Colin O’Brien at E.Pellicci
Nevio Pellicci at Pellicci’s Cafe, 1990
If you were to go to E. Pellicci at 332 Bethnal Green Rd in 1990, you would have been welcomed by Nevio Pellicci and if you were to go back this week you would be greeted by Nevio Pellicci. You would recognise many of the staff from before and the cafe would be almost identical to your previous visit. Yet it would be a different Nevio Pellicci that welcomed you in this new century, working alongside his sister Anna, as one generation has passed away to be succeeded by another at London’s most celebrated family-run cafe, in business since 1900 and still going strong.
Such was the experience of photographer Colin O’Brien when he returned this week to show the Pellicci family the pictures that he took there in 1990 and take a new portrait featuring the Nevio Pellicci that presides today. “I was very interested in cafe culture at the time, so many were closing down” recalled Colin, as he tucked into ham, egg and chips before commencing his photographic assignment, “I’ve always been fascinated by traditional cafes because they’re wonderful social meeting places.”
Taken in the golden sunlight of early evening, Colin’s pictures might have become an elegy to a lost era, yet happily they exist today as a celebration of the continuity which exists at this very special East End institution where everyone meets as equals in the charmed realm of the Pellicci family. “I was scared to ask because it meant they had stay after closing time.” recalled Colin, “If you look at the clock in one of the pictures, it says seven o’clock, but they couldn’t be more welcoming even though I brought in a lot of equipment with me. And I shot on film in those days, which meant taking Polaroids as trial shots too.”
Once the cafe emptied out of customers at four in the afternoon, Colin was able to set up his lights in readiness for the new picture while the Pelliccis, who had now finished work, enjoyed great delight to see his photographs of their former selves for the first time. In 1999, a fire that began in the kitchen nearly destroyed the cafe, but fortunately the irreplaceable art-deco marquetry by Achille Cappocci from 1946 was saved, gaining a deeper golden hue as a consequence of the conflagration in contrast to its paler appearance in Colin’s pictures. Much amusement was had at the prices on the menu in the photographs, Spaghetti Bolognaise £2.40, Liver & Bacon £1.40 and Cheese Salad 70p. These pictures were taken before the coffee machine arrived upon the counter when caffeine culture overtook London in the nineteen nineties while, on the menu, the most significant culinary innovation has been the introduction of toast in 1996. “I asked him why he had bread and butter on the menu not toast,” admitted Nevio, rolling his eyes as he recalled the conversation with his father, humorously nonplussed, ” but he just said, ‘I don’t like it.’”
In Colin’s new picture, Maria Pellicci – who has worked in the kitchen since 1961 – occupies the same spot at the centre of the composition, just as she is at the heart of the Pellicci family, while her nephew Salvatore Zaccaria (known as Tony) supports her on the right with his arms crossed as before. Nevio Pellicci junior takes the position against the counter in which his father stood in 1990. He admitted to me that he had tried wearing a shirt and tie like his father when he first came to work, but it did not suit him. Yet Colin confirmed that, in other important ways, Nevio resembles his father closely. “He was very friendly, just a lovely man,” said Colin, recalling Nevio senior, “Nevio junior has it too, he’s interested in everyone and they become family. It’s just a wonderful way of making people feel at home. It’s an art.”
Salvatore (known as Tony), Maria, Nevio and Alfie.
Nevio and Tony.
Alfie, Maria, Tony and Nevio.
The clock is eternally ten to seven for Nevio Pellicci senior, flanked by his parents, Elide and Primo Pellicci, who ran the cafe before him.
Nevio (senior), Maria and Tony at Pelliccis in 1990.
Nevio (junior), Maria and Tony at Pelliccis in 2012.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Take a look at these other Pellicci stories
or these other Colin O’Brien stories