A history of Italian ice cream cafés in Scotland

by Craig Angus5 May 2016

Italian immigration into Scotland forever reshaped the country's culinary and social landscape. Craig Angus explores the impact Italian ice cream cafés had on Scotland's towns and cities, discovering the personal history of several of the country's most famous ice cream producing families.

Craig Angus is a Scottish writer and musician based in Glasgow with a passion for Scottish social history and the fantastic food, art and literature the country has produced.

Craig Angus is a Scottish writer and musician based in Glasgow. When not writing for the Perthshire Advertiser he dabbles in comedy and sports journalism, alongside indulging his passion for Scottish social history and the fantastic food, art and literature the country has produced.

Craig Angus is a Scottish writer and musician based in Glasgow with a passion for Scottish social history and the fantastic food, art and literature the country has produced.

Craig Angus is a Scottish writer and musician based in Glasgow. When not writing for the Perthshire Advertiser he dabbles in comedy and sports journalism, alongside indulging his passion for Scottish social history and the fantastic food, art and literature the country has produced.

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.

The iconic University Café on Byres Road, Glasgow
An ice cream oyster from the University Café, irresistible but 'destined to spill down your shirt'

‘My grandfather’s brother was called Emilio, and he came over to Scotland before my grandfather – he was the elder brother,' says Joe. 'My grandfather – also Joseph – came over in about 1898. Emilio was already working in Dundee by that point and in his first year, he slept with four other young Italian lads on straw in a sort of outhouse, or stable. That’s how tough it was. Then with his brother they opened up a second branch in Leslie in Fife, and he worked with Emilio between the Dundee branch and Fife branch until 1905.’

'Branch of what?' I ask.

‘This was the ‘Ice cream saloon with billiards and a soda fountain’’, Joe says, and I tell him that it might be one of the best sentences in the English language.

Cafés such as these were as much an assertion of identity in a new land as they were a business, functioning as a means of breadwinning, but also to help integrate the new arrivals into the communities of Scottish towns and cities. They were popular ventures for immigrants, and locals took very quickly to the idea – naturally they started appearing everywhere. In Glasgow, police statistics show that in 1903 there were 89 ice cream shops in the city. A year later that number had nearly doubled, reaching 184, and by 1905 there were estimated to be 336 ice cream shops in the Glasgow area. That’s a big cultural phenomenon, but their popularity wasn’t universal. Part of that was that their mere existence challenged – and threatened – the Presbyterian status quo, but part of it was pure xenophobia.

Take the Giacopazzis. Joseph Senior left the saloon and upped sticks to Edinburgh with his wife Livia, where they ran a very profitable chip shop (the two foods have a close relationship) on Riego Street. After five good years the family were forced to up sticks – Auld Reekie was very much a coal powered place in those days, and the air probably not the cleanest. Having developed quite serious chest problems, Joseph decided his work – and the business of raising a family – would be best continued somewhere else so the family came to Perthshire.

Milnathort wasn’t their first choice of village, though. ‘Grandfather had wanted to move to Glenfarg,' Joe says. ‘That was his first preference, but they’d said they didn’t want any foreigners in Glenfarg.'

They were – just about – welcome in Milnathort, where Giacopazzi’s Florida Café (‘that was his ambition, he saw this as a stepping stone to America’) was born. Trading began poorly, and only really picked up when the family started selling chips as well as ice cream, although this meant long days – closing up at midnight and opening at 9am, and still somehow finding the time to make the fresh ice cream.

While Milnathort had welcomed the outsiders in principle, life wasn’t easy. There was also hostility. ‘One night in 1915,' Joe says, ‘Old Grandma – who was expecting my dad at the time – was closing the shop and in came this drunken farmer and his grieve, and they attacked my grandfather. They were drunk – it was a pure racist attack.'

The heavily pregnant nonna Giacopazzi, who’s the undoubted star of this family’s history, at this point ‘lost the plot’ and beat the farmer with a stick normally used – and there’s a delicious irony here for fans of violent slang – to mix batter. She broke his arm.

The belligerents were a small minority. ‘The story goes, when this farmer went to get his arm fixed the next day, Dr Oswald said ‘how did you break your arm?’ He said ‘Mrs Giacopazzi broke it’, and the doctor replied 'that’s what I heard – tell you what, go somewhere else and get your arm set.’ He refused to treat him.’

Livia Giacopazzi was ‘feisty as hell’, her grandson tells me. She had to be, too, especially when World War One came around and Joseph Senior went to fight for Italy against the eastern front in 1915. Livia took the reins at the Florida Café, bringing her sister over from her home country to help. The two would close the café at midnight before preparing a batch of their ice cream for the next day, and all this while raising a five-year-old son, with a newborn thrown in for good measure. To make matters worse, Milnathort – a sleepy village these days – was a busy place back then, sat next to the old train line and a popular stop-off point on the main road between Edinburgh and Inverness and Glasgow and Fife before the motorway.

Joe says it was mayhem. 'So bad did it get, the local cop gave my grandmother a revolver and six rounds, and said ‘I can’t defend you, I’m one man in a village that’s bursting at the seams’. She carried it around with a string, tucked into her bra.'

The Giacopazzis were just one of the many families who brought something novel to their communities. Jannetta’s in St. Andrews, Equi’s of Hamilton, Visocchi’s at Broughty Ferry, Luca’s of Musselburgh, and the two families – Nardini and Castelvecchi – who dominated the Largs seafront. The white art deco building that housed the former remains a real landmark of the West Coast.

