22 May 2022

FEATURE : Fiorentini’s ... a little piece of Italy where time stands still

Derry's famous ice-cream parlour maintaining a tradition that goes back more than a century

Ignazio Fiorentini was just 13 when he came to Derry in 1912 to work for Iannarelli's ice-cream parlour on the Strand Road, where Fiorentini’s now stands. Ignazio worked long, hard hours learning the trade, leaving Derry at 7am to walk to Buncrana with a cart of ice cream to sell.

He never forgot his family back home and when he had enough money scraped together he sent a present home to his new born sister in the Italian village of Bassiano.

“Before the present arrived his sister had died,” explained Michael Fioren- tini, the third generation from the family to run an ice cream parlour in the city.

“He was 90 when he told me that story and he was crying telling it.

“It was the first time my family had heard it.”

Shortly after sharing the story Ignazio returned to visit Bassiano and he still retained the vigour that allowed him to walk to Buncrana and back pushing an ice cream cart.

“He told us his cousin called for him to pick fresh fruit in the morning,” said Michael, smiling at the memory.

“This cousin was 89 and they walked down into the valley together to pick fresh figs and came back to the village with a carrier bag full in each hand up a hill that was the same steepness as Shipquay Street.”

The first immigrant to come to Derry from Bassiano was Mr Iannarelli, who arrived in the city in the late 1800s.

Three other families from the village — the Batistis, the Fiorentinis and the Cassonis — followed him to Derry and eventually set up their own cafes.

“They were all friendly and they were all related,” explained Michael.

“We are the last of those families who are still in the business. My grandfather Ignazio was 92 when he retired and my father Sonny was 82.”

Michael has been working in the café trade since he was brought in to clear tables aged just six.

"Generation after generation come in,” he said. “You see people coming in on a date and then they get married and are coming in with their children.

“But there are some really sad stories too. We've had terminally ill people that sent out for Fiorentini’s ice cream from hospital.”

In his early 20s Ignazio Fiorentini had to go back to Italy to complete his compulsory military service, taking his Derry bride Mary-Ann with him.

But as soon as his year in the army was up the couple returned to Derry where Ignazio opened his first café with his brother Victor on the Upper Strand Road.

Ignazio’s son Sonny opened his cafe Fiorentini’s on Bishop Street in 1958 and in 1990 he opened Fiorentini’s on the Strand Road in the same spot where his father first learnt the trade from Mr Iannarelli.

Later that year a car bomb exploded outside the shop at the barricade built to protect the Strand Road police station.

“Every window blew in, the door blew off the hinges but strangely the glasses on the shelves didn't even move,” Michael recalled.

“Six months later the glasses all started to pop — it was a delayed reaction to the bomb.”

The Fiorentinis had to pour 40 gallons of ice cream down the sink in case there were shards of glass in it.

Hours later the family brought out fresh soup to the workmen clearing up the debris on the Strand Road.

“People thought we were open and they just stepped in through the broken windows and sat down looking for coffee,” recalled Michael.

“We just got on with it. We brushed up around them. Children now-a-days would be traumatised if they saw something like that.”

Michael, who is fluent in Italian, was an active member of the Italian Society in the North throughout the 1980s and 90s.
The PSNI even called on him to translate for an Italian couple who were involved in a car accident.

When asked if he considers himself Irish or Italian, Michael shrugged and said he always supports Italy in the World Cup.
He now runs the cafe with his wife Kathy who previously worked for Letterkenny catering firm Sodexo.

The couple, who met in Fiorentini’s, got married in Rome and have three sons. The eldest Keith, 32, runs his own engineering firm in London and the younger two Michele, 18, and Carlo, 16, are the fourth generation of Fiorentinis to work in the Derry cafe trade.

Living and working together don’t present a problem for Michael and Kathy because they love what they do.

“We get on really well, you couldn't do it unless you did," said Kathy. “We're just one of those couples — you never see me without him or him without me.

“We have the same personality and the same way of thinking.”

Derry's café culture has become increasingly competitive since Michael started working full-time in the cafe in 1984, after finishing his engineering degree at Queen’s University Belfast.

“It’s hard for business,” Kathy admitted. “We’ve seen people come and go all around us.

“You have to work very hard in this trade. We have our 10,000 steps done by 2pm,” she smiled.

“But we still love it. We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't. We're very much at our leisure. We don't have big overheads because it's our building.

“We also take a Monday off. It’s very important to have that time out.”

Fiorentini's ice cream is still made freshly every morning at the cafe to the authentic Italian recipe shown to Ignazio Fiorentini by Mr Iannarelli.

So what is the secret to one of Derry's most famous delicacies?

“The secret is hard work," smiled Michael. “There are no short cuts. It’s still the original recipe, which is closely guarded. It’s a very good product and it's made fresh every day.

“The chips are all hand cut and we have fresh fish from Donegal. Everything we do is made here by us.”

“The ice cream is as popular as ever,” Kathy added.

“Even on the coldest day people still come in for a Knickerboker Glory.

“Some days we pull up the shutters at 11am and there could be four or five people standing there looking for a Knickerboker Glory to start their day.”

Just as Fiorentini’s is woven into the lives of its customers, the customers are very much an integral part of the lives of the Fiorentinis.

“They become your friends,” Kathy explained. “So much so that you end up exchanging Christmas presents.

“It’s like going to the same hairdresser for years — people come in and tell you their problems.”

The layout of the cafe is still the same as when Sonny Fiorentini opened it back in 1990.

“If you even mention changing it people say ‘oh no, don't’,” said Kathy.

“It’s just the way they like it and how they remember it. Even if we move a picture people will notice and say ‘where did that picture go?’

“There are families who live away and the first place they will come when they get off the plane is Fiorentini’s.

“We always play old Italian music and people say it’s like stepping back in time.

“A lot of people say it’s the only place they can relax in.”

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