Forza Italia: London’s Italian cultural highlights

Are you likely to be travelling from Italy to the UK capital for a short-break? If so (and even if not but you’re nonetheless an enthusiast of Italian history), you may be fascinated to learn that British and Italian cultures have been intertwined for centuries.

Indeed, from the 15th Century onwards, a thriving community of Italian merchants, bankers and artists settled in London; this immigrant population spiking in the 19th Century as a result of the devastating effect of the Napoleonic Wars, prompting the creation of the ‘Little Italy’ district in the Clerkenwell, Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue area of London.

Little Italy

Earlier known as Saffron Hill, where it was a mainstay of pickpockets and ‘fences’ (as so evocatively recreated in Charles Dickens’ 1837-38 novel Oliver Twist), Little Italy became so-called due to its high numbers of Italian working-class people. Indeed, by 1895, it was believed the Italian population in the capital was around 12,000; the Little Italy area being dominated by Southern Italians, while Northern and Central Italian immigrants tended to settle in Central London’s colourful Soho district.

The latter contingent comprised of many tailors, watchmakers, artists, domestic servants and ‘hospitality industry’ workers, while the former settlers were usually of a more itinerant nature, employment-wise; organ men, ice vendors, ambulant merchants, plaster-bust sellers, models for artists and so on. Indeed, the plot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure The Six Napoleons, written in the late Victorian era, revolves around a Little Italy-produced a plaster bust. If you’re staying in accommodation Paddington London during your short-break, be sure to check out nearby Soho’s Italian influences; they’re noticeable still today.

The Church of St Peter

Surely the main highlight of today’s Little Italy is the Catholic St. Peter’s Church, which was modelled on the Basilica of San Crisogono in Rome’s Trastevere district; the latter originally built in the 4th Century and remodelled in the 12th. St. Peter’s was eventually consecrated as the church of St Peter of all Nations in 1863 and can now claim to be a Grade II-listed building. Additionally, to this day, Sunday worship here retains its role as a gathering point for Italians across London, not least at Christmas, Easter and Epiphany.

And on the first Sunday following July 16th, every year since the year 1896 (excluding major wartime), the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been St. Peter’s – and, by extension, Little Italy’s – most significant cultural event. Apparently, it was the very first outdoor Catholic display of faith in England since King Henry VIII’s Reformation way back in the 16th Century. Definitely worth visiting the area for from the Paddington Court hotel.

Worth noting too is that to the west of the church can be found a number of Italian eateries, such as Casa Italiana San Vincenzo Pallotti and Terroni of Clerkenwell, while the Holborn School of Motoring (Scuola Guida) even offers driving lessons in Italian.

E. Pellicci café

Finally, this establishment was set up at the turn of the 20th Century in East London’s Bethnal Green by businessman Priamo Pellicci and named after his wife, Elide. Now, 117 years on from its opening, its ownership remains in the Pellicci family, while its sublime art deco-style panelled interior, which was designed by local carpenter to the area Achille Capocci, has seen its building become Grade II-listed.

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