The Baldaccis of Petticoat Lane
Matthew Baldacci – “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing”
Since 1830, Petticoat Lane has been known as Middlesex St and yet it is still widely referred to by its earlier name. Such is the enigma of this ancient thoroughfare and market that is recognised more by what it was than what it is. Yet the enduring life of Petticoat Lane is still there to be found, if you look close enough.
Behind a curious concrete staircase that leads nowhere on Middlesex St, you will find MB’s Cafe with faded old photographs upon the walls of Baldacci’s Cafe. M B stands for Matthew Baldacci who runs this cafe and another of the same name round the corner in Harrow Place with his father Peter. Together they are the second and third generations in this family business, begun here by Matthew’s grandfather Umberto.
The original cafes and the street in the photographs where Umberto lived and worked have long gone, lost beneath a brutalist concrete development – the one with the staircase leading nowhere. Yet in spite of this architectural transformation, the Baldacci family and their cafe remain to carry the story of the Lane.
Reflecting the nature of this border territory where the City of London meets the East End, the two Baldacci cafes are oriented to serve customers from both directions. MB’s in Harrow Place is where Matthew greets the City workers by name as they pick up their sandwiches and rolls daily, while MB’s in Middlesex St is where you can find the stalwarts of Petticoat Lane tucking in to their cooked lunches. It was at the latter establishment, hidden discreetly under the stairs, that I met with Peter recently and he filled me in with the Baldacci history.
“It all started with my father Umberto Baldacci, he came over from Italy at fourteen years old and worked in a cafe. He lived in the buildings in Stoney Lane and he opened up his first cafe there in 1932 and they did quite well because he got a second one in the late forties on Petticoat Lane. The one in Stoney Lane was more cooked meals while the one in Petticoat Lane was sandwiches and rolls.
My father was born in 1905 and worked until the end, when he died at seventy-three in 1979. My mother Maria, she worked in the kitchen all day long from early morning and then she cooked his dinner afterwards, that’s how things were in those days – a man expected everything. She worked until three years before she died. When you look back, it wasn’t easy for an Italian woman but I don’t think she’d have wanted anything else. She had come over from Italy at an early age and lived in Kings Cross. I don’t know how they met. My father never went back, he made his home here. I can’t even understand Italian. It’s my one regret that I never learnt Italian.
They built a nice business and he was very happy. The Jewish people made him welcome and it really helped a lot. In school holidays, I used to come and work from the age of thirteen in 1962, maybe earlier, and when I was sixteen I started full time. I started washing up and filing rolls. I loved it. The East End was a very different place then and Petticoat Lane was alive with all different kinds of traders. It was fantastic.
I get up around four-thirty each morning and get down here by five-thirty, I like to be open by six. Then I close by four and I’m home by four-thirty. I can cook, I do everything, if anyone can’t come in I cover for them. I’ve worked in this cafe for twenty-nine years, but I’ve been full time for fifty-three years in total. We’ve got one customer Benny, he’s been coming for seventy years. He lives in Petticoat Tower and comes in each morning for his breakfast. My son Matthew joined me twenty-five years ago and we changed the name to ‘MB’s’.”
At the conclusion of Peter’s tale, Matthew Baldacci arrived fresh from completing the busy lunch service round the corner in Harrow Place. “I started working Sundays when I was fourteen, it was expected but I didn’t not want to do it. I started full time at sixteen, twenty-five years ago.” he revealed, meeting his father’s eyes with a protective smile, “My dad does the book work and I do the running of it. We’re very close.”
Matthew revealed there is a sense of change in the air around Petticoat Lane these days and a hope that it is only a matter of time before the escalating life of Spitalfields and the City will spill over into this backwater bringing increased trade. Thus, after all the transformations that the Baldcaccis have seen through three generations, Matthew remains ebullient for the future. “This is what I do and this is what I will be doing,” he assured me confidently, “I have two sons and it’s a probability that one of them will go into it.”
Umberto Baldacci’s Cafe in Stoney Lane
Peter outside MB’s Cafe in Harrow Place
MB’s Cafe under the stairs on Middlesex St
Peter & Matthew Baldacci
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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