London Is Having an Italian-American Love Affair

Words by Christina Dean

Italian food is one of the most popular cuisines in the country and the capital definitely reflects that trend. Based on Resy’s Notify feature, where users can be told if a table for a requested date and time becomes available, the top ten most in-demand restaurants in London in 2023 included three Italian restaurantsTrattoria Brutto, Manteca and Trullo

Those are just the tip of the iceberg as the city is rich with Italian places, from institutions like the River Cafe and Lina Stores to neighbourhood trattorias like Leo’s and Campania & Jones, and pretty much everything in between. That means regional and specific Italian food isn’t hard to find, whether you want Leccese pasticciotti (at Capilungo in Covent Garden), fritto misto Piemontese (at Polentina in Bow) or cacciucco maremmano aka Tuscan fish stew (at Maremma in Brixton). And the latest Italian region to sweep the capital? America. 

Italian (mostly from southern Italy) immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th century brought over their traditional recipes from home but were faced with a very different larder in the USA. Dishes were adapted to make use of what was available and abundant, like meat and cheese, and the likes of spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana were born. 

Now we’re seeing some of that old-school, red sauce cooking that’s come to define Italian-American cuisine across the pond pop up in London. Carlotta, the newest member of the Big Mamma family (the Parisian group that’s known for its extravagant and OTT renditions of Italian restaurants) opened in Marylebone last year, offering us a highly stylised take on an Italian-American joint. With draped white silk, oxblood leather banquettes and vintage photos, it gives lavish 80s wedding vibes, which is appropriate as wedding cake, served tableside, features on the menu alongside plates of shrimp cocktail, spaghetti and meatballs, and fettuccine alfredo. 

This has been joined by The Dover in Mayfair, which does an upscale take on “classic Italian dishes with New York attitude”, namely spaghetti meatballs, lobster ravioli, parmigiana ‘Americana’, Italian sausage pie and branzino fillet, and we’ll be getting even more of that New York attitude as Italian-American hotspot Carbone and its spicy rigatoni vodka is on its way to the capital. The more casual, more retro, family-run Grasso in Soho is also new on the scene. Owner Seanie Grasso, whose mum’s family went from Syracuse in Sicily to NYC to London, is serving Little Italy faves like mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, mozzarella sticks, penne alla vodka, tagliatelle alfredo, lobster linguine, chicken parm, and cheese pie pizza. 

Ah pizza, how could we forget you? Perhaps the ultimate Americanised Italian dish, pizza now boasts numerous specific regional styles across the US thanks to the confluence of large Italian-American communities and a local public that was becoming more accepting of “ethnic” food in places like NYC, Detroit and New Haven in the 40s and 50s.

Inspired by Neapolitan pizza (which has been the dominant type of pizza in London), New York-style pizzas are wider and crispier, with large, triangular, floppy, foldable slices. While we don’t have the same proliferation of slice shops over here (shout out to Gordos in London Fields for fighting the good fight) we have been getting more NYC pizza thanks to the likes of pop-up kitchen Dough Hands; the insanely hyped Crisp Pizza, which slings actually very good pizza out of a pub in Hammersmith; and Alley Cats in Marylebone, where you can get fennel sausage and vodka sauce-topped thin crust pizzas, garlic knots and meatballs, and watch reruns of The Sopranos projected on the walls.

Prefer more bread in your bite? We’ve also got way more Detroit-style pizzas in London now too. Derived from Sicilian-style pizza or sfincione, Detroit pies are thick and bready with a focaccia-like base and get their signature rectangular shape from being cooked in the blue steel pans originally used in the city’s automotive factories. Following the departure of Four Corners, which had been in residence at Rondo La Cave, the aptly-named Detroit Pizza has been flying the flag for the rectangular pizza in London with sites in Spitalfields and Islington – they even do a bacon double cheeseburger one for when you really wanna double down on the American flavours. Ria’s in Notting Hill is also doing deep dish but made with Wildfarmed flour and served with natural wine, because it may borrow from Italian-American traditions but it’s very much a London spot.

What’s caused this transatlantic love affair? The pull of nostalgia and the desire for comfort food took hold during the pandemic and those feelings haven’t dimmed during the cost-of-living crisis. In uncertain times people reach for the familiar – see LAYERS, the new weekly lasagne night at The Hoxton, Shoreditch and the chicken and aubergine parmigiana (with a spaghetti side) at Tom Cenci’s new-look Mortimer House Kitchen – they want to be soothed, they want to feel looked after, they want to be well fed. Big portions, family-style service, hearty food and generous, warm hospitality are the bread and butter of Italian-American restaurants, so they’re tick, tick, tick, ticking those boxes. And who doesn’t love spaghetti and meatballs?