Season 1
Episode 9: Palermo: No Pizzo, No Problem

Can a grassroots movement of renegade foodies finally break the Mafia’s rule over Palermo?

The Mafia has ruled Sicily through fear, intimidation and murder for centuries. But the people of Palermo are fighting back. Their weapon of choice? Stickers and food.


Palermo has the distinction of being the most conquered city in Europe.  It’s been invaded, beaten up, and bashed about for two millennia.  But all this foreign influence gave Sicily one great gift: truly spectacular food.  Pastas, cannolis, pizza, biscotti, rice and fish and meat dishes, all layered with flavors brought from around the world.  But Sicily’s modern enemy hasn’t inspired culinary greatness – maybe because this threat is entirely home-grown: La Cosa Nostra. The Sicilian Mafia. 

Outside Italy, the Mafia conjures images of Scorsese and Coppola films – of criminals that operate under a strict code of honor.  Wise guys who love their mothers. There’s an allure, a sort of glamour.  But the truth for those who have lived under the thumb of the Mafia is much darker and bloodier.  

But now, on this island that is a melting pot of cultures and flavors, a grassroots movement is rising. 

This week on Passport, we head to Palermo to meet a group of brave foodies, chefs, and activists who have decided to stand up and fight back.  And to take on La Cosa Nostra the community is utilizing something the Sicilians pride above everything else. Some of the most amazing food anywhere on earth.



Amazing food, hold the mafiosi!

    Historic chapel-turned restaurant. Get the pani c’a meusa – beef spleen and lung sandwich.
    Award-winning anti-Mafia pizza. The best pie on the island.
    Local flavor. Exquisite atmosphere.
    A distinctively delicious bakery, with a socially conscious mission. 
    Local vines, on land once owned by the Mafia.


On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web:


Edoardo Zaffuto: on the Web 

Melania Messina – on Instagram: @melania_messina 

Giovanni Busetta – on Facebook: @giovanni.busetta 

Jean Rene Bilongo – on Facebook: @jrbilongo 

Fabio Conticello – on Facebook: @fabio.conticello.3

This episode of Passport was written, and produced by Jennifer Carr.

Edited by Neil Innes and Harry Stott.

Huge thanks to Edoardo Zaffuto, Mellania Messina, Valeria Perzia, Jean Rene Bilongo, and Giovanni Busetta and Fabio Conticello for sharing their stories with us.

Theme music by Nick Turner. Additional music by Music Box, Crystal Cabins, Finn the Human, Philippe Sarrow, and Hint of Mint.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Eliza Engel is our Production Assistant.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are constantly making us offers we can’t refuse. They also executive produce the show…

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who refuses to sit in the window seat, Andres Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place!



Header Image: Palermo, Italy – photo by Who’s Denilo on Unsplash


ANDRÉS: This episode introduces a new producer, which is very exciting.

JENNIFER: As in me?

ANDRÉS: That’s you.


ANDRÉS: We, we hired Jennifer Carr who has classed up the joint.

JENNIFER: Aw thanks.

NEIL: Absolutely.

JENNIFER: I’m not sure about that, but I’ll take the compliment.



ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m Neil Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.


ANDRÉS: If Italy wins the prize for the most beautiful country, Sicily, the island next to Italy’s southern heel and separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina wins bonus points for its lush citrus groves, generous handful of UNESCO archeological sites and the dazzling Zingaro Natural Reserve, a raw coastal wilderness that attracts flamingos and fin whales.

[Birds chirping and volcano erupting]

NEIL: Home to brooding Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, that billows fumes 11,000 feet. Sicily is a mishmash of Arabs, Greeks, Syrians, Turks and of course, the Sicilians themselves. It’s a melting pot with soils weary from conflict and revolution. Speaking of soil, Etna is also responsible for a thriving, volcanic vineyard scene.

[Wine pouring]

ANDRÉS: It’s not just the wines that put Sicily in the spotlight. The island’s cuisine is as varied and notorious as its history. Pasta alla Norma, Caponata, Pasta con el Sarde, Arancine, Cannoli, Panecon la Milza, Granita. A swirl of flavors that sing of Sicily’s past.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Think the spices and exotic flavors of the Arabs, the flamboyance of the Spanish, the refinement of the French. Those influences only exist because invasions, wars, pirates and marauders of barreled through Sicily.

These delicious flavors were hard fought for. Sicily, and its capital, Palermo, have really been through it.

ANDRÉS: Two millennia of it to be precise. Despite all that, the most dramatic conflict Sicily ever faced, may be one born right there on the island. La Cosa Nostra. That’s the mafia, to you and me.

[Song playing]

NEIL: The mafia’s impact on Sicily has been huge. Since its inception in the mid-19th century, it’s been a defining presence on the Island. Industries have been at its whim as have culture, education, politics, and community for nearly 200 years.

