The Last Bite: How Soho’s Oldest Italian Deli Is Surviving Brexit
Lina Stores, long-standing purveyor of regional Italian produce and fresh pasta in London, is already feeling the impact of staff shortages and costly European imports.
Welcome back to The Last Bite , our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up? Today, as Britain officially begins its exit from the EU, we visit Italian delicatessen Lina Stores in London's Soho.
Lina Stores is impossible to miss. On the corner of Brewer Street and Green's Court in the heart of London's Soho, the Italian deli is painted bright green and has a window display piled high with pastel-coloured tins of cantucci biscuits, panettone tied in paper and satin bows, and mounds of individually wrapped amaretti.
Inside is no less attention-grabbing. It's an Aladdin's cave of Italian food: bresaola, Parmigiano, Pecorino, antipasti, and more types of prosciutto than you ever imagined existed. The shelves heave with biscotti, dried pasta, olive oil, and wine, and I find myself staring wide-eyed at the multicoloured chocolate eggs strung up like bunting across the ceiling.
Marina Dentamaro, Lina Stores' manager, catches me looking.
"Easter is coming and we're ready. The shop is packed with typical Italian Easter eggs which have a surprise inside. We also have columba cakes which is basically the Easter version of the Christmas panettone or pandoro," she says. "But the dough is lighter with just orange peel and almonds, not mixed candied fruits. It comes in a dove shape. That's the classic one but then we also have the one with cherries, the one with chocolate, with pistachios … "
Since Lina Stores opened in 1944—back when olive oil was sold at the chemist and years before Elizabeth David published her first Mediterranean cooking tome—this variety, quality, and knowledge of Italian produce has been the driving force of the business.
"We are basically the oldest Italian deli in Soho and we're very proud of it," says Dentamaro over a freshly brewed espresso. "The story goes that the shop was opened in the 1940s by a woman called Lina, who sold the shop after a few years to the family that has been running this place for the rest of the 70 years."
Dentamaro isn't part of the family that still owns Lina Stores (although you wouldn't have guessed it by the way she proudly talks about the shop), but is a close friend who found herself working at here after cheffing in London proved too stressful.
"I came to London six or seven years ago from Puglia but after a year working as a chef, I was looking for a job that was related to food but not in a restaurant," she explains. "I came to Lina and at the time, all the old guys were still here. My training was with them. They taught me how to do everything and told me all the secrets."
I press Dentamaro to share these Italian family secrets but her lips are sealed.
"Downstairs, there's a kitchen the length of the shop floor where we make our fresh pasta and homemade sauces. I had training from Tony, who showed me how to make the fresh pasta," she says. "He gave me the secrets about fillings, about how to make proper pasta dough, many things. I'm not saying it just because I work here but the fresh pasta at Lina Stores is, I think, the best fresh pasta in London."
Judging from the customer who came into the shop earlier, demanding to know exactly what time today's batch of ravioli would be ready, I'm convinced.
Dentamaro continues: "They told me all about all the meats and cheeses. Even though I'm Italian, I didn't know what everything was because we have specialities from every single part of Italy. Our secret is the quality of everything we offer. Everything has the same taste that you can find in Italy. Italians come in and they're shocked and say, 'I can't believe it, I feel like I'm at home.' "
There's one more secret that Dentamaro is willing to let me in on.
"Lots of love! It's true! When you cook, I always say, the main ingredient has to be love. If you're not putting any love in or passion in what you're doing, even if you follow the recipe properly, it's not going to be the same."
I ask Dentamaro how on earth the shop goes about finding suppliers for all of their incredibly regional Italian produce.
She shrugs and says: "Well, we kind of have the same suppliers and same type of items that we've had since we opened in 1944. In Italy, you just know the best pasta is from Naples, Puglia, or Toscana. And we have three different Parmigiano Reggianos from three different suppliers because we wanted to have the whole range."
She adds: "There is a story for every single item in the shop—why we sell it, how you should eat it, where we buy it from. Everything comes directly from Italy. Every month, we place a giant order and that's sometimes why you find the shop full of boxes because we've just received an incredible delivery."
On the subject of European imports, and with the backdrop of Theresa May triggering Article 50, I ask whether Britain's exit from the EU has already affected Lina Stores.
"Prices are going up in a pretty ridiculous way. We've had to stop buying certain items already because the prices were absolutely not manageable any more," says Dentamaro, frankly. "What we're hearing from Italian suppliers in London is that they are struggling to survive at the moment. We've seen a small increase in prices of fresh items like meat and cheese but with dry items like chocolate, biscuits, and certain types of dried pasta, we've seen a big, big increase in price."
Dentamaro tells me that finding Italian staff is also becoming an issue.
She explains: "We're all Italian in the shop. We prefer to have Italian people working for us, mainly because we have so many Italian products that it would be almost impossible to train a person who is not Italian about all the products and we really care about knowledge of the products. Food is a big part of our culture so you know a lot of the meats and cheeses already. I remember that I was able to make pasta when I was 14-years-old."
"We've been recruiting people for many years and we've always had zero problems finding staff for Lina Stores. Now, as soon as we put the ad on, we're receiving much fewer applications. I think it's related to Brexit because you hear around at restaurants and other places that they are also struggling to find people. No one knows what might happen."
Coupled with the rapid gentrification and much-reported stifling of independent businesses in Soho, I ask whether she's optimistic about the future of Lina Stores.
Dentamaro says: "We're very positive and we're growing daily. For example, now we have an alcohol licence which ten years ago for us, wasn't something we would have had but now, why not? It seems logical to have a glass of wine here with some meat. In the future, we want to start baking our own bread."
"We've been in Soho since 1944 and we will be here for another 70 years—I probably won't be though! We'll do our best."
I reckon that so long as the spirit of Lina and the secrets of her pasta live on, this little green shop can survive anything.