One Gladiator's Dolce Vita

If you happened to see a Roman gladiator hitchhiking on Highway 14 between Lancaster and Los Angeles late last year, it wasn't a mirage. Luca Zanna of Monrovia-- a.k.a. "Spartacus"--was living out his fantasies once again.

Since immigrating to America from Italy in 1998, Zanna, 33, has channeled a childhood obsession into one Spartacus venture after another: a cable-access cooking show in which Spartacus chopped pasta with a sword on Monrovia's KGEM, home-cooking demos, and an audio Webcast featuring Italian music, recipes and travel tips. "Maybe I was a little strange as a kid," says the Rome native, who grew up in Nero's hometown of Anzio and made his first wooden sword at age 10.

As Zanna tells it, his Spartacus was born in Italy after a music magazine venture collapsed. Broke, Zanna moved into a van and spent his remaining lira on a gladiator get-up, which he wore to hustle photo-ops with tourists at $5 a pop in Rome. "It was this gypsy fantasy land," he says. He gathered recruits to train with Elio Bonadonna, famed fight choreographer for numerous 1950s-'60s sword-and-sandal epics filmed around the Eternal City; Zanna and crew later produced elaborate gladiator shows at the Rome Hilton. He says he headed for America after his application to build a gladiator school and stadium outside Rome was rejected by city officials, who feared associations with Mussolini's pomp-laden fascism.

The hitchhiking episode was an early test run for Zanna's latest Spartacus adventure, a self-produced video reality show titled "Spartacus on the Roads of America." Its creator envisions the still-in-the-works project as part "Candid Camera," part travelogue, filtered through the eyes of his warrior-slave alter ego. "I don't fight anymore," says Zanna, who subsidizes Spartacus by selling online sound effects. "I am only an interviewer." His sword, he notes, conceals a microphone.

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