But something is changing. Despite all of the efforts to combat the mafia over the years, the battle being fought now may be the most unexpected one of all.

In this episode of Passport, producer Jennifer Carr heads to the Sicilian capital of Palermo, ground zero for La Cosa Nostra, to find out how a group of renegade foodie Sicilians are thwarting the mafia.

JENNIFER: Palermo’s just like this bombed out, grungy, baroque mish-mash. I can’t really describe it. It’s almost like Havana meets Lisbon.


JENNIFER: You know, it’s like a really nice combo. And then you’ve just got the friendliest people ever, amazing cheap food, you know, nature reserves and a massive volcano with people growing wine on it. You know like, what’s not to love.

ANDRÉS: That sounds pretty magical.

NEIL: Why the mob? What’s the mob fascination?

JENNIFER: Good question. I think, I think my dad was just obsessed with it when I was growing up, you know, funnily enough, you know, I didn’t really have like, you know, Blyton and Roald Dahl, we had Mario Puzo, and like horses’ heads in beds from a very young age.

That horse’s head was real by the way.

ANDRÉS: Was it?


ANDRÉS: I didn’t know that.

JENNIFER: Yeah, they got it from a pet shop.

ANDRÉS: Wait, he found a horse’s head.


NEIL: Yeah


ANDRÉS: He’s like, how much for the head?

JENNIFER: Yeah, literally.


ANDRÉS: Oh, that old thing, but yeah, that’s a thing. So all of us, I think we, our connection to the mob thing is movies.

JENNIFER: Yeah. There’s definitely like a romanticized idea, I think, or a mythologized idea of what the mafia are versus what they really are, the honor, the omerta, the, all these kind of codes of conduct and there’s a complete different version of events when you start talking to people, you know?


JENNIFER: You didn’t, I didn’t realize how much it kind of infiltrates every different aspect of society.


JENNIFER: You know, the politics to, to, you know, the local kind of infrastructures, to schools, to, you know, the education piece is massive in Sicily around. Basically, how people are influenced to believe that the only way they’re ever going to make a living is if they go into a syndicate, if they go into organized crime, like forget education, it’s like, if you want to earn money, go into the mob, you know, so.

Yeah, it’s a, it’s a big fight. It’s a big fight. And it’s happening on lots of different levels.

ANDRÉS: It’s built into the DNA.

JENNIFER: Exactly.

[Airplane landing]

JENNIFER: It’s a hell of a touchdown at Sicily’s Punta Raisi airport outside the capital city of Palermo. There’s not much landing strip for starters, the runways wedged between the cobalt Mediterranean sea that rushes up fiercely into view from your window seat. Monte Pecoraro mountain looms closely on the other.

Close to landing, a blanket of citrus groves are visible for miles. The evergreen lemons and mandarins grown here earning it the nickname Conca d’Oro, or golden conch. Byzantine church domes and Baroque architecture peak out above the city skyline. It’s a bit of a distraction for nervous fliers. Just about.

[Song playing]

Renowned anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, and his wife touched down here one dusky May Saturday afternoon, back in 1992. They lived in Rome, but liked to return to Palermo, their old home, on the weekends, even if it was risky. Even if it meant bringing seven bodyguards.

[Car driving]

As Falcone drove his white Fiat Croma away from the airport, heading east on the main coastal highway, the road split open.


JENNIFER: The explosion was deafening enough to grind the whole highway to a halt. Onlookers thought the crater that ripped through Highway A29 was an earthquake. So did the local earthquake monitors.

Cars piled high in rubble and ash. Road signs caked in grit and dry blood. But the blast had nothing to do with tectonics. It was manmade. 400 kgs of explosives. It was a message from the mafia. Hell opened up in front of us, writes Peter Robb in his memoir Midnight in Sicily.

EDOARDO: The motorway blew up when his car was passing in, on the, on that section of the motorway.

JENNIFER: Edoardo Fazzuto is an anti-mafia activist and ethical tourism guide based in Palermo. He remembers the rest of that day all too clearly.

EDOARDO: And that, that’s a terrible event to somehow change it, the history because as the mafia went really too far, finally the population start to, you know, to say enough.

JENNIFER: The bomb that killed Giovanni and his wife was a response to the largest mafia trial in Italy’s history: The Maxi Trials.

Giovanni Falcone, the guy driving the Fiat, was chief prosecutor.

[Audio of the trials]

JENNIFER: The case had played out across six nail biting years, between 1986 and 1992. It took place in a purpose-built bunker doubled as a courthouse inside the walls of Palermo’s notorious Ucciardone prison.

[Audio of the trials]

JENNIFER: Two key pentitos, that’s informants, Tommaso Buscetta and Salvatore Contorno, testified openly against the mob. They had once been heads of the family and now their testimonies were bringing that same family down.

