Baci to Bacco

Pasta La Vista

Cavaliere Massimo Mannozzi, Bacco
Cavaliere Massimo Mannozzi, who drove Berliners crazy with high end dishes such as home made tortellini.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • Berlin’s legendary Italian restaurant Bocca di Bacca is about to close its doors.
    •  
  • Facts

    Facts

    • The restaurant, Bacco, has been in business for 49 years.
    • Its long list of celebrity guests ranges from Sophia Loren to German chancellors to the former head of East German intelligence.
    • When Mr. Mannozzi opened his restaurant in 1968, Berliners were largely unfamiliar with fine Italian cuisine.
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    Audio

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He was a pioneer and became a collector of people, a missionary and a legend. Berlin’s restaurant history is unimaginable without Massimo Mannozzi. And now, after 49 years in business, the Cavaliere plans to close Bacco, his restaurant on Marburger Strasse in the Charlottenburg district of western Berlin.

The heavy chestnut wood tables, the Tuscan ceiling woven by basket makers, the wrought iron grates, which were brought to Berlin from Italy in two freight cars when the restaurant opened in 1968, and the worn red carpet – he will leave all of this behind. But he does intend to take the 19 guest books bound in worn leather, the pictures from the walls, the notebook containing 30,000 photos of famous people, and the name “Bacco” home to his eponymous hotel in Tuscany.

He isn’t severing all ties, though. He will keep his apartment so that he can return to visit his legacy here. His son Alessandro runs another restaurant, Bocca di Bacco, in the trendy Mitte district, and has turned it into the go-to eatery for Hollywood celebrities visiting Berlin.

During a quiet lunch hour, the charming 75-year-old Padrone is sitting in his regular seat at the window. A letter written in red ink on thin airmail paper is on the table in front of him. His niece recently found it in his deceased brother’s personal effects. Mr. Mannozzi wrote the letter to his brother shortly after opening the restaurant. It contained a list of items that were unknown in Berlin at the time: a bottle of Aperol, a bottle of grappa, dried porcini mushrooms, sage and rosemary. It was 1968, and the city was past due for a culinary awakening. There were certainly a few pizzerias in the city, but he was not aware of any establishments that served real, high-quality Italian cuisine.

The son of a potter from Viareggio, Mr. Mannozzi discovered his vocation as a chef more or less by accident. At 16, he signed up as a ship’s boy on a freighter and was sent to work in the galley peeling potatoes. As crowded as the galley was, it was his world, and he was ambitious. Afterwards, his parents enrolled him in a hotel management school in Venice, and from there he went to work as an intern in a Swiss hotel.

At the hotel, he met a German girl from Berlin, Monika, who worked at the front desk and was also in training. She was 17 and he was 18, and they went out together in the evening. Now they have been married for 51 years.

After stints in various cities, including Düsseldorf and Kassel, Mr. Mannozzi followed his wife to Berlin. One evening, Mr. Mannozzi, his wife, his brother and his brother’s wife went out to a bar called Chez Nous on Marburger Straße. A former electrical appliance store across the street was for rent. Mr. Mannozzi decided to rent the space for 1,000 deutschmarks a month, a lot of money at the time. But his new restaurant brought in 360 deutschmarks in sales on the first evening.

Shortly after the grand opening, German actress Romy Schneider discovered the restaurant, named after Bacco, the god of wine, where the food was so different from anything else available in Berlin. She became a regular, and other celebrities followed. Their names are listed in the guest books, which Mr. Mannozzi pulls from a bookcase, one at a time like precious treasures. Sophia Loren was a guest at his restaurant, and so were Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida. Important film directors, who traveled a lot internationally and appreciated good food, were seduced by his cuisine. Other famous guests included conductors Herbert von Karajan, the young Simon Rattle and fellow Italian Riccardo Muti.

