As partings go, it may not quite rival the tale of the two brothers who fell out over the ownership of their ice cream empire and the actress daughter of one who mused about throwing a brick through the window of the café now controlled by the other, but the two men who saved Nardini’s from oblivion have now gone their separate ways.
The art deco café, on the seafront at Largs, with its vanilla ice frontage, is a national institution. It was a family one for more than 50 years, but the ice cream war between brothers Aldo and Peter Nardini, feuding over the business and its direction, led to court cases, bitter accusations of treachery, plummeting fortunes and the shutters finally going up on the place, the family’s heritage sadly melting away. Aldo Nardini died in 2015, his brother Peter, the previous year. They had never properly reconciled.
Only the name remained when Guiseppe ‘Sep’ Mirini and David Equi took the business out of receivership, revamped the interior and reopened after four years. Now they, too, have split, although it’s not about “ice cream differences”, it is stressed, but pursuing their separate businesses. Mirini owns the Tony Macaroni chain, Equi the eponymous Hamilton-based ice cream company.
The two were joint owners of Nardini’s, but Mirini is now sole shareholder through his company Italgelat, although Equi remains a director. A spokesperson for Mirini stressed that the parting was perfectly amicable and that the two men remain good friends. Equi is in America and out of contact.
Nardini’s has its roots in the Tuscan town of Barga, where so many emigrants to Scotland come from. In 1895, Pietro Nardini arrived in Scotland with his family. After years of peddling round the country selling from a suitcase, he saved enough to open, in 1935, the Largs café.
It served food, too, but it was the ice cream created there from a secret family recipe which put the place on the map.
Nardini’s heyday was in the 1950s and early 1960s when hordes of Glaswegians and others from further afield, in flat caps and best dresses, would go ‘doon the watter’, by train or ferry, to queue for a seat and taste the award-winning ice cream. What started as a humble café grew into a large space, an ice cream factory and a restaurant. Each weekend it would serve 1,000 gallons of ice cream, five tonnes of potatoes and 120 stone of haddock to holidaymakers.
In the 1970s, when cheap package holidays took off, the slide began. It was now being run by Pietro’s grandsons, Aldo and Peter, and they struggled to keep the business in the black.
The two brothers could hardly have been more different. Aldo was tall, handsome and fit – the local paper dubbing him “the Sean Connery of Largs” – whereas Peter was shorter, a heavy smoker with a heart condition.
In 1997, they hired a non-family member, a friend of Peter’s, to turn round the ailing company, but it soon became clear that there were familial differences over the appointment. David Hendry was a local businessman, who had built a fortune from a chain of funeral parlours and, to the brothers, at that time, he seemed to be the only hope to stop the family firm spiralling into bankruptcy.
Three cousins, and fellow board members with the Nardini name, started legal moves to stop the appointment, but in what was the first of the internecine battles they failed and were quickly purged.The Hendry regime was initially successful and the business seemed to have turned the corner until the brothers fell out over future direction. The plan, resisted by Aldo, was to franchise the Nardini name to 20 cafés and challenge new brands like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s, by selling Nardini ice cream through supermarkets.
Aldo was implacably opposed. He said that while the firm wouldn’t make the profits of yesteryear “it was still a good business if you retained the family presence”. The difference split the brothers. Peter owned 80 per cent of Nardini’s and if Aldo wasn’t coming with it, then he was going. In May 1990 Aldo was removed from the board. He said that he was deeply shocked when his brother lifted his hand to vote against him.
Aldo set up his own business, Il Caffe Casa, but the family fallout took another corrosive turn which ended in the two brothers facing each other in court. Peter accused his brother’s company of misleading customers into believing they were eating Nardini’s ice cream from Largs. The sheriff ruled for Aldo but the divide was now unbridgeable.
Aldo’s daughter, the actress Daniela Nardini, stood by his side, fiercely and vocally loyal. She said: “I would quite like to throw a stone through the window [of Nardini’s]…The business has been taken over. It is just our name and our reputation.”
