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Olive Besagni wrote this after meeting Rosa Lusardi on holiday.
On our first evening an attractive lady looked across the room at my husband Bruno and said "I know you, didn't you used to live in Victoria Dwellings?" Bruno replied, "Your face looks familiar, but I can't place you".. She smiled "Do you remember the fish shop in Clerkenwell Road?". At this point, I butted in. "You're the pretty girl who worked in the fish shop". (I always noticed the girl when I passed Gigatti's; she was so pretty and she had an air of refinement about her).
Her name turned out to be Rosa, and she was quite happy to recall her days as a young girl living with her Auntie in the flat above The Holborn Fish Restaurant known to most of the Hill community as Gigatti's, which was situated in Clerkenwell Road, opposite Leather Lane, on the fringe of the 'Il Quartiere Italiano'.
Rosa was born in Italy where she lived on the family farm in the little village of Chiavenna Rocchetta in the province of Piacenza. She was the eldest daughter of the six children of Ermelina and Luigi Bonomi. She has happy memories of her childhood. She smiled as she recalled the days she spent with her younger brothers and sisters, particularly at the time of year when her father would clean out the big metal bath, then the children's feet would be scrubbed clean afterwhich the grapes already collected from the vines would be laid in the tub and in would go the bare footed children jumping up and down on the grapes crushing them until there was sufficient liquid ready for the wine making.
One day in the year 1938, Rosa's mother received a letter from England from her sister Alice who had emigrated there and lived in Clerkenwell with her husband Giuseppe Nazzani. She wrote that they were doing very well in London where they were the proprietors of a very busy fish shop. The couple were childless and Alice asked her sister Ermelina if she would be willing to send their eldest daughter to live with them as she was in a position to give her a good life in a loving home, and ensure that she received a good education along with the many other material things that her family at home were not in a position to give her. Rosa who was 13 years old at the time was naturally excited at the prospect of going to England to stay with her Aunt. I'm sure that her mother was reluctant to let her little girl go, but she couldn't stand in the way of her daughter's opportunity for a better life and at least she would be with family.
So it was, that little Rosa Bonomi aged 13 years arrived in London to live with her Zia Alice, affectionately known to everyone by the nickname of Gigiati. The year was 1938, the little girl was enrolled into the Convent in Ely Place, a private school run by the Nuns. Rosa loved the school and was very proud of her school uniform as you can see in the photograph. She made friends with the children of Famiglia Ricordi who lived in the flat above theirs over the fish shop. She was unable to communicate with them very well because so many of the children in 'Il Quartiere' were unable to understand Rosa and couldn't respond to her in Italian. (The mother of 'Il Quartiere' would address their children in their native dialect but the children in the main, answered in English.) The language barrier was hard for Rosa because her Aunt, whilst supplying her with love and attention, would not allow her out to play.
... "Certainly, he can have a piece of cake, but he's not coming into this house, you can take it outside to him on the doorstep". In the end she managed to persuade her aunt to let him come in. ...
As a result, she was very reserved and shy. A bitter blow for her was the day that she was told by the Sister Superior to bring her Aunt to the school. When her Aunt arrived at the school the following morning she was told to remove Rosa at once, as she was no longer welcome in the school, the reason being that Italy had entered the war which meant that Rosa was now an enemy alien and that it wouldn't be fair to the other children to allow her to remain there. The nun's words clearly hurt the child so much that as Rosa recounted the incident to me I could see that the anger was still there.
That was the end of Rosa's school days. She was old enough then to start work so automatically she helped her Zia in the fish shop. With her Zio Giuseppe's death in 1941, her Zia relied on her company more than ever. Rosa now in her teens, was happy enough, but looking back she would have liked a little more freedom as her Aunt was very strict and although she treated her as if she were her own daughter. She would not allow her to go out without her or a chaperon. Naturally, through working in the shop Rosa's English improved and she got on well enough with the customers.
The week before Rosa's 21st birthday, two young sisters Maria and Rita Sartori asked her Aunt if she would allow Rosa to go with the to 'The Swiss Club' in Charlotte Street. After much pleading on Rosa's part, her Aunt finally agreed - on the condition that they brought her home by ten o'clock. Being the pretty girl that she was, she was soon spotted by a young Italian boy who came over and asked her to dance. She declined saying that she couldn't dance. He was not to be put off so easily, "Don't worry" he said "I'll teach you". While they were dancing she mentioned that it was her 21st birthday the following week, and that a friend was making a cake and she was having a few people in to celebrate - the young man ventured "Perhaps I could come and have a piece of cake", Rosa replied "I will have to ask my Zia" she knew that this was not going to be a welcome suggestion - but as she had taken quite a fancy to the young man, she told her Zia what the young man had said, Zia undaunted said, "Certainly, he can have a piece of cake, but he's not coming into this house, you can take it outside to him on the doorstep". In the end she managed to persuade her aunt to let him come in.
There was quite a performance with the cake; as food was still rationed, a young neighbour had said that if Rosa could save enough eggs she would make the birthday cake. Rosa managed to save six eggs which she passed onto the neighbour and on her birthday a lovely cake with candles was set out and the Asti was poured. The young man had been allowed to come in and everything was set. The time came to cut the cake and it was a catastrophe, they tried all the available knives and no one was able to penetrate the cake. In desperation Zia went down into the shop and got the big knife that was used to cut the fish and finally the guests were given the hard won piece of cake. When Zia Alice was introduced to the young man, she bombarded him with questions, along with the usual "Which part of Italy are you from?" she wanted to know everything from his wages to his hobbies and almost what his intentions were. It would seem that he passed the test. The young man's name was Giovanni Lusardi; his family originated from Bratto, Pontremoli in the Tuscany region, his income was £3.50p a month, he worked in the family café/restaurant in Dalson, but he never told Rosa or her aunt that his family owned the business where he worked until the day of their engagement when he taking her home to meet his family. It seems he too was worried that a girl might marry him for the wrong reasons! However the couple were married in 1947 and they lived ever after.
NB. A little note about the birthday cake, Rosa had promised some of her customers a piece of the famoso cake. One of them turned to Rosa having attempted to partake of the promised delicacy, "Hey Rosa, if you've got any enemies, give them a piece of your cake".
I enjoyed hearing Rosa's story and I hope that you did too. I always wondered about the pretty girl who served in Gigatti's fish shop. Now I know!
This story was published in Back Hill: Rivista Della Comunita' Italiana, October 1996 and was submitted to Moving Here by Rosa's nephew, Luigi Bonomi.
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