Cold ices,
warm hearts

Italian ice cream businesses are a much loved feature of our coastal resorts, which some claim are set to boom because of Brexit.

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If you happened to be strolling along Blackpool promenade during the unprecedented midweek heatwave at the end of last month you might have noticed a queue of people snaking out from Waterloo Road in South Shore.

“On hot days there’s always a long queue and sometimes people will get to the counter and say: ‘What am I queuing for?’ laughs Maddalena Vettese, who greeted those in line once they reached the front.

“They always love it,” adds the 22 year old, known as Maddie, scooping down into the deep silver cooler in the takeaway hatch counter top, from where her family has been serving their famous homemade vanilla ice cream for the past 90 years.

“You do get people who cannot understand we only do one flavour,” adds her brother, Luca, serving alongside her.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone disappointed,” their dad Mike is quick to point out.

When the Notariannis left their home in Monte Cassino poverty was extreme

The family trio is the third and fourth generation of Italian ice cream makers to serve Notarianni’s gelato, nine months a year, to Blackpool’s hordes. Their collective good looks suggest there’s some truth in that old belief of factory workers on charabanc excursions – that sea air is key to good health. Their family story is one that was mirrored across the country – on the ice cream carts dragged along the cobbled streets of inner cities and in the parlours that once populated coastal resorts. From the humble ice cream cone to mammoth high-street pizza chains British culture owes much to the Italian immigrants who left their homeland to make their fortunes.

“It was my grandparents that started it,” explains Mike, whose mother, daughter of founders Luigi and Messalina Notarianni, married into another Italian ice cream family, the Vetteses. “They emigrated and then called the family over once they had enough money. All the Italians branched around the country so we have a lot of friends and relatives that were in the ice cream business and, out of them all, we’re the last ones standing.”

When the Notariannis left their home in Monte Cassino, a mountainous village between Rome and Naples, poverty was extreme. “They actually walked to Scotland – it’s incredible when you think about it,” he says, acknowledging the parallels with the plight of refugees today. This winter the family went on a pilgrimage back to the village to scatter the ashes of Mike’s parents.

“That’s what makes us keep the tradition going – remembering where you’ve come from,” says 25-year-old Luca.

While this particular corner of Blackpool is thriving, advance further along Waterloo Road and you’ll see signs of the decline that blights high streets up and down the country, along with some distinctly Blackpool quirks – like Hartes, a department store selling year-round Christmas decorations, and Bali Wood Carving, where you can pick up intricately carved totem poles. There are some charming independent businesses too, like Notarianni’s next-door neighbours, Brooks Collectables and toy museum.

“We’d love to see more businesses coming back,” says Mike, 59, who remembers the street as thriving in his childhood. “Blackpool’s not the only seaside town with problems – it’s just the one everyone picks on because it’s so well known. We get the most visitors too so we must be doing something right.”

Last year, following a visibly busy summer season, there was a wave of good news stories to come out of Blackpool. The town where two thirds of people voted to leave the EU was seemingly benefitting from the result of the referendum. “A once-declining British resort town sees new life post-Brexit” claimed a New York Times headline. A weakened pound had encouraged tourists to staycation and the managing director of the council-owned Sandcastle Waterpark, a stone’s throw from Notarianni’s, was quoted saying Brexit was proving good for business.

Luigi and Messalina Notarianni set up their Blackpool parlour in 1928. The family have had a loyal local customer base for decades, and on hot days there’s always a queue out the door

In reality, there’s no evidence of that yet. Confirmed figures for the 2017 season won’t be available until the autumn, but if they follow the trend set over the last few years they are likely to show an increase. In 2016 there were 18.03 million visitors to the town – a million more than in 2015 – with an economic impact of £1.44 billion.

“I’m happy for other people to have their opinion but I’d rather think it was £500 million of investment in the tourism infrastructure and loads more advertising having an impact, than people’s thoughts about exchange rates or being in or out of a customs union,” says Alan Cavill, head of tourism at Blackpool Council.

The council’s preliminary figures do show a rise from 2016 in footfall throughout 2017’s summer months. In August there was a 22 per cent increase in the town centre and an 8 per cent increase along the promenade. But interest in tourist information fell, the council sold fewer resort passes, and of five major attractions surveyed only one reported higher visitor numbers than the previous year. Around 13,000 fewer people arrived in Blackpool via train in August 2017, but the tram network had a record-breaking month. Does Cavill attribute increases in visitors to Brexit?

