Book review: Dear Alfonso - An Italian Feast Of Love And Laughter, by Mary Contini

This is the latest book in Mary Contini's series charting her family's history over the past 100 years '“ their journey from Italy to Scotland and the setting up of the family business, the celebrated Edinburgh deli, Valvona and Crolla. It is addressed to her husband's maternal grandfather but is the story of Carlo Contini, her husband's father, who was born in extreme poverty in 1930s Pozzuoli, near Naples. As such, he and his family are fated to be the hapless victims of war, and as a teenager Carlo lives through the surrender of Italy and the subsequent occupation of the area by the Germans.
Mary Contini in Valvona and CrollaMary Contini in Valvona and Crolla
Mary Contini in Valvona and Crolla

Food is scarce and there is an ever-present danger of the young man being rounded up to work in forced labour camps, but Contini gives a real sense of Carlo’s ingenuity and charm in his quest to feed his parents and younger siblings. In an atmosphere of deprivation and hunger, the importance of food is paramount and his mother’s skill in creating feasts from scraps to feed too many mouths is beautifully recounted. As Annunziata herself says; “If you don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Even soup made from two fish heads is rendered mouth-watering in Contini’s prose.

As war comes to the area, the town is evacuated, families are forced to walk miles inland past farms ruined by the retreating German army and the rotting carcasses of buffalo – once the source of the region’s creamy mozzarella – while allied bombers attack the Italian fleet on the coast. In such hell, the young Carlo finds a tree overladen with ripe figs, and there’s a wonderful scene in which he gorges on them, the “intensity of the sugar” reviving him and making him “laugh with utter relief”.

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The other half of the story is set in Edinburgh, where Olivia, daughter of the titular Alfonso, grows up in relative comfort thanks to the family business until the internment of Scottish Italians in the Second World War. Readers of Contini’s previous books on the history of the family will know about the loss of Olivia’s father on

a boat carrying interned Italians, but it is a shocking episode in history and one which still reverberates.

When Carlo comes to Edinburgh in 1952, the book relates the love story between him and Olivia, tentative at first, and a family revelation in a letter from Italy. Contini describes the difficulties and prejudices the young couple faced but their relationship is beautifully portrayed without any mawkish romantic fancy.

She provides a good argument for Carlo’s early experiences making him the perfect addition to the family business, too. As an immigrant, he is not only well placed to seize the opportunity in his new country, but the memories of hunger and the cuisine of his native country mean that he can add a new impetus to the business at just the time that Italian food is craved by the expat community and returning soldiers who have experienced their first taste of foreign food.

It could be argued that without Carlo’s experience and input, Valvona & Crolla – and in a wider sense the whole Scottish love affair with Italian food – might not have been so influential in shaping the nation’s tastes.

Food is everywhere in the book, and it will be a stoic reader who doesn’t fall upon the recipes at the back from Carlo’s mother’s kitchen.

Dear Alfonso, An Italian Feast Of Love And Laughter, by Mary Contini, Birlinn, £17.99

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