How This Ex-Celebrity Photographer Ended Up With Cubao's Enduring Italian Restaurant
This story begins in Bellini's, an eponymously named restaurant in Cubao Expo, Quezon City. There is a miniature replica of the leaning tower of Pisa out front; inside, more Italian icons come to vivid, campy life in a frieze: the Roman colosseum, racecars whizzing past al fresco cafes, a plane with the Alitalia livery soaring overhead. There’s fresh pasta being made in the kitchen, as well as focaccia and breadsticks and dessert wine. Nothing is store-bought, heaven forbid. Everything approximates an authentic Italian household—including the proud display of photos of the restaurant’s owners, Roberto and Maria Luisa (née Junsay) Bellini.
You can’t miss him, this Roberto. Blond, curly-haired, walking, running from table to table. “Ciao, bella!” he’ll say to the ladies. “You, I know you! You are my classmate!” he tells the kids. He’ll jump from table to table with the same ease as he does jumping from topic to topic. Pinning him down is like catching a spinning coin that manages to whirl towards the undermost crevices of a sofa.
So you wait, and hopes he slows down. If you’re patient enough, he’ll come to you, wrap you in his arms, the sleeves of his flashy button down shirt enveloping you. (Today he’s a bit more sedate—a light blue shirt, white leather belt, multi-colored checkered socks, and crocodile skin shoes.) If he likes you, he’ll welcome you like family, with two big kisses and ply you with coffee and cake and panna cotta. If he doesn’t, well…that cadence-filled raspy voice of his, so distinct you’ll hear it even in your sleep, turns into a great bellow.
“Anak ka ng tatay mo!” he’ll shout before plunging into a stream of curses in Italian. “Gago! Sira ulo!” He’s thrown out entourages because they wanted to close down the place so an actor could eat alone. He’s literally pulled—nay, ripped out—the plug on parties which were disrupting his business. By the time you catch your bearings and come up with something smart to say, he’s off. He brushes his hands off of the insignificance of you. “Done. Go away.”
Bellini is proud of this temper, of this gift to defend and provoke (“Why here in Philippines, you say sira ulo, they bang! Bang! Bang! In Italy, I say ‘You! Sira ulo!’ Finished! The other day, I said to taxi driver—this I.D. photo, you can put this in the burol. Woooo! Why he get mad?” he asks in all naivety.) If anything, that feistiness is what got him to where he is now, one of the most popular and successful faces in the independent culinary scene. Bellini’s is 16-years-old and counting, located in the ever-shifting bohemian enclave of Cubao Expo (formerly Marikina Shoe Expo). The food is not spectacular, but it is earnest, and the place is interesting enough to attract a loyal clientele of big businessmen, showbiz A-listers, even the president of the Philippines.
On the day we visit, Bellini greets us looking tired and weary. He apologizes. “I have no sleep. Everyday, I work. I’m old. I’m 151 years old. Next year, I’ll be 152,” he deadpans. Of course he isn’t. He’s a spry 75 years old. And he started Bellini’s at the age when most of us would’ve just turned, rolled, and waited for our pensions, having shuttered his photo shop in Italy, sold all his possessions, and coming back with his wife and three kids.
“Many sacrifice,” he says of his restaurant’s rise.
His in-laws told him he was crazy, wanting to put up a restaurant. He didn’t know the market, they said; and besides, Marikina Shoe Expo in beaten-down Cubao seemed like a losing bet. It was surrounded by shoe stores—Gregg, American Golden Shoes, Abbie Lyn, Mark R. It was located at the very end of the compound, the last store you’d come across. But rent was cheap—P300 a day. Maria Luisa developed the menu; Roberto did the marketing, putt-putt-putting his way on a motorbike to nearby Farmer’s Market.
For five years, the couple and their three kids slept in the restaurant’s office. “We had beds, we had everything,” Bellini says. The daily commute to and from his wife’s place in Montalban wore them down, so “we make sacrifice. If you don't make sacrifice in life, you make nothing.”
An assistant cook had stolen his bag that contained his pure gold Longines watch, gold necklace, and P280,000. “He magnanakaw the bag. I tell you, anak ka ng puta. Ok, you like the war? I make the war."
There was a point where he almost had nothing. An assistant cook had stolen his bag that contained his pure gold Longines watch, gold necklace, and P280,000. Bellini was left with P1,000 in his pocket.
