In 1870, Luigi Terroni was only 17 years old when he left the tiny village of Veserada in the mountains above Pontremoli. He dreamed of a better life, a chance to earn and save some money, far from the poverty of his contadino family with too many mouths to feed. When he set out on his long journey by foot, Luigi could never have guessed that his destiny was to establish London’s first Italian delicatessen, Terroni & Sons, in Little Italy, Il Quartiere, in the Clerkenwell district of London.
Luigi walked from Veserada through Switzerland to Paris, where it is thought he worked for a while. He continued his journey by foot to London, where he lodged in a boarding house in Clerkenwell. Life was extremely hard, but Luigi worked all hours of the day at the kind of jobs open to Italians – probably ice cream selling, organ grinding and knife sharpening. He saved what money he could and, in 1878, he opened his first shop, Terroni & Sons, alla mode italiana, in Summers Street selling Italian provisions such as wine, pasta and olive oil, which were in great demand by the 12,000 or so Italian immigrants. It was London’s first Italian deli.
A few years later, he returned to Veserada to marry his childhood sweetheart, Caterina Terroni. Although they had the same family names, they were not related. On their return to London, they set up home in Warner Street in Little Italy, where they produced ten children, five of whom survived – Giovanni, Roberto, Raffaele, Maria and Letizia.
As Luigi became more prosperous, he opened a second shop selling wine, adjacent to Clerkenwell’s famous Italian church, St Peter’s in Clerkenwell Road. Giovanni and Roberto, Luigi’s two oldest sons, started working in the shops as soon as they were old enough. In 1902, Luigi’s health failed and his youngest son, Raffaele, left school to help his older brothers. The family employed other Italian immigrants to help staff the shops and offered their employees lodgings above the shop in Summers Street.
Luigi’s children, together with their spouses and children, continued to live at the house in Warner Street. In 1914, in desperate need of more space, the family moved to a large property above a warehouse on the corner of Little Bath Street – now called Eyre Street Hill – and Warner Street, where they lived for the next 27 years until it was destroyed in World War II.
When the shop in Summers Street burned down (year unknown), the delicatessen reopened in the wine shop in Clerkenwell Road. The shop’s cellars extended beneath St Peter’s Church and it is said that worshippers at the church could smell the fragrant aromas of cheese and salumi, as they mingled with the incense inside the church.
When Luigi Terroni died in 1917 at the age of 64, his sons became equal partners in the business. Giovanni, the eldest son, retired in 1924 due to poor health, and his place was taken by his son, Duilio.
In 1935, as a result of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, sanctions were imposed by the British government on Italian imports, which meant that 99% of the products imported by Terroni & Sons became unavailable. The family responded by importing similar products from Spain and Argentina.
In May 1940, when Italy entered World War II on the side of the Germans, Raffaele and Duilio were interred by the British government, leaving Roberto and Raffaele’s son, Luigi – known as Lu – to look after the family business. The delicatessen went into decline as it was impossible to import goods from Italy, but the shop somehow survived. The family home suffered a direct hit during the bombardment of London, but fortunately nobody was killed. The family moved to a small house in Grey’s Inn Road and eventually to Highbury in 1949.
In 1954, Rafaele died after a short illness aged 64. Roberto died in 1961 at the age of 76. Duilo and Lu continued to run the business, which with the influx of a new generation of Italian immigrants was booming. When Duilio and Lu retired in 1983, the shop in Clerkenwell Road finally left the hands of the Terroni family. It was sold to the Annessa family from Molise, who ran it for 20 years.
Terroni & Sons has since changed hands and was closed for four years from 2008 until 2012. It has reopened on the same site next to St Peter’s Church as a modern delicatessen and coffee bar. It still bears the name of Luigi Terroni from Lunigiana.
More information about Luigi Terroni and his family can be found in the book, A Better Life, by Olive Besagni, 2011.
The man from Lunigiana who founded London’s first Italian delicatessen appeared on Ciao Lunigiana on 26 April 2014.