As for Cosa Nostra, which has wormed its way into every corner of Sicilian life, a sea change is underway, led by grassroots anti-Mafia associations. Pope Benedict has preached against the Mafia in Palermo, where the city’s mayor is the veteran crusader Leoluca Orlando. When I first met this fiery white knight, back in the dark days of the 1990s, he was either sleeping in a bunker or bed-hopping several times a night to avoid attack. Now the four-times mayor can snooze in his own bed rather than fear `sleeping with the fishes.’
Law-abiding Sicilians are also challenging the long arm of the Mafia. Paying protection money, known as the `pizzo,’ is widespread, even in simple hotels, restaurants and shops. Led by Addiopizzo, over 700 Palermitan businesses have signed upto an anti-extortion charter, which posits pride as the antidote to fatalism, the yin and yang of Sicilian identity. `An entire people that pays the pizzo is an entire people without dignity’ runs the revolutionary slogan.
Following their ethical map, you can eat, drink, shop and sleep in places that are standing up to the Mafia. I did just that, beginning at the moody Arab-Norman cathedral that has witnessed countless wailing tributes to murdered magistrates. Built on the site of a mosque, the Cathedral is a Sicilian hybrid, with its Norman tombs, Moorish tracery, and geometric Arab-Norman apses. In Piazza della Memoria, we fall silent at the stark memorial to these martyrs for the anti-Mafia cause. But the rapt crowds make it an uplifting experience.
In the popular Antica Focacceria, we tuck into Palermitan street food in the first inn brave enough to denounce its extortionists to the police. The beef spleen in a bun is not for the squeamish, but then neither is extortion. Around the corner, on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Emporio Pizzo Free sells only goods made by `Mafia-free’ businesses. I fall for a chic coppola, the cloth cap synonymous with mobster style, but now reclaimed as a symbol of redemption by the anti-Mafia lobby. Virtue masquerading as vice is a particularly Sicilian conundrum.