Pasta times

Entertainment | Published:

Remember the Pam Pam Grill? The Grove Restaurant and Dario's? There can be no one in Guernsey over the age of 16 who has not been to a restaurant run by one of the men featured here. Chris Morvan met the Italians who helped shape Guernsey's restaurant scene

Remember the Pam Pam Grill? The Grove Restaurant and Dario's? There can be no one in Guernsey over the age of 16 who has not been to a restaurant run by one of the men featured here. Chris Morvan met the Italians who helped shape Guernsey's restaurant scene GUERNSEY has been flooded with foreigners many times over the centuries, but one episode that does not appear in any history book is the Italian invasion of the 1960s. This time it was not soldiers who arrived, but waiters, chefs and barmen. They stormed the catering trade, taking over hotels, setting up restaurants and even when they were off-duty they were doing battle on the island's football pitches.

Today many of their names are indelibly marked on our social lives, because theirs were the faces that greeted us and they sometimes used their Christian names for their restaurants. Thus we have Da Nello, Da Bruno and Rosario's, while Dario's, Nino's and Flavio's competed with the rest in the yellow pages not so long ago.

It is a complex story with a thousand threads, as restaurants change hands and characters come

and go and move around, their paths crossing as they do.

Along with the Austrian and German contingents, the Italians were largely responsible for raising the standard of local cuisine, introducing new ideas and providing alternatives to French and English cooking that had often involved heavy, rich sauces and revolved around the ever-present steak.

Nello Ciotti, whose long-established restaurant in the Lower Pollet is about to be augmented by a new one in the seafront part of Waterloo House, the old Bucktrout's building, arrived in 1959 - and says he certainly wasn't the first.

The theory that they could learn two languages here may have been blown out of the water by the discovery that our brand of French is very different from the original, but Guernsey was still seen as an excellent training ground.

Nello, an apprentice chef, started at Les Merriennes Hotel, which would become known as


Ronnie Ronalde's when it was taken over by the celebrity whistler, and is now St Martin's Country Hotel.

From there he went to the Shamrock, in premises that have been a Wimpy Bar and a Burger King and now house Riva. And then he moved on to the Grove, aka La Fiorentina, the Merchant House and now Bam Bou.

The Shamrock is a name that crops up a great deal when you talk to this generation of Italians.

'It was where we used to meet up in the daytime,' said Bruno Antonini,


whose own restaurant occupies the space upstairs at the North Esplanade that was formerly Little Venice. 'There were a lot of Austrians here, too, also to gain experience and learn English,' he recalled. The Shamrock was eventually bought by the Crispini brothers, Franco, Luigi and Piero, who created the Morocco on the ground floor and the Capri upstairs.

The place where many of the Italians used to relax when they had finished working in the evenings was the legendary Cellar Club in Le Truchot, Guernsey's equivalent of the Cavern in Liverpool. Nello also mentions live music at the Royal Hotel, the Channel Islands Hotel and the Duke of Normandie.

Back at the ever-changing who's where: Bruno Antonini once ran a place in the Grove/Bam Bou slot too: Trattoria Romana. Like Nello (and Roberto Coin, who became manager of, among other establishments, the Duke of Richmond Hotel, before leaving the island and becoming a successful businessman), Bruno came from the Montecatini college and began at a small private hotel before spending a summer at the Shamrock and moving on to La Piette Hotel as a chef/barman for six years. Then he went to the cocktail bar at the Royal Hotel before upping sticks for Germany, where he carved out a career at US air force bases and cocktail bars, returning to Guernsey in 1994 to run Trattoria Romana on behalf of Nello. In 1967 Carlo Stefani was at catering college in Rome when he took the opportunity to learn his trade in Guernsey, working at first as a commis (junior) waiter at the Hotel de Havelet, where Nello was headwaiter.

Carlo attributes his change of country largely to football. England had staged the World Cup the previous year and he, watching on the recently-introduced colour TV, had been impressed by the greenness of the pitches. With this flimsy reason guiding him, symbolic of an adventurous and enterprising nature, Carlo set about organising his trip to the Channel Islands. 'It wasn't easy to get information about Guernsey,' he said, 'because nobody in Rome had ever heard of it.' He eventually managed to book an air ticket, though, and spent a happy season at the Hotel de


He and Nello must have been doing something right, because at the end of the summer, when owner Douglas Chisholm was preparing to close the hotel for the winter, he suggested that they keep the bar and restaurant open and run them themselves.

