La Famiglia – A Tuscan Triumph
‘A lot of Italian restaurants in London have lost touch with their Roots. I say if you can cook like your Mother, then you are a good chef, but if you can cook like your Grandmother, then you are a Great Chef’ – Alvaro Maccioni
Alvaro Maccioni is described as the Godfather of Italian cuisine in the UK. In restaurant circles he is, quite simply, a legend.
Alvaro Maccioni was one of the first chefs to insist on only using fresh seasonal produce, and to this day, other prominent Italian chefs still use him to source the best available produce for their own restaurants.
This may sound like stating the obvious today, but thirty years ago it was nothing short of revolutionary!
Alvaro’s insistence on perfection in every aspect of his restaurant business has kept his famous restaurant, ‘La Famiglia’ in the spotlight for over thirty years, and for the first ten of them, I definitely contributed to the profits!
In 1978, I moved my publishing offices from Mossop Street in the centre of Chelsea, to what was then considered to be the outer regions of west London, namely Britannia Road in Fulham, opposite the Chelsea Football ground, which, pre-Abramavich, was not a very salubrious area.
However, shortly after moving, I realised that I had moved to ‘Alvaro country’, and that his legendary restaurant, ‘La Famiglia’ was only a 5 minute drive from the office, and it quickly became a regular haunt.
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It is a little gem of an Italian restaurant in Langton Street at World’s End, just off the Kings Road, and this soon became a firm favourite, and virtually became our office ‘canteen’. So it was no surprise that it was owned and run by Alvaro Maccioni, whose previous restaurants had been iconic, and he had clearly not lost his touch!
The only problem was that the ‘business lunch’ was an Art Form in those heady days, and we often became so ‘over refreshed’, that a sober member of staff had to be sent to retrieve us, unless we got lucky and found a taxi, but they were few and far between at the ‘wrong end’ of the Kings Road, as it was at that time.
However, it was not just the food which was the attraction, or the superb Tuscan wines, before they were labelled ‘Super Tuscans’ by the wine ‘cognoscenti’, but the warm welcome from Alvaro Maccioni and his staff, and the wonderfully professional way in which the place was run.
They say that Tuscans are the most Italian of all Italians, and Alvaro was born in Florence, so that speaks for itself.
His father was a food wholesaler, and from an early age, Alvaro became involved in the family business supplying restaurants and hotels. Alvaro knew from an early age that the food from his home could prove to be a sensation abroad, and he soon set his sights on England, and London in particular.
In 1957 he arrived in London and trained at the famous Mirabelle restaurant where he met up with fellow Italian restaurant entrepreneurs. Mario Cassandra and Franco Laggatolia. They joined forces to run the first Tuscan restaurant in London’s West End, called La Terrazza, with its authentic dishes, informal style and its cool and modern interior it soon became the most famous Italian restaurant, and the ‘coolest’ place to be seen, and the most influential place to eat Italian cuisine in London.
This Italian Trio, Mario, Franco, and Alvaro were to Italian food, what Gianni Agnelli was to Italian cars, and what Sophia Loren was to Italian glamour. La Terrazza was a sensation, and attracted celebrities from all over the world, including Brigitte Bardot, David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, Michael Caine, and Princess Margaret.
However, by 1969, eleven years after he arrived from Italy, Alvaro was ready to ‘go it alone’ and he relocated to the up-and-coming trendy ‘Kings Road’, to open his first own restaurant which he simply called ‘Alvaro’s.
The celebrity clientele followed and soon the name of Alvaro’s was on everyone’s lips, as the trendiest place in town.
‘The name Alvaro’s is whispered from the studios of showbiz to the Courts of Royalty’ London Life was quoted as saying.
It was so popular, that, rumour had it that Alvaro had the telephone number of his own restaurant made ex-directory!
Alvaro has achieved his dream of creating the best Italian food outside Italy, and he managed to stay ahead of most of his competitors, and ‘would-be’ imitators, by continuing to buy the best produce from the best suppliers, and it had to be the very best quality and absolutely fresh.
Alvaro was certainly one of the first Chefs to create genuine Italian food at affordable prices; you didn’t need a celebrity income to dine there, something which I can vouch for!
Alvaro considered it his duty, indeed his ‘raison d’être’, to educate the British about the huge range and diversity of Italian cuisine, and his restaurant was the first to serve classic Italian food like wild boar, prosciutto, and oven-roast kid with rosemary, garlic, and thyme. He even had a dish on the menu, the translation of which was somewhat dubious, and involved ‘teenage lamb’ which always made me feel that I was eating something rather surly and rebellious!
In addition to the restaurant he opened his own Nightclub called L’Aretusa, and a chain of restaurants, all of which were hugely successful, and in 1972 he sold his empire, and returned to Italy, fifteen years after arriving, with a lot of money in the bank.
