Decline takes grip on cafe society that joined two cultures: Traditional businesses close as Italian immigrants feel chill in Welsh valleys

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The Independent Online
BRACCHIS, the little Italian cafes with their hot pies, steaming espresso machines, bottled sweets and home- made ice-cream, are going the same way as the chapels and pits in the ravaged valleys of South Wales.

One by one they are closing down, victims of economic decline and changing social attitudes.

Ten years ago, in the two valleys of the Rhondda, there were 60 Bracchis, the nickname given by miners to all Italian cafes after the pioneering Bracchi family opened the first one in the region a century ago.

Today, according to Dino Carpanini, one of the few surviving cafe padrones, there are barely 15.

The decline closes a chapter on a remarkable story of integration between two valley communities living 800 geographical, cultural and linguistic miles apart. In valleys like the Rhondda, there were mining families, stern Methodists, solid Labour; the incomers were from Valceno, a poor farming area of northern Italy centred on the town of Bardi. They were, and remain, devoutly Catholic and discreetly Tory.

In his study of the Bardigiani immigrants to South Wales - Lime, Lemon and Sarsaparilla - the author Colin Hughes says they were accepted because customers sat for hours in the little cafes and got to know the proprietors well. 'The Italians were seen as honest and friendly; their choice of trade posed no threat; their services were enjoyed. Their assimilation was, if not unique, at least unusual in its success.'

The Italian community, with its ice-cream hand barrows and cosy cafe parlours, escaped unscathed during the anti-Semitic riots of 1911 when mobs attacked Jewish- owned pawn shops in South Wales.

It even survived the wholesale internment or deportation of Italians during the Second World War. In one tragic incident, nearly 500 Welsh-Italian cafe owners, tobacconists and ice-cream vendors, perished when the Arandora Star, shipping them to exile in Canada, was torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1940.

Despite the disappearance of so many Bracchis, Mr Carpanini - who runs one of only two remaining Bracchis in Tonypandy (there were once seven) - is optimistic about the future of his own cafe, which still opens from 7am to 7pm each day, as his son, Anthony, 23, wants to take over in time. 'He's quite happy to do what his father and uncle did here before him, and that's a rare occurrence these days.'

Lime, Lemon and Sarsaparilla by Colin Hughes; Seren Books; pounds 6.95

(Photographs omitted)