Dining out: Italy's mafia problem

You know Italy is in dire straits when, during the worst recession in Italy since the War, it is a gang of thugs keeping the restaurants open and the food cheap. And those kids selling flowers may be scouting for the mafia

Italy's Camorra: a problem that isn't going away
Tim Hedges
On 26 January 2014 18:13

I was dining with friends in Milan once, when a young boy entered the restaurant carrying roses which he tried to sell to the diners. It is a fairly common sight all over Italy. Sometimes they will entice – ‘Flowers for the priddy lie-dee’ – sometimes they will simply thrust the flowers in the face of the gentleman as if daring him to be so unromantic as not to buy one for his companion.

They don’t sell many. Foreigners are often surprised at how many tables are taken by men lunching or dining together in Italian restaurants. In a country that prides itself on romance – ‘Il Latin Lover’ is accepted Italian parlance and regarded as a positive – it seems out of place. But the couples also, with the exception of the greenest tourist, always wave them away.

One of my friends explained what was going on: the young guys aren’t really interested in selling roses, they are there to count how many people are dining, according to which the restaurant will be charged the pizzo, or protection money. Anyone buying a rose is a bonus for the kid.

Now this was Milan, the business capital in the north of Italy, and you can see the same in Bologna and Venice, so I was not in the least surprised to read in the newspapers that mafia involvement in the restaurant trade had extended to Rome, just one stop on the fast train from Camorra headquarters in Naples.

Here it is not about protection money, it’s about ownership. Illegal mafia funds from racketeering and drug running are used to buy respectable businesses that pay out perfectly legal cash. That is why it is called laundering: the money goes in dirty and comes out clean.

And as a business it works well. The new owners of the restaurant are happy to work on low margins, since cashflow, not profits is the name of the game. They do not have the problems of other restaurants in that they don’t pay high rents, don’t pay protection money (to themselves) and, I should imagine, given the management, petty pilfering by the staff is low.

Thus the diners get cheaper food and restaurants closing down in the recession get a decent price for the business – there’s plenty more where that came from.

So it was that the Righi brothers, of the Contini clan of the Camorra, came to own a chain of pizza restaurants called Pizza Cirò. Naturally they specialise in the Neapolitan pizza as opposed to the thinner, crisper, Roman variety. The main restaurant, not far from the Trevi fountain, is well known and expensive (for a pizza, which is usually about €7, £5.80), its walls bedecked with photos of film stars. Other branches, less upmarket, are all over the centre of the city.

In a dawn raid, anti-mafia police seized control of 21 restaurants and arrested 90 people including a tramp who lived in the St Egidio hostel or slept rough at Termini station. This is an example of the extraordinary prestanome practice – people who lend their names.

The mafia will approach someone who is unlikely to be any trouble and in return for a modest present, a few euros or bottles of booze, he will sign his name as frontman in an illegal enterprise. It is said that several rough sleepers in the capital are worth millions without knowing it. It does, however, make things difficult for the police.

The tramp was released since he had ‘owned’ a restaurant since 1997 and his crime was timed out by the Statute of Limitations.

Nobody really knows how much of this is going on, but the local mayor for the central district has said it may be that 70 percent of prime restaurant sites in central Rome are controlled by the Camorra. Their interest appears to be only in quality addresses.

Indeed one of the buildings raided by the Carabinieri was a cultural centre opposite the Prime Minister’s offices in Palazzo Chigi.

The really depressing thing about this story is that in the worst recession in Italy since the War it is a gang of thugs keeping the restaurants open and the food cheap. Will Rome be better or worse off if the restaurants are closed?

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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