There is no arguing the Pasta e fagioli, on the “Alvaro’s Favourite” section of the menu, is a thick bean soup with pasta worth crossing the Atlantic – or Arctic – for.
It was twilight when I walked between the front flowers and fauna and under the indigo blue, streetside awning through the door and up into La Famiglia. Its white tiled walls were warmed by candles and subtle lighting. That is, the parts of the white walls which were visible.
Most of the space is covered with a patchwork puzzle of framed photos. The black and white or sepia-toned images are of the Maccioni family and friends or significant supporters who had, since 1975, done exactly what I was doing – dining in one of the world’s most wonderful restaurants. Bridget Bardot, Tony Bennett, Michael Caine, Peter Sellers, Princesses Margaret, Diana and Catherine, to name a few.
My photo is not on the wall, but I was greeted and seated with the warmth of a family member. This was the mantra of La Famiglia’s founder, the late Florentine Alvaro Maccioni. He was the Godfather of Italian cuisine in London and insisted, “Every single person who walks through the door is an important person.”
I was led to the covered, open-air, back area of the restaurant. It was empty and all mine for the moment, but within 30 minutes, it would be filled and festive. It’s a 210-seat restaurant, but it feels like 50.
The walls in that section, unlike the original front of La Famiglia, were largely visible and mostly uncovered. They were white-painted, exposed brick with occasional planters affixed to the wall.
The room is centered by a large, skeletal, wrought-iron, traditional Roman numeral clock with black numbers. Tufts of striped fabric concealed the ceiling except for the directional lights aimed at the tall potted trees dotted along the walls. At either end, where there wasn’t brick, lattice wall coverings gave the space the feel of a Tuscan garden.
Seated and Smiling
In my seat, I looked across the crystal-clear and etched wine and water glassware; shiny cutlery; ceramic flower vase; and the white doily on a silver bread dish atop my blue-checkered linen-covered table. The menu, with its black and white photo of an old-time, large Italian family, could wait as I breathed in my joy at being back and soaked in my surroundings.
I felt happier than I had in a long, long time…before even taking a bite.
Also, I could sense I was smiling broadly, from ear to ear, at my date. But the “old flame” I was meeting was La Famiglia restaurant herself, and I was alone with her again, at last. And, admittedly, in love.
Guests are Family at La Famiglia
Although seated by myself, I never felt alone at La Famiglia, as any number of the bustling team of servers smoothly and subtly checked on me. The very tall, dark-haired server, Paolo, seemed to enjoy himself more than anyone in the room. He did not whistle while he worked; he sang stanzas of classic Italian melodies and tarantellas such as “That’s Amore,” “O Sole Mio,” and “Santa Lucia.”
Paolo’s singing was as sweet as the enthusiasm of a tenured, textured server named Maurizio. This was especially true during the “dolce” conclusion of my meal, when he insisted I taste almost every desert that came out of baker Raquel’s oven, one after another.
“Oh, come now, you must try the chocolate salami. It is popular in the south of Italy,” Maurizio explained.
“Chocolate salami?” I asked warily.
It turned out salame de cioccolato is actually dark chocolate, eggs and sugar shaped with broken bits of biscuit added. It is dusted with confectioner’s sugar before a night in the refrigerator, which makes it resemble charcuterie. While it looked like salami, it tasted like light, dry fudge.
“But now you must try the almond souffle cake,” Maurizio insisted. “Souffle con mandorle.”
I dutifully obliged and was astonished to find the sponge cake in the layered desert was so light it served only as a delivery method for the mascarpone and Italian meringue.
“Our cheesecake all’Italiana, per favore, is next. It is baked. Cotto al forno. Very light. With berry sauce,” he then said.
He was right—very light…and yet very cheesy.
It will not surprise you to learn that Maurizio slipped scoops of gelato beside the dolce deserts. And I was soon to learn there was still one more course to come.
Enter Marietta Maccioni
“You know you cannot leave without tasting the homemade limoncello,” came the voice of La Famiglia’s proprietor, Marietta Maccioni.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked her as we hugged.
“I know when and where everyone in here is seated,” she said, “even when I am off-property.”
The limoncello is a family affair-aperitif it turned out. Maccioni’s 20-year beau, Fabio Cozari, who is also La Famiglia’s operations manager, and consultant chef Gonzalo Luzarraga collaborate on the syrupy potion.
Truth be told, I was delighted to not leave, especially if it meant sitting and visiting with the adorable Maccioni. She maintains the tradition of her legendary late father Alvaro, who passed away in 2015, with her own twists—in the way Claudine Pepin supports and spars with her French celebrity chef father, Jacques Pepin.
“I loved my father, but he was resistant to change. We needed new chairs and it took me two years to convince him,” said a smiling Maccioni. “Two years! I do not describe that as ‘winning’ an argument with him!”
I asked if Alvaro ever admitted Marietta was right.
“Ha!” she laughed in response.
Marietta and the Menu
There is no arguing the Pasta e Fagioli, on the “Alvaro’s Favourite” section of the menu, is a thick bean soup with pasta worth crossing the Atlantic—or Arctic—for. When I was finished, the only noticeable thing left was the embossed “La Famiglia” logo on the lip.
