Sunday, June 16, 2024

Pizzeria Castello and other Elephant Spectres

'Poor Fiery Blocks: four bent perspectives of the Elephant and Castle' is the latest pamphlet in Christopher Jones's remarkable ongoing explorations of the area that he has been conducting/living for more than 30 years. One day somebody needs to publish his various related writings in a big book.

'Poor Fiery Blocks' is an attempt to come to terms with the 'new Elephant' and the psychic dislocation of being in a place which is geographically in the same spot but which bears no relation, socially or physically, to what was there before. There are older people who have experienced two cycles of this here, with the old tenement blocks and terraced housing demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Heygate Estate and shopping centre, now in turn knocked down. We experience the loss of physical landmarks on which to hang our memories, leaving behind our 'melancholic reverie for a dead past that we cannot mourn and let go of even if it appears as a phantasy of longing and a somewhat presence real enough to taste'. Yet somehow the ghosts linger: 'A Spectre is haunting the Elephant and Castle - the Spectre of deep rumination and desire of what still remains in plain view. The Spectre that goes backwards in time and destroys the present'.

For instance the Strata tower at the top of the Walworth Road replaced the demolished Castle House of which Chris writes: 'Part and parcel of the late mid-60's GLC built Draper Estate, Castle House, all offices above, below though the famous Pizzeria Castello. Never forgotten all the good nights out there. We would look for the puffed up black sacks on a Sunday morning in Castello's dumpsters at Eagle Yard full of unused pizza dough and make good good bread from it. There was also Uptown Bar for a bit there in the shop units at Castle House and funny fish in Fin King Aquatics we'd go and see. Then up the other end from pizza and fishes it larged itself Latino with The Ministry of Salsa club that was a part of Los Arrieros restaurant that had taken over the old Riley's Snooker Club in the mid-90s. Here we have heard it said that by 2005 Reggaeton was first aired and popularised in London here as a these Puerto Rican bangers were gaining favour over Salsa. Again history is wild and others claim 'La Bomba' at Ministry of Sound from 2005 as London's first Reggaeton night'.

Castle House - Pizzeria Castello at left and Ministry of Salsa at right

Ah yes the famous Pizzeria Castello at 20 Walworth Road, the Pullens anarchists, students and other locals rubbing shoulders with all sorts...  Down the Walworth Road  at number 144 was the headquarters of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1997. Later Labour MP Tom Watson started working there in 1984 as a teenage library assistant and recalled that his colleagues  'regularly took me to the legendary Pizzeria Castello restaurant, which at the time, made the best pizzas in London. They also introduced me to Frascati wine, which was supposed to be sophisticated in those days. It’s gone now, but the Pizzeria Castello rivalled the Gay Hussar for political intrigue. I would often see John Prescott and other politicians caucusing in there' (30 years ago today I started working for the Labour Party, Labour List, 2014).

Conservative prime minister John Major also ate there sometimes, though seemingly not a fan: 'In 1992 Major was heard saying that the pizzas available at the Pizzeria Castello in Elephant and Castle, run by Antonio Proietti, were 'the worst in the western world'. Evidently the changing tastes of a smarter set had passed him by. 'Proietti's restaurant has served the best pizzas in London since the early 1980s,' wrote the restaurant critic Jonathan Meades, in a state of shocked disbelief. 'They are far more Italian than the mass-produced English imitations. Perhaps this was lost on Mr Major, with his love of Little Chefs and Happy Eaters.' (Alwyn W. Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, 2013). I assume he spent time in the area when he was a minister, the Department of Health had several buildings nearby.

I went there a few times, also remember going into Riley's Snooker and American Pool Club at no.4. Back in the 1990s I was friends with a guy in Belfast (Turf Lodge) who had been an Irish Republican prisoner. His sister worked at Riley's and I went to her wedding party, a big Irish/Sierra Leonean booze up in tenants hall on Old Kent Road. Funnily enough around the same time I once 
saw Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble at a bus stop nearby. I mention this only as an example of the infinite subterranean connections linking this area to so many parts of the world. Truly all roads lead to the Elephant and its story isn't finished yet...

Anyway I found Castello's takeaway menu at flickr. It finally closed in 2006, though I think La Luna further down the Walworth Road  and still going was originally an offshoot from it.

At one time (and certainly in the early 1970s) Castle House was the headquarters of Southwark Council Social Services. By the 1990s it was part of London South Bank University, as Brixton Hatter remembers on twitter :

You can buy 'Poor Fiery Blocks' and lots of other great stuff from the Past Tense shop on Etsy, as well as at the 56a Infoshop, 56 Crampton Street SE17 3AE

1 comment:

Ex-Elephant said...

I remember that menu!

Didn't Castello move to Jamaica Road, Bermondsey prior to redevelopment of Castle House? I'm fairly sure former Department of Health (Eileen House, Skipton House, even Alexander Fleming House) colleagues visited, but I'm long gone from south London so can't be 100% certain.