For the first summer in over 90 years Notarianni’s ice cream parlour was forced to close its shutters this year as Covid-19 hit home for the family. Now, after reopening the takeaway hatch their loyal customers are joining the queue for their fix. Antonia Charlesworth talks to the Vettese family about their history and their future.

If you happened to be strolling along South Promenade in the last few weeks, in the sunshine that’s been the redeeming feature of much of lockdown, you might have noticed the familiar queue of people snaking out from Waterloo Road stretching even further than in previous summers.

“On hot days there’s always a long queue and sometimes people will get to the counter and say: ‘What am I queuing for?’” laughs Maddalena Vettese, who greets those in line once they reach the takeaway hatch. “They always love it,” she adds. 

“You do get people who cannot understand we only do one flavour,” adds her brother, Luca.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone disappointed,” their dad Mike is quick to point out.

The family has been serving their famous homemade vanilla ice cream here for over 90 years but this year, after a delay to the start of their season, it’s takeaways only and there are strict social distancing rules.

“This year was the very first time we had to shut in season in our memory,” he says. “Even during World War Two we managed to keep open.” 

The family trio is the third and fourth generation of Italian ice cream makers to serve Notarianni’s gelato, usually for nine months of the year, to Blackpool’s hordes. Their collective good looks suggest there’s some truth in that old belief of factory workers on charabanc excursions – that sea air is key to good health. Their family story is one that was mirrored across the country – on the ice cream carts dragged along the cobbled streets of inner cities and in the parlours that once populated coastal resorts. From the humble ice cream cone to mammoth high-street pizza chains British culture owes much to the Italian immigrants who left their homeland to make their fortunes.

“It was my grandparents that started it,” explains Mike, whose mother, daughter of founders Luigi and Messalina Notarianni, married into another Italian ice cream family, the Vetteses. “They emigrated and then called the family over once they had enough money. All the Italians branched around the country so we have a lot of friends and relatives that were in the ice cream business and, out of them all, we’re the last ones standing.”

When the Notariannis left their home in Monte Cassino, a mountainous village between Rome and Naples, poverty was extreme. “They actually walked to Scotland – it’s incredible when you think about it,” he says, acknowledging the parallels with the plight of refugees today. 

“That’s what makes us keep the tradition going – remembering where you’ve come from,” says Luca.

If their love for family is matched by anything, it’s their love for their loyal customers, which even stretches back to the Second World War, when Mike’s grandfather Luigi was among the 19,000 Italians interned in prisoner of war camps. Luigi was detained by the same police officer who earlier that evening had been enjoying a free ice cream. But the business itself was never touched, unlike a related parlour in Liverpool that was smashed up.

Blackpool residents, they say, make up 90 per cent of their trade and the family has just started getting reacquainted with them since their partial reopening at the start of June. The season had just started when lockdown was imposed.

“We’d only been open for two weeks after the winter but luckily the council, bank and government are doing a lot to help us through this unprecedented time,” says Mike, reflecting the circumstances of much of Blackpool’s tourism-based businesses. 

“It was very strange, especially as we had the warmest April on record, but these are very scary times and we all have to do our bit to help get through this pandemic.

“We lost a close member of our family to Covid, and many family members and friends work on the frontline, so staying in was far more important. But we’re hopeful with all the help we’ve received we can survive and keep the family business going for another 90 years.”

This article is based on a piece that originally appeared in Big Issue North. Read it here: bigissuenorth.com/features/2018/05/cold-ices-warm-hearts

Photo Credit: CJ Griffiths Photography

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