London Food Haunt No 1: Casa Nostra Cafe

Our top-10 countdown arrived at my single favorite place to eat in London: the Casa Nostra Cafe. I’m a little daunted by having to describe the Casa Nostra, so let’s begin with a few statistics.

Yelp reviews: 0
Google Places reviews: 0
AllinLondon reviews: 0
Visit London reviews: 0
Trip Advisor reviews: no listing

It would probably therefore be advisable to provide a map so that you guys can actually find it.

6 Hastings Street. Why yes, my fellow scholars, that pinpoint is just three tiny blocks away from the British Library!

Obviously it is rather remarkable to find a cafe in London which nobody has ever reviewed online and which only three or four people, according to Google and Flickr, have ever photographed. And yet find it my friend Ned and I did, one cool day last October when we needed a quick lunch before popping back to the British Library. I’ve since gone back–what–thirty times? More?

The Casa Nostra Cafe recently brought on a big, jolly Polish lady to assist at lunchtimes. Until then, and even now outside of peak hours, the staff consists of two grandfatherly men named Mario. If you suggest that this is confusing, chef Mario will say, with accompanying illustrative hand gestures,  “No, no! Small Mario, Big Mario.”

Small Mario is the chef, his hair graying, his face set in a perpetual smile behind Geppetto glasses, with a pack of cigarettes somewhere in reach (for use outside) and the poofy white hat which denotes his profession and matches his white apron. Big Mario is the waiter, also in glasses but clad all in black as if to heighten the contrast between their sizes and indeed their personalities: he’s the contemplative one, the one who reveals himself by degrees with each successive visit.

Except for breakfasts, English cafe foods are almost all pre-made. Hundreds of chain shops sell BLTs in little paper boxes. Charlotte Street’s otherwise excellent Italia Uno, which makes sandwiches large enough to club a small animal with, has its pasta set out on the counter in unappealing tubs. None of this is done at the Casa Nostra Cafe. If you walk in the door, engage in a brief staring-contest with the board listing today’s pasta specials, and ask for something like the amatriciana (penne, ham, onions and spices in a tomato sauce), spaghetti polpettine (which is what Italians actually call “spaghetti with meatballs”), or the rarely-offered but earth-moving puttanesca (capers, olives, anchovies, and a whole lot of garlic and chili pepper), then Mario will bring you a glass of water and some silverware while Mario starts cooking your meal from scratch.

Pasta puttanesca, a hungerer's best friend.

Important caution: this is pasta as real Italians make it, without any of the bonus Olive Garden trappings. Yes, Mario comes around with parmesan, but if you order “pesto pasta,” you won’t get a basil pesto white wine cream sauce with pine nuts, onions, and a sprig of parsley. You’ll get noodles with pesto on them. If you order “spaghetti bolognese” or “spaghetti polpettine,” there will be some tomato sauce, to be sure, but not the inch-thick layer of gloopy rich vegetable chunks you get in cans.

Pictured: Thing That Would Annoy an Italian Chef

Mario and Mario will also be happy to serve you up a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, or–from opening at 6 a.m. to the cafe’s ill-defined closing hour somewhere around 2 p.m.–a full English breakfast. Now, the full English breakfast is a sacred art in England, as you can imagine, although, like barbecue in the States, there are regionalisms: in Yorkshire, for example, they fry everything and serve you blood sausage.

The Full English at Casa Nostra is the best I have ever had:

Front row: toast, beans, sausage, fried egg, tomato, bacon. Back row: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (in English and Greek on facing pages), cup of tea. Please note that the cup of tea is included in the price, but Marcus Aurelius isn't (although...read on).

Now, the food at Casa Nostra is by no means the best food I had in London. Even the puttanesca may not crack my top five London dishes. No, the Casa Nostra takes the top spot because it is an experience.

When you read as much travel literature as I do, about intrepid westerners accidentally bumbling into The Perfect Local Place that nobody from out of town knows about, where everyone orders “the usual” and the food is perfect and the atmosphere inimitable, you start to feel cheated, like that place can’t really exist. There can’t be a secret kept so well it avoids the fate of Anthony Bourdain, a camera crew, and overnight fame. Indeed, on the Rome episode of his show Anthony Bourdain deliberately refrains from naming a restaurant because he doesn’t want to ruin its perfection.

