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Isle Of Dogs: Why La Nina Caffe And Mercato has been reborn on the Island

How Monica Olivieri and Alberto Pagliara have filled a Skylines Business Village unit with Italian culture

Monica and Alberto at the new La Nina
Monica and Alberto at the new La Nina – image Matt Grayson

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It was ancient Greek philosopher Plato who wrote: “Our need will be the real creator”. Necessity has also been the mother of invention for Monica Olivieri and Alberto Pagliara.

Having opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato last year in Pepper Street on the Isle Of Dogs, the Italians were forced to look for a new home for their business towards the end of 2021.

Developers were set to start work on demolishing their previous premises to preserve long standing planning permission for blocks of flats, sparking a search for a new space.

That need has resulted in a move into one of the sharply angled buildings at Skylines Business Village – not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for a cafe and food shop.

But La Nina’s new home presents a welcoming face to Marsh Wall and comes with about triple the space of the original business and that brings fresh opportunity.

“It’s best to think of Pepper Street as the pop-up store that launched us,” said Monica. “This is the settled version of La Nina because we’ll stay here for five years. 

“For those who don’t know us, we’re a place where people can experience Italian culture through food, art, music and people.

“We’re Italians and we’re here to share our background with our customers.”

As with the previous location, that means an extensive range of edible products, carefully sourced from Italian suppliers, art on the walls, fresh coffee, wine and plenty of food to try.

The grocery on the ground floor -
The grocery on the ground floor – image Matt Grayson

But with the extra real estate, everything has intensified.

“On the ground floor we have the coffee shop and the grocery, on the first floor we have a seating area with tables and a separate kids room, and at the top of the building we have a small cooking school, where clients can learn to make very simple recipes with the help of our chefs,” said Monica.

“Downstairs we have tables outside and also something very new – a machine to roast our own coffee.

“We have partnered with a company called URoast so we’ll receive green coffee beans, roast them daily and have our own La Nina blend.

“In the shop we also have a new machine that can make an express tiramisu, which customers can customise with pistachio, strawberry or just enjoy the classic flavour.

“Of course, we have a range of fresh products made by our chefs including cakes, pastries and pasta dishes.

“Then there are the products we sell, which are sourced from small suppliers – we have one in Puglia where I’m from, for example, that produces food exclusively for us.

“And on the walls downstairs we currently have paintings from Stefano Pallara, an artist who is from my home town of Lecce.

“Upstairs in the dining room we have work from an Italian photographer – Francesco Congedo.

The seating area on the first floor
The seating area on the first floor – image Matt Grayson

“It’s a place where people can relax, have a drink, read a book, do some work using our wi-fi connection and enjoy what’s on the walls.

“Across from the dining room we have the kids room where they can come and play. We can have parties here and also there will be kids cooking sessions.

“Next is something I really want to introduce people to because it’s completely new. On the third floor we have our cooking school – it’s cosy, we can only take six people, but it’s a great way to learn to use our products.”

Sessions have already started running at the venue with many more planned.

Classes already scheduled include hour-long tutorials on carbonara, amatriciana and puttanesca sauces for £40 per head on March 4 and kids classes on fresh pasta and pizza and focaccia by arrangement. 

“We’ll also be hosting live events,” said Monica. “There will be live music every Friday and stand-up comedy too, as well as storytelling for kids and sessions where they can make their own T-shirts.

“We teamed up with fashion designer Roberta Ripa and got our youngest customers to come up with designs for cushions. We printed them and now they’re in La Nina.

“I also have an idea that I want to teach kids to create their own kites for Easter because in Italy, after you’ve eaten your chocolate egg, you make one out of the silver paper and fly it to launch the spring season.”

The kids’ room – image Matt Grayson

That spirit of invention is also present in the fabric of La Nina itself with some of its tables made from doors Monica and Alberto found in their new unit.

“Alberto loves carpentry and he has built everything from scratch,” said Monica. “He is the person who has physically made La Nina.

“The space was used for a clinic before we came here and we used some of the old doors as tables.