In 2003, with debts of £1.5 million, Nardini’s went into receivership. Aldo revealed his sorrow.
“I am absolutely heartbroken. I said when David Hendry was brought into the company that running a funeral parlour was different to running an ice cream parlour. Sadly I am right. I have had no control over the company in recent years, as I had just a small share. The company is worth nothing – so I have lost nothing. But my children have lost what they should have inherited my grandfather’s heart would break.”
The Nardini’s had lost control of their empire and only the name would survive (Nardini at the Moorings in Largs is a separate business owned by Nardini family members). In 2004, Marini and Equi formed a consortium to bring the café back and after four years, along with a £2.5m refit of the listed building under the eye of Scottish Natural Heritage, Nardini’s reopened.
The two partners opened another Nardini’s in Glasgow’s Byres road but a fortnight ago a ‘to let’ sign was slapped on the window and a poster promising a refurbishment was removed. It had closed its doors just after Christmas, promising to reopen in the spring.
The company had been embroiled in a planning dispute with the city council over change of use. A retrospective application for a café was rejected last year. The outlet had seemed to be popular, with queues out of the door in summer, but when it went down the blame was put on high rents.
In recent years, the chain had also opened Nardini’s premises in Edinburgh and St Andrews as part of the firm’s expansion plans, but they have also since closed.
This month a Nardini trading company in which Marini and Equi were directors (until Equi resigned), NOL Realisations – formerly Nardini’s of Largs – went into liquidation. According to liquidator Ian Wright there were no assets, only stock and cash. Lenders to the company – including the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank – as principal creditors, are unlikely to receive much of the loans they made.
Nardini’s of Largs in now a branch of the Tony Macaroni empire, Viva Italia. Sep Marini, now the sole owner of the business, promised “it’s business as usual for the restaurant in Largs going forward”.
Business, for Nardini’s in the past, has been anything but usual. Who would risk predicting the next turn in the ice cream saga?
It’s a 10-minute sail from Largs to Cumbrae, a mile away across the Clyde, and from one of the window tables inside the café you can watch the CalMac ferry the Loch Shira come and go, while the waitresses, in black aprons, skirt or trousers and white shirts, ply you with coffee, scones or, of course, ice cream.
When the actress Daniela Nardini was still a child she scooped ice cream for her dad Aldo in the café foyer. Although there was a major refit when Sep Mirini and David Equi took over, it remains true to the style of the old décor, one that Daniela would recognise, although she probably hasn’t been inside since her father lost the business in the bitter dispute with his brother Peter. What has changed is the Italian restaurant specialising in pizzas, the Tony Macaroni addition, at a right angle to the frontage along Nelson Street.
The café is still bustling, if nothing like the fifties, middle-aged women sit around sipping their morning coffee, in a space which can cater for 200, the light from the panoramic windows facing the water reflected off the mirrored glass over the bar area and onto the cutlery and the monogrammed cups and saucers. If you turn your head away from the quay view, a large, metal statue of a stocky Viking dominates, with his eyes focused on the inside of the café. It marks the Battle of Largs in 1263, the last one between the kingdoms of Scotland and Norway.
In 1943, when Aldo was still at primary school, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower, later to become US President, and Lord Mountbatten were spotted coming and going at the nearby Hollywood Hotel, which had been taken over by the military. They were holding secret meetings to plan the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Legend has it, whether true or not, that they ordered takeaway ice creams from Nardini’s.
When Nardini’s opened in 1935 a bandstand was included, with a six-piece orchestra playing from it and a male crooner moved around the tables serenading the girls. Then you could get a carry-out fish supper for sixpence, today you’ll have little change from a tenner. The café still serves the famous Knickerbocker Glory which, to day trippers in the early sixties, cost 2/6D. It may be less popular today, not least because the ice cream, fresh fruit, cream, nuts and chocolate sauces, will set you back £7.25.
- source – Herald Scotland – full article here