The Mob Used to Run This Place. Now Pasta’s in Charge.

In Sicily, new life for land once ruled by the Mafia

By Adam Sachs

Published on September 22, 2017

In a gift shop at the Palermo airport, they sell a bag of fusilli that looks like fusilli. The package makes the standard promises of pasta purity. The wheat: organic durum semolina. The water: calcium-free. All of it smooshed through a bronze die and slow-dried between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius for exactly 42 hours. But then there’s a word that catches your attention, because this is Sicily and because it’s not something you expect to see advertised on the side of a bag of earnest fusilli: mafia.

This is the handiwork of Libera Terra (“Freed Lands”), a consortium of agronomists, activists, organic farmers, and producers in the south of Italy who make and distribute food grown on land the government has seized from the Mafia.

In 1996, Italy passed landmark law 109/96 allowing for the confiscation of assets owned by the Mafia. Land, often abandoned for years or poorly farmed, could be turned over to organizations like Libera Terra for socially constructive uses. Don Luigi Ciotti, the crusading anti-Mafia priest who founded Libera, has called it “a pasta that has the flavor of freedom…that comes to the tables of Italians to awaken consciences.” So, yes, this is fusilli, local and organic and all those nice things. But it’s also the tool of a movement against intimidation, an artisanally extruded counterpunch against corruption, a noodle in the eye of organized crime.

San Giuseppe Jato, where the cooperative is headquartered, is a sleepy, sunburnt little town set among pretty rolling hills and sloped vineyards, 20 miles southwest of Palermo.

“In this village there is a very strong presence of Mafia,” says Pietro D’Aleo, Libera Terra’s soft-spoken marketing manager. Road signs point to Corleone, the mafioso town once nicknamed “The Tombstone” that gave its name to the fictional crime family in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. A nearby estate that belonged to the judge-killing Giovanni Brusca (known alternatively as “Il Porco” and “The People-Slayer”) is now in the possession of Libera. They bottle organic wine from re­habilitated vines and operate the villa as an agriturismo.

“We are strong now and supported by local communities because we are accomplishing our mission,” D’Aleo says. “We are stimulating the economy here and putting people to work.” From the office’s small terrace, he can see a couple of hillside plots worked by Libera Terra teams. He says they’ve had little trouble with the Mafia trying to take back control. In the beginning, military police were dispatched to protect farmers, but there hasn’t been a major incident in some time. “Sometimes a vehicle is stolen or there are some fires,” D’Aleo says, coolly. “But we never really know if it’s a way to attack us or just a theft. We don’t know if the fires are set on purpose or accidents.”

D’Aleo and his colleagues are politely reluctant to have their pictures taken, but this seems to come more from a philosophy of communal responsibility than a fear of retribution. “The door is always open,” he says. “We are not heroes. The daily work is more or less that of a private company. The main difference is there is no profit at the end, but everyone here knows that we have a noble objective. An important share of our consumers buy our products because they know this is a way to support an idea, to support legality.”

But, he says, the goal is to establish a brand that’s more than just a “good deed” buy. “We want to convince people to buy from us not just because our products come from land confiscated from Mafia but because above all they are good products at a fair price.” He talks about the production facility where Libera Terra–harvested wheat will be sent to become fusilli, paccheri, and a dozen other shapes—a solar-powered eco-friendly new pasta factory, with a school for the workers’ kids and a pasta museum in the works. Better pasta, as they see it, can improve the lives of farmers, factory workers, and consumers alike. Resistance is a dish best served al dente.

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