Ice-cream dynasties fighting for the Sunday sundae

YOLANDA and Josh Luca were in John Lewis recently. Josh is from the fourth generation of the Musselburgh ice-cream dynasty and can merchandise a counter of sugar mice and tidy a table with the best of them.

For the ice-cream dynasties it's a heroic struggle to lure the Starbucks generation back to a Sunday sundae. Picture: Robert Perry

He pointed out to the sales assistant that she was not wearing her name badge. Yolanda – his mother – was mortified. Josh is six.

“He definitely has an eye for it. He can arrange the sweets and tell me when there is a mess on the floor. He knows all the flavours we have on. When we take the ice-cream van to his school at half term, he gives out the flakes.”

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This is what happens when you grow up in a family with an ice-cream churn at its heart and raspberry sauce running through its veins. Yolanda lived above the café, on the High Street, until she was 24. The factory was next door, while aunties, uncles and cousins were across the landing and over the way. It was, she recalls, “like a compound”. The kids played ­Charlie’s Angels – and ice-cream parlours – in the mud of the back yard. Her father, who died when she was 16, worked “all the hours. We never saw him.” She laughs. “A bit like what I do now.”

For the ice-cream dynasties it's a heroic struggle to lure the Starbucks generation back to a Sunday sundae. Picture: Robert Perry

On Friday nights, young Yolanda would go down and help her auntie to align the sweeties. (And that is not a ­euphemism for eating them; kids who grow up surrounded by confectionery and double nuggets are soon immune to their charms.) Thirty-odd years later, last Sunday afternoon in fact, she got a phone call at 2.30pm. “I was just on my way to my son’s swimming gala. There was a power cut in the Morningside shop. I had to go and sort it out. The shop was closed on a hot summer’s day. We took up the vans and lined them up on Morningside Road.

“I was there all day and we turned it around. I could not have walked away and sat at the side of the swimming pool and relaxed until it was sorted.”

Luca’s – S Luca of Musselburgh to give it its full name – was founded by Luca Scappaticcio, late of the Italian village of Cassino, in 1908. The locals, while delighted to get their tongues around his luscious ices, struggled with his surname. So he turned it around. Together with his wife Anastasia, he bought up the surrounding properties, had 15 children and expanded throughout East Lothian. There are just two of that generation left; they were running the business until the 1990s. Yolanda and her cousin Michael took over as directors in 2010.

Luca’s has survived and prospered into the 21st century and now makes Irn-Bru sorbet and ice cream wedding cakes which it advertises on a – wait for it – website. Other famous café families have not been so lucky. Jaconelli’s, a Glasgow landmark which has appeared in Trainspotting, Tutti Frutti and an SNP party political broadcast, was bought by James Evans in 1992. He has kept the name, the deco fittings, the fish tank and, crucially, the ice cream, which is still made by a Jaconelli. There are no longer any Nardinis, however, involved with Nardini’s in Largs.

Glasgow’s University Café was founded by ship’s carpenter Alfredo Verrecchia in 1918 to sell pokey hats, boxes of chocolates and hot peas with vinegar. He fitted it out himself, in the luxury liner style, with tip-up seats and skinny tables. This was a generation that sat up straight to drink its frothy coffee and didn’t consider the knickerbocker glory a light snack between cheeseburgers. A contemporary visitor who has seriously overdone it with the double nuggets could find themselves trapped in one of these booths. Permanently.

Today Alfredo’s twin sons Carlo and Rico run the café – and the chip shop next door, opened 18 years ago – with their younger brother, Gino. Together with their wives they cover daily shifts that last from 8am until 10.30pm. Last week, when Gino was on holiday, his son Paolo was drafted in to cover. Paolo and his brother Americo run their own café, in Hillington, but jump into Byres Road when necessary.

Long years of frying fish and filling wafers have taken their toll on Carlo, 59. He grew up in the flat above the café, worked behind the counter and helped his father make ice cream when it was a laborious process involving a gas boiler with a steam jacket. “The minute I left school I was in here and that was it,” he recalls. “My parents said, this is your job, you carry on from here.”