“We left the handles on because I wanted to leave a little of the history of what the tables were before so people understand things can be reused.

“It’s good to have a business partner who is also a life partner because Alberto can translate all the ideas I have in my mind. This is not so easy to find.”

Also in the offing is a long-awaited return of an event that had its debut on the Isle Of Dogs in 2019.

The cookery school -
The cookery school – image Matt Grayson

Monica’s first Carbonara Day In London, held at Mudchute Park And Farm, attracted more than 3,000 people and she is working on a second edition to take over Island Gardens in the summer.

“We hope to hold this on July 16 and 17, hopefully in that location,” said Monica.

“It’s a beautiful view of Greenwich and is close to the DLR. I really want the Isle Of Dogs to be seen as a live place for food.

“Carbonara Day is a festival in honour of this iconic dish where people can taste the correct recipe made with the best Italian ingredients.

“Chefs will be coming from Rome and they will cook for our attendees. We will also have chefs from London cooking their carbonaras.

“It’s something I’m passionate about – that people can try the real thing and that’s true at La Nina too. For example, here we don’t serve hot drinks flavoured with syrups or anything like that.

Art by Stefano Pallara on display at La Nina
Art by Stefano Pallara on display at La Nina – image Matt Grayson

“There’s no chicken in our lasagne or with our pasta because if you went to Rome, Florence or Bologna you’d never find that.

“I want to show people the right way to eat Italian food and it can be a hard mission, but we’ve already had some of our old customers come and visit as well as new clients and curious people.

“I’m sure we will have a line of people very soon, the more we increase the communication of what we’re doing and word spreads – it’s just a question of time.”

La Nina, named after Monica’s grandmother, is open daily from 8.30am Monday to Saturday and from 9.30am on Sundays.

It closes at 8pm except on Fridays and Saturdays, when it’s open until 9.30pm.

Read more: Discover The Well Bean Co in Royal Docks

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Isle Of Dogs: La Nina Caffe And Mercato brings Italian flavours to Pepper Street

Monica Olivieri has opened a coffee shop and grocery store complete with tastings and live music

Monica Olivieri has opened La Nina Caffe And Mercato – image Matt Grayson

“It would be amazing – if we could have the right support from Tower Hamlets Council, we could make the Isle Of Dogs a real food district,” said Monica Olivieri. The exuberant owner and creator of La Nina Caffe & Mercato is abuzz with ideas, when we meet to talk about its recent opening.

Located in Pepper Street on the western side of Glengall Bridge, Monica’s shop and cafe is decked out in white furniture and natural wood, completely packed with Italian produce, ready-to-cook meals and savoury and sweet treats to consume on the premises or take elsewhere.

Like the cheery looking sausage dog-shaped draft excluder that holds open La Nina’s door, it’s playful – with art on the walls and an ebullience that matches its owner.

“It was born during the first lockdown,” said Monica. “I’m a marketing and events expert, mainly working in food but with the pandemic I was completely closed. I couldn’t do anything, because I usually work with chefs and restaurants, and they were shut and events were banned.

“So I said: ‘Let’s do something’. I moved to the Isle Of Dogs four years ago and, at home, I have art, good food and good music and I just wanted to take it out and put it along the street for the community.

“I grew up in my grandmother’s shop in the province of Lecce in Italy and I’d always had these feelings to create something similar here on the Island – something authentic, familiar but with my spirit in it.”

UPCOMING GIGS AT LA NINA CAFFE AND MERCATO in 2021

June 4
E&E Acoustic Duo, Guitar and piano

June 11
Mackerel Skies, Guitar and percussion

June 18
Mariska Martina, Guitar and piano

June 25
Cinelli Brothers, Guitar and percussion

With branding drawn from an old family photo of Monica on her grandmother’s hip, the celebration of family is clear, but the logo is also an expression of deeper roots.

“My grandmother Joanna opened her first shop in my home town – a very tiny village in Lecce – just after the Second World War, so I consider her an entrepreneur,” said Monica.

“In Italy you have Joanna, then Joannina and the nickname is Nina, so that’s where the name of my shop comes from.