Mario and Mario told me to tell my friends about them. Still–over the course of the year, more and more with each visit, a little voice in the back of my mind said, this is that place. This is the magic of the Local Hole-in-the-Wall. Eating at Casa Nostra you feel like you know a really great secret. The tiny dining room has posters of Italian country scenes and a small plaque with a corny Italian-American joke, in a frame that’s much too big.  The clientele are almost all people who live on the same block and they greet Mario and Mario by name. Day in and day out, small Mario hurls friendly insults at the cabbie who sets his taxi on the curb in front and dashes in for a sandwich and chips.

And then there’s big Mario, in black. He’s quieter, straight-faced, possessed of a thoughtfulness so deep it could easily be misread as sadness. Mario is fascinated by the madness of the English language, and cracks puns which, rather than drawing groans, reveal some sort of fundamental and even slightly embarrassing absurdity. He adds a dash of parmesan to your friend’s meal, turns, and says, “Some parmesan for you?” You say, “Yes please!” He finishes: “…or for your pasta?”

To get big Mario talking, bring a book. Any book will do. Mario loves books; he once told me he has two thousand of them at home, and that they are his “pride and joy.” He’s especially interested in (if I’m remembering this correctly) ancient Egyptian architecture and Japanese botany. Each new visit revealed a new facet of Mario’s reading. One day he told me the Latin names and origins of every weed in the pavement in front of the cafe. One of the weeds came from Peru; “a long way to come to live on this street.”

One day Mario set a glass of water in front of me and said, “水のガラス.” I said, “What?” Mario said, “水のガラス.” I looked perplexed and suddenly panicked: what if he was speaking in English and my confusion was an insult to his accent? But no: “It is Japanese for ‘glass of water.'” “Oh!” “Yes. Now you can say ‘glass of water’ in Japanese.” “Thank you.” A humble nod and Mario stepped away.

Then there was the meal, photographed above, in which I was reading an edition of Marcus Aurelius with Greek on the left-hand pages and English on the right. Mario picked up the book, said “Ah! Marcus Aurelius! Are you reading it in the original?” Somewhat sheepishly (since I had a good guess what was about to happen), I admitted to reading the English. He placed his finger in the middle of the Greek page and began to read aloud.

Big Mario mans the counter.

I’m always worried that the Casa Nostra Cafe’s appeal is only clear to me. I’m always worried that I will take people there and they will say, “why on earth do you love this place so much?” It can grow sadly quiet, and it has not been decorated or remodeled in what feels like decades; the lighting leaves everything looking rather yellow. Surely there are other places to get breakfast, and other places to get pasta, if not as good and not made right before you. The Casa Nostra’s charms are unflashy: the cast of regulars, the two Marios and their personalities, chef Mario’s unflagging enthusiasm, the not-infrequent squabbling in Italian, the days when somebody has left a gigantic wheel of cheese on the counter, the banter about plant species and Japanese gardens and seeing Aristophanes performed in the original Greek, the droll wit, the irrefutable authenticity of the whole experience. I suppose my fear has been that it is easy to visit once or twice and never realize that this is the place travelers always dream of finding: the totally unknown local haunt where all the cliches of the Undiscovered Gem can come true.

My fears reached fever pitch when I took my two best friends from America for a breakfast visit to Casa Nostra in February. Would they think me crazy? Would they love it as much as I do? All the worrying was for nothing. When big Mario found out that my friends had traveled all the way from Texas, he was so overjoyed that he started doing magic tricks with the silverware.

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1 Comment

Filed under Edibles

One response to “London Food Haunt No 1: Casa Nostra Cafe

  1. Zelda

    This sounds amazing. You’ve really managed to capture the feeling of what makes this place so special, and in such a way that makes me really want to go there now and see if the Marios are how I’m picturing them in my head. Especially if they do magic tricks.

    Also, the picture of the breakfast is soooooooooo soooooooo English it makes me laugh.

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