Paris is burning

When Dino Paul Crocetti, Dean Martin if you don't mind, sang in 1963 about Via Veneto, "That romantic street where strangers can meet in Rome, wonderful Rome", lots of things were different. Right after the Second World War Italy happily joined the Marshall Plan, and not long after Rome became the hottest spot for Hollywood stars and other members of the jet set, in times when flying on a jet was a thing.

In the middle of the Roman madness stood Via Veneto, or Via Vittorio Veneto to be precise, named after a town in the Northern region of Veneto. If you've ever been in Rome you've probably walked through the street, going from Piazza Barberini to Villa Borghese or by a chance after wandering around the alleys behind the Spanish Steps.

At its peak, right before Villa Borghese, you can find Largo Federico Fellini - which is not by a coincidence. Watching Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita would give you a bit of the sense as if you were there, in Rome. You could see the reporter Marcello Rubini, played by the nonchalantly charming Marcello Mastroianni, walking around the street - which was actually a production set in Cinecitta studios - in his search for love and happiness, and finding them at least for a short while in Fontana di Trevi together with Anita Ekberg.

The sweet life starts here

In 1956, at the heart of the sweet life like a creamy filling of a pastry or a fully-ripe watermelon, Vittorio Tambolini opened Café de Paris in order to bring to Rome, isn't it ironic, a scent of Parisian joie de vivre, which is why the cafés logo is a rooster. Four years later an image of the café appeared in Fellini's film to create and describe reality at once, after becoming the favorite of celebrities that stayed in the surrounding hotels.

The stars arrived used to arrive with their entourages that were followed by the reporters - and the paparazzi, named after Mastroianni's friend-companion in the film (and the theories around the origins of the name are as many as the photographers that walked around Rome that days). It was convenient for the paparazzi to run with the film negatives they had just taken down the street escaping the stars' bodyguards, passing by Piazza Barberini, on their way to one of the newsrooms of Il Messaggero or Il Tempo in order to make it in time for the upcoming edition.

Oh, you'll never forget the Via Veneto in Rome, wonderful Rome /

Fellini and friends (taken from the vitrine outside the café)

That romantic street where strangers can meet in Rome, wonderful Rome /

Mastroianni and Fellini, from La Dolce Vita

If you're devil-may-care, it's a rightful affair to take a walk or a drive /

Frank Sinatra and his entourage in 1964 having a friendly chat with the legendery paparazzo Rino Barillari

That "magical scent" of Italy got a little dim in the Seventies. Hollywood found new places to travel to, and The Years of Lead, namely the bloody years when Left and Right were fighting in Italy up until the Eighties, didn't do well to Rome's image. Via Veneto started to sink - and Café de Paris suffered as well.

On 16th September 1985, the Café was hit by the terrorist organization of Abu Nidal (ANO) which used Rome as its "playground" for its attacks. The organization's member Ahmad Hassan Abu Ali Sereya rolled two hand grenades between the tables outside the Café, and although only one of them detonated, 38 customers were wounded. According to the organization the attack was to commemorate three years of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and was intended also against workers and visitors of the nearby American embassy. Sereya was caught after a short chase, and in 1987 was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Unfortunately, we know how it looks like

Café de Paris continued to go down-hill, and in 1992 its reputation was badly affected after sanitary mishappenings took place in its kitchen. Despite the luxurious hotels around it continued to be luxurious, their tenants preferred trendier places to sit in, and after some mediocre years Franco Todini, who had bought the café in 1998, tried to get rid of the property.

To his rescue came Damiano Villari, that bought 80% of the Café for a little less than one million Euros in cash. A great bargain for a property in the middle of one of Rome's most expensive streets that resides in a building worth about 55 million Euros. Villari competed against Tabib Abdallah Seed, a Lybian-Italian businessman who had already owned a real estate company and a hotel in the town of Anzio.

And yet Villari's entrepreneurial spirit won.

Entrepreneurial spirit and faith, since Villari wasn't a rich businessman like Seed but a humble barber from the small Calabrian village of Sant'Eufemia d'Aspromonte, at the point of the Italian boot.

Entrepreneurial spirit, faith, and support of the Alvaro family from the even tinier Calabrian village of Cosoleto, who was known to be part of the Calabrian mafia organization 'Ndrangheta ("Man of honor", in the regional dialect). It has been years since this organization is considered the strongest of all mafia organizations in Italy, more than the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Neapolitan Camorra.

Villari had been already the owner of California Bar on Via Veneto, where Vincenzo Alvaro, member of "the family that doesn't have any enemies", was registered as a sous-chef. Such a great partnership between employers and employees, almost as the one of Noma's move to make Ali Sonko, who used to work as a dishwasher at the restaurant since the day it was opened, a partner of the new business. Bravo!

The Italian way of saying "Yeah, right"

The Alvaros' sweet life began to be a bit bitter in 2009 when Italian authorities confiscated Café de Paris along with other 15 businesses in the hospitality realm worth over 200 million Euros, but in fact were centers for money laundering. I imagine you're shocked.

The restaurant then was sold to "a group of legitimate businessmen", but in 2011 it was amazingly found out to be related to the same Alvaro clan. Still shocked, right?

Alvaro and Villari, legitimate businessmen

This confiscation should have brought a happier step in the life of Café de Paris, since the idea was that it would be run by a trustee, while the food would come from fields and farms confiscated as well from the mafia. A whole ecosystem of transferring resources from the mafia back to the people. Further hope rose in 2012 when the Malaysian Kuok group who owns the Shangri-La hotel chain bought the building on Via Veneto 90 in order to open the group's first franchise in Italy.

Yet from Café de Paris itself there was not much to save and it served fewer and fewer clients. Its employees continued to work even through non-stop conflicts between the labor unions, the municipality and the building's managers, and since 2013 the place was scarcely open.

On a cold night of February 2014 the Café was doomed. Only a few people know who lit a gas can near the employees' dressing room which led to a fire and the total destruction of the place. Aldo Berti who ran the place since its last confiscation added that in the morning after the fire he got an evacuation order, and until proven otherwise it appears to be a total coincidence. Thanks to someone, there were no casualties.

Today Café de Paris stands deserted. Through the dusty windows you can see the coffee machine, the plates and glasses on the shelves, and around there are still tables and chairs, on one of them there's still a jacket. Outside you can find the not-so-cheap old menu (prices in Lire!), and some photos of back-then celebrities standing next to Remo Baldassarri, the waiter who worked at the place for more than 35 years(!). In an interview from 2016 to an Italian magazine, he remembered Richard Burton's Vodka Martini, Liza Minnelli's cappuccino and Frank Zappa's strange order of double espresso and lemon. Baldassarri didn't forget to tell how rude was Diego Armando Maradona - not like Pelè who was always nice and a gentleman. At this point you shouldn't be surprised anymore.

We'll be right back

If someone actually makes something of Café de Paris' building, a lobby recreating the café could revive La Dolce Vita's spirit, well absorbed in the walls. If asked, I would totally recommend it.

And in order to close the circle: who sang about La Dolce Vita exactly 20 years after Dean Martin and his Via Veneto? The Italian singer Fabio Roscioli who went by the stage name Ryan Paris. Paris again! What are the odds?!

related posts