“Catch me if you can” may seem like an unusual tattoo for a 49-year-old ex-Wall Street banker to have, but it makes sense when Luca Longobardi explains it.
Of his most noticeable ink, he told me: “I lose a lot of people as I run through my life, people who love me and who I love, friends, wife, girlfriend, whatever. It’s tough to be after me because I think ahead of myself, and people just don’t follow me.”
And his life and career is certainly hard to keep track of.
Now the owner of fine dining hotspot 108 Garage, Italian-born Longobardi’s story started when he left Naples in December 1991 at the age of 21 and moved to the US with only $500 (given to him by his mother), but with big ambitions of becoming a banker.
“My dream was to work on Wall Street,” he said, when we met at Shoreditch House back in October.
A misunderstanding with family friends left him without a place to stay when he landed in New York, and he started sleeping in Grand Central station.
“I moved to a hostel, then a hotel hall (the Waldorf Astoria), then back to Grand Central for almost two weeks,” he said.
Longobardi had brought a bag full of dress shirts from Italy with him, with the goal of selling them to department stores, but he started to sell some of the samples outside of Grand Central to make money to survive.
“One day a man [aged] 70 or so passed my little bag with the shirt on top. He picks one up and says: “Where did you get these shirts?” The stranger told Longobardi he owned a store on Madison Avenue and gave him his business card.
It was 1992. The man’s name was Fred Pressman, the owner of Barneys New York, and he agreed to let Luca arrange a meeting to show his buyers the shirts.
“After a few weeks I had my first orders at Barneys New York, and that’s when I started my little business of dress shirts in New York,” he said, adding that he went on to sell them to Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“But in reality I wanted to work on Wall Street, that was my main purpose,” he said – and another chance encounter eventually led him there.
During his time crashing on couches at the Waldorf Astoria, he was approached by a concierge named Ivan who eventually became a friend.
With Ivan’s help, he found himself staying at a small apartment in the Bronx and working as a promoter in the party venue that was once home to Studio 54.
“He was [also a] big promoter in New York, he was running the parties and I would be at the door,” he said.
Becoming a Wolf of Wall Street
One night in early 1994, he claims he met the “Wolf of Wall Street” himself Jordan Belfort at a party – and next thing he knew, says he was interviewing for a job at the Wall Street office of his company VTR Capital.
“It was a spinoff from [Stratton Oakmont], it was the legitimate business,” he said. “I went there and they liked me and I got hired and started my career on Wall Street as a cold caller.”
In 1998, VTR Capital was accused of defrauding investors – though having worked there from 1994 to 1996, Longobardi had already moved on, and claims he wasn’t aware of any fraudulent activity taking place during his time at the company.
In his book “Branded the Mafia’s Banker,” he writes: “After a year and a few cocktail parties, where a few Stratton partners and even Jordan Belfort would appear, I started to wonder if VTR was a true new venture or merely a spin-off of Stratton Oakmont … Even to this day I couldn’t say exactly what was going on, for they seemed to have a finger in a million pies.”
In July 1996, he became a junior broker for a more “institutional” bank, Ladenburg Thalmann, where he stayed until September 1999.
“I built my business then made an offer to buy the bank,” he said. “The offer didn’t go through, so I left that bank and built my own investment banking business, State Capital.”
He opened global offices in Italy, Miami, New York, and Brazil – and also got married to Miss Brazil 1996 and went on to have two daughters.
But it all came crashing down in 2010 when Longobardi was arrested under the false suspicion of being a banker to the mafia, and spent 30 days in a maximum security prison in Brazil.
“The Mafia’s Banker”
Longobardi says he was wrongfully placed on Interpol’s “Most Wanted” list due to a transaction from an Italian bank who invested in his venture capital fund – a bank which was later prosecuted in Italy for fraudulent bankruptcy, money laundering, and conspiracy.
Longobardi’s surname was similar to that of an Italian mafia clan, and he was quickly accused of laundering money for the Italian mafia by the police, and was branded by the international media as “The Mafia’s Banker.”
“I was mistakenly prosecuted from Italian authorities, I was mistakenly placed on Interpol list, I was mistakenly arrested and detained by the US consulate in Brazil, I was mistakenly arrested, [and] spent 30 days in a maximum security prison in Brazil,” he told BI.
Though he was eventually released and cleared of all charges after 30 days, he said he spent the time trying to understand the lives of his fellow inmates, and even identified a few, including a “kingpin” of Narco traffic and Pablo Escobar’s private pilot.
“I got in as the mafia’s banker, and earned their respect [through] the naming of it,” he said. “People would invite me to sit at their table to eat.”
