Passed down from father to son since 1919, Randolfi’s has been serving cuppas and cakes to regulars for over a century, and is officially Roman Road’s oldest cafe.
It’s easy to miss this discreet shopfront on Roman Road near the St Stephen’s Road entrance of Roman Road Market, but those in the know have been coming here for decades to enjoy Gino’s gentle manner, brother Michael’s jokes, and Raymond, the ‘straight man’ of the trio. Gino is still there, politely serving customers in his traditional white overcoat.
Nowadays both owners and customers are embracing the tranquil pace of twilight years, and the cafe’s soothing atmosphere (refreshingly digital free), belies the buzz of yesteryear. In it’s heyday in the mid 1900s, this cafe was the place to be – market vendors and local people would come together for sustenance, chat and their now infamous lemon ices.
Even now, mention Randolfi’s to the denizens of the Roman who have been here the longest, and their ears perk up. Some of Roman Road’s oldest businesses such as Abbotts and Thompsons are still loyal patrons. Even the milkman makes a stop every morning.
As for Randolfi’s? Its first recorded dates as a business go back as early as 1919.
They first appear as a ‘confectioners’ in city business registers and was run by one Louis Randolfi at 218 Roman Road – which according to current urban planning, no longer exists, at least not on this Roman Road.
In the 1950s, they had moved to 508, placing it right next to the market. Now, it was owned by successor Victor Randolfi.
Perhaps it is this central location, but starting from this point, many of the local people who grew up around this time recall Randolfi’s being the centre of their weekend activities.
This included Nicola Cordt, who worked there as a teenager in the 1980s.
By this time, the cafe was run by the brothers: Michael and Gino Randolfi: from father, to sons.
‘They were especially popular on Saturdays because the people would have a routine.
‘A lot of people would go to the market, which back then people would come from far away to go to. So they would do their shopping, then come to somewhere like Randolfi’s or the Saucy Kipper Fish Bar.’
She fondly recalls the sociable atmosphere.
‘The customers were mainly regulars. Mainly people who came in would know the owners, and before leaving they would say, “See you next week, or see you next weekend.”’
So it was mainly familiar faces going there. And the brothers were chatty too – very customer orientated.’
But there is one memory that persists in virtually all the customers and ex-workers who shared their memories for this story: that of lemon ices. When Nicola worked there, Randolfi’s would sell ice cream out of the front of the shop.
‘Both their ice-creams and their cafe food were so popular,’ she says.
‘There would be long queues for both. The lemon ice was their most popular ice cream.’
Melita Merton used to work alongside Nicola from 1985 when she was only 13, until she was 16, and used to man the ice cream window.
‘I was quite short in stature so they would give a box to stand on so I could pass the ice creams through the window. The lemon ice was especially very popular, although my favourite was vanilla.
‘I remember being quite shocked watching Michael make the ice cream because of how much sugar went into making it, but that didn’t put me off.’
Other local residents, like Christine Browne, who shared their memories of Randolfi’s also remember their colourful range of ice cream flavours.
‘I remember going there in the 70’s with my nan and mum but back then it was the other side of the market and they sold scoops of ice cream outside.’
Mint choc chip or rum and raisin were my favourites but my mum liked the tutti frutti.’
Gino and Michael, who Nicola and Melita worked under, are sadly also likely to be the last generation of Randolfi’s.
Now, the location has moved yet again further up the market. Building 508, where the brothers old their famous ice creams, is now Butler and Stag.
Still manning the cafe since they took over from their father, the brothers have no children, meaning the century-strong establishment will likely close after their time.
But for now, Randolfi’s legacy strongly remains among those who grew up around the Roman, whose childhood memories will be tinged with lemon ices and Michael and Gino’s laughter.
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