OBITUARY: Carmela’s lasange legacy lives on
Carmela Saggese died earlier this month aged 88
24 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
CARMELA Saggese was known throughout Kentish Town for her lasagne and her spinach and ricotta-filled tortellini – and her legacy lives on through the groaning platefuls of anglo-Italian fare her son Mario cooks up at their family diner, Mario’s Cafe, in Kelly Street.
Carmela, who died earlier this month aged 88, was born in a small village in the Campagna region of southern Italy.
Her parents Emilio and Maria worked the land around their home.
One of seven children, she was in Italy through the war, and then, in the early 1950s, she followed the route so many of her compatriots made and headed abroad to earn a living.
She had managed to find a placement with a family living in Hampstead who needed an au pair – and she was warmly welcomed and settled in well with her hosts.
Her brother had also come to Britain, moving to Bedford to work in a brick factory, while her sister Fausta headed north to live in Yorkshire.
St Peter’s Church in Clerkenwell was a main- stay for many other emigrés, as it remains today. And it was at one of the church’s Saturday night social club dances in the early 60s that Carmela first set eyes on a hand- some Italian called Antonio Saggese.
Antonio’s father had set up a café in Kelly Street in 1958 and Antonio was working with him when he met Carmela, who was working for TG Lyons, a plumbing firm based in Caledonian Road.
They married and settled in Gilden Road in Queens Crescent – in a house that was later demolished to make way for the Lismore Circus redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s. The couple moved to Mile End and the café was closed. It became a Chinese takeaway until 1989, when Mario and his father decided to start it up again.
Mario’s father fell ill after two years of running the café and was not well enough to continue working, so Carmela, who had always been against the idea of reopening, came to help and stayed on until she retired in 2000.
Carmela brought her Italian home-style cooking to a café that had been very much known for its traditional English fry- ups. She introduced an Italian twist to the menu and regulars loved it.
“We were about the first café in the area to have a proper coffee machine but it was still to be very much a fry-up place. I encouraged her to make lovely food and make it more Italian,” recalls Mario.
“She would make a leek, onion and anchovy pie and her carrot and onion pie was just amazing – everyone loved it,” he added. “She had this idea that English people loved a pie and she loved adapting them. She hated working there at first but then she really grew into it and loved it.”
Even in her retirement, she would help out: Mario would visit her each day to collect a bucket of potatoes she would peel for him to make into their thick cut chips.
“She liked to keep her hand in,” Mario recalls.
Carmela would continue to worship and socialise at St Peter’s for the rest of her life. In her later years, she would have her hair done on a Wednesday in preparation for heading to the church’s Thursday club, where she would meet with contemporaries and chat and dance.
Carmela loved Italian films and Italian crooners – she enjoyed big band and swing music, and also had a passion for the accordion.
Friends and family are invited to say mass for her at St Peter’s on Wednesday, January 30, and the funeral cortege the following day will travel to East Finchley cemetery after passing Mario’s cafe between 12.30 and 1.45pm for regulars to say goodbye and pay their respects.