Once he was released, he told Business Insider he sued the prosecutors and the media who had branded him the “mafia’s banker,” and claims that he won.
However, the experience changed how people viewed him.
“In reality, it was all transactional relationships, and I decided that the banking world wasn’t the place for me any more,” he said. “My life completely changed from that time on.”
Finding his roots through food
He went back to Italy and, in a change of pace, founded a small sandwich concept called Sfilatino.
“[The sandwiches were] packaged almost in an iPhone package, and the recipe was made by two Michelin-starred chefs,” he said. “It was a Michelin sandwich sold at €6.50.”
He added that he was born in an environment “where food was a big part of an Italian family.
“My father had a way of cooking and my mother had a different way, between what is traditional and what is modern,” he said. “Going back to food makes you go back to that origin.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to notice his sandwich concept, and he was asked by department store Selfridges in London to start a pop-up.
He got divorced and left his ex-wife and two daughters, now 13 and 17, in Italy, then launched the popup in Selfridges for six months before selling the business completely.
“I spent six months travelling throughout Italy in a small VW bus in order to understand the food culture,” he said. “I completely discovered the simplicity of people and food … I understood that that was my way to reconnect with who I was when I left Italy.”
A fine dining chef on Gumtree
He wanted to launch a restaurant in London, and as luck would have it, ended up finding his chef, Chris Denney, on classified ad site Gumtree.
Denney had also come from a challenging background, having battled 25 years of cocaine addiction.
However, the duo managed to turn a garage in west London’s Notting Hill into a fine dining restaurant in January 2017, and found themselves on a quick road to success.
“After not even one year, I found myself again going after the big goal, the big ambition, creating something which could be more impactful than just a little restaurant in Notting Hill, and being overrun by the success,” Longobardi said. “In four months we were fully booked for [the next] six months and the most acclaimed restaurant in London.”
108 Garage went on to win Tatler’s Best Restaurant of the Year award in 2018, and was on the receiving end of glowing reviews from the likes of Giles Coren and Fay Maschler.
In October 2017, the Denney and Longbardi went on to open a second location, Southam Street, and are currently working on a book of life stories and recipes together.
This is hardly Longobardi’s first time dabbling in the world of writing, either.
“I wrote a book in 2015 called ‘Branded ‘The Mafia’s Banker,”” he said. “At that time I received an offer to do a movie [based on the book], which I was not in the mood for – they wanted to actually make me the mafia’s banker, which I was not, and I would just become a character for Hollywood. For no money in the world.”
He did, however, create a trailer to promote the launch of his book – and it went on to win Best Trailer/Promo at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards. His most “ambitious and complex project,” though, is Home Noir – a predominantly digital private members’ community centred around blockchain which also plans to open physical clubs in New York, London, Shanghai, Seoul, Paris, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Barcelona, Beijing, and Moscow.
The company plans to be a hub for those in the blockchain industry through a digital platform, experiences, and spaces, but will also encourage innovation and investment.
“The cryptocurrency is just a way to power, monetise, and reward the community, and a way of paying for services or experiences with those tokens,” Longobardi explained, adding that the tokens will be called Noir Tokens.
Home Noir’s Members’ Network will launch this year, and the company is currently looking for a location for its first physical members’ club.
The fees for members are yet to be confirmed, but there will be the option of obtaining daily, weekly, or monthly passes or buying an annual membership.
“The proper approach to blockchain, although it’s transactional, the whole philosophy brings transparency into a collaborative environment, where the more you give the more reward you get,” Longobardi said.
“You’re going to see a community of interest collaborating around topics, knowledge sharing, learning experiences, fun experiences, and everyone will give and get rewarded for their actions – so you enrich others and you enrich yourself.”
An early adopter of cryptocurrency – Longobardi even claims to have paid the lawyer who secured his release from jail using cash transferred from his digital wallet – he added that the inspiration for the project came from his own experience, and realising his life could have been very different if blockchain was there in 2010 when he was arrested.
“I live the inefficiency of a world without blockchain, and I live it in the hard way,” he said. “On blockchain, the prosecutors would have seen that I was not laundering the money off anybody else, I was just accepting money according to a bank to bank transaction … The Interpol would have [had] access to the blockchain and would have eventually seen that it was a mistake.”
Despite the scope of the project, Home Noir doesn’t mean Longobardi is stepping away from the food world he has become so successful in, however.
“I love food because it’s a passion, I love the research part and I’ll never stop travelling with my chef in Italy to discover stuff … That’s the relaxing part of my life. But I see myself completely dedicated to taking [Home Noir] and putting the flag in places around the world.”