The Soul of a City
There are certain landmarks in any city that always make the postcards or the souvenir bookmarks and mugs and tea towels, landmarks that even a stranger would recognise silhouetted against the skyline. In Glasgow, they might be the Finnieston Crane, The Mackintosh Building at the Art School, the Squinty Bridge (or the Clyde Arc to use its official name) or even the statue of the Duke of Wellington on Queen Street with his obligatory traffic cone.
But then there are those places that are less recognisable to folk who don’t know the city but which are easily identifiable to those who live there. Places which don’t shout their touristy credentials quite so loudly but which engender words like institution and hidden gem. Places barely changed for years which—because of the lives that have passed through them and the events they have marked—have come to embody the soul of the city and with which we can all illustrate our personal histories. In Glasgow, that might mean The Pavilion Theatre, for example, or the Glasgow Film Theatre, or the blue Dr Who-style Police Box at the entrance to the Botanic Gardens, or any of the numerous legendary (and I don’t use the word lightly) pubs and bars that adorn the city.
The University Café is one such place. Situated on Byres Road just around the corner from the University of Glasgow (the clue is in the name), it has been selling teas and coffees and its own ice cream to West Enders and students since 1918. It was a favourite of mine when I was a student and more recently a regular treat-stop when my nieces came to visit. My mother-in-law was brought up round the corner in Partick and remembers going there as a child. Even Jamie Oliver is a fan. There are two pages devoted to the University Café in Jamie’s Great Britain and apparently his 20 minute visit there extended to nearly an hour by the time he’d eaten breakfast and been shown how the famous ice cream is made.
Pasquale and Guiseppa
Recently, I had the enormous pleasure of chatting to Carlo Verrecchia, the current owner. In his early 60s now, he’s been working in the café since he left school, aged 16. He explained that his Italian grandparents Pasquale and Guiseppa started the café in 1918. Like many others in the period between Italian unification in 1861 and World War I, they left their impoverished homeland searching for fresh opportunities in the newly industrialised cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and others. The Verrecchias made the journey from San Biago Saracinisco, a small village near Monte Cassino in the province of Frosinone.
Shipyards and carpentry
The beginning of the Verrecchias’ Scottish story is a bit unclear. ‘I don’t know what age my grandfather was at the time,’ Carlo tells me when I ask about when the couple left Italy, ‘but it was before the war.’ Pasquale started out working on a farm and was then employed as a tradesman, before eventually finding work in the Clydeside shipyards. ‘He was a ships’ carpenter,’ Carlo says. ‘In those days on the boats, everything was done out in wood, all the fittings and such, and they had to make things compact and tidy. My grandfather was good at designing things.’
For several years, Pasquale worked in the ship yards, putting money aside until he was ready to leave. But it seems his carpentry skills were in demand.
‘Yes,’ Carlo agrees. ‘They [the shipbuilders] wanted to hang on to him but he had made up his mind to start his own shop.’
In fact, it was those carpentry skills that Pasquale used to fit out the café. Fittings that have shown their quality as the years have passed. Much of the original decor of the café endures including the folding chairs in the booths and the elaborately carved panels.
Carlo is keen to show me a picture hanging in the café but this is a telephone conversation so he takes a photo with his phone and emails it straight through to me. It shows his grandparents as the proud owners of the University Café, the two of them standing on the step outside, Pasquale in his suit and Guiseppa in her white apron, the windows full of adverts for Cadbury’s chocolate and Capstan cigarettes and, above the door, a sign masquerading as a lamp. Or a lamp masquerading as a sign. Ices.
World War 2
It was perhaps a decade or so after this picture was taken that the Second World War engulfed Europe. On June 11th 1940, the day after Italy joined forces with Germany, Churchill’s government announced the policy of the immediate round up of all Italians immigrants without British nationality, and his infamous call to ‘collar the lot’ exacerbated the xenophobia that was already being whipped up by the press. Under this policy, as a so-called enemy alien, Pasquale was imprisoned in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. For a man who had lived in Britain for years, who had his own established business, who had children who were born and raised in Glasgow, and whose family was well integrated into the community, this must have been enormously hard to stomach. In an effort to help his father, Pasquale’s son Alfredo—Carlo’s father—renounced his Italian heritage and fought in the Royal Navy on an ML torpedo boat, hoping that his patriotism would persuade the authorities to release his father. Unfortunately, his efforts came to nothing and Pasquale remained interned on the Isle of Man until the end of the war. Despite the fact, as Carlo puts it, Alfredo, ‘kicked up a bit of a stink.’
