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Peter Mario Restaurant
The story of the Rizzi family and “Peter Mario” restaurant
“Peter Mario” was a coffee bar in Gerard street. As it often happens in life, chance, or what we call by this name because the reasons of an event are just unknown to us, played a significant role in deciding the future of the bar.
The bar was opened in 1933 but after 5 years there wasn’t enough work for the two partners: Peter Rizzi and Mario Gherardini, who named the coffee bar after themselves. Therefore they tossed a coin to decide who was going to run the place.
Peter Rizzi won, he converted the bar into the restaurant which was run by his family. In 1959 Florindo Rizzi, Peter’s son took over.
We met Florindo Rizzi and his wife Tina in their family house in Hendon to listen to the fascinating story of “Peter Mario” restaurant.
Florindo Rizzi, known as Fred, speaks slowly at a very low volume, Tina mediates between us, capturing words and nuances of his voice for me too difficult to catch.
Fred is third generation, he was born in England, while Tina was born in Bore, 60 km from Parma. When the war broke out she was 15 and she had spent all her life in her home town. “I wanted to see the world”, she told me “so I planned to come to London for 6 months or 1 year maximum, as I had a cousin already living there”. She came as an Au-pair because, as Tina told us, to have the visa at that time you had to work 3 years in a private family.
Tina arrived in 1950. She was 20 .“When I came I worked for a Scottish family who had a pub and I couldn’t speak a word of English. The language was a shock, I thought I would have never spoken English, but then, working in the restaurant I learned more quickly speaking with the clients. Sometimes they were teaching me the wrong words just to have fun”, she recalls with amusement.
Fred’s family was living at 58 King’s Cross road, the heart of little Italy but when they got married they went to live in Hendon.
Tina was working in the restaurant part-time at night taking turns with Fred’s sister.
“With Fred we spoke English most of the time because he was third generation and his parents were speaking mostly dialect”.
In Gerard street at that time there were many Italian restaurants such as “Rugantino” and “Cafe blue” on the opposite side of the road there was “ Bar Italia”.
They were almost all Italians but in the 80’s Chinese restaurants started to take over.
“Peter Mario” was a meeting point for artists working in the theatres in Shaftsbury Avenue and also boxers were clients. As Tina told us, there wasn’t competition between the restaurants because everyone had their own clients.
In the bubbling atmosphere of the restaurant a love story sprang up between the famous boxer Sir Henry Cooper and Fred’s cousin, Albina, who worked in the restaurant. Albina Ginepri had arrived in London with her mother when she was 10. Henry and Albina had two children who are now completely integrated.
Tina hands me an old menu of “Peter Mario restaurant”. I read:
Cannelloni alla romana spaghetti alla bologhese, Stracciatella romana, Scaloppine, Scampi, bistecca alla pizzaiola, Gnocchi alla romana…
The menu is original, slightly discoloured and worn out on the cover, I get the feeling this is a very precious thing I’m holding in my hands, a remain of the past a precious memory of a place where many stories tangled together. The prices are still in shillings, “the prices were affordable, we’ve never been at the top prize”, Tina comments.
There were a couple of dishes of the day. Some dishes were closer to the English taste like for example Scaloppine alla “Peter Mario”, a bittersweet speciality. “We never offered it to Italians, though!”, Tina remarks playfully.
“We also had a “menu del giorno” and usually on Wednesday “ossobuco con il risotto alla milanese” and sometimes lobster, more appealing to English people.
Finally I can’t help asking about the Italian Identity, being myself still trying to understand what it is about and how living in a foreigner country can modify it.
“The Italian identity is very strong most of our friends are of Italian origin we knew more English people when we were working in the restaurant. The Italian associations helped to keep the Italians in touch with each other.
Even though the new generation is very much integrated, my daughter comes with her friends to some of the associations events, such as the bingo which is going to be at the end of the month in Brixton road.
All of my children speak Italian, they all took Italian A level and the eldest lived in Florence for 6 months to learn Italian.
One of my daughters lives in Sydney and she is also keen on teaching Italian to her children. She is a volunteer in an organization looking after elderly Italians there.
The new generation is well integrated, they don’t work in restaurants anymore, they all go to university and the new immigration wave is made of professionals.
Our social life is still more with the Italians than with the English. We had more English friends when we had the restaurant”.
Fred and Tina sold “Peter Mario” in 1986 and after a couple of years they opened “Pappagalli” pizzeria in Swallow Street (Piccadilly) but this is another story…