“Not at all, no,” he says definitively. “Other than the fact people might be slightly more nervous about life, the universe and everything, I don’t think people who would normally have gone to the south of France for their holiday decided to come to Blackpool instead.”

He believes Blackpool will be affected the same way as everywhere else will. “If Brexit’s great for the UK economy it will be great for Blackpool. If Brexit’s terrible for the UK economy it won’t be particularly good for Blackpool either.”

If their love for family is matched by anything, it’s their love for their customers

Blackpool has benefited from EU money. Over £25 million from the European Regional Development Fund contributed towards the restoration of Blackpool Tower, the council’s purchase of the Winter Gardens, boosting sea defences, and creating an events space at the Tower Headland. But there wouldn’t have been much more in the pipeline because EU structural funding was becoming more concentrated on new poorer eastern European member states.

Anecdotal evidence, Cavill says, suggests many of the menial jobs in Blackpool tourism are filled by eastern European workers but he doesn’t seem fazed by the possibility of them losing their right to remain. “We definitely haven’t seen a mass exodus yet.”

The Vetteses don’t credit Brexit with any of their robust business growth either, they’d rather put it down to social media and reinvesment in the business. How do they feel about the town’s overwhelming vote to leave the EU?

“We are children of immigrants so we see it from a different perspective,” says Mike. “I think we need immigrants and the ideal of the European community is great but politics has distorted that. I just think we should all have a common goal but it’s impossible to reach because everyone has a different approach. That’s what annoys me about local politics – we should all have a common goal to make Blackpool better but there is always someone with a different opinion and it starts falling apart.”

Later, while posing for photos for Big Issue North, the family is ambushed by a camera crew, fronted by comedian Luisa Omielan, who doesn’t explain she’s making a documentary about social mobility, on which Blackpool performs predictably badly. Quizzing them about why they’ve stuck around in such a place, the stand-up is met with a fierce defence of the town.

“We love Blackpool,” Luca says. “We try our best to promote it.” That’s evident through Notarianni’s social media – a marketing effort that would put big organisations to shame – presumably thanks to the input of the fourth generation.

“No, that’s me,” giggles Mike bashfully, explaining that he loves the quality of life being by the sea brings and that he never tires of watching the evening sun disappear behind the horizon of the Irish Sea.

“We had to ban him from sunsets,” says Luca. “I said I don’t mind you putting sunsets on our Instagram but it got to the point where it looked like we sold sunsets and not ice cream.”

“He’ll disappear, about half six recently, and you look at the sky and realise he’ll be on the prom,” adds Maddie. “He’s a big kid at heart. We have to watch what he’s doing.”

The secret to their longevity, Mike says, is that no matter how hard-up people are, they can usually afford an ice cream. Luca is keen to point out the merits of their unique product, too, made freshly every morning by him and his dad, while Maddie takes care of “everything else out front”.

“It’s the same process we used 90 years ago,” says Mike. “My granddad passed down the secret recipe and we stick to it.”

But Luca and Maddie say there was never any pressure on them to go into the family business. “I went to sixth form and I wasn’t doing great,” says Luca. “This teacher pulled me aside and said: ‘You don’t want to sell ice cream for the rest of your life, do you?’ I had a lightbulb moment and I said: ‘You know what, sir, I do and I quit.’ It was the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me.”

Maddie did leave the town, for Manchester, to study English literature. “Only for three or four months,” she says. “There was a German lecturer teaching me about rhythm and she couldn’t say the rhyme. I thought, I’m paying £90 for this lecture, I’m leaving. Mum and Dad were in Italy at the time…”

“Our first holiday without the kids,” says Mike in mock irritation.

“She rang me and I drove to Manchester to get her,” adds Luca.

If the orderly queues are a hallmark of British reserve, the family camaraderie and open affection among the Vetteses is distinctly European. “What I love about them is that pride they have in the tradition,” says Mike about his children. “They’re both really hard workers, they put 24/7 into the business.”

