In an official document a few weeks ago the International Monetary Fund stated that “public investment, if well addressed, is particularly effective especially in economic depression (such as the current, A/N) and it encourages private investment instead of stopping it: raising public investment by 1% of GDP raises private investment over 10%”. A whole different scenario compared to the crisis of 2008 when IMF called for austerity measures in order to avoid debt. However, that strictness never worked and today in a different but tragic situation, an institutional body that is the symbol of neoliberalism encourages public debt in States “fair and motivated” to trigger growth that will pay back the debt. This is a rough synthesis but that's the sum and substance of it. Italy, among other measures of financial aid, is supporting restaurants with the last Decree of the Prime Minister because they represent a fundamental category in national GDP. As bureaucratic procedures implement the government’s decisions there’s someone that is already investing in a vision, acting on their own as the IMF would suggest, mostly because otherwise there would be no future to imagine. I’m referring to the story of Giovanni Santarpia as example. He’s an entrepreneur and a chef of gourmet pizza who, as well as many others, churns out the flagship dish of the Made in Italy food industry. I want to talk about him because I know him and I want him to represent the rest of the numerous pizza makers trying to cope with hard restrictions putting this industry down to its knees. In Italy, there are more than 75 thousand assets worth 30 billion, including related industries, and a production of three billion pizzas a year. “Adding up the numbers amazes me” comments Giovanni Santarpia, over 40, ex Neapolitan scugnizzo (rascal street boy, a typical nickname used in Napoli, A/N) who “escaped a life of petty crime in the streets by rising pizza dough” as he likes to reminisce.
You just have to overcome the barrier of the protective mask and focus on his eyes, to understand that he has learned life from the street and maybe also for this reason he is a visionary, passionate and imaginative madman, as many Neapolitans who make pizza and like most Italians who work in restaurants are. A madman because Santarpia, right in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, showed that you need audacity during a crisis: “I opened this new business in January 2020. At the end of February Covid-19 struck and by the first half of March we had to close, just like everybody else”, he tells all dressed up in his work-coat and his chef’s hat on the top of his head. “My collaborators helped me a lot and I started fixing up the place during lockdown, we restyled the deck to add seats and tables in security before re-opening, without a cent from state funding”. The Government provided restaurant owners 25 thousand euros to support their business, but were only eligible for those who opened in 2019 and earlier because they had to show the entity of the loss compared to the year before. “Luckily mortgage payments were suspended for some time and we were able to use the redundancy fund for the employees who received it in May, unlike many others who had to wait for months”. Santarpia has partnered in two other enterprises before owning his own and is well-known, an element that helped him a lot while dealing with banks. “I got credit by paying off my debt when I started my business”, even though for the first two months since opening and during lockdown he didn’t have paychecks “I had some savings for difficult times: whoever has a business has to take account of the risks, however the pandemic can’t be foreseen. With those little savings I was able to face rainy days never missing a payment of my employees salary. My staff is my family, without it you can’t have a restaurant: along with the quality of the ingredients, they are the most valuable element in order to do things right”.
After being forced to close, Santarpia as many others, has immediately activated a delivery service employing people from the staff but with shorter working hours and reduced salary “we decided as a team: during hard times we have to stand together”, he says “and if the delivery service worked is because many of our regular customers supported us by ordering our pizza: they encouraged us in continuing to do our job and this gave us the confidence to re-open”. When the first lockdown ended we re-opened (many other restaurants didn’t) equipped and prepared with sanitizers and sanitary devices as required by the law and we saw a glimpse of hope: “customers returned and the business started again, even if we had to eliminate some seats due to social distancing (from 70 in normal conditions to 42, A/N). I tried to establish a double shift in the dinner service which could allow to seat down 80 people in one night (130 in normal conditions, A/N), but not everyone was happy about it so I had to compromise and decided to seat people at the counter for fast dining. It is clear that income decreased but nobody believed things could go back to normal, anyone who didn’t understand the gravity of the situation”.
Giovanni Santarpia with his mad visionary eyes has a clear vision of reality because, as he claims, he lives off his work “this is why I have to be concrete, I can’t afford to quit”, and it’s in these moments that he pushes his heart beyond obstacles. So when he re-opened, even though he was forced to let three people of the staff go (they were 10 and today are 7, A/N) in order to keep down fixed costs (staff costs are 40%), he decided to renew his expiring collaborators’ contracts hiring them full time. “You are insane, my accounting told me. But I bet on my human resources who are, again, essential for this type of business. I could use layoff for a longer time but refused it: I didn’t feel it was right given we were working again”. A Neapolitan who has chosen Florence as his foster city, Santarpia has conquered the palate of the demanding and, at times, nobly disdainful Florentines, with its pizza, round like a circle of Giotto, with high edges and the typical burns of perfect cooking. He also conquered them with his delicious montanarine (fried mini pizzas). After just one bite you figure out why he won the 2019 title of Pizzaiolo of the year of Italia a Tavola (a famous magazine about food and wine, tourism, restaurants and hospitality). Nonetheless he and his staff were awarded the 3 Spicchi by the Guida Pizzerie d’Italia 2021 Gambero Rosso (one of Italy’s most prestigious food guides), for the food and the good quality/price rate. The first time I sat at the table in his pizzeria was last September: the atmosphere is simple and neat, the menu is available by scanning a QR code with your smartphone to avoid any contact with frequently used objects; the staff is dynamic, attentive and friendly, smiles with their eyes over the masks and, despite the presence of the sanitary facilities and the distancing, everything was a great comfort to relax and get away for a moment from the nightmare that is the pandemic. While talking to the boss I could feel the deep effort - even the emotional one - that is behind his desire and need of never stopping, the real fuel of his commitment: “we are working right now but you never know about tomorrow, it depends on the number of people infected, it depends on the Government’s decrees, but health has to come first”, whispered Giovanni as I felt the eco of many other passionate and visionary Giovanni hoping not to give up.
As infections are rising, a new Decree of the Prime Minister is implemented forcing businesses to close again. “We will activate the delivery service right away and do our best to make ourselves useful, to not lose customers and try to work even if it’s not full regime. Ha da’ passà ‘a nuttata (the night has to pass, Neapolitan saying): we overcome dark times together”, says Giovanni trying to drive anxiety away and he adds: “for this to pass we each have to do our part. Us working in the restaurant business always must provide quality products, reinvent ourselves as we can, playing by the rules created to protect our health. The pandemic is nobody’s fault. You have to face life keeping reality in mind, following your dreams without illusions, step by step: prima trase ‘e sicco e poi te miette e chiatto (first you walk slowly with little, then you expand until you feel comfortable, Neapolitan saying A/N).
Translation by Alice Terzani.