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National Fish and Chips Day: Thank cod for Giuseppe

Clockwise from main; Models Georgia Salpa and Michele McGrath tucking into a 'one and one'; members of the Borza family in their Dun Laoghaire shop in 1955; Giuseppe Cervi's shop on Dublin's Pearse St; and DiMascio's chipper in Dublin

Chips off the old block . . .

It could have easily been a culinary catastrophe. So today, on National Fish and Chips Day, we should be thankful for the lucky twist of fate that sparked our 125-year love affair with the Italian chipper.

Be grateful because back in the 1880s, Giuseppe Cervi, the man who introduced us to the Italian takeaway, had very different ideas when it came to tantalising Irish taste buds.

The young Italian arrived in Cobh, or Queenstown as it was known back then, after mistakenly disembarking on the final stopover of an American-bound boat. After watching his American Dream set sail, Giuseppe turned and set out on foot to find his fortune in Ireland instead.

After walking the long and rocky road to Dublin, he worked in the city as a labourer intent on earning enough money to buy a coal-fired cooker and handcart to go into business selling roasted chestnuts.

While fish and chestnuts would have been unlikely to catch on, we were spared having to find out thanks to a small but highly significant mistake young Giuseppe made while selling his fare outside the pubs of Dublin.

Legend has it that one day instead of a chestnut he mistakenly roasted a potato and quickly realised the Irish knew a good spud when they tasted one. The course of history had thankfully changed and Giuseppe soon opened Ireland's first fish and chip shop on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) beside Trinity College.

Giuseppe ran the chipper with his wife, Palma, whose lack of English gave Dubliners a phrase still in use today.

When customers arrived at the cash register to pay Signora Cervi would point to the menu and ask, "Uno di questo, uno di quello?" or "One of these, one of those?"

Walk into any Italian chipper over a century later and ask for a "one and one" and you'll be served fresh cod and chips.

By 1909 the steady march of the chipper had begun and there were 20 fish and chip shops in Dublin, serving a population of just 290,000.

"But it was not an instant hit," says Peter Borza, of the Irish Traditional Italian Chipper Association (ITICA) whose parents came to Ireland in the 1950s.

"There was about 50 chip shops in Ireland going in to the 1930s. But it was after World War II when fish and chips really took off."

It was then the local chipper flourished and began its spread nationwide. Soon surnames such as Borza, Macari, Cafolla and Apriles became synonymous with one thing throughout Ireland -- fish and chips.

However, Ireland's Italian chipper families have one unique characteristic. They all come from a tiny village nestled between Rome and Naples, called Val di Comino, whose population today is just over 2,000.

"It was a pretty amazing place," says Conor Brennan from Clontarf in Dublin, who stumbled across the town while holidaying in Italy a number of years ago.

"We started to notice Irish registration plates on a lot of the cars as we were walking along the street. Then we passed by these old Italian men playing chess in the square and suddenly one of them cursed in a broad Dublin accent. It was then we discovered that many of the families, after working in Ireland, come back home here to retire."

Times had always been tough in Val di Comino. There was little income to be made through farming and after the turmoil that the World Wars had caused many decided to up-root and take their chances elsewhere.

"The first wave of Italians came to Ireland in the early 1800s and were mainly artisans and stone masons that worked on building the houses of Georgian Dublin and big houses around Ireland," says Borza.

"But it was really from the early 1950s and onwards when 95% of the almost 6,000 Italian community living in Ireland arrived here. The reason my parents and the other Italian families chose Ireland was because it's a family-based Catholic country, so it's very like Italy in that way. Italians have the same temperament as the Irish. We love our food and drink, we love to argue and shout and we love talking."

Many of the Italians who journeyed to Ireland witnessed the success of fish and chip shops as they travelled through London, where the first chipper opened on Cleveland Street in London's East End in 1860. The advent of trawler fishing in the 1950s increased the availability of fresh fish and the popularity of fish and chips soared.

The sons and daughters of the Italian immigrants are intent on securing the legacy their parents worked so hard to create.

Now, the 200 members of the ITICA want to remind the nation why even with fast food chains, Chinese takeaways, Indian Balti houses and pizza and pasta in wide supply, we still come back to fish and chips.

Go to an ITICA chipper today and you'll only pay half price.

"I believe we have soaked up the impact of the stiff competition," says Borza. "The local Italian chipper is still a cornerstone of the local community in cities and towns throughout Ireland.

"In an era of faceless multinationals people can walk into their local chipper where the owners will most likely know their name. Today that is something unique."

While a firm part of the local community, the Italians here never forget their roots and often meet in the Phoenix Park for picnics on Sundays, where they talk business and share family gossip.

"We also go backwards and forwards to Italy," says Borza. "We celebrate St Patrick's Day there and we have an Irish festival every year. And many still have a hand in running the family business."

However, while obviously proud of their Italian and Irish heritage, how would they react if Giovanni Trapattoni managed a miracle and guided Ireland to the World Cup Final where they faced Italy?

"Now that's a difficult one!" laughs Borza. "But thankfully to cover all eventualities, I always wear a jersey that is half Irish and half Italian. So depending on who wins I'd be hip-hip hooraying in English or Italian!"

For information on the chippers offering half price fish and chips today visit www.itica.ie.

Irish Independent