Caff Masters: Lorenzo Marioni of The New Piccadilly

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Lorenzo 'padrone' Marioni, as played by Bill Nighy (Pic: Debbie Rowe)

Keep 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 wipe...

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 music.

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 EATS.

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 water."

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."



End of a Soho era | Evening Standard | 3 August 2004 | by Valentine Low

It is the cafe where time stood still. At the New Piccadilly in Soho - and who, one wonders, can remember the Old Piccadilly? - the formica-topped tables are just as they were 50 years ago, the lights are the same, even the menu is more or less unchanged.

You can still have roast chicken and two veg, or steak and chips with spaghetti washed down with a cup of tea and finished off with peach Melba. Only the prices have changed.

But time is standing still no more at Lorenzo Marioni's cafe in Denman Street. Now this piece of living history is threatened with closure by the inexorable pressure of redevelopment and rising rents.

The economics of running an old-fashioned cafe in the West End are catching up with Mr Marioni, 61. With an annual rent of £51,000, and tax and insurance on top, he says: "It's £70,000 before I open the door - and I'm selling cups of tea for 50p."

He predicts the business will not last beyond the next rent review by landlord Windmill Developments, in 18 months' time.

When the neon sign declaring EATS goes dark for the last time, it will represent a dying gasp of old Soho - where gangsters and tarts mixed with rockers and foreign royal exiles (and ravioli and chips cost three shillings).

Back then the Casino de Paris strip club was next door, and streetwalkers plied their trade outside: now Denman Street is dominated by Indian restaurants. Round the corner the march of corporate culture - Gap and McDonald's and the Trocadero - goes on.

Mr Marioni, whose father Pietro ran the business before him, came to Britain from Italy in 1949. He can remember the impression the cafe's bright colours made.

"In the early Fifties this was magic," he said. "The yellows, the citrus, the gold, all inspired by the Festival of Britain."

In the Fifties the venue was the haunt of Hungarian exiles who had

fled the Soviets. "Young toughs, Budapest street rats," said Mr Marioni. "There were fights and stabbings, they never spent money. They taught me to make the meanest Molotov cocktail.

"One came up to my dad with a rolled-up handkerchief and said, 'Look, Mr Marioni!' It was another chap's finger he had chopped off."

Then came the rockers. All black leather and noisy motorcycles, they frightened other customers away, so the Marionis removed the jukebox.

Off the rockers roared, returning with rocks that they used to break the windows. "The whole front was smashed," said Mr Marioni. "I hid behind the pillar."

Soon there may be no more stories to tell. "Since the last rent review I've been on a razor's edge," he said. "I'll probably sell to the Indian businessmen who own most of the street and it will be another curry house."

Half a century ago, restaurants run by Lorenzo Marioni's family dominated Denman Street. Apart from the New Piccadilly cafe, all that remains now is the Cucciolo, run by his aunt Anchele Musetti.

Next door, his mother's restaurant, La Barca, is boarded up. An Indian food concern has taken over the Vienna and the Estorial, once run by his father and his uncle Jimmy Musetti respectively.


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