“He magnanakaw the bag. I tell you, anak ka ng puta. Ok, you like the war? I make the war. I start to go around. I go to ABS-CBN, 6:30 in the morning. I talk to (host) Julius Babao. The second day, I go again, for one week. After Friday, Julius he tell me, ‘OK, I understand you need to work. You need to put up your restaurant. I don’t promise anything but…’”
Babao remembers: “He came on strong. He told me he used to take photos of Italian actors Sofia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, the director Federico Fellini etc. I must admit, he did get my attention because I was a film lover. But I told him I would have to try his food first.”
One evening, Babao brought his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Christine Bersola, to Bellini’s, “where we ordered his best dishes—the cartoccio pasta, the sardine appetizer and the house specialty dessert, panna cotta. They were all fantastic!”
After a month, a crew came from Alas Singko Y Media and put Bellini on TV. After, the venerable food critic Doreen Fernandez came and featured the restaurant in her column. “One day, after palengke, I come here on January 3, my birthday—dami tao!” Bellini relates. “They say we want to eat in your restaurant. Ay, I don’t know what to do!” he recalls the moment, hands on his head; the ingredients he had bought weren’t enough to feed the number of guests. “My God. So from this moment, newspaper, magazine, many body want to eat here.”
Usually, a story like this ends here with “the rest is history.”
But clichés are for cowards, and our subject is anything but.
Roberto Bellini was born in Pisa to restaurateur and hotelier parents, during a time when military service was mandatory. When he came of age, he trained to be a parachutist.
He pronounces “chute” with a hard “ch”, like a “k”. “I like dangerous life,” he says. “(Is not) the parachutist a dangerous life? When you are up there, you are alone. You cannot be stupid.” After military school, he worked in his parents’ restaurant; during service in the military, he met someone who offered him a photojournalist’s job. Aside from making good money as a paratrooper, Bellini was raking it in selling his photos to various agencies and publications.
“It’s not simple to be photographer,” he says more than once. “You must be estro. Estro means you must be inspired, have imagination. Same thing as in the kitchen. You need estro. Same in the restaurant. You must see face of the people, you need mata, you need experience. One is suplado, one is masaya, one is mabait. You need to know the psicologia of the people.”
Photos then were all outsourced, and it was a race to produce the most scandalous and exciting images.
“Pappa is papa, father. Razzi is when like the sputnik go out in the sky, you hear ‘zoom!’” like most Italians, Bellini speaks a lot with his hands. He snaps his fingers, points this way and that, claps, flicks,
waves. “That is razzi. Fast, quick. You will not sell picture if—” he strikes a pose, smiles. “You sell to the paper—” he covers his face, as if avoiding the flash of lightbulbs, as if in shame. “That is very good picture to sell.”
He was at the height of his career when his wife of 18 years, a Filipina, died of brain cancer. They had one son, Daniele.
“I feel very hard before,” Bellini says quietly. “After two years, the newspaper and magazines (in Italy) asked me: ‘there is trouble in the Philippines. You know how to speak English and your wife was Filipina. Do you want to cover the revolution?’ Si, si.”
“When you’re a paparazzi, they get you. They get your life, they get your puso. Because it’s wonderful to be a paparazzi...”
It was his first time in the country. Bellini came over, and lo and behold, while checking in on the press office in Malacañang, he met Maria Luisa, a towering 27-year-old with a 23-inch waist and a penchant for heels, even during the palace’s busiest days.
Within 20 minutes, Bellini had asked her for her hand in marriage. “Are you stupid? No!” he recalls her saying. And then, relenting: “Talk to my family in Montalban.”
Maria Luisa giggles at the memory—in fact, she says that it was she who fell in love first, and not the other way around. “Dadalhan ka pa naman ng isang bouquet ng rose,” she says, holding her hands two feet apart. “He was a playboy, mahilig sa babae.”
Two months later, she was on her way to Italy. Bellini had sent her a ticket. The girl who couldn’t ride a jeep or bus by herself was all alone on a flight to a country she’d never been to, whose language she didn’t speak.
She didn’t know it then, but she’d play a significant role in his life as a paparazzo—which Bellini now is reluctant to talk about. All he says, repeatedly, is that “to be paparazzi, you have to be sira ulo.”
