Et Tu, Borza?

By Danny Wilson Photography by Killian Broderick Illustration by Jay MacDonnell

‘Don’t open the bag! You’ll stink out the whole car!’

Shouted my father, invariably, following the weekly chipper trip we’d make in my youth. Puffing out my chest and radiating pride, I’d be dispatched into Aprile’s to collect our brown paper parcel, thrilled to be entrusted with the – to my mind – most important meal of the week.

The very utterance of our usual order – ‘a swimmer and a bag of blocks’ each – felt like a password into a world of adults. It was these colloquial phrases that solidified my understanding of the Chipper as a venerable institution; something important and wholly different from the McDonald’s across the road.

McDonald’s was owned by a clown so blinded by hubris he erected a statue of himself, only for his customers to mime sex acts with it. The Chipper was owned by a kindly lady who gave us the odd extra bag of chips because of the time my father reprimanded some youths for not showing her due respect.

The Vapid Clown vs. Sweethearted Woman distinction is one that stayed with me. It was the people, the very people who put their names above the door, that gave chippers their singular position in not just my mind but that of Irish society as a whole.

This greasy romance began sometime in the 1880s when Giuseppe Cervi, the godfather of the Italian-Irish chipper, stepped off the boat in Cobh and began the long walk to Dublin. When he finally arrived in the capital, Cervi worked as a labourer until he had saved enough to afford a coal-fired cooker and handcart, from which he sold chips outside the city’s many public houses.

By 1909 there was something akin to 20 chip shops in the city, nearly all of which were started by families (your Borzas, Macaris, Cafellos) hailing from the same Italian province of Frosinone. The newly minted Chipper industry continued to explode over the next century, the ubiquity of this new food purveyor proving its special relationship with the people of Ireland.

Now though, things have begun to change.

Not too long ago, whilst wandering the streets of Churchtown, I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks. Where once glowed the red and green sign of Marsella’s – a pillar of the local community and an old-school chipper of some repute – there was instead a ‘tasteful’ matte black sign emblazoned with the word ‘Chipmongers’.

The font was blocky and obviously focus-grouped, gone were the curved, script-evoking letters we associate with quintessentially Chipper-esque typography. The well-worn Chipper look had been subverted, the I in ‘chip’ even stylised to have a disembodied hand plucking it from rank. To my mind, proper Chippers have always looked broadly the same but unique in their minutiae, like the results of tasking a class of junior infants with drawing a house: they’re all going to produce a square with triangle on top but no two will be identical. By contrast, Chipmongers could just as easily have been a barbers, café or candle shop.

It appeared that the Chipper ‘look’ was now no longer beyond the remit of the omnipresent artisanal rebrand, and it should have been clearer that this shift was inevitable.

It appeared that the Chipper ‘look’ was now no longer beyond the remit of the omnipresent artisanal rebrand, and it should have been clearer that this shift was inevitable. One merely has to take a stroll through the city centre, surveying the slew of new or refurbished premises, to see how many businesses have adopted a cloyingly twee, faux-artisanal posturing. A slickly manicured approximation of an imagined past; a look far removed from white tiling and reflective metal counter tops.

Putting aside this attack on the outward appearance of our beloved takeaway, the rise of wellness culture has put considerable pressure on perceived unhealthy establishments to reposition themselves. The greasy spoon is now emblematic of a more naive time, when people did not recognise their bodies as the Sisyphean gulags of flesh they are. The great irony of this cultural backlash is the premium the movement puts on independent business, a central tenet of the now maligned family-run Chippers. It’s undoubtedly a stretch to characterise them as artisans but they remain, for the most part, mom and pop operations.

So how real is this ‘pinch’? I figured the best folks to talk to were those at the vanguard of the new wave: Marsella’s Chipmongers. John Marsella, the Marsella running the show at the minute, welcomes me into the family home which is attached to the Chipmongers premises. Inside, I am introduced to three generations of Marsellas before listening to John speak with admirable frankness:

‘When the recession hit in 2008, it didn’t really affect us. To the point that when things got worse in 2010 we weren’t really prepared. We’d lost the young people, aside from the ones being brought in on their dad’s shoulders.’ he says. ‘Most of our customers were well into their 40s. When the chips are down, you gotta do what you got to do. You have to follow consumer trends, especially when you’re afforded an opportunity to be involved in something like this from the start.’

And John was indeed in it from the start. A couple of years ago he was approached by Musgraves, the wholesale and catering behemoths who created the Chipmongers brand, with the idea of a franchise more inline with the perceived tastes of the day. After some deliberation he opted to go with it, and ‘lo Marsella’s was the very first Chipmongers to open. The day we sat down another two were opening their doors in Bray and Enniscorthy.