475 mobsters were tried. 338 found guilty. 19 got life. It wasn’t the first hit on a high-profile political figure, but because of Giovanni Falcone’s almost heroic status as a judge that had consistently pledged publicly to fight the mafia no matter what, the Sicilian people saw him as a kind of savior.

It was this murder that made the difference. Overnight the mafia went from being feared to reviled. Sicily had had enough.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: I mean, just landing was amazing. Playing that against this very violent moment already feels like a mob movie.

NEIL: Yeah.

JENNIFER: Yeah, it’s not an island that does anything by halves, that’s for sure.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. We’re seeing it more from the point of view of the people living there. Cause usually you fall into a story like that and you’re going to be with the mob, more likely, than with how the country sees the, the, the act, right?

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: The bombing.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Cause also, you know, the media, the media are paid off by the mob to present a certain picture of the mob, even when this kind of stuff happens, you know?

ANDRÉS: Man, they’re deep in there.

NEIL: Oh my god, they’ve got some good PR.


ANDRÉS: I mean, it’s really smart, right? Cause the whole thing about the mob is that narrative, the story you have in your head and all of the power comes from that.

And then here in this bombing, they kind of miscalculated. Instead of people getting scared, people got angry.

JENNIFER: Because of the savior that was this guy, this one guy that said, you know, I’m going to take down the mafia even if it means I die, you know. The head mayor was being paid off and you know, he was, he was, he was in the lion’s den, you know.

NEIL: Is it going to get foodie soon?


ANDRÉS: Yeah, I do wonder how the food’s gonna fit in.

JENNIFER: There’s some snacks.

ANDRÉS: I’m getting peckish.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Sicily’s relationship with the mafia goes back over two centuries, back to the early 19th century and the time of the Gabellotti. In Sicily, a gabellotti was a person who rented farmland for short term use. They were rural entrepreneurs who leased the lands from aristocrats more attracted to the comforts of the city.

Many gabellotti were associated with, if not members of, the mafia. Like any good parasite, these guys knew how to adapt, digging deeper into the tissues of Sicilian culture and commerce. From the simple fruit seller, to the chief of police, La Cosa Nostra bribed, bought, and murdered with impunity. For the next 200 years.

But Sicilians are resilient. And after all, throughout history, no city in the Med has been invaded more than Palermo. Its capacity to keep boomeranging back is a hallmark of a people determined to revolt against depression.

At the forefront of this battle is something Sicilians pride themselves on maybe more than anything else. Food.

[Seagulls chirping]

JENNIFER: Let me take you down the streets of what used to be one of Palermo’s most mafia controlled neighborhoods, La Kalsa, the Arab quarter.

La Kalsa also holds a reputation for one of the city’s most vibrant food scenes. It’s a city within a city, home to the gloriously grungy Vucciria food market, a mishmash of Baroque churches bombed out since World War II, grand palazzos, Byzantine arches, and the odd 12th century Arab-Norman tower.

Signs in Hebrew and Arabic hint of the district’s distinct past, a place would narrow, winding back streets. Some form 11th century Arabic street patterns, which only adds to the feeling of being kind of in a market somewhere between Marrakesh and Damascus.

[People talking in market]

JENNIFER: Let’s be clear here, Sicilian food isn’t Italian food. It’s Sicilian food. And there’s a difference. A combination of influences from the Med, from North Africa, from Arabia, olives that were first introduced by the Greeks. And in the 10th century, the dominating Arabs brought saffron, cloves, pistachios, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Some of these found their way into Sicilian cannoli. A cigar shaped tube of pastry filled with local ricotta, studded with bitter orange and flecked with pistachios. It’s said to originate from the kitchens of sultan’s castles. And it also shuts down entire conversations into a happy dribbling mess.

Then there’s pannelle. Chickpea, flour, water, whatever herbs you’ve got to hand, stirred into a bit of a sludge and then deep fried in rectangles that are showered in sea salt.

Speaking from my own experience, it’s a hangover snack from the gods and one that dates back to Sicily’s ninth century Arabic roots.

Arancine also, crispy balls of leftover risotto filled with meat and cheese, then fried into the ultimate carby road snack. This one’s a hundred percent Sicilian.

And the best place for them? It’s gotta be Antica Focacceria de San Francisco on Via Alessandra Paternostro. This restaurant is run by brothers Vincenzo and Fabio and has been in the family for five generations. One of their specialties is a spleen and lungs sandwich: Pani câ meusa.  It’s one street food you don’t want to miss.

We’re going to come back to the brothers in a minute, because as a popular restaurant in Palermo, they’ve definitely had their fair share of conflict with the mafia. And besides their much sought after street food, they’ve also got a story worth telling. But wait, back to the mob.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Food and Mafiosi are nothing new. I mean, did you ever see a skinny mobster? Who can forget Paul Sorvino’s character in GoodFellas slicing garlic cloves razor thin in preparation for a big prison feast.

