As consumers, we have done without restaurants for the best part of a year, save for a few months last summer and a brief burst of freedom in January. We have lost one of the keystones of human society, an integral part of Italian culture especially, but for most of us the loss amounts to no more than a sad inconvenience. For the 15,000-odd restaurants in Tuscany, however, a year of closures has dealt a virtual death-blow: around 3,000 have closed permanently since the Covid onslaught, 100 in the province of Florence alone.
Tuscan restaurateurs saw which way the wind was blowing early, and in March 2020, with lockdown 1.0 in full effect, they formed Ristoratori Toscana. In the space of a year, the group has gathered 9,000 restaurateurs, 13,000 restaurants (4,000 of them in Florence) and 53,000 employees under its aegis, making it a monolithic de facto trade union. A protest in Florence last April garnered the support of some 60,000 restaurateurs across Italy and secured a suspension of COSAP, the tax for any business that takes up public space. The group launched legal action against the government in February: their list of demands include, inter alia, a suspension of taxes and mortgages over the course of 2021, plus compensation for damages suffered from lost business. “So far, we’ve just been thrown a few crumbs,” said Pasquale Naccari, Ristoratori Toscana’s spokesman, upon the publication of the document. “We’re tired of promises; we want actions.”
Pasquale is a busy man. Besides his tireless clamouring on behalf of Ristoratori Toscana, he is also president of TNI (Tutela Nazionale Impresa) Italia, an organisation that represents 40,000 members of Italy’s hospitality and catering sector. He, meanwhile, runs his own restaurant, Il Vecchio e il Mare, in Florence’s east end. Firmly of the trade that he represents, at the time of writing, he is coordinating yet another protest.
A friend of Naccari’s, however, has taken matters into his own hands. I was tipped off that Momi El Hawi, the proprietor of the three Tito Pizzerias distributed across via Baracca, via Alderotti and viale Europa, has been opening his doors since October. Intrigued, I visit the Baracca address, and at first sight it looks as though my sources were mistaken. The lights are off inside; a rider is leaving with a stack of pizza boxes, but nothing suggests that Tito is any different to the thousands of restaurants in Italy reduced to scraping by on takeaways.
Inside, however, I find a man who turns out to be Momi, and I ask him if there’s any truth in what I’ve heard. He leads me through to the sala interna, where maybe a dozen souls are sitting, chatting and munching on some pizza. There’s a couple enjoying a romantic night out, there’s a trio of middle-aged professionals who have just clocked off work. It’s a vision of normality, a throwback to more naïve times when we took all this for granted. “If I wanted to, I could stay at home all day and sleep,” Momi tells me, “but the 20 guys I employ, they don’t have that luxury.” Since October, the police have been round on 17 occasions, each time handing Momi the minimum fine of 400 euro. Small wonder that he is due to appear in court in May, a prospect that doesn’t faze him. “They can put me in prison if they like,” he says, “though I don’t think they will. You don’t sentence someone for wanting to feed people. But in the end, what will be will be. You can’t put a price on freedom—la libertà non ha prezzo.”
Momi has courted the attention, recognizing that the prosecution comes with the good publicity. He’s not the only one: search #IoApro on Facebook and you will find some of his civilly disobedient colleagues up and down the country, a handful of the 50,000 refusniks that reopened on January 15 not only for lunch, as was then permitted in most regions, but also for dinner. But their open defiance, one suspects, belies a wider, quieter bending of the rules. A student of mine told me that her sister and friends, deprived of their favourite vegetarian restaurant, simply hired the chef for an evening and ate at someone’s house. The speakeasy of prohibitionist America has come to 21st-century Florence.
Tempting as it is to applaud this tacit resistance, it’s worth remembering that, as ever, a noble cause has been turned into something of a political football. Opposition MPs have jumped on the bandwagon, eager to have a piece of anything that discomfits the government. The current call, both from them and the #IoApro restaurateurs, is that eateries open on April 7, and the Draghi administration does indeed seem to be considering this as a possible start date for a thaw on restrictions. But that depends on what the infection curve is doing, and restaurant owners, like all entrepreneurs, can be forgiven for wanting a bit of certainty. As Momi observes: “A year after the start of all this, we’re back to square one”.
This article was published in Issue 277 of The Florentine.