Wednesday Picture: Marine Ices sold – the truth

The hysterical coverage and dismayed tweets to “save” it smack of people shouting not listening. Here’s what really happened when a local institution was sold

'' Pics by Stephen Emms
Are ice cream lovers all over London sobbing into their cones, as Time Out reported? Pics by Stephen Emms

We’ve watched the news of Marine Ices’ sale with interest. It’s a rare iconic NW institution, for sure, and yet the hysterical coverage and dismayed tweets to “save” it smack of people shouting not listening. “Tweeters of Camden, is it true that Marine Ices in Chalk Farm has closed down?” said one today. “Ice cream lovers all over London will be sobbing into their cones,” reported Time Out. Even MP Diane Abbott waded in, quick to lend vocal support without, perhaps, paying full attention: “Oh no! Marine Ices in Chalk Farm has closed. How could purveyors of best ice cream in North London go out of business?”

A little blander: the interior
A little blander: the interior
Firstly, no, it hasn’t closed down. But it has been sold to Ponti’s, another long-established Italian family-run business, who we track down later in this article for their version of events. And yes, it’s now open. So we popped by for some lunch yesterday – and to have a snoop around.

What has changed? Co-editor Tom has been coming here since he was a kid and is the perfect judge of this new incarnation. “The framed celebrity signatures are gone,” was his first observation. “And they’ve closed off half the restaurant so not so good for our kids to roam around.” The kitchen is, in fact, a lot bigger: presumably this is where the money lies as Marine supply ice cream to chains across London. Perhaps Ponti’s are running a central kitchen here now too? There’s no Ponti’s branding anywhere though; a tactical move, perhaps.


To business. The ice cream is of course the same, untouched, so for that everyone can rest easy. But the remainder of the food menu feels significantly smaller, with a handful of pastas, seven pizzas around the tenner mark, plus the new, rather pointless addition of burgers (and loss of things like spaghetti vongole). We opted for classics: the lasagne (£9.20), which had a touch of the ready meal about it – stringy cheese, piping hot, less meat than you might expect; and a marguerita (£7.90), OK, but quite mean on topping and improved only when we asked for the quite delicious olive oil from Firenze. We’re not fans of Tripadvisor, but already it’s predictably packed with customers venting their disappointment.

Highly underwhelming pizza
An underwhelming pizza
But let’s rewind for a moment. Why do we hold Marine Ices so dear? Well, its story is utterly charming for a start. Founder Gaetano Mansi was sent to England by his father back in 1898. A hard worker, he opened a grocer’s in Drummond Street, Euston, in 1928, soon followed by another on Euston Road. But he never liked to throw away fruit that was spoiling so turned it into sorbet, practically unheard of back then, with demand outstripping supply. In 1931, he opened Mansi’s Cafe at Number 8, Haverstock Hill.

marine outsideAfter the war in 1947, Mansi’s Cafe was rebuilt by Gaetano’s eldest son, Aldo. It was renamed Marine Ices as the building resembled the bridge of a ship (an original ‘porthole’ can still be seen today). Aldo’s younger brother, Anacleto became the driving force behind the ice cream side of the business. Gaetano retired and returned to his native Ravello, dying in 1959.

Making ice cream in the 60s
Making ice cream in the 60s
They began supplying other restaurants in 1963 when the first Pizza Express opened in Wardour Street, and now service chains like Strada, Cafe Rouge, Chez Gerard, Spaghetti House and Ponti’s, who of course has now snapped them up.

So why on earth did they sell? We spoke to Ponti’s CEO Stefano Ispani. “We were delighted and honoured when the Mansi Family contacted us with a view to taking over their restaurant,” he says. “The Ispani and Mansi families have been friends for many years. I grew up locally to Marine Ices and have very fond memories of visiting the restaurant with my father as a boy. On retiring from the business, the Mansi family wanted to ensure that Marine Ices remained in safe hands so both families sat down to see what could be done to ensure this happened.”

So this is hardly Starbucks pouncing on a flailing business, is it? “Ponti’s has a rich heritage spanning 50 years. There is a natural synergy between the two businesses,” says Ispani. “We both have long legacies with generations of families passionate and committed to serving great Italian food to our respective local communities. We are delighted that the restaurant is an institution in Chalk Farm and it is our intention to ensure the menu and offering stay true to the Mansi family legacy.”

And what of the fairly evident changes to menu and interior? “We have recently updated it in keeping with today’s tastes,” is all Ispani will say. “The interior will largely remain as it is – just a ‘sparkle’ and freshen up with a touch of paint.”

And that is, it seems, that. Over to you. But first, reader Gerry Slater, who wrote last year’s very popular Kentish Town Pubs I Knew And Loved feature, on his lifelong association with the restaurant.