'In those days most hotels opened at Easter and closed in September,' Carlo remembered. 'A few stayed open, but even they would close one floor and operate with minimal staff. The OGH, for instance, would run with just 20 out of 70 bedrooms.'

The idea of keeping the Havelet restaurant open for the winter was partly due to the relative lack of places to eat out in those days. That was an era in which Town dining was dominated by the Steak and Stilton, La Fregate, Le Nautique and Le Boeuf qui Rit (on the Nino's/Apartment site).

When the offer came, Carlo had already gone back to Italy, but the lure of Guernsey, along with a certain Margaret, then his girlfriend and now his wife, drew him back. And it was raining in Rome, anyway.

What is also a characteristic of many people's career in catering is a tendency to move around from one restaurant or hotel to another and, currently well-ensconced at the helm of St Margaret's Lodge Hotel, Carlo has been around more than most.

The money wasn't great in the early days as he strove to establish himself.

'I was earning £7.50 a week as restaurant manager at the Idlerocks,' he recalled, 'and even that was up from £5 when I started.' Then he got a call from a friend at the OGH and went there as storeman/ junior assistant manager for £12.50 a week.

'I bought my first morning suit then from Burton's.' Carlo's career began to gain momentum when he quickly progressed to assistant manager. Then the OGH took over the Savoy Hotel and he found himself being given the keys and asked to run it, the previous manager having disappeared overnight when the takeover went through.

Carlo's story also takes in the latter days of Nino's and the Apartment, both thriving in the early and mid-80s, followed by stints at the Hotel Fontainebleau and the Louisiana/Old Bordello, before arriving at St Margaret's Lodge in 1999.

For many years now known as the face of St Pierre Cafe in Market Street, Adriano Cristofoletto came to Guernsey in 1961 from Lake Como, having worked for a hotelier named Coscio, 'one of the best hoteliers in Italy', who also trained Franco Crispini.

Adriano found himself at La Piette Hotel, where he met Bruno Antonini, 'who had good catering knowledge and helped me with my English.' He moved on to the Hotel de Havelet but was soon to leave Guernsey, moving to London, then back to Italy. It was there, while having a cup of coffee with Franco Crispini at the railway station in Milan, that he discussed what to do next and decided to come back to Guernsey.

But not for long.

'I worked at La Fregate and there I met some Italian customers who persuaded me to go and work in Bermuda.' In 1966 he was back again, though, spending a season at the OGH, then on to the Duke of Richmond and La Trelade, managed at the time by Roberto Coin.

Adriano embarked on a career on cruise ships with the Fred Olsen Line before returning in 1971 and, married to local girl Juliet Roussel, was at the OGH for 18 years as assistant manager. In 1989, after a frustrating search for premises in which to set up a pizzeria featuring a showpiece stone oven, he took over the St Pierre and has been there ever since.

Gastone Toffanello is best known as the proprietor of the Absolute End from 1988 to 1999. His arrival in Guernsey in 1968 was largely a matter of fate.

Hailing from a village outside Venice, Gastone was learning his trade at a nearby hotel when in walked Guernsey-based Franco Dominici, who was travelling in the area and had just had an accident that obliged him to stay for a couple of days.

He and Gastone got talking and the upshot was that he invited the young waiter to come and work for him at L'Atlantique, then just a restaurant rather than a hotel. Gastone did so and worked there for two years before moving to the Savoy as headwaiter, where he met his future wife, Sandra.

He stepped up to restaurant manager at the Steak and Stilton, and then he and Sandra headed for Italy, where they bought a bar. But bureaucracy and other problems meant that the family's stay there was short-lived. Strikes were sweeping the country and a petrol crisis resulted in a bizarre measure that automatically halved the bar's trade.

