for one of London’s best indoor or outdoor dining experiences. The heart and soul of Bloomsbury, Ciao Bella has been serving up gargantuan meatballs and its idiosyncratic breed of la dolce vita charm for over three decades. Huge family celebrations out on the terrace, lazy lunches next to the piano that merrily descend into a boozy dinner, entertaining and affordable date nights—Ciao Bella can do it all. Their hefty pasta portions and traditional Italian nibbles won’t change your life but when you’re having this much fun, who cares.
Another big group and let’s-not-worry-about-working-out-the-bill restaurant, Pizzeria Pappagone is a north London favourite for family and friends. Their moustachioed logo has been the face of many a happy evening in Finsbury Park, often starting in their bar next door before moving into their always-teeming dining room for wood-fired quattro formaggis and more. The crisp Roman-style pizzas should be your go-to but if you’re after a pasta or secondis, they’ve got those as well. The menu, like everything about Pappagone’s, is pleasing and busy.
Anima e Cuore may not look like much from the outside. Don’t let that fool you: this is easily the best restaurant in Kentish Town. There’s always lots of fresh pasta on the daily-changing Italian menu, often put together with slow-cooked meat or exceptional seafood sauces. If you like pasta and you like shellfish, eating them on a single plate at Anima will yield happy results. The homemade ice cream is among the best in London, but tarts and cakes are just as good—and each comes with ice cream.
If you happen to be in the market for a lasagne that will make you want to name your first-born Ragu, then let us introduce you to Pappa Roma. A little family-feeling trattoria five minutes from South Kensington station, this place serves huge hearty portions of Italian classics in a room packed full of mosaic tiling and photos of various grandparents all over the walls. The lasagne arrives in a sizzling ceramic bowl straight from the oven, the pizzas come loaded with burrata, and the gloriously slap-dash tiramisu is an absolute must for anyone with a thing for mascarpone. Everything is served with a smile, because that’s just Pappa Roma’s style.
Alpino has been going since 1959 and it’s an Islington institution. The menu divides into standard caff fare, including enormous breakfasts and Italian dishes. And all at crazy low prices. Big bowls of bolognese or carbonara are a favourite at lunchtime, when it’s packed out with locals. When it’s really busy at mealtimes, you might find yourself knocking elbows with a stranger—but this only adds to the lively atmosphere. Just mind your time. Other people always need your seat.
Saporitalia is family-run, and it feels like family-run places you’d find in the unglamorous parts of any Italian city. It’s completely unpretentious, and that’s what we love most about it. The low-key attitude here means you may find yourself waiting for your order until just a few minutes before the ‘have they forgotten I’m here?’ worries start to pop into your head, but if you’re ready to accept that, you’re in for a great time. The staff is friendly, and the food is great. Not earth-shattering necessarily, but all good and all at prices that are in keeping with Saporitalia’s status as a firm Portobello Road favourite.