Maria Pellicci, cook
The weather was unremitting and my shoes were leaking, so I went round to E.Pellicci, the Italian café at 332 Bethnal Green Rd where Maria Pellicci, the head cook, proprietor, and beloved matriarch, cooked me a generous dish of steaming hot spaghetti with freshly made Bolognese sauce which Salvatore, Maria’s nephew, topped off with some Parmesan and ground black pepper. As I wolfed down the delicious spaghetti, I could feel my spirits reviving. Overcome with the intense culinary experience afforded by the tangy tomato sauce and the sweet spaghetti that was of perfect consistency, I was barely aware of the enthusiastic lunch crowd arriving and filling every seat in this historic, perfectly-proportioned, supercosy café, lined with exquisite Italian marquetry by Achille Cappoci in 1946.
As the multiple conversations around me accumulated symphonically, it was like sitting in the centre of an orchestra and hearing all the different instruments playing at once. Yet I felt quite comfortable enjoying my solitary meal peacefully in the midst of this gregarious friendly crowd of locals and regulars, some of whom, Nevio, Maria’s son, told me, have been coming for lunch for more than four generations now, ever since Pellicci’s opened in 1900. Justifiably, this café is a legend in its own lunchtime – a lunch service that has now extended over one hundred and ten years. There is room for thirty customers and there are five waiting staff, which means that everyone gets respectful attention paid to them, and Anna (Maria’s daughter), Nevio, Salvatore and their colleagues have time to enjoy relaxed animated conversations with their guests, whilst keeping the service running efficiently with deceptive ease.
Peering out through the graceful ballet of customers coming and going, and drinks and meals being served, all accomplished through the ingenious collective manoeuvres that have evolved in this confined space over a century of use, I could just make out the sleet falling in the blue light outside and took great comfort in being inside among this happy community of diners. There is a constant debate about whether the East End spirit still exists but all that is required is a visit to Pellicci’s to experience the egalitarian human spirit for yourself.
In that moment when you have finished eating, peek back through the hatch at the rear of the café and you will see Maria busy in the kitchen where she has worked six days a week since 1961, from six in the morning until seven at night (from four in the morning originally), ever since she first came to Bethnal Green leaving the small Tuscan village of Casclana that was her birthplace. Taking a glance through from the café into the kitchen, you will not be ignored, you will not be met with disinterest, Maria will raise her Sophia Loren brows to meet your gaze with her glittering eyes and the gentle smile that you recognise from all those Tuscan paintings of the early Renaissance.
Consequently, it was with some humility that I accepted the honour of Maria’s invitation to visit her there in her kitchen, whence she presides upon her entire domain. “Mama Maria” the children call her, when their parents bring them to the café, where they also came to eat as children once upon a time. If these children can show themselves well behaved throughout their meal, as a reward, they are sometimes permitted to visit Mama Maria in the kitchen, who might dispense a sweet treat if they are especially good.
With her strong features, deep chestnut eyes and exuberant nature, I was immediately under Mama Maria’s spell. She showed me her hands with which she has been cooking her whole life, beautiful working hands, nimble and strong and graceful. She wears the gold ring that her husband, Nevio senior, gave her. It was Nevio’s senior’s father, Priamo Pellicci, who began here in 1900, but he died young and left his wife Elide to run the business and bring up seven children, which she did with great success. Elide Pellicci was the E.Pellicci whose name is still upon the grade II listed facade today. Her son Nevio, who was born above the cafe in 1927, took over from her until his death just a year ago, which leaves Maria as the head of the family business now, supported in the cafe by Nevio junior, her son, Anna, her daughter, and Salvatore, her nephew.
Maria Pellicci cooks every dish on the menu herself, all the meat pies, speciality pasta dishes and traditional desserts, prepared from scratch using fresh ingredients each day. Maria even cuts every chip personally by hand, a feat that recently won her an award for the best in London. She is keen to emphasise that she takes exceptional pride in her cooking and is always eager to respond to the requests of her customers. Scrupulous, Maria orders her meat from the nearby butcher, making regular small orders so that food never hangs around and she has rigorous cleaning regime too, everything is left spotless at the end of each day.
“There is no secret here,” declared Maria, gesturing playfully around her immaculate kitchen, once she had authoritatively outlined the nature of her work. The fact is the Pelliccis love their café and their loyal customers reciprocate the affection, inspiring a passionate human tradition that thrives today as it has always done over so many years. It is a rare haven of kindness, appreciated as it deserves.
I kissed Maria’s hand as I left the kitchen and I was just shaking hands with Nevio before I stepped outside, when Maria appeared unexpectedly through the stained glass door that leads to the kitchen and flashed her huge eyes, holding up a tinfoil parcel for me. It was my sweet treat.
As I walked along the Bethnal Green Rd and crossed Weavers’ Fields in the dark, on my way back to Spitalfields in the gathering blizzard, I could not resist opening the parcel, discovering two slices of bread pudding in there. Let me confess, I ate them both before I got home. My shoes were still leaking but I was warm inside thanks to Mama Maria.