If days of no eating, sleeping, no privacy—pretty much the same things paparazzi inflict on their subjects—and fights don’t faze you, you just might survive being one. “You cannot be afraid of anybody,” Bellini says. “When somebody tell you, I don’t want picture, you say ‘sure sure.’‘ Come you want to fight?’ We fight. It’s normal.”
Case in point: one of Madonna’s bodyguards, who caught Bellini taking out his Nikon from underneath his jacket. The Material Girl had landed in the wee hours of the morning in Pisa, and thought the coast was clear before she disembarked the plane. “Pam! Pam! Before, Nikon not plastic, puro bakal. I hit him like this”—he swings an imaginary camera like a shotput. “Dami dugo on his face,” says Bellini.
One of Madonna’s bodyguards caught Bellini taking out his Nikon from under his jacket. “Pam! I hit him like this. Dami dugo on his face”
Jerry Lewis scored points against the paparazzi, however, when he chased Bellini with his penis out of his pants. “He want to make i-i”—that’s the way Bellini pronounces ‘ihi’—“and the CR is closed. When he put out the titi”—which, incidentally, means “little boy” in Italian, Bellini digresses—“I take out the camera, and he chase me. Ohhh!” He mock-runs away.
“Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias, Neil Sedaka, Tom Cruise, Ella Fitzgerald, Prince Charles…” Bellini counts the celebrities whose privacy he invaded on his blunt, be-ringed fingers. “Oof.”
Maria Luisa, despite her first three years of depression and loneliness, managed to be Roberto’s most valued asset. She managed the photo shop he had put up, ran to wherever he was to pick up the film she would process, print, and sell to publications. When it was impossible for him to be in two places at the same time, she would take over the second locale, muscling her way through the crowd and shooting her own photos. Her name never appeared in the byline, though. Only her husband’s, as she was “estranghera.”
“Halimbawa may kelangan para sa front page, kukunin ko na yung film, magdedevelop na ako ng black and white, gawa akong iba-ibang size, tatawagan ko na yung newspaper, ‘o may scoop kami, gusto niyo ng photo?’ ‘Sige sige dalhin mo dito.’”
A non-exclusive photo could fetch up to five million lira, or P500,000 at that time.
But time, the stress, and the demands of being a paparazzo took its toll on Team Bellini.
“Many time, I fight. Many time, but now no more,” says Bellini in a sad, defeated voice. “It’s not easy being a photographer. You need mata, puso. When you are a paparazzi, they get you. They get your life, they get your puso, because it's wonderful to be a paparazzi, you know many people, big people, rich people, big artists. But I tell people now: Roberto Paparazzi, patay na. The same time I opened the restaurant. I liked being a paparazzi. But now, I like the restaurant.”
Maria Luisa echoes: “Sabi ko rin, ayoko na. Nakakapagod ‘tong trabahong ‘to. Yung life na ‘yon, napakahirap para sa kanya.”
It was a good move for her husband to enroll her in a six-month course at Sergio Lorenzi culinary school, as what she learned there she would later apply in Bellini’s.
When the euro edged out the use of lira; when newspapers began paying photographers salaries on a monthly basis—not per photo; and when military service became voluntary in Italy, rendering the services of parachutists obsolete, Roberto decided to pack up his cameras and close his 30-year-long chapter of being a pap.
He makes as if to zip his mouth. He wipes his hands together. “I stay quiet, I sell. I saw the life in Italy change,” Bellini says of the year 1999. “Here, I’m finished (being a) paparazzi. Patay na,” he repeats.
Except for some clippings and photos, they left everything behind. Maria Luisa says Roberto even burned negatives to make sure no one would get their hands on them. “We didn’t think of archives; dapat pala tinabi namin para sa exhibit. Pero di na namin naisip dahil masyadong over na siguro, ayaw nang balikan yung nakaraan.”
I’m a bad guy,” Roberto Bellini says pensively. “I’m mabait, but I’m a bad guy. I'm sorry, but I'm no fake to anybody. I don’t think of problema, I don't make problema. If someone tell you ciao amore, bullshit, I'm not bola-bola. I'm derecho. You give respect, I show respect.”
Even if he’s out of the scene, he still likes to provoke. “See this?” He lifts the heavy gold chain and crucifix off his neck; he points to his solid gold Rolex. “I walk in Cubao. I’m not afraid, because I look at people in the eyes—in the eyes, you can know (if they have) bad intentions or good. If they do bad actions to you.”
