Vito Morelli opened the family cafe in 1929, not long after he arrived in the busy South Wales mining town of Bryn Mawr in search of work, jobs being scarce in his native Italy. 14-year-old Joe’s beloved grandfather, Nonno, had taken over Cafe Morelli in the late 1950s. Nonno is still helping out, but now Joe’s Mam is in charge, struggling to keep the old place going in times when there is little spare cash for eating out in Bryn Mawr. She’s exhausted and wants to sell up; only the money from Dad’s electrician business keeps the doors open. Across the High Street, Malewski’s, the Polish provider of all things Eastern European, is doing good business. The Chicken Box fast food outlet (where Mr Patel has abandoned any thought of Indian cuisine) is doing well too. Joe and his half-Afro-Caribbean mate, Combi, have been regular Chicken Box patrons, which has done Joe’s waistline no good at all. When Nonno suffers a partial stroke, he spends some of his rehab time in hospital taping his personal oral history, sparking Joe’s interest in the cafe and its place in the community. We share the memories on the page while Joe listens, including the harsh wartime experiences of interned ‘enemy’ immigrants. Joe determines the cafe must not die.
What really triggers the resurrection of Cafe Morelli, though, is the arrival of Mimi, Joe’s second cousin, from the home country. Not only is she staggeringly beautiful, she’s a passionate cook and as keen as Joe to make the cafe work (‘Perhaps I can ‘elp. Yes?’). Joe arranges that patients of the nearby doctor can wait for appointments in the cafe, while others use the place as a comfortable bus shelter (‘Mr Davis to Dr Dhital in room 2’ or ‘Bus for Aber arriving’… comes over the tannoy); of course, refreshments are on sale. Mimi entrances every male in Bryn Mawr, with a consequent surge in trade. In Joe’s case, the pangs of First Infatuation (Mimi’s several years older than him) are comically excruciating, more akin to the blushing devotion of Richmal Crompton’s William Brown to the latest blue-eyed blonde to visit his pre-war village than the knowing fantasies of a 21st-century adolescent. With Mimi’s charms and food coupled with Joe’s entrepreneurial flair, we know they will be unstoppable.
Sweet Pizza does have an old-fashioned feel – as if the often-noted ‘gritty realism’ of books for young readers from the 1970s onwards had never happened. This is a feel-good story, told with humour which a wide range of young readers will find easily accessible. There are some quirks of style and plot. Characters on several occasions are described as ‘pulling the corners of their mouths down’ (what’s wrong with ‘frown’?). Any youth rugby coach (in Wales, of all places) who inserted an overweight novice into the front row of a scrum of match-fit forwards in a training session would not keep his licence long (Joe unsurprisingly blacks out in the first scrum). We must accept Joe’s new-found and well-informed passion for Italian opera, and his rapidly acquired expert knowledge of numerous plots, since it fits in with his instant delight in all things Italian from Mimi to pasta al pesto. And would punters really be drawn to a cafe crowded with the infections of a doctor’s waiting room? However, it is probably a mistake to worry about literal plausibility. Better to read this as a comic heart-warmer, fuelled by family love, healthy eating and a belief that communities can still thrive on deep roots and a welcoming good-will towards hard-working newcomers.
A tale of economic migrants in post-Brexit Britain may seem timely – but Sweet Pizza already feels nostalgic; if you like, an Ealing Comedy of a novel – Small People Win Through against Overwhelming Odds, Saving their Community. There are hints of playground-level bullying (‘I thought you Eyeties were giving ice-creams free as we’ve given you work and a place to live’) in Nonno’s pre-war boyhood and Joe’s present, but we’re not talking racial hate-crimes here.