“I’ve got the best job in the world,” he says, sipping a coffee in his office above Edinburgh’s legendary Italian deli, Valvona & Crolla, which he has run since 1986.
Given that among his duties he appears to be taster-in-chief, fans of the family-owned firm’s vast stocks of artisan produce will be inclined to agree. And if he’s not turned the family business into a national retailer, it’s because he prefers to be “a large fish in a small pond” and not for want of opportunities. In Edinburgh Valvona & Crolla is certainly a household name, and Contini, who joined the business at the age of 17, has seen it grow from a single shop staffed by family members to a multiple outlet operation employing 100 staff.
He has just returned from a buying trip to Italy. Bags of carnaroli rice and lentils litter the desk, but he is most excited about the dried mushrooms. What Italian wouldn’t be? In fact, Contini was born in Edinburgh and speaks with a light Scottish accent, but was immersed in Italian culture and cuisine from an early age, spending many months every year in his father’s native Naples. It stood him in good stead when he started work in 1971, as his trips revealed a change in culture that also signalled a new path for Valvona & Crolla.
“There was a revolution going on in Italy, they were rediscovering their produce and returning to smaller producers,” he recalls.
At the time the Elm Row store was still focused on the “stack ‘em high, sell ’em cheap” approach that had proved popular with continental immigrants and old soldiers of the Italian campaign after the Second World War.
“As I travelled more in Italy on buying trips I realised that what we sold here in the 1970s wasn’t representative of what was going on in Italy,” says Contini. “At Christmas we had crates of beer piled high outside, competing with the off-licences and making a couple of pence on a crate. We had far less variety of produce than we do now and much smaller margins.”
With the supermarket chains starting to bring affordable Continental produce to the UK on a large scale, it was fortunate for the business that Contini guided it down the road of high quality, premium produce. By the time the older generation of the family retired a decade later, the firm had been transformed. It’s a rejuvenation process that he sees time and again at the Italian producers he deals with.
“We buy from small artisan producers who have the same outlook and philosophy as we have,” he says. “If we are lucky, a son or daughter will come in and rejuvenate the firm – that’s always an interesting time. They come in armed with energy and learning and apply that to the traditional ideas behind the business. That happened in our company.”
He’s not referring to his own turnaround of the business in the 1970s, but to his daughter Francesca, who gave up a career in pharmacy to help the firm finally branch out beyond the deli set up by the eponymous immigrants in 1934.
A restaurant soon followed that first cafe, and then a deal to run food halls and refreshment stops in House of Fraser’s Edinburgh department stores.
Although in many ways his approach to business could not be more different, Contini says he has learned a lot from House of Fraser – their hard-nosed approach to business was an inspiration when he was forced to react to the recession of 2009. Now expansion is back on the cards, but it is likely to be cautious and in the Edinburgh area. Local knowledge has served the family well and Contini sees perils in taking on a new market, despite many suggestions that he open a shop in Aberdeen or Glasgow. But he has other reasons for keeping the business local, too.
He says: “Sometimes we receive opportunities without looking for them, and sometimes we seek opportunities. We’ve had offers over the years to open up a Valvona & Crolla on every high street in Britain. We had two offers to do that, but we said no. We can only maintain the standards of quality in an area that’s controllable by one of the members of the family. Financially of course it would be very lucrative. But we like that relationship between the small producer, and with the customers. Basically we didn’t want it because our family and home life is very important to us.”
Contini has starred in a number of roles during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in recent years, opening up a venue in the cafe behind the deli to bring to life the works of Dean Martin, Cole Porter and jazzman Louis Prima among others. So he is considering only “a couple of smaller projects for 2015”, including investing in the firm’s website.
“Money has not been a driver of this business,” he says. “We live well and we work very hard, but our ambition is not to be rich.”
True to the peasant roots from which his grandfather Alfonso Crolla emigrated in the late 19th century, and which inspire the business and the Italian artisan food revolution to this day, Contini’s favourite food is pasta, which he eats “almost every day”.
“There are so many different shapes and types that each match to a sauce, in the family everyone has got their own favourite,” he says.
But he also takes a great joy in discovering new food and drink from Italy’s bottomless larder. For the business’ 80th-anniversary celebrations this week, he plans to serve a Vermouth which he only discovered this summer – it is from a family firm just 20 kilometres from where his father grew up, and the winery was set up in 1934.
Job: MD, Valvona & Crolla.
Born: 1953, in Edinburgh.
Education: St Mary’s Primary and Scotus Academy, both in Edinburgh.
Ambition while at school: Not to be at school!
Favourite mode of transport: My 14-year-old gas-guzzling, V8, battered BMW 540. But what a joy. My next car will run on batteries. Promise!
Music: Singing Dean Martin, Cole Porter, Italian & Neapolitan songs. and going to the RSNO’s Friday evening concerts.
Favourite place: Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. It becomes the cultural centre of the world.
Favourite food: Pasta, specifically egg taglierini with my home-made Fonteluna sausage and tomato sugo – the recipe is in The Sausage Bible by my wife, Mary Contini.