This is box title

View From a Reader: Gerry Slater

gerry I have wonderful memories of Marine Ices. My Dad used to be a black cab driver, and he told all his punters that Marine Ices sold the best ice cream in London. As a child he used to take me up there in the cab. My only experience of ice cream was a “ToniBell” or “De Marco’s” whipped cornet. They were great but this was a whole new ball game. The colours, textures and smells blew my mind. It was heaven for a kid. After a while I seemed to graduate from a take-away from the hole-in-the-wall to a full sit down meal. It was the height of cool. Although I tried various dinners, I almost always had the Spaghetti Bolognese followed by mint-choc-chip (in a glass, with a wafer, no less). Never had better before or since.

On top of the great food was the friendly service that you only only seem to get from a family business. Sadly my dad has now passed away but I wondered if my daughter would have the same feelings for the old place that I did? She did! Yes, still has great food with friendly service. And time for a chat. I would say that it is her favourite place to go to eat and she asks me all the time, “Can we go to Marine Ices?” We usually do. I suppose some of it is about being with your dad, a connection from then till now. It’s a shame that it has been sold/changed. I hope they can stay true to the old principles that made them so popular in the first place. I’ll certainly try the “new place” and if my daughter likes it, that’s good enough for me. And lastly, I hope it still brings back the old memories.

What do you think of the sale? A disaster? Or did the restaurant need a refresh? And in today’s far more foodie climate, are the updates good enough?


  • Show Comments

  • Sam

    Can’t help but feel the Trip Advisor reviews are a touch hysterical – and more to do with a sense of nostalgia that people feel an institution has disappeared. I’ve also been going for about 20 years – as a kid, and recently with my kids (like many many others). I stopped eating there about 2 years ago as I thought the food had deteriorated, the staff felt miserable and the place had an air of the 70’s. Still went for the ice cream (please tell me they have kept the ‘ice cream only room’ and the Knickerbocker Glories!).

    I havn’t gone back, but I will. I won’t bemoan the lick of paint, loss of celebrities, or the reduction in size of the menu (some things no longer felt fresh – like the seafood risotto – albeit served in massive portions). It’ll take time for the new owners to smooth over any initial problems, but this could have been the only thing that saved Marine Ices. Let’s face it, i’m sure that space could have made for a very nice Starbucks….

  • The Great Smell Of Brute

    How typical of that professional buffoon Diane Abbott to wade in without checking her facts first!

  • pat

    it’s a disaster – the place is a car crash. the best family restaurant in north London ruined… It beggars belief.

  • Dan Judelson (@DanJudelson)

    Took a look today and discovered that the atmosphere has gone – the claim that the interior has not changed drastically is false, even if they have the same tables and chairs – most pizza, pasta and special dishes have gone and the ice cream menu retains but a select few of the much loved sundaes. To be honest, they probably could not have continued trading as Marine Ices without some nod to the previous incarnation. The “authentic” Italian menu now contains such traditional items as an English cooked breakfast, burgers and Belgian waffles. What joy. (Belgo’s. down the road a little, do very acceptable gaufres should that be your dessert of choice.) If the Mansi family wanted to leave the restaurant business, it is hardly their fault what Ponti’s do with the place.Equally if Ponti’s have a successful formula for running a restaurant, good for them. What is undeniable is that a much loved, family-run restaurant is no more and no amount of flannel or PR can disguise that fact.

  • carolyne

    I went today for the first time since Ponti’s took it over and it’s just not the same anymore. The sundae/ice-cream is smaller and I swear to god, the hot fudge sauce is not the same anymore and not a patch on how it used to be. I also hated the new frosted glass sundae bowls, the old silver ones were so much better. You no longer get two types of wafer with your sundae either. (And yes, wafers are important!)

    The little bit at the back where I used to sit to eat ice-cream is now boarded up, I suspect to house the kitchen extension. The restaurant now seems so much smaller and I don’t know if it’s the refurbishment that’s made it feel so bland in there but there’s just something missing now, it no longer feels like a comforting old friend. I’ve been going to Marine Ices since I was a child and as an adult, I used to go to probably once a fortnight but I don’t think I’ll be going back. A huge shame, it used to be one of my favourite places in London and holds many associated memories (with someone I should forgot), so maybe in a way, it’s good we part company now.

    I think it would have been more appropriate for them to change the name, it’s not Marine Ices anymore, in fact, it’s almost an insult to the orignal.

  • Juliet

    I did not know that Marine Ices had gone. Twenty years of loving the restaurant, I don’t live in London any more but went back with my 3 year old son when I came back to visit. I spent the days before dreaming of my favourite pasta dishes and the ice cream after wards.

    I was very sad to see it gone. I find Italian food so disappointing in this country, but I loved eating here. I even took home sick Italian friends here in the past, and their faces would light up. Well, all I can say is there is plenty of room in Camden, London and Kingston to provide quality Italian food that matched the old Marine Ices standards without costing an arm and a leg!!!

  • Sarah

    I agree that the atmosphere has gone. The old style professional waiters are no longer there to make you feel special. The ice cream in a cone used to be toppling over with the generous portions, now it’s sadly not a leaning tower. I don’t mind change, but this is a loss.