Prostitutes were a problem at first. But instead of brusquely showing them the door, he instructed his staff to “serve them coldly,” so as not to encourage them to come back. By contrast he did offer a warm welcome to then Italian President Francesco Cossiga and singers Rita Pavone and Adriano Celentano.

Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen, felt so comfortable that he sat down at the pump organ, and in the end even the bodyguards were singing along.

On evenings when he was not filling in for the chef, who was often drunk, the Padrone focused entirely on his guests. When then Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked for a phone to make an outside call, it wasn’t a problem. In fact, Mr. Mannozzi was more troubled by Mr. Kohl’s order of Fritto Misto, which he felt was “too heavy a dish for late in the evening” and served the chancellor poached sea bass instead.

Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen, felt so comfortable that he sat down at the pump organ, and in the end even the bodyguards were singing along. One night, Rod Stewart stood on a chair and gave a spontaneous concert. And the occasional conductor could have been seen wielding his fork like a baton while savoring the restaurant’s spaghetti. The Bacco was a place where patrons could relax and be themselves.

The guest books also contain the names of many business owners, as well as politicians like former Chancellor Willy Brandt, and professional athletes like tennis great Steffi Graf and soccer legend Pelé. The books are filled with dedications reminiscent of pleasant evenings.

Hildegard Knef, Mikhail Gorbachev, Alain Delon, Depeche Mode, Josephine Baker, Vladimir Horowitz, Michael Schumacher – the list goes on and on. And Mr. Mannozzi has little anecdotes to go with almost every name. The Russian ambassadors came from East Berlin and bantered with him during the Cold War days. “Come to my restaurant. It’s no problem,” the Italian said. “Then I’ll make you a ‘Piroshka’ instead of the ‘Bacco’.”

 

Bocca
Queen pays a visit, as did many other celebrities. Source: private

 

As he speaks, he types reservation confirmations into his notebook. He is even better at using computers than his son Alessandro, he says proudly. Success has done wonders for his self-confidence.

He remembers how Berliners reacted to their first taste of homemade ravioli. “They went crazy,” he says, with his fearlessly charming Italian accent.

But success came at a price. He rarely saw his daughter Jessica and his son Alessandro. “I think they sometimes hate me for that,” he says thoughtfully.

Still, he was good with children. One Sunday, he received a call from Romy Schneider, who said she wanted to come to the restaurant with her partner Daniel and daughter Sarah. The restaurant was normally closed on Sundays, but Mr. Mannozzi told her to come anyway, and that he would cook something for them. He made Sarah laugh with magic tricks, and her mother was so pleased that she asked him to reserve the 3rd floor of his hotel in Tuscany for her. She said she was tired and needed to relax for a while.

“But then she never showed up,” he says.

One prominent guest who did show up was Markus Wolf. Journalists from the area around Lucca often interviewed Mr. Wolf, the former head of East German intelligence. Of course, Italian journalists also wrote about Mr. Mannozzi, a successful son of Italy. He kept the article, titled “Mannozzi conquista Berlino,” or “Mannozzi Conquers Berlin.”

The many wine racks at the Bacco indicate what an outstanding contribution he has made to Berlin residents’ taste in wine. When he opened his restaurant, Germans were still drinking sweet Lambrusco and Chianti from two-liter bottles wrapped in raffia – until Mr. Mannozzi brought in crates of Antinori and Sassicaia from Italy.

He never paid attention to the competition. “Many came to my restaurant, looked at what I was doing and copied it, and lured away staff,” he says. But he kept his cool, and even became friends with a few other Italian restaurant owners. But he doesn’t eat at their restaurants, with one exception. He has a weakness for a little pizzeria called Masaniello, next to Hasenheide Park.

He says he will be sad when he walks past his old restaurant in the future, though he’ll still have his memories. He also intends to write a book, with enough room for many of his photos. He didn’t want to celebrate his recent 75th birthday.

“I have work to do,” he says.

Just two more weeks and it will be time to say “Ciao, Bacco.”

 

This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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