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Cannoli and killers: a new book connects Cosa Nostra power with the seduction of Sicilian cuisine


An Italian restaurant in Warsaw (Tulio Bertorini via flickr)

Francesco La Licata

ROME - At the table, any conflict can be smoothed out, peace made, war declared, business done, oaths sealed, alliances forged. At the table, in short, we take and we leave — often in a violent manner. The Sicilians know this well. To them, the kitchen is more effective than any formal setting for business or diplomacy. Politics, the Mafia, big business, history-making decisions: always drawn within the frame of rich mythological aromas, unforgettable scents, at tables that are set with endless menus.

Cosa Nostra, politics and big business are like the courses of the same meal: a combination that is not accidental for the authors of "Culinary Tale" (The Mafia at the Table), written by Jacques Kermoal, a journalist and Italian expert, and Martine Bartolomei, a food writer for Le Figaro and curator of the 55 Sicilian recipes chosen to bind together the book's ten distinct Mafia tales.

The book connects everything from the solitary meals of chicory and ricotta eaten on the lam by fugitive Sicilian boss of bosses Bernardo Provenzano, all the way to high-end "Calabrian lunches' in Milan. Take the banquet held in 1862 — Messina cod and swordfish — to crown Italian liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi. It proved to be a tough meal to swallow for some, as the authors note, because Garibaldi, while initially thinking of giving Sicily to King Victor Emmanuel, had just handed it to the Mafia instead. "The food was excellent, however, the stew hens stuffed with truffles and roast leg of venison."

There was also the gelato, which ended the lunch of Don Vito Cascioferro, guest of the Corleone Mafia boss and member of Parliament De Michele Ferrantelli. Don Vito, as recounted in the book, "buries his spoon into the gelato" just eleven minutes after killing Joe Petrosino a New York City Cop who in 1909 came to Palermo to destroy the "Black Hand" of Cascioferro. Needless to say, the Honorable Ferrantelli served as Cascioferro's alibi.

Great guests, these mobsters. But possibly a little too celebrated with some rhetorical inventions employed by the authors. Take Lucky Luciano or Don Calò Vizzini, or even Giuseppe Genco Russo, depicted at their dinner table with journalists, prosecutors or even Roman Catholic Cardinals, as in the case of Don Calò who was invited to lunch by the Archbishop of Palermo, Ernesto Ruffini, the most powerful Vatican representative in Sicily. It was 1948 on the cusp of the first elections in the era of the Republic. While the "pork boiled" and the rolls of beef with artichokes were washed down with dry Malvasia Albanello, Ruffini assured Calo he would "arrange" for the election of the Christian Democrats to stem the Communist threat.

The book is a dance of prominent names, but sometimes suffers from the factual shortcomings of the oral tradition. We are talking about Mussolini, Roosevelt, Garibaldi and Cavour. Still, you can almost picture General Dalla Chiesa grappling with the "Tuna alla Siricusana," while a prosecutor warns him about the dangers of the Mafia in Catania and their Kalashnikovs. The Mafia of this tale is vivid, quasi-aristocratic. But could it really have been like this?

Of course, we have been conditioned to believe the Hollywood portrayal of this story, Peter Clemenza in the movie "The Godfather" monitoring the pasta sauce as it boils, shortly after delivering the famous line: "Leave the gun, Take the cannoli." Just as realistic, we can now add the macabre final meal of Saro Riccobono, a sworn enemy of Toto Riina, who was ultimately destroyed by his appetite. After gorging himself on lunch, Riccobono dozes off under a tree to wake up to find a noose fastened around his neck. He can see the rabid face of his killer, who whispers, "Saro, this is where your story ends." Stuff that scene in your cannoli, and call it a wrap.

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