Rome restaurants accused of funding mob closed in anti-mafia swoop

Angus MacKinnon
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The businesses closed down by Italian police are all located close to the Pantheon and other landmark sites in Rome's historic centre

The businesses closed down by Italian police are all located close to the Pantheon and other landmark sites in Rome's historic centre (AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

Rome (AFP) - Thousands of visitors to Rome have been unwittingly pouring cash into the pockets of a ruthless mafia organisation by dining at two of the city's best-known tourist restaurants, Italian police said Thursday.

Authorities on Thursday closed down the two eateries near the Pantheon in the heart of Rome's historic centre, saying they were run by the 'Ndrangheta, a notorious criminal syndicate that controls much of Europe's cocaine trade.

The national anti-mafia unit said the two restaurants, La Rotonda and Er Faciolaro, were controlled by alleged mobster Salvatore Lania and used to launder millions of euros generated by what is now Italy's most powerful criminal organisation.

Separately, financial police in Calabria, 'Ndrangheta's homeland, issued warrants for the arrest of 11 people and revealed that one of the biggest shopping centres in southern Italy had been built and run by the mafia group.

A 210-million euro real estate development linked to the Annunziata centre in the southern port of Gioia Tauro was sequestered.

In a statement, police said Alfonso Annunziata, the developer who built the centre, had acted for nearly three decades as a front man for the Piromalli, a powerful "family" or clan of the 'Ndrangheta based in the port.

Annunziata was among those arrested on charges of criminal association, along with his wife and five children.

Police said he been caught out by wiretaps of him regaling his accountant with the story of his unlikely rise from travelling salesman who had to pay extortion money to being a wealthy businessman who extorted cash from others in connivance with his mafia masters.

- Friendly and funny -

Lania was charged with fraudulently registering the Rome restaurants and a nearby souvenir shop as belonging to other people when he was, in fact, the beneficial owner.

A recent study by Coldiretti, the body which represents Italian farmers, estimated that at least 5,000 restaurants, bars and other eating places across Italy are in the hands of organised crime.

Anyone eating at either of the two Rome restaurants would have had no idea that they were run by the mob.

Both offer typically Roman dishes and wood-fired pizzas. A recent review of La Rotonda on Tripadvisor notes: "Service was excellent and staff very friendly and funny."

The anti-mafia unit said evidence of Lania's involvement with 'Ndrangheta had emerged as a result of their investigation into the so-called Alvaro clan's activities in Rome.

They suspect he was involved in the gang's smuggling of counterfeit goods made in China into Europe through Gioia Tauro with the support of the Piromalli family.

'Ndrangheta has emerged as the most powerful of Italy's mafia groups, earning billions from importing cocaine produced in Latin America into Europe via north Africa and southern Italy.

- Mafia entrepreneurs -

Recent arrests have confirmed the secretive group's expansion beyond Calabria to both Rome and northern Italy, but it has also suffered setbacks.

In January Italian authorities ordered the arrest of 160 alleged members and claimed to have dismantled several of its "mafia entrepreneur" networks in northern cities.

That followed the arrest of dozens of alleged mobsters linked to the group in Milan in November - an operation which uncovered secretly-filmed footage of 'Ndrangheta's initiation rites.

The quasi-religious ceremony involves would-be members swearing allegiance to their "wise brothers" before taking an "oath of poison" which requires them to kill themselves should they ever betray fellow clan members.

The 'Ndrangheta is not the only problem Rome faces with organised crime.

More than 100 people, including former mayor Gianni Alemanno and prominent business figures, are currently under investigation in a probe into a criminal network suspected of skimming millions from city funds for years.