Apparently, Al Capone’s favorite meal was spaghetti with walnut sauce and Carlos Mercello – the Don responsible for ordering the hit on JFK, if that’s what you believe – was a huge fan of meatballs.

But the mafia’s connection to food goes deeper than eating it. It’s woven into the fabric of Sicilian life. It stitched itself all through the islands culinary and agricultural systems. And it’s been a method for social control since the beginning.

It’s estimated that 15% of agriculture in Italy is linked to organized crime. Billions of euros every year are made from agricultural extortion or agro mafia. Farmers are often vulnerable, and mafia have long been a parasitic influence in Southern Italy’s food system. Cutting olive oils with cheaper ingredients, forbidden pesticides, replacing ancient Sicilian grains with monoculture. While it’s not often discussed, food has been the ultimate source of power for Casa Nostra.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: This is where pizzo comes in. Pizzo is protection money paid to the mafia in the form of a forced threat. Whether you’re a pizza maker or a corporate CEO, in the past, no one has been immune and you’ve seen this in every mafia movie ever made.

The term is derived from Sicilian pizzu, which means beak. To let someone wet their beak in Sicilian, fari vagnari u pizzu, is to pay protection money. Pizzo began as a kind of agreement between the guys that I mentioned earlier, the gabellotti, seen by many historians as the original mafia clans.

This was back in the time of feudalism. They leased lands from Sicilian aristocrats and asked that the peasants who worked the lands pay for taxes, with a cut for the gabellotti, of course.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Today, it shows up as mobsters entering the premises of any and all kinds of businesses to demand the money that allows business owners to live without intimidation, death threats, arson. But back in the eighties and nineties, resisting pizzo got people killed and it’s one of the oldest mafia tricks in the book.

Then again, they’ve always been brave Sicilians willing to go against the grain.

EDOARDO: The number one strategy of the mafia is to isolate their targets.

JENNIFER: We’re talking to Edoardo Fazzuto, an anti-mafia activist in Palermo. He’s got his own story to tell about pizzo.

EDOARDO: The payment of a pizzo, like something that was connected with, let’s say, organization of the economy in Sicily, not even asking themselves whether it was something acceptable or not, because anyway, there was no way out.

JENNIFER: Edoardo is one of the three founders of Addio Pizza, a grassroots movement that kicked off in Palermo in 2004.

EDOARDO: Uh, as long as they see that they are well supported by the community, by the institution, they would rarely attack them because they know that a backlash over an action against the person that was well supported by the community would be very big, the, uh, experience of a boomerang effect, like they did, when they killed the Falcone and Borsellino, for example.

JENNIFER: Edoardo’s making a powerful point: there’s one thing that’s stronger than the mafia – it’s a community that unites together. Today Addio Pizzo is making waves across the island. They run an ethical tourism company too that offers culinary experiences in Palermo, an amazing wine tasting on confiscated farmlands once stolen by the mafia clans.

EDOARDO: Nobody wanted to speak about the problem and the all, all of them preferred to pay money without even like questioning. And so eventually in 2004, something broke the silence.


JENNIFER: Nope, not that.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Stickers. They broke their silence against mafia intimidation with stickers. Plastered across shop windows and doorways in the dead of night, an anonymous group, their heads and faces covered for protection. Edoardo was one of them.

The stickers carried the slogan, a whole people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity.

EDOARDO: So that story of the sticker is very interesting because those words actually was the beginning of a new experience, so we wouldn’t pay.

JENNIFER: A new experience, refusing to pay anti-harassment money as a business expense, who knew?

ANDRÉS: That’s just brilliant, stickers.

NEIL: It’s so satisfying.

JENNIFER: Stickers in the dead of night.

ANDRÉS: It’s wonderful. It’s so wonderful.

How far away from mafia tactics can you go than stickers?

JENNIFER: It’s pretty passive and unoffensive.

ANDRÉS: Absolutely, but very powerful.

NEIL: It goes right into the middle of disrespect.

JENNIFER: Don’t disrespect yourself, you know.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, exactly. Everybody’s hiding it, that’s how this thing works because nobody knows who’s paying so you, the fear is built into it.


ANDRÉS: But the minute it’s out, you’re the, you’re the idiot if you’re paying for this.

JENNIFER: Absolutely, no totally. The omerta isn’t just something that’s restricted to mafia. It’s about everybody keeping silent because they don’t want to be seen to be kowtowing to the mafia.

NEIL: I am, I am Spartacus.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. That’s why it’s so satisfying, it’s like no strength, no brute strength.

JENNIFER: Yeah and appeal to people’s self-respect, you know, that’s how you get people onsite.


JENNIFER: Addio Pizzo’s a bit like saying, you know, sticking two fingers up to the pizzo money saying goodbye, ciao, adios. And, um, yeah, really kind of appealing to that community of people that have just really had enough and are ready for something new.

