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The Pizza Connection

  • Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. It was their assassinations that fueled the anti-Mafia movement that led to the founding of Libera Terra.

Hidden Kitchens Story #1: The Pizza Connection—Fighting the Mafia Through Food

“The organic produce we grow from this land is a slap in the face of Mafia bosses.  It’s the victory over crime.”

Over recent decades the effort to bring the Mafia under control in Sicily has spilled over into the world of food. Today, a movement of small agricultural cooperatives has sprung up across the island to farm confiscated Mafia land and bring their goods to a global market.  Under the banner of Libera Terra, the group produces organic olive oil, wine and pasta and provides Mafia-free jobs in a country with staggering unemployment, deep-seated corruption and a rich kitchen tradition.

“It’s very difficult to buy something to eat here in Sicily and be sure that it has nothing to do with the Mafia,” says Gabrielle Mastrilli who has returned to Sicily to work with the cooperatives. “When you eat food that has the Libera Terra label you are sure that product and the worker they don’t have nothing to do with the Mafia.” 

Like over 70% of the men of the island Gabrielle left to find work, Mafia-free work, which had been nearly impossible to find before Libera Terra. “A lot of people have been fighting for agricultural reform across the decades were killed by The Mafia,” he tells us. “One of them was my grandfather.”

Don Luigi Ciotti, an Italian priest, is one of the founders of Libera Terra. He saw the grip the Mafia had on his country— the drug operations, the prostitution rings, the hold on the most fertile of agricultural lands, and began to organize a movement to fight back through education, employment and agriculture.  

“What we grow from these lands can now be found in Italian markets,” says Don Ciotti. “Pasta, olive oil, mozzarella di bufalo, an Italian specialty produced in dairy businesses that were confiscated from the Mafia.”

“To be organic is a form of respect… To take poisons, symbolic and real, from the soil itself.”

Francesco Galante, tall, soft-spoken, intense, drives us up steep roads an hour or so from Palermo to the Libera Terra vineyards that stretch up the windswept mountainside. They are some of the most fertile and beautiful fields around Corleone and San Giuseppe Jato.

“This is all part of confiscated property of Bernardo Brusca, Mafia boss of San Guiseppe Jato until he was put in jail,” says Francesco as we walk the rocky, vertical vineyard. “We are organic certified. To be organic was a form of respect. The idea is being kind to the soil itself.  To start anew. To take poisons, symbolic and real, from the soil itself.”

Francesco says that Libera Terra wants to make products people buy not just for their story but for their quality. They want to provide workers with fair wages and respect, improve the high unemployment rate in Sicily, especially among youth, and undo decades worth of systemic corruption.

“In our wine you can smell the sea and the mountains,” says Angelo Scortino, winemaker for the Placido Rizotto Cooperative where 40 people now work in the winery and vineyards.  “We don’t use a lot of machines in our production. We try to use as many people as possible. We still use the hands. Our goal is to give work.”

Ten years ago when Placido Rizotto Cooperative started few people wanted to work for them. They were scared.

“The Mafia, they burned the field here just before the harvesting of the grain,” says Angelo. “Three years ago when we collect olives for the first time we had police around us all the time, with guns. Then last year Mafia burned our olive trees.  We don’t want to have guns.  We don’t want police.  We have to show to the people that to work with Libera it’s a good thing.”

“The Pizza Connection”

“The Mafia is like a snake. It’s very difficult to catch,” says Gabriele Mastrilli as he drives us to the town of Cinisi, about 45 minutes from Palermo. We are going to the former home of Pepino Impastato who fought against the Mafia and was killed by the Mafia, and whose own father was in the Mafia and was killed by the Mafia.

The Mafia built the airport here to control the drug traffic between Palermo and the United States. “It was called ‘The Pizza Connection,’ says Gabriele, “because they used to transport the heroin inside the tomato cans to the United States for the pizzeria.”

European narcotic distribution had been centered in Marseilles with French chemists transforming morphine base into heroin, and shipping it from there, a situation that became known as “The French Connection.”   

