Throughout history, ethnic enclaves have become firmly ingrained into the social and cultural fabric of life. Everyone who’s been to New York City or San Francisco is familiar with the Chinatown districts there, while Miami’s Little Havana and Toronto’s Greektown, and many others, also serve a rich slice of cultural diversity.
London is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and socially liberal places in England. At a glance, London has a firm Central and South American influence in Camden, a Bengali presence in Tower Hamlets, a plethora of Jewish communities in Stamford Hill, and many other historical ethnic neighbourhoods to visit and enjoy.
But have you heard of Little Italy?
Little Italy is rather inconspicuous compared to some of London’s most recognised ethnic enclaves. Otherwise known as the Italian Hill or Italian Quarter, it can be found around Farringdon Road, Roseberry Avenue and Clerkenwell Road.
Despite this area playing host to thousands of working-class Italians from generations past, it’s shocking how this area remains unknown to many. Needless to say, it’s rare to find this district the first ‘must-see’ on many tourists’ itineraries. However, Little Italy is a place that’s stocked to the gills with culture, history, and enjoyment, and as such, it deserves plenty of recognition and attention. What’s more, if you’re already planning a trip to London, you won’t have to go hugely out of your way to soak in an immense taste of Italian culture.
If you’re passing through the city and have time to spare, you can get an immense flavour of Italian culture by stopping by Little Italy, and the best part is you won’t have to go hugely out of your way to make time for it. Here is a breakdown of why you should visit London’s Little Italy district next time you’re in town.
History of Little Italy in London
The country of Italy is known for its massive contributions to the worlds of literature, film, fashion, art, architecture, and of course, its food.
The birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Marco Polo, opera music, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Vespa scooters, the Lamborghini, and gelato, Italy’s history and presence knows no bounds. So it begs the question of why, in the late 1800s, many flocked to London.
Many of those who decided to migrate did so out of desperation. Many parts of Italy were suffering badly from deprivation and thus, skilled Italian workers could apply their craft in a city like London, one very much at the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution and with a rich history in its own right.
Over the course of the 19th century, the area of Saffron Hill became a hotspot for working-class Italians, predominantly from the south. The Italian consul at the time estimated that in 1895, approximately 12,000 Italians were working and living in London. The concentration of Italians in this area and neighbouring Clerkenwell and Camden reached a peak at the turn of the 20th century.
Many of the Italians in Little Italy at the time worked as organ men, plaster bust sellers, ice vendors, or as servants to wealthy families in the area. The work ethic present here sowed the seeds for what would eventually blossom into the hospitality industry.
Eventually, Clerkenwell was one of several areas in London that underwent a gradual process of gentrification, with many working-class workers shoehorned elsewhere. Come the 20th century, London’s native Italians began moving further afield, spreading into other areas of the capital. Over time, London became somewhere that could offer a slice (no pun intended) of Italy in all corners, from Renzo Piano’s The Shard to family-run delicatessens in East Sheen.
The Clerkenwell area is, of course, home to St Peter’s Italian Catholic Church, conceived by St Vincent Pallotti, a Roman Catholic priest. This is a listed building that still plays host to gatherings of Italians in London, particularly at Christmas and Easter, as well as a summer event which will be explained a little later.
Things to Do in Little Italy
There is still plenty of Italian history to soak in by visiting the triangular area of Clerkenwell, Farringdon and Roseberry Avenue. While many may believe that Clerkenwell doesn’t represent the Little Italy it was once known for, those that are hungry (literally and figuratively) for some authentic Italian culture, should look no further.
Food and Drink – The best things to do in Little Italy tend to revolve around drinking and eating. Many Londoners are fans of ‘aperitivo’ culture (made famous in northern Italy), in other words, enjoying pre-meal drinks.
There are plenty of upmarket restaurants and brasseries within the area that offer some delicious, rustic Italian food. The exquisite Luca, in particular, comes very highly recommended.
Terroni’s of Clerkenwell, located in nearby Hatton Garden, is also one of London’s oldest Italian delis that offers a broad range of Italian provisions, foods, coffee, wines, and sweets.
Architecture – As mentioned above, St Peter’s Italian Catholic Church still keeps passers-by basking in its enviable basilican glory. It’s often described as one of London’s most beautiful churches, designed by Irish architect John Miller Bryson that took influence from the Basilica of San Crisogono in Rome.
People in Little Italy gather at St Peter’s Church for the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on the first Sunday after the 16th of July. Similarly to the customs exhibited during Italy’s national celebration, Carnevale, decorated floats dominate the skylines around this time. Thousands of London’s Italian residents line the streets around St Peter’s to watch the procession, much the same as they would if they were in Venice or other cities where the iconic Carnevale celebrations take place. It’s not unusual to find plenty of market stalls popping up around the place where you can sample some amazing, delicious Italian delicacies.
Visiting Little Italy
Hopefully, the above information has given you a small taste of what to expect within the Italian culture hotspot in England’s capital.
For further reading, why not check out some other iconic cultural spots to check out during your stay, such as the recently-opened Donatello exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum? Those with a passion for Renaissance sculpture and art will not want to miss out on this limited-time exhibition. You can get to the V&A from Clerkenwell in about 30 minutes via the London Underground Circle line.