A trip East before bolting out of London in the Bora began with a guided tour of Hoxton Market with a Hackney regeneration officer. I listened with intrigue as he titillated me with twisted tales of E8 urbanism – who sold what, where it went, what’s left behind and the staggering cleavage that exists between the ‘authentic’ originals and the urban pastoralists who came along and reimagined a new Hackers.
I’m off to Ridley Road, I told him, To look for Luca.
“Three-quarters of the way in, park in the Sainsbury’s carpark so you don’t get rinsed out on the meters and don’t buy fish from any of the stalls along the front”. Then more gruesome tales ensued. A picture emerged of a highly questionable hotbed of open-air and not-quite-so-open-air trading. A postcode poll of the punters found them coming in from Northampton, Kent, Peterborough. Places that held nothing like the cacophony of stuff that Ridley Road regularly puts out there. Stories of international smuggling, trade routes used to pass along illegal, unmentionable, unfathomable goods.
“All put paid to now of course, all cleaned up”.
I doubt it, I thought, It’s probably just receded further into the crevices, the cracks…
Coming out onto Ridley Road from the Kingsland Shopping Centre there is an amazing amount of sky stretching up out there. No high-rises, no office blocks, just sky above a great rambling encrustation of stalls and holes in walls. I felt all way up high and out there – from the low-slungness of Brixton to this perched strip of Hackney that was just full of people. That’s the magic of a good market – it throws you together with everyone and our natural human predisposition for sociality gets off on it, feels reassured by it.
After I’d walked about the 3/4 of the road I did, indeed, find Luca, purveyor of the truth as far as polpette go – or so they told me. Up on the deck of the Ridley Road Market bar sits his set-up – a 2m/1m trad market stall adorned with New York deli boards announcing the menu:
We all love a good meatball, let’s not even try and pretend. And all the signs around the place were leading me to believe that this would be one of the good ones: The box of really serious looking bread thrusting out of a hanging box to one side, the bowl of green bean salad, glistening with salt crystals, the little pot of Tiramisu sat casually by the till – none of which has anything to do with meatballs, but you can soon spot someone who knows about food.
Just give me a bit of everything, I asked, All the sauces and all the balls. Luca obliged, lining the box with the ‘creamy polenta’ and then layering on the different sauces – gorgonzola, roasted tomato and wild mushroom (but leaving out hot peperoncino so it wouldn’t obliterate the taste of the ball).
Then came the balls – two of ricotta & spinach, two of beef. “Always beef, never pork”, Luca told me. On top of this went more sauce, baby spinach and the aforementioned green bean salad which was winking at me, despite the availability of the balls. I staggered off with this great brick of a box to a nearby bench and began excavating this beast of a lunch. I flicked the spinach to the side and didn’t get too involved with the polenta (not my thing), but finally coming into contact with those polpette, all roiling and moiling in such wholesome sugo, was a great moment for me up in E8.
Luca explained the addition of ricotta and 10% of parmesan. Yes, that’s what it is – that’s what makes you think of Italy where other versions never will. Served with real charm and generosity as well. This is a guy who is enjoying being street-side and it shows. Luca Italian lifts Ridley Road, and Ridley Road gives L.I grounding in a truly interesting place.
I hope that we might persuade him to uproot himself from time to time to come and join our gang. Luca Italian is right up our strada.