The Spain-based chain of restaurants uses imagery from the Godfather movies and real-life gangsters in its decor. Italians who have seen the real mafia's crimes are irate.
There was consternation among Italians this week after they learned that 40,000 Spaniards have joined the mafia.
The chain of themed restaurants, which feature posters of scenes from The Godfather movie and images of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, is enjoying huge success, despite the recession that Spain has endured in the last few years.
There are 34 “La Mafia” restaurants around the country, with plans to open 15 more, including one across the border in Portugal.
Regular diners can join a “Mafia Fidelity Club,” which offers a 5 percent discount on meals and the chance to enter a draw to win prizes such as iPads and romantic weekends away.
The chain has been around for a while – the first La Mafia restaurant opened back in 2000 – but its existence only came to broad public attention in Italy this week after La Repubblica, a leading newspaper, ran a report on the booming franchise.
Italians reacted with indignation, saying that using the mafia as a marketing gimmick was in dreadful taste, given the number of people that organized crime groups have killed over the years and the crimes they commit, from drug trafficking to extortion and dumping toxic waste in the countryside.
“Imagine what would happen in Spain if somebody in Italy opened restaurants dedicated to the terrorists of [the Basque separatist group] ETA,” the newspaper commented. “Or what would happen in Germany if beer halls opened in Milan and Rome in honour of the Red Army Faction," an extreme left-wing militant group of the 1970s, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.
There is a tendency in the rest of the world to see the mafia in cartoon terms – hucksters in pin-striped suits brandishing tommy guns, with slicked-down hair beneath their rakishly askew fedoras and spats over their shoes.
The reality for Italians in the 21st century is rather less glamorous – Camorra gangsters gunning down rivals in the streets of Naples, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria importing vast quantities of cocaine from South America, and Cosa Nostra in Sicily extorting protection money from terrified business owners.
The restaurants were “gravely offensive to our national image and to all those who have paid with their lives in the battle against mafia clans,” two senators from the center-left Democratic Party, Laura Cantini and Mario Morgoni, said in a statement.
Giuseppe Lumia, another center-left senator and a member of the parliamentary anti-mafia commission, said: “To use the word mafia in a commercial brand is squalid and unacceptable.”
Politicians called on the Italian ministry of foreign affairs to lodge a formal complaint with the Spanish government.
The firm behind the restaurant chain has been taken aback by all the fuss.
“I apologize to any Italians who feel offended but it was really not our intention,” Pablo Martinez, a spokesman for La Mafia Franchises told La Repubblica. “There are no violent images in our restaurants.”
The mobsters adorning the walls held pink roses in their hands, not automatic weapons, he said. And he pointed out that in a country mired in recession, the chain provided jobs for 400 full-time staff.