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Scotti's Snack Bar: A home through the ages
The story behind London's best chicken sandwich. Words by Isaac Rangaswami; photos by Nico Froehlich
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Scotti's Snack Bar: A home through the ages, by Isaac Rangaswami
The family story behind London's best chicken sandwich.
As you read this, a Lithuanian ex-Londoner called Kris may be walking around Copenhagen, where he now lives. If Kris is in shorts, you might notice a distinctive tattoo on his left leg. It depicts the abstracted components of a shopfront, as if illustrated from a recollected dream: glazed red bricks, a wavy strip of a cobalt blue awning and a door frame the colour of a New York taxi. If you’ve ever been to Scotti’s Snack Bar, you’ll recognise these features immediately.
There are few London restaurants or cafés people would get tattooed on themselves – maybe St. John, Wong Kei or E. Pellicci – but Scotti’s Snack Bar is the kind of place which inspires such devotion. If you aren’t familiar with it, Scotti’s is a sandwich caff in Clerkenwell. As with other mid-century Italian spots, its interior is bursting with ornate remnants of a time gone by: there’s speckled grey Formica, plus pear-shaped light fixtures and floor tiles foot-worn by decades of use. Behind the place’s shiny oxblood counter, you may spot an antique Bovril dispenser, its deep-brown glass clouded with age. Dotted around are the kinds of framed photos you’d find in a family home.
But Scotti’s isn’t frozen in time; it’s full of life. Food-wise, it’s mainly finely tuned meat sandwiches prepared fresh that day. You might go for the perfectly pink roast beef, which is sliced from a joint cradled in an ancient metal dish. Maybe a bacon roll, with rashers carefully snipped into pieces and arranged like layers of carpaccio. Or perhaps the highly distinguished chicken escalope, which is popular with cabbies and chefs alike, and which those in the know order with mustard, mayo and – most importantly of all – a squeeze of lemon.
Now, after more than half a century in business, Scotti’s is facing at least two existential threats. Firstly, more people working from home has disrupted its commercial rhythms, and its proprietors also fear the impact of the ongoing redevelopment works outside their front door.
But change is nothing new for Scotti’s; its owners have adapted constantly, moving with the times and feeding multiple generations of customers. Today, Scotti’s is run by two affable brothers in their fifties, Al and Max, who live upstairs. They grew up here, on Clerkenwell Green, working alongside their late parents Maria and Antonio, who took over the business in 1967. Clerkenwell was once home to London’s biggest Italian community, and the area used to have plenty of historical Italian caffs, such as Golden Fish and Muratori – both previously around the corner on Farringdon Road. Aside from the occasional lick of paint to the exterior, the decor at Scotti’s from those days remains intact. “We haven’t changed nothing since Mum and Dad came here,” Max tells me.
Max is a lively, animated guy with a particularly full head of hair for his age. He loves to chat and tells compelling stories, interspersed with bursts of emphasis and gesticulation. But at Scotti’s, Max tends to stay behind the scenes, preparing food in the back. If you’ve ever been to the café, you’ve more likely spoken to Al, since he doubles as the place’s menu. To order, you either go up to Al and think up a sandwich you want, or ask for his help choosing one. He’s jocular and personable in a soft-hearted kind of way, like a cool Britalian uncle or a sympathetic barman decked out in a navy Slazenger polo. If you’re lucky, Al may offer you the connoisseur’s version of the escalope sandwich before you ask for it, which he calls ‘the Slim Shady’ because of the two key condiments it contains, mustard and mayo (or M & M).
Al and Max are helped in the caff by a similarly genial conversationalist called Lynne. Lynne replaced their previous assistant Eva, who worked at Scotti’s for 25 years until her recent move back to Italy. Before I was a regular at Scotti’s, I used to go about twice a year. Once, after six months had passed since my previous visit, Al recalled not only what I’d ordered last time, but also where I sat. If you tell Al your name, he’ll probably remember it for the rest of his life.
Al and Max’s parents came to Britain after the war for the same reasons as many other Italians: in Al’s words, “Everybody left home looking for survival… Wherever they had relatives to rescue you from the war-ruined, famined, no-work place.” Al and Max’s mother docked in Folkestone on 24 January 1954, after travelling from her home town of Borgotaro in the province of Parma, northern Italy. Their father came from Morfasso, in Piacenza, a few years later, carrying a cardboard suitcase. The pair hadn’t known each other back home; they met in a dance hall in Soho, London’s new Little Italy.
Post-war London, dreary and pockmarked from the Blitz, was in scarcely better shape than their home country. “Mum and Dad used to always say it was tough here as well,” Max tells me. “It wasn’t a holiday camp,” Al says. Because recent immigrants needed someone to sponsor them for work and accommodation, Al and Max’s parents used their family connections; their mum initially worked as a housekeeper for a relative and at a hospital in Bounds Green before eventually finding work in cafés, while their dad worked in a restaurant run by his uncle, who had come over pre-war.