However, having become used to the excitement of London, he found life in rural Italy far too tame, and returned to London three years later (in 1975) with a vengeance, intending to open what was intended to be ‘a little place here which would just ‘tick-over’
He found a property in Langton Street, just off the Kings Road, at World’s End, which was definitely the scruffiest end in those days, and called it ‘La Famiglia’.
The rest as they say, is history, but especially my history, because in the ten years between 1978, and 1988 I became one of his most loyal, and possibly his best customer, taking a steady stream of my co-directors, shareholders, authors, agents, co-publishers, foreign distributors, designers, printers, distributors, sales agents, and ‘Reps’, i.e. publishers’ representatives, which is what we politely called book salesman in those days, and of course the endless journalists, many of whom subsequently wrote about it.
In fact, in 1979, I employed the services of an up-and-coming journalist called Neil Mackwood to write a ‘light-hearted, and personal view of what is socially acceptable in fashionable society, called IN & OUT, which provided lists of everything under the sun, which was IN or OUT, including people, schools, jobs, names, fashion, clubs, and inevitably, restaurants, .
The only bit of pressure I exerted on his journalistic independence was to insist that ‘La Famiglia’ was ‘IN’ which it was!
Neil Mackwood went on to write on the Nigel Dempster gossip column in the Daily Mail, as did another of my authors, Adam Helliker, although the latter lacked the former’ s charm.
La Famiglia was also the scene of romances, parties, seduction, intrigue, and celebration, including some of my greatest triumphs, and commiseration of my equal number of disasters. It was here that I celebrated many a birthday, and the births of my two eldest children, Thomas, in October, 1984, and William, in April, 1986, by which time, Alvaro had acquired the premises next door, had been a completely ‘over the top’ French restaurant in the old style, called ‘Le Bagatelle’, which although quite superb, could not possibly have made any money at all, so high were their standards, but they provided a much-needed, occasional ‘divertissement’ from the charms of La Famiglia.
Anyway, their sad loss was Alvaro’s gain, and he set about knocking the two restaurants into one, and combining the gardens to the rear, so that he nearly doubled the number of ‘covers’.
In La Famiglia, there is a wonderful sepia photograph, taken by the legendary Terry O’Neill, of all the ‘Pasta Pioneers’, which he has kindly given permission for us to reproduce below. These really were pioneers in a different time and place, but who set the standards for Italian food in London, which in my opinion has some of the best Italian restaurants in the world, and La Famiglia is definitely one of them.
I have now introduced my sons to its pleasures, so there is a new generation learning to appreciate its charms, and I am grateful to have been Alvaro’s contemporary, and to have enjoyed his skills and dedication for over 40 years, since I first started discovering the joys of Italian cuisine in the late 1960s.
I think it was in 1969 that I discovered Alvaro for the first time, so that is 43 years ago, and we have both suffered from the vicissitudes of life, and recently been burdened with poor health, so that when we last met we were like a couple of old men comparing illnesses, but in our hearts we are the young, fit, healthy, ambitious young men that arrived in London in the sixties, me ten years after Alvaro, but equally determined to make my mark, and we both did; he with his restaurants, and me with my publishing, so we have both had a good innings, and I am reminded of the words of Charles Dickens in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”
Other restaurants will come and go, but La Famiglia will survive. It is now run, very efficiently, by Marietta, Alvaro’s daughter, although he still keeps a firm eye on. Today’s menu at La Famiglia is largely unchanged from when it started 35 years ago, which is not surprising given that its chef, Quinto Cecchetti, has been there practically since day one, as has Gigi, the maitre d’, who started out at the original Alvaro’s.
‘I like to tell my staff they are on a week’s trial,’ Maccioni says, and he may only be half-joking!
I left London to live in rural bliss in Hampshire with my young family in 1989, and the thing which I missed most about, were my lunches at La Famiglia.
It would be almost impossible to recommend a restaurant more highly than La Famiglia’; for me it is the epitome of all that is best about Italians, and Italian restaurants.
It is a Tuscan Triumph!
Robert Jarman has spent a lifetime observing and commenting on the habits and habitats of that endangered species, the British Aristocracy, including their houses, art collections, sports and pastimes.
He was a part-owner and Managing Director of Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, which he acquired and rescued from near extinction in 1976, and built into an international publishing company.
He published the catalogues for a number of major Exhibitions at the V&A and the Royal Academy in the UK, the Cooper Hewitt and MOMA in New York, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
He also conceived and created an important contemporary reference book called, ‘People of Today’, first published in 1981 which is the ultimate study of the UK’s most successful and influential people.
He is therefore well-qualified to publish and edit The Vintage Magazine, an on-line publication aimed at, but not limited to, the affluent and active, over 50s who number over 23 million in the UK, and control 80% of the wealth of the country.