ANDRÉS: Well, and that’s how you reclaim your, your town or your city or your block or your neighborhood, right?


ANDRÉS: When you start thinking of yourself as part of this bigger thing.

JENNIFER: Exactly.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: That simple act of splashing stickers across the city lit a torch in the psyche of the Palermitanos, sick and tired of living in fear and living against their own will.

And it was all thanks to Edoardo’s friends.

EDOARDO: These people actually started to talk about this problem and the situation, and also like starting to consider how, how weird, how strange, how crazy and absurd it is that you have to think about the mafia problem and the pizzo system, even before starting your activity.

JENNIFER: That same day, the slogan that came to define Edoardo’s grassroots movement was invented. In a matter of weeks, the community had surprisingly rallied and collected over 3000 signatures from shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other small businesses and confirmed their solidarity for the cause. The slogan spoke to city ready for change.

[Italians talking to each other]

JENNIFER: Greeks, French, Spanish, Arabic, Normans, Jews, a diverse fusion. How do all these cultures permeate the character of Sicilians today? Well, Sicilians are isolani. In any language, the rather generic word, islanders, connotes all sorts of things and the real Sicilians elude any simple definition. The language, however, does contain traces of all these ancient tongues and many Italians on the mainland don’t even understand it.

There is an obscure urban social art called Sicilianismo, though. It involves men affecting a certain type of heavy guttural accent when speaking Sicilian, using arcane gestures, wearing loads of gold, and generally attempting to impress others of their self-perceived sexist importance. These guys are called the cafone.

But the characteristics of culture also show up, of course, in the amazing food that you’ll find across the island. Echoes from North Africa, Europe, and Arabia, all rivaling for attention from your taste buds.

Take Caponata, a spin on the Spanish caponada, or relish. It’s a much richer ratatouille that features aubergines, tomatoes, pine nuts, capers, pity, green olives.

Well, what about couscous? It’s super typical to find it on the island, especially the west coast in Trapani and San Vito Lo Capo. They love this dish so much, there’s even a Couscous Fest, a food festival, every autumn that celebrates the mix of two cultures, African and Sicilian. Instead of lamb and maghreb spices like you’d find in North Africa, here, the couscous is made with fish, freshly caught from local waters.

Now let’s go back to Antica Focacceria San Francisco. Brothers Vincenzo and Fabio, as fifth generation Sicilian restauranteurs. They’re very proud of what used to be an ancient chapel. And now they’ve turned into a place of worship for foodies.

Paul Newman, Hillary Clinton, Sofia Loren. They’ve all popped in for a bite over the years. The recipes and menu here remains mostly true to the original Nonna, Melinda, Fabio and Vincenzo’s grandmother. She was the one who decided what patrons would get fed.

The place opened in 1834. And it was also one of the first businesses to join Edoardo’s movement.

The venue today serves up ethics, civic engagement, and some ridiculously good Sicilian street food, especially if you fancy your meal with a side serving of morals.

This is Fabio.

FABIO: Sicily, Palermo, as you know, we have a, that the organization called the mafia. That the mafia that, uh, as I said, a form of respect to our company and our family.

I can say probably for the history that Focacceria has always represented for having given work to so many poor and simple people during its existence.

JENNIFER: I think Fabio is alluding to the fact that Antica Focacceria’s location in the center of the most mafia heavy neighborhood in Palermo actually protected his business.

FABIO: This was the situation until 2005, in which, uh, some balance, uh, in the war of the Palermo mafia changed.

As we was, uh, we were a very old place in Palermo, I think mafia and the, like a form of respect, uh, to our family and to our place, to our Focacceria. There was some bad people, uh, who was coming to us, but they never asked us money.

JENNIFER: His point about the mafia showing mercy to their family business because they help poor people earn a clean living, seems more than a bit ironic. I mean, morality and the mafia codes? It’s just a constant riddle of contradiction. He told me about the time a member of the mafia stopped by to demand back payment of protection money, years of back payment.

FABIO: It didn’t take us long to realize that we had the representative of the Palermo centro mafia in front of us. And after a few jokes, he explicitly told us that we would have to pay 50,000 euros for the past periods, imagine, and the other 1,500 euros a month from then, uh, to be paid to a person they indicated that we should have hired.

How can I say it? A clear message of a wanting to directly control our company.

JENNIFER: Fabio and his brother Vincenzo said a firm no and then they called the cops. After several months of investigation, four people, including their unwanted visitor, were arrested. And in 2007, they were sentenced to trial and convicted for intimidation.

The Addio Pizzo movement and the solidarity behind it reinforced the brother’s decision to keep turning down the mafia for good. They haven’t heard anything from them since.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Side note: Attica Focacceria do a mean pasta con le sarde. Onions, fennel, pine nuts, sardines, raisins that are steeped in warm wine, anchovies, a pinch of saffron. It doesn’t sound possible that these ingredients would make it into a pasta dish, but really, you’ll want to kiss the chef.