By the time Al and Max came along, their parents had access to a network of helping Italian hands, with friends, family, and places to stay in Peckham, Hampstead and Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. Several pivotal good turns helped their parents along the way to working for themselves. First came the heads-up that a lease was opening up at 39 Clerkenwell Green, since its existing tenants were moving back to Italy. The new let was “a dream deal,” since it came with accommodation, allowing their mum to work and look after the kids at the same time. But after the terms were agreed, their dad had a problem: he didn’t have enough cash to start the till. “So [the head leaseholder] goes, ‘I’ll give you the float – you pay me back’,” Al tells me. The leaseholder then said he’d be back in a year, essentially fronting 12 months’ rent to the landlord on their behalf. “You wouldn’t get it nowadays,” says Al.
After the family set up shop in Clerkenwell Green, the area became Al and Max’s personal urban playground. Their childhood sounds like it was, at points, a modernised blend of Oliver Twist and Once Upon a Time in America: that of archetypal streetwise city kids. A bookkeeper taught Al to play chess; by age 10 he was already beating cab drivers. Their upbringing also means that, although the two brothers couldn’t be more London, they’re a hundred per cent Italian, too. They slip between their mother tongue and English seamlessly, and their food is similarly bilingual: take the “soup” at Scotti’s, a golden broth floating with ring-shaped pasta which is also known as the “cappelletti in brodo”. Al and Max pronounce the dish properly, almost rolling the “r” in “brodo” and rising up and down with each “o”. Most customers refer to their signature dish as an escalope, but Max calls it “the Mil-an-e-se”. It comes between slices of toasted ciabatta – another Italian word they enunciate with tuneful fidelity.
The food and vibe at Scotti’s have always been tethered to Clerkenwell’s local economy. When it first opened, working life in the neighbourhood was more regimented and factory-based. The area had a typesetters, a uniform supplier and an intriguing manufacturing business called Mono Pumps, which you can still find an ad for online. This was back when pubs closed at 3pm and didn’t serve food. If you were looking for a meal during work hours, a caff was your best bet.
During those early years, Scotti’s was open all day during the week, and for half a day on Saturdays. They’d periodically run out of crockery because staff from the minicab office next door would take their cups out for a phone call and fail to return them. In the 1980s, when pre-email offices had a big demand for courier services, Scotti’s was something of a biker hangout. Al and Max wax lyrical about the characters who came in regularly during those days – “Rocket Ron”, nicknamed for his speedy motorcycling, and “Tiny”, who was 6ft 10 and weighed more than 30 stone. “That’s what the caff’s all about,” says Al. “It’s a melting pot.” “We serve everybody,” Max adds.
As the area deindustrialised, Scotti’s became more of a morning caff, serving builders, cab drivers, window cleaners and fire-alarm fitters before a day’s work. These car-based tradespeople continue to form a key part of its crowd today, alongside the office types who eventually came to occupy Clerkenwell’s former warehouses and demanded lighter, ready-made fare (the café’s latest iteration is even more closely aligned to contemporary tastes). At some point during all these years of slow transformation, Scotti’s has ended up serving a style of food that I personally think is restaurant quality.
Next door to the café is a private restaurant called La Rocchetta, which Al and Max’s family opened in 1977 and later ran like a members’ club, opening exclusively for a set of long-time customers, and which is now incorrectly labelled as “temporarily closed” online. The days when Scotti’s and La Rocchetta operated concurrently sound like the family’s golden years, after the brothers had finished school and went to work with their parents. Al was in the café with their dad, while Max ran the restaurant with their mum. When I arrived for my various interviews with Al and Max, I didn’t expect them to invite me into the restaurant next door, which I had wondered about for years, let alone serve me meals of sea bass, sausage pasta and chicken escalope offcuts inside.
But when we talk about La Rocchetta, Max almost leaps out of his chair with enthusiasm. They held karaoke nights there and Max, whose favourite pop group is Bucks Fizz, used to host music quizzes. Spectator and New Statesman journalists would spy on each other inside the restaurant while their magazines were being assembled across the road. Celebrity chef Jean-Christophe Novelli was a regular. “It was a madhouse, total madhouse,” Max says. “Every table in this restaurant had the same people every day for 30 years.” A La Rocchetta Facebook page still exists, frozen in time from the restaurant’s heyday. Its first post, from 2011, says “We are fully booked for the foreseeable future.” Its last post says, “if we don't know you, you are not coming in for a sing song.”
Scotti’s uniqueness today owes something to its symbiotic relationship with La Rocchetta. Although you could get a cooked breakfast at Scotti’s when it first opened, the caff dispensed with them when the health-conscious loadsamoney crowd fell out of love with fry-ups in the 1980s. “It was simple – mainly takeaway,” Al says. “Cheese roll, ham roll, corned beef – people would just queue up and say, ‘I want that’.” For a while they only sold pre-prepared sandwiches, all lined up and ready to go for people working nearby, who tended to have strictly timed breaks. Later, as tastes slowly changed and a growing number of people began requesting more sophisticated options, like the escalope and the various roast meat sandwiches, the occasional La Rocchetta menu item quietly hopped over the wall into Scotti’s. Take the brodo, made from beef bones in a barrel-sized stockpot, which Al and Max spend their weekends tending to. “All my customers would have that soup,” Max says. “That’s a restaurant soup.”
