Obituary: John Cortellessa, Scots-Italian who brought snooker halls out of the dark ages

Giovanni (John) Battista Cortellessa, property developer and business owner. Born: 3 May 1960 in Edinburgh. Died: 20 April 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 57.

John Cortellessa
John Cortellessa

Family, friends, business colleagues and associates are enduring the loss, in recent days, of ‘Johnny’ John Cortellessa, who has succumbed after several yearsto a terminal illness.

Christened Giovanni Battista after his paternal grandfather – and otherwise known as John – he was born in Edinburgh. However, his ancestral roots were in the Apennine mountains of Italy, in a town called Marzanello, Campania.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

His parents, Gennaro and Margherita – who survives him – both left lives on small farms in search of economic opportunity in Edinburgh, his mother leading the way in 1951, his father shortly after.

They married here and with their experience of good food and Italian cuisine went into the catering business, ­running a carry-out in Montgomery Street. John grew up in a flat above the shop. They had three sons, John being the first born.

John had the benefit of being raised in a happy and stable home with two devoted ­parents in the area of ­Edinburgh then known as ­‘Little Italy’ around Elm Row.

That provided a local ­community and a network of family and friends; access to Valvona & Crolla – with fresh imported Italian food and wine – and Calton Hill, the closet thing to the Apennines that they loved.

Young John loved both this family life and his Italian heritage but he combined those with a love of learning and new experiences. He enjoyed Scots education and thrived at school – St Mary’s Primary School followed by Holyrood High, which extended, unusually for a boy in his situation, to further education in business management and catering.

The year 1976 – when he was only 16 – was momentous for John. That summer he ­suffered the trauma of losing a first cousin and close friend, who was the same age, in a road accident in Italy.

But he also met the love of his life, Gina Linda Panarello – she too was only 16. Linda lived in Montreal and they met by chance on family holidays to Marzanello. Marriage ­followed three years later in 1979 when they were both still teenagers.

Their marriage led to the births in the early 1980s of Gennaro and then twin girls – Julie and Jenny. Linda was a Canadian Italian and that led to time spent on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the early 1980s, John purchased the Fry Fare Chip Shop in Corstorphine which he spruced up and renamed the Montebianco. He also pioneered a widening of the shop’s product range, being the first Scots Italian to include Turkish kebabs in his menu.

In 1987, he decided on a change: a move to Canada where John spent seven years learning the construction trade in his father-in law’s business, including project and people management .

But John’s love of Scotland drew the family back to Edinburgh in 1994. He spent some years buying and refurbishing properties – mainly residential – and in property management.

In 1996, John saw a business opportunity in developing and improving snooker and pool halls.

He purchased the Angle Club in the heart of Morningside, the oldest surviving snooker club in Edinburgh. His friends thought that he was mad ­buying an old man’s club ­hidden behind a post office. But John had a vision.

The Angle Club was developed into a modern and sophisticated pool and snooker room combined with a high tech sports bar and tasty food offerings.

John and Linda branded it the Ball Room Sports Bar because it reflected all of the ball games that could be played or watched on the screens: pool, snooker, ping pong, foosball and football itself. This ­successful business model has now been rolled out across the Central Belt – with seven businesses so far – with the jewel in the crown being Jock’s Lodge, Meadowbank. This earned John the title “Mr Ballroom”, which he loved. The title now passes to his son Gennaro, who has been by his side in the family business since he was 14.

John Cortellessa’s contribution to the development of snooker and pool halls in Scotland is immeasurable – dark and smelly snooker clubs have been replaced with sophisticated leisure centres offering smart and clean family friendly environments where customers can not only play a wide range of games but eat and drink and watch live sport.

John also moved into ­commercial property. He purchased a church in Nile Grove, Edinburgh which has been developed into a Pizza Express and a thriving nursery. It was a tasteful development and has extended the services available to the local community there.

John and Linda also ­combined a very successful business life with an equally successful marriage which sustained both of them for just short of 40 years, with six grandchildren aged between nine and one. His first grandchild – named Giovanni Battista after him – shares the same birthday, 3 May.

When John was not engaged in family matters or business, he enjoyed various passions.

The first was fast cars. He first became a member of the Ferrari Owners Club in 2002 when he purchased a Ferrari 575.

He loved driving, travelling back and forth across Europe to Italy, choosing to do so in comfortable motor cars rather than fly.

The other was football. His upbringing in Elm Row ­predisposed him to Hibernian FC but his true passion was reserved for SSC Napoli, which he supported since he was a small boy, and followed through their high and low points – including when Diego Maradona wore the light blue jersey.

He also loved to enjoy good times with his family and friends in Scotland, across Great Britain, in Europe and in North America.

His favourite Scots hotel was the Trump Turnberry and he and Linda were often to be spotted in the audiences of a number of Royal Variety ­Performances.

He was great company with a dry sense of humour, naming his leisure business Corte Leisure and one of his property companies Boxroom Properties after the box room that was his bedroom as a boy in the family home in Montgomery Street.

John never forgot who we was and despite his tremendous success never acquired any airs or graces. He was also a frequent and wise contributor to Facebook, which was appreciated by his many fellow social - networkers.

It was a tragedy for John to contract the illness in 2016 that was to prove fatal just short of his 58th birthday.

John bore his illness bravely and fought it with all that he had with the immense and unrelenting support of his beloved Linda and his family.

His last two years have also been truly lightened, not only by his son, daughters and his in-laws but particularly by his six grandchildren with each of whom he had a special one-to -one relationship. John was sustained too by a deep belief in God and he accepted what was to be his destiny. It was typical of him that he derived consolation from the fact that it was he who was ill and not any of his immediate family .

Giovanni Battista, Johnny or John Cortellessa showed his family both how to live and how to die.

His passing leaves a huge void in the lives of many – but he will live forever in their minds and in their hearts, an inspiration to them with the fond memories that he leaves behind.

Paul D Pia