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Family shares a passion for life and boating

After 26 years in business in Florida, the Rivolta family has not lost its passion for gracious Italian living.

After 26 years in business in Florida, the Rivolta family has not lost its passion for gracious Italian living. Their Mediterranean-style villa on Sarasota, Fla.’s Bird Key opens onto a spacious veranda in back and a garden planted in fragrant flowers, bushes — and spices for cooking.

Guests sip wine and sit down on the veranda to lunch on crabcakes and smoked salmon while they take in the downtown skyline across Sarasota Bay and another Rivolta passion — boats — at the docks behind the house.

Family patriarch Piero keeps his 90-foot carbon-fiber sailboat there. He designed it himself. Two of son Renzo’s line of power yachts also are at the docks. These are his designs — sleek, carefully detailed and finely built.

The Rivoltas have many interests. Renzo is putting the finishing touches on a new Express 4.0 for a boat show in Newport Beach, Calif. Piero is overseeing construction of a 15-story luxury condominium, the downtown Rivo Ringling, designed by Renzo with a 10-story atrium. The whole family is involved in putting on La Musica, an annual three-week, world-class festival of chamber music they founded 20 years ago in Sarasota.

Entrepreneurial, talented, cultured, the Rivoltas have brought an Old World Renaissance spirit to Sarasota. Piero has built boats and cars, and developed residential communities and office towers. He has written a book of poetry.

Yet his greatest legacy could be that he has passed on his wide-ranging interests — his love of the arts and a genius for design — to son Renzo, designer and builder of the Renzo line of jet- and propeller-driven motoryachts, and daughter Marella, who builds prototype cars.

The Rivolta family — working together under the rubric of The Rivolta Group — is busy carrying that legacy forward.

Piero’s wife Lele says life at the Rivolta house can be like life on the lip of a volcano, with all the creativity and new projects bubbling up and exploding. This day the family is hosting boating press and sales reps at their home while helping run the last week of the Las Musica extravaganza.

“I like to work. We all like to work,” Piero says. “We enjoy doing this.”

They enjoy the business of designing. They enjoy boats and the water — Piero used to race hydroplanes in Italy and has cruised widely on his sailboats. And they love music — Piero would reserve a box for the season for the family at Milan’s opera house when they lived in Italy.

“We need to have music around us,” Piero says.

And something to design and build.

Like the Rivolta family patriarch’s striking white mane and beard, Renzo Yachts’ finely styled hulls stand out in a crowd.

In their 4.0 series — the enclosed pilothouse Coupe, open-bridge PT Runner and latest model, the Express 4.0 — father and son have explored the traditional lines of a Maine lobsterboat, swept them back with sleek Italian styling and put them on a 38-foot hull designed by a Swedish naval architect, Hakan Sodergren, known for his rough-water power cruisers and sailboats.

The Express — introduced in mid-April — is an open-bridge model with a circular salon settee, and outside barbecue and sink for entertaining. Renzo says the boat seats eight to 10. Stylishly designed pipework replaces fiberglass columns to support the hardtop, accentuating the sleek lines. The boat has a full galley, master stateroom forward, and large head with shower. Like the other 4.0s, the Express has a 14-degree deadrise at the transom — and no skeg. The power plant is beefed up from twin 440-hp Yanmars to twin 480s, which should deliver up to 38 knots, he says. Hull sides and deck are polyvinyl chloride foam-cored, the bottom solid fiberglass. Interior wood is cherry, the cabin sole teak and holly, exterior trim teak.

Renzo, an architect by training, says his namesake yachts are designed to stand out as highly styled, tightly engineered and high performing — but still practical and reliable. The Rivoltas are weekender and cruising boats. They can run across a testy Gulf Stream, yet with waterjet drive their 18-inch draft is shallow enough to cruise even the shoal waters of Sarasota Bay.

The jet version has both a hydraulic joystick and redundant throttle and steering wheel. With bowthruster, the boat can turn on its axis. The boat carries a 362-gallon fuel tank and weighs in at a sturdy 20,000 pounds with 4 kW generator and refrigerator-freezer. It carries 137 gallons of water, and the salon has two double-hinged hatches, one over the starboard companionway and an identical one portside for more light and air below.

Renzo says one reason his dad segued out of automaking is that boatbuilding offers opportunities to do new things. “There’s still room to run and room to explore,” he says. That’s what they are doing with the 4.0s.

As the name suggests, the PT Runner looks sleek and mean, like an elegantly stylized PT boat, and it handles and performs “aggressively,” Renzo says. The Coupe’s pilothouse transforms those fast, tough lines into a more traditional Down East, or what Renzo calls a “retro” look.

