'Spiritual head' of Valvona & Crolla
Monday 28 November 2005
Vittorio Crolla, shopkeeper: born Edinburgh 22 September 1915; died Edinburgh 17 November 2005.
For 40 years Victor Crolla was the family team leader at Valvona & Crolla, an Italian delicatessen famous not only in Edinburgh but among tens of thousands of festival and other visitors to the Scottish capital - a symbol of Scottish-Italian amity. The language in the shop was sui generis: a hybrid between Leith Scots and High Neapolitan. Now the business has customers across the UK through its mail-order delivery service.
The Crolla family came from the small village of Picinisco near Abruzzo between Rome and Naples in the heart of Italy. The village was famous for the sheep's-milk cheese pecorino. In 1906, Alfonso Crolla emigrated to Scotland and established a small ice-cream and confectionery business at Easter Road near the Hibernian football ground in Edinburgh.
Vittorio Crolla (he later took the name Victor) was born in 1915, the third of six children, and left Holy Cross School at 14 to work with his siblings in their father's business. Then in 1934, he joined Alfonso in setting up a delicatessen in Elm Row, at the top of Leith Walk, selling easily affordable food, mainly to the Italian immigrant community.
They teamed up with Raffaele Valvona, by that time an elderly shopkeeper who was thought by the Italian community to need the acumen of the Crolla family. Valvona demitted the scene in a friendly way but the firm kept his name.
When Italy declared war in June 1940 both Alfonso and his son Victor were interned as enemy aliens. Alfonso was one of the unfortunate Italian citizens who lost their lives off the west coast of Ireland when the Arandora Star, the unmarked cruise ship taking them to Canada, was sunk by a German U-boat on 2 July 1940. Victor was interned for five years on the Isle of Man. This proved to be the university to which he had not had the opportunity to go in peacetime. He applied himself to learning German and French and above all acquiring a musical education.
My first meeting with him was over the counter in his shop in 1950 when I told him how thrilled I had been to hear the orchestra and chorus of La Scala, Milan, at the Usher Hall under the baton of Victor de Sabata; and how electric another La Scala concert had been under Guido Cantelli, later to have his life cut short in a tragic car accident. It transpired quickly that Victor had fed most of the orchestra and chorus, if not the distinguished conductors, out of his own pocket. He was a huge supporter of the Edinburgh Festival and artists both famous and less famous, often in conjunction with his friend the impresario Richard Demarco.
In 1945 the Crolla family had to decide whether to go back to Italy or to try to pick up the pieces where they had left off in 1940. (It speaks volumes for the family's relationship with the Scots that during the Second World War the shop's loyal staff continued to keep it open so that there was a business to return to.) Victor would say: "Well, I was born and educated in Edinburgh and I was determined to make a go of it in Scotland."
He succeeded brilliantly, helped by the fact that a lot of returning troops from the Eighth Army and the First Army, who had fought up the spine of Italy, Monte Cassino and all, had acquired a taste for the Italian meats, olives and, above all, fine wines and cheeses. Having concentrated on inexpensive produce, Valvona & Crolla made the shrewd decision, as supermarkets began to undersell local businesses, to specialise by importing the best Italian food and drink. Victor Crolla's family - he was never to marry - became his customers and his counter was his soapbox and home.
He was a passionate European. In November 1971 he offered to give me a huge Italian cheese as a present for having been one of the 69 Labour Members of Parliament who voted against a three-line whip in the lobby of Edward Heath in order to go into the Community. I think he was offended when, with a politician's sense of self-protection, I declined to succumb to the temptation.
Crolla was a pioneer of healthy food, never failing to point out the virtues of low-cost tomatoes and packets of spaghetti. Ever thoughtful in educating his permanent and temporary staff, of whom my daughter was fleetingly one, he told them always to imagine that any customer who was bad-tempered was probably taking it out on them for something that had happened earlier in the day: "Imagine that that bad-tempered lady is your own mother. Make sure that every customer leaves happy!"
Victor Crolla stepped down in 1985, but, in the words of his nephew Philip Contini and his wife Mary who now run the shop, he continued to be "spiritual head of the store".
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