I thought it might be a good idea to depart this year with an explosive fart rather than a whimpering burp, so I arranged to meet a young radical friend of mine at the Spaghetti House in Knightsbridge. The Spaghetti House chain seems on the surface to be an inconsequential thing: there are 12 coiling across London, dishing up pasta, pizza and the trimmings in an ambience of dark wood and off-white Artex – so far, so dull.
Indeed, after recent outings to Prezzo and Zizzi – both larger operations playing variations on the same wheat’n’sauce theme – even bothering with the Spag’ Gaff at all would seem de trop, were it not for the siege. (Apropos of Zizzi, which I wrote about a fortnight ago, the name kept bothering me – I was certain it meant something but could find no reference. Then a friend explained that “zizzi” is French slang for “little penis” and is employed in those parts as an anti-Semitic taunt. Makes perfect sense of all that chilli oil drizzling, no?)
House of pain
The Spaghetti House siege began on the evening of 28 September 1975 when a Nigerian born gunman, Franklin Davies, together with two accomplices, attempted to rob the restaurant. At that time there were only three or four Spaghetti Houses, and their managers had assembled at the Knightsbridge branch to pay in their week’s takings, which were in the region of £13,000 – pretty good dobs, really. The job went tits-up from the get-go: one of the waiters escaped and raised the alarm, while the robbers, together with nine staffers, ended up in the basement, where they remained for the next six days, under siege by the Met’s finest.
At the time, the Spaghetti House siege was huge: prime location, exotic cast and a pleasing high-tech element to the operation as fibre-optic surveillance equipment was used for the first time. Davies claimed to be a member of the Black Liberation Army – a splinter group of the Black Panthers – and tried gussying up the blag as a political act. Needless to say, neither the plods nor Roy Jenkins – the then home secretary –were having any of it, and the siege ended not with Davies and his crew boarding the plane to Jamaica they’d demanded, but instead being hustled into a Black Maria.
Fast forward 37 years and the world seems a safer place. Yes, you heard me: every era privileges itself with the cachet of being edgier than the ones before; yet standing in the Spaghetti House vestibule on a cold December evening and reading the front pages of newspapers reporting the siege that had been framed and hung there, what struck me was how much violence there’d been then –nine deaths in Northern Ireland the previous day and the IRA recently peppering the porticos of St James’s gentlemen's clubs with machine-gun rounds. There were considerably fewer chain Italian restaurants, however, let alone ones that made a selling point out of their staff once being held hostage. I asked the smiley chap who showed me to my table what he made of the siege-as-marketing but he just laughed: it was such a long time ago!
My friend was equally unfazed –he wanted to talk about Slavoj Žižek and the Occupy movement, and savour the piquant zeitgeist rather than munch on the stale bread sticks of yore. It was understandable that the waiters weren’t keen to consider the fate of their forerunners – one grim aspect of the siege had been that Davies refused to feed his captives. This seemed harsh; if you’re taken hostage in a bank raid, it’s reasonable to expect you won’t get much in the way of eats beyond the limp biscuits left behind in a cashier’s drawer. But a restaurant? Surely it wouldn’t have mattered to the gang if the staff had whipped up a pollo e funghi risotto?
I enjoyed mine, as the callow revolutionist opposite me tucked into a dish of pasta. I don’t know whether it was his onslaught on my middle-aged and middle-class complacency, or the surprisingly tasty nosh, but I found myself warming to the Spaghetti House and in particular to its staff – all of whom, unusually for a Italian restaurant in Britain seemed to be . . . Italian. Anyway, either they were an exceptionally chatty and attentive lot or I was suffering from the rapid onset of Stockholm syndrome. Even when I descended to the gents, the fateful basement looked pretty damn cosy.
We finished our political wrangling with an affogato apiece: a scoop of vanilla ice cream affogato – “drowned” – with a shot of espresso. I like to think Franklin Davies would’ve approved of this culinary miscegenation – although I have no reason for believing so.
Real meals have a way of provoking surreal thoughts in me – but then you knew that, didn’t you?