Pasquale places cutlery next to my sfogliatella. Pointedly. “You Northerners probably eat it with a knife and fork,” he says, deadpan, and strolls to look out of the front door, his hands behind his back.
He says Northerner to me, Roman-born. Slap-bang in the middle of the boot-shaped peninsula. “And how do you, Southerners, eat it?” I shout back.
He turns around, takes one hand out from behind his back, clumps his fingers together and lifts them up to his face. “Like this,” he replies.
I put down my fork and pick up my paper napkin. I raise the sfogliatella and bite into it. Pointedly.
The exchange takes place in Italian and, seeing that those at my table who’ve been following it are now laughing heartily, Pasquale’s moustache stretches into a mischievous smile. Unable to guffaw with a mouthful of crisp pastry and ricotta, I can’t, however, suppress a snort which sends a small cloud of icing sugar all over my chin.
I always ask for a sfogliatella when I have lunch or dinner at Da Maria’s – it’s the best I’ve tasted in London. Just as I always expect to have at least two or even three hearty laughs with the owner, Pasquale.
“I’ll give you Northerner,” I say, once I’ve swallowed the delicious Neapolitan speciality.
At that moment, a middle-aged man opens the glass door, briefly letting in the traffic sounds of Notting Hill Gate. “Here comes another foreigner,” Pasquale mutters.
They greet each other like friends, talk about football, then say goodbye with a hug.
“So where’s the foreigner from then?” I ask.
“Ischia,” he replies.
By now, my husband and my friends can barely breathe from laughing.
“Ischia! But that’s what – thirty kilometres from where you’re from?” I say, hamming up my Roman accent.
“Of course,” Pasquale replies, now unable to suppress his smile. “That’s far enough from Naples.”
Of course. How stupid of me.
It occurs to me that when I meet fellow-Brits abroad, I never ask them exactly which part of the country they’re from. Or when I meet French people. Whenever I come across Italians, however, the innate campanilismo of that part of me that is Italian through nurture awakens. Of course, when I encounter a fellow-Roman, the next question is invariably, “Which part? – Oh, I’m from the Tomba di Nerone area.”
The jokes between Norfolk and Suffolk inhabitants are nothing compared to the precisely localised civic pride of Italians.
In this instance, however, the campanilismo expressed by Pasquale and me is pure show, actively aimed at the gallery, who get the joke and giggle.
Da Maria is therefore not a piece of Italy in the heart in Notting Hill Gate, but of Naples. There’s a Napoli Football Club scarf and memorabilia on the wall and a large TV screen for when supporters gather to watch a match. There’s a figure of Pulcinella. There’s a mural with a Naples street scene, complete with a line of washing waving in the wind, a Saint Gennaro, little boys playing football or eating the most famous local dish, pizza, Mount Vesuvius across the bright blue bay, and, overlooking the street from the balcony, two celebrated Neapolitans: Sophia Loren and Totò.
I’ve lost count of the number of years I’ve been frequenting this tiny café-restaurant, tucked in right beside the Gate Cinema, with tables covered in checkered tablecloths. It must be nearly twenty years – since my friend L. introduced me to it – and she had been going there pretty much since they’d first opened, in 1980. When I lived in London, L. and I used to have breakfast there most Saturdays, after a quick shop at the Farmers’ Market behind Waterstone’s, and before doing the rounds of the charity shops in search of either books or quirky, unique clothes. We had dinner and a celebratory glass of red wine when Pasquale finally obtained an alcohol licence.
When H. and I moved in together, I introduced him to Da Maria. He decreed the pasta and pesto to be the best. My staple is no longer on the menu, but as soon as he sees me arrive, Pasquale asks, “Pasta al tonno, right? With or without peperoncino, this time?” A few minutes later, my favourite dish is served.
The food is delicious and very reasonably-priced, but it’s the warm family atmosphere and the sense of humour-on-tap of the place that attracts a following among both Italians and Londoners, although I have also heard Polish, Arabic, French and Spanish spoken at the neighbouring tables. Some locals lunch there every day. If someone is absent for a while, Pasquale worries, asks around if they’re all right. Enquires after them if they’re ill. If they’ve had a professional success, he shares the news with other regulars. “You know so-and-so who comes here at lunchtime, sometimes? He’s just published a book” or “She’s just graduated”, etc.
Now that we live in Norwich, whenever we’re in London for any length of time, H. and I go for a meal at Da Maria. Pasquale greets us like the proverbial prodigals. If his wife is in the kitchen, she comes out and shakes hands. If his son happens to be around, we want to hear how his studies are going, and ask about his plans.
After dinner, it’s often a limoncello for H. and a grappa for me.
And, at the end of a long day in a city that’s fast becoming a shrine to corporations and chains, a feeling of human warmth, of international bonding, for us both.
* * *
Da Maria is now under threat of closure. All that because of a planned expansion of the Gate Cinema’s foyer. In an area that used to be one of London’s quirkiest, where so many independent businesses have been eradicated by the faceless chains, Da Maria is one of the few remaining jewels. Interestingly, it’s located in one of the capital’s wealthiest boroughs, Kensington & Chelsea – they of Grenfell Tower fame. Below is a link to an article from The Observer and a couple of clips from YouTube. There is also a petition. Please sign it if you have been to Da Maria, if you would like to go, or if you simply support independent businesses that are one of a kind.