Nardini's: Scotland's best-loved ice cream institution
Largs’ Nardini Café can trace its origins back to 1890. That was the year Tuscan-born Pietro Nardini arrived with his family in sunny Renfrewshire.
They hailed from Barga, dubbed the ‘most Scottish town in Italy’ due to the fact that many of its emigrants landed there and occasionally brought bits of their adopted Caledonian culture back with them.
After decades of squirrelling away their earnings, the Nardini family relocated to the seaside town of Largs in 1935 where they opened the café that would make theirs one of the best=known Italian surnames in all of Scotland.
Dressed in stylish Art Deco, it was a fully-functional café and restaurant from the get-go.
Nardini’s speciality, however, has always been its authentic Italian ice cream, made from scratch to the family’s own secret recipe.
The Nardini name echoed far beyond the North Ayrshire coast and prior to the age of cheap package holidays abroad, you’ld have been hard-pressed to find a free table.
It became synonymous with the Glasgow Fair; spring weekends and summer trips ‘doon the watter’. During the former, the café generated enough revenue to keep it flush for the rest of the year.
Nardini’s was a highlight of the typical west coast family day out, as Norry Wilson, curator of the Lost Glasgow Facebook page, explains: “It’s part of Glasgow’s Clyde Coast living room. It didn’t seem to matter what direction we set off in, we always seemed to end up in Largs, where we’d be rewarded with a visit to Nardini’s.
“There, ensconced in Art Deco magnificence me and my brother would scoff a donut with ice-cream, and a milkshake, while playing with the ‘whirly’ ashtrays, and the ropes at the windows. Mum and dad would sit and chat, drink frothy coffee, from glass cups, and do their best to ignore our antics.”
But the glory days, knickbocker or otherwise, didn’t last forever.
A sharp rise in the number of families jetting off to sunnier climes for their holidays saw Nardini’s profits melt faster than a half-abandoned hot fudge sundae.
Then came the much-publicised family feuds, Nardini’s own internal ‘Ice Cream Wars’ between brothers Peter and Aldo Nardini that at one point threatened to tear the business apart.
The ship was temporarily steadied in 1997 when the family sought help from a man accustomed to running parlours of a very different kind: funeral parlour impresario and friend of Peter Nardini, David Hendry.
With Hendry involved, Nardini’s did initially turn a corner, but this came at a price, as the number of actual family members pulling the strings became increasingly wafer thin.
Eventually, even brother Aldo was unceremoniously ousted - much to the fury of his daughter, the actress Daniela Nardini, who very publicly stood by her dad.
Profits, however, did increase for a spell and the company even began to branch out and franchise itself, but it wouldn’t last.
After racking up debts of £1.5 million, Nardini’s entered receivership in 2003.
Speaking at the time, Aldo Nardini revealed his dismay: “I am absolutely heartbroken. I said when David Hendry was brought in to 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 indeed lost control of their empire, but it wasn’t the end of the café.
In 2004, Tony Macaroni owner, Giuseppe “Sep” Marini and David Equi, who fronts Equi’s, Scotland’s second largest ice cream manufacturer, formed a consortium to bring the famous café back from the brink. They reopened Nardini’s in December 2008 following a major £2.5 million refurbishment.
“Both Sep and I are from Scots-Italian backgrounds. I used to get taken to Nardini’s as a child and was brought up in the Italian ice-cream tradition, where it was produced right in front of you; made on-site - artisan ice cream.
“It was a consortium. Myself, Giuseppe (Sep) Marini and Eddie and John Fox bought it on the open market.
“It’s an iconic building and iconic name, but there were a lot of issues with planning and it needed a serious amount of money invested. The building was run-down, lying empty and falling to bits when we made the purchase. There was an old coal boiler - totally illegal.
And was there ever a point when Mr Equi considered changing the name?
“No, why would I do that? The building is listed and very famous. But the inside is a lot nicer than it was, the kitchens had to be demolished and we redeveloped the restaurant, which is now operated under the name Ristorante 1890.”
Having saved it from almost certain oblivion, joint owners, David Equi and Sep Marini have helped transform the fortunes of one of Scotland’s best-loved institutions.
This was perfectly illustrated in 2015 when the Sunday Mail named Largs’ Nardini’s the best ice cream parlour in Scotland.
Now Nardini’s famous flavours can be enjoyed across the land, with cafés to be found in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh; South Street, St Andrews; and on Glasgow’s Byres Road.
And while the family members who once ran the show may have departed - Aldo Nardini passed on in 2015, Peter the year before - their names look set to live on forever.