But this is the only “danger” Bellini is willing to get into now.
If he were still so inclined, he’d have a goldmine of material. Bellini’s Ristorante Italiano has become a safe place for high profile couples not yet ready to disclose their relationships.
“I don’t make photo anymore,” Bellini says, rattling off names of pairs who were later confirmed as an item (or who later split up) in the media. He also refuses to use the perks of someone who knows stuff. He has a direct line to the president, but won’t use it. “He says if I get into trouble. I no get into trouble,” Bellini says.
“All that you do in your life, [it’s like a] ball,” he says, drawing an arc in the air, bouncing his finger back and forth. “If it falls, patay na. If you make trouble, like Filipino says, it can be karma. So if I do something today and people see me and [greet me nicely], ‘Mr Bellini!’ that means I make good.”
Bellini walking with Julio Iglesias back to La Bussola Hotel after his concert rehearsals in Viaregglo, 1976
All his waitstaff—the longest-staying one has been with him for the past 13 years; the newest, six years—know how to speak Italian. He teaches them himself. “It’s an Italian restaurant, people like to hear Italian,” he reasons. They’re a proud bunch, smart, quick on their feet, and sincere. Sevillano Aquino, who took over the administration of Marikina Shoe Expo and transformed it into Cubao Expo in 2007, says he owes much to Bellini in terms of setting the tone for the compound, which has gone from repository of forgotten memories to “the epicenter of cool,” according to The Lonely Planet.
Bellini and Aquino helped each other grow; the Italian—who had been there longer—opened doors for Aquino in the Cubao LGUs. Aquino, on the other hand, gave him two and a half more units to expand his restaurant. “We gained a lot from him. We call him our Italian godfather,” Aquino says with a laugh. “But more than anything, Roberto is a family man. I could see how he loves his family. And that made me vote for him; more than his food, on hindsight, it was his family who he's taking care of.”
Bellini also raised the bar for Cubao Expo’s tenants, all of whom Aquino requires to have the same personalized service Bellini’s has. “He would put ice in the pitcher of water, always quick with a smile and a joke. The second time you come, he knows you already. How I wish all the establishments here were like that.”
“I don't have a rest day,” Bellini says. “Not because I'm matakaw for the pera, but because I like to work.” He’s there seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day. After false starts in Sucat and Makati, he and Maria Luisa now have a second branch in Marikina, running on its third year.
“Sa awa ng Diyos, magkatulong kami sa mulat-mulatan, hanggang ngayon magkatulong pa rin. Matanda na pareho,” Maria Luisa says, looking at her husband lovingly. She reaches over and wipes a crumb from his lip. “Twenty nine years na, katawan lang nagbago.” Their kids, Joy, 27, Jasmine, 21, Junior, 19, are about to graduate from their second courses, an international culinary course which they’ll use, they say, to help them put up their own restaurant. Bellini’s is Mama’s and Papa’s.
“With digital, no more photographer. With cellphone, everybody is a photographer,” Bellini says.
Maybe it’s just as well that Bellini—as well as other photographers, of any genre—have laid down their Leicas and Nikons. The current culture of Me, Me, Me and anyone who can hack an online account has taken away a significant chunk of the paparazzi’s power, and the need to spring attacks to show how celebrities look and act when stripped of glamor and polish. Anyone with a mobile phone can now act just as despicably—or honorably, as revelations can swing both ways. Anyone with just enough crazy and lack of conscience can be a harbinger of the truth, whatever truth it may be.
“With digital, no more photographer. With cellphone, everybody is a photographer,” Bellini says. “Before, you bring film, you take picture, you put in the album. Now, you make the picture all in the memory card. If you lose it, or is corrupted, you lose all memory. You don’t have memory.”
He’s staring into space, about to lose focus again. He’s about to go running-walking again, an old blond Italian dynamo with 10,000 stories to tell, and miles to go before he sleeps. “It’s not simple to be a photographer,” he says, of the craft he’s bade goodbye to. “You need experience. If you don’t have experience, it's not easy to get [the] character. You need mata, ulo, pasensiya to understand the psicologia.” He rattles on, but you know he’s already scanning the roomful of diners with a paparazzo’s eye.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.