Displays celebrate the history and tradition of the Italian community in Scotland
The small but mighty Colpi's in Milngavie

The infant industry thrived in Scotland in the early part of the twentieth century – particularly in Glasgow, where its rise in popularity was startling – but in the years leading up to World War One opposition to Italian cafés still existed, perhaps even increasing in step with the growth of the businesses. In Glasgow, those individuals and institutions that had long ruled over the city were alarmed in particular by these ‘Sabbath traders’, who were deemed subversive merely by opening on the day of rest. I come across some overblown ‘letters to the editor’ as part of my day job, but they pale in comparison to one sent from a Mr Drummond to the Glasgow Herald, where he describes the Italian cafés as ‘perfect iniquities of hell itself and far worse than the evils of the Public House'.

I come across some overblown ‘letters to the editor’ as part of my day job, but they pale in comparison to one sent from a Mr Drummond to the Glasgow Herald, where he describes the Italian cafés as ‘perfect iniquities of hell itself and far worse than the evils of the Public House'.

‘They weren’t considered respectable by the middle classes or the Kirk,’ says Joe, ‘partly because being Italians the proprietors were Catholics – and that was looked down on – and partly because it’s where boys and girls, teenagers, young women and men could be together, unsupervised, with clearly all the immorality that could come from this kind of consorting between the sexes! In the twenties it was very straight laced.'

Almost a century on, the industry has evolved and changed, but still has an important place in Scottish society. No longer the official headquarters of lustful teenagers, these cafés are still opening up, the traditional families still operate and there are a few new kids on the block with modern recipes and flavour combinations to throw in the mix. It’s exciting, and what could be more fun than working with ice cream?

One of these new kids is Mary Hillard. Originally from Yorkshire, she runs Mary’s Milk Bar on Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and has had quite the impact, experimenting with ice cream and gelato in the shadow of the castle. Unlike many of the people I’ve met, ice cream wasn’t in her blood, so to speak, and her life could have turned out quite differently. She came to Edinburgh to study conceptual art. ‘I was lucky’, she says, ‘and fell into kitchen work during the recession when there was very little choice and a minimum wage job was a something we all dreamed of.’

Like the Joes, though, Mary does have some childhood memories that perhaps had an impact on her eventual destiny. ‘Growing up in the eighties I was one of the last generations of children to receive free milk at school and the taste of full fat homogenised milk has never left me,’ she says. ‘The milk bars I went to in Morecambe and Scarborough were cheap and cheerful with exotic flavours.’

After her art degree Mary went to Bologna, Italy, to study at the prestigious Carpigiani Gelato University, an experience she says was ‘amazing’. She adds: ‘The north of Italy has a great attitude to food, only the best will do.’

She’s not looked back, and draws parallels between her life as an artist and as a ‘gelato graduate’. ‘Working in a kitchen and a studio are very similar’, she continues. ‘Repetitive, laborious, precise – with the need to go under your own steam. Generally you work to the sound of The Archers with no manager looking over your shoulder. I love that kind of work and I now have the control to decide what flavours I'd like to make that day or to experiment.’

Experiment she does, and fans have drawn apt comparisons to Willy Wonka. ‘Changing flavours means that no day is the same,' she says. 'Seasons, old recipe books, a good cup of tea – I make a lot of tea flavours – and customers help me come up with flavours. Scotland has lots of flavour combinations which work in gelato – raspberry and oat, whisky and ginger, rice pudding, tea and biscuits, cheeses like Crowdie, fresh herbs like bay, rosemary or thyme – it's endless.'

It’s hard work, seven days a week all year round – except January – but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It seems like once the industry gets its grip on you it’s hard to let go. I’m reminded of Joe Giacopazzi, who qualified in Law from Edinburgh University. Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.

‘After I graduated,’ he says, ‘I worked for Standard Life for five years, but the life of the office didn’t really suit me. As a kid I’d always worked in ice cream, enjoyed making it and selling it. So in 1979 I left my nice, secure job and came into the family business.’ The first thing Joe did was make the big leap to flavoured ice cream, progressively moving into wholesale. When I leave his home he says he’s retiring for the evening, as he has an early start, getting up to make the Giacopazzi produce. Does he still enjoy making ice cream, I ask? His face lights up. ‘I still love it.’

Josef Boni, former president of the Ice Cream Alliance, told me that 'Scotland has been blessed by the fact that lots of Italians opened shops in the early 1900s', and he’s not wrong. The Italian Scots have a remarkable story and their presence in our small country is a wonderful thing – as is the inspiration they’ve provided people like Mary.

In the last month I’ve travelled around the central belt of Scotland, trying to find my favourite place and not eating in moderation. I went to Nardini’s, renovated in recent years so to evoke its 1950s heyday. It’s best described as an ‘experience’, and even though the tourism trade has been hampered by package holidays abroad there’s barely a free table. I love the touch of the grand piano, where a fully-suited man plays ‘What a Wonderful World’ – it’s easy to imagine how magical this place was, because it still is.

On the other side of the scale, there’s Colpi’s in Milngavie, a tiny blue shop on the Main Street of the suburban Greater Glasgow town with two seats either side of a small table. The batch of ice cream I’m eating was made ten minutes ago, according to the sign at the counter. It’s truly heavenly, refreshing and full of flavour – and only comes in fior di latte (what we Scots know as 'milk ice'). I top it off with dark chocolate sprinkles, and the bitterness offsets the sweetness of the ice cream perfectly. Colpi’s leaves such an impression on me that I make two more visits within the fortnight, and no doubt I’ll be back soon.

Whether grandiose or hidden away, these places add to the character to our cities, towns and villages, and calling a favourite is impossible. Everyone has a place that’s special to them, and think theirs is the best. I’m told there’s no right answer to the question Scotland’s best ice cream, but what I do know is that we’re spoilt for choice.

Photography by Beth Chalmers

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