“Your olive tapenade is still as good as it was eight years ago,” I told Maccione in an aside, leaning toward her at the table to be heard over the lively din and Paolo’s singing.
“I think it is getting better,” she countered. It seems to be getting sweeter.”
Then, Maccione, a woman of Italian heritage who speaks in an English accent, asked me what I had for my main.
“It was not easy to decide from your menu, but Paolo suggested to me that Pappardelle was the dish that best represents the restaurant,” I told Maccione. (The menu describes Pappardelle al cinghiale as “fresh egg flat pasta cut into a broad ribbon shape traditionally of Tuscany, served with our family wild boar sauce.”)
Maccione nodded in agreement with Maurizio. “The fennel in that dish cuts the wild boar ragu, which can sometimes have a gamey flavor,” she explained.
“If you say so,” I said to her, “but I can also tell you those pappardelle noodles tasted like candy.”
Maurizio poured me a glass of wine when he could see that the stylish Maccione and I were going to sit and spend a little time catching up on this and that.
“Grazie mille,” I said.
“You will see most of the waiters who work here are old-school Italian. Service like you would see in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. I love that kind of waiting. You feel like you are in Italy,” she noted.
Maccione told me of her plans for a La Famiglia 50th anniversary party. However, while we talked, she could not help but keep a keen eye, through her spectacles, on the restaurant. And I could not help but share my admiration and appreciation with her.
“Your restaurant is so crisp and clean and elegant.”
“People tell me the atmosphere here is different than any restaurant. I would like it if they said it was the food, but they say the atmosphere,” Maccione admitted. “One of my regulars, who is in his 30’s, was brought here by his grandfather. He held his wedding reception here, and now he has a son of his own, so it is four generations coming here. And we also get people who have been twice in their lives, but they feel like regulars.”
La Famiglia is her father’s last in a series of successful, high-profile London restaurants and clubs (he served Sinatra). Marietta Maccione is in lock-step with her father’s experience and vision.
“He was larger than life—a character. Everyone loved and respected him. He was born in Tuscany, in Vinci, where Leonardo DaVinci was born. My grandfather was a farmer,” she explained. “When my father moved to London, he was part of a group of restauranteurs called the ‘Italian Pioneers of Food’ for the U.K. When he passed away, The Telegraph and Times and national newspapers carried his obituary. I was not expecting that.”
Alvaro Maccione was obviously very high-profile, and Mariatta told me when he was at the restaurant he liked being in the front of the house. “But he also loved cooking, even at home. My mom does not even know how to cook. She was his kitchen porter,” she laughed lovingly.
Some of Alvaro’s other favourites on the menu include chicken liver pate with toasted Tuscan bread and thick spaghetti of Siena with homemade tomato passata sauce. Also, grilled whole mackerel with fresh rosemary served with a salsa verde of parsley, anchovies and garlic. And named for his daughter, Manzo Marietta is thinly sliced filet of beef lightly cooked with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, served with a garnish of misticanza salad.
A Restaurant for Royalty
“Marietta, what was it like when Princess Diana would come into La Famiglia?”
“It was amazing When she walked in, the restaurant went silent. So many famous people come here, but I have never seen that,” she answered, speaking with affection and reverence.
Catherine, now Princess of Wales—the future Queen—has subsequently dined at La Famiglia, Maccione recalled.
“I was at the door, and I did not know she was coming because a friend of hers had booked the table. The Princess walked in and was the nicest, loveliest person ever. It was very busy that night, and nobody even noticed her. With Diana, there was so much more commotion outside. I was so happy for Kate that she could walk in and sit with her friends. She sat right near where you are sitting now, Michael. Her security police protection sat very discreetly nearby.”
Bond, James Bond is Like Famiglia
Only because I asked her, Marietta told me she is still friends with Barbara Broccoli, the producer of the 007 James Bond movies.
“Barbara Broccoli is such a nice lady. If you get to know her and she likes you, you’re in her group of people she can trust and rely on. She knows when she comes here to La Famiglia, she eats well, and I look after her. The producer has brought each of the actors who have played 007 here,” Maccione recalled. She told me she was going to a private estate auction organized by the family of Roger Moore, who played James Bond in seven 007 films.
While Maccione wants guests at La Famiglia to feel as though they are in Italy, she ventures to Italy twice a year.
“My mother is Sicilian, so I like to go right down to the Province of Ragusa – to a tiny fishing village nobody goes to called Donnalucata.
Everybody comes to La Famiglia – even the acclaimed London cabbies know its Chelsea World’s End location at 7 Langton Street SW10 well.
“This restaurant is part of the cab drivers’ ‘knowledge,’” Maccione explained. “The Knowledge” is the training London cabbies must complete over three years to familiarize themselves with London’s most important, frequent destinations in order to taxi people through the streets without looking.
Once you now have the “knowledge” of La Famiglia, you will never go to London again without booking a table at my beloved Chelsea cucina.
Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]
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