Travel: Sicily tries to break mafia connections

Cefalu harbour
Cefalu harbour

Sicily may be famed for its Mafia connections, but Hannah Stephenson discovers a family-friendly island trying to break free of its past

I meet my guide Erme Riccobono at the entrance to the Teatro Massimo, the majestic Palermo opera house where the last scene of The Godfather Part III was shot nearly 25 years ago.

The Italian holiday island of Sicily may have been ruled by the Mafia for decades, but things are changing as locals increasingly refuse to pay pizzo (protection money), while anti-Mafia organisations show visitors how to see this sun-kissed hotspot without filling the coffers of the mob.

Erme is a guide for one such organisation, Addiopizzo - which literally means ‘Goodbye Pizzo’ - set up by a group of student friends 10 years ago in the capital, Palermo, who met in secret to discuss how they might loosen the Cosa Nostra stronghold and open their own businesses without paying pizzo.

They put up posters anonymously throughout the city and then secretly collected signatures from consumers who wanted to support shopkeepers who were refusing to pay pizzo.

We weave our way through the narrow streets to find a mixture of splendour and squalor, where historic monuments rub shoulders with darker, seedier-looking streets housing an eclectic mix of outlets.

These range from high class patisseries selling cassata siciliana - the sickly sweet gateau filled with ricotta cream and decorated with candied fruit and martorana (‘fruit’ made out of marzipan) - to tacky souvenir shops selling sinister memorabilia, a black-humoured nod to the Mafia.

T-shirts imprinted with Marlon Brando’s face along with the film’s memorable logo and puppet string imagery grace the entrance to several souvenir shops.

“This is the sort of thing we want to discourage,” says Erme.

He leads me to a more charming square, home to Antica Focacceria San Francesco, an Addiopizzo member, its membership sticker boldly emblazoned on its door.

The restaurant is famous in Palermo for its upmarket street food and I tuck into delicious arancini - rice balls filled with meat and peas - while others nibble on panelle (chickpea fritters), or enjoy a vegetarian staple of caponata (a stew of aubergines, onions and olives).

Away from the glory and the grime of the capital is a much calmer, more serene setting in Lascari, a little village in the hills about 20 minutes’ drive from the popular seaside town of Cefalu in the north of the island, where we are based in a beautiful luxury villa, which boasts a magnificent view of the coast.

With the luxury of a car, you can visit plenty of ancient sites, from the Roman ruins at Enna to the castles and cathedrals further afield, not to mention the volcano, but it’s a large island and we’re too far from the famous Mount Etna for a day trip.

Cefalu is a pretty coastal town, the north-west coast’s rival to Taormina, where seafront cafes serving delicious pizzas oozing with cheese and tomatoes are just a short stroll away from the pretty old town, with its cobbled streets, trinket shops, bijou restaurants and buzzing town square and cathedral.

Arriving back at our hillside villa, it’s difficult to believe the island still harbours such a strong Mafia influence - but with responsible tourism and a new generation, we may eventually see a Sicily that prefers to make its own choices and says Addio to the mob.