“My grandmother was a businesswoman. She started selling paper and pencils, because she was living in front of a school and understood the demand.

“Then, after that, she started to sell pasta, vegetables, clothes, everything. I grew up inside that shop and for me it was like a funfair because I could eat everything.

“My grandma was probably the first to have a TV in the village and, every time we were watching, there was advertising going on often for biscuits or chocolate or whatever.

“She’d ask me and my sisters which we wanted to eat and then she’d buy them so we could try and decide whether to stock them. I think that’s where my interest in marketing came from.”

La Nina offers a wide range of produce from across Italy – image by Matt Grayson

Monica’s career has seen her working with numerous chefs and restaurants as well as for big brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks and Ducati. Islanders may also be familiar with Carbonara Day In London, which saw more than 3,000 people come to Mudchute Park And Farm to enjoy the classic Italian dish in 2019 and is set for a second physical edition this year. 

For now, however, her focus is on establishing La Nina with an energetic   programme of events and a monthly roving spotlight on different Italian regions. 

“In the shop, customers will find cheese, salami, pasta, tomatoes and olive oil,” said Monica. “We pick some products where we know the producers, have visited them, and stock others recommended by friends of friends.

“We want people to try gourmet food and to understand that it is not always expensive – for customers to take advice from us because, for example, you can buy good quality olive oil without spending a fortune.

“Eventually we want people to visit the farms and companies that produce these products so we can say to people: ‘If you like this, here’s a business card, go and stay there and eat there. This is how people gain a proper knowledge of food.

“Italian food is, of course, some thing that comes naturally to me because I eat it every day. When I speak with English people they often say they love Italian cuisine, but this doesn’t mean anything because our food is so varied. 

“Italy has 20 regions, so it’s wrong to say the food is just pasta and pizza. We are rich in vegetables and there are so many varieties of fish and different ways of eating meat.

“As a cuisine, it’s very diverse and very different, so my goal is to tell our customers about food from different parts of Italy, changing the focus each month.

“We’ve already looked at Puglia, Sardinia and Campana and in June we‘ll have Tuscany, with olive oil, wines and some special dishes available at the shop and online.

“We’ll also be launching our Pranzo Con Opera – a set lunch menu available to pre-book on Saturdays and Sundays with a performer from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire  Of Music And Dance. 

“In July we’ll move on to Veneto with a selection of products as well as launching Aperitivo Veneziano, serving spritz cocktails.”

Furnished in part with unwanted chairs and tables found on London’s streets by Monica, the space’s other key function is as a cafe, having opened for outdoor guests in April as lockdown restrictions eased. 

“Mercato, of course means market and caffe, because La Nina is a coffee shop,” said Monica. “We serve Italian coffee and only one size with no syrups or anything like that. 

“If people want to make their coffee sweeter, they can use sugar. It’s been going fantastically – we’ve had queues outside and we really love to invite people in.”

Each month there’s a special focus on a different region of Italy – image Matt Grayson

La Nina has also become a venue for live music, as Monica works to attract more people to a part of Pepper Street that has suffered mixed fortunes in recent years, with a busy programme of events.

“It should be more active,” she said. “I want it to be vivid – an honest food district like Brick Lane or Borough. I want it to come alive.

“In England attention has completely shifted onto food. People really know about the quality and authenticity of Italian food and I’m very happy about that.

“To complement that we have a very rich calendar in June including wine tastings on 10 and 17 and olive oil tastings on 18 and 25. 

“The space also acts as an art gallery and we have artist Stefano Pallara Vernissage introducing his exhibition on June 19. We’re also set to have a jewellery making workshop with glasses of wine for participants, hosted by Isle Of Dogs-based designer Yago on June 12.”

As well as working on the second edition of Carbonara Day In London, Monica’s ambition is to open a second venue – Tavola (table in English), which will have a kitchen to serve Italian food. Until then, watch this space, there’s bound to be something going on. 

La Nina also operates as an online shop with free delivery on the Isle Of Dogs for orders over £35. Ticket inquiries should be made in person at the shop or via its website. 

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