Mario Bretti, 64, is probably Swindon’s best known ice cream man, having founded his business in 1973. He lives in Upper Stratton and is married to Vicki. The couple have two daughters, a son and a granddaughter


“SOME of my older customers,” said Mario Bretti, “I served when they were kids and now I’m serving their children.

“When the parents tell their children they knew me when they were their children’s age, the children look at me and say, ‘Really? He doesn’t look that old!”

During his years in business, Mario has seen trade become harder thanks to hypermarkets and home freezing, but he has an ace up his sleeve.

“Mister Whippy ice cream will never die. Supermarkets won’t do it, and that is really what will keep us going.”

He also claims a definitive answer to the question of why a 99 is called a 99.

Theories have ranged from their originally costing 99p – they didn’t – to the old Kings of Italy having 99 bodyguards, but according to Mario the real reason is simply that the swirls of chocolate in a flake look a bit like nines.

Mario first came to Swindon in 1966, when Britain in general and Swindon in particular needed all the workers they could lay their hands on.

He’s originally from Filadelfia in the Calabria region in southern Italy “My dad was a very hard-working man. He used to own his own business, a watermill.

“I remember when I was a little boy I used to stay with him at the watermill. It was just outside Filadelfia in the countryside. He had quite a bit of land, and I remember he used to do his own vegetables. It was really nice; he had a lot of chickens, a dog and a horse.”

Mario remembers women coming with grain to be ground, and paying his father with a share of the flour, which he would then sell on.

He also remembers his father impressing on the young family of five boys and two girls the values of hard work, honesty and kindness to others.

“We always used to sit at the table for dinner all together and my dad would always talk to us – ‘Work and never steal anything from anybody. Work is honour, but stealing is dishonour and gives a bad name to the family.’”

During their school days, Mario and his brother, John, would take a shortcut between Filadelfia and nearby Montesoro on their way to and from school.

“There were trees with clementines, and loads of them all on the floor. We never touched one.

“The owner of the land, she was hidden somewhere, and one day she came to see my mum and dad with a big packet of oranges and gave them to my mum and dad. They asked, ‘What is this for?’ She said, ‘Because I was watching your children and they never touched one’.”

By his early teens Mario was an engineering apprentice in Milan, where a sister and brother-in-law ran a greengrocer’s. He worked for two business partners, one an Italian and the other a German, who made vacuum cleaners.

He stayed for about three years but also had an evening job in a food kiosk owned by an elderly widow.

“ I used to sell ice cream, drinks, melons. The melons were on a big block of ice. We used to cut slices.

“Everybody was coming by. I remember it was near the army camp and we would get all the soldiers. The way I would talk to them in Calabrian dialect, they would laugh and joke – they loved the way I spoke.”

He wasn’t the first person in his family to sell ice cream.

“My granddad emigrated to New York, and when he came back to Montesoro he opened a bar and used to make ice cream.

“In those days there was no electricity – it was all by hand. He’d put snow around the bowl. It didn’t take long to sell it. He used to send two little kids to shout, ‘The ice cream is ready!’. They’d all go to the bar and in 10 minutes the ice cream would be gone.”

Mario has strong family connections to Swindon. An uncle, Franco Mazzotta, effectively founded the town’s Calabrian community, having first been sent as a prisoner of war.

Mario’s first visit was intended as a holiday; his brothers were already here.

“I always intended to go back to Milan because it is a nice city. In those days it was quiet. You never heard of any criminal stuff or things like that. It was like Swindon, a very, very, very lovely town.”

“I remember when I came to Swindon we would pay the milkman by putting money in the milk bottles and nobody would touch it. Swindon was so lovely. It was like a village — it was quiet.”

Initially working in the dining hall of a private school near Shrivenham, Mario first worked as an ice cream man in at the turn of the 1970s.

In 1973 he went into business on his own account with a new Bedford CF van. It cost £6,600, a small fortune in those days, and Mario still owns it.

He has run up to four vans at a time but currently has two.

The early days of the business were long before the arrival of hypermarkets or widespread home freezer use, and Mario’s biggest sellers were family packs of ice cream.

They were usually bought to be eaten immediately around customers’ dinner tables, and the neopolitan – stripes of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavour – was the most popular of all.

“Some older people still ask for them,” said Mario, “but they don’t make them any more.”

Wafer sandwiches and oyster shells were also popular, and so were cider lollies. “In Moredon, especially, we used to sell the cider lollies. They were lovely. A man in Moredon used to buy a box of them.”

These days the favourite lolly is Mister Bubble. “It’s blue – they get a blue tongue and blue teeth.”

Mario has no intention of retiring from his work.

“I love it because I meet people, talk to people and I’m always out. I’ve done it for so many years, what else can I do now?”

His website is at