A little Italy in Ireland

 

Many of Ireland’s Italian population – which numbers about 9,000 – arrived during the boom. Seven Irish-Italians tell ALANNA GALLAGHERhow they feel about their adopted country

THE ‘IRLANDIANI’, the Italians in Ireland, make up a small but influential community that can trace its roots back to navigator Christopher Columbus, the first Italian of note said to have visited these shores. A small monument to him has been erected in Galway city. Most of the next wave of Italians were economic migrants, but not all.

Some helped transform Big Houses with their stucco work. In the 18th century, the plasterwork of the Swiss-Italian Francini brothers set a new bar in the decorative arts. Their work can be viewed on the ceilings of Iveagh House, now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in Dublin. The work was a prototype for two other commissions; 85 St Stephen’s Green and Carton House in Co Kildare.

Other Italians of note include Charles Bianconi, who set up Ireland’s first public transport system in the 1800s; Joe Nannetti, who became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1906; and the National Gallery’s chief conservator, Sergio Benedetti, who discovered The Taking of Christ, a lost masterpiece by Caravaggio in the Jesuits’ house of studies on Leeson Street in the 1990s.

Statistically, the number of Italians in Ireland now approximates 9,000, some 6,000 of whom moved here during the boom years, says author and editor of Italian Video News, Concetto la Malfa. “Before that, the majority of this first wave of Italians to Ireland came from Valle di Comino, in the province of Frosinone in the Italian region Lazio, south of Rome and north of Naples. Seventy per cent of this community was involved in the fish and chip business and of them, 70 per cent were based in Dublin.” But since the boom, the Italian community has tripled. Many work as professionals as well as in the more traditional food and coffee industries.

Love at first cappuccino

Roman Leandro Virgilio came here to learn English at the age of 25. “When I came here first, I didn’t have a word of English,” he says. “Dublin was much more laid-back than Rome so I stayed and started working at several eateries within the Bar Italia Group, including La Corta in the Epicurean Food Hall on Middle Abbey Street and the sister cafe in the IFSC.” He also gained worked at Dunne and Crescenzi before being asked to manage the Caffé di Napoli on Westland Row. It was there that he met his girlfriend, Daria Santill. She used to come in for her morning cappuccino. He asked her out after the first week of meeting her.

Coffee to Get Her is the Italian cafe they set up together in the Bernard Shaw pub on Richmond Street in Dublin.

“Irish people love Italian coffee but costs are an ongoing problem. Coffee in Ireland is more expensive than in Italy but costs are higher than in Italy. A barista in Ireland gets paid €40 per day. That is not the case in back home.” His favourite Italian restaurant is Campo De’Fiori in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Two Irelands

Sicilian Concetto La Malfa came to Ireland in 1965 on work experience. An economics student, he worked with Aer Lingus during his final year in college. Back then, flying was still glamorous.

He already had good English, thanks to the work of an American-Italian teacher at secondary school. He was vetted for the job by a Captain Madden.

“The interview lasted 30 seconds. He asked me three questions: ‘Do you like the colour green?’ ‘Do you like beer?’ and ‘Can you play a bit of guitar?’” After answering “yes” to all three, the captain told him he’d be alright.

Dublin was like a mortuary compared to Catania in Sicily, but the bohemian atmosphere of the pubs was unique, says La Malfa. “I saw two realities in Ireland, that inside the pub and that outside of the pub.”

La Malfa married an Irish girl and stayed. In that time, he’s seen Ireland “change from a place and people with blinkers governed by the church to a liberal society”.

La Malfa is a published writer of two books, Ricordi di Sicilia (“Memories of Sicily”) and A Stain on the Sun. Having started as a hobby, Italia Stampa is now a freesheet keeping the 9,000 Irlandini up-to-date with local, Italian and international news. Italian Video News is his online news service for the Italians in Ireland.

After almost five decades in Ireland, he has several favourite Italian restaurants, including Ciao Bella Roma on Parliament Street; Botticelli in Temple Bar; The Unicorn; Dunne Crescenzi; Terrazza Italian, Powerscourt Townhouse; The Steps of Rome; Il Baccaro, Temple Bar and Ar Vicoletto, Crow Street.

Part of the tribe

A French horn player with the Venice Opera House orchestra, Venetian Enrico Fantasia gave it up to open a restaurant in his native city.

John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guide first met him in Galway where he was working in Sheridan’s on Churchyard Street. He was “one of the best chefs” McKenna had ever met.

Enrico arrived in Galway in 2005. “The economy was booming,” he recalls. “Coming from Italy where things were already difficult economically, it was like a dream. There was the possibility to do something new. People wanted new wines, new foods, new chefs. Ireland was a place you could do something. It still is.”

