Obituary: Aldo Nardini, café owner

Born: 24 July, 1930, in Paisley. Died: 3 August, 2015, in Greenock, aged 85.

Aldo Nardini, former ice cream king of Scotland and father of actress Daniela. Picture: Daily Record
Aldo Nardini, former ice cream king of Scotland and father of actress Daniela. Picture: Daily Record

For most of the latter half of the 20th century, Aldo Nardini and his brother, Pete, reigned unchallenged as “the ice cream kings of Scotland”. Their white, art-deco café, Nardini’s, on the Largs esplanade next to the historic red sandstone St Columba’s church, put the little Ayrshire tourist resort on the map before Aldo’s daughter Daniela, now a much-in-demand actress, was even born.

Nardini’s secret? Ice cream to die for. And it eventually, by word of mouth, attracted film and TV stars, King George VI, his daughter Queen Elizabeth, foreign royalty, prime ministers, sporting heroes and simple working-class mums and dads dragged “doon the watter” or by road from Glasgow for a lip-licking treat.

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Aldo Nardini, who was born in Paisley and had lived in Largs since he was an infant, passed away in Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock ten days after celebrating his 85th birthday. As a child from Clydeside, I remember nagging my parents to fill up the old Wolseley and take me and my sister on a day trip to Largs for a technicolour Nardini’s Knickerbocker Glory: a multi-layered sundae of cream, ice cream and diverse fruits served in a tall conical glass that required kneeling on the chair to get your giant spoon to the bottom. I can still taste it now as I write.

Aldo, and later his wife, Sandy, who came into the café for an ice cream when she was 21 and left with an engagement ring (they married in 1961), gave cheery greetings to the eager customers, especially the children, who used to queue round the block on a scorcher to enter the magic wonderland beneath the tall flags of Italy and Scotland. Locals used to joke that the weekend “invasion” by Clydesiders was even worse than the town’s historic invasions by the Vikings. At their peak, Aldo and his brother, who died last year, were selling 500 gallons of ice cream a day.

In the post-war years, it was still a novelty to hear a handsome “exotic Italian” like Aldo speak as broad Scots as the rest of us as he moved among the café’s gold-sprayed basketry chairs beneath glittering chandeliers. His nonno (grandfather) Pietro Nardini spoke not a word of English when he arrived in Scotland from Tuscany aged 14 in 1890. Pietro’s sons, including Aldo’s father, Nardino, soon picked up the language as they launched Nardini’s in Largs in 1935.

But the Knickerbocker Glory days were numbered. From the late 1960s, Scots began turning from “doon the watter” to all-inclusive package deals to the Costa Brava or Tenerife, and Nardini’s, indeed all of Largs, suffered. After a bitter Romeo and Juliet-style family feud around the turn of this century, the café went out of business for a while and is now run by a company in which none of the Nardini dynasty is involved.

Aldo Cavalieri Nardini was born on 24 July, 1930, in Paisley, where his grandfather Pietro and father Nardino ran a fish-and-chip shop and ice-cream parlour. Pietro had begun selling clay Madonna statuettes door-to-door from a suitcase to save enough money for his dream of a café. He eventually did so, on Wall Street, Paisley. The family would move to Largs when Aldo was a baby to cash in on an influx of tourists to the beaches of Ayrshire during the gay, hopeful post-Depression years. Pietro died soon after and Nardino and his two brothers opened Nardini’s café in 1935, eventually passing down management to Nardino’s sons, Aldo and Peter.

The Nardinis were from Barga, a picturesque medieval hilltop town in Tuscany which has often been called “the most Scottish town in Italy”, partly because of its many emigrants to Scotland but also because of the scenic similarities which first attracted those emigrants. The village is dotted with old-style red British mailboxes and every August holds a Sagra del Pesce e Patate (fish and chips festival) to celebrate the Barga/Scottish connection. The Tuscan village is twinned with three Scottish towns -- Prestonpans, Cockenzie and Port Seton, and Longniddry.

Aldo and his wife Sandra would often take their daughter Daniela and two sons to Barga to remind them of their heritage and visit their granddad Nardino after he retired there, where, even after her fame, Daniela was greeted like a family member by the villagers.

Aldo was still at primary school in 1943 when rumours swept around Largs that prime minister Winston Churchill, US president Dwight Eisenhower and Lord Mountbatten had been seen coming and going at the Hollywood hotel. It turned out they were holding secret meetings as to where and when to launch the D-Day invasion of Normandy the following year. They were said to have anonymously ordered takeaway ice creams from Nardini’s.

When he was 29, Aldo, a fine clay pigeon shot, took part, unsuccessfully, in the elimination rounds for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. At the time, he was secretary of the Largs and District Gun Club.

When Daniela was still a child, she scooped ice-cream cones for her father in the café foyer while watching the ferry sail across the bay to the island of Great Cumbrae while the paddle steamer Waverley brought Clydesiders “doon the watter” for the day. “She knows how to scoop a proper cone,” Aldo once said of his daughter. He used to watch young Daniela play with her pals by Largs’s Gogo burn, which ran through the grounds of Halkshill House, her parents’ home at the time.

It was in the late 1990s that Aldo and his brother had a falling-out over the future of the café. Peter brought in an outsider, David Hendry, as a partner and Aldo was unceremoniously ousted from the board at a meeting he said lasted 30 seconds. He was shocked and hurt by what he called his brother’s “treachery” and the two rarely spoke thereafter. “I feel heartbroken that none of the family stayed on to maintain the tradition,” Aldo said later. “I cut my teeth in it and it’s part of me. My father and uncles would be turning in their graves if they could see what’s happened.’’

Daniela Nardini, too, by then a well-known actress, was furious, stood by her dad and once said she felt like throwing stones at the Largs café’s windows after the feud. “I haven’t done it – yet,” she said.

Aldo went on to help his sons Aldo jnr and Nicky carry on the family ice-cream tradition with cafés outside Largs – Il Caffe Casa at the Gyle in Edinburgh and in the St Enoch’s Centre in Glasgow.

A further dispute with his brother over the right to use the Nardini name on those cafés’ ice-cream went to court and Aldo and his sons won. In retirement, he remained hurt but was eventually proved right when the Nardini’s run by his brother and David Hendry went pear-shaped, was left abandoned for several years and was finally refurbished and re-launched, much to Aldo’s chagrin, by non-Nardinis.

In retirement, Also kept fit through running, strenuous gym sessions and “serious walking” – more than 30 miles a week.

Aldo Nardini is survived by his wife Sandra (née Alexandra Macrae), daughter Daniela, sons Nicky and Aldo jnr and grandchildren Alexander, Sasha and Claudia Rose. Aldo snr’s eldest son, Pietro (Pete), died in a tragic car accident on Largs esplanade in 1984, aged 19.