Rome's ice-cream 'mafia': The family dynasty with a stranglehold on Italy's street food

A British family being ripped-off by an ice-cream seller has highlighted the stranglehold one family has over the sale of street food in the Italian capital

The glory of Italy is that for £15 you can eat a delicious dinner that knocks spots of a meal in London costing three times as much. But last weekend while on holiday in Rome, a group of British tourists managed to spend almost as much per head on four ice-creams. The huge helpings probably made the Bannister brothers and their wives feel sick – and the stunning bill certainly left a bad taste in their mouths.

“When we paid up, they didn’t even say thank you,” Roger Bannister told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Monday.

The offending Antica Roma ice-cream shop, near the Spanish Steps, blithely noted that the visitors from Birmingham could consider themselves lucky they hadn’t pointed to one of the ice-cream cones costing €20.

Romans trying to create a better image of the city to drum up tourism held their heads and groaned. The owner of the Antica Roma, though, one Alfiero Tredicine, was probably laughing all the way to the bank. Tredicine is a name you’ll encounter a lot if you make even a cursory glance at the huge market in street food in the Italian capital. Look a bit closer and the nature of this market and the Tredicines’ domination of it says a lot about Italy itself.

Alfiero Tredicine’s father, Donato, arrived in Rome from the small mountain region of Abruzzo in the swinging Sixties – but not to enjoy la dolce vita: he had to make ends meet by selling roast chestnuts on the streets. Soon after, his five children, Mario, Alfiero, Elio, Dino and Emilia came to the capital. The family’s presence has continued to expand. It still makes a living selling street food plus snacks, drinks and ice-cream. But the scale is much, much greater – and so are the profits.

Today the clan nets €30m a year from sales alone. It also makes a fortune selling licences and renting spots to other vendors

In September 2007, the ancient central district of Rome – the most tourist-filled and lucrative – put out for tender 10 spots for the sale of watermelon and fruit salads. Everyone knew the permits were licences to print money. Observers hoped they’d be given out fairly and allow small-time operators a chance.

A quick glance at the outcomes showed three of the 10 winners had the surname Tredicine. But another four of the lucky permit holders, it turned out, came from the tiny village of Schiavi di Abruzzo, the home of the Tredicines.

La Repubblica has described the convoluted holdings and companies within the Tredicine clan (which it has referred to the as “The Dynasty” of the “Untouchables”) to a set of Russian dolls.

There was a similar outcome in 2002 when 10-year licences were handed out for the sale of chestnuts – the Tredicines’ bread and butter. At least 20 out of the 29 vending spots in central Rome went to Tredicine-linked operators. And chestnuts certainly don’t mean peanuts. A stand near a tourist attraction rakes in €30,000 a month for very little outlay. This means roast chestnuts alone make the clan €10m a year.

So many of the money-spinning licences are now in the hands of the Tredicines that they are able to make even more money selling them on by sub-letting the vending spots.

Like many of Italy’s best and brightest businessmen, including three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi, the Tredicines have been investigated, charged and found guilty of criminal activity but appeal hearings have enabled them to avoid definitive convictions.

Four of the Tredicine siblings were convicted of conspiracy in 1992 before being freed on appeal. Since then the question marks over their domination of the market and complaints from weaker competitors have continued – but have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Bianca La Rocca, the Rome spokeswoman for the SOS Impresa group, which campaigns for honesty and legality in business, said there were real concerns about how the Tredicine family had built up its ice-cream and street food empire so quickly.

“They enjoy a virtual monopoly – it’s obviously an anomaly. Many of the outlets that aren’t directly controlled by the Tredicine brothers are owned by family members. But people are scared of saying anything because the Tredicines are always ready to sue,” she said.

“Officially, Giordano Tredicine has nothing to do with the business. But he’s able to help it given his political position. It’s obvious.” 

Giordano Tredicine, 34, the son of Dino Tredicine, is a Rome city councillor and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s PDL party.

“The family has links everywhere, at every level in the city,” said Ms La Rocca. “We need more controls and checks on illegal activity and places that rip-off tourists. But that’s the responsibility of the city council, and if a business has influence at the political level… well, you can see the problem.” 

If the Tredicines are engaged in dubious dealings, or enjoy an ambiguous relationship with the law, they are not, as Ms La Rocca pointed out, doing anything unique in Italy. On the Roma Fa Schifo (Rome is disgusting) blog site, which is fighting a lonely battle to expose uncivil behaviour of all kinds in the capital, readers were asked to vote for the aspect of Roman life – including the litter, graffiti, illegal parking and street vendors – that “sickens you the most”. The online winners of this dubious distinction were the Romans themselves.

The leading criminologist Arije Antinori, of Rome’s La Sapienza University, said there was a sense in Italy, that it was every man for himself and that co-operation or fair play in the capital or elsewhere in Italy were dirty words. He said this was certainly the case for Rome’s murky market in street food which demonstrated one of the key aspects of Italy’s huge “grey economy” that was not run by organised crime, but was not entirely legitimate, either.

“What you have to understand is that in the big cities a sort of quasi-mafia system exists. It’s not like Cosa Nostra mixing with politics in Palermo; nonetheless, there’s a system in which favours are exchanged between business people and administrators or politicians, which is all-pervasive.”

Thus, says Dr Antinori, someone in Rome seeking a business permit – or seeking to ensure rivals are denied permits – will approach an official offering votes – not only his and those of his family, but also those of his employers, suppliers and distributors, in exchange for the licence. “Five hundred or 1,000 votes is enough to swing some local elections,” he said.

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