by Ronald Frame
Broderick Buchanan, Archivist of the Days, writes:
When you think of a glamorous Italian café in Carnbeg, you would name the Grand—for good reason. It was once the smartest Italian café in Scotland, by general consent. (Perhaps it will be as grand again after restoration work is completed.)
But before the Grand, we had another, owned and managed by a cousin of the Grand’s Lavezzoli clan.
It was called the Cortina, as some readers will remember. It opened its doors in 1952, just as the country was emerging from rations and eager for new experiences, hungry for fresh tastes.
Ice cream was the Orlandinis’ speciality. (Antonio Orlandini’s father was Tito Piccolino, a familiar sight on his bike and barrow.) They had diversified into inventive sundaes, a long and expanding list of combinations. So it was quite natural that the décor should be of a chilled wintry sort. Cortina was a chichi sports resort in the Dolomites, although the name was at that time best known to skiers and devotees of the European high life in a different sense. (It had been occupied during the War, but was very much—so to speak—on the rise again.) Cortina was illustrated by big black-and-white photographs on the walls (Ernest Hemingway on the slopes, icicle-hung chalets, locals in Tyrolean costume), and by a painted mural of the town framing the servery.
The Cortina had developed out of the Orlandinis’ existing café. In this form it survived for fourteen years. Its success was comparatively short-lived, because in 1961 the Lavezollis moved to new premises, which they called—with perfect justification—the Grand. This had been modelled on the big cafés of Turin and Genoa, with their dark panelling and marble floors and counter-tops and glass-chip chandeliers. The Lavezollis were nearly ruined; they were left in hock, we now know, for decades. However, they had their timing right, like their choice of location: the Grand overlooked Carnbeg’s equivalent of a strip, there was room outside for tables and chairs, and everyone wanted to be a bit player (atmosphere people, they were called in film terminology) in a Fellini movie.
But for the nine years before that it was the Cortina, with its skiing memorabilia, which was the choice place to be and be seen. The place-mats carried reproductions of 1930s ski maps, with the pistes from La Rochetta and Forcella and Passo di Giau down to Cortina at 1,200 metres.
What went, for the Café Cortina, wasn’t just the arrival of the Grand on the scene.
There was also a car. That car. The Ford Cortina. Suddenly the name was everywhere, and most likely in chrome on the trunk-lid or tailgate of the car in front of you at the traffic lights. The success of the first series of Cortinas encouraged Ford to produce a second, even more popular.
And that, the popularity, was the problem. It debased the name in a lot of people’s eyes. Even the introduction of the 1600E model, with alloy wheels and hide seats and wood steering wheel and trim, couldn’t take away from the ubiquity, the commonness, of that name.
Between the two, Ford and the Lavezollis’ Grand, the fate of the
café on Briggait was settled.
Already by the end of the ’60s, the Café Cortina was passé.
Ironically the actual resort was at its smartest. Witness: the Burtons, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn. It competed with Megève and St. Moritz and Klosters. But many—Carnbeg types and visitors— wouldn’t have known that Cortina was a place at all: just the name of a car that would soon be into its third series.
An offer came on the property, and the Orlandinis decided to accept. The offer was dependent on change of use; that suited the café’s owners very well, and neither did it run into any difficulties with the anything-goes Council of that unique fissure of time in Carnbeg’s long history.
The Orlandinis opted for early retirement in Italy. Second generation as they were, they referred now to that country as “home”: certainly Tito Piccolino had headed back there, to an address in Naples. Old loyal customers began to suspect that Carnbeg had perhaps been a second best to them all along. But cafés were a hard way of making a living, and no one could really begrudge them the chance to put up their feet and enjoy their profits. Anyway, the customers were agreed, the couple and their children would now be able to take themselves off to the Dolomites if they so chose.
This prompted great merriment when Toni got to hear, telephoning from Italy where he was house-hunting. An explanation was left to his daughter, some years later, after she had nursed the dying Toni.
“Ah, you want to know about Cortina d’Ampezzo . . . ?”
Loredana might have been wiser not to break an illusion. No, her father hadn’t been an expert skier. He might have said he could ski, but he hadn’t had more contact with skis than carrying them during one Christmas holiday spent as a porter at a railway station in Rome. He fell for the daughter of a family who had just returned from the Dolomites. He hung around outside their swanky villa in Tivoli but was sent away with a flea in his ear. After that he wove dreams about the girl. He had come across photographs of her in a magazine, more unattainable than ever as she modelled ski wear with the peak of
Tofana behind her.
That was all it was about—and also it was everything.
By choice maybe, Toni Orlandini had never even been to Cortina.
In 2002, it was the Grand’s turn to have its contents auctioned off.
