Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > Flavors of the Mafia

Flavors of the Mafia

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mafiosi love restaurants. From New Jersey’s fictional Soprano’s to my own experiences across Italy and Sicily, it seems to be a law of Italian criminal nature.

Shady restaurants cum meeting places and other signs of the Omerta culture are more obvious the further south one travels in Italy, but, even in Venice, the Mafia del Brenta runs its drugs and other ‘services’ with near impunity from such bases.

In addition to the infamous Cosa Nostra mafia of Sicily, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, just across the Straits of Messina, and the Camorra of Campania, around Naples are the oldest and largest flavors. But, there are many more. The far south has dozens of competing mafia crime organizations, like the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia, just across the Adriatic from Albania, a boundless source for eager, low-cost thugs.

On one visit to Naples a few years ago, I’d read going in that more than thirty people had been murdered there in the past month, and that the Italian military had finally been sent in as a security gesture.

The violent death rate among crime soldiers and quasi-innocent civilians soon tapered off, but not for the reason you may think. One branch of the Camorra had finally beaten the others. For awhile. So, things went back to their historical modus vivendi where most everyone silently goes along to get along. Or, as in the Sicilian saying:

In Sicilia, fui non vedo, non sento, non parlo.

(Roughly: In Sicily, one does not see, hear or speak)

That said, for tourists like me and my bride, the result has been mostly great restaurants and safer travels than in most other countries.

But, there was this one time…

We’d spent a warm, early summer day exploring ruins. They were well-excavated ones of the great, ancient Greek colony city of Metaponto (or Metapontum, after the Romans took it) on the Gulf of Taranto. We’d been so engrossed and fascinated that time had gotten away from us, and also from our stomachs. As our animated talk about the day’s delights began to taper off on the way home, our rented Lancia echoed with the realization of just how hungry we were. Really, really hungry.

It was late afternoon, and we decided to stop at a handy restaurant that we’d passed over quite a few times going to and from our place. We felt a bit ill at ease because we weren’t dressed as well as we normally would be to dine out: khaki shorts and shirts, plus soft boots for crawling around on “old piles of rocks” (as two of our British friends so kindly put it with a smirk). But, hunger convinced us not to shower and change before our meal. Which led to an interesting encounter.

The restaurant was empty except for a big man sitting at a table about 20 feet from the door and nine or ten other Italian guys at a long table in the far corner off to our left. I subliminally registered this as a bit unusual because there was a big, round table in the center of the large room that was pleasantly lit by a skylight, with hanging plants all around. But, it was only a vague nudge and ignored by my tired brain.

As we stood for a moment, deciding where we’d like to sit, the manager walked quickly over from the group of men and guided us to a small table against the front wall and about ten feet from the door. It was definitely not one we would have picked, but, being so tired and famished, we didn’t think much of it at the moment. Some waiter-convenience thing, we supposed.

But, it took awhile for said waiter to arrive, which is not at all normal for a restaurant in the region, most of whom are effusively hospitable at all hours. Apparently, the customers already there were consuming a lot of the man’s attention. But, after a few minutes sipping our ‘no gas’ water, he did show up to drop off some bread, oil and vinegar and take our order.

When we were seated, my wife and I generated a new flurry of talk about how eager we were to eat. Then, there were urgent trips to the porcelain facilities. Then, the waiter arrived. After awhile, though, we’d slowed down and settled in enough to consider our surroundings. And the situation began to dawn on me.

A zillion years and five or six wars ago, in another life, I was a young Marine ground-pounder. One of the things the Corps (pronounced ‘core’, not ‘corpse’) does very well is small-unit tactics. And, it instills that understanding through pattern-recognition. The idea is that if you see and feel an apparently chaotic set of circumstances often enough, the patterns of terrain, situation, advantage and liability begin to jump out at you. And, after awhile—a longer while for some than others, yours truly for example—you can’t not see a useful pattern there.

About a quarter of the way into our meal, the pattern of the terrain and situation around us managed to crawl up through the fatigue and land plop in the middle of our vacation fun.

The tall, burley, 40-something man with short hair, who was seated 20 feet back from the door was also facing it. On this hot day, he wore a sport coat over his open-collared white shirt, had his cell phone out and barely touched his food or wine—things he obviously touched often in other circumstances. Every five minutes, precisely, he picked up his phone and speed-dialed a very brief call. Then, he shifted his shoulders around a bit to get comfortable and went back to watching the door.

The group of guys seated in the corner, also in shirts and sport coats, except one who also wore a tie, ranged from their 20s to perhaps 60. The sound from their table was unusually sporadic but too far away to make out words at the peaks. Normally, a group of guys is either on the boisterous or quiet side and stays there. Buddies can be boistrous, business guys are generally quiet.

Also, the wall of curtained windows behind us and running across the entire front of the restaurant ended about eight feet before their table began. In fact, both corner walls around them were solid concrete block from floor to high-ceiling.

My bride loves leisurely Italian dining, slowly sipping her wine and basking in the delicious tastes, comfortable ambiance and enticing aromas. She was not agreeable when I said that we had to finish our meal fast and leave. Not at all agreeable. Especially in light of our refreshment-free exertions in the Mediterranean summer sun over the past six hours.

So, I explained.

The man in front of the door was on watch. He had two jobs. First, if all was well, he called a nearby back-up crew to let them know. No call every five minutes, and they would show up, fast and hard. Second, if some ‘business competitors’ (as in, “It’s nuttin’ personal, it’s just bizness”) came through the door with unpleasant thoughts and some hard rain, the big man’s last job ever would be to buy enough time for his boss and co-workers to draw weapons and turn their thick wooden tables into barricades. If he lasted long enough, they might also get in some good flanking fire to whittle down the odds.

The manager had seated us where we were to die fast if things went wrong. This was ‘nuttin’ personal’, but because we were Americans and didn’t subscribe to Omerta. If we lived, we would be inconvenient witnesses. Whereas, a local survivor would be sure never to have seen or heard anything and thus would have been seated out of the likely line of fire.

After my soto voice explanation, delivered with a fake smile and casual gestures, my bride stared at me for 15 seconds or so. Then, without comment, she put down her fork and half-finished glass of wine, tossed her napkin on the table and picked up her purse, motioning me to lead the way to our car. I laid more than enough Euros next to my plate, and we left. Thankfully, we’d long-since agreed that ‘Ladies First’ was an excellent rule—except in an active threat environment.

It’s nice to have a bride who will trust your judgment on a few important things, as she has in Istanbul and Vienna, among other places, and despite what might be considered an error or two on my part in London and Amsterdam. But not Rome … really. That was just a coincidence.

She’s an absolute treasure!

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  1. November 14, 2011 at 7:37 am

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