Timisoara hosts a well established Italian business community. Since they frequently commute between Italy and Romania, many Italians are not registered in Romania, making it difficult to determine how many of them actually live in the city. Italian can be frequently heard in Timisoara's streets, restaurants and cafĂ©s, and the local airport offers flights to 10 Italian destinations: Rome, Milan, Venice, Ancona, Bari, Florence, Bologna, Turin, Verona and Bergamo.
Antonia Passarelli was among the first Italians to arrive in Timisoara in 1990. Back in 1982, having become bored with his job (had been a successful cook for 15 years), Antonio started helping Italians set up textile businesses in unusual places like Togo, Pakistan, Cuba and the Seychelles. And, after twenty other countries, Romania.
It was in Timisoara where Antonio began getting tired of setting up businesses for other people on a contract basis. Besides working as a consultant for Italian textile businesses, Antonio opened an Italian restaurant called "Pozzo dei Desideri" (The wishing well). First it was more for fun, but – after business picked up – it became a serious venture. As Antonio now says:
"Timisoara is a city in which various cultures cook together; it is a cosmopolitan city. It has a lot going for it, which is why I fell in love with it."
So Antonio stayed. And many other Italians came. According to Antonio, the "adventurers" of the very early days and those that came primarily because of women left again relatively quickly.
In 1992 the bigger Italian firms came in. By late 2007 more than 2,600 companies owned or co-owned by Italians were registered in Timis County. Antonio now runs the "Al Duomo" restaurant in Timisoara and a catering business, serving about 25,000 dishes daily, supplying mainly businesses. He also gives cooking courses – and does consulting work – in Bucharest. He stars as a chef in Danutz S.R.L., a 3.5 hour show, and sings on primetime TV.
"Antonio the Italian" has become something of public figure in Romania.
"They stop me in the streets to tell me about their problems, they don't let me pay at the fruit market, and I use these opportunities to promote Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, and to teach Romanians to eat well and healthy."
In 2007 Antonio Passarelli was elected Vice-president of the "Romanian Chefs Society"; he has even received Romanian citizenship. He is upset that the debate on Romanian Roma immigrants in Italy has been blown out of proportion by an irresponsible media. Passarelli remembers being a kid in Austria. It was the Italians themselves, back then, who had a negative reputation. "This must stop," he insists.