Gianni Russo is an actor, crooner, and entrepreneur. Over his long and storied career, he’s also dabbled as a radio personality, author, motivational speaker, restaurateur, and nightclub emcee.
He’s played mobsters, gangsters and other shady characters in a long string of mostly successful movies (46 and counting). But the native New Yorker is best known for his role as Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather.
With the iconic 1972 movie now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Russo is busier than ever making personal appearances across the U.S. and abroad. A colorful raconteur, Russo shares intimate memories about the making of the movie and his relationships with many of its stars, including Brando, Pacino and De Niro.
But food and his Italian heritage, part Sicilian and part Napolitano, have always been close to Russo’s heart. His most recent business venture is licensing The Godfather brand from Paramount Pictures to launch a specialty food line, Corleone Fine Italian Foods.
After a two-year pandemic-induced travel hiatus, this peripatetic star is back on the road—both entertaining audiences and making promotional appearances for Genco Olive Oil and Clemenza’s Meat Sauce.
Forbes.com caught up with Gianni Russo by phone from his home in New York City.
- When did you first start traveling?
- It seems like your business often takes you to Italy?
- What led you to invest in a food line?
- You are a world traveler. What special appeals does southern Italy offer?
- Why did you choose to buy property in Cefalu?
- Do people recognize you when you travel?
- What is your travel style?
- Any travel tips you can offer?
- How can non-celebrity travelers upgrade their experience?
- You are a “people person” but you mentioned that you usually travel alone. What are the advantages?
When did you first start traveling?
Gianni Russo: I’ve been traveling since my early twenties. My first cruise was working on the USS Independence as a hairdresser. I was able to earn a few dollars and see the world. I’ve been traveling ever since.
It seems like your business often takes you to Italy?
GR: Definitely. I have two passports, Italian and U.S.
In the past, I was probably traveling to Italy as often as once a month. I have cousins in Naples, Sorrento and Capri, and I also own a house in Cefalu, a seaside resort not far from Palermo.
And my growing food businesses have given me reasons to travel to Italy to meet with authentic, artisanal producers. For example, my vodka line, Don Corleone Organic Italian Vodka, comes from the Italian Alps. Our PGI-certified, extra virgin Genco Olive Oil is made by Barbera, a family-owned business in Sicily since 1894.
What led you to invest in a food line?
GR: I consider myself a chef and my grandmother was a great cook, too.
Few Italians are having “Sunday Dinners” and getting together as a family anymore. I try to keep that tradition going. My dining room sits 16 people and I host dinner parties all the time.
The sauce is always an important part of the meal. I grew up with great meat sauce and I wanted to create a sauce that’s far beyond anything else on the supermarket shelves. Most people don’t have the time to spend 36 hours making a Bolognese sauce.
The San Marzano tomatoes used in our sauce are the best in the world. I certify that you will think your grandmother made it!
You are a world traveler. What special appeals does southern Italy offer?
GR: In truth, I love warm, sunny climates and like to stay tan. I enjoy cooking and eating, and you can’t have a bad meal in Italy.
I’m getting close to being 80 years old. I still love my life and hope to retire on the Amalfi Coast some day.
Why did you choose to buy property in Cefalu?
GR: I wanted to take advantage of my heritage. April through September is a great time to visit this part of Sicily.
I spend most of my time in Cefalu worshiping the sun. And eating, of course; I really love the local seafood. My place is located between Taormina and Lido Beach, which is one of the most magnificent beaches in Sicily.
Do people recognize you when you travel?
GR: Recognition didn’t come until later in life for me. And I consider it a privilege.
What is your travel style?
GR: I consider traveling part of the trip.
I love to look good and dress stylishly but comfortably. I always wear a sports jacket, often a suit. And if I wear blue jeans, they aren’t washed out one. I have even developed my own clothing line, La Cosa Mia by Gianni.
Because many of my trips tend to be long ones, I send my clothes ahead of me via UPS. If I send them three days before, my hotel has them waiting for my arrival, often hanging in my closet.
Any travel tips you can offer?
GR: I think of myself as a smart traveler.
I book my trips well in advance, mostly because I have a lot of appearances and always keep busy. Planning ahead makes everything easier. I’m now booking my world tour that will take place next December.
As a frequent traveler, you learn to avoid traveling on the days most folks fly out, like Fridays or Sundays.
How can non-celebrity travelers upgrade their experience?
GR: It comes down to loyalty. Being loyal to an airline or revisiting the hotels you enjoy can really pay off with upgrades and perks.
You are a “people person” but you mentioned that you usually travel alone. What are the advantages?
GR: Travel always gives me a chance to meet new people, to share a drink or meal with someone at the bar.
Even if you’re not famous, a table for one never leaves you feeling alone if you look up and engage with someone else. Servers become pals, the people at the next table can tell you where to get your next great meal.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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