“This is my favorite place in London,” my boyfriend says, as we sit eating pizza at the Italian Coffee Company, which despite its name, is a pizza place where I have never seen anyone order coffee. The ICCo is in the Fitzrovia neighborhood in central London and is open late; a feat for London where everything closes early.
While places like Pizza Hut in London are sit-down restaurants with tablecloths, here, pizza is ordered at the counter and tastes like the delicious greasy, thin-sliced style in New York. You sit on high metal stools at metal counter-style tables, so close together that your back is almost touching the person sitting at the table behind you. Cutting across the din of the restaurant is the buzzing of pagers on metal tables alerting me, with their blinking red lights as they vibrate in half circles across the table, that our pizzas are ready.
My boyfriend and I people watch while we eat our cheese pizzas. There’s an old woman I recognize, who shuffles in and goes to the back corner of the restaurant. A large group of deaf people gather here together regularly; their enthusiastic signing and gesticulating makes their presence feel very large, despite being silent. We share counters with tourists carrying maps, couples on dates, well-dressed designers and business people from the neighborhood, and students from all over the world. The smell of baking cheese and bread dough is intoxicating and comforting as I sit listening to the cacophony of voices speaking in different languages around me. Voices merging with the English sports games playing on the flat screen TV and the sounds of the street drifting through the open door late at night, means there are usually raucous and happily intoxicated people tripping by.
My attention is brought back to the old woman, who has taken off her coat and put her bags in the corner. She is charging forward in a slow shuffle, picking up a large bag of trash outside and carrying it to the kitchen. She is very short and has a hunched back, her neck bent so that her chin stays permanently touching her chest. I sit and chew, watching her shuffle through the restaurant, her hiking boots adding a couple of inches to her height. This little Italian woman with her scarf tied over her grey hair reminds me of Strega Nona, the grandmother witch who has a magic pot that makes endless pasta.
The employees never look surprised to see her but also don’t pay much attention to her as she moves around the restaurant cleaning up. This tiny, stooped, Strega Nona lifts tables, flipping them up so that a tabletop rest flat on top of another tabletop, its feet in the air. “They must pay her something,” my boyfriend speculates as we watch her lift table after table, something that would take some effort for me to do. I find myself wondering who she is, what her connection is to this place. If she is so poor, that despite it being 11:00pm and her being old and hunched backed, that she comes and lifts heavy tables and takes out the garbage for a little bit of money.
We decide she must be from the neighborhood. Which is now made up of designers, architects, and web and media companies. There is a whole new generation of young creative workers in a neighborhood that has very little room left for tiny Italian grandmothers, for the people who are the history of the neighborhood. Except for the Italian Coffee Company, who have allowed this tiny Strega Nona, and the history of the neighborhood, to be a part of their restaurant. After we have watch Strega Nona put up all the tables, we get up to leave. My boyfriend says again, “This is my favorite place in London. Everybody comes here.”