Only cars with plates ending in odd numbers were allowed on the road one weekend, then the next weekend it was those with even numbers,' Gastone recalled incredulously. Meanwhile, the general manager of the Steak and Stilton turned up in Italy, asking him to return to the island and promising accommodation as well as a job.

The accommodation turned out to be a suite at the OGH, which 'was not my idea of family life,' so Gastone worked one month as his notice period and went to see his friend Piero Cavagnetto (once of the Casa Cavagnetto, later known as the Rocquaine Bistro) for advice. Piero told him that the writing was on the wall for the restaurant manager at La Fregate and that he should get himself in there in some capacity and await developments.

Gastone duly joined as second headwaiter, was soon given the restaurant manager's job and within two years he was managing director. The association lasted 14 years and then a customer, a bank manager named Mike Cunningham, gave Gastone a tip-off about the Absolute End, which was struggling and in a dilapidated condition after the death of the chef/proprietor.

Mr Cunningham introduced him to the late owner's widow and a deal was struck. Gastone spent the best part of a year refurbishing the place, 'everything but the outside walls', before opening in May 1988. He then became synonymous with the restaurant famed for its seafood, enjoying the rare consistency of employing one head chef throughout the period.

While producing the food that kept the Absolute End in the forefront of local restaurants, that chef, Antonio Folmi, had ambitions beyond the kitchen, and eventually came to Gastone with the idea of buying the business from him. Gastone again contacted bank manager Mr Cunningham. 'We sat down and worked out a formula for him to be able to buy it. Mike made it happen, basically.'

It was to be four years before the deal went through and in January 1999, at the age of 48, Gastone retired.

While many may envy this early exit from the ranks of the working, Gastone had reservations. 'Retiring early can work against you,' he said in the peace and quiet of his Grandes Rocques home. 'But I had four years to prepare for it. In the first winter after I finished I did three courses at the College of FE - typing, computer studies and navigation - because I was afraid I would be sitting around bored in the evenings.'

As it turned out, he wasn't and isn't. He spends many of his days fishing from boats owned by friends - but he doesn't sell the fish to the Absolute End.

'I take what I need and they can do what they like with the rest.'

Gastone's retirement had been gently encouraged by Sandra, who, he acknowledges, had spent too much time on her own while the caterer's life had eaten up his hours. 'I thought "She's done her bit, now it's time for me to do mine",' he said as he prepared to go and pick her up from the airport after a short trip away.

Rosario Pagliarone swapped his home town of Pescara in the Abruzzi region for Guernsey in 1964. His catering college had fixed him up with a job as a chef at L'Atlantique restaurant and he stayed there for two years before moving to La Fregate for three years and then Le Friquet Country Hotel as chef/manager for 12 years. From there he went to Da Nello as manager and occasional chef, and Mama Rosa (now Simply Ireland) in tandem with Luigi Crispini. Thirteen years ago he launched Rosario's, initially in Trinity Square and then at its long-term home in Mansell Street.

Still cooking as well as running the place, he has never had any inclination to go back to his native land.

'I love it here,' he said. 'It's the people. They made me so welcome when I first arrived and I've always had a fantastic rapport with them.'

The Crispinis, from Cavenago d'Adda, near Lodi, south of Milan, have been involved with some of Guernsey's most successful restaurants since making their entrepreneurial debut with the Morocco and Capri. While Piero dropped out of the business quite early on, Franco, now enjoying his retirement, is known to many from his time at the Pam Pam Grill, the Steak and Stilton, the Wimpy Bar and the Steak House, where La Perla is now.

Luigi, one-time head chef at the OGH, and local wife Karol, moved to Canada for three years in 1967, but on their return they introduced some ideas they had picked up on their travels. Notable among these was the notion of a drive-in restaurant, the West Coast Drive-in, but, Luigi said, the restaurant itself was such a success that they eventually scrapped plans for the drive-in element. The West Coast turned into Crabby Jack's, which has since come under new ownership but continues to benefit from a winning formula.

Luigi has fond memories of the building in Lefebvre Street that will, to many, be forever known as Nino's (after former owner, the late Nino Campelli).

'My restaurant manager there at one time, Julian Brown, came to me one winter and said,

Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.


Top Stories


More from the Guernsey Press

UK & International News