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At Beppe’s Cafe

January 31, 2024
by Julia Harrison

Guest writer Julia Harrison celebrates Beppe’s Cafe in Smithfield, accompanied with photographs by Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie

Daniella Papini


One of my favourite morning walks takes me down Cloth Fair through St Bartholomew’s Churchyard, past the memorial to Sir William Wallace on the wall of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and across Smithfield to Beppe’s Cafe for breakfast.

The first time I visited, I was drawn by the board outside describing a fine selection of cooked breakfasts and mixed grills. I was struck by the energy inside – bacon frying, coffee brewing, and the nostalgic sound of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello which made me feel very at home.

Behind the counter, Daniella Papini presides over an array of hams, cheeses and fresh produce ready to be made into ciabattas and salads for the lunchtime rush. There were postcards from across the world stuck to the fridge, family photographs, and – most intriguing of all – large sepia photographs in the far corner by my table, showing earlier generations. Clearly, this was a family business and I immediately wanted to know more.

On my next visit, I was distracted from my book by the steady arrival of builders in hard hats, ready for their cooked breakfasts, together with businessmen and women ordering sandwiches and takeaway coffees, and – in one case – a dog walker whose bulldog could not believe his luck when he was given a handful of treats. A break in the flow allowed owner Daniella to come across and tell me about the cafe and its history.

Pointing to a large photograph beside us on the wall of a tall, thin, well-dressed young man, she explained that this was her grandfather Giuseppe Papini – know as Beppe – who came over from a village near Lucca in 1911 and started the cafe with his wife in 1932.  ‘That’s why this cafe is called Beppe’s’.

I could hardly begin my plate of scrambled eggs, I was so gripped by the stories Daniella told me, starting with her grandmother who came from the next village in Italy to her future husband.

‘My husband comes from the same village, so we go back there all the time. (His family, not mine – my parents were born here).

My grandmother was on the train with her future mother in law and she was starving and her future mother in law had a big loaf of bread and she asked her for a bit of bread and she said no it’s for my son, and she eventually married that son by some strange stroke of luck when she got to London.’

Daniella and Sergio, who barely moved from his station behind a huge frying pan and grill, are cousins.  Pointing to a photograph behind me,  of two smiling boys Daniella explains, ‘The two little boys up the top there – the one on the left is my father and the one on the right is my cousin Sergio’s father’  and I know in that instant that here is a family story that deserves to be told. Daniella recounts her father’s terror when a bomb fell on Smithfield Market.

My father remembers running through the market – the nurses coming out of St Barts  with aprons soaked in blood.

He and his brother were at school at St Peter’s Italian Church on the Clerkenwell Road, and they were crying as they were running because until they got around the corner they didn’t know if the cafe was still standing.’

There is something very moving about observing Daniella and Sergio at work behind the counter, knowing that the cafe has seen three generations of their family.

‘During the Second World War my grandfather got interned on the Isle of Man so his wife was left to run it with her daughter – during the air raids – his daughter was ten years older than my dad so she was a bit more responsible.’ 

Turning to another photograph Daniella continues, ‘that’s my Uncle (the oldest) and the little one is my dad. They got evacuated to Wootton Bassett but they got split up and my dad was only five – he went to the nicest family in the world but his brother got sent to a terrible family – my dad wouldn’t stop crying so they put them together – she used all their rations, they didn’t have sheets on the bed, so when his sister went down she said look, you’re coming back to London, we will all die together, because you are not getting fed.

I ask Daniella about the early days of the cafe, assuming – in my ignorance – that they would have been cooking Italian meals.  She explains,

‘My cousin and I worked in the cafe on Saturdays when we were young. It wasn’t like now, there was no Italian influence – it wouldn’t have been possible. People wouldn’t have had anything like that.  They had to adapt – it was corned beef and ham and and what they could get. It’s different now – we have brought in those influences.

My parents were a bit of both (Italian and English). Everyone expected my dad to speak with an Italian accent and he had this Cockney accent. I know my mum was embarrassed to take anyone home because they wouldn’t have known the food she was eating –  it was all so different.  

I can’t imagine how they ran the cafe on rations … where did they get the supplies from? I don’t know how they managed.  They were part of the Italian community based near the church – they all stuck together. Some of their friends had cafes so they would help each other out.’  

As I leave Beppe’s Cafe, a customer next to me at the counter turns to me and says, ‘there aren’t many places like this left: I always come here when I’m in the area’. 

Heading back across Smithfield Market towards home, I think about the wealth of family history which is held within the cafe’s walls, and am glad that Daniella is there to tell her father’s stories –  tales of love and war which resonate with us today, and form a link across the generations.


Sergio Papini

The serious business of breakfast at Beppe’s

Happy customers

Banknotes brought by customers from across the world

Daniella greets customers

Giuseppe Papini (Beppe) 1894-1962, standing outside the cafe he founded in 1932

Georgia Papini at the cafe

Giuseppe and Georgia Papini

From left, Carlo (Sergio’s father), Georgia (Giuseppe’s wife), Tony, (Daniella’s father), Giuseppe and Bruna (Carlo’s and Tony’s sister who helped keep the cafe going during the difficult war years when their father was interned) photographed by Boris Bennett

Tony and Carlo Papini

Daniella’s father Tony Papini with the plane that he flew in the fifties during his National Service

Account book from the fifties

Sergio and Daniella with Daniella’s father Tony on his ninetieth birthday

Daniella and her cousin Sergio

New photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Beppe’s Cafe, 23 West Smithfield, EC1A 9HY. Mondays to Fridays, 6:30am- 2pm

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    January 31, 2024

    Thank you for this lovely vignette – if I ever make it back to London, I must go there. On a separate note, Georgia met the true definition of “a handsome woman” – quite striking.

  2. Magdalen Rogers permalink
    January 31, 2024

    Always had to call into Beppes for breakfast aster a night shift at Barts then back to bed at Queen Mary’s Nurses Home. Always slept well after their breakfast or was it the drink in the pub – Fox and Anchor?

  3. Cherub permalink
    January 31, 2024

    Places like Beppe’s are becoming so hard to find in Britain now. Everything is falling to chains which is sad. Cafés like this are welcoming and serve great food, not everyone wants fancy expensive coffees. I admire the hardworking families who run them despite the difficult economic times we live in and am grateful for these places when I’m on a visit home. Perhaps I’ll make it to Beppe’s one day and pin a Swiss banknote on the board.

  4. Elaine permalink
    January 31, 2024

    I often went to Beppe’s after a stressful shift or night shift to refresh and unwind with a bit of normality. It was always a cheerful welcoming refuge with plenty of good treats on offer. The clientele were so diverse: staff from Barts hospital, workers from Spitalfields market and the surrounding offices, taxi drivers and the stray tourist.

  5. Emma Riley permalink
    January 31, 2024

    Wonderful memories of getting breakfast or lunch at Beppe’s whilst working as a nurse at Barts for 17 years!!! So happy to see it is still thriving!!

  6. Elizabeth permalink
    February 4, 2024

    Is there a next generation at the cafe?

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