A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
I was always a rather precocious boy: never too good at school, but never audacious enough to leave it. After all, it was the 90s. In those years, everything had a certain pretense of rebellion, an “alternative” quality to it. It was pervasive enough that trying to be "alternative" became the new norm, and for me that translated into spending hours upon hours at a “restaurant and wine bar” run by a barkeep who embodied all the stereotypes of his profession. He was grouchy, arrogant, and well-versed in the latest street gossip; a self-proclaimed professor of life.
I can’t say that I ever truly worked there. All that was entrusted to us neighborhood kids were various odd jobs, banal errands, small annoyances. More often than not, my role was to pour whiskey of dubious quality into white plastic cups. But from then on, my life turned into a series of jobs—real ones, this time—always within the hospitality sector. It’s a path that led me to opening my first bar in 2006, the first of many.
There was one customer who, somehow convinced that I hadn’t been respecting the order of the line, grabbed my attention by pointing a gun at my face and saying, “I think it’s my turn now.”
Living in Naples, my professional life has often gravitated north of the city, all the way up to Caserta. It’s a vast area filled with bars and clubs. There are endless contexts in which a bartender could serve hundreds of people in one night: concerts, local festivals, catering events, just to name a few. And these “high volume” events are the ideal entry points for those who want to enter the world of bartending. I’m talking about nights when the number of paying customers hardly falls below 1,500 to 2,000 people; where shifts are longer and crazier than you could’ve ever imagined. A coworker I bartended with often used to joke that if you worked less than 12 hours, you couldn’t really call that day a workday—you’d simply done your boss a favor and there was no way you could even ask to be paid. My personal record is when I worked for 12 hours straight and served just under 900 drinks. As far as customers go, it’s no surprise that I’ve really seen it all, given the numbers in question.
I’ll start with one customer who, somehow convinced that I hadn’t been respecting the order of the line, grabbed my attention by pointing a gun at my face and saying, “I think it’s my turn now.” There was also the time when a customer who was so annoyed at having to wait in line to pay attempted to rectify the situation by directly offering me 50 euros for a bottle of water.
The weirdest experience I’ve ever had, though, happened a few summers ago. A coworker told me that I was about to serve a customer who was a well-known member of the mafia. I went about my job making sure that each of his requests was dutifully and expediently carried out. When he came up to the bar, this 50-year-old man—a cross between Tony Montana and Tomas Milian—accompanied by two women, caught my eye, and with an air of superiority, leaned in and said: “Now, pour vodka into this glass. And don’t stop until I tell you.”
Done and done. I tilted the bottle and I poured as he turned around and continued to entertain the women. The glass filled up quickly, overflowing until it covered the bar in vodka that dripped off both sides of the bar and onto the ground. It was only then that he turned around; the bottle was virtually empty at that point. He looked at me with a mix of amazement and scorn before grabbing the glass and, pouring a little out onto the flooded bar, pointed his finger at me and said, “You asshole! But that was fun.” And then he left.
You learn a lot tending bar in a region where organized crime has infiltrated every aspect of life. Your job forces you to watch, to scrutinize everyone from your place behind the physical barrier of the bar, and you learn to understand. You start recognizing behaviors and body language. You learn to differentiate between someone who belongs to the Camorra and someone who doesn’t. The former has no need to make itself known; they rely on being recognizable, which is also why they refrain from engaging in displays of overly aggressive behavior. And everything flows as if this were completely normal. The intimidation of having one of these individuals in your bar, as it stands, does not require the weight of a gun.
Moreover, it’s impossible to pinpoint a certain trait of places where the Camorra might hang out. There's nothing that marks an establishment as having a “bad clientele.” There's no point in blacklisting bars where you might work,
because the customer’s decision where to go out at night isn’t ever really based on the locale alone. You’ll never find a place or part of town that’s clearly affiliated or frequented by the Camorra. Whether or not the bar is popular, though, is generally a good indication: it’s important for members of the Camorra to be seen, because it affirms their social standing without them having to resort to easy violence.
For example, there have been a few occurrences in which I became a pawn in a competition between two tables over who could order the most Champagne. If the first table ordered ten bottles, the second table was ready to raise them another ten, and so on. Just a little game that casually transforms into huge tabs, sometimes into the tens of thousands of euros in one evening.
I’d always joke to coworkers whenever a fight started right in front of us, “Oh good! There’s wrestling on TV tonight.”
But members of the Camorra aren’t the only difficult customers I have to deal with. There’s other types that warrant mention, the most complicated of which is the person who exists outside the world of the mob; someone who doesn’t understand the rules of the game. I’m talking about the guy who goes dancing twice a year and who doesn’t understand the unwritten rules of clubbing in Naples, such as the complex relationship between customers and bouncers. Security is critical in such environments. And for every person who’s capable of diffusing potential violence, there’s someone else who’s willing to escalate the situation disproportionately. Competent security guards do exist: they’re organized and trustworthy and good at managing large events. But there’s plenty of seasoned fighters who, once another bouncer has marked a problematic customer with a laser pointer, proceed to pick a fight, and then wonder why the customer is pissed off. I personally hope that this phenomenon loses steam soon, even though I doubt it will.
You might be wondering, but what happens if the customer in question is affiliated with the Camorra? And the answer is that security’s approach is extremely different. Bouncers will pass information back and forth over their radios, alerting one another that someone who needs to be handled with kid gloves has entered the venue. Often, the PR people for the event will inform them earlier in the evening that an expected reservation will require special attention. Sometimes that information falls through, though: in my distinguished bartending career, I’ve seen more than one security guard hide in a corner to escape the wrath of an armed customer.
In general, in the years since I started working in bars in Naples, I’ve witnessed a lot of violence. But the bar itself has always managed to keep me out of the fray, rendering me a spectator more than anything else. I’d always joke to coworkers whenever a fight started right in front of us, “Oh good! There’s wrestling on TV tonight.” And regardless, even if you take into consideration the differences between bars, all it really takes is a peek inside the bouncer’s box of items confiscated at the door to count the number of blades customers have tried to sneak inside.
At present, I own a small, curated cocktail bar where I can focus on the quality of my products and the relationship with my guests, who generally have nothing in common with the aforementioned folk. My bar has 14 seats inside and 16 outside, so it’s clearly a different ball game. I feel more at home here; I’m able to converse with my clients, keep the music on low in the background, take my time, and am able to offer my guests a relaxing evening where the emphasis isn’t on being visible.
The high rollers have to bring in the masses, move product, and make a ton of money without particularly taking care of anyone. It turns the bartender into a sort of machine, leeching at their energy and joy; over time, it’s a bit dehumanizing. At the beginning at your career, you’re more willing to put up with a lot. But these I find myself wanting more from my chosen profession.
Besides, I’m telling you all of this from behind a bar, over a single malt, surrounded by other easygoing customers during a chat that calls to mind an evening amongst friends. Now this, at least for me, is a bar.