The Italian Connection

No pesce chips

Italy is the UK's seventh largest export market: over 8.4 billion worth of British goods were sold to Italy in 2000. There is strong British investment in Italy, with more than 1000 companies established there. In terms of Scotland, Italy is even higher up the ranking, being the fifth most important market and Scottish manufactured exports to Italy were close to 1.4 billion in 1999. No small fry economically. And it was economics, as mentioned above, that brought droves of Italians to Scotland over a century ago. Many were heading further west to the fabled land of opportunity, America and were seeking passage on ships leaving Liverpool and Glasgow. But something made many stay. No doubt there were negative factors, like the unbearable thought of even further to go or difficulties in meeting the fare. But some perceived opportunities notably the native penchant for fish and chips.

Pizza might have invaded Britain's high streets in the 1970s when a new international awareness and culture of eating out began to flower but the culinary scene at the turn of the century was far more modest and parochial. So the immigrant Italians didn't promote their own cuisine, they adopted the Scots' most popular supper. It wasn't too difficult to get started: all they needed was a range and a black iron pan and there was fresh fish from the market every day, so no stock. This was the ticket to success for many Italian families. Indeed, there is nothing in Scotland so Italian as fish and chips. For some families, of course, this was the first step to greater things.

The war years

By the 1930s many Italian family firms were well established in Scotland. Alfonso Crolla joined the thirty something year-old R.Valvona & Co in 1934 at their new premises on Elm Row in Edinburgh and the legendary delicatessen Valvona & Crolla was born. On the West Coast at Largs the Nardini family, whose numerous fish and chip shops had long sold their famous family-recipe ice cream, bought a plot on the seafront and built the largest caf in Britain. It boasted some of the finest Art Deco furnishings of the time, the only glass-lined ice cream mix boiler and the first ever soda fountain in the UK, brought over from Chicago, Illinois. (They brought over a 'soda jerk' too a virtuoso milkshake maker who takes a scoop of ice cream, throws it into the air and catches it in the glass.) Nardini's became the prize of Largs, which for many years, was a thriving 'Costa del Glasgow'.

Things changed when Italy entered The Second World War in 1940. For most Italians in Scotland, even though they had no allegiance to Mussolini, it was a grim time. Italian men were rounded up leaving the women and children to fend for themselves and were shipped to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or Orkney with the intention to deport them to Canada or Australia. Then tragedy struck.

A luxury cruise liner, The Arandora Star (known as 'The Wedding Cake' because of her white hull and violet stripe) was commandeered to deport prisoners of war to Canada. On July 2nd 1940 it headed out from Liverpool with over 1200 prisoners on board both Italian and German and was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat. 486 Italians and 175 Germans were killed. The incident caused an immediate inquiry and the British Government subsequently reversed their decision to deport prisoners and camps were set up in the UK. But the greatest tragedy is epitomised in the story of Silvestro d'Ambrosio: he was a confectioner from Hamilton, who had lived 42 years in Scotland and had one son in the British Army and another in the Canadian Army. How many other casualties were internees rather than prisoners of war is not known.

Many, of course, were much more fortunate. Many, like Nardino Nardini, were interned on the Isle of Man and Guiseppe Verrecchia, father of Riccardo the owner of La Scarpetta restaurant in Balloch, was reputedly the youngest internee at just 15 years of age. More fortunate also were the 17,000 genuine Italian prisoners of war from North Africa who were transported to Orkney in December 1941. They built the famous Churchill barriers and left behind a moving monument to faith and resilience in the much-visited Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm a work of art fashioned out of a Nissan hut and whatever detritus the Italians could get their hands on.

Into the limelight

By all accounts the experience of the Italians in Orkney was mainly positive and a bond that lasts today grew up between the prisoners and the islanders. Other situations were often more complex, as captured in Michael Radford's poignant film 'Another Time, Another Place' starring Phyllis Logan. And for some, it was the beginning of a new life as hard-met wartime sweethearts became wives and they settled in Scotland.

After the war the fortunes of the Nardinis prospered well into the 70s when cheap charter flights set the trend for holidaying abroad and the glitter of Largs dimmed somewhat and it became a 'weekend town'. For others, like Sir Charles Forte and his son Rocco of the famous catering empire, fortune's stars kept rising. And Valvona & Crolla, which began serving the fledgling immigrant Italian community in the Old Town of Edinburgh, now lists foods and wines from around the world and supplies the entire UK, boasting a next-day service delivery to 90% of the population. The shop on Elm Row is like no other, it's designed as an immaculate cavern to entrance the senses with a popular restaurant and a Tasting and Demonstration room that doubles as a Fringe Venue during August which has presented, amongst others, the stage adaptation of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'.

Scots Italians have made their mark in arenas other than the kitchen of course arts, media and sports being areas adorned by Italian names. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and Alberto Morrocco are giants on the post-war arts scene; Tom Conti and Peter Capaldi are stars of the stage and screen; Marcella Evaristi and Anne Marie Di Mambro are leading playwrights; and Richard Demarco straddles the worlds of the theatre and the visual arts being a co-founder of the Traverse Theatre and the name behind a string of famous galleries and thought-provoking exhibitions. Sharleen Spiteri, a former hairdresser from Glasgow, is the lead singer of the band Texas and one of the ten wealthiest women in Scotland. Dario Franchitti is one of today's hottest formula 1 racing drivers. The names Coia, Biagi and Franchi appear regularly on our television sets and the names Matteo, Macari, Tortolano, Marinello, di Ciacca and di Rollo feature on top league football and rugby strips.

Even the ice cream makers and deli kings have their feet in the arts. Daniela Nardini is one of the UK's leading actresses and Mary Contini, partner at Valvona & Crolla, has written a heart-warming book 'Dear Francesca' - not just about food but also about her family's journey from the barren Abruzzi mountains to the chilly streets of post-war Edinburgh.

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Last updated 20 Jun 2014