The America's Cup has recently been blessed with four Italian challenges. All brought style and flair, colorful clothes and elegant parties. Key figures in the 1980s were Gianni Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, and the Aga Khan, who was so concerned about what his sailors ate he brought his own restaurant all the way to West Australia.

The Il Moro di Venezia campaign made it to the final Cup match in 1992. Businessman Raul Gardini spent an estimated $100 million on five new boats and hired American Paul Cayard to steer. But Il Moro still came up short, losing 4-1 to rival multimillionaire Bill Koch's America{+3}.

Now comes the latest Italian Cup entry, Prada, to the 30th Cup challenge. From early appearances, it may be more competitive than even Gardini's. Prada is the only undefeated entry from the first round of challenger trials and heads to the second round as the team to beat.

Prada falls into a grand Cup tradition as the project of a very rich man, Patrizio Bertelli, 53, who with his wife, Miuccia Prada, owns and runs the globally successful Milan fashion house of the same name. Like Harold Vanderbilt, Sir Thomas Lipton, Baron Marcel Bich, Ted Turner and other Cup notables, Bertelli is tossing big money--his own--at the quest for yachting's crown jewel.

How much will he spend to take the silver ewer back to the Mediterranean? Official estimates put Prada's budget at $50 million, but the correct answer seems to be whatever it takes.

Bertelli leaped into the Cup 2 1/2 years ago when Argentine yacht designer German Frers brought up the idea of a campaign during discussions about a 105-foot cruising yacht Frers was drawing for him. Bertelli, who enthusiastically raced smaller boats in the 1970s in Europe before his business went cosmic, snapped up the challenge.

"The first I heard of it was at the Dusseldorf boat show in January of 1997," said Californian Doug Peterson, co-designer with Frers of Prada's two sleek silver Cup boats. "Frers told me, 'There might be an Italian challenge. A guy has come out of the woodwork.' The drop-dead date [to file] was February 28. We had a month to get everything organized."

Frers and Bertelli wanted Peterson on the team because he was a key member of the group that had designed the previous two Cup winners, America{+3} in 1992 and Team New Zealand's Black Magic in 1995.

"The whole thing came together. Bang! We started like that," Peterson said. "We got going late but it was full steam from that point on. We were fully funded from the start."

In that respect, Prada has a big edge on most rivals, including all five U.S. entries, which have scratched and clawed from the beginning and continue to scratch and claw to reach more modest budget goals of $20 million to $30 million.

The first thing Prada did was buy Koch's assets, America{+3} and two of its stablemates, and begin crew training in Italy.

Prada was the first team to have two new boats in the water, up and running in the Mediterranean last spring. It has a spotless compound here in the prime spot at the outside end of the Viaduct Basin, where all Cup boats tie up nightly. It has a pin-neat fleet of fast support boats and from all appearances, lacks for nothing inside, though it's hard to say since Prada invites almost no one in for tours.

With only one boss to serve, Prada ducks the obligations other teams endure to satisfy their corporate sponsors or wealthy private backers. There are no T-shirt and baseball cap stands shilling knickknacks to tourists. It's all business, and no unnecessary parties.

"This campaign was born for the love and passion of the sailing challenge," said general manager Aldo Tomasina. "We stay close to that. We're not here to push our brand or amuse clients. We have only one guy to please. Decisions are quick and the focus is all on the sport."

Bertelli is a bit of a shadowy figure when he's here, not easy to chat up and famous for abruptness. He speaks no English or French, only Italian. "He comes from Tuscany," said Tomasina with a chuckle. "People from there are very instinctive and direct. They never go around things, they go straight. But you always have a clear indication what's in his mind."

After Prada barely beat top U.S. entries AmericaOne and Young America in their first-round pairings, a rumor made the rounds that Bertelli had harangued the team at a meeting and demanded a faster boat. True?

"I don't know," said Tomasina, a twinkle in his eye. "It could be."

Peterson, the designer, said Bertelli makes all the key decisions himself and "is fundamental to our success." He's notoriously detail-oriented. "That is his way of doing things," said Tomasina. "It's amazing how much he knows. If he came here now," said the general manager, sweeping a hand around Prada's stylish team cafe, where the espresso machine steamed away, "he could tell you how many dishes were in the back room."

Bertelli was running his own leather goods factory in Arezzo when he met and married Miuccia Prada in 1978. She ran the family shop in Milan, famous since 1913 for upscale leather luggage and handbags. Together, they expanded Prada into one of the premier fashion houses in the world, with skyrocketing profits.

"The company is so big now," said team spokeswoman Alessandra Ghezzi, "a lot of people might have changed habits. But they still live in the same house in Milan, and he has his house in Arezzo. They have two young kids and lead a pretty normal life."

Of course, there's nothing normal about an America's Cup campaign. As newcomers to the game, Bertelli's team has its work cut out.

The likelihood he or anyone else will come up with a vastly faster boat than the competition, as happened in 1992 and 1995, seems slim. "This is the third edition of these boats," said Tomasina of the International America's Cup Class racers, which debuted in the Cup in 1992. "Over the years, they get closer" in performance. "It becomes a question of fine-tuning."

Bertelli's skipper, Francesco de Angelis, is a newcomer to the Cup, as is tactician Torben Grael, a three-time Olympic medalist who won the gold medal in 1996 in the Star class. Tomasina reckons de Angelis, 39, a former J-24 world champion and veteran big-boat skipper, brings a knack for fine-tuning.

The rule of thumb used to be that no one won the Cup on his first try. But Koch broke the mold in 1992, tossing millions at the problem as a novice and walking away with the prize.

Can Bertelli do the same? "This has been a nice round robin for us," said Tomasina, "but we expect a lot of improvement from the other teams. We will see."

CAPTION: Prada, out in front after one round, is backed by Italian businessman Patrizio Bertelli. "We have only one guy to please," says his GM of no-nonsense campaign.