I Camisa has been battered by the pandemic and rising costs and is threatened with doom after almost a century of trading
I Camisa’s manager, Cristina Onuta, and her assistant Mattia Perlino. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer
For decades, the I Camisa deli has been at the heart of the community in London’s West End. Opened in 1929 by the Italian brothers Ennio and Isidoro Camisa, the Soho institution sells speciality produce including imported meats and cheeses, as well as handmade pasta and sauces, and hot sandwiches on freshly baked bread.
The food has won it an array of accolades, praise from critics and cameos on TV shows including The Great British Bake Off and actor Stanley Tucci’s BBC travel show. But now, battered by the effects of the pandemic, I Camisa looks set to shut for good almost 100 years after it began trading.
News of the impending closure has led to an outpouring of support, with about 4,000 people signing a petition calling on the Labour-run Westminster city council to engage with Shaftesbury, the real estate investment trust that owns the building, to find a solution. Among those thought to be offering support are the broadcaster Stephen Fry, actor Miriam Margolyes, food critic Tom Parker Bowles and musician Tim Arnold.
Customers come to I Camisa for conversation as much as they do to eat. “People will ask us the difference between panettone and pandoro, but they’ll also come for a chat,” says Mattia Perlino, the assistant manager. “It feels like home.”
In its lifetime it has passed through the hands of several owners, moved across the road from its original premises, witnessed the reign of five monarchs and weathered a number of recessions.
But following a fall in trade during the pandemic, business has not bounced back. Today, footfall is only 60% of what it was before, according to the management. Many of the restaurants I Camisa supplied have also shut, while the costs of energy and produce have surged. A decision by the landlord to put the rent back up to pre-pandemic levels – £100,000 a year – has compounded the pressures, leaving it unable to go on.
“You could see the numbers dropping and we knew we couldn’t keep up with the costs,” said Cristina Onuta, the manager of 23 years. “We are all devastated. People come here and they ask, ‘Why?’ And I say, ‘How much time do you have?’”
A bigger rent bill is one of the factors that has contributed to the store’s difficulties.Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer
There are about three weeks to find a solution. If a new buyer is not found or another compromise cannot be reached this month, the deli will shut after Christmas. “We really don’t want to close because it’s historical and it’s a shame because it’s a beautiful place. But recently it has become a heavy burden,” said Gianni Segatta, one of the directors at Alivini, the current owner. “It is painful to think that you have to close it down.”
Shaftesbury said: “Alivini and Shaftesbury continue to work together on the potential options for the retail business of I Camisa & Sons. While both appreciate the support expressed for the business, Alivini had made the initial decision to close their store due to a combination of factors, including deteriorating turnover and rising costs alongside a return to pre-pandemic levels of rates and rent. We can confirm that our discussions are ongoing and we continue to listen to the community’s views.”
As she bought panettone and chocolate on Saturday, long-time customer Terry Brescia, a retired curator, said she would be heartbroken to see it go. “We don’t live in Soho – we come especially – and we’ve been coming for about 30 years. It’s the only place we can get these wonderful things. It’s authentic, comfortable, friendly, helpful, and just everything you want. You know? It’s the best Italian grocery store in London,” she said.
Stuart George, 48, another regular, has been coming to the deli for 18 years. There are hundreds of shops selling pasta and bolognese sauce between his home in Vauxhall, south west London, and Soho. But every Saturday at about 9.30am, he gets on his bike and cycles the 11 miles or so to I Camisa. “I’ve occasionally wandered into other shops but I just don’t think they’re as good as here,” he said. “The food is fab and the staff are lovely. I don’t even have to ask for what I want. They see me locking up my bike, say, ‘There’s Stuart, we’ll go and get his sauce.’”
Peter Thompson, 80, a retired journalist who has been visiting since 1971, said: “We have many supermarkets but they’re not the same at all. Not even Waitrose is as good as this. Without I Camisa, the area will be a lot poorer. It’s part of a trend: a lot of the independents are being forced out by higher rents, the council tax, the rates, and of course the price of running a business has gone up astronomically.”
The closure of I Camisa would make it the latest in a string of casualties of the pandemic and cost of living crisis. During a Westminster hall debate last week, Labour MP Catherine West said high streets were “on their knees”. “Businesses are begging for more support. We need to act now if we want to secure the future of our small businesses,” she said.
For Soho the loss would be “huge”, according to Tim Lord of the Soho Society, who said many other independent businesses had also closed. “There are very few things left now in Soho that are unique to Soho. And if we lose those we will just have a very dreary high street,” he said. “When you talk to people about Soho the things they always mention are key, small independent businesses like Camisa. And there is no obvious way of protecting them. It’s important because it’s about the history of Soho over decades.”
Film producer Colin Vaines, an I Camisa regular, puts it poetically. “The thing about Soho is you can keep knocking things down, you can keep changing things, but one day you wake up and it’s the Big Yellow Taxi. They built the parking lot,” he said.