28 agosto 2023
by Edoardo Izzo

The lucky chef


You can smell the sea as soon as you get off the train. Santa Marinella, 9.50 am. We walk through the town center. There are waves, the sea is rough. The sweltering heat of Rome–a little more than 60 kilometers away–gives way to a cool breeze coming in off the sea. The restaurant "Al Porticciolo" is located in the Santa Marinella marina, next to the Coast Guard, and is a local institution. As is chef Enzo Alfieri, who with passion and creativity combines local, fresh and seasonal raw materials to create a veritable culinary experience for locals and vacationers who sit every day in the restaurant under the shadow of the Odescalchi Castle. Here, as well as in the other restaurants where he has worked in his 40-year career, he has served all sorts of important customers, from sports champions to cardinals, captains of industry, politicians and artists.

In the chat with Enzo–aside from his love for cooking, his great passion for his work, and humility (“I'm not a star, I just do my job and try to do it to the best of my ability, to make others feel good”)–one detail emerges: he is a chef who brings you luck. In the late 1980s, when Enzo worked at the Fenici Hotel in Santa Severa, he served both Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, same evening, same table. At the time, the former was the minister of the interior in the government led by Bettino Craxi, and Ciampi was the governor of the Bank of Italy. Both, “after” meeting the chef, would become presidents of the Republic (Scalfaro from 1992 to 1999 and Ciampi from 1999 to 2006). A curious coincidence. “It was a stroke of luck,” Enzo tells us. “They were staying at the hotel in Santa Severa where I worked and I had the honor of cooking for two presidents of the Republic.”

Talk about Lady Luck, Enzo. His whole professional life is dotted with coincidences and encounters. When he worked at Riva di Traiano, the Tourist Port of Civitavecchia, he served Cardinal Giovan Battista Re, a man always very close to Pope John Paul II and dean of the College of Cardinals. “He was twice in the conclave, but unfortunately, he did not become pope. Too bad,” Enzo says, smiling as the restaurant sign glows in the sunlight reflecting off the water. He has brought good luck to many customers, and not only Italians, among them US boxer Marvin Hagler, uninterrupted World Middleweight Champion from 1980 to 1987.

He also did some acting. He played the character of a marine in the films Indio and Indio 2. In 1997 he played alongside Terence Hill in the film Virtual Weapon. Hagler later served as a technical boxing commentator for British TV. “He was the idol of so many boxers,” recalls the chef, who at the time was working at Jackie O', the eatery in Via Boncompagni, a stone's throw from Via Veneto, in Rome. It was the turn of the 1980s and 1990s (Italy raised the World Cup in 1982). It was at Jackie O' that Enzo met Hagler. He remembers one detail: “After having dinner at the Graticola, he was going to a club and he came down to us to get the same wine he had enjoyed during the meal. While the maître d' was dealing with the wine, I asked who the elegant gentleman was.” "Marvin Hagler, the boxer," he replied. Then I turned to Hagler: "Shall we have a fistfight?" He made the sign of money. "Then it is true," I said to him, smiling, "you are Marvin Hagler.”

Other sporting greats have visited Enzo at Villa Miani in Via Trionfale, a short walk from the Zodiaco, such as Roma players on a historic evening with Carlo Mazzone as coach and a young Francesco Totti early in his career. He would go on to become il Capitano, the unique, inimitable and absolute star of the 2006 World Cup won by the “Azzurri.” But on that evening so many years before, he was still just Francesco, the promise of the youth section loaned to the first team. The chef recalls that dinner and an anecdote: “Antonello Venditti [TN: famous singer-songwriter] was also there and, during the evening, he started playing the piano.”

There were also Lazio players at his table. "I don't discriminate, I’m a Napoli fan." At the Sporting Club in Riva di Traiano, he has also served Tommaso Rocchi, a Juventus striker from 2004 to 2013, with his wife and children. “What struck me about him was just how very polite he is.” During the same period, he cooked for playmaker Giuseppe Sculli and Congolese-born Belgian midfielder Gaby Mudingayi, Lazio president Claudio Lotito. “It was the first day in which he was assigned a police escort,” he recalls. "I went to the table and he said: 'Is it true that you are a Roma fan?’ ‘No, I'm a Napoli fan.’ And he said: ‘Well, at least we have the same colors.’" He had bought Lazio shortly before at the invitation of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he was friends. Lotito would later become a politician himself in Forza Italia: today he is a senator. Another of the chef's customers is also a member of Forza Italia. "Maurizio Gasparri has also tried my dishes," he says.

The list is long. It also includes star manager Lucio Presta, Paola Perego, and Amadeus, host and artistic director of the last Sanremo Music Festival. The chat goes on, the anecdotes are many. It's almost 12 o'clock, the service and kitchen staff have to sit down to lunch, because it will soon open to the public. Enzo insists: stay for lunch with us. He does not have to repeat himself. He prepares two quick but delicious dishes: the Gallinella all'acqua pazza [gurnard in a tomato and white wine sauce] and a Fragolino [common pandora] with vermentino. The fish is always strictly fresh and locally sourced.

During lunch, we ask if, in addition to the stars of entertainment, he has served any artists. Enzo mentions Ugo Attardi and one personal memory. ("At my wedding, to which he was invited, he gave me a painting with a special dedication; I still have this painting and it was a great honor for me to know him. He is no longer with us: he was a great artist, but also a very simple person.”). Artists get one another. "Because successfully creating good feelings, experiences, doesn’t leave people indifferent. And the best thing is seeing the customers smile."

We are still sitting in the restaurant. Dishes are still lying on the wooden tables and we are settled in our sea-blue chairs. The restaurant is cozy and even the owners sit with us and talk. They opened in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. It was the year of face masks and social distancing. Today Santa Marinella is experiencing a new season, almost a Renaissance. "Now, everything is going well and especially on weekends we have a full house. A lot of Italians, but also foreign tourists willing to sample the food from our sea," explains Nazar, son of Michele Esposito owner of "Al Porticciolo." Nazar’s is an interesting story that is intertwined with current events: he is Ukrainian, like his mother. After COVID came the war, and they rolled up their sleeves and helped their fellow Ukrainians: "We gave jobs to lots of Ukrainians, but also to Russians. We do not discriminate," says Nazar.

The service is over, and lunch is served.

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