I had the opportunity, recently, to walk along the Clerkenwell Road again, and explore the area we used to live and play when I was a kid. Then it was called “Little Italy”. It seemed grey and dirty compared with the bright colours of my memories. I turned right into Eyre Street and it all came flooding back to me. The pub was still there and the little café, now closed, where Barba Toni was king. Across the road, the house where Mum, Dad, Nonna and we three kids used to shared 2 rooms is gone, but I could still see it in my mind’s eye and remember waking early, every morning to Barba Toni’s singing. I’d go to the window and there he was.
At half past 5 every morning Barba Toni was to be found with his broom outside his pride and joy the Sun Café. To us kids, he was always ‘Barba’, it means ‘Uncle’ in Piedmont; to his customers he was always Toni. Some of them had been taking their breakfast at his cosy little café for twenty years and had watched him grow from a skinny young man to the rotund, rosy-faced man we knew as kids. Barba wore a large black moustache and his thick black hair was well-oiled and combed back, curling over his collar. He wore a black waistcoat and trousers in all weathers.
Everyone knew Barba around London’s ‘Little Italy’. His singing and whistling could be heard all over. It spent a lot of time on his doorstep talking to friends in the street. The smell of freshly ground coffee drew people to his place like a magic spell. First thing in the morning he was out greeting the postman and the milkman with an enlivening espresso and, in the cold winters, a small grappa. They’d stay to chat and didn’t want to leave his warm hospitality.
Every so often he’d pop inside the café and check his beautiful shiny espresso coffee machine. He gave it a little polish with the pure white tea-towel that he always carried over his shoulder. He checked the level of the beans in the mill and inspected the cups and saucers.
As the morning progressed the street would get busier and the delivery vans would arrive to deliver to the local dairy and Newsagents. The greengrocer came back from Covent Garden with boxes full of fresh vegetables.
‘Hey! Toni! What’s that song you’re singing?” the newsagent called across the road.
‘Non piangere, Lui,’ he stopped momentarily, ‘please don’t cry’.
‘Can’t you whistle?’ always the same teasing response.
‘Dio Santo! I’ll whistle, when your coffee is ready! Puccini is too good for you! Testa di legno!’, he grumbled as he put his head through the Café door.
‘Maria, has that cretino across the road paid off his bill this week?”
When I went down to breakfast, I could hear my Dad, il cretino, laughing loudly in the shop, ‘that Toni, he’ll be the death of me!’
Fragments by Boz