Those who attended sat on the old bentwood chairs, placed in rows. In the second room, crockery and glassware and cutlery were assembled on the familiar marble-topped tables, which were themselves for sale, and also—such was the volume of items—on plain, functional trestle-tables.
Everything was due to come under the hammer.
. . .
Carnbeg’s premier café for forty years was owned by the Lavezzoli family.
The business had begun more modestly, when Giovanni and his wife Marza emigrated from Abruzzi to Scotland in 1911. They set up an ice cream parlour in the town, which attracted customers from the spa hotels as well as locals and the passing carriage-trade.
During the War, son Ennio was briefly interned but released on petition from some influential Carnbeg residents. (He never overcame the suspicion that his internment had come about thanks to mischief-making. He blamed a conspiracy of whispering Orlandinis and disgruntled Presbyterian tea-room owners.)
The couple considered upping sticks and moving to a coastal resort. But they were persuaded to stay on, and just as well. Soon, in healthy profit, they moved to smarter premises. Their two sons were groomed to take over, while the three daughters were brought up to make eligible young wives.
The Lavezzolis’ glory days properly began with the opening of the Grand Café on Mercat Street, in 1961.
No expense was spared. Carrera marble for the floors and tabletops, Lombardy mahogany for the walls, Murano glass chandeliers, Venetian gilt-framed mirrors. No one outside the close family knew how much had been spent; the word in Carnbeg would be that, even after forty years, accrued interest on the loans hadn’t been paid off.
The list of coffees on the menu included caffè con panna (topped up with whipped cream), lungo (a diluted macchiato), ristretto (ultra-strong), corretto (with a shot of grappa), and doppio (twice the grappa and twice the kick).
After just a few years the Grand was attracting the jeunesse dorée of Perthshire and beyond. By then Ennio Lavezzoli had been admitted to the Loch Bragar Yacht Club, unlike his father. A little later London restaurant critics were dropping in, and the Grand featured in a New York Times write-up at Edinburgh festival time. (Forget the Usher Hall, forget the Café royal. Head upcountry. Reserve seats at the little Carnbeg Opera, like a bijou musical box; book your table at the Lavezzolis’ toney Grand Café.)
Remember those showings of La Dolce Vita at the Cinema Bergman on Briggait? Black was the smart colour again; dark glasses were being worn indoors. If you asked nicely, they would play Nino Rota on the Grand’s hi-fi, and, listening to the busy Gaggia and breathing in the aroma of coffee-grounds or listening out for Brunello Lavezzoli on his Vespa, you might have been on the Via Veneto, not Mercat Street. The waiters spoke Italian at you, they wore long white aprons, they swivelled between tables holding their trays aloft, while ceiling fans turned languorously (read hot days for warm and insipid: just use a bit of imagination!).
A doppio plus a glass of water allows you to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your time, and pleasantly blows your head. Alternatively, sip an americano! Ennio is at the bar, proudly telling his friends about his major new purchase, a secondhand ferrari 400 Superamerica Coupe Series II: the car with a V12 engine which will later skid and overturn on a motorway and leave him dead inside, with the speed gauge found jammed at 143 mph. Brunello’s brother Lamberto chats up the girls; he looks nothing like the haunted silver-haired man whose mug shot will appear in Interpol files when he’s charged with money-laundering, arrested along with the Mafia rump-end operating out of
Aberdeen to whom he’d gone hoping to clear the Grand’s remaining debts.
Devoted customers have come to the sale to buy mementos, to take away a fragment of the legend that the Grand became.
Café of cafés. The archetype.
Around the spectators, the remembered waiters of different periods, some deceased, negotiate a passage for themselves. They’re being kept watch on by the spectres of Carlo and Gino, who always used to seem much larger than life.
The auctioneer raps his gavel. Nobody in these rooms knows that a developer with a yen for a headline will subsequently plan to refurbish the premises and re-open for business in (speculatively) 2010. The auctioneer offers a few words of introduction and, to the uninitiated in his audience, enticement. He cheerfully declares an immutable truth, which might have been handed down to Moses on the mountain:
“Ladies and gentlemen, absolutely everything must go!”
Ronald Frame was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and educated there and at Oxford University. Five of his novels have been published in the United States. The most recent, The Lantern Bearers (Counterpoint), was named Scottish Book of the Year and honored by the American Library Association. He also writes drama for radio and television. Forty stories set in Carnbeg have been published in magazines and journals in North America and Australia, and another fifteen broadcast on BBC national radio in Great Britain. (A collection, Time in Carnbeg, was released in 2004.) Frame has just completed a new novel manuscript, a1950s crime passionel set in the town. (10/2008)