Another local favorite on Fabio’s menu is the aforementioned Pani câ mèusa, the spleen and beef lung sandwich.

This dates back to the time of Jewish rule and the sandwich includes boiled cow spleen and lung, and bear with me. They’re fried in pig lard, sprinkled with fresh ricotta and caciocavallo cheeses, local to the Island, and then served on a sesame seed bun. Yeah. Vegans, I’m sorry.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: I would eat that spleen lung sandwich.

JENNIFER: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s the thing you’ve got to, you know, it’s one of the top things to try there, you’ve got to go get stuck and put your plant-based values to one side for a minute.

ANDRÉS: Just for a moment.

JENNIFER: Just do it.

ANDRÉS: Just let it happen.

NEIL: Just eating some lung.

JENNIFER: Yeah, fried in pork lard as well. So, you know, there’s no sort of halfway house with this sandwich.

ANDRÉS: No, there’s nothing that you can, you get no pass.

JENNIFER: No. I’m more concerned about spleen to be honest.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. The spleen is suspect.

NEIL: It’s not like the appendix where people don’t really know what it does.

ANDRÉS: No. We know what the spleen…

NEIL: The spleen has a purpose.


ANDRÉS: The spleen has a purpose…

NEIL: For going in sandwiches.

JENNIFER: Yeah, with ricotta.


ANDRÉS: We’re going to drive ourselves crazy in here.

[Song playing]

MELANIA: I’ve documenting the phenomenon of women who were taking position, very clear position, uh, public position, against mafia.

JENNIFER: Melania Messina is a photo journalist and social activist. Her photos and contribution to social justice projects have won her loads of awards. She’s been documenting the mafia’s impact on culture and society since the nineties.

And like so many others, she’s also got a few stories about women standing up to the mob.

MELANIA: Most of them were relatives of a mafia victims. This was kind of a new phenomenon.

JENNIFER: Case in point: Michaela Buschemi. A poor Sicilian woman from a huge, big family of siblings. Her brothers, one by one, were disappeared.

MELANIA: So she took care of her younger brothers. And two of them, they were killed by mafia. The first one was killed in the torture room, which is called Santarazmo. She received many threats. So somehow she, on a certain point, she decided not to witness again. But she received the support of a new association of women, which is what was called Women Against Mafia.

This association was founded by the wives of judges who were killed in the past.

JENNIFER: I’d once thought that the mafia code of silence, the omerta, was an honor code, strictly reserved for the mafia themselves, but somehow it seems the code is felt and adopted by whole families and communities.

Normal people being slowly and carefully conditioned into silence, but fortunately, there’s a growing number who don’t. Melania’s photography led me to the story of the Napoli sisters, three unmarried women who’d had 90 hectares of farmland stormed by 80 cows and horses. Two poisoned dogs, and a bunch of carcasses were delivered to their cottage shortly after, just in case they didn’t get the hint.

The intimidation and these calculated invasions continued for 14 years.

MELANIA: They went to television many times, so they become very popular. And now most of the people living in the village, they refuse to talk to talk to them. They come though, uh, they’re very isolated.

JENNIFER: Cattle mafia, intimidating the farmers and the stewards of the land.

It all goes back to the gabellotti of rural entrepreneurs. It also proves that the mafia go for the outliers, the weak ones. How can the mafia still take root, even as movements like Addio Pizzo continue to gather pace?

MELANIA: It’s a mixture of a shame. They are scared to make, to let their voice heard by more people. This is my perception. Also, the fact that they are women, people didn’t like that women became so much protagonist, I guess, some figure, which was, uh, somehow culturally rooted in the land.

JENNIFER: And that’s where Libera Terra come in.

[Song playing]

JENNIFER: Libera Terra means free land in Italian. Together with Edoardo’s crew Addio Pizzo, both companies are giving Sicily’s economy a mafia free makeover, the kind of gastronomy and conscious tourism that refuses to line the pockets of the mafia.

Thanks to a landmark law passed back in 1996, farmers, cooperatives, people of the land, are now free to reclaim these spaces and make beautiful new vineyards, olive groves, and boutique foodie experiences for tourists, living on the land once stolen by mafia.

The law was passed because of a petition, a petition signed by 1 million Sicilians who wanted to create a new history for the island, starting in the soil. It’s been voted one of the top 100 NGOs on the planet.

VALERIA: Consider that first of all, Libera Terra gives our farm cooperatives.

So we are farmers and as farmers, we are custodians of the natural and the cultural heritage.

JENNIFER: Valeria works for Libera Terra. She’s proud of her role to play in reigniting the traditions and provenance of this incredible island. And it really shows.

