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.