From Scullery Boys To Businessmen

Catering is the sector in which a huge number of Italian emigrants and their descendants have best established themselves all over the world. At first, they were street vendors of ice-cream in the summer, and of roast chestnuts in winter. Many came from the Lucca and Parma area. Once they had become resident, they had their first jobs – as waiters, scullery boys, and then as chefs in restaurants and hotels. And finally as owners of their own businesses. If the first restaurants were places to socialise for the Italians, they soon attracted customers of other nationalities and spread everywhere.

As in other sectors, the family always played a crucial role in determining emigration patterns, as the various businesses were almost exclusively family-run. Italian chefs and restaurants are today considered among the most refined in the world, but in those far-off days cooks simply learned by observing the women of the family at work in the kitchen.

Catering set the pattern for extensive emigration towards the United Kingdom. From London, the first immigrants gradually moved to the major provincial cities, like Manchester and Liverpool; to the industrial areas of South Wales; to Scotland, particularly Glasgow, and also to Ireland, mostly settling in Dublin. In all these places, they opened shops and bars.

In the early days, a curious reason for the huge success of these shops, which often sold only fish and chips, was that they differed from the traditional all-male domain of the pubs, where children were not admitted because of licensing laws for sale of alcohol. The Italian shops, which sold no alcohol, were open to women and children.

These cafés and shops, which spread even to the smallest villages, became places to socialise. Italians thus began to integrate, despite their difficulties with the language, customs and traditions. The same process occurred with ice-cream shops. The first step was to sell ice-cream from a street cart in the summer, then to open an ice-cream parlour. Because it was cold for most of the year, other products were sold too: mineral water, various beverages, coffee, sweets, jams and chocolate. These shops were particularly popular in Scotland: in the early 20th century there were about one thousand shops, with some five thousand people working in them, in about two hundred different towns.

Netherlands, Amsterdam, 1950s. “La pergola”, an Italian restaurant