“In all Europe there is no street quite so lively, quite so cosmopolitan
or quite so zany as Rome’s Via Venetos” So began a 1959 TIME story trumpeting Café de Paris as the new must-see-and-be-seen spot on the then
already famous leafy boulevard. Fifty years later, the sidewalk locale is as
luxurious as ever , attracting both well-heeled
Italians and tourists looking for a hint of the breezy, post-War sweet life
celebrated in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, in which the café was
a key location.
On Wednesday, Café de Paris was back in the spotlight for different reasons:
Even as sharply dressed customers and summer travelers in shorts sipped
cappuccino, police seized the premises on suspicion that it had fallen into
the hands of the increasingly powerful Calabrian mob. The cafe was one of a
dozen pieces of prime Roman real estate, with a combined worth $284 million,
sequestered as part of a citywide crackdown on suspected money-laundering
The bar-restaurant was back open and operating by late morning, though a
state-appointed manager will manage it for the time being, while the owner
is forced to prove, under a special Italian statute, that he is clean of
mob ties. Police allege that top bosses from the Alvaro-Palamara faction
of the Calabrian mafia used a barber from a small rural town in Calabria as
a frontman to buy the historic café in 2005 for some $350,000 dollars,
though its commercial value is estimated at $60 million. Italian authorities suspect that the difference between the official price tag and real value was passed under the table.
The bloody criminal organization ‘ndrangheta, based in Calabria on the toe
of the Italian boot, is today considered the most powerful organized crime
syndicate in Italy, surpassing the legendary Sicilian Mafia after having
taken over much of the trafficking of South American cocaine into Europe.
With the billions in narcodollars, ‘ndrangheta is constantly on the lookout
for ways to invest its ill-gotten cash in legitimate enterprises, explains
Alberto Cisterna, a Rome-based magistrate who has long followed the
Calabrian mob. He says that high-profile urban centers are actually
considered the best places for crooks to simultaneously hide their illicit
wealth and evade taxes. “These criminal organizations see Rome and Milan as
bona fide tax havens,” says Cisterna. “Its hard for them to hide their
wealth in Calabria, where they’re tightly monitored.”
The Calabrian mob, which began to accumulate wealth in the 1970s and 1980s
through kidnapping and extortion, has grown exponentially in the past five
years as it has teamed up with Colombian cocaine producers. The “Massacre of
Ferragosto,” the gangland killing of six young Calabrian men one August
night in 2007, in Duisburg, Germany, was the bloodiest sign that the crime
syndicate was spreading its influence across the continent.
Just in the past two days, in separate operations, police have made dozens
of arrests on drug trafficking charges in Calabria and Milan. Though no
arrests were made in connection with the Café de Paris operation, Colonel
Daniele Galimberti of the Carabinieri investigative unit says that following
the money trail is a key to breaking the organization, which is largely
protected by a widespread vow of silence. “They are more and more
diversified,” says Galimberti. “Confiscating property is one way to get them
Despite the morning’s drama, life was back to normal at the famed Café, by
early afternoon. Marcello Scofano, the assistant manager, who has worked
there for 26 years, said the current owner had appeared to be an upstanding
businessman. “This has already been a bad year,” Scofano said, citing the
economic crisis’ impact on tourism. “But I’ve seen good times and bad times
here. We serve it all: espresso and cappuccino, dinner or snack, $1000
bottles of wine and $40 bottles.” But investigators are alleging that
Scofano wasn’t the only one keeping tab.
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