Sitting in E Pellicci on London's Bethnal Green Road, over two enormous bowls of pasta absolutely swimming in cheese, I look up to see a man apparently made of roughly hewn sandstone, standing at the counter. It's like seeing a root of ginger made flesh. His muscles bulge and heave underneath a red t-shirt, like sweet potatoes Sellotaped to a regular human body. He is, to coin a phrase, built like a brick shit house.
"Ah, there's my boyfriend," I say, nodding in the direction of Hulk Whoa-gan while dipping a chip in some lasagne sauce.
"Nice of him to drop by," replies Rosie Birkett, her mouth curling up into a familiar, saucy, grin.
When I first met Birkett, working on a local listings magazine in Leeds at the tender age of 22, she was known around the office as "Food Perve." Her habit of leering over your screen or around her desk at the merest rustle of packaging or snap of an apple, made her infamous for food ogling. I once went into her desk drawer looking for a stapler, only to find salt, pepper, a jar of mustard, vinegar, some tubes of mayonnaise stolen from the pub, and chili sauce. Absolutely no paperwork of any sort.
So it comes as no surprise that my old colleague and neighbour has now written a book in celebration of the East London food world. Alongside Helen Cathcart's photographs of steaming coffee, bulging plates, famous locals, and glorious greenery, East London Food is full of interviews and anecdotes, painting a picture of East End eating.
Now known for her popular Instagram feed and last year's cookbook A Lot in Her Plate, as well as regular appearances on Sunday Brunch, Birkett's latest project sees her write about the food scene on her doorstep. Largely, she says, out of love.
Which means I get to join her, and photographer Cathcart, to eat our way around three of their East End favourites: a mini tour of somewhat secret food institutions, starting, of course, with E Pellicci.
"Hello signorita!" screams the wonderful Anna, great-great-granddaughter of the original Mr Pellicci, as she kisses and hugs each of us in turn. We're seated under the art deco wooden panelling and brought dish after dish of classic Italian East End food: chips, lasagna, salami sandwich, and spinach cannelloni.
"This place is genuinely a time capsule: it's the original East End, still alive and kicking despite the huge McDonald's, massive KFC, and Subway on the same street," says Birkett, gesturing at the portraits hanging on either side of the serving hatch. "This is a family who've been here since 1900, serving their community. Their dad, Nevio Senior who ran this place until Anna and her dad took over, was born in a room upstairs. His grandparents opened it over a hundred years ago and it's still in the family. Where the kitchen's been extended used to be their front room, so this is where they ate all their family meals. I love that."
"Your dad ain't as good-looking as my dad," Anna shouts to a man in the corner, as she makes a round of brick-coloured tea.
"Anna runs E Pellicci with Nevio her brother and her cousin Tony," Birkett explains. "Maria [Anna's mother, who works in the kitchen] was so chuffed to be in the book! The only English I've ever heard was her thank me."
A woman with a pale pink afro and a leopard-print wheeley bag slides into the chair behind me, pushing her sunglasses up onto her forehead.
"I've got a headache—I need to eat," she says, winking at me.
E Pellicci is loud, cramped, and full of folded newspapers and giant plates of meat, potatoes, pasta, and salad. A man behind me is crying out "WHAT a wanker" at regular intervals, I'm spooning béchamel sauce straight into my mouth, and Cathcart has just accidentally thrown a glass of orange juice over my coat.
It's wonderful, of course. But are we, as relative blow-ins, ruining these East London institutions? What, I wonder, do Birkett and Cathcart say to the argument that gentrification is putting everything they seek to praise at risk?
"I'd argue that people like us, who are even asking that question, are sensitive to the problems of gentrification," says Birkett, munching on a bruschetta. "All we want to do is celebrate what's here and tell people to appreciate it. An independently run restaurant that's employing local people and giving something to the culture of the area isn't the villain. It's landlords and property developers—even those from the old-school community, who are exploiting people with rent hikes. We just wanted the book to be a beautiful thing for people who live in the East End to own, because they'll recognise so many of the things that are the reason they moved here in the first place."
My stomach now the approximate size and consistency of a fire hydrant, it's time to move on to lunch number two. Sure, why not? It's just a short walk down Bethnal Green Road, past the greengrocer selling bean plants and bunches of plantain, to Lyle's: a restaurant described by Birkett as "the best value restaurant of that calibre in the UK."
