Casal di Principe is a Sicilian town that has been ravaged by the Camorra, the local mafia, but one local restaurant is fighting back with food.
Casal di Principe is infamous in Italy because it's been ravaged by the Camorra, the local mafia in the Campania region. Nearly abandoned by authorities, it's an area that several industries from Italy's rich north have selected to become an illegal landfill of toxic waste.
Today, a large chunk of the land is ruined, the number of tumors in locals has skyrocketed, and the situation is nowhere close to being solved. "In Castel Volturno [next to Casal di Principe, ndr.], authorities recently discovered what turned out to be the largest illegal landfill of Europe," I am told by the teenager that has come to pick me up at the train station.
We drive quickly through the town. The streets are narrow, and the complete lack of any urban planning is striking. Most houses seem built by people with little to no knowledge of construction work. A lot of the buildings look unfinished: the bricks and the concrete show through the cracks. Casal di Principe seems to have no parks and almost no public space; the only two squares I see have so little green it feels out of place.
I arrive at Nuova Cucina Organizzata (NCO) around lunchtime. An English translation of NCO is somewhere along the lines of New Organized Kitchen. NCO is a restaurant a group of local activists opened back in 2007, but is first and foremost a tool in the fight against the Camorra, and a big hope for the surrounding area.
"You see these here?" Pepe Pagano, Vice President of Nuova Cucina Organizzata (NCO), asks me pointing to the door as I am walking into a large villa that used to belong to Mario "Bott" Caterino, one of Casal di Principe's camorra bosses. "These are bullet holes—he says without been able to hide a slight grin. A couple of years ago, the Camorra shot at the restaurant to tell us we weren't welcome. We keep them here to remind us who we fight against every day."
The large thick doors open to a villa built with an ugly mix of reinforced concrete and marble camorristi [members of the Camorra] confuse for elegance. Like most villas built by mafiosi, this three-story building—tucked in a small alley in the cemented outskirts of Casal di Principe—is surrounded by thick walls and lofty white pillars vaguely reminiscent of the decaying days of the Roman empire.
After a visit around the property, I am invited to lunch. "We just refurbished and will officially re-open again on June 29th. Antonio De Rosa, manager of the Agropoli Cooperative, an NGO part of the NCO family, promptly explains that "one of Naples most famous pizza makers will be here to inaugurate and cook for all the guests." But there's no pizza for me at lunch, unfortunately. Instead, I am served with one of the most delicious parmiggiana's [an Italian dish made with a shallow or deep-fried sliced aubergine filling layered with cheese and tomato sauce, then baked] I have ever had. I have to admit it: this is even better than the recipe my grandmother used to cook for me every time I went to visit her.
Pagano explains to me, "When I started NCO, I believed, as I still do, that the only possibility for this region is to change." It was not going to be an easy task. Casal di Principe is the town where a member of the Camorra slapped local military police in the middle of the central square in 1982, and dared to kill Don Peppe Diana—the local priest that openly voiced his criticisms against organized crime—in 1994.
The restaurant is built on the first floor. Hanging on its walls are shelves built out of steel structures retrieved from inside the reinforced concrete used to build most of the unauthorized buildings in the area. "It's an important symbolic gesture," Raffaele Sermonella, the architect, tells me with a bit of pride. "We want to show how we are making a completely different use of what is available compared to the former owners."
Pagano explains to me that they chose "to open a restaurant for two main reasons." The first is linked to food and the importance it plays in the region; not only in terms of cuisine, but to also fight the diffidence that people have towards products coming from this region due to all the illegal dumping. The second is linked to the networks of trust and solidarity work that can be brought to the local area. "The Camorra lives by fear and mistrust. What we offer is exactly the opposite: a network of solidarity and conditions that lead to the empowerment of the individual. This is fundamental because fighting the Mafia is not about individual heroes, but a strong collective anonymous network. A hero can be killed, while a change in attitude is here to stay."
On top of the network, in order to increase its effectiveness, NCO is striving to become financially independent from the state. And it is for this reason that over the past few years Pagano and De Rosa's started to directly cultivate the products used by NCO apricots, peaches, and eggplants and even asprinio, a type of bubbly white wine invented by the House of Bourbon in the 17th century.
A large quantity of fruit and vegetables are transformed and processed in a newly built lab inside another villa formally owned by a camorrista. Peaches are made into jam, grapes into wine, peppers into marinated peppers, eggplants, and onions. Some of it is used in the restaurant while the rest is sold: to retail customers as well as online ones.
As dessert is served—a buffalo mozzarella filled with sponge cake and cinnamon—Mauro Pagano, NCO's communication strategist, tells me that the biggest commercial success is "facciamo un pacco alla camorra," a gift pack that is a play on words that stems from the Neapolitan expression "fare un pacco," which means "fool," but also to package. In this case, the parcel is sold to supporters and sympathizers across Italy making a fool of the Camorra.
"Remember the bullet holes," Peppe tells me as I am getting ready to leave. He believes that a camorristi would never shoot at NCO today. "There are too many people supporting us and the media is following out project with interest," he tells me. But this doesn't mean that the Camorra has disappeared. Italian organized crime syndicates are making more money than ever, but the defeat that the Camorra has suffered in Casale is largely symbolic for the moment: their former houses used as headquarters of organizations that are trying to challenge their power—first and foremost through a restaurant.