At the City Corner Cafe
The City Corner Cafe is exactly where its name suggests – on the corner of Middlesex St and Bishopsgate, where it has been for over fifty years. I approached it one crisp morning when the sun had not as yet delivered the promise of warmth, and its steamed windows lured me towards the prospect of delicious smells and chat and coffee inside, and, of course, towards a meeting with the owners, the delightful Delfina Cordani and her son Alexander – a formidable double act.
Time stops as you enter. This is a sixties cafe – a film set almost – with blue vinyl banquettes and panelled walls and a beautiful well-loved coffee machine by the renowned W.M Still and Son. And I imagine the deals done at these tables over the years, the stories read, the hands held, the illicit whispers of love, and I feel grateful, that here is a cafe of character and charm and warmth, a far cry from the generic, sterile cafes of today.
On the back wall is a beautifully polished mosaic from 1836 depicting the story of Dick – later the eponymous Dirty Dick – a prosperous city merchant and warehouse owner called Nathaniel Bentley, who fell into an abyss of dirt and decay and self-neglect after his fiancé suddenly died on their intended wedding day. Apparently there were two more mosaics to accompany this story, Alex tells me – one of the deceased’s funeral carriage with white horses and the other of a Town Crier, both, however, are missing.
Delfina sits down with her coffee. She is an engaging woman, blessed with a youthful spirit and a mischievous smile that belies her eighty-two years. Brought up on a farm in Italy, in Emilia Romagna, she was one of seven children and first came to London as a nursemaid before going to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“At eight o’clock exactly, I used to make coffee for the matron and the governor. I made it by burning the dry grounds of coffee in a saucepan and then adding the boiling water. They loved my coffee, and I still have the saucepan…” she whispers conspiratorially.
“I think I was matron’s favourite,” she laughs. “I did a bit of everything – looked after the children because in those days parents were not allowed to stay in the hospital. Matron used to give me tickets to the theatre and opera. It was quite a special thing in those days – I had to buy a new dress so they’d let me in. I saw La Boheme,” she says, beaming.
“I loved working there. It was a wonderful environment, felt very equal. In Italy, if a man was a doctor he could be a bit snooty, but there it felt different. I remember one consultant raising his hat to me and I told him he didn’t have to do that – I wasn’t an important person – and he said ‘You’re just like me. I had the chance to study. Maybe you didn’t. But that’s our only difference.’
It was my friend Ida who persuaded me to leave the hospital and I went and worked with her as a waitress in Covent Garden in a busy Italian restaurant. I went from a calm environment to the bustle of Covent Garden. But I was never without flowers or vegetables!”
During this time, she met Giuseppe at a dance in the basement of the Italian Church in Clerkenwell, and in 1958 they were married. It was Giuseppe who was eager to set up his own business, and after a quick search, Delfina and Giuseppe spent their first day in the City Corner Cafe in June 1963.
“I was nervous to start with. An Irish girl who worked there before we took it over, stayed on with us and taught me the rules – lots of rules! – ‘Faster Delfina!’ she’d say. ‘People are in a hurry – you must do things faster!’ The cafe was small, few tables. And one day someone from Dirty Dick’s pub came to us and asked if we’d like to expand into the old alleyway beside us. We bought the alleyway and, of course, the mosaic which was part of the ancient wall. It gave us an extra five tables.
I’ve had a very happy life here, met so many wonderful people. We had customers who would come around the counter and make their own tea and leave the money on the side. People were honest then. We had lots of regulars – I would always get birthday cards and Valentine cards. A tall slim distinguished Englishman bought me an orchid on Valentine’s Day – such a rare flower then. If my husband didn’t like it, he certainly didn’t show it! I often wonder what happens to people. They become part of your life and tell you about their families and then one day they disappear. Maybe they’ve retired, maybe moved away? Maybe died? You never know.”
There is a quiet moment as she reflects on the years and the faces and the memories they hold. And then Alexander comes over and asks proudly. “Have you told her about hiding the British soldiers on your farm?”
“That was another life ago,” Delfina says.
“I’d like to know,” I say. And so she tells me.
“It was 1944, I think. I was thirteen. Blonde and small. I noticed my father making lots of sandwiches and I became suspicious because we didn’t eat lots of sandwiches. He told me that he had two British soldiers hidden under the hay in the barn. He had found them hiding in his vineyard and told them to stay put until dark, because the area was full of Germans. He hadn’t told us children because children talk, and if word got out the Germans would have burned down the farm and killed us all. He forbade me tell anyone. They stayed for a week, I think. I saw one of them once, he had blonde wavy hair. And then they disappeared and that was it. After the war the British MoD sent my father a plaque thanking him for his bravery. They also sent him money to pay for those soldiers keep.
I think they must have survived those soldiers, don’t you?”
And she looks at me with those deep eyes, as if she needed reassurance that her father’s brave efforts had not been in vain.
The extension of the cafe into a former alley.
The mosaic from 1836 upon the wall of what was once an alley leading to Dirty Dick’s next door.
A food order
In Middlesex St
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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