Prior to coming back to the family business, John ran a few video shops. He knows better than most how quickly changes in the marketplace can scupper a business that once felt bulletproof. When he talks about the Chipmongers endeavour, enthusiastic as he is about getting in at the ground floor, the significance of his decision is obviously not lost on him:

‘I heard people said I’d betrayed the local community, I’d sold my soul, I was going to be excommunicated from ITICA.’ he says. ‘Seeing the sign come down was obviously really hard for a lot of people, it was hard for me. But the name is still up there, just a little smaller, we’re Marsella’s Chipmongers. I wonder how different it would have been if all the Italian families banded together years ago but everyone always wanted their name above the door.’

‘I heard people said I’d betrayed the local community, I’d sold my soul, I was going to be excommunicated from ITICA.’

The ITICA that John refers to is the arcane Irish Traditional Italian Chippers Association, an organisation that, according to their website, was ‘formed to celebrate the unique identity of the Traditional Italian Chipper in Ireland and to mark the contribution they have made to the community.’ Sounds great on paper, but how exactly they are going about this noble mission, aside from spearheading National Fish and Chip Day, is wholly unclear. Unfortunately, I was unable to pin down any of the body’s exalted elders to discuss the downward spiral in their industry.

So, as ITICA were unwilling to discuss the preservation of more than a century’s worth of culinary culture, I decided to pursue an institution that occupies the other end of the spectrum to Marsella’s Chipmongers. Founded by Filippo Fusco in 1963, Fusco’s of Meath Street is one of the jewels in the crown of what was once the city’s most famed shopping districts.

While so much of the surrounding area has morphed over time, Fusco’s remains a bastion of the past.

Meath Street Market, once thronged week in week out, has seen better days. Many of its independent sellers have long since departed, but there is still a palpable sense of community; one in which Filippo, now 77, is something of a celebrity. While so much of the surrounding area has morphed over time, Fusco’s remains a bastion of the past: an elderly man in an overcoat dunks some chips into the yoke of his friend’s egg as he orders another pot of tea; a mother and her three sprogs laugh over chicken nuggets. It feels as though everyone knows one another. A promotional picture depicting a younger, though not entirely spritely, Filippo hangs overhead with his flinty gaze locked on the camera.

‘When I came here I got a good impression of Ireland,’ Filippo says. ‘I thought it seemed a good place to start a business. Back in those days we sold 4 kinds of fish, whiting, smoked cod, fresh cod and ray. I’d wrap it with newspaper, the evening press, this is before people even used paper bags. Irish people would eat it a lot because, back then, Wednesday and Friday were fast days, you were only supposed to eat fish.’

Filippo continues, ‘everyone used to shop in the Liberties back then, this was a very busy street. The only problem was that there were no street lights, it was very dark in the night. I remember when I first got a sign with illumination it would light up half the street.’

‘Irish people would eat it a lot because, back then, Wednesday and Friday were fast days, you were only supposed to eat fish.’

Fusco’s and its owner are in many ways the perfect embodiment of my somewhat idealised understanding of the Chipper as a local-focused, family run institution. Filippo continues to pride himself on being an active member in the community:

‘When an older person dies I go to the church for the funeral, I’ll be the first person there. It’s an important thing; to show respect to the people. Years ago, it was myself, Morelli on Thomas street, my sister on Cork street and my cousin in Rialto. We had the whole area. Now, we have to fight every day to run the business.’

Despite this, Fusco takes a pragmatic view when it comes to the changes he’s experienced: ‘from the 80s on, for about 10 years, that was the best time I had as a business. It was very busy and we’ll never see that again. I think of it like I do sport: in sport everyone has 10 years. Don’t expect it to be good forever.’

Filippo and I talk for a long time. He digresses at length on how people don’t drink hot Bovril anymore, chronicles his first photo call with Rosanna Davison and palpably delights in an story detailing how his ‘vest was covered in blood, their blood!’ following an attempted robbery 27 years ago. Filippo has no shortage of stories, but little by way of answers as to what’s next for his industry. He is much more comfortable recounting tales of how things once were rather than pontificating on what is yet to come. 

Attempts at reconciling Filippo’s story, and the obvious import of his shop to community, with John’s decision to embrace the new are somewhat thorny. There are no bad guys after all. On leaving the the Marsella homestead I found myself unable to take as harsh a view of the Chipmongers rebrand as I had at first, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it would be tragedy to no longer see names like Aprile, Borza and Macari glowing, incandescent through the mist of a rainy night.

Maybe Filippo is right, nothing lasts forever. But, I wonder, do people realise what they are giving up? Perhaps the only hope for these storied old institutions is that some future generation will spearhead a vinyl-style reappraisal of their value? But as of right now, to the likes of Messrs Fusco and Marsella and their ilk, that seems a long way off.

I’m not crying. It’s just the vinegar fumes…