Inner steel of an Italian made good

It’s hard work being an entrepreneur, especially when you juggle three jobs at once.

Mario De Giorgi

It’s hard work being an entrepreneur, especially when you juggle three jobs at once. Alastair Gilmour reports on Italian enterprise.

THE Number One Slinger says he’s going to write a book before he retires. It’s going to be the truth about immigrants and their value to a country’s economy.

The former CA Parsons crane driver is better known as Mario De Giorgi, long-time owner of the renowned Don Vito’s Italian restaurant in Newcastle.

He should know about immigration, he’s been working in the North-East for 50 years and has passed the family business on to his children who run the Gusto group, operating some of the city’s most stylish and enterprising eating places. Like him, they were brought up on a diet of hard work and fine food and to worship family life.

Mario, still stylish at 74 years old, first arrived in Britain in 1956. Unromantically for a nation of romantics, he and 60 others from his home town of Galatone in Puglia, southern Italy, worked in the steel industry in Swansea. He had been invited by his friend and former next-door neighbour. “Mario, why don’t you come and see us?” he had implored. The young Mario responded to the bidding, never dreaming that a whole new life was about to unfold.

“I got stuck somehow and one week went by and another week went by,” says Mario, who continues to do his shift at Secco, the award-winning Newcastle restaurant, café and bar complex that his children Cristina, Joseph and Aldo have been building up in recent years.

“I got a job through the other Italians, but after five months there was no more work – all finished. My friend said there was work in Middlesbrough at Dorman Long and some of them went there. We Italians love work, that’s how it should be. I got a job at Jarrow Steelworks. I looked it up on the map and thought, ‘that’s not far off and if we go back we go back together’.

“Newcastle then was really down – this was 1957 and I was surprised at the conditions. The food then was bad, the culture here was against good food, but I ate it anyway. I lived on milk and cornflakes.

“I was walking along Pilgrim Street near the Odeon and I saw someone walking on the other side. He looked at me and I looked at him ­ he was Italian and I’m Italian, so we crossed the road and got chatting. I made a very good friend of him. I tried to find a lodge in Newcastle but in those days nobody would open their doors to Italians – it was after the war and not like it is today.

“Anyway, this friend of mine said, ‘I’ve got this bedsit, why don’t you come and stay with us?’ I travelled from Newcastle to Jarrow every day. At the same time I was getting to know more about management and was meeting managers from the Consett Iron Company.

“They said, ‘We want to talk to you about a job’. They wanted to bring 42 Italians to the steelworks. I said if you want Italians you’ve got to build something for them; there’s plenty of land here, they’ll need a washroom, showers and things like that.”

Mario was evolving into something of a diplomat and a negotiator on his countrymen’s behalf. He says: “I kept them under control; you know what it’s like when you’re young. I helped them with the police and gave them character references. I advised them about schools, jobs, their rights and everything else and that here they were just the same as everybody else. I told them if you want to work here you have to learn English law and culture; it’s not easy, you don’t have to be a naughty boy any more.

“Seven months later the job collapsed and they had to finish all of them. Someone in immigration tried to sent them back to Italy. My friend and I got to know at midnight that the next morning a bus was coming to take them back to Italy.

“They couldn’t speak English and everybody was complaining, saying ‘we don’t want to go, we’ve got money in the bank, we want to stop here’.

“At nine o’clock I went to the Italian consulate in Mosley Street in Newcastle. He said it was illegal, they can’t force the Italians to go back. We took the responsibility for them to find jobs. Some of them went home, though.”

Another huge influence was about to enter the handsome young Puglian’s life – Anne, who was training to be a draughtswoman. Cristina De Giorgi takes up the story.

“They met at Consett Iron Works.” she says. “She was working in the office where the wages were made up and the paperwork was done for new starters. She’d never really had a boyfriend and her mother was always going on at her about how she would never get married. She remembers looking out of the window at this group of men, not knowing who they were and spotted my dad, then went home and said, ‘Don’t worry mother, I’ve just met the man I’m going to marry’.”

When the pair eventually got married; he kept a promise to his parents that they would register their intent in Italy and have the ceremony there.

Not content with one source of income – remember, “the Italians love work” – the enterprising Mario was also working in a Newcastle club, the Downbeat, which, under the guidance of Michael Jeffreys was attracting some of the best musical talent to Newcastle from all over the UK and America. Jeffreys also managed an emerging band called The Animals, but was later to die in a helicopter crash.

“The Downbeat was very very busy and got well known,” says Mario. “Michael Jeffreys was very clever as far as music was concerned. Every other week he would bring in musicians from London – Alan Price I remember was one.

“After the Downbeat they decided to open a place in High Bridge called Club Marimba. I had the job in the factory and used to work in the club at nights and the weekends, cooking.”

Anne was also one to roll up her sleeves, working at the steelworks during the day, as a cinema usherette at nights and selling ice-cream from a trailer at the weekends, travelling as far afield as Berwick and only stopping when they ran out or it got dark, whichever came first. Mario had spells at Pelaw Brick Works and at Stobswood and Widdrington in Northumberland, juggling days in manufacturing and nights at the stove.

“I decided to change jobs and worked in Parsons,” he says. “It was good job, good money and I learned a lot. I stuck it there for nearly ten years.

“They were assembling a machine brought over from Milan which took two-and-a-half years to build. I would work with them (the Italian engineers) and looked after them and would take them out on a night time. I was also an interpreter for them.

