Palermo against mafia: are fears our strongest motivators?

Meltingsisters - Sicily's capital city palermo - a three-wheeled yellow lambretta on a side street

Exploration for me is understanding what drives local culture. So getting to know this city first means an understanding of Palermo fight against mafia. The anti-mafia campaigners use their tours to spearhead this fight. As such many places in the city today symbolise the war against Cosa Nostra. How are locals defying Sicilian godfathers today? What is the role of food businesses here?

This week, I saw the true-crime movie The Traitor by Marco Bellocchio. It tells the true life story of Tommaso Buscetta. He is the mafia boss who collaborates with judge Giovanni Falcone to bring Sicilian mafia down.

Back in the early seventies, the “Mafia’s power in Sicily was such that mob bosses would appoint the Palermo mayor; and sometimes even appointed themselves to that position… Reformers blamed the corruption and Mafia domination for the city’s degradation; And nothing symbolised that more than Teatro Massimo, which remained closed for the next 23 years.” 

The poorest country in Europe as a breeding ground

My exploration of Palermo takes me to its underbelly. Raw. Noisy. Wild. It is there that I get to to explore daily life. You can read the first chapter of this adventure here. That leads me to comprehend that this city requires an abandon of preconceptions. So i find myself wandering into the ancient maze of Albergheria. A tough and popular quarter. Streets here seem to condense into a cobweb of alleys. It is through this exploration that i get to look into the origins of local mafia.

The most fascinating fact is learning the role of food. Food and poverty nurtured the mafia. In the 19th century, middle men take control of farming and food production. That means transport; water; food production; prices. As a consumer, it means one will for instance pay 3-4 times the price of products. The mafia is then the only organisation that can set prices. 

In this war though, food businesses are the front line troops. Palermo against mafia. Food businesses work alongside non profit organisation such as Libera Terra. Members of the anti-mafia movement abide by one principle. They refuse to pay extortion money. In other words the Pizzo. Further they agree to systematically report any attempt for extortion to the police. 

In local Sicilian language, Pizzo means the bird’s beak. So this is a metaphor to the mafia dipping its beak everywhere. So Pizzo is the tax the mafia imposes to any business. It’s in short protection money. This means a business owner will have to dig deep in his pockets. The pizzo therefore varies from a few euros to thousands.

Palermo against mafia: evolving from mafia battlefield

Change is possible. In short pizzo free. It is the new attitude towards the mafia. In the same vein, Antica Focacceria San Francesco is an active front-line. This family-own eatery has been so for many years. It is also the oldest street food restaurant in Palermo. Above all the owner of the restaurant takes a stand in court. He goes all the way through as he testifies against a mafia member. Such extraordinary act of bravery. It is particularly strong because the restaurant is almost alone in making this stand at the beginning of the movement; And such a move meant that the protection money had to be settled in mainland Italy. 

The change here is the pragmatic attitude. That is the most important fact. In other words paying the pizzo is not convenient. So Palermo against mafia means there is an alternative to business. People can make a choice. And it’s this culture of belonging that goes hand in hand with the renewed pride in Sicilian culture. Locals are keen to reclaim their city. They are keen to renew with their past grandeur.

The scars of the mafia may never heal. However, the rise is incredible. Many historic squares are now pedestrianised. They were once used by the mafia as illegal car parks. For years the city was left to crumble. It had its back against the wall. Today though some of the true grit and character is flooding through.

You can follow the remaining of this Sicilian adventure here.

xoxo M. Let’s share our inspiration