“In the early 1970’s that connection was broken and narcotic distribution was taken over by Mafiosi,”  explains Peter Schneider, retired Sociology and Anthropology Professor at Fordham University, who with his wife, Jane Schneider has studied the Mafia and community in Sicily for decades.  What had been called The French Connection out of Marseille became “The Pizza Connection” out of Palermo.

“Heroin traveled from Palermo to the United States in all sorts of containers. In oranges, cans of tuna, diplomatic pouches, under the gowns of nuns who were coming to collect money for their orphanages in Sicily.  And some came in the cans of San Marzano tomatoes to New York for the pizzerias.”

“The people who pay the pizzo are a people without dignity.”

The word “pizzo” refers to the beak of a bird, like a parrot, who dips his beak into the food or water — the Mafia wants its pizzo, its beak-full, Professor Schneider tells us.

“In Palermo currently 70-80% of shopkeepers pay a form of extortion, they pay for protection, they pay the pizzo,” says Francesco Galante.  “The idea of the Addio Pizzo movement is to say ‘No’ to the pizzo. Farewell pizzo.”

In 2004 a group of students who were active in the anti-Mafia movement were planning to open a café in Palermo. One of them said, “Suppose they come and they want the pizzo? What are we going to do? Why should anyone have to pay the pizzo?” They began printing stickers  and putting them on light posts and store windows and curbstones all over the city.  All of a sudden these stickers  appeared that said  “The people who pay the pizzo are a people without dignity.” Nobody knew where they came from.  

Today these stickers are on businesses throughout Sicily and you can chose to go to a restaurant or hotel and do business with businesses not involved in the Mafia.

“They now sell tomatoes from the Godfather’s confiscated fields”

In Corleone, the small town immortalized in The Godfather, Walter Bonano is the guide at the Museum of the Anti- Mafia.

“Talk about the Mafia, no matter how,” he says quoting Paolo Borsellino, a famous judge killed by Mafia in 1992.  “If I talk about Mafia I don’t forget Mafia. And if I don’t forget mafia it’s very hard for me to commit the same mistakes.”

The young red-headed tour guide points to a photograph of the last of the godfathers, Bernardo Provenzano, from Corleone. His former house is a now a shop where they sell tomatoes from his confiscated fields. “It is a symbolic thing,” says Walter. “We are taking back what they stole.”

For Libera Terra, each of the organic, pizzo-free products they sell in grocery stores throughout Sicily is a reminder. They have a wine called Centopassi dedicated to Pepino Impastato, who was killed by the Mafia.  They have another wine called Placido Rizotto, named for a peasant and trade union leader in Corleone assassinated by Mafia bosses in 1948.

“When you drink the wine,” said Walter Bonanao, “it’s a way to remember the work of these young heroes killed by the Mafia. It’s a very symbolic thing. Maybe from an economic point of view Libera Terra is not a big business but I like the symbolism of it.”


RECIPES from Francesco Galante and Libera Terra

Chickpea salad with red onion and green beans

serves 4preparation time 15 minutes

300g of organic Sicilian Chickpeas
2 medium-sized red onions
150 grams of green beans
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Juice of half a lemon
Parsley (optional)

 Cook the green beans and drain them . Cut the onions into slices and put them in a bowl , add the chickpeas with lemon juice.

Add the green beans. Add salt and pepper and pour over the oil with the lemon. Stir and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Tip : Sprinkle some fresh parsley

Paccheri pasta with Sausage and Pecorino

serves 4preparation time 30 minutes

1 package of Paccheri pasta
3 pieces of garlic
1 white onion
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bottle of tomato sauce Siccagno Corleone
5 large leaves of basil
100 grams of grated Pecorino
Salt and pepper

Slice the onions thin and blanch in oil with garlic.  Pour in the tomato sauce and cook about 20 minutes over low heat.  Season with salt.

Cook the Paccheri, drain and add to the pan.  Mix the pasta and the sauce and sprinkle over cheese and basil.

