San Marco celebrates 50 years in Bruce Grove

San Marco – the well loved and patronised Italian restaurant in Bruce Grove – turns 50 this year
By Alice Kemp-Habib

The family behind San Marco Italian restaurant in Bruce Grove, which turns 50 this year. All photos by Tom Barlow-Brown
The family behind San Marco Italian restaurant in Bruce Grove, which turns 50 this year. All photos by Tom Barlow-Brown

On the corner of Moorfield Road and Bruce Grove, directly opposite the overground station, sits a charming Italian restaurant, oozing an old-timey charm that jars with the increasingly sanitised nature of UK high streets. Inside, pizza boxes are stacked high along the back wall and dim lights hang low over a cosy collection of tables. Outside, a faded red-orange awning provides shelter for a modest outdoor dining area. This is San Marco, one of Tottenham’s best kept secrets, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

When I arrive at the locally-famous Italian, it is clear that San Marco is a family affair. I am greeted first by Mirella, who promptly introduces me to her two teenage sons. Her brother Graziano (the restaurant’s current owner) emerges from the kitchen and briskly shakes my hand, before introducing me to his father, Giuseppe, who founded San Marco in 1972.

San Marco in Bruce Grove

Sitting at the head of a family-sized dining table, Giuseppe is very much the king of his domain. Over the past five decades, his restaurant has established itself as the go-to for delicious, no-frills pizza and pasta served with home-style charm. Comedian Stanley Baxter was once a regular. In 2010, it featured in a BBC film titled The Song of Lunch.

Rumour has it a young Prince William once came in to use the bathroom and, more recently, Guns N’ Roses ordered their pre-concert meal from San Marco before performing at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium.

“Fifty years!” Giuseppe exclaims, leafing through a photo album that has been brought out to aid our conversation. “So many stories. We need one week to tell everything.” A couple of hours has to suffice, during which Giuseppe and his family spin a colourful account of the restaurant’s history.

He moved from Italy to England in 1961, aged 22, working a string of hospitality jobs before founding small cafe in Leytonstone. The opportunity to set up in Tottenham emerged when a seemingly cursed business premises appeared on the market.“I bought this place for very little money because before me, it had three owners in six months,” Giuseppe recalls.

Giuseppe with a picture of his younger self

Originally called the Grenville, Giuseppe took care of business in the kitchen – preparing up to 85 lunches a day – while his wife Barbara managed front of house operations. They later expanded into the furniture shop next door, maintaining the restaurant’s original name, as well as its emphasis on traditional English grub.

“In those days Italians were just setting up in the country, people weren’t ready to try new things,” says Mirella.“When I was a little girl, [my dad] used to do roast beef and two veg, gammon steak, chips, apple pie and custard. He used to do English classics, but with an Italian chef. It was delicious!”

Giuseppe changed the restaurant’s name to San Marco in 1985, in honour of the Italian village he grew up in. That same year, riots broke out the nearby Broadwater Farm Estate, in response to the death of Cynthia Jarrett after police raided her home. Giuseppe says it seriously impacted his business.

“The police were parked here for a week. Everyday they would bring their vans just in case the riot would spark again. My customers would come under the bridge, and as soon as they saw the police here they would turn back because they thought there was trouble.”

Following the events of 1985, he says, San Marco’s clientele began to change.“The area used to be populated by old English couples, but after the riots happened they all put their houses up for sale. And then who’s coming in? People like me, foreign people. And we’ve done all right,” he says.

Graziano, Mirella and their sister Loretta (who now lives in Italy) helped out in the restaurant throughout their younger years, as do Mirella’s sons today. In the 2010s, Giuseppe passed the torch to his son, and San Marco has continued to go from strength to strength. He purchased a pizza oven with the profits made from the BBC film, and thanks Spurs fans – who regularly fill the tables after matches – for being the restaurant’s most loyal customers. But running the business has not been without its challenges, Graziano says. Not least some of the stereotypes associated with the area.

Graziano in the kitchen

“In the past people used to ask ‘where’s your restaurant?’ When I said Tottenham, the conversation sometimes ended because they weren’t interested. But I live, breathe and eat Tottenham. I’ve been here forever and a day, and I’ve continued here because the people of Tottenham have supported us in spite of the difficulties,” he says.

During the pandemic, San Marco was forced to adapt, launching on delivery apps in order to survive consecutive lockdowns. Now, Graziano says, the cost of living crisis poses yet another threat. But he’s pushing on regardless. “I won’t relent,” he says.“We’ll continue and make this place run until my brain tells me no, or my body tells me no. There’s no way I can lose because I’m too committed.”

Giuseppe retired in 2010, but still pops in on a daily basis (often with fresh herbs from his garden).“If I don’t come here in the morning, I feel like I’m missing something,” he says.

With 50 years under their belt, I ask Graziano what’s next for San Marco.“I just want it to be more of the same; serving the community,” he says.“I don’t want to break any records, I just want to be a local eatery. I’m not looking to buy more restaurants or make it a franchise or anything like that. We’re just a local restaurant, serving the locals one way or the other.”

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