At Farinella Bakery, Polo, born Alberto Cretara, is sitting beside the register on his MacBook sifting through pictures of his old graffiti work. A kind Italian woman greets customers, behind her jars of Nutella and colorful sodas line the walls. The pizzas, laid out behind the counter, are soft, flavorful, not too filling, and the crust is just right. But that’s not the only reason people come to Farinella.
Polo is a bit of a celebrity himself, but is also familiar with much greater stardom. “Paul McCartney used to have his driver stop outside, come in and get a slice of pizza and leave,” Polo says. “When we were in TriBeCa, everyone came to us for pizza. Madonna, Mike D, and De Blasio even though he eats it with a fork” Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is playing over the speaker and Polo acknowledges the tune. “Pandora,” he laughs. “I should play more of the rap but sometimes the language is not right for the kids.”
Polo considers himself a New York native, strong Italian accent notwithstanding. When he came to the city in 1995, he had to improve his English if he wanted to become a local, so he enrolled in a three-week program at Long Island University to up his game. “I fell in love with New York City right away,” he says. “All my friends would always call me out and say, ‘When you talk about New York, we see a light in your eyes.'”
At the time, there were very few rap groups coming out of Italy. The genre was still growing in America as well, extending its reach across continents. “Fast lyrics were very interesting and appealing all over the world,” Polo says.
Polo started DJing regularly at popular New York City clubs, like Park and Lotus. “I enjoyed DJing in New York because people knew [rap] music. No one in Italy understood. I was the teacher there.” Polo and his two friends decided to band together and become “La Famiglia.” Translated as “the family”, the rap group, the first from Napoli, consists of “Shaone” aka Paolo Romano, DJ Simi aka Simone Cavagnuolo, and of course, Polo. “When I started there was nothing before me. I was the pioneer in Italy. We had no example before us. We had to invent everything ourselves,” he says.
As well as a burgeoning rap career, Polo got up in Italy, painting graffiti. Although he prefers not to go into details for legal reasons. La Famiglia were the only group of Neopolitan rappers back in the mid nineties. The trio gained so much success that they were encouraged to create their own streetwear line called Boom Bat. “I was competing with FBoom in Bushwick, I remember Bobbito Garcia had the store on 9th street,” Polo says. “When he had a barber shop so you understand how far back it goes.”
After two hit singles, “Friends” and “Amici,” Polo wanted to return to the place that put a smile on his face. “I officially moved to New York in 2000 because when I was in Italy I was doing very well with music and everything else.” He pauses. It seems like he doesn’t want to tell the next part. “But I met an American actress,” he says. “Very famous, but I won’t say. She said to come to New York because everything I can do in Italy, I could do here. I believed her, and I believed myself.”
In 2001, Polo was still in the process of going back and forth from Napoli to New York regularly. “September 11th happened while I was in Italy about to fly back to New York,” he says. “La Famiglia was about to come out with an album at the time but my producer said you have to wait”. Simultaneously, Polo was trying to gain his citizenship. “I played green card lottery in October 2001,” he says. “At the time nobody played because everyone was watching the TV. I won my green card.”
After things fizzled with the unnamed actress, Polo had no interest in meeting someone. As these things go, he of course met his then to-be wife. “I tried to bring her to Italy instead of coming over here but she is born and raised in New York.” As any New Yorker will tell you, it’s not the easiest place to leave, especially if you’re a native. “I married my wife because she knew who I really was as an emcee,” he says.
Newly married, Polo had to support his future family, and the stock market crash in 2008 certainly didn’t make things easier. At the time, he was working in marketing for Nike during the Japan/Korea Cup. “They called me and said they don’t have any budgets for marketing and events,” he says. “They said next year it’ll be different so he told me to find something other than music.” But Polo wasn’t wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
He decided to open his own booth at the San Gennaro festival to promote his music. Polo was running the booth 24/7, handing out his music all over the streets. “The people in America had never heard Neopolitan rap,” he says. It was only shortly after his booth was running that he was noticed by a someone who would be of great help to his future, and later become his partner, Howard Estrin. “I had my booth right in front of the place where Howard parked his car, and he saw me working seven days a week, 12 hours a day and one day he said, ‘We should do something together, why don’t we do pizza.'”
Five years ago, the pair opened the first Farinella Bakery on Broadway and Worth in TriBeCa. “We knew we wanted to do something different, we wanted to do something that represents high quality.” Ideally, they wanted to create a high-end model for a pizza that could be replicated. “Nobody has that because all the pizza chains in the US stink so I wanted to bring the real pizza here and make it into a chain. We’re still working on that,” he explains.
But Polo still makes time for his passion – hip hop. He used to hold an open mic rap night at Farinella. “It’s hard to believe but there is more real hip hop heads in Europe than the states,” he says. “People acknowledge what the history of hip hop is. There is a big knowledge over hip hop, graffiti, rap music. If you get all the good emcees from the golden age over here they would have a lot of business going on in Europe.”
As a long time emcee who just turned 42, Polo is well aware that we are in an age that is far from golden. “I was in a sneaker store a few months ago and a commercial came on and they were advertising a Kanye West show in Brooklyn with A Tribe Called Quest opening. The 20-something girl who was working at the store goes, ‘Who is A Tribe Called Quest?’ This is New York now,” Polo says with great concern. “Kendrick Lamar is a good lyricist, but I can’t say Kanye West, I’m sorry. His music is like Mickey Mouse,” he laughs. Polo knows EPMD very well. He brought them to Italy for their first tour, and La Famiglia was the opening act. “I definitely would love to do something with Action Bronson.”
“At first, I was over here so I could bring people to Italy, but now people in Italy are coming here,” Polo says. His employees at the pizzeria agree. “Polo is famous in Italy,” says Enrico Sivori, 30, from Napoli. “I had heard of him and knew that he was the kind of person who helps people out. I moved here first, then I saw him all over the Internet.” Enrico is just one of the many Italians that have looked to Polo for guidance and mentorship. “I’m an example for a lot of people because I started from scratch,” Polo says.
When there is a job available, Polo thinks about the people who need it most. “The guy painting my mural [for the new restaurant] is 23 years old and his name is Yarit. He is the last graffiti king. He started when he was a baby. What is there to do for him in Italy? Nobody has money, nobody cares about a portrait.” Polo offers people like Yarit a place to go. “No one cares about anything as good as you are. If I can bring them over here and have them stay at my place and offer them a period of time to live in New York and start working then I will.”
Polo and La Famiglia continue to play sold out concerts in Italy whenever they can. He still gets stopped on the street for autographs and pictures whenever he is home, and after 20 years, they still have groupies. In less than a month, Farinella’s second location will open on 61st and Lexington. As the dough spins, he spices it with his passions. Despite his busy schedule, Polo continues to paint and write lyrics.