At Mister City Sandwich Bar
This is Roberto & Mirella Fiori, proprietors of the justly renowned Mister City Sandwich Bar in Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, open weekdays all year round except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Celebrated among the offices of Bishopsgate and the City, this is the place where the hungry souls of those struggling in the corporate rat race can seek honest sustenance. Open from early, this tiny family establishment with its attractive blue livery and characterful signwriting offers a haven of sanity and good humour in the midst of the madness.
Step in amongst the throng at the Mister City Sandwich Bar on any lunchtime and you find yourself in a tiny theatre where the flame-haired Mirella sharpens her joyous repartee whilst keeping the orders moving at a ferocious rate. “We do have a laugh,” she confessed to me with a smirk, rolling her eyes knowingly and tossing her golden curls, “the customers, they’re not happy until I tell them off – they come for the abuse! Abuse first, food second, it’s the personal touch.”
When I arrived, the lunchtime rush had long departed and even Artillery Lane itself had emptied out of people. Afternoon shadows were lengthening in this ancient narrow street that miraculously retains the tranquil atmosphere of a backwater despite being so close to Bishopsgate.
I found Roberto had ascended from the kitchen to idle on the pavement discussing horticulture with a policemen, from the station round the corner opposite Liverpool St. Yet I was able to persuade him to join me for a cup of tea at his sole pavement table and tell me the story of his wonderful cafe that has such a distinguished pedigree within the noble tradition of Italian City cafes.
My dad’s cafe was Dino’s Cafe in Crispin St next to the Spitalfields Market and I worked there from the age of twenty-three until it closed, and I’m fifty-eight now. He was the cook for Dino Cura and his brother who first opened the cafe after World War II serving the market porters, and when they both retired at the age of forty-five and went back to Italy, they asked him to take over. Me and my brother Ernesto (known as Ernie) worked there with Terry Richardson (my brother in law), until the Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market moved out to Leyton in 1991. They gave us a space for a cafe at the new market and Ernie & Terry still run Dino’s Cafe there today, while I came here to Mister City with Mirella, my wife, and Danieli, my son.
When I used to work in the market, I got up at three each morning and worked till midday, but now I’m finding it hard to get up at five and work until four-thirty. I go to Smithfield to buy fresh meat every morning and then I bring it back, and cook it, and sell it. All the other cafes, they buy it pre-cooked but we do it the old-fashioned way. It’s the only way I know, I learnt it from my father since I left school. Customers come in for breakfast and say “What’s for lunch?” I say, “I don’t know, I haven’t been to the market yet!”
My other son, Massimo, he works in Grosvenor House, he’s a proper chef – I’m a cook not a chef. I’m good but I could never go and work in a proper restaurant, I can cook a steak or a chop. He leaves me standing, talking about things I’ve never heard of. It’s all about sauces and cooking temperatures. He touches a steak to know if it is cooked, whereas I can look at a steak and I can tell if it’s cooked, or rare or well done. We sell a lot of roast pork, it’s a speciality of ours yet I can’t explain to you how to do it, I just know when to turn up the heat. It’s all experience. I do specials each day but I only cook so much because I like to make it fresh and sell out. I cook Bolognese sauce like my mother taught me. I always say, “If you go to Prêt à Manger, you’ve got to have what they give you, if you come here you can have what you want. We’ll make it in front of you, exactly how you like it.”
Ever since the crash, all my customers are constantly being shifted around. There’s one guy who comes in here whose job it is to shuffle everybody at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Another customer, he told me there used to be one hundred and eighty people in his division and now there’s thirty-five, and they’re expected to do the same work.
We used to have this lovely man, Richard, who came in every day for breakfast and lunch. Then, one day, he came in for breakfast and said, “See you for lunch,” but he never came back. When he arrived at work, they said, “Wait there,” gave him his things in a box and told him, “Your services are no longer required.” He came back after three weeks with his daughter to see us. He said,“I can’t get a job, my wife’s gone back to work.” Another man said to me, “If we make money, we get a bonus but if we make a loss, we just get our wages. We can’t lose because it’s not our money we’re gambling with, it’s other people’s money.” A lot of them have lost their jobs now.
I was fascinated by the recognition of mutual difference and the respect that exists between the members of the Fiori family and their customers from the world of high finance. While the rewards are potentially higher for City workers, there is appreciation that the Fiori family enjoy self-respect for working hard in their dignified endeavour over all these years – producing good quality food which is superior to the chains that surround them.
Roberto’s wife Mirella told me she also comes from an Italian family with a proud cafe tradition. “I used to work over in Scrutton St at the City Way Restaurant in Moorgate for my father Pino Cimelli and my mother Albina, with my brother Luigi.” she explained, “I didn’t want to study when I was at school, I wasn’t very academic, so my dad said, “You’re coming to work for me.”"
“When I’m selling someone a roast pork ciabatta or a nice sirloin steak, I can see their body language, they’re rubbing their hands together because they can’t wait to eat it.” Mirella continued, her eyes sparkling with delighted emotion, “I sell food with confidence, because I know what goes into it. If it costs five pounds, I know it’s worth five pounds.” And the pride of the Fiori family and the triumph of the Mister City Sandwich Bar is that this is a concept of value which City workers have embraced enthusiastically.
Roberto’s father Angelo Fiori with Cuzzi the street sweeper in the nineteen eighties outside the former Dino’s Cafe.
Roberto Fiori “- I cook Bolognese sauce like my mother taught me.”
Roberto shows the picture of the former Dino’s Cafe in Crispin St, he is second from the right.
Robert & Mirella Fiori with Les Wilkes
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