Olivia Contini may have been Scots-born, but her proud heritage, rooted high in the Apennine mountains, was at the heart of a joyously patriotic Italian family whose business has been an Edinburgh institution for generations.
Her father, Alfonso Crolla, arrived in the capital in 1910 after leaving his remote hamlet on foot and walking virtually all the way to Scotland. Here he found a camaraderie amongst fellow immigrants and a job with relatives in a Leith ice-cream shop. He went on to form a partnership with an importer of continental produce who supplied the immigrant Italian community, and Valvona and Crolla was born.
Established in 1934, the business is Scotland’s oldest delicatessen and Italian wine merchant and has now seen four generations of Olivia’s family “behind the counter”, including her daughter-in-law, the cook and author Mary Contini who has recorded, in a series of books, the passion for food, their culture and cuisine that has permeated their lives.
Alfonso Crolla, born in the tiny community of Fontitune, Val di Comino, in the Frosinone area of Lazio, between Rome and Naples, was a shepherd whose father had had a spell in London selling ice cream. He, too, decided to seek opportunities abroad and left behind his wife, Maria, and first-born son to head for a better life in Scotland. When he was able to send enough money home to Maria, she and their son came over too and, reunited, the couple built their life here.
Olivia, one of their six children, was born in Edinburgh in 1924. The family lived in a flat in Brunton Place and she was educated at the city’s Holy Cross Primary and Academy. She was ten when her father set up Valvona and Crolla. He died in 1940, the same year that Italy entered the Second World War, and her two brothers, Domenico and Vittorio, were interned along with thousands of other Italians in Britain deemed the “enemy within”. Meanwhile, Olivia was called up and trained to become an auxiliary nurse, working in St Raphael’s Hospital in Edinburgh.
After the war, she went to work in Domenico’s ice cream shop and café, The Tiffin, in Easter Road, which also supplied pies and Bovril to Hibernian Football Club. It was there she first met her future husband, Carlo Contini. He had been born in Naples and worked in the family carpentry business until joining the mounted horse division of the Polizia Stradale for his military service in 1946. He was quickly promoted and had ambitions of joining the diplomatic corps. However, he needed to learn English and to do so he came to live with a friend in Edinburgh, paying for his lodgings and studies by working in a Snowball factory.
He first saw Olivia when he delivered Snowballs to The Tiffin and was captivated by her. She was not so impressed with Carlo, a handsome figure whose mother had called him the Prince of Pozzuoli, after the name of the fishing village where they lived outside Naples. However, despite her initial indifference, they fell in love and decided to marry. It was only when Carlo wrote to his parents to tell them of his decision to settle in Edinburgh that he discovered he was not their natural child.
As Mary Contini explains, as she unravels the family heritage in her book Dear Francesca, he had been a foundling, given up for adoption, and had only become part of the family after a series of heart-rending tragedies. His adoptive parents, Luigi Silni and his wife, Annunziata, had suffered the deaths of five babies when they decided to take in a child from the foundling hospital in Naples. Their eyes alighted upon a pale, fragile child, Carlo Contini. The law decreed that an adopted baby should keep his original surname, so the Silni family changed theirs to Contini.
After marrying Olivia in 1952, Carlo joined Valvona and Crolla, then run by his brother-in-law Vittorio. The couple had two sons and Olivia became a housewife, working in Valvona and Crolla on a Saturday. In the late 1970s, she went into business for herself with Carlo, opening a bed and breakfast hotel which she ran until 1985.
Later, she joined the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and was involved in meals-on-wheels with her sister Gloria. She was also involved in a variety of other charity activities over the years.
A great cook and baker, she maintained the traditions of her own mother’s cooking from the mountains and those of the Neapolitan cuisine learned from her mother-in-law, whom she had visited during her honeymoon. On that occasion, eager to demonstrate her cooking skills and ability to look after her new husband, she offered to make fresh pasta. She was met with a look of horror and told that they no longer made pasta at home. Commercially produced dried pasta had become widely available and to have to make your own signified poverty – the neighbours would think they could not afford to buy it. While expert at producing traditional fare, she was also experimental in the kitchen and had a vast library of recipe books encompassing Elizabeth David, Delia Smith, Antonio Carluccio and Nigella Lawson, ensuring her family and any guests were always exceptionally well fed.
She and her husband, who predeceased her on the same date, 8 July, seven years ago, had a large social circle of cousins and friends in the Italian communities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and shared many happy times with the Capaldis, Codettas, D’Agostinos, Demarcos, Lennies, Marans, Margiottas and Pias.
A spiritual woman who was deeply proud of family and her faith, she lived her entire life within the parish of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh, where her requiem mass was held.
She is survived by her sons Philip and Victor, daughters-in-law Mary and Carina, grandchildren Francesca, Olivia, Orlando, Carla and Arianna, great-grandchildren Alfonso and Florence and her sister Gloria.