ROME – Gianfranco Romeo sits at a table at his trattoria off the Pantheon, casting scorn over the idea that he's a frontman for a feared mafia clan.
"I always had a passion for restaurant work, I began as a dishwasher," Romeo told The Associated Press at Il Barroccio, as pizza-makers prepared to fire up the oven and shovel in the pies for the evening crowd of tourists.
Romeo is among several people under investigation for suspected false property registration in one of a growing number of investigations in which mobsters are suspected of systematically buying up Roman tourist restaurants to launder cocaine profits, allegedly installing people like Romeo as figurehead owners.
Romeo contended bitterly that investigators were targeting him and others merely because they are natives of Calabria, the southern region that is home to the 'ndrangheta, one of the most feared global crime syndicates. In seizing restaurants from hard-working people like himself, he said, authorities are essentially alleging that all Calabrians in Rome are crooks.
He's looking forward to his day in a court so he can ask prosecutors: "Why do you say I'm a figurehead when I paid with my own money?"
Prosecutors are confident they'll have the right answer.
Along Rome's narrow Via dei Pastini, a street thronging with tourists in search of quaint restaurants, authorities raided three trattorias, including Il Barroccio, this year as alleged fronts for money-laundering operations for the 'ndrangheta. Authorities say the financially savvy 'ndrangheta is hungry for legitimate businesses to launder the billions it rakes in from cocaine trafficking. Elsewhere in Rome, the Naples-based Camorra is allegedly following a similar recipe, prosecutors say.
The restaurants and cafes targeted in the probes still operate. Many are near landmarks such as Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona. As chefs dish out pasta and waiters pour wine, anti-Mafia investigators — huddled in their offices — scrutinize tax returns and property deeds and leases.
Beyond mob-owned restaurants, tourists also stand a good chance of sleeping in hotels where more than sheets are being laundered. In one case, prosecutors alleged that a convent turned into a hotel was acquired by the 'ndrangheta just in time for the 2000 Holy Year — when millions of devout pilgrims poured into Rome.
"We can seize 10 businesses a day," said anti-Mafia prosecutor Michele Prestipino. "And they can buy up 10 more in a day."
What's more, the restaurants don't suffer any hit to their business from the mafia taint, since most tourists are blissfully unaware of the probes.
Romeo recounted how police roused him from sleep the morning two Via dei Pastini restaurants were seized. Two days later, the doors reopened, and tourists flocked back.
That, however, hasn't been the case with the lawmakers at parliament, a short walk away from Il Barroccio.
"The politicians used to come here," said Romeo, his face glum. "Now they say they can't come any more."
While a few lawmakers might be avoiding the trattoria, Rome's status as the Italian political and administrative capital is an added attraction for the mob. "You make connections, important friendships," Prestipino, the anti-Mafia prosecutor, told The AP in his Rome office.
And Rome offers the right ingredients for mobsters, being hundreds of kilometers (miles) from their centuries-old power bases. "It's a place where even conspicuous wealth blends in with other wealth," said Prestipino.
Restaurants and hotels in Milan, Turin and other northern cities, including in the prosperous regions of Veneto and Emilia Romagna, are also becoming 'ndrangheta properties, according to Prestipino, who used to fight the 'ndrangheta on its home turf in impoverished Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot.
Alfonso Sabella, a former Sicilian magistrate who battled Cosa Nostra, has urged Rome to create a mechanism to help spot anomalies like frequent ownership changes. Sabella recently served as Rome's first "legality commissioner" to help City Hall root out corruption and discourage infiltration by mobsters in the capital's economic fabric.
The lobby group for Rome's 15,000 restaurants is alarmed by organized crime infiltration, saying that mobsters — unlike honest restaurateurs — have nearly unlimited funds to make establishments successful as eateries, not just fronts for organized crime.
"There are locales seized in the past years that were flourishing," Fabio Spada, president of the FIPE Confcommercio Roma lobby, told AP. "They raked in a lot, independent of their vocation as money-launderers."
Indeed, in recent years, organized crime has been increasingly aiming to "make clean money from dirty money" by investing illicit revenues into legitimate sectors of the economy, said Lt. Col. Gerardo Mastrodomenico of the organized-crime squad of Italy's tax police.
The first two Via dei Pastini trattorias — La Rotonda and Er Faciolaro — were seized in March. Il Barroccio was seized in July.
Money for laundering is usually moved through several often sophisticated financial channels, to make it harder for investigators to keep up with the money trail. To sniff out possible front men, accountants and other financial experts who work for a special anti-organized crime unit of Italy's tax police sift through property sale and lease records, comparing the profession and income declared on tax returns.
That technique led to what so far has been the most high-profile anti-laundering seizure — the 2009 sequester of Cafe de Paris, a Via Veneto hangout made famous in "La Dolce Vita," Federico Fellini's classic film. The owner on property deeds was a modestly-earning barber from a tiny hamlet in the Aspromonte mountains of Calabria, an 'ndrangheta stronghold.
Fanning out from that probe, investigators checked out friends, and friends of friends — anyone who had any connections with those thought to be really running the Cafe de Paris. One man who caught investigators' attention was a Calabrian-born Rome businessman, Salvatore Lania. Intercepted phone calls indicated that he has links to suspected members of a powerful 'ndrangheta clan, said Carabinieri Col. Renato Chicoli, with a special anti-Mafia investigative unit in Rome.
When police started looking into Lania's background, they found that his income tax returns declared "almost nothing," Chicoli said in an interview. So how, investigators wondered, could this man suddenly start snapping up restaurants, and even a building, along pricey Via dei Pastini?
Lania, 47, is being investigated for false registration of property ownership. But he isn't suspected of belonging to the 'ndrangheta, said Chicoli. According to court documents filed in connection with the first Via dei Pastini seizures, none of those under probe are suspected of actually being an organized crime member. In these documents, Romeo is described as being a "hidden" partner in running Er Faciolaro, while his shares are officially in the name of a brother-in-law. The court document ordering the seizure also describes Romeo as "physically representing Salvatore Lania inside the restaurant, in running the business activity, in which he's listed as an employee."
Lania, Romeo and more than a dozen others, including family members, are suspected of playing roles in the alleged scheme to hide the real owners of the restaurants. According to investigators, a 29-year-old Egyptian waiter and 22-year-old Ukrainian waitress agreed to be named as the owners of one restaurant, Chicoli said.
Prestipino said prosecutors are likely to push for indictments soon.
Romeo readily spoke of a friendship with Lania and defended him as a legitimate restaurateur who worked hard and long. "He'd make 200 pizzas in two hours," Romeo said.
Lania's attorney didn't return a phone call for comment.
Some mobsters seem to challenge investigators to catch them. One cafe was seized down the block where Chicoli works. And anti-Mafia magistrates were among clients at some of the seized eateries. One of the pizzerias raided last year as a suspected Camorra money-laundering operation was called "Zio Ciro" — purportedly in homage to a reputed clan chieftain in the Naples area.
For mobsters, the Rome trattoria racket can be an ego trip as well as a business investment.
"You hear it in the intercepted (phone) calls," said Chicoli. "'You see this? It's our stuff.'"