A famous Zurich restaurant, once frequented by Lenin and Mussolini, may have to shut down after 100 years of business, severing its links with the Italian community.This content was published on November 3, 2006 - 17:25
Restaurant Cooperativo has a long association with Italian immigration and culture and the anti-fascist and trade union movements. But an impending rent hike has put its future in doubt.
Canvasses from the artist Mario Comensoli depicting vibrant street scenes gaze down on the diners packed onto the wooden benches at lunchtime during a typical weekday at the restaurant.
The patrons are attracted by the hearty Italian cuisine that costs a fraction of the prices charged at the 80 or so competitors in the surrounding streets.
But Restaurant Cooperativo, known as Coopi, means more to many of its patrons than risotto, bolognese or tagliatelli. It has been the focal point in German-speaking Switzerland for Italian integration since 1905 and provided a haven for many escaping fascism in their country between the wars.
Commercial profits have never been top of the central Zurich restaurant's list of priorities, and this traditional way of operating now threatens its very existence.
The Zurich city authorities, which own the building, have recently demanded a rent increase from around SFr165,000 ($132,000) a year to SFr180,000 – effective from the start of 2007.
Coopi is unable to meet that hike unless it abandons its idealism, something the Cooperative Society of Italians in Zurich, the organisation that runs the restaurant, is unwilling to do.
Society president Andrea Ermano told swissinfo that Coopi was more than simply a restaurant.
"We have served to help integrate Italians into the German speaking part of Switzerland. This example is particularly important to maintain with the current climate of immigration and the movement of workers from the European Union," he said.
"We have a art collection on our walls that is free for anyone to see and we host meetings for countless societies. It is not just Italian-speaking people who use these facilities.
"I cannot understand why the city would haggle over SFr15,000 when we give so much for free to the people of Zurich."
The restaurant has an illustrious alumnus of famous patrons, mainly linked to left-wing political movements.
In 1913 the then socialist Mussolini visited Coopi and the exiled Lenin is reported to have had his last meal in Switzerland at the restaurant before jumping on a train to Russia to lead the revolution.
Current Swiss president and centre-left Social Democrat Moritz Leuenberger was a regular during his student days.
Coopi has already changed location on two occasions and is now in the Strassburgstrasse, but Ermano believes another move would be its death knell.
"We have always been situated at the heart of Zurich. In earlier days this made it easy for Italian immigrants to find us from the train station, and now it provides a convenient location to hold meetings," he said.
"If we are forced out of our current location we would never afford another place in the city centre. We simply could not survive on the outskirts or in an old industrial park."
Coopi's current flexible rental agreement, paying a varying amount each year according to how many customers they attract, has been in place since 1970.
But the city authorities say they need a higher fixed amount to pay for the planned SFr1 million renovations the building needs.
Negotiations have been ongoing for some time, but have now reached a deadlock that appears insurmountable. Despite recognising the social significance of Coopi, the city's real estate management department say the commercial arguments for changing the rental agreement are too strong to ignore.
But Ermano has not given up the fight, vowing to lodge an appeal against the decision that could spark a long legal battle.
If the Restaurant Cooperativo does disappear, Ermano believes a slice of Zurich's history will also be erased.
swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich
Restaurant Cooperativo opened its doors in 1905 at the same time the Cooperative Society for Italians in Zurich came into being.
The restaurant was originally situated in Zwinglistrasse in Zurich city, moved to Militärstrasse seven years later and relocated again to its current location in Strassburgstrasse in 1970.
The rent it currently pays to the city authorities is dependent on the number of customers the restaurant attracts during the year. In recent years this has varied from SFr145,000 to SFr200,000, but is typically SFr165,000.
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