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Gino scores gold

Gino scores gold

Durban – On September 29, 1972, Durban mayor Ron Williams cut the ribbon at 5pm. Then 22-year-old Gino Leopardi, fresh out of Italy, pressed the button. The Roma started turning.

The restaurant has become an institution in the city ever since, and this evening as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Leopardi is still very much a part of it. The number plate on his Porsche reads Roma72 ZN.

I meet Leopardi in his Durban North home and he tells me how a “gap year to learn some English” turned into a fun and event-filled career and lifestyle, one he still enjoys to this day.

He was a young medical student and a promising boxer in Rome when he got the call to come and help open the Roma Revolving in 1972.

Gino scores gold
John Ross house and the Roma Revolving Restaurant under construction in February 1972. The restaurant opened its doors on September 29 that year.
Gino scores gold
The scene today. Our photographer Shelley Kjonstad had to take the shot from a slightly different angle due to development on the Embankment. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

It was atop the 32nd floor, then the tallest building in Durban, only the third revolving restaurant in the world and the first in the Southern Hemisphere.

The man behind the concept, Bartholomeo Ribero, had met a young Leopardi earlier that year in Rome.

“I was studying and working at a hotel on weekends and tour guiding,” Leopardi says.

“At the hotel he said he wanted to visit the Castel Gandolfo (the summer residence of the Pope). I said I would love to take him but only had a Fiat 600. He was two metres tall, I didn’t think it was possible. He said he had once driven a Toppolini, and so I took him and his wife. And afterwards I took them to the lake (Lake Albano) and as is custom, sang an Italian song for them. I sang Santa Lucia. And Mrs Ribero cried.

Gino scores gold
Gino Leopardi, left and Cosimu Turi, right, with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter in the 1990s.

“It was then that Mr Ribero said ‘come visit me in South Africa. I’m going to be opening a restaurant’. He would become a father to me, “ Leopardi said.

“I arrived in June and stayed with the Riberos. He took me to Man About Town and bought me two suits. He gave me R100 pocket money ‒ a lot of money then ‒ and we prepared the restaurant for the opening,” he says.

Leopardi says opening night was special. “There were crystal glasses from Venice and pure silver on the table. The ladies all wore beautiful long dresses, the gents in their jackets and ties. It was beautiful,” he says.

“Mr Ribero wanted to train me to be the maitre’d, so he took me to the Old Roma to learn how to cook. I’d never cooked in my life, I couldn't even make scrambled eggs. I spent a year there with an Italian chef before coming back to the Roma as a partner.

Gino scores gold
Gino Leopardi with Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

“Mr Ribero said to me ‘It’s been two years now, do you want to go back to Italy, or give up your studies?’ Here I am.”

Later when Ribero was looking to retire he left his shares in the Roma Revolving to Leopardi and Comiso Turi, and then sold the Old Roma.

In the seventies a gay club was opened on the restaurant’s 31st floor by Radio Port Natal DJ Reg de Beer. “Club Reggie was all decked out in yellow and Royal Blue. We soundproofed the room so it didn’t disturb the other residents. Mr Ribero lived in flat 3002. TV was there for the opening night. The waiters were all topless with bow ties and cuffs and the waitresses were dressed like ballerinas. It was packed every single night,” he says.

A massive fight one evening ended that club and it was in the eighties that the partners opened Club Kahlua. “One night we celebrated at 1 in the morning with a very fancy bottle of Chivas Regal when the club brought in R150 000 that evening,” he remembers.

Gino scores gold
A Jock Leyden cartoon celebrating the restaurant’s 21st birthday featuring Cosimo Turi, Gino Leopardi and Bartholomeo Ribero.

In the eighties the restaurant was one of the first to challenge apartheid legislation which meant it could only serve white patrons. Spotting a loophole in licensing regulations, there was a proviso that one could apply for an international license, something rarely granted. Leopardi applied and was turned down and then decided he would apply his Italian charm to the Afrikaans bureaucrats in Pretoria in person.

“Afrikaans people in Durban always loved me, so with my lawyer Mr Geshen, I went to Pretoria and told them Durban is a small city and not as big as London or Toronto or Singapore to support a revolving restaurant. That we employed 40 staff and were a great tourist attraction.

“Then they said I could serve food to non-white customers but not drink. I asked them how I could offer Italian hospitality with a Coca Cola, without a glass of wine, and if that was the case I would close up and go back to Italy. They relented,” Leopardi said.

“There was one proviso: the club had to be separated from the restaurant. I was about to protest but Mr Geshen kicked me under the table. He later told me I didn’t know how much I had won. And so we built a door between the two,” he says.

Gino scores gold
A Jock Leyden Cartoon from 1987.

There was some blow-back from some of the restaurant’s white clientele, but most accepted it. “Such licenses later became more common, although were often restricted to wine and malt. By the 90s most were open. Apartheid was not going to last forever,” he said.

He tells of guests that have included the great Indian film actor Amitabh Bachchan, and Shah Rukh Khan. He has entertained Margaret Thatcher, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter when the former US President was in Durban for a Habitat for Humanity project.

“Rosalynn Carter was a great Frank Sinatra fan, and while I said I was no Sinatra, I sang her O Sole Mio the night she was here. I know the words because I sang it to my wife on our wedding day. She cried,” he said.

2001 was a sad year for Leopardi with the death of Ribero, and a divorce from his wife. “I put myself into the restaurant, running it in my best way,” he says. His brother Tony, 11 years younger than him, and a brother he barely knew, came out from Italy to assist.

Gino scores gold
Restaurateur Gino Leopardi ready for service at Roma Revolving Restaurant. He has been with the restaurant since it opened 50 years ago. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

“Then in 2010 Mr Naidoo came to me with an offer for the restaurant and the property. It needed an upgrade,” Leopardi admits. “And Turi wasn’t well and looking to retire, and so we sold. I would stay on for two years to help the transition. And 12 years later I’m still here.

“Look, Mr Naidoo doesn’t want me to go, but to be honest I love it. It’s not a case of waking up in the morning and having to go to work. I love to dress up. I love to go to the Roma and encourage you to try our fancy dishes like Chateaubriand.”

He tells how in 2016 he got a call from a producer at the BBC who wanted to film him making the famed dish in the traditional style. “I didn’t believe it. I thought he was joking. I asked him why he doesn’t go to Paris or Milan. They filmed and then for three months I hear nothing.

“Then I am down on my boogie board surfing at the beach and afterwards I look at my phone and see 10 missed calls from the Roma. I think, what is the restaurant on fire?

“People I’d known as young women who were now mothers and grandmothers and who were living all over the world were contacting me because of that show. I never expected that to happen. It was a wonderful experience,” he says.

He tells of a long six months, the only time the Roma hasn’t turned, during the Covid lockdown. “I go mad at home. I clean everything everyday. It was like being in jail,” he says. “Although thanks to Mr Naidoo we were able to keep the restaurant going.

“I just thank God I love what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m blessed”.

Win Win Win

Three lucky readers each stand a chance to win a meal voucher valued at R700 from Roma Revolving Restaurant. To enter, SMS IOSROMA followed by your name and surname to 33258. SMS costs R1.50. Competition closes at 8am on Monday, October 3.

The Independent on Saturday

Original Article