Tip : pour over a tablespoon of olive oil.

Anelletti Sicilian Palermitana

serves 4preparation time:  60 minutes

1 pack Anelletti
500 grams ground beef
2 medium-sized carrots
1 white onion
2 stalks of celery
1 bottle of tomato sauce Siccagno Corleone
150 grams peas
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup of Centopassi Libera Terra bianco
100 grams bread crumbs
Salt and pepper

Cut the carrots, celery and onions and saute in thin amount of olive oil. Add the meat and cook for 5 minutes at high temperatures, pour in half a glass of white wine. Add peas and tomato sauce and simmer over low heat . When the sauce is almost ready (approximately 40 minutes), add salt and pepper.

Cook the Anelletti al dente (a few minutes less than the cooking time recommended), drain and add to the sauce.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, grease a baking dish and sprinkle the breadcrumbs, arrange the Anelletti carefully, and bake about 20 minutes.

Serve warm, not hot.

Tip : When Anelletti mix and sauce , you can add 50 grams of grated Parmesan.

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Humanists & Scholars

Jane-and-Peter-Schneider Giovanna-Fiume Corby Kummer
Peter Schneider, PhD & Jane Schneider, PhD
Professor Emeritus of Sociology | Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
Fordham University | CUNY
Giovanna Fiume, PhD
Professor of Political Science
University of Palermo
Corby Kummer
Food Writer & Senior Editor
The Atlantic
[audio:] [audio:] [audio:]


For additional academic references, please see the following publications:

Orlando, Giovanni “Critical Consumption in Palermo: Imagined Society, Class and Fractured Locality” Ch. 6, in James G. Carrier and Peter G. Luetchford (eds.) Ethical Consumption: Social Value and Economic Practice, NY and Oxford: Berghahn, 2012.

Partridge, Henry “The determinants of and barriers to critical consumption: a study of Adiopizzo,” Modern Italy, Routledge pp. 1-21, 2012;

Rakopoulos, Theodoros “Cooperative modulations: the antimafia movement and struggles over land and cooperativism in eight Sicilian municipalities” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, Vol 19, No. 1, January 2014

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Matilde Politi

The Pizza Connection features the music of Matilde Politi,  an Italian musician whose repertoire draws from the deep roots of Sicilian folk and oral traditions. She began her career in the early 1990s working for a variety of theater production companies throughout Italy, such as the Fondazione Pontedera Teatro, and later went on to study cultural anthropology at the University of Rome in 1999. It was after these studies that she began to focus her musical stylings on traditional music of Sicily and other Mediterranean cultures. Her music is intense and filled with emotion, bringing new life to these songs from the past.


Matilde’s song, “Raggia du seas” from her album Vacanti Sugnu China is featured throughout The Pizza Connection.

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Marie Doezema

The Pizza Connection was inspired by Marie Doezema’s article, “Fighting Sicilian Corruption, One Vine at a Time,” which appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.  You can read the article here.

Marie Doezema

Marie Doezema has worked over the past ten years as a writer, editor, radio and television producer in the United States, France, Japan, and Qatar. Marie has a Master’s degree in science and health writing from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and most recently has been working as a Paris correspondent for various international publications and as head of the languages department at the Sorbonne’s journalism school.





Arianna Occhipinti
[audio:] Libera Terra is not the only group making wine in innovative ways in Sicily. Arianna Occhipinti is a winemaker and farmer growing native Sicilian grapes for the production of natural wine.  Arianna uses Nero d’Avola and Frappato varietals to create wine that reflects the unique combination of soil, sun-exposure, climate, and location of her 12 hectare estate and vineyard in Southeastern Sicily, about 100 miles outside of Palermo. Her autobiography Natural Woman: My Sicily, My Wine, My Passion, was released in January of 2013, shortly after her 30th birthday.

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Libera Terra
Libera Terra
To purchase products from Libera Terra,

Libera Terra
To learn more about Addiopizzo,

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