If their love for family is matched by anything, it’s their love for their loyal customers, which even stretches back to the Second World War, when Mike’s grandfather Luigi was among the 19,000 Italians interned in prisoner of war camps. Luigi was detained by the same police officer who earlier that evening had been enjoying a free ice cream. But the business itself was never touched, unlike a related parlour in Liverpool that was smashed up.

Four years ago Mike’s wife Rita was diagnosed with breast cancer and the business was flooded but customer support, says Mike, was “honestly amazing”. Rita is thankfully now well and the family continues to raise money for local breast cancer charity Hug in a Bag. Blackpool residents, they say, make up 90 per cent of their trade.

Just over a mile away from Notarianni’s is MP for Blackpool South Gordon Marsden’s constituency office. Last month he put down an early day motion in Parliament to recognise the business’s 90th year and “celebrate all those Italian businesses and entrepreneurs who over the years have enriched our cultures and pleasures in the UK”.

Asked why he believes Blackpool voted for Brexit, Marsden says: “I think it was a combination of two or three things. The first is that globalisation hadn’t done much for them. The second was the impact of austerity since 2008. Blackpool has literally had over £400 million taken out of its local government funding. That’s a lot of money for what’s a relatively small unitary authority.

“When you tie that into some of the demographic concentrations – we’ve got a larger than average number of older people, a larger than average number of younger people, we’ve got a smaller than average number of people in the middle. Think about that in terms of the amount of money that can then be put back into the economy locally, and the demand of the younger and older people on the social services, children’s services, and hospitals, and you get some of an idea of the pressure we’re under.”

He agrees that the leave campaign’s anti-immigration rhetoric may also have played a part. “If you look throughout history, whenever there have been economic crises or wars where people flee, there’s an understandable tendency for people to feel the need to pull up the drawbridge and of course that often gets exploited by forces wanting political power, economic power.

“But Notarianni’s illustrates an essential truth about seaside towns like Blackpool – that they are constantly refreshed and reinvigorated by people who come in from outside, whether from elsewhere in the country or indeed from overseas.”

‘I voted for Brexit but would prefer now that we stay with Europe’

The Alonzi family has been making and selling ice cream in Scarborough since the turn of the last century when current owner Giulian’s paternal grandparents left their mountain village home, near Monte Cassino – also where the Notariannis come from.

They ran a bar and a fleet of ice cream barrows near the beach charging a penny a portion, the next generation making a permanent home at the Harbour Bar.

“We opened in 1945 on the August bank holiday and on the first day we took £48 and we had to close because we had nothing to sell,” says Giulian (pictured with staff), who grew up above the shop and trained to be an accountant before taking on the family business with his wife Theresa. “My grandparents came from Italy. My grandfather was younger than my grandmother and three Alonzis married three Citrones, the other Italian side of the family. I think there was a touch of arranged marriages with Catholics in those days.

“Our ice cream is wonderful. I make it in the traditional way. We have a factory to the rear of the shop where all the ingredients are pasteurised, homogenised and refrigerated.  We aren’t ice cream sellers as such, we’re ice cream makers.

“We do a range of flavours, including the one that I can’t stand but kids like – you can probably guess what it is – bubblegum. I don’t even like it in my machine but the kids love it.

“We have seen rises and falls and I suppose we have bounced back from competition from foreign holidays but in the past few years the town seems to have woken up and there’s been quite a lot of developments particularly on the north side and the Scarborough sea front. Apart from this bad weather period, the town is doing really well.

“We are finding now that people are starting to stay a little longer. We’ve had a lot of publicity from the Tour de Yorkshire. And we have some terrific weekends centred around the army coming and doing displays, and Seafest, which includes top chefs coming and demonstrating.

“I think Brexit will have an effect, mainly because as soon as it happened the pound went down in value and people are having to pay a little more for holidays now. I think my wife voted against Brexit and I voted for it, but I’ve got to say after a year and a half of being bombarded with facts, I’m unsure now. I would prefer now that we stay with Europe. I think, reading between the lines, Europe is changing things that we complained about in the first place, and if North Korea and South Korea can make friends then we can make friends. We have a lot of history with Europe.

“We go back to Italy regularly and when I go back I do feel Italian. I like their way of life, I like the way they think and talk, but I’m here – I’m a Scarborian.”

Photos: CJ Griffiths Photography

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