Hot peas and vinegar. And that famous ice cream
Eventually, of course, the war came to an end and Pasquale was released. Alfredo left the navy and both men returned to Glasgow and to the ice cream vans and to the café.
‘Those days, there was no roll and sausage, no chips or burgers or anything like that,’ Carlo tells me. ‘They relied on teas and coffees, coke and ice cream. And hot peas and vinegar.’
To be honest, hot peas and vinegar doesn’t sound like my idea of a gastronomic treat but the University Café’s exceptional ice cream most certainly is. It is my abiding memory of the café. Pure white ice cream with the perfect lickable consistency, uncorrupted by any fancy flavourings.
I ask Carlo if it has a special name, milk ice perhaps, or maybe it is the same as the Italian fior di latte. He politely skims over my ignorance.
‘It’s not milk ice or dairy ice,’ he tells me. ‘It’s ice cream. You start with a water base and add milk powder and the other ingredients to get up to the standards of the fat and whatever.’
And it is unlike any Italian gelato he knows of because it is made to their own family recipe, a recipe passed down through generations. It was Grandfather Verrecchia himself who taught Carlo and his brothers how to make the ice cream. Framed certificates attesting to Pasquale’s ice cream making skills line the walls of the café. Diploma of Merit, Vertical Freezer Class, 1954; Diploma of Merit, Ice Cream 1960.
‘In those days [the ice cream] was made with the old gas cylinder under-heaters with a water jacket to stop it burning. You took the temperature up and…well, now it’s all electronically done in the machine.’
There is an unmistakable note of regret in Carlo’s voice, even though it must be a lot less work to stick the ingredients in the ice cream maker and set the programme.
Our conversation gets me thinking about the ingredients. Milk powder, sugar, fat. All of the things that were rationed during and after the war. I ask Carlo how his parents managed to run the café after when rations were limited.
‘The black market, hen, same as for all the fish and chip shops in those days. They bought ration books from people who didn’t want them. Somehow you could always manage to get what you wanted. That’s what they told me anyway.’
Time is getting on and I’m aware of how much of Carlo’s time I’ve already taken up. I can hear the buzz of café customers in the background. Before we finish, I ask one or two more questions about his regular customers, and with glee he tells me about one youngster of 100 years plus who still comes in frequently for a cup of tea. The photo of him and his letter of congratulation from the Queen is another of the framed pictures on the wall.
A family’s heritage. A city’s heritage
There were so many stories that Carlo opened up to me in our chat, so much more I wanted to know but hadn’t got around to asking. Like why his grandparents moved from Italy, whether they were married before they moved, and why they ended up Glasgow? And I wanted to know more about Pasquale’s internment. I could imagine how difficult it must have been for him to return to civilian life and re-establish the old relationships once the war was over. And how difficult it must have been for Guiseppa to keep the café running during those years when Pasquale and Alfredo were away, to procure the scarce ingredients, to protect the premises against vandalism and looting as had happened elsewhere in Glasgow during those grim years. In fact, when Carlo fact checks this article for me before posting, I find out that actually the café did suffer during WW2. At the time when Clydebank was being heavily bombed, the windows were smashed in by locals presumably because the owners were Italian. As for the other things, I’ll make sure I ask the next time I visit the café.
It was only when we were hanging up that I realised I had forgotten to ask the most important question of all. What about the café’s future? I’m sure Carlo isn’t thinking of retiring any time soon, but I had intended to ask him if any of the next generation—his children or his brothers’ children—were planning to take over the running of the place. I, for one, sincerely hope so. It seems to me that the café isn’t just a part of the Verrecchias’ family heritage but an important part of Glasgow’s too.
Credits and links
The header image of the University Café is a thumbnail of a digital art work by Stephen O’Neil and was used with his kind permission. For more information and to see more of his wonderful images of Glasgow and more, visit his website or gallery: Stephen O’Neil Art, 1030 Pollokshaws Road (opposite Langside Halls), Glasgow, G41 2HG.
The photos of the café and the certificates were taken by Carlo and used with his permission.