Living in the pasta
Memoir reveals wartime journey from Italy
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