Durban – The iconic Roma Revolving restaurant, situated on Margaret Mncadi Avenue is celebrating 50 years in existence on Thursday.
Keeping its old school Italian flair, to an extent, Roma has dished up European favourites since 1972 when Mr Ribero decided to open its doors.
At that time, a 22-year-old named Gino Leopardi had just moved to South Africa in hopes of finding his passion.
On Wednesday evening, IOL caught up with Leopardi, now aged 72, who has managed and co-owned Roma for over 40 years.
“I gave up everything, I used to be a medical student but when I came here, I fell in love with food and South Africa,” Leopardi said.
At 72, one would think that Leopardi is ready to call it quits in the restaurant business, but nothing could be further from the truth. He said his passion and love for serving his customers will not retire any time soon.
Leopardi worked at the restaurant since it opened in 1972, as a maître d' before co-owning the place in 1975. At that time, the owner of Roma owned two branches in Durban.
In 1980, Leopardi became the owner of Roma Revolving together with another partner, whom he ran the business with for the last 43 years.
“Mr Ribero, he asked me ‘Do you want to stay in South Africa?’ I say Mr Ribero, yes, I love South Africa. He said ‘good, because I want you to be my partner’,” Leopardi explained.
After the death of his partner, Mr B Naidoo, who was a long-standing customer, offered to buy the restaurant.
“He said come and see me, this is my address. Come with a figure, what the numbers are and I will make you an offer,” Leopardi said.
In many ways, Gino Leopardi is the Roma Revolving Restaurant.
The old Italian man walking around and personally taking people’s orders in his leather notebook, gives a sense of history and authenticity to the restaurant.
Telling stories of his homeland and how he grew up in South Africa also give you a sense of nostalgia, as Leopardi mentioned some of the big names that dined at his place
“I have Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter the American President, I have Shah Rukh Khan and Anant Singh, the film producer. I even had Amitabh Bachan eat at my restaurant. I had pictures of them all over. But when I sell, Mr Naidoo's son said we take the photo’s down because they wanted it more modern.
“But I told them that is the history of the restaurant, it is the legend. You can’t take away its history,” he added, in anguish.
Besides the beach and warm weather, Gino said he loved the diversity of South Africa, and professed his love for Indian women.
“Many years ago, I marry the most beautiful Indian woman … ah … her name was Juanita. Sadly, we got divorced but, I loved her very much,” he added.
On the table, we had the fish of the day, prepared with Arrabiata sauce and rice, which was comforting and fresh.
Without a doubt, the vegetarian lasagne (my partner is vegetarian) together with the Parmesan asparagus, stole the show.
Decadent, rich and flavourful, Leopardi didn't miss with the lasagne dish.
The food was prepared on the dining floor, so it arrived fresh and did not take too long.
Admittedly, one factor affecting the restaurant, even after it had survived the Covid-19 pandemic when it had to close for six months, is the level of security at the parking, which Leopardi touched on as well.
“Even though the city is not as safe as it used to be, customers are still coming to my restaurant. If I was in uMhlanga, I guess I would be booked out for three months, but even though I am in Durban, my tables are always full and I thank God for that.
“Everyday I come to work, not saying ‘I have to’ but I say that today, ‘I want to come to work’,” Leopardi said.