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Swansea: Who Was the Italian Behind Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour?

In 1898, Luigi Cascarini left his home town of Picinisco, nestled in the mountains between Rome and Naples, in pursuit of a better life.

In most respects his story was no more remarkable than the thousands of other Welsh-Italians who made the same trip.

Yet, 125 years on, his descendants still run Joe’s ice cream parlour, a true Swansea institution.

In the city the words “Joe’s” and “ice-cream” are virtually interchangeable – so how did that happen?

“Right from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th Century, Italians – in common with people from all over Europe – were being drawn to Wales in search of the jobs and lifestyle which the new technology and industry offered,” said Rob Basini, a member of Amici Val Ceno (Galles), a group who organise social and charity events within the Welsh-Italian community in Wales.

The group was set up to celebrate the links between Wales and the valley of the river Ceno, home of the northern Italian town of Bardi, from where many Italians emigrated.

“However, by the 1880s a series of very harsh winters and wet summers had caused the crops in Italy to fail… for people barely scratching a living off the land this was a life-or-death disaster, so the trickle to Wales became a procession.”

Many came on foot, spending a year or more to make the journey through France and stopping off to take seasonal jobs.

Mr Basini, from Treorchy, Rhondda Cynon Taf, recalls meeting a teacher on his return visits to Bardi, who would tell the pupils: “You climb over the mountain, get down to the coast in Genoa, and then you turn right and keep on walking until you get to Britain.”

Once in Wales, some went to work in the mines and iron works, but many others found there was more money to be made from filling the gaps left by the relentless pull of manpower into heavy industry.

In 1930 there were said to be 53 coal mines in the valleys compared with 54 Italian cafes and shops.

So popular was one chain, the Bracchis, that the name remains a generic term for any cafe or corner shop the south Wales valleys to this day.

Luigi Cascarini was just such an entrepreneur, selling coffee and roasted chestnuts from a barrow while the weather was cold and ice cream and lemonade during the brief Welsh summers.

Now, with his brother Dominic, Luigi’s great-grandson Adrian Hughes is Joe’s current owner.

“The 1901 census lists Luigi as a musician, so possibly that was another string to his bow, entertaining his customers with a barrel organ or singing while they ate and drunk.

“By 1922 however he was well enough established in Wales to loan his son Joe the money to open a permanent ice cream parlour on St Helen’s Road, where we are to this day.”

Mr Hughes said the only condition of the loan was that Joe did not open on the same street as the family members who had backed him.

“Of course, what did Joe do? Set up next door to our cousins, the Pelosis!”

Yet every success story needs a stroke of luck, and that’s exactly what happened with the rise of the Temperance movement in the early 20th Century, which opposed drinking alcohol.

Mr Hughes said: “Joe wanted to make his experience as different from the pubs as possible.

“He wasn’t much of a businessman, but he knew how to put on a show, with silver-plated cutlery, crystal glasses and bone china, all from Mappin and Webb. He paid a fortune for it!”

When Luigi Cascarini died in 1936, thousands turned out for his funeral, with local newspapers extolling his contribution to Swansea, along with other Welsh-Italians, but disaster was just around the corner.

After Mussolini declared war on Britain in June 1940, Winston Churchill ordered: “Collar the lot”, and Italian cafe shop and restaurant owners were indiscriminately rounded up.

They included BBC Wales Today presenter Nick Servini’s great-grandfather Bartolomeo Rabaiotti who ran Rabaiotti’s Cafe on Pontypridd’s High Street.

“He was 59 and no threat to anyone, yet he was interned and put on a prison ship called the Arandora Star, bound for a camp in Canada,” said Nick.

On 2 July 1940 the Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and along with 800 “alien prisoners”. Bartolomeo died.

Many could not escape because of barbed wire which had been erected around the deck.

“Like many of the Italians who’d originally come from mountainous areas, he couldn’t swim, and the disaster left a long shadow over everyone in the community.”

Joe – who had lost a leg and an eye to diabetes – was considered safe enough to be kept prisoner on a farm in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire.

Mr Hughes said this could have provided yet another stroke of good fortune in the tale of Joe’s ice cream when his mother took over in 1969 and looked into the recipe – the amount of cream written down made it “prohibitively expensive” to make.

“The mystery is how he’d been able to get his hands on so much cream in the years immediately following the war – the only answer we’ve been able to come up with is that he forged some sort of black market connections with the people he met whilst interned in Llandeilo.

“Either way it’s remained unique and massively popular to this day.”

Nick Servini is the fifth generation of his family in Wales and grew up waiting on the tables of his uncle’s cafe in Aberdare in the 1980s.

“Back then we’d return to Bardi every year for massive parties called Scampagnata, I suppose the nearest translation would be a picnic, but on a much grander scale.

“Back then they’d last six weeks, now it’s more like a week.

“Some of the older generation think it’s sad that we’re losing that connection, but I just think it’s a great story of assimilation, two cultures melding so closely that you can hardly tell them apart anymore.”

Source : BBC