“The secret is you’ve got to make the base soooo thin— thin crust that doesn’t curl. Two ingredients: tomato, mozzarella. Easy.”
Leo Fioravanti is talking pizza, talking with his hands, and I’m flashing on the scene from Goodfellas where Cousin Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade soooo thin that it disappears completely into his pasta sauce. Fioravanti is finding that the one problem with being a traveling Italian surfer is that you have to tolerate the world’s doughy, cheesy, cartoonish interpretation of pizza.
“It doesn’t matter where I go, it’s just not as good as home,” he laments. “And I don’t dial for pizza. Ever.”
Sharing his name with a Renaissance alchemist and a 1960s Ferrari-driving playboy, the current incarnation of Leo Fioravanti has followed the least likely profession for an Italian and gone into pro surfing. As far as he knows, he’s Italy’s only professional surfer. “There are a couple of other guys who surf pretty good,” he says, scratching his head, “but I think I’m it.” Italy’s only pro surfer finished the 2014 season in 28th on the ASP’s World Qualifying Series—one result short of making the Tour at just 16 years old.
“I’m really thanking my parents for getting me into it, ’cause surfing wasn’t so big in Italy back then. Actually,” he laughs, “it still isn’t really that big now.”
But to understand how a kid who grew up surfing al dente short-fetch Mediterranean slop has climbed to within a whisker of making the World Tour, you need to understand that Fioravanti is a little more cosmopolitan and a lot more worldly, and in many ways has been hothoused for this kind of success. He’s been on the road since he was 9, has lived in France, California, and Australia, gone to school at Huntington Beach and on the Gold Coast, surfed everything from Sardinia to Pipeline, and speaks five languages—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and slick English probably better than your own. The kid belongs to the world as much as he belongs to Italy.
Fioravanti started surfing just outside of Rome. “Growing up, my brother drove this little Mini car and I’d go with him surfing—the full Italian road trip,” he remembers. They surfed a wave 20 kilometers from Rome called Banzai, somewhat less consequential than the Hawaiian equivalent but enough of a buzz to get the kid hooked on this strange thing called surfing. “All my friends at school played soccer, but my mom would come and pick me up out of school and go, ‘There’s waves. Let’s go surf.’ I’m really thanking my parents for getting me into it, ’cause surfing wasn’t so big in Italy back then. Actually,” he laughs, “it still isn’t really that big now.”
At age 9, Fioravanti went to France and surfed Hossegor, and he’s hardly been home since. He’s followed closely in the footsteps of Europe’s other surfing wonder-boy, Jeremy Flores, signing with Quiksilver and moving to France, but springboarding widely from there. His stepdad is Stephen Bell, the same guy who’s been in Kelly Slater’s corner on Tour for 15 years, and then there’s Slater himself, who has been on dozens of surf trips with Fioravanti. “I’m lucky to spend time and surf with him,” says Fioravanti of Slater. “He’s still smashing all the kids and I just watch everything he does and just learn, learn, learn.”
WATCH: See more of Leo surfing at home in Italy in “Bella Vita”, now available on Vimeo On Demand
I first met Fioravanti at the SURFER house on the North Shore of Oahu. He was a skinny 12-year-old at the time, and even at that age it was clear the kid was destined for some form of stardom. As soon as the camera came out to shoot a couple of photos for the mag, the “Leo Show” the jokes started flying, the Italian expressionism undeniable. To close the show he pulled a chocolate cream pie out of the fridge and threw it comically into Jack Robinson’s face.
A few months later I saw him in G-Land, and when one of the older European guys in the camp, who’d had a skinful of Bintang, held him down and cut his hair, well, it was a performance worthy of an Italian soccer player being kicked in the shin during a World Cup semifinal. It was clear the kid was a character, but could also really surf. Grajagan nudged 10 foot on that trip, and Fioravanti, 12, was up the point at Money Trees, calmly taking sets. “It felt like 12,000 feet for us,” he remembers, “but we loved it.”
His progress was frighteningly quick. Just three years later I watched him paddle out at Banzai—the Hawaiian version, not the Italian— on the biggest day of the winter and scratch into one of the heaviest, most ludicrous Backdoor waves I’ve ever seen. “That was the first day I got to Hawaii. As the swell picked up, I got my big board and paddled out and I’m just thinking, ‘OK, first day in Hawaii, one big bomb.’ Boom! Straight away this thing came to me and I was kinda in the spot, and I just went,” he says.
“The wind was blowing up the face so hard I couldn’t see much. I stood up and suddenly I could see and the wind was holding me in the lip and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is heavy.’ Then it was full slow motion: I jumped, threw my board, hit the bottom, then went back up and hit the bottom again. Fully smashed, biggest wipeout of my life—but I was stoked after that ’cause everyone was screaming at me. That was just as good as getting a good wave. Everyone saw it.”
Having missed qualifying for the Tour by a hair at the end of last year—which would have made the Italian kid the youngest and most unlikely Tour surfer of all time—the new year seemed ripe. By February, it was over. Fioravanti found himself pressed fast against the reef at Pipe, pressed thin as Italian pizza, his back broken, his dream season over before it began. Slater was on the beach to help cart him to the meat wagon, while Fioravanti’s mom, Serena, and Belly watched helplessly from home in France. As this story went to print, Fioravanti was lying in a hospital bed in Bordeaux with two titanium rods in his back, the morphine fading out and the pain rising like a tide. He’d taken calls from Slater and from Mick Fanning, offering the kid a bit of hope beyond his next round of meds. But he’ll be surfing again in a few months; the titanium will be gone and his back strong again, and he’ll be off again chasing the success he’s been raised for (Editor’s note: Since this article’s first publication, Leo is now back in the water and training once again.)
We’ve recently seen the beach at Pipeline full of Brazilian fans cheering on the first Brazilian world title. Remember how unlikely that seemed a decade ago? Can we imagine a time in the near future where the beach at Pipe is covered in Azzuri blue, the Italian flags waving, pizza trucks lining the Kam Highway, and everyone complaining about Rocky Point being overrun by Italian surfers? Can we imagine an Italian world surfing champion? A Roman conquering surfing?
Leo Fioravanti can. “That’s my dream and my goal, and if I could achieve that it would be amazing. Surfing is not the biggest thing in Italy, so if that ever happened it would be incredible. I try to stay true to being Italian even though I have lived away and traveled so much,” he says. Fioravanti drifts off for a second. “Italian surfer world champion…Yeah, sure, it sounds weird, but sounds good, too, huh?”