VALERIA: So the commitment is to safeguard, that what we are for the future generations, first of all.

So we work to express that through our products, they know how the flavors of our lands, which are public lands. As we say, belonging to all of us.

JENNIFER: Visitors can stay on farms that were once under the control of La Cosa Nostra. Guests can learn how to make wines and bask in citrus scented groves that take on a new kind of magic when you understand what’s going on here.

They can also learn about the revival of specific ancient grains, of which Sicily has more than 60. The mafia tried to wipe them all out with cheap, fast monoculture, but Libera Terra is bringing them back.

[Song playing]

VALERIA: We can go ahead with a good plan change. This is not something extra ordinary, but you can work in a respectful way and it will be recognized in the long term. Giving a respectable and fair answer because it’s more, this kind of answer is more strong than illegality.

JENNIFER: The romanticized wise guys of Scorsese’s movies, and of course, Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather, partly filmed in Corleone, over the crest of a hill from the Napoli sister’s farm, suddenly didn’t feel so slick.

They felt misleadingly cool. And kind of false. It’s becoming easier to see why local mafia tours that cash in on the stereotypes, rub activists like Edoardo and Melania up the wrong way. But resistance to mafia and the rise of the anti-mafia movement, isn’t going away, it’s getting stronger.

Libera Terra and 800 other social enterprises on the island are making sure that authentic travel experiences, civic consciousness and mafia free gastronomy are all thriving. It’s a big thumbs up for social change, but what’s next?

[Song playing]

Jean Rene Bilongo works in inclusivity, lawfulness and migration at the Placido Rizotto Observatory in Rome. It’s the largest European level union and he specializes in exportation and agriculture and also has a fair bit to say about how the mafia continue to infiltrate it.

JEAN: Mafia is really evolving too into the agri-food and agri-food networks, because first of all, uh, agri-food drags a lot of money from Europe, you know, uh, the common agricultural policy is the largest, uh, uh, budget attributions at the European communitarian level.

JENNIFER: So, this is where mafia are today. Peeling off money from a pretty big part of agricultural EU subsidies. He’s been supporting Libera Terra in their anti-mafia movements and the regeneration of the land for years.

I want to know from a man on the front lines of policy, what will it take to build a mafia-free Sicily?

JEAN: Democracy, information, education, and the welfare of people.

These are the four things from my standpoint that we should invest on. Because where people are exposed, where people are exposed to misery, to poverty, mafia can penetrate them any time.

But if they know there’s an alternative, there’s social welfare network, if they are properly informed, if they are educated, you know, the worst enemy of mafia is education, that’s the worst enemy.

Because an education sets up, sets all of us free from ignorance. Now we become independent citizens with a conscience.

[Song playing, people laughing]

NEIL: It’s crazy how much, how much it’s, it’s infected the whole industries.


NEIL: Because I just thought, at the beginning where, you know, we would just be, it would be two kind of stereotypical mob dudes asking for money in a pizzeria, but it’s, it’s the whole farming industry and restaurants and government, and it’s crazy.

It seems like they’ve had to really like fight big.


NEIL: Go straight to the top.

ANDRÉS: Fighting the mafia in a very kind of business minded way.

JENNIFER: Yeah super tactical.

ANDRÉS: Very tactical. It’s very smart. And it hits the mafia where it hurts.

JENNIFER:  Yeah. Cause that’s the thing, you know, they’ve always had a hand in the illegal, uh, businesses, as much as the legal ones, you know, they cover all bases, literally, you know, even the anti-mafia movement, the Addio Pizzo, they’ve been approached, they’ve had mafia try and infiltrate anti-mafia. To work within the system of that. It didn’t work though, that’s the good news.

ANDRÉS: That’s the good news. I mean, that’s, the other thing is since the mafia has been there for so long and it, generation upon generation has had to deal with it.

There’s almost like a built in, um, mentality of how to deal with it on a day to day basis or what to do like…

JENNIFER: Yeah, the ultimate chess game, you know, you’re always thinking six steps…

ANDRÉS: You know they’re going to be coming. Yeah

JENNIFER: They’re already doing those kinds of things. It’s the Escobar approach. It’s like, keep, keep the ones really close to the poverty line, seeing the good side, so that there’ll be more, you know, hush, keep quiet. Yeah.

ANDRÉS: That’s the other thing is like how far away from the movie mafia can you get with this stuff? You know, monoculture cut, olive oil. Oh, man, it’s just ugly.

JENNIFER: How can you cut olive oil in Sicily, I mean that’s criminal.

ANDRÉS: That’s what I mean. As an Italian, how can you live with yourself?


NEIL: All the hits and everything, that’s not that bad, but cutting the olive oil?

JENNIFER: Yeah, forget the murders.

ANDRÉS: Exactly.

JENNIFER: Extra virgin, I mean, that’s despicable.

