Exploring the towns and cities of Wales today, you’ll find we have a generous serving of Italian cafes and ice cream parlours. As well as being a great place to stop for coffee and a sweet treat, these eateries are a legacy of our historic link with Italy – as we welcomed in a wave of immigrants who brought food and culture with them.
A taste of things to come
The most notable of these was Giacomo Bracchi, whose empire of cafes in Wales grew so great that his surname became the general term for any Italian café. By the early 1900s, “Bracchis” could be found throughout the south Wales valleys, serving fresh coffee, fish and chips, and providing a place for neighbours and friends to meet, growing local relationships and community spirit.
Most Italian immigration to Wales took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with Giacomo Bracchi amongst those eager to start a new life in the UK. He arrived into London in 1881 and initially worked as an organ grinder – a novelty street musician who played the barrel organ. Organ grinding was a popular job in Italy, which was at the time home to some of the world’s best barrel organ manufacturers.
Historic literature notes that the streets of London were getting packed with Italian ice cream stalls and organ grinders around this time, so Bracchi started looking for a new “pitch”, where he could bring something different to a totally new area. He arrived in Wales via Newport, and after moving around for a few years eventually opened his Italian café and ice cream shop. Although Bracchi is the best-known of this new breed of café-teers, his arrival coincided with the temperance movement in Wales. This was a social movement against the consumption of alcohol, and as a result there were a number of temperance ‘bars’ opened by Italians around this time.
Bracchi had found himself a popular niche, and paved the way for more Italian confectioners and caterers, who would move to Wales and open their own food businesses over the coming years. As well as cafes, a number of families would pedal ice-cream carts through the streets, providing sweet cold treats to local communities across the country. South Wales was suddenly the best place to get a gelato outside of Italy!
Today, one of the best known Welsh ice cream brands is Sidoli’s, which was founded by Benedetto Sidoli in the early 20th century. Benedetto Sidoli also arrived to Wales from Bardi, the same small part of Italy as Giacomo Bracchi. The original Caffe Sidoli is in Ebbw Vale, and still serves ice cream, Italian coffee and other snacks.
A number of the original Italian ice cream parlours and cafés still exist around Wales, and they are an unusual reminder of Wales’s industrial past. A visit to the Rhondda Heritage Park is always worthwhile – when you head there, make sure to stop into Caffe Bracchi, a tribute to the immigrant Italian families who brought their café culture to Wales.
Lands of song
Wales and Italy share a great passion for music. While the male voice choir is probably the most recognisably Welsh musical form, we’re also enthusiastic about the quintessentially Italian style of opera. The Welsh National Opera is a touring company that performs to audiences both in Wales and internationally, regularly staging productions from Italian composers like Verdi and Puccini. The Welsh National Opera will perform the Verdi Trilogy, a series of the composer’s best-loved works, throughout 2021 and 2022. Further deepening the ties between our two nations, the Italian Ambassador to Wales serves as the Trilogy’s patron.
No discussion of Welsh opera could leave out Bryn Terfel. Born in Pant-Glas in Caernarfonshire, this celebrated bass-baritone has become one of the most recognisable voices in the international opera scene – in particular for his performance as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. Our operatic connections don’t end there. The great 19th-century Italian opera singer Adelina Patti spent her career performing across the world, before retiring in the Swansea Valley at grand Craig-y-Nos Castle. She even donated the Winter Garden building from her estate to the city – renamed the Patti Pavilion, it’s now one of Swansea’s best-loved music venues.
As well as going head-to-head in the group stages of the Euro 2020 finals, Wales and Italy regularly meet on the rugby field. Italy joined the annual Six Nations Championships in 2000 and have taken part in many memorable matches both at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium and Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Wales have tended to come out on top, but Italy scored momentous home victories in 2003 and 2007.
There are also a number of professional Welsh sports players who have Italian heritage (as you might guess from their names): boxers Joe Calzaghe and Enzo Maccarinelli, footballers David D'Auria and Donato Nardiello, and rugby players Robert and Peter Sidoli.