His own ambitions were irrelevant when there was cashing up to do. “I wanted to be a mechanic or a chef. But you were in the family and that was it. If you were out you were out on your own, no digs to go to, nobody who would take you in.”

Denied their own dreams, Carlo’s ­generation has adopted the steady-as-she-goes business model. The University Café’s wooden tip-up chairs have been replaced with a maroon padded version, but otherwise the cafe has changed little since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Hot peas and vinegar are still on the menu. Spaghetti bolognese and lasagne are about as newfangled as it gets. The toilet remains in the close next door, ask at the counter if you require the key. Ice-cream awards, dating to Alfredo’s day, adorn the walls. The window has a curtain of spangly lametta and a faded sign promising toasted sandwiches.

“We keep same stuff going the same way and that’s it.” He laughs, mirthlessly. “Without fighting.”

Carlo’s nephew Paolo, 31, has not been ground to dust by the relentless demands of taxi drivers eating dinner and hipsters wanting kitschy cones covered in ironic hundreds and thousands. Yet. He started behind the counter when he was at primary school and remembers standing on a stool beside Nonno – ­Alfredo – and working the till. When he left school at 16, it was into the shop full time. He branched out with his brother three years ago. Carlo’s girlfriend, Stacey, was a Saturday girl. She pops in to see him after work and slips behind the counter to scoop a cone as if she had never left.

Working with family in a hot, enclosed environment is not, he admits, a strawberry sundae with hot chocolate sauce. “In the end, the shop is the priority. We have had grand disagreements then moved on. That’s why we’ve been able to keep going for so long. Lots of families are at loggerheads. We’ve backed down and put the shop first.”

The Verrecchias’ history sits on the University Café’s shelves beside the boiled sweets. “If someone is disappointed with the size of a portion they will tell you that, when they came here 20 years ago, they would get more chips than that. They are not slow to tell me that my grandfather would have filled that tub right up to the top. It cuts you deep. Even if you have never seen that person before.”

Paolo has an easy way with the customers, many of whom are in search of a double portion of nostalgia with their 99. “Older folk bring their grandchildren here and tell them stories about when they were dating, having a milkshake or a frothy coffee. We get students who love old-fashioned things and take lots of photos. You can spot them right away. They wear top hats and weird burgundy colours.”

Ann Gallagher pops in with her sister and nephew. This is a twice-weekly ­occurrence, she has been coming here since she was in her pram. “I celebrated my holy communion in here,” she ­recalls. “I had a knickerbocker glory. There were five of us. The others had to sit and watch me eat it.”

Robyn Nolan, 13, looks every bit the Starbucks Frappuccino kind of girl. Turns out she is a big University Café fan. “It’s the best ice cream ever,” she ­enthuses as Paolo makes her three milkshakes to go. “Proper ice cream. Not fake artificial Mr Whippy.”

Mo Bikai is a chef at Gumbo, the bar-diner next door. (“Everyone calls themselves a café nowadays,” Carlo notes ­acidly, “but they sell alcohol. We are a real café.”) It is his day off, but he is in buying three Nutella cones and two tubs of gingerbread ice cream, treats for his colleagues. Five minutes later one of these colleagues, a six-foot scenester with ear tunnel and facial hair, brings his back. He is allergic to ginger. Paolo has it binned and replaced before he can say anaphylactic shock.

Flavours are controversial. Even ­Luca’s, which stuck to vanilla, straw­berry and chocolate while others ­explored the wilder shores of Turkish delight and peanut brittle, now does tropical fruit and frozen yoghurt. It is only recently that they have started to make ice cream in advance. It used to go straight from churn to shop. On a sunny Sunday, when the queue stretches out the door, they can sell 200 gallons. Or so Yolanda thinks. “We lose track.”

And that is the classic third generation problem. “The older ones thought that if you were not behind the counter, you were not working. I still think that if I’m sitting in the office, it’s not work. I am always downstairs tidying up and making sure the toilets are clean. None of us has job titles.” Instead she reels off what a few of them do: one sister makes ice-cream cakes and lasagnes, a brother-in-law comes up with great ideas and responds to emergency requests for ice-cream vans at short notice. “I still find it really hard to put non-family in charge of anything. We all just pitch in.” «

Twitter: @MsABurnside