ANDRÉS: The murders to be expected, but yeah, selling extra virgin olive oil that’s been cut, that’s yeah, the lowest of the low.

NEIL: It’s weird as well. They did kind of, they’ve been world famous for something that was exported all over the world. Which has had nothing to do with any of the good sides of the place. It was just like…

ANDRÉS: The worst.

NEIL: The Sicilian mafia, known the world over.

ANDRÉS: The other thing that’s excellent that comes out is how you face that, how you deal with that, the creativity behind that. And, and like you say, the resilience that it’s, they’re not going to get knocked down. They’re going to keep trying, it’s going to keep coming back, but they’re going to figure out a different way to overcome.

JENNIFER: It’s true though. It’s amazing how many people are on board, you know, in the community of Palermo, people go to a shop and they will look specifically for the Addio Pizzo stickers on all the products. You know, it’s like it’s onboard.

It’s not just the wealthy, privileged few, like, you know, you have people with their exclusively organic, people will really go and buy this stuff cause they know that they want the groundswell, you know? So, it’s super cool.

ANDRÉS: Fighting the mob with good food.

[Song playing]

NEIL: This week, our saved pins will not only satisfy your appetite, but also your morals. These five foodie gems are socially aware, no pizzo eats in beautiful Palermo.

ANDRÉS: Number one: Antica Focacceria San Francesco. Our first saved pin is the historic chapel turned restaurant that features in the show. Frequented by movie stars, politicians and locals who remain loyal to the original recipes, this is the place to come for authentic Sicilian street food.

We dare you to be brave and order the famed, pani c’a meusa beef, spleen, and lung sandwich. And pasta le sarde – pasta with sardines and fennel. This is mafia free dining at its best.

NEIL: Number two: La Braciera. Head to this family run award-winning pizza joint in the heart of Palermo for what’s considered the best pie on the island.

The brothers who run it recall a time when two Mafiosi entered the venue and instead of asking for pizzo, they asked for pizza. As the story goes, both extortionists were arrested as they finished their last slice.

ANDRÉS: Number three: Bisso Bistrot. Before starting Bisso Birstrot, Dario Bisso and his family ran a different restaurant in a different area of Palermo.

They had various troubles before the restaurant was damaged in a very suspicious fire. Dario and his family decided to set up their second culinary offering inside a beautiful historic bookshop, Librera Dante. Today, Bisso Bistrot draws crowds seeking delicious local flavors and atmosphere, and it delivers big on both.

NEIL: Number four: Cotti in Fragranza. This is no ordinary bakery. Founded in 2016 by the social co-operative, Rigenerazioni Onlus. This venue makes high quality products inside the Malaspina juvenile detention camp of Palermo, Sicily. Rigenerazioni deals with education and ethics within the Sicilian community.

ANDRÉS: Number five: Cento Passi.

Translated as 100 steps in Italian. This is a thriving social co-operative division that manages some 65 hectares of reclaimed vineyards in the upper Corleonese region in Sicily of godfather fame. These lands were once dominated by mafia clans, but today produce some of the island’s most exquisite biological wines.

NEIL: That’s it for this week, guys. Thanks for listening. You can find us at passportpodcast on Instagram and online at, where you can get our awesome newsletter, the ticket.

Next week, we’re off to Greenland, a wild and unforgiving place to hunt for ghosts and monsters.

We’ll see you on Tuesday.

[Song playing]

NEIL: This week’s episode of Passport was written and produced by Jennifer Carr and edited by Harry Stott and me, Neil Innes.

Huge thanks to Edoardo Zaffuto, Jean Rene Bilongo, Melania Messina, Giovanni Busetta and Valeria Perzia for helping us make the show. We’ll have all of their details in the show notes if you want to check them out.

Our theme music is by Nick Turner with additional stuff by Music Box, Crystal Caverns, Finn the Human, Felipe Sarro and Hint of Mint.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasniewski.

Eliza Engel is our production assistant.

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijanksy are constantly making us offers we can’t refuse… they also executive produce the show, which is hosted by myself and a man who refuses to sit in the window seat, Andrés Bartos.

We’ll see in the next place.


Episode 38: Australia – Part 2: Asteroids and the Outback

For every Celestial Emu there’s a planet-killing space rock on an inevitable path towards earth. In our season 1 finale, Passport producers Jennifer Carr and Andrés Bartos head back Down Under to talk about asteroids, the scars they leave, and the stories they’ve created.

read more

Episode 32: India: Love on the Rails

This week, Passport is taking a journey on the Indian Railway. These train cars are a moving microcosm of India, and the inspiration behind some of the country’s greatest love stories – on the Bollywood screen and in real life.

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Episode 29: Passport Goes to the Polls

As the US goes to the polls, Passport goes there too. But not to America. Take a break from the anxiety and divisiveness of the US election with two stories that show the true, positive, power of democracy across the globe.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.