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13 Excellent Old-School Italian Spots In London

Classic spots that make you want to say 'molto bene'.
13 Excellent Old-School Italian Spots In London image

photo credit: Giulia Verdinelli

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. From the family-run and fun, to delis and long-term distributors of ginormous chicken escalope sandwiches. Just don't be offended if there's a pizza or two with pineapple on.

You might also be interested in our guide to London’s best Italian restaurants.

THE SPOTS


photo credit: Rianne Shlebak

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Italian

Knightsbridge

$$$$Perfect For:Walk-InsPeople WatchingLunchOutdoor SeatingDinner with the Parents
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Sale E Pepe has been serving anyone walking down Pavilion Road after leaving Harrods with one too many shopping bags since 1974. It’s a white tablecloth spot that feels serious until it fills up with boisterous friends who settle in for a three-hour catch-up, and grandparents with their grandkids so they can finally get them to eat anything other than a chicken nugget (even if that is pollo alla milanese). While it has the potential to be a stuffy snoozefest, the mixed bag of diners—couples holding hands under the table outside and families ordering calamari to share—make it a lively, vibrant spot. Expect Knightsbridge prices but we’d happily put down £50 for things like the buttery whole Dover sole and tasty spinach and ricotta-filled ravioli.


A daytime deli and restaurant come evening, Saponara is located in a quiet bit of Islington between Essex Road and Upper Street. Bottles of wine, terracotta ceramics, and boxes of panettone line the deep mahogany cabinets, and there are a handful of long tables made for sharing and spreading out. This isn’t performatively made to feel like an extension of someone’s home, it just is. Sure, Saponara doesn’t make London’s most superlative-worthy Italian food, but the tortellini ragu is rich and satisfying, and the pizzas—crispy bases topped with speck and shavings of grana padano—are everything you want a pizza to be.


You don’t come to Bar Italia because it’s the best place for an espresso or a cannoli, or because it’s cheap. You come for the atmosphere and camaraderie, the late-night (or early-morning) buzz, the people-watching, and to aimlessly yell at Italian football on the TV. It takes all the intangibles of Soho—everything that makes this confusing maze of streets in central London so great—and puts them all in one place. Like The French House pub a couple of streets away, everyone passes through here at one point or another. It’s an institution—treat it like one.


At Ciao Bella, come for the spaghetti al cartoccio and stay for one of London’s most fun dining experiences. The heart and soul of Bloomsbury, Ciao Bella has been serving 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 antipasti won’t change your life but when you’re having this much fun, who cares.  


If you’re in the market for a lasagne that will make you want to name your first-born Ragu, 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 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. 


Da Mario is a spot. It’s got photos of Princess Diana on the walls and a don’t-give-a-cavolo attitude about using cream in their rigatoni. This 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.


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. No, the reason we love Il Portico is because this spot in Kensington maintains an old-school, white-tablecloth, black-and-white-framed-photograph atmosphere, while serving comforting plates of nutmeg and walnut gnocchi. Plus they aren’t 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.


Everytime we’re on the bus going down Holloway Road or coming up it towards Highbury Corner, we get a pang of anxiety. “Where’s Trevi?”, we think. We can’t see it. It’s gone. Has it been absorbed by the little Waitrose to make a big Waitrose? No, there it is. 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 the regulars and randomers who fill the wooden booths are always kept warm and (very) well-fed.


Old-school is an adjective. A descriptor of something that tends to be more an attitude than anything. But E. Pellicci isn’t just old-school in the Ray Winstone way. It’s also just plain old. The Italian caff in Bethnal Green—first run by the Pelliccis, and then Nevio Snr, and now Nevio’s son—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 béchamel-covered lasagne, a shovel of tiramisu, escalope-filled ciabatta sandwiches—are also great. 


Anima E Cuore may not look like much from the outside. Don’t let that fool you. There’s always lots of fresh pasta on the daily changing Italian menu, often paired 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. 


Saporitalia is family-run and it feels family-run. It’s completely unpretentious and that’s what we love most about it. The laid-back attitude means you may find yourself waiting for your order a little longer than you’d like, but if you’re ready to accept that, you’re in for a great time. The staff are friendly and the food is good. Not earth-shattering, but always satisfying and at prices that are in keeping with Saporitalia’s status as a firm Portobello Road favourite.


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.


Another big group and let’s-not-worry-about-working-out-the-bill restaurant, Pizzeria Pappagone is a north London favourite. Their moustached-chef logo has been the face of many a happy evening in Finsbury Park, often starting in their bar next door before moving into the 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 secondi, they’ve got those too. The menu, like everything about Pappagone’s, is pleasing and busy.

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