Walking through the large wooden doors, the atmosphere couldn't be more of a contrast to E Pellicci. Lyle's is huge and airy, with white tiles up the walls and an open kitchen at the back. It's half chapel, half trattoria.
Everyone welcomes Birkett and Cathcart with a hug, our coats are hung up, and we're directed to a table under full midday sun. The menu is amazing: Jersey rock oysters, monkfish, brown butter and white sprouting broccoli, lamb broth and broad beans, grilled mussels and, of course, eel. This is, after all, still the East End.
A man in a navy blue canvas apron with huge beard brings over a bottle of sparkling water as we marinate over the menu. All the food is British, fresh, and treated with the confidence that comes from knowing your ingredients are unbeatable. Sipping a glass of sparkling wine, we order smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish, mussels, and asparagus with walnuts.
Of course, Lyle's is more expensive than many of its East End neighbours—a lunch dish here costs the same as a whole meal at one of the cafes down the road—but that variety is important. Eating well-cooked, local food in nice surroundings doesn't, intrinsically, make you a dickhead.
"The book is intended as a snapshot," says Birkett. "There's so much going on, from East End cafes to smokey Turkish restaurants to Michelin-starred restaurants. Compiling the list took months of meetings. Our rules were: it couldn't be too wanky and it had to be a place that we'd genuinely recommend to our friends."
Lyle's is that sort of place. When the food arrives, we pile on with gusto. The beetroot is thick and rich (it's been dehydrated then cooked in beetroot juice, so it's basically beetroot²), the mussels are smokey, and the asparagus tender.
Birkett has, from time to time, joined co-owner and head chef James Lowe in the Lyle's kitchen. Does she get intimidated working elbow-to-elbow with people like him?
"I'm just a home cook," says Birkett, her modesty genuine. "They know I'm enthusiastic and interested in food and it's amazing to be able to learn from people like James and Anna [Higham the Lyle's pastry chef]."
Talking of Anna, we finish the meal with a dark chocolate square filled with rosemary caramel and sprinkled in a little salt. It's incredible.
"When I came for my birthday with my boyfriend, we ate her dessert with sage ice cream that was so good we felt like kicking the table over and screaming," adds Birkett. I know the feeling.
Our final stop on this gut-busting tour of the East End is Rochelle Canteen. I hate describing anywhere other than a detention centre as a "well-kept secret," but Rochelle Canteen does feel a little like a Narnia-esque world of greenery in the middle of Shoreditch.
Run by Margot Henderson in a converted bike shed, the canteen started life as exactly that: a canteen for the creative businesses in the adjacent building. Now open to the public (for lunch only), the restaurant is to be our pudding stop.
We're buzzed through a nondescript door into a beautiful garden, full of potted bluebells and fig trees. East London is greener than people imagine, I say.
"Yes, absolutely," replies Birkett, as we sit at one of the white metal tables in the sun. "I became obsessed with John the Poacher when I first moved to Clapton—he used to come into the pub round the corner selling rabbits and mushrooms. So I found him on Twitter and we went for this big walk for the book. Now I see him all the time and he supplies me for supper clubs. People don't realise that there's wild rocket and almond trees growing here in Hackney."
The menu at Rochelle Canteen is probably best described as "modern British": people around me are tearing through whole roast chickens with their bare hands and we're not dicking around when it comes to our dessert. The soft raspberry ripple ice cream and lemon posset are absolutely bloody lovely.
Interestingly, Rochelle Canteen also sits on the Arnold Circus roundabout, where the Boundary Estate replaced the slum-like Rookery in the 1900s, making it one of the earliest social housing schemes in the capital. It speaks to the way that the East End has changed that here, in the warm afternoon sun, we're eating ice cream and drinking coffee in a garden, on the very site once described by Engels as "a mass of helplessness and misery." The pressure now, of course, is to stop council tenants getting pushed out of the area, were Tower Hamlets Council to sell Arnold Circus off to a housing company.
But, as Birkett says, the food scene in the East End is something to celebrate, rather than the blame. It serves everyone to have local businesses employing local staff. Better a bakery than a bookmakers. Having good coffee, entrepreneurial food producers, and international cuisine is part and parcel of East London history. By collecting stories and recipes from the people who make the East End delicious, Birkett and Cathcart hope to celebrate, rather than desecrate, their neighbourhood.
And with that, I grab my ankles and roll home like a mystery meat pie down a slide.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2016.