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Meet the London Restaurateur Wrongly Convicted as a Mafia Banker

“In 2010, I was wrongly indicted on three counts: fraudulent bankruptcy, money laundering, and conspiracy.”

As a city saturated with food options, London has hosted its fair share of "concept" eateries. We've had cheese toastie restaurants, cereal cafes, cat cafes, owl cafes, and pay-for-time-not-coffee shops. Every permutation of novelty has been mined and exploited in the interests of capturing jaded diners' imaginations.

But Luca Longobardi and Chris Denney didn't bother with any of that. They just built 108 Garage and lo, people have come.

At the not-so-posh end of Notting Hill in what was an actual car mechanics during the 1970s, the duo's restaurant serves food that has thus far defied categorisation.

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108 Garage in London's Notting Hill. All photos courtesy 108 Garage.

"What I wanted to do was open an Italian tapas place," Longobardi tells me. What 108 Garage ended up as is something else entirely. But then Longobardi is a man who I suspect can no longer be taken by surprise.

Let's go back to the start. Longobardi began his career not in food, but in investment banking. So far, so boring, you might think—but wait.

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"In 2010, I was wrongly indicted on three counts: fraudulent bankruptcy, money laundering, and conspiracy," says Longobardi. "I was put on Interpol's top ten list of Most Wanted Men. Me! Alongside Osama Bin Laden, El Chapo, Matteo Messina Denaro."

Understandably, he's still incredulous at the idea.

"I was working in Brazil at the time and when I went to the US consulate to renew my American visa, I was arrested. Some police officer Googled my name. My surname is the same as that of a well-known Mafia family and so he boasted that he'd caught the 'Mafia's Banker.'"

Of course, Longobardi was no such thing, but he was forced to spend 30 days in a maximum security prison in Brazil before the mess was sorted out. By then, he'd lost all his clients.

"Having a reputation as the Mafia's Banker, even if it's all false … Well, the Mafia and finance don't really go together."

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108 Garage founder (right) Luca Longobardi with chef Chris Denney.

Longobardi shrugs as if the episode wasn't a deal but in reality, it had a devastating effect on his life. He went back to Italy and changed tack.

"I've got a lot of passion for food, I've a family full of cooks, and I wanted to open a proper restaurant. I decided London was the place."

So, Longobardi did what any sensible restaurateur would do and looked for a chef. But not using the usual hospitality employment channels. He placed an advert on Gumtree.

"It's very difficult to find controversial people, people who want to make a revolution in what they do," Longobardi says. "Finding a good chef on Gumtree was like striking gold."

He found Denney, a chef who has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens with people like Nuno Mendes and Phil Howard.

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A pig's head dish on the changing menu at 108 Garage.

"I think my ex saw a couch on Gumtree," Denney remembers. "I saw the advert. I knew exactly what I wanted and I knew this wasn't it. There were all these buzzwords that made me think 'Don't do it.' A tapas bar in Notting Hill. I fucking hate Notting Hill!"

Nevertheless, something about the ad caught his attention and so he found himself on "a shitty, pissy day at the end of February" meeting Longobardi.

"I heard a synopsis of his story and was like, 'Hang on, what the fuck?' So I said I'd do it, if we could be malleable."

The Italian tapas idea was quickly dropped, as was the possibility of offering diners burger and fries.

"I've become a bit of a picky bugger. I don't want to cook fries. I don't ever want to hear the words 'Table Five want fries.' I want to be serious," says Denney.

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Sea bass with greens.

And Longobardi was prepared to take him seriously.

"Chris had won a load of awards and all that bullshit, but I wasn't sold until I tasted his food," he says. "He'd prepared 20 dishes and by the second dish, I said, 'Done. This guy is the guy.' Everything he cooks, you taste and you think, 'What the fuck is that?' You're shocked. And that makes me feel very very comfortable."

So, what kind of food is Denney serving if it's not Italian tapas, burgers, or chips?

"Is it British?" Denney asks rhetorically. "Not really. Is it modern European? Well, it's modern in some respects and completely archaic in others. We use fire-and-ice and stuff."

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Roast octopus.

He continues: "I've been very lucky. From an early age, I've used what I do to travel around. I've been to Delhi, Bangkok, Ireland, America, Canada. So, the food I make is worldly food. It's never quite settled. We might change a dish even during service."

Did Longobardi get anything even resembling his original vision of Italian tapas in the end? He and Denney laugh at the idea.

READ MORE: The Mafia Is Alive, Well, and Controlling Bread Prices in Italy

"We don't do anything Italian except stracciatella," says Longobardi. But he doesn't mind. "It's very personal what Chris does, and there's a lot of character in his recipes. That's entrepreneurship. We match because we're both controversial."

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Chocolate cremeux with artichoke ice cream.

From a Brazilian prison, via the Mafia and Gumtree to Notting Hill—you can't make this stuff up. But people aren't coming to 108 Garage for the story. For Longobardi and Denney, it's just about serving good food.

"It's been humbling," says Denney. "From nowhere and nothing, we're packed. I'm like, 'Hang on, we haven't any idea.'"

"We're just guys who've opened a place to cook," shrugs Longobardi. "That's exactly all we're about."

In a city overrun with novelty and hype, I can't help but think that this is exactly how it should be.