These days, there is less money around but there is more confidence, he says. “That is reflected in the interesting restaurants that have opened. It’s good to see Irish people eating out again. During 2009 and 2010 it was awful to see people not enjoying life anymore.”

Fantasia stayed and has set up Grape Circus, a boutique wine importing business in association with Sheridan’s Cheesemongers. He no longer plays music, but he listens all the time. “Music helps me a lot. It has a structure that is horizontal and vertical. These are similarities it shares with food.” He still chefs for private clients.

“I like to eat food that touches the soul rather than making something that is technically beautiful on the plate.” His favourite place to eat Italian in Ireland is La Dolce Vita on Cow’s Lane, Dublin – “more of a wine bar than a restaurant but they make the most fantastic pasta”.

“San Lorenzo on South Great George’s Street is also very good but, more Italian-American in style.”

Mass exit

Tiziana Corvisieri moved to Dublin from Barcelona as a little girl in 1979. Born and raised in Rome, she travelled a lot as a child because her father worked with the Italian Tourist Board. The Corvisieri family arrived in Dublin on the day Pope John Paul II said mass in the Phoenix Park. “Dublin was like a ghost town,” she recalls. “I burst into tears driving through the deserted streets.” In those early years, the Corvisieris couldn’t get olive oil anywhere except in a chemist shop in medicinal 10ml bottles. Ireland has transformed in the last 30 years. Now, you can get anything Italian, even in supermarkets. “I love the quality of life here. In Rome, people sit in traffic jams all day. In Dublin you can walk anywhere. Or you can get in the car and be in the west of Ireland in three hours.”

Having gone to school and university in Dublin, Corvisieri works as a costume designer for film and TV. Her credits include the Oscar-winning Once. The mother-of-one also designs hand-made Italian leather handbags. Actresses Bronagh Gallagher, Maria Doyle Kennedy and model Erin O’Connor are all fans.

“It makes me laugh to hear the continuous giving out about the summer weather here. I’ve been living here for 30 years and have only experienced two ‘real’ Italian standard summers. The weather is what it is – always bad – the exception’s a nice surprise.”

A feeling of home

Veronica Vierin left her native Turin to come to Dublin to study photography to degree level. She had already spent two years in London perfecting her English so encountered no language barrier. She forms part of the new wave of boom-era Italians. She currently has a show, Traits-Portraits: Diverse Italian Identities in Ireland, at the Italian Cultural Institute, which looks at the broad range of Italians in the country.

Every time you move, there is an adaptation period, she says. “Turin is much more of a metropolis than Dublin. In Dublin, you’d don’t feel like you’re living in a city. I found it easy to create a network. In this city you meet people you know everywhere and that gives you a feeling of home.

“I’ve had very good pizza in Cafe Topolis on the corner of Parliament Street and in Manifesto in Rathmines. Enoteca and Bar Italia in the Italian Quarter are also good.”

Taking Liberties

Chip-shop owner Filippo Fusco left the Val de Camino in Italy when he was 15. He first moved to Paris, where he father was from, to work as a plumber and in 1963 he came to Ireland aged 22. His cousin, Angelo Fusco, ran the eponymous chipper in Rialto and taught Filippo how to cut potatoes and make batter for fish.

After a brief apprenticeship, he bought his own premises at 27 Meath Street in the heart of the Liberties. Five decades later, he still speaks heavily accented English. He admits he’s still learning the language and loves having the craic with the old ladies of the area and the “slagging” that ensues.

So, do Burdock’s not make the best chips in Dublin? “Burdocks is for the tourist. I deal more with the locals and have people coming from all over the city to sample my chips,” he says. Fusco says he eats chips every day – but counters this with over 10 hours of martial arts training a week.

He’s looking forward to the day when he can welcome fellow Italian Giovanni Trapattoni into his premises, an eat-in and take-away establishment that has featured in numerous films and television series. Singer and local girl Imelda May is a fan.

Language no barrier

Sardinian music fan Daniela Puzzi came to Dublin to see her sister and to witness U2 play their home town in 2002. She met her future husband at the gig. She stayed a week and although she and Rob had a language barrier, they were smitten and conducted a two-year long-distance relationship before Puzzi decided to move to Ireland. Rob had already learned Italian by the time she took the plunge.

She learned English while working in Penneys, her first job in Dublin, and by watching Coronation Street. She and Rob married in 2009 and they have a son, Liam, named after musician Liam Gallagher.

As a personal shopper at Harvey Nichols, she flies the Italian flag at work, championing Italian designers such as Sportmax and Max Mara. “They are great quality and are made in Italy rather than China.” When she first moved here she found the concept of fake tan very curious. “I used to wonder why all the Irish girls were orange. I’m dark. I don’t need fake tan but it seemed like so much effort.”

For Italian cuisine, Bellagio in Terenure, south Dublin, is her favourite, followed by Ciao Bella Roma on Parliament Street.

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