Some people might tell you that the patron saint of Naples is San Gennaro, a 3rd-century bishop who died as a martyr. But that’s not actually true.
The patron saint of Naples is, in fact, Diego Maradona, the Argentinian-born soccer player who, in 1987, propelled Napoli to win the Serie A Championship (Italy’s top football league) – it was the first team ever from the impoverished Italian south to do so. To this day, Maradona’s portrait is everywhere in the city. Just like any good patron saint, his picture watches over shopkeepers, restaurant owners and families in their living room.
So when someone on the street called Francesco Sepe the “Maradona of wine,” you can imagine how proud he felt. Sepe is the fourth-generation owner of Antica Cantina Sepe, a small wine shop in the working-class neighborhood of Sanità. Open six days and five nights a week, it is a relaxed little spot where locals come to fill their plastic jugs with red wine from big tanks (€4 per liter) or have a glass of sparkling wine from the tap.
But if you happen to pass by on a Thursday night, you will find people spilling out of the shop – it’s a veritable street party. This is Francesco’s “AperiSepe,” his take on a classic Italian aperitivo, an after-work ritual of drinks and snacks. What started three years ago as a small extension of the shop’s normal opening hours on Thursday evenings has by now turned into an event that draws a huge, diverse crowd from all over the city to Sanità. Students and politicians, university researchers and judges, artists, Sanità shopkeepers, and the occasional stray tourist drink and chat and laugh, and quite a few sing along and dance to the sound of that week’s live band.
Francesco, his dad, and their co-worker Salvatore pour the wine from the taps and out of the fancier bottles that they open for the occasion: an organic Aglianico, the area’s most famous red grape, from a local small producer, or some interesting Greco di Tufo, a white grape from nearby Benevento. His mother, Giovanna, sells homemade sandwiches filled with Neapolitan classics like polpette (meatballs), parmigiana (eggplant lasagna with mozzarella) and friarielli (broccoli rabe). Around 10 p.m., when everybody starts to get tipsy, she brings out a huge pot of pasta – simple but filling Neapolitan staples like pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans), pasta e patate (pasta and potatoes) or southern Italian lasagne (with meatballs instead of mince).
The event has become a huge, albeit unlikely, success. For many years, Sanità had a bad reputation as a neglected, Mafia-controlled district, not a place where people went for a drink after work, let alone at night. Things have changed quite a bit recently – these days it is a pleasant and lively working-class area and home to a large section of Naples’ Sri Lankan and Ukrainian communities – but it is still a far cry from being a glamorous nightlife destination. After dark the streets become quiet, and a lot of residents from the richer parts of town like bourgeois Vomero, Posilipo or Chiaia still would never set foot here. For Francesco to get so many people to come and party in Sanità is indeed a bit like Napoli snatching the soccer crown from A.C. Milan.
He is proud to point out that he has not invested a single euro in ads; the event grew only by word of mouth: people telling each other about the good food, the nice wines, the changing music and the relaxed yet chic vibe that is more reminiscent of Berlin or Brooklyn than Naples. By now, there are so many people wanting to join the party that Francesco had to start asking his neighbors to park their cars elsewhere on Thursday nights.
“I am more concerned with having nice people around me, working in a good atmosphere and giving something to my community.”
Francesco started AperiSepe in 2016, after he had spent some time in London working as a waiter at an Italian restaurant. (“But only Italian in name,” he tells us, “the food was dreadful.”) After a year abroad, however, he did something unusual for a talented young man who had managed to leave Naples, a city where economic opportunities were scare: he decided to come back home, to help his parents. “I wanted to see if I could run the family business a bit more my own way, turn it into my thing,” he says.
He started a sommelier course and updated Sepe’s bottled wine selection, for those who wanted to go beyond (and could afford more than) the wine on tap. He now sells a variety of high-quality, even organic wines from local producers.
Next on his agenda was to convince his dad to give his aperitivo idea a try. His father refused, even going so far as to laugh at the idea of an aperitivo in Sanità. “I begged him every day, again and again,” Francesco says. After many months, his father finally gave in. In a few weeks, the event will celebrate its third birthday with a huge salsa party.
The success has made Francesco a bit of a celebrity around town, with people often recognizing and greeting him on the street or when he goes out to other bars. His fame is no doubt helped by his signature mustache, which he grew a few years ago – even his niece calls him “Zio Baffo,” or “Uncle Mustache.”
In spite of this newfound fame, many things at Antica Cantina Sepe have remained the same, which Francesco is keen to point out. The shop still very much looks like it did ten years ago, with its rustic wooden interior, the big metal wine tanks and the small bar and counter. Francesco’s cheapest glass of wine still costs €1.50, as much – or as little – as three years ago, so everybody can come and drink, and he still gets all his bulk wines from small, handpicked farmers around Mount Vesuvius. Sure, there are some bright paintings by a Neapolitan painter and colorful graffiti scrawled by Iranian, Latvian and local street artists who happened to join the AperiSepe – but they give the shop more of an anarchic than an upscale touch and allow it to blend in perfectly with its colorful surroundings.
To make sure Cantina Sepe stays a neighborhood joint rather than becoming a hip nightlife destination, Francesco refuses to do more than one aperitivo per week, even though lots of people have asked for and suggested it. “Money is not that important for me, I am more concerned with having nice people around me, working in a good atmosphere and giving something to my community,” he says, and coming from him, it sounds convincing. He recently bought a house on Piazza Miracoli in Sanità, five minutes uphill from the shop, the same square where he was born.
That might be one thing that sets him apart from Diego Maradona, the city’s patron saint. The latter left Naples in 1992 after a drug scandal, and supposedly still owes the Italian government more than €30 million in taxes. Francesco, though, is here to stay.