This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Picture this: You’re in the beautiful Côte d’Azur in southern France, in the charming coastal town of Saint Raphaël, and you’re looking to get a quick bite to eat. A local tells you to check out Alberto, a casual-chic restaurant on the second floor of the five-star Hotel Le Touring overlooking the harbour, where chef Nunzio Palumbo serves amazing Italian food. Sounds like the dream, right? There’s just one thing: Palumbo is no ordinary chef – he’s actually a former mobster.
Palumbo, 56, has been on the run since 2014 and was previously known as Antonio Cuozzo Nasti from Naples. In his other life, Cuozzo Nasti was a member of the Camorra – the Neapolitan mafia – specifically of the Mallardo clan. “He was a dangerous element, charged with extortion, a specialty of the clan,” a spokesperson from the Italian justice system told the French daily Le Monde.
Arrested in 2012 after his group robbed a bank on the outskirts of Naples, he was sentenced to 16 years for robbery, reception of stolen goods and illegal possession of weapons. He started his sentence inside a drug rehab centre, but escaped in 2014, leaving his wife and kids behind. The Italian authorities maintained they knew his location all along; they just needed their French counterparts to cooperate. They finally got their chance after an article praising his food was published on the website for the city of Saint Raphaël. He was arrested on the 3rd of May, 2022.
Cuozzo Nasti is not the first criminal to try to start a new life in the restaurant industry. Fellow Camorra henchman Pasquale Brunese, 51, was caught in 2015 at a pizzeria on the beach near Valencia, Spain. Brunese was first arrested in 2008 for possession of heroin and cocaine, but the authorities then “lost track of him”, as the press put it. He then moved to Spain where he began working as a waiter, later buying the pizzeria under a fake name. In the meantime, he was sentenced in absentia to nine years and nine months for drug trafficking.
All in all, Cuozzo Nasti and Brunese were small fish in a big mafia pond, but that’s not the case for every mobster-turned-restaurateur on the run. Pasquale Scotti, 63, was the right-hand man of one of the most feared and powerful bosses in the Italian mafia: Raffaele Cutolo. Scotti was arrested in 1983 for murder, but escaped on Christmas night, 1984, after being admitted to a hospital to treat a wound on his hand.
Under the name of Francisco De Castro Visconti, the fugitive moved to Recife, northeast Brazil, where he invested in multiple restaurants and bakeries. He was finally caught in 2015, 31 years after landing on Italy’s most wanted list. In 2016, he was extradited to Italy to serve a life sentence for multiple homicides, extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking.
So far, all the mobsters mentioned so far began their culinary careers with a clean slate. But renowned New York chef David Ruggerio, 59, kept both his chef’s hat and fedora on the whole time. Born in Brooklyn, Ruggerio had a brief career in the boxing ring before becoming a rising star of French cuisine in New York, working at fashionable restaurants like Caravelle, Maxim’s and Le Chantilly.
After feeding a number of Wall Street magnates and Hollywood stars, he decided to take a shot at stardom himself, landing his own TV shows on PBS and the Food Network – Little Italy With David Ruggerio and Ruggerio To Go, respectively. Unfortunately, Ruggerio’s empire came crumbling down in 1998 when he was accused of bank fraud to the tune of over €160,000.
While in custody, he also confessed to being involved with the Gambino clan and to committing crimes ranging from heroin dealing to loan-sharking, bookmaking and extortion. In an unexpected turn of events, his own name turned out to be fake, too – according to his birth certificate, Ruggerio was actually Sabatino Antonino Gambino, a cousin of none other than the infamous “boss of bosses” Carlo Gambino, who ruled New York’s underworld in the 60s and 70s.
Dutch-Italian mobster Marc Feren Claude Biart, 53, also divided his life between crime and cooking. A drug trafficker by trade, Biart used to smuggle cocaine into the Netherlands on behalf of the powerful Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangheta, which controls up to 80 percent of all cocaine trade in Europe. After going on the run in 2014, he lived it up in Central America; first in Costa Rica, and then in the Dominican Republic.
He would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for his love for Italian cuisine. Biart and his wife made a series of YouTube cooking videos, though they were careful not to show his face on camera. His distinctive tattoos ended up giving him away, and he was arrested and flown to Milan in 2021.
It’s not just Italian mafia bosses that were betrayed by their love of food. Mexican drug lord Servando Gomez Martinez – also known as La Tuta – used to head the Knights Templar drug cartel based in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
After hiding out for months, La Tuta’s criminal careers finally met its demise in 2015. One of his girlfriends, Maria Antonieta Luna Avalos, came by his place with some associates with a chocolate cake to celebrate his 49th birthday. Turns out the police had been surveilling this location and nine other homes for months, and the impromptu party allowed them to hone in the right spot to arrest the boss. The cake was found intact in his fridge.
Most of the time, a mobster’s downfall is due to bad luck and being in the wrong place at the right time. It’s kind of funny to imagine these scary tough guys, hardened by years of brutal criminality, getting caught because they just loved food too damn much. Maybe having the munchies truly is the greatest equaliser of all time.