The history and influence of Italian cuisine in Newcastle

Italian food is loved the world over, and here in Newcastle, it’s no different. With dishes ranging from hearty pasta to deliciously seasoned southern Italian recipes, it’s easy to see why this cuisine has captivated taste buds across continents.

This article will take you on a journey through time, looking at the growth and evolution of Italian food in Newcastle. From the arrival of the first Italian immigrants to the region, to the modern-day Italian bistros that line its streets, we will explore how Italian cuisine has not only satisfied appetites but also impacted the cultural fabric of the city.

Whether you are a die-hard food enthusiast or someone fascinated by local history, this article should offer a feast for thought.

Marco Polo restaurant on Dean Street in 1976
Marco Polo restaurant on Dean Street in 1976


Early Italian migration to the North East

Italian influence in the North East started long before you might think – way back to the time of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, nearly 2,000 years ago. Although not many of the people building the Wall were actually from Italy, it’s believed that a few high-ranking officials were.

Now, let’s fast forward a bit. In the 18th century, talented craftsmen from Northern Italy, mainly from Como, settled in Newcastle. They were highly skilled at crafts such as working with metal, making cabinets, and blowing glass.

More Italians came to the North East in the 19th century, according to Hugh Shankland’s fascinating book, ‘Out of Italy – The Story of Italians in North East England‘. And by 1900, there were around 500 Italians in Newcastle.

The book goes on to describe how Italian-owned businesses began to thrive after the first World War. Italians started opening ice cream parlours, cafes, sweet shops, and fish and chip shops throughout the North East.

Then World War II happened, and it was tough for many Italians in the region and Britain as a whole. There was hostility towards Italian people and their businesses, due to Italy being on the other side in the war. Even some of those who had lived in the country for a long time faced anti-Italian sentiment because of the conflict.

But, in the years after World War II, Italian food in Britain really took off – with pasta and pizza becoming increasingly popular.

The origins of Italian restaurants in Newcastle

Ristorante Roma - the first Italian restaurant in Newcastle city centre
Outside of Ristorante Roma on Collingwood Street in 1974

According to Hugh Shankland, the first real Italian restaurant in the North East was Dante, which opened in Low Fell, Gateshead in 1963. However, Ristorante Roma holds the distinction of being the first proper Italian restaurant to grace Newcastle city centre.

Imagine the excitement on a September evening in 1965. An advertisement in the Chronicle announces the opening of Ristorante Roma on Collingwood Street, where an antique shop once stood. The advert boasted ‘authentic Italian cuisine and atmosphere’ – with a special 4-course menu (priced at less than 50p in today’s money).

And on opening night, around 150 intrigued Geordies went to check it out. The restaurant was an instant success.

Pascal Fulgenzi and Mario Neri, two friends from Rome, were the masterminds behind Ristorante Roma. They had arrived in Newcastle in 1962, and Pascal later claimed that he introduced the city to garlic, olive oil, king prawns, mineral water, and wine. His philosophy for the restaurant was simple: quality food and a place to rest and relax.

The years flew by and Ristorante Roma remained a popular place to enjoy authentic Italian cuisine in the city. The restaurant also welcomed its fair share of famous faces over the years, including Tom Jones, Spike Milligan, Bruce Forsyth, Charlton Heston, and Newcastle United stars such as Malcolm Macdonald and Bobby Moncur.

But sadly, all good things come to an end. In October 2008, after 43 years of serving delectable Italian fare, Ristorante Roma closed its doors. Pascal, then 70 years old and still the head chef, spoke fondly of Newcastle but mentioned that the city had changed. The influx of pubs and the nightlife scene in this part of the city centre didn’t mesh well with the restaurant’s clientele.

Present-day Newcastle: Italian food scene

Pizza at Portofino Italian restaurant in Newcastle
Pizza at Portofino restaurant

Fast forward to modern-day Newcastle, and Italian cuisine has become an integral part of the city’s dining scene. With a plethora of Italian restaurants, cafes, and eateries sprinkled across the city, the options are endless for anyone craving an Italian treat.

It’s hard to write about authentic Italian dining in the North East without mentioning the ever-popular Francesca’s restaurant in Jesmond. Known for its warm, rustic interior and delectable menu – those passing Pizzeria Francesca will often see a long queue out of the door, such is the popularity of the place.

In the city centre itself, another popular choice is Portofino. A classic Italian restaurant that effortlessly combines traditional dishes with contemporary flair. The place is famous for its artisanal pizzas and boasts an extensive menu that is sure to delight even the most discerning palate.

The influence of Italian culture can also be seen in the city’s coffee culture. Newcastle boasts an impressive array of Italian cafes, perfect for those looking for a more casual experience.

Italian cuisine in Newcastle: the story continues

The journey of Italian cuisine in Newcastle has been a remarkable one. From the early days, when the first Italian immigrants settled in the North East, to the vibrant and diverse culinary scene we see today, Italian food, coffee and wine has woven itself into the fabric of Newcastle’s culture.

As we look towards the future, it’s evident that Italian cuisine will continue to be an enduring and beloved fixture in Newcastle. The love affair between the city and Italian food is set to flourish as new generations add their own twists to traditional recipes, and the timeless allure of Italian flavours continues to captivate the palates of Geordies and visitors alike.

Newcastle Uncovered