Liv­ing in the pasta

Mem­oir re­veals wartime jour­ney from Italy

Sunday Mail (UK) - - News - Steve Hendry

When Mary Con­tini baked a cake for her fa­ther- in- law Carlo’s 60th birth­day, it left a bad taste in his mouth.

The au­thor and di­rec­tor of Ed­in­burgh del­i­catessen Valvona & Crolla had pre­sented it to him in the shop – and he didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate his age be­ing made pub­lic.

She’s not sure he ever re­ally for­gave her, al­though his legacy sug­gests oth­er­wise.

Mary’s new book, Dear Al­fonso, is based on a man­u­script which he wrote at her sugges­tion but that was for­got­ten in the years af­ter Carlo’s death in 2008.

She said: “The one thing that I did wrong as a daugh­ter-in-law, a huge thing, was when I came down into the shop with the cake and all the can­dles to sing happy birth­day to him with all the cus­tomers.

“He went mad. He was so an­gry, be­cause he didn’t want any­one to know his age.

“He was quite proud and pri­vate, which is why the man­u­script was such a gift.”

Dear Al­fonso tells the story of Carlo’s life. It takes read­ers on a jour­ney of poverty, pri­va­tion and ad­ven­ture that saw him goin­go­ing from Poz­zuoli, near Naples, in the 1930s and wartime Genoa to Ed­in­burgh, where he ar­rived in 1952 on a three-month visa to learn English and met his fu­ture wife Olivia Crolla.

He mar­ried into her fam­ily busi­ness, Valvona & Crolla, and the story be­gins with a heart­feltt let­ter to his fa­ther-in-law, Al­fonso,, who he never met.

Al­fonso per­ished in the sink­ingg of the Aran­dora Star, which wass tor­pe­doed off Ire­land by a Ger­man U-boat in 1940, af­ter be­ing in­terned dur­ing World War II, which Mary wrote about in her pre­vi­ous book, Dear Olivia. It in­spired Carlo to write down his own mem­o­ries, in­clud­ing the fact that he only dis­cov­ered he was adopted when he got mar­ried. Mary said: “My last book un­folded all the drama of the Ital­ians be­ing ar­rested in Scot­land in the war and I just felt it was nat­u­ral to look at the next gen­er­a­tion, and look to­wards the 1940s and 50s, and how they sur­vived af­ter the war. “The per­son who had lived through that was Carlo. I talked to him about 10 years ago, just af­ter I fin­ished Dear Olivia. “Al­though he spoke English, he wanted to tell his story in his Poz­zuoli ac­cent, which I can only vaguely un­der­stand, so I asked him if he would write it down. “He started to do that for me but then he be­came ill and he died three years later. “Myy mother-in-law Olivia also bbe­came ill. She died an­oth­er­a­n­oth seven years af­ter that – on tthe ex­act same date he died, which was amaz­ing and vvery mov­ing. “WWhen we were clean­ing out tthe house, my hus­band PhilipPhili came across this box with some en­velopes and therether was this man­u­script. “IIt was ac­tu­ally a church newslet­ternew which Carlo had scrib­bled on the back of. IIt was all writ­ten in his Poz­zuoliPo ac­cent, about 40 pages. They lay on a desk, be­cause they were so in­de­ci­pher­able but even­tu­ally we got it trans­lated – and that’s when the mir­a­cle hap­pened.

“There was stuff there that he never spoke about, wee de­tails about his life grow­ing up, and it was just beau­ti­ful.

“Some things we knew. For in­stance, we knew that he had to leave Poz­zuoli dur­ing the war. But we didn’t know the drama of the star­va­tion suf­fered in Naples and that the fam­ily were starv­ing.”

At heart, Dear Al­fonso is a cel­e­bra­tion of fam­ily, friend­ship and also food, in­clud­ing recipes from Carlo’s adop­tive mother An­nun­zi­ata.

Mary first met her in 1979 when she was on her sec­ond visit to Italy.

She said: “I was thrown into this Neapoli­tan fam­ily with all th­ese peo­ple speak­ing this di­alect and eat­ing the most amaz­ing food.

“We were fed from morn­ing to night and An­nun­zi­ata cooked ev­ery­thing. The flavours were like noth­ing I had tasted be­fore.”

While Carlo didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate his cus­tomers be­ing told his age, Mary be­lieves he would be de­lighted to know his story was be­ing told.

She said: “This sounds re­ally dra­matic but I found this book was the eas­i­est to write, be­cause when I was stuck with the story I would go for a walk and ev­ery time, within half an hour, the idea would come to me and it would just take me for­ward. It al­most felt like he was guid­ing me through it.

“Carlo was ex­actly how he comes over in the book. He was very hand­some, very charm­ing, al­ways smil­ing, flirt­ing with women – but he was very much a man of habit.

“It’s great that we can let his voice be heard.” Dear Al­fonso by Mary Con­tini, pub­lished by Bir­linn, is out now.

NEW BOOK Carlo’s life story

FAM­ILY HIS­TORY Mary in the deli. Carlo aged 11, far left, and with his wife Olivia in 1953

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