Obituary: Antonio ‘Tony’ Crolla - Popular scion of Edinburgh’s Scottish-Italian community and legend of the Royal Mile

Antonio Crolla, restaurateur
Antonio Crolla, restaurateur
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Born: 29 July, 1929, in Edinburgh. Died: 19 January, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 82

ANTONIO “Tony” Crolla was a popular member of the Scottish-Italian community in Edinburgh, and was best known for most of his life as the welcoming host of the Clamshell chip shop and upstairs restaurant at 148 High Street on the Royal Mile.

The Clamshell, formerly with a cream-painted façade but latterly blue, became a popular haven not only for locals but for tourists from around the world, notably during the Festival and the Fringe, which Tony Crolla watched grow during his lifetime.

He and his wife Dorothy were famous for describing haggis, in their shop window, in multiple languages for tourists to understand before they ventured in for a taste of the unknown.

And whether you were a celeb like Billy Connolly or simply a local Joe MacBloggs, you got equal treatment. In the early days, many came simply to taste the coffee from Crolla’s prodigious espresso machine, long before Starbucks and other foreign interlopers cottoned on to the fact that Scots and Brits were moving beyond tea and scones to enjoy a good, strong High Street coffee. The Clamshell later also became known for another tourist attraction – “the traditional” Scottish deep-fried Mars bar.

Born in the harbour village of Newhaven on the Firth of Forth, Tony Crolla was very much a Scot and an Edinburgher but he also remained a highly- respected member of the community whose ancestors came from Italy and enriched their newfound homeland.

His parents immigrated in the early 20th century and found themselves in Edinburgh at the heart of a growing Italian community which included many Crollas, distant cousins but mostly from the same area around Picinisco in the Lazio region.

Tony was distantly related to some of the other Edinburgh Crollas, including Victor Crolla, who became best-known for the Valvona & Crolla delicatessen on Elm Row. As a young restaurateur himself, Tony loved to visit Valvona & Crolla to buy Italian products, gossip with other Scottish-Italians and share stories from the country of their forefathers. That was before the delicatessen became a “cool” place to go for Edinburghers and visitors.

Tony, who lived on George IV Bridge, close to the Clamshell, for many years before later moving out to Joppa, was not closely related to several other Antonio Crollas in the capital’s restaurant business, including those behind La Favorita and the Vittoria group, Dario’s, the Bar Napoli and the Mermaid Fish Bar on Leith Walk.

“When we were growing up, there were fewer Crollas around compared to now,” Tony’s son Nick explained. “Although the various families are aware of each other, it got harder over time to maintain connections.”

Antonio Crolla was born in Newhaven on 29 July, 1929, to Paolo and Loretta Crolla, both from the remote village of Fontitune outside Picinisco in the Apennine mountains between Rome and Naples.

Their area was known in Italy as La Cioccaria because many of the local peasants wore traditional ciocci (clogs). Many poor Italians had started coming to the UK seeking work towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Most were peasants and far from chefs but they increasingly saw a gap in the market, not least through ice cream, which they initially sold from wheelbarrows. It is thought the term “hokey pokey” came from Italian ice cream vendors shouting “Gelati, ecco un poco!” (“Ice cream, here’s a little!”)

Tony’s father, Paolo, came to Scotland to help out relatives who had started a food shop in Newhaven, at the foot of the Brae (where a shop still exists). After Tony was born, the family moved to Lawnmarket before business success enabled them to get a two-storey house at 49 George IV Bridge.

Young Tony went to St Patrick’s High School and Holy Cross secondary, where his biggest memory, after Italy aligned itself with Hitler, was seeing his dad hauled off to internment on the Isle of Man, as an “enemy alien”.

In the heat of the war, the family shop, because it was owned by an Italian, was vandalised, although Tony recalled that most locals were not only apologetic and embarrassed, but supportive of his family.

With the war over, he himself did his National Service with the RAF, serving at the Seletar airbase in Singapore in 1948-49. By then, of course, his dad had been freed and was more determined than ever to run a successful and customer-friendly business in Edinburgh. The first family shop – selling mainly fish and chips, and ice cream – was in what is now the colourful office building of the Edinburgh Fringe at 180 High Street.

In 1956, Tony married Dorothy Booth from Leith. They had met at the Portobello open-air swimming pool – he had become a keen diver and water polo player during his National Service – and she became the love of his life.

The Crolla family moved their business a few doors along to 148 High Street, first calling the business the New Restaurant andlater the Clamshell, a name chosen by Dorothy. It is still owned by the family but is now rented out. Tony spent the rest of his working life there until retirement.

Many suggested that the success of the Clamshell should encourage him to branch out but he always felt that running the one place well was crucial to the kind of family business he believed in – hands-on, with a friendly face to greet customers.

He was a keen golfer, a member of Prestonfield for some time but latterly playing mostly on the municipal courses around Edinburgh. He was also a brown belt in karate and a mean opponent at badminton and squash.

Fluent in Italian from his upbringing, he was a familiar and much-loved face at the regular Scottish-Italian functions in Edinburgh. He also became fluent in Spanish – Spain and Cuba were among his favourite holiday destinations – and learned more than passable French, not least to enhance his love of good food and wine.

Otherwise, he loved dancing the tango with Dorothy, making furniture, doing crosswords, watching Westerns, or laughing to Laurel and Hardy, Dave Allen or Tommy Cooper. For crying, he relied on going to Easter Road to watch his beloved Hibs.

Antonio Crolla died at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He is survived by his wife Dorothy, sons Guido, Nicholas (now crew manager at Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service) and Dominic, and grandchildren Lewis, Max, Aurea, Joseph, Mia and Bella. PHIL DAVISON