Renzo plans to bring a 44-footer on line next year and is designing a 58- to 60-foot cabin cruiser with flybridge option. Rivolta Group also builds a 90-foot high-performance ocean sailer with a Sodergren hull — like Piero’s — for passagemaking. The sailboat’s mast, boom, hull and keel are carbon fiber. The Rivolta 90, as it’s known, has four suites, but it is designed so a crew of two can sail it, Piero says. It carries a 124-foot mast, a 14-ton keel adjustable to between 13 and 5.9 feet so Piero can get in and out of shallow Sarasota Bay, and four tons of water ballast. Under power of twin 315-hp Yanmars, the 90-foot sailboat can motor at 13 knots.

Piero sails it on the Gulf and has cruised it up the East Coast.

“I’m a fanatic sailor,” Piero says. He began to love the sea as a child on his father’s motoryachts, but his wife liked to sail. So to humor her, he decided to try it, he says. Accustomed to driving fast cars and boats, he didn’t think he could ever enjoy just being carried along by the wind.

“I fell in love with sailing,” he says. Piero sailed his Ciarelli-designed 63-footer across the Atlantic in 1980, and cruised the U.S. East Coast and Caribbean with his family. Shortly after that, they immigrated to the emerging boomtown of Sarasota, where they became U.S. citizens and built up the high-end real estate development business they started in Italy.

Piero’s father, also named Renzo, founded the Italian Iso-Rivolta company, which started out manufacturing the popular Isomoto motor scooter after World War II and went on to design the small, inexpensive Isetta “bubble car” — the Italian version of Germany’s post-war Volkswagen.

Unhappy with his own luxury car with its temperamental Italian-built high-performance engines, grandfather Rivolta put his engineers to work designing the Iso Rivolta GT, a high-performance luxury touring car mated to the reliability of a 340-hp Corvette powerplant. Renzo says that practical reliability remains a hallmark of Rivolta designs.

Piero, a mechanical engineer, took over the family business at age 24, introducing the S4/Fidia, one of the first performance family four-door touring sedans, the popular Grifo 7 Liter sports car and some Formula 1 racers.

Forced out of the company in 1972 by a hostile investor, Piero followed his passion and went cruising with his family on his sailboat, Rachele, and began to invest in real estate. Daughter Marella later re-entered the automobile business in Milan, where she and husband Andrea run Zagato, an auto prototyping company. Piero meanwhile developed beachfront condominiums, high-end communities and office buildings around Sarasota, and together with Renzo opened the boat company in 1998. Their first design was the Rivolta 90, the sailboat. Their focus now is on powerboat production.

Piero says he came to this country so he could spread his wings. “I’m a man of big vision,” he says, and in Europe he found it hard to take wing as an entrepreneur “because they discuss all the time.” Here he found a culture that rewards those who make things happen. He says he decided to settle in Sarasota because it’s on the water and west coast Florida’s cultural center.

“I wanted a place where I could sail my boat,” he says. He also wanted a place where he could enjoy concerts and ballet and the theater.

Ever the Renaissance man, Piero 20 years ago founded La Musica, which draws some of the world’s finest up-and-coming chamber music talents — cellist Bruno Giuranna and pianist Derek Han were recent guest performers — and ties in their performances with other arts like poetry, film, architecture and ballet. Renzo says he particularly liked the marrying of chamber music and jazz at one recent festival.

Always innovating, Rivolta Group is building a condo tower, Rivo at Ringling, which Renzo has designed so that each unit’s balcony faces out into a 10-story central atrium. The Rivoltas are introducing Italian-built electric-powered bicycles to Sarasota, and Piero has just finished a novel, “Alex and the Color of the Wind,” about a young man seeking to discover himself. He already has published a book of poetry, “Just One Scent, the Rest Is God.” Given a restless and inquiring spirit himself, he exhorts others to fulfill their spiritual yearnings. “In a dark room, you smell the scent of roses,” he says. For those who patiently seek the source, “God will turn on the lights.”

With all they have going on, father and son plan to expand the boat company from its current production of eight boats a year to 18 to 20. They employ 15 full-time workers and recently moved into a new 24,000-square-foot plant in Sarasota. Renzo says they want to stay small enough that they can continue to be semi-custom builders and enjoy personal relationships with their customers. Renzo and Piero say those relationships are part of the pleasure of doing business. The Rivoltas have a very full plate, but Piero — poet, philosopher, and entrepreneur — is undaunted.

“Enjoy the moment,” he says.