Valvona & Crolla celebrates 80 years in business

Philip and Mary Contini in the shop today. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Philip and Mary Contini in the shop today. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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THERE is opera – Italian, of course – playing softly in the background. Behind a heaving counter stuffed with cold meats and cheese, plump olives and sweet cakes, are shelves crammed with bottles, packets, tins and jars.

Hanging from the ceiling are massive bunches of dried chillies, cooking pots and legs of ham, to the side are jars of artisan honey sourced from a Tuscan hillside with labels lovingly created by the beekeeper’s daughter, dried pasta, bottles of olive oil, jars of peppers, boxes of biscuits and countless bottles of wine.

Top to bottom, every inch of space inside Valvona & Crolla’s Elm Row delicatessen is occupied, in what appears to be a supreme feat of controlled chaos.

Rewind time to the picture managing director Philip Crolla is holding in his hand. Black and white, it has captured his father, Carlo, behind the deli counter nearly half a century ago. He’s jotting something down, while in front of him stand customers no doubt frantically trying to absorb the array of exotic products around them, above their heads dangle clusters of Italian sausages, bunches of garlic and string bags containing little pots of Italian deliciousness.

The years have passed but little – not even the wooden shutters that protected the front of the shop as a wartime mob turned on the innocent Italian community – seems to have changed.

Upstairs Philip and wife Mary Contini are in a room that once housed another Italian family of immigrants, recalling the incredible highs and lows of a family business that not only survived the past 80 years but has flourished.

On the walls around them is another charming sign of how little has changed on the premises – slightly faded pale green heavily patterned wallpaper from another age with rolling hills, white walled houses with terracotta tiled roofs, wooden gates and white turtle doves.

“The family that lived here must have missed home,” smiles Philip, whose grandfather, Alfonso Crolla, came to Edinburgh from rural Lazio in 1906 and ended up co-founding the business 80 years ago with fellow immigrant Raffaele Valvona.

“And when you think about it, they would have come from the sun and countryside to a city that was grimy and smoky and dark. It would have been a huge change for them.”

They certainly brought a refreshing change for Edinburgh folk, who found their tastebuds and linguistic skills challenged as they got their hungry tongues around spaghetti and linguine, tortellini and macaroni, cappuccino, prosciutto and gelato.

Many made the Elm Row delicatessen their favourite shop. And now, as the family business prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary, a call has gone out to anyone with memories and photographs of the way it once was to share them.

“This is a special place for many customers,” explains Mary, whose grandparents also came to Scotland from the Lazio region at the start of last century. “Their parents came here, or they came as students to buy wine. It’s a place that triggers a lot of emotion for a lot of people.

“Food related memories are often very powerful.”

Philip and Mary, who as well as company director is an acclaimed food writer, want to gather those memories and add them to their own in a bid to create a diverse portrait of a business that for many is much more than simply a place to shop for Italian food.

For as well as treating tastebuds, the shop introduced many visitors to sights, smells and sounds that transported them straight to a bustling and sometimes bizarre corner of Italy, right in the heart of the city.

Philip, 60, who joined the business aged 17 in 1971, recalls the frantic sight that greeted many as soon as they stepped over the door: “At the front door were two pieces of equipment, a very small Belling oven with five shelves for small pizza trays and a big coffee roaster.

“My father, Carlo, cooked the pizzas, roasted the coffee and served the customers, all at once.

“The pizza at the top of the oven would cook first, so he’d have to rotate them. If he forgot, smoke would pour out and the pizza would be burned.

“At the same time the coffee would be roasting. Roasting coffee was a great skill because you had a five-second window for the perfect roast. It was like the sign a new Pope had been elected: two puffs of smoke meant perfect, three puffs, it was burned.

“So there’s a shop full of people at lunchtime who are hungry, and my dad Carlo, who had diabetes and needed to eat, is serving and trying to get the pizzas out and watching the coffee, and suddenly there’d be all this smoke and we’d yell ‘Carlo!’,” he laughs.

“The customers loved it. He’d shout, ‘Burned pizza, half price burned pizza!’.”

