Walking into Giovanni's Restaurant back in my hometown of Cardiff, I'm immediately welcomed by manager Massimo Fraioli. He plants two kisses on my cheeks, shouting "Ciao bella!" and "Benvenuto! Benvenuto!" as if I'm a close blood relation returning from years in exile, rather than a semi-regular customer back for a weekend visit.
But that's just how things are in Giovanni's. For more than three decades, the restaurant has been winning over Cardiff diners with its distinctly Italian hospitality and home-style cooking, attracting a fan base that includes Shirley Bassey, Anthony Hopkins, and even Welsh national treasure Sir Tom Jones.
Comfortably seated at a table in the restaurant's foliage-covered dining room, founder Giovanni Malacrino walks over to greet me. He tells me that his parents came to Wales with £10 and a suitcase of their belongings, hoping to set up a chip shop in the city's Grangetown area. This was typical of the waves of immigration to Wales in the early 19th century, when thousands of Italians emigrated to the United Kingdom, hoping to escape the poor farming conditions back home.
"The southerners from Naples, Reggio Calabria, and Sicily regions moved to Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea," explains Giovanni Malacrino. "Those hailing from Bardi and the Appennine Mountain regions hit the South Wales Valleys."
Many Italian immigrants found work in the coal mines and some opened cafes alongside their full-time jobs, providing fellow expat workers with a taste of home, as well as a place to socialise. Before long, almost every village in South Wales had an Italian cafe.
"The Valleys were dotted with so many Italian cafes, there used to be as many as five on the same street," says Bruna Chezzi, Italian language tutor at Cardiff University and founder of the Welsh Italians blog. "Since then, up and down the Welsh Valleys, they became dotted with confectionery shops and cafes."
Chezzi adds that the Bracchi surname became so common in South Wales that it was used as shorthand for describing Italian cafes in general. It wasn't long before Italian desserts rose in popularity, too.
"Ice cream became really popular in Wales following the War," explains Lucy Hughes, whose family runs the popular ice cream parlour Joe's Ice Cream Parlour, with branches in Swansea, Cardiff, Mumbles, and Llansamlet. "I'm not sure whether there was a ban on drinking in pubs, but people came for ice cream instead. I think it's because people historically couldn't go to the pub on Sundays, so they'd go to church, followed by ice cream."
In the 1950s, many native Welsh diners had never tried the dessert before.
"Some believed it was made using ice from the ponds or even ice imported all the way from Norway," Chezzi adds.
Today, ice cream is so popular in Wales that a recent tourism poll voted it one of the top attractions in South Wales, beating the region's historic castles and mountain biking.
"We must be one of the only countries that enjoy ice cream in our particularly cold winter," laughs Michela Chiappa, Italian Welsh blogger and cookbook author. "Trust us, the Italians would never consider eating ice cream during the winter."
As the South Wales coal mines began to close, many Italian cafes disappeared, no longer having a steady customer base on which to depend.
"With only a handful of the original Italian cafes and ice cream parlours left, it's sadly becoming a dying trade," says Chezzi, "One of the oldest that's still going is the Carpanini's Cafe in Treorchy and Sidoli's Ice Cream in Ystrad Mynach."
There may not be as many Italian eateries as there once were, but Welsh Italian families find ways to stay close to their roots.
"We consider the scampagnata the highlight of any Welsh Italian community," says Chiappa. "It's the perfect event that encompasses everything about the Italians: food and family."
The Italian word for "picnic," scampagnata in Wales see families come together for large communal meals. Chiappa tells me that going to such gatherings as a child made growing up in the Welsh Valleys feel like "living in Little Italy."
"Our whole upbringing had a very strong Italian influence, it was normal for us to make fresh pasta almost everyday with our nonni," she says. "Everything revolved around food, and especially Italian food."
With Chiappa and her sisters sharing their Welsh Italian dishes via Jamie Oliver's Food Tube network and Malacrino opening a new cookery school to teach Cardiff residents Italian cooking methods, it seems the Welsh Italian food connections are still going strong.
Back in Giovanni's, I'm handed a fresh plate of freshly made pasta.
"People often ask me, 'What's the recipe to success?' I tell them it's my famous spaghetti sauce just like mamma used to make," says Malacrino.
As I slurp and twirl my spaghetti, I must say he's right, it's pretty damn belushimo—that's a combination of "belissimo" and "lush."
For more Welsh fusion cooking, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.