Verrecchia’s University Café on Glasgow’s Byres Road has a huge queue leading from its iconic shop front onto the pavement outside. Throughout the day there’ll be a constant stream of people stopping here for an ice cream cone or tub, or perhaps one of these Oysters that are so awkward to eat but that you’re still drawn to, destined to spill it all over your shirt. A hundred yards or so to the north, side-by-side, there’s a Nardini’s and a Crolla’s doing a roaring trade – even on a typically miserable Glasgow day such as this, where dark clouds make a rainstorm feel less of a threat than an inevitability.
This is one of the busiest streets in Scotland’s biggest city, but you can be sure that something identical is happening across the country. In Edinburgh, Dundee, St. Andrews, and every town whether coastal or mainland in between. How did this cold, luxury item become such a treasured tradition in Scotland?
It’s what writer and café owner Joe Pieri describes as: ‘A story of what can be achieved by people of lowly and underprivileged beginnings, with little or no education, and with nothing to rely on except their own inner strength and determination to survive and prosper.’ It’s also, he says, ‘a story of how immigrants can enrich and bring a new dimension and flavour to the customs and culture of their adopted land.’
To begin this story, we need to set the scene in late nineteenth century Italy.
This was a country that had been involved in wars of independence for most of its recent history. It’s hard to believe now, but back then malaria was a big killer and a very real danger. Italians didn’t have the same basic human rights the people of Britain – and America – enjoyed. Northern Italy benefited from the discoveries of the industrial revolution, but the South – despite its obvious beauty – wasn’t a great place to be, with an industry based on backbreaking agricultural work that offered little financial reward.
‘It was third world,’ Joe Giacopazzi tells me, from his home in Milnathort, Scotland. So the Giacopazzis came to Scotland.
Lots of Italians left their homeland around this time. Many settled in London, but they graced almost all of mainland Britain. Some paid a hefty fee to be taken across the Atlantic Ocean, only to be dropped off at Portobello, starting a new life in Edinburgh by accident rather than design. Some, like Emilio Giacopazzi, chose Scotland.