Matters of taste

Fighting the mafia through food
January 25, 2012
Volunteers at Libera Terra’s Centopassi winemaking co-operative in Sicily

The Sicilian village of San Giuseppe Jato does not look like a war zone. It dozes in the hills above Palermo, amid dusty olive groves and rolling fields of wheat. On long afternoons the local carabinieri leave the caretakers in charge of the police station and the dogs in charge of the empty streets.

This is mafia country, although mob violence is rare. Yet San Giuseppe Jato is also the headquarters of Libera Terra, an agricultural organisation at the vanguard of Italy’s anti-mafia movement. Many of the area’s crops and vineyards are Libera’s. Its packets of pasta are labelled “mafia-free”; each of its wines bears the name of a mob victim.

As you might expect, the choice of location caused friction. “The first year we tried to harvest the vines our fields were burned and our tractors stolen,” one Libera activist told me. Yet the organisation had to set up here; every acre it farms is confiscated mafia land, handed over by the state. The site of Libera’s Centopassi winemaking co-operative belonged to the mob boss Giovanni “the Swine” Brusca, until his 1997 conviction for murdering a judge. Libera volunteers have turned the nearby villa of the jailed Toto Riina, “the boss of bosses,” into an eco-tourist bed and breakfast.

The anti-mafia food revolution hasn’t happened overnight. Libera Terra was founded in 1995 by priest Don Luigi Ciotti. The organisation helped sponsor a law, passed in 1996, under which property seized from the mafia is distributed to local communities to promote social growth and development. Despite co-operatives in Campania, Calabria and Puglia, Libera manages less than half of the confiscated land. But in Italy, the anti-mafia label shares the same cachet as organic, fair trade or GM-free food. In the last financial year, Libera’s turnover was €4m and a handful of small shops in Britain now stock its produce.

In a café in Palermo, I met Edoardo Zaffuto, co-founder of another anti-mafia collective, Addiopizzo. Zaffuto protects restaurants, bars and other businesses from pizzo collection (protection money). “Some people still think you can find a compromise with the mafia. There’s a feeling it would be un-Sicilian to abolish them,” he said, lamenting how many businesses were still in the mob’s pocket.

You don’t have to look far to see evidence. In the run-down neighbourhood of Vucciria, most shops have given up trading (locals say all businesses must have mob approval) and there are several burned-out buildings. Rubbish covers the streets, waste disposal being one of the mafia’s main businesses. Men offer to look after your car—protection for a threat that they alone pose. But nearby is the restaurant Il Mirto e La Rosa, one of the first places to say “no” to the mob. On its door is an Addiopizzo sticker, looking a little worn, stuck up as you might a “No Milk Today” sign.

Il Mirto serves some of the finest food in the city: bright-skinned sardines with pine nuts and sultanas, confit baby artichokes on a bed of couscous so deftly cooked that every grain stands alone. The problem was never getting people through the doors; it was keeping a certain type out.

“The first month we opened,” says Aldo Penna, the owner, “I kept thinking, ‘Today they will come.’ If a man with sunglasses came in we got anxious. My brother used to ask all the guests what they did.”

The new activism is not simply a gesture: it is a defence against the mafia’s intrusion into the food industry. In the last decade the country has been hit by scandals as the mafia capitalises on one of the world’s most popular cuisines. Food has become big business for the mob, with unpalatable, even dangerous results.

In Naples, home of the Camorra mob, police estimate that there are 2,000 illegal bakeries using expired flour and ovens that emit toxic fumes, illicit cheese factories using powdered milk from Bolivia, and importers passing off pesticide-laden apples from Moldova and E coli-infested Moroccan salt. In 2010, the newspaper Il Giornale reported a mafia scam of using old coffins to fire the city’s pizza ovens.

In 2008, the Italian government withdrew from sale buffalo mozzarella from 25 different producers in Campania after the cheese was found to contain traces of carcinogenic dioxins. Health officials blamed the scare on the illegal dumping of medical and industrial refuse by mafia clans in rural sites across the region.

Yet at the same time, food is almost inseparable from the mafia’s image. You can buy mafia-themed wine, pizzas and herb mixes in any Italian town. “It sells better if it says ‘mafia’ on it,” one trader in Palermo’s oldest market told me.

It is a recurrent theme in mob lore, real and fictional: the instruction to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” in The Godfather, the restaurant scene in every gangster film. “Mobsters love to eat,” Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi wrote in the introduction to The Mafia Cookbook. “They eat while planning crimes and they eat after committing crimes, and when there are no crimes, they eat while waiting for them to happen.” Iannuzzi, a New York mafioso who turned federal witness in the 1980s, described a world in which the appetite for food is inextricable from the hunger for money, power or violence. He is not even the only former mobster to write a cookbook. Henry Hill, who inspired the film Goodfellas, has his own Wiseguy Cookbook, in which the home cook can learn to prepare “Oven Penitentiary Sauce with Sausage.” Scores of gangland murders are committed in restaurants, where guns are holstered and guards are dropped. Investigators claim they caught one godfather when a clan member was spotted buying the boss’s favourite fish, blue-spotted bream.

To promote mafia-free eating is to attack the mob’s identity as well as its income. Anti-mafia labels are spreading across Italy, and one might wish that they flourish. Yet, as restaurateur Aldo Penna says, the real hope must be that one day the phones of Addiopizzo will be silent and Libera won’t have to tout its mafia-free credentials. The movement’s greatest success would be to make itself obsolete.