Friday, September 19, 2014

Leo Zanelli

A lovely article which appeared in a local Soho magazine The Soho Clarion about a customer of ours Mr Leo Zanelli, who once lived and worked at 21 Romilly street in the late 1940s.
Lovely to learn the history of life in our building, if only that it was possibly once the second ever vegetarian restaurant in London!

LEO Zanelli, 84
Raised in Soho, Author & Photographer 

I came here in 1939 with my parents because my father had purchased the lease of 21 Romilly Street. Of course it
was the beginning of the war and he was immediately sent to an internment camp because he was Italian. During the war I was in the basement at Romilly Street and although I’m a hard sleeper I was woken up by the floor shaking. An uncle of  mine who was an ambulance driver knocked on the door and said, ‘Is everyone alright? A bomb has just fallen over the road!’

I was brought up by my grandmother Rosa who didn’t speak much English but I would cry every time she spoke to me in Italian. My mum Lousia Bravazzi did bed and breakfasts in the house. We had one Bulgarian who used to pray very loudly so we had to get rid of him because you could hear him all night long. My uncle Peter was a band leader and he brought a lot of showbusiness people in. Harry Hayes, the famous band leader, taught me how to play the alto saxophone in that house.

Towards the end my mother decided to turn the ground floor into a vegetarian restaurant; I think it was only the
second one in London. It’s now Gauthier, a French restaurant that I go to every now and again. They’re very nice to me there and the food is a lot better now than when we had it.  We used to do things like nut cutlets - it wasn’t too dire if you didn’t eat meat but no imagination went into it.  It was called Jill-in-the-Green and it wasn’t paying its way and when my father got out of the internment camp, around 1945, my mother asked him if he’d like to work there. He was a big carnivore so he said, ‘You’ve got to be joking’ and went off and got another job, but when it finally went down he did take it over. It became The Tosca and it started selling steaks and things like that. Eventually he sold out to some Indians and opened a club – also called the Tosca – near Gerrard Street - that he ran till he died. It was completely Italian, it was just like the little tavernas that you have in Italy. It was almost exclusively male – women used to come in occasionally to see where their husbands were – but the men would sit down there and play cards, have a drink and maybe a salami or mortadella sandwich.

At the start of the 60s a friend of my father’s - Dick - also had a club at the top of Greek Street. When he died, my parents took over the club.  My mother stuck in two young Italian lads there: Luigi Mangiavacca – which is Italian for ‘eat cow’ - and his friend whose name I can’t remember.  It was Luigi who called it the Evaristo. Eventually it was sold on and then it was sold to Trisha’s husband and she still has it now. It’s called the New Evaristo now but everyone calls it Trisha’s. Her husband was a nice chap; he’d pop in once in a while for a drink and chat to two or three people – you hardly ever saw him – not like how Trish is now. My eldest son - who’s 50 tomorrow - remembers going to The Evaristo as a youngster. There used to be a photograph up on the wall of three boxers; one was Rocky Marciano. I remember saying what a lovely picture it was and Luigi gave it to me and, although it’s faded, you can still see Marciano’s signature.

Mr Leo Zanelli

This article first appeared in The Soho Clarion, quarterly magazine of The Soho Society, and written and photographed by Clancy Gebler Davies

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