Italian food: now mafia free!

PALERMO, Italy — Wine, olive oil, pasta, tomato sauce: For such products, the Sicilian sun is itself a guarantee of quality. But those who market such delicacies under the label Libera Terra say their products come with a bonus — the “taste of freedom.”

“From lands freed from the Mafia,” reads the light blue pack of penne rigate pasta on display among dozens of other products in a dedicated shop in Via dei Prefetti 23, in the heart of Rome. To understand that label, travel 250 miles as the crow flies south, to Sicily.

A short ride from Palermo a group of young people cultivate about 490 acres of land once owned by some of the most ruthless Mafia bosses. They belong to an umbrella organization called Libera and are led by Don Luigi Ciotti, a priest who has dedicated his life to the fight against organized crime in southern Italy. In 1995, Libera collected 1 million signatures to prompt the Italian parliament to pass a law allowing properties confiscated from convicted mobsters to be used for “socially useful purposes.”

With that legal guarantee, in 2001 the 12 partners of the Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto set up their business only a few miles from the infamous town of Corleone — in the heartland of Cosa Nostra, where street signs are riddled with bullet holes.

“When we first started, nobody from the towns nearby wanted to come and thresh our wheat,” said the cooperative's vice chairwoman Francesca Massimino. “Cultivating seized land was something unprecedented, and people didn’t want to be seen as working for us. Eventually, military police had to look up a local contractor and literally force him to come here with his threshing machine to do the job.”

The cooperative’s most successful product is a wine label, “Centopassi” (“One hundred steps”), named after the film about a Sicilian journalist killed by the Mafia. But the cooperative grows a diverse group of crops, including wheat, melons and lentils. It is one of five co-ops that sell goods under the Libera Terra ("free land") label, including two others in Sicily, one in Puglia and one in Calabria. The final products are sold nationwide through fair trade and organic food chains, cooperative supermarkets and three dedicated shops: in Rome, Naples and, since March 12, 2009, in Palermo.

“In the early days, our customers would buy a pack of pasta knowing that perhaps it wasn’t top quality, but they still wanted to help,” said Francesco Galante, spokesman for the cooperative. “Now we have reached a stage where all the Libera Terra cooperatives market excellent products: Our aim is to secure a faithful clientele which will stick to our products because of their quality.”

Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto also operates an 18th-century vacation rental farmhouse that once belonged to the family of Giovanni Brusca, a ruthless Mafia boss from the nearby village of San Giuseppe Jato. Brusca, who is now in jail, claimed responsibility for between 100 and 200 murders — he himself was not sure of the number.

Brusca, nicknamed “the pig” (u verru, in Sicilian dialect), is best known for one of the most obnoxious crimes ever committed by the Mafia: the 1993 kidnapping and murder of a 13-year-old child, Giuseppe di Matteo, the son of a former mobster turned state informant. The teenager was held prisoner for 779 days before eventually being strangled. His body was dissolved in nitric acid to hide the evidence. That chilling event jolted Italians' consciences and marked a turning point. How could such a vile child-murderer call himself a “man of honor”?

Organized crime in Sicily has definitely lost ground over the last 15 years. No proper “boss of bosses” has yet replaced Bernardo Provenzano, who was captured in 2006, and a series of successful police operations throughout 2008 culminated in the arrest of about a hundred mafiosi last December. To add insult to injury, the Neapolitan Camorra has surpassed Cosa Nostra and is now by far the most powerful and feared mob organization in Italy.

Although the initial acts of retaliation against Cooperativa Placido Rizzotto — such as the theft of a tractor that used to belong to former “boss of bosses” Toto Riina and the arson of several crops — seem to have ended, its members cannot afford to be completely carefree and relaxed at work.

“Denying that there is some degree of fear would not be right,” said Galante, after a pause. “Our people go to work in the fields at five o’clock in the morning: they are alone, isolated, and they know all too well who used to own that land.”

For a high-ranking mafioso, having his property confiscated is worse than being deprived of his personal freedom, Galante explained. In fact, spending a term in jail can even be a source of prestige, something to brag about, while the seizure of property is the worst possible scenario. And when local people begin to work on those fields and earn “clean” money, that is an indisputable sign that his feudal power has reached an end.

But the real revolution is in attitudes. A new generation of Sicilians has finally decided to fight those traditions that are the Mafia’s lifeblood, and break the code of silence, known as omerta. About 400 businesses in Palermo have joined an organization, “Addio Pizzo,” set up in 2004, whose members refuse to pay protection money.

At the inauguration in November 2008 of the “Garden of memory,” a visitors’ center in and around the farm where di Matteo was held captive before being strangled, Don Luigi Ciotti said: “I will never forget what I saw when I first came here: There were toys and small bicycles strewn all over the place.

“While Giuseppe di Matteo’s life was coming to an end just a few meters away, his jailers were allowing their own children to play outside in the garden. People should make a pilgrimage to these places to understand what mafia really stands for, and how far its thirst for power and money, and it despise for human life can reach.”

With the Libera Terra cooperatives earning a joint turnover of $3 million, there is growing evidence that Italians want to avoid the mob and its ways.