the Change | Independent
on Sunday | 15
June 2003 | by Matthew Sweet
The New Piccadilly
lacks only one thing: a girl wearing a beehive and an A-line
skirt, kissing off the excess with an Everly Brothers lipstick
It has everything else that
might convince you that beyond its cosy interior is a world in
which Harold MacMillan is Prime Minister, Lady Chatterley is
banned and Russ Conway's Warsaw Concerto is a serious piece of
The pink enamel backing of
the espresso-maker, the Festival of Britain-era squiggles on
the Formica table-tops, the glass frothy-coffee cups (all originals,
no reproductions), the twist of neon forming the glowing word
Little has altered in this
Soho institution since it served its first plate of spaghetti
half a century ago. Little, that is, except the clientele...
The prostitutes who turned
tricks in the nearby alleyways have long migrated elsewhere.
The strip club next door, the grandly-named Casino de Paris,
shut up shop years ago...
The Marionis, who once owned
six cafés and trattoria on this narrow drag of Victorian
buildings, have sold their premises, one by one, to the next
wave of immigrants.
Denman Street is now a row
of tandoori restaurants, whose waiters hover outside the doorways,
competing for passing pre- and post-theatre trade.
Over the years, all kinds of
game have come to graze at New Piccadilly. The Soho gangster
Albert Dines once sat here and told the young Lorenzo about his
association with Prince Felix Yusupov, one of the conspirators
who did for Rasputin and sought refuge in London in 1919.
(After the poisoning and the
shooting, Yusupov recalled, they had to finish him off with a
metal chain before hoicking the body into the Neva.)
In 1956, the café became
a meeting point for Hungarian dissidents fleeing the Soviet invasion.
(Lorenzo remembers the day when one of their number proudly showed
his father a rival's severed finger, wrapped in a handkerchief.)
Five years later, greasers
with flick-knives were putting their feet up on the Formica tabletops.
When the Marionis barred them from the premises, they returned
with armfuls of rubble and unburdened the café of its
windows. Wired glass ensured that the incident was not repeated.
Consequently, Lorenzo has little
time for those who suggest that London has, in recent years,
become a more dangerous place. Today's customers, he says, are
much better behaved than their predecessors. But he misses the
richer ethnic diversity of the Soho of his youth. "The whole
place was a mixture of Italians, Greeks, Jews, Maltese and Irish.
There was nobody English at all at my school."
Which wasn't to suggest, he
cautions, that these groups always got along. "Those Irish
boys beat the crap out of me. But what you've got to remember
is that only a few years previously, we were the enemy. We were
the Eyeties, and all of us Italian kids were getting hammered."
When he was 13, Lorenzo found
a solution. Pausing to look at a stuffed sturgeon in a local
shop window, he noticed a card advertising judo lessons run by
the brother of the wrestler "Tiger" Joe Robinson. Robinson
was cast by Carol Reed as Diana Dors's boyfriend in the film
A Kid for Two Farthings, and made a career for himself in Italy
as the hero of sword-and-sandal melodramas.
Dors, judging by Lorenzo's
discreet response to the mention of her name, was sometimes to
be found sipping frothy coffee at the New Piccadilly.
Under the counter, Lorenzo
keeps a stash of books on his favourite subject: the tribal history
of Europe. Should you require any information on the history
of the Lombards with your omelette and chips, he's happy to oblige.
His own family history seems
to have shaped this interest. In the first years of the last
century, his maternal grandfather emigrated to Brazil to hawk
icons, returned to Italy after his partner was killed by bandits,
then departed again to try his luck in London.
Lorenzo himself was born in
a village in the Apennines, not far from Pisa. His parents moved
to London shortly after the Second World War to establish their
catering business. He followed them in 1949, six years old and
goggling at the sea, the white cliffs of Dover, and the gulls.
Only a year later, he was put
to work in his father's café, washing up and peeling the
potatoes. Soon, however, it will be time for him to move on.
The redevelopment of Denman
Street has already been agreed by Westminster Council, and it
seems that only the recent wobbles in the world economy have
delayed the developer's plans.
When Robert Morley's character
tried to bulldoze the cappuccino bar in The Young Ones, Cliff
Richard, Melvyn Hayes and Carole Gray staged a musical protest
in order to force him to reverse the decision.
Lorenzo, however, is ready
to go quietly. "I've been here 50 years," he says,
"and apart from when I was in the army, I've been here on
this street every day of my life. I've been here long enough."
His problems are those faced by any small city-centre business:
rising council tax and landlords who want the same rent from
tenants like him as they can get from Starbucks and McDonald's.
Lorenzo charges his customers
60p for a cup of coffee; 50p for a cup of tea: his profit margins
are pretty skinny.
"This place used to make
me a living," he reflects. "Now it's more like half
a living. I'm the like last one on the ship. It's sinking, and
there's only a little bit of it left above the surface of the
There's not a trace of bitterness
in his voice. "I'm standing there," he says, "smoking
a Player's Navy Cut, and looking at the stars."