I look at my plate and don't know where to start. There's a stem of the sweetest vine tomatoes and hearts of the crispest of chicory from the fertile slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Then, beckoning from the other end of the plate, is a generous mound of barrata, a kind of unset buffalo mozzarella creamy, delicate and a complete revelation. Vying for my attention is more buffalo mozzarella, a slab of it smoked, some slices of meaty salami from Sorrento and, if all that isn't enough, a pile of tasty anchovies. This plate, laid before me at Bacco Italia, a small restaurant in Glasgow's leafy Shawlands suburb, is an epicurean journey of enormous proportions.
"We try to get the best of everything," says chef and restaurateur Pepe Staiano. Pepe speaks in a bizarre mix of Italian and Glaswegian accents it's a struggle to understand him. "I only arrived here six years ago," he says, as a plate of grilled sea bass is placed in front of me, "but I have always felt very much at home in Glasgow."
Pepe is not the only Italian to say as much about Scotland's famous city. It could even be suggested that England's new football coach, Fabio Capello, took the wrong job don't forget that the Scottish national football team is still in the market for a new manager. What is certain is that from footballer Lou Macari to the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi via This Life actor Daniela Nardini and CART racing champion, Dario Franchitti, the Scots Italians have had a huge impact on both Scotland and the UK.
"The first wave of Italians arrived in the late 19th century from a small town in northern Tuscany called Barga," says Ale Nardini, cousin to Daniela and creator of scotsitalian.com, a website dedicated to all things "Tally" a once pejorative Scottish colloquialism to describe an Italian that has passed into common usage. "It does feel that there's some kind of special connection between the Scots and Italians," he says.
We have met at the Glasgow Central railway station caf, Franco's, which is a sea of Azzurri football flags and scarves, a living homage to football's world champions. Franco's does a fine cappuccino but then food and drink has always been the Scottish Italians' forte. "The Italians were very poor when they arrived," says Ale, "but they worked hard... Many of the original fish and chip shops and cafes in Glasgow were Italian owned and run."
After a short stroll around Glasgow, Ale deposits me outside Sarti, one of Glasgow's legendary Italian eateries. "The family started out as wholesale suppliers to the Italian community," says co-owner Sandro Sarti, as a plate of succulent charcuterie arrives. "The family used to cycle around the back streets of Glasgow with big cans of olive oil, refilling people's bottles," says his brother and co-owner Piero. Whatever the brothers' forebears did, it has certainly reaped dividends. The spread of Parma, pancetta, salami, pastrami and mortadella grabs our attention and the conversation dwindles to satisfied grunts. "We then set up a deli and then got into the restaurant business almost by accident," says Sandro.
But things weren't always so sweet for the Scots Italians. "When the Second World War broke out about 1,000 Italians were interned," says Scots Italian historian and writer, Joe Pieiri. At 89, a resident in Scotland since 1919, Joe has pretty much seen it all. "I was interned in Canada," he says. "The community suffered badly but we were soon accepted back into the fold when the war ended." Joe's family ran the famous Savoy Caf in central Glasgow until it was demolished in the 1970s. "Those were pretty wild times and we would suffer a fair amount of racism. We had to fight to gain respect."
That evening as though I needed to eat any more I head for probably the best-known and longest established Italian restaurant in Glasgow, L'Ariosto. It is also one of the friendliest. I settle into one of the booths and devour a hearty plate of Tuscan sausage and spaghetti. "L'Ariosto has been open about 40 years," says owner and chef, Giovanni Cecchetti over an after-dinner espresso. "I would say nearly all the Italian places in Glasgow are hands-on, family-run businesses. It makes it all bit special in these days of chain restaurants," he says.
He's right. But, more than anything, while the welcome is faultless the food is superlative. Just try the Vesuvian tomatoes.
HOW TO GET THERE
Andrew Spooner travelled to Glasgow as a guest of Virgin Trains (08457 222 333; virgintrains.com), which offers single fares from London starting at 18.50.
For more information on Glasgow, its food and winter accommodation deals contact Visit Scotland (visitscotland.com and eatscotland.com).
Sarti, 133 Wellington Street (0141-248 2228; sarti.co.uk), 121 Bath Street (0141-204 0440), and 42 Renfield Street (0141-572 7000).
Bacco Italia, 67-69 Kilmarnock Road, Shawlands (0845 226 7031).
L'Ariosto, 92-94 Mitchell Street (0141-221 0971; ariosto.com).
Further reading 'The Scots-Italians: Recollections of an Immigrant', by Joe Pieri, published by Mercat Press, 9.99