“Every part of that machine passed through my hands; I was number one slinger driving a 300-tonne crane – a fantastic machine. At this time the head man from Milan said, ‘You’re not going to stop here, come to Milan’. To tell you the truth, I was nearly ready to go, but by this time we had four children. They took me to Milan and showed me around. They treated me like a king, showed me the schools my children would go to; if my wife wanted a job they would get her a job; everything was organised because they wanted me there and they knew what I was worth to them.

“My wife said, ‘Mario, Italians bring their children here to learn English – and we’re taking ours there?’. I thought it wasn’t right too, my children were too young and did I want to take my children out of school? So, I decided to go into business here.

“Italians have got to have progress; they’re not content to work just two hours, they just want to make as much cash as possible at the end of the week. If you have one you want two and if you have two you want three. We want our children to do well, take them on holiday, buy them a car.

“In those days in 1972 in Newcastle, you couldn’t buy pasta or purée, nothing like that. I decided to get a delicatessen van and I used to go to London on a Monday every week to buy pasta and everything. I supplied all the Italian restaurants in the North-East and all the Italian families who were living here right up to Berwick, across to Carlisle, Middlesbrough, Alnwick, Consett, Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor, all around.”

The De Giorgi entrepreneurial brain had plenty of time to think about the future and how to generate custom and, crucially, how to cultivate and retain it.

“One year I did 152,000 miles in the van – that’s how much I was on the road,” he says.

“Downstairs from what is now Secco was a place called Don Vito’s; I was cooking there and also supplying them. They owed me £15,000 or £16,000 and I couldn’t see any way of getting that sort of money back, so I decided to buy a share of the business. I eventually bought them out. From that I bought the building.

“The public in those days had never been much outside the country and didn’t really know continental food. Don Vito’s had different food – people would say, ‘What’s garlic, what are mussels?’ Some of them used to come in and ask what I was eating and I’d say, ‘Come in, have some, it’s mussels’ and they would run out. We had a few good years; it was top-class food and not too expensive – a very good business.”

Mario and Anne’s children have now picked up the apron strings, save for Maria who is a headmistress at a private school in London. Joseph, who had helped his father in kitchens from the age of seven, qualified as a chef and was a natural to ease into the business.

He also designed Popolo, which evolved out of Don Vito’s, and the Secco collection of Bar, Blue Room and Ristorante Salentino. Aldo, despite the lure of a university place, decided he wanted to work in a restaurant and is now responsible for front-of-house and staff training. Cristina had to be persuaded to change career after earning a degree in Business Information Technology, later gaining an MA.

Joseph is also the leader of the Newcastle Convivium of Slow Food, an organisation which protects good quality traditional food from the rise of fast food restaurants, by using only fresh and seasonal produce.

Mario says: “They started to develop the business in a different way.

“We sold Popolo, then Intermezzo and Paradiso and started to develop a new Don Vito’s at the Ouseburn.”

This is a £1m-plus café and restaurant development featuring two triangular, timber-framed buildings on either side of a historic, listed slipway to the Ouseburn.

Cristina says: “We’re looking at a 2008 opening. The architects’ plans are all drawn up, the model is made and the contractors instructed. We’re just waiting for site access. It’ll be two businesses, a roadside café and a riverside restaurant/bistro.

“At Secco we put the café and restaurant together so people could sit where they wanted. We looked at places in Italy and how they don’t have that snobbery approach between a pizzeria and a restaurant and that you can get anything you want. Cutomers might be drinking a £50 bottle of wine but still want pizza. It gives us and them much more flexibility – and every week it’s getting busier.”

Mario De Giorgi’s milk and cornflakes have been long consumed, the dreary days tramping up and down the country are mere memories – and there’s even a photograph on the Secco wall of him and Al Pacino during a chance meeting in New York.

It was apparently a long chat, no doubt about immigrants and their value to a country’s economy. And probably pasta.

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The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Volvo V70 – I need the space for my six grandchildren.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Don Vito’s will always be my favourite restaurant as it was my first establishment and it was where all my family worked together which resulted in our joint love of food.

Who or what makes you laugh?

My grandchildren.

What’s your favourite book?

I enjoy Mario Puzo and am currently reading Omerta.

What was the last album you bought?

The last record I bought was in 1960 – Dominico Madugnio singing Volare.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

I cannot imagine doing anything other that what I am doing now.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?

Bon Giorno.

What’s your greatest fear?

Leaving my family before I reach 100 as I have always promised.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

When I left Italy in 1956 my mother and father said to take three things with me; honesty, respect and fidelity and it would stand me in good stead – they were right!

What’s the worst piece of business advice?

In business I was never given anything – not even advice.

What’s your poison?

Red wine – negramaro or primitivo from Southern Italy.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

Mirror, Express and La Reppublica.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

When I was I was seven years old I got seven lire for cutting grapes – less than a farthing.

How do you keep fit?

Swimming – mostly in the Ionian Sea – and climbing the stairs in Secco.

What’s your most irritating habit?

I am always right!

What’s your biggest extravagance?

My home in Italy.

Which historical or fictional character do you identify with/admire?

Al Pacino.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Frankie Dettori, Silvio Berlusconi, Romano Prodi, Tony Blair.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a man who managed to be both an incredibly gifted entrepreneur as well as being an amazing son, husband, father, grandfather and friend.

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