The action behind the counter was just as fascinating as the exotic products on sale, making shopping at Valvona & Crolla a complete sensory assault.

And for the staff, working there was never dull, especially when the coffee roasting system went on fire as oil from the process ignited, prompting them to rush to the scene armed with Fairy Liquid bottles filled with water.

It’s almost a wonder that the much-loved deli actually survived for 80 years – especially as its darkest spell during the Second World War almost closed the shutters for good.

“Many Italians who had been born here or had come to start business were arrested,” explains Mary, 57.

“It was just after Dunkirk, it was a tense time. The windows of the shop were shattered and the board at the front of the shop is the original one put up in June 1940 to protect the shop. There was a lot of confusion.”

Shares in the business that had been forged by Newhaven cafe owner Alfonso and neighbour Raffaele, who ran a continental food warehouse, were temporarily passed out of family hands and the business run by a stranger.

And later, with the family reeling from tragedy and trauma, it fell to Philip’s Uncle Victor’s shrewd foresight and determination to rebuild the business, first selling shop equipment to fellow Italians whose shops had been damaged in the backlash to later running perhaps the strangest mobile shop imaginable, created from a tall-sided removals van.

“It was like the inside of the shop, but on wheels,” laughs Philip. “It had huge shelves that were stacked full of Italian wine and food and it would head off to Fife with my Uncle Dominic driving.

“Unfortunately he quite often came back, having sold stock but without having been paid for it because he felt sorry for some of the less well-off customers.”

For Mary, the abiding memory is the cacophony of laughter mixed with lively Italian chat as the family unwittingly turned the deli into a unique shopping experience for their customers.

“Some of the family was at the front counter serving and others in the back slicing the Parma ham, and all these in-jokes were going back and forwards,” she smiles. “It was just a great big carry on.”

But while the family pauses to reflect on eight decades, they are also looking forward.

For just as Alfonso introduced 1930s Edinburgh to pasta and pizza, and son Victor stunned the city in the Sixties by ditching corks in the family firm’s wine bottles in favour of unheard of screw tops, the next generation ensured the Valvona & Crolla name lives on, strengthening ties with small niche Italian producers, developing a new Scottish-themed gift range and broadening their internet shopping service.

And eventually the next generation, Philip and Mary’s daughter, Francesca, will take over the reins.

Before then, however, the family is keen to compile a comprehensive tapestry of living memories.

“It’s a special place for so many people who shopped here, people bought their gallons of wine here for their student parties and many worked here,” adds Mary. “There’s a lot of attachment to the place, and we really want to hear about it.”

n Does your family have any stories about Valvona & Crolla? Perhaps there is some vintage Valvona & Crolla wine tucked away in your cellar?

Send memories, anecdotes and memorabilia by e-mail to 80years@valvonacrolla.co.uk, or post to 80 Years, Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA.

The most original memory will receive a Valvona & Crolla Luxury Food Hamper.

How the Second World War tore family apart

GENEROUSLY rotund, thanks to a love for his native Italian food and in his sixties, Alfonso Crolla, below, couldn’t have posed much of a threat to British security. But as the Second World War raged and Mussolini declared war, the hard-working Italian was soon caught up in the nightmare of hostilities.

Italy’s declaration of war in June 1940 prompted a Cabinet meeting in London to discuss just what to do about the thousands of Italians who had made Britain their home.

Churchill’s response would send shockwaves through towns and cities across the country: “Collar the lot.”

Alfonso, who had arrived in Scotland in 1906, and his son, Victor, who was born here, were among those treated as “enemy aliens” to be torn from their families and put behind lock and key. For Victor – a kind-hearted soul who Mary recalls telling her during her first stint behind the deli counter to simply charge customers what she thought they could afford – there was a spell in Saughton Prison and then at a camp in the Isle of Man for five years.

Alfonso was sent there too. But he and Mary’s grandfather, Cresidio Di Ciacca, were chosen to board the ill-fated SS Arandora Star to be transported to Canadian internment camps. The vessel was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. An estimated 700 people died among them Alfonso and Cresidio.