Recent months have actually seen a relative uptick in customers, as the Scotti’s escalope sandwich has found a new audience of millennials influenced by what they see online. And this additional workload, which tends to manifest itself in spikes of busyness during the lunch rush, isn’t always easy – it hinges on a lot of prep. “We do it all ourselves,” says Max. “I take the bone off, the skin off. I have to bash them down. Then I’ve gotta put the breadcrumbs [on]. It takes me all morning – I’m up at half past five – by 11 o’clock I ain’t finished yet!”
Al and Max tell me they’re thrilled with the new customers, but it does complicate an already busy schedule. The place is weekday-only, and for good reason: Al and Max spend their weekends prepping, buying supplies and catching up on admin. Still, the brothers are keen to stress that they’re uniquely positioned to put the time in, not only because they live in central London, but also because they haven’t got children – or, as Max puts it, “we’re married to the business.” As with other restaurant owners, the odds are increasingly stacked against them: prices continue to fluctuate, and their energy bills have skyrocketed. But since Al and Max own the place, rent hasn’t been a problem, unlike for many historical caffs a few minutes away in the Square Mile. “If I’d had to pay rent there, maybe I would’ve gone,” Al tells me.
Scotti’s says a lot about how London has changed as a place to run a business. Today, cafés like this one rarely emerge in the city centre. Bodega Rita’s, a contemporary sandwich shop which traded on Cowcross Street, five minutes away from Scotti’s, closed after less than two years into its immediately post-Covid tenancy, as rising energy bills and fluctuating food costs squeezed its margins. Aside from Jewish-style deli offshoot Tongue & Brisket on Leather Lane, there aren’t many new, small outfits that are both successful and sustainable in this neighbourhood. Clerkenwell’s new openings have been more upmarket lately – of the classic trattoria and bistro variety, like Brutto and Bouchon Racine, rather than inexpensive lunchtime joints. These newer places are run by seasoned restaurateurs and backed by significant investment.
In this context, Scotti’s Snack Bar is a beautiful anomaly – but that’s only part of why it’s so important. What’s more interesting is that Scotti’s continues to attract new customers because of its character, and on the reputation of a small selection of dishes all executed with great care. Some of that’s down to its proprietors’ adaptable nature, the influence of the sister restaurant next door, a (once) reliable community of local customers and the fact they own the place. For me, Scotti’s is unique among London’s sandwich shops mainly because its owners have done things their own way, and that also happens to be a style customers enjoy, and want to experience repeatedly.
London would be poorer without places like Scotti’s. They’re valuable not just because they preserve the past, but because they continue to feed people from a range of generations and backgrounds. Scotti’s hasn’t only evolved to remain competitive with its more contemporary neighbours; it’s also maintained an approach to customer service that is as deeply held as cultural tradition. You could call Al and Max’s approach ‘old-school’, as they do. But they aren’t old-school in the way they see the world or run their business.
Maybe that’s why Scotti’s still draws new people through its doors, including those who travel to the caff, rather than work near it. Al and Max are perceptive about the different ways people have discovered them over the years. In the past “everybody relied on word of mouth,” Al tells me. “Every old-fashioned caff was more or less the same. The clientele varied depending on the owners and what they provided. The difference was, years ago, they would test the water themselves. Now they need to be instructed.”
When I ask Al about his regulars, I think it’s telling that the first person he mentions is Kris – the Lithuanian guy with the Scotti’s tattoo on his leg – who’s in his twenties and not a native Londoner. Al tells me where Kris worked, how often he came in, where he’s from and where he’s living now. But the main thing Al recalls is something Kris said on his final visit to Scotti’s before moving away. As Al relays the story of Kris’s tattoo, his voice slows, before a prolonged pause… “He said, ‘I found my home here.’”
A note on Scotti’s Snack Bar’s opening hours and menu: Scotti’s is only open on weekdays, so don’t try to go at the weekend. Along with the brodo and the escalope, it’s well worth trying the other sandwich fillings, which are more likely not to be sold out. For breakfast, I love the sausage and the bacon rolls. At lunchtime, I’m a big fan of the roast chicken, the roast beef and horseradish, and the roast pork loin and piccalilli.
Isaac Rangaswami is a writer based in London. He runs the Instagram account @caffs_not_cafes.
Nico Froehlich is a British photographer born, raised and residing in south-east London. His work champions diversity and inclusivity, with a particular focus on social realism and working-class life. You can find more of his photography on his website and on Instagram.
Vittles Restaurants is a publication from Vittles dedicated to restaurant guides, reviews, and recommendations, edited by Adam Coghlan and Jonathan Nunn. This article was copy edited by Liz Tray and Sophie Whitehead.