Mafiosos’ retreats, peacefully repurposed

It could have been the rural retreat of a
hedge-fund magnate or an Italian prince: a two-story villa of beige stucco and
stone, perched in isolation on a rise overlooking the Jato Valley in northern
Sicily. The front doors opened onto a refurbished dining room with high
ceilings, terra-cotta tile floors and a row of stone arches that suggested a
Roman amphitheater. Antique brass lanterns, pottery and other curios hung from
the walls. Soft light filtered through the windows. It was getting toward
lunch, and in the spacious kitchen, three chefs were preparing dessert:
miniature pastries made with honey and chestnuts cultivated in nearby orchards.
A narrow staircase wound upstairs to the villa’s three rustic bedrooms, with 10
beds, each of which looked out upon pale-green meadows sloping upward toward
bald-faced granite mountains.

In fact, this 17th-century farmhouse once
belonged to Bernardo Brusca, the capo of one of Sicily’s most brutal crime
families. A member of the Cupola, the Palermo commission that directed
operations and settled disputes within the Cosa Nostra, Brusca may well have
used the place as a safe house from which to plan killings and other crimes.
Brusca’s son, Giovanni, now 51, detonated the bomb that blew up the Italian
prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, in 1992; the next year, he kidnapped the
11-year-old son of a Mafia informer, held him for 26 months, then strangled him
and dissolved his body in a barrel of acid. The younger Brusca later turned
state’s evidence and went into a witness-protection program. Bernardo, a member
of the Mafia old school that swore by omerta, organized crime’s code of
silence, was captured in the 1980s, sentenced to multiple life terms for a
string of murders, and died in government custody in 2004.

Acting under a law passed in 1996, the
Italian government seized his properties and turned the farmhouse over to a
consortium of municipalities in the area. Cooperativo Placido Rizzotto, named
after a labor leader who was shot dead by the Mafia in 1948, was given the
house six years ago. The cooperative now runs the property as a
bed-and-breakfast and has turned Brusca’s neglected, overgrown fields into an
organic farming commune.

“All the municipalities in the area were
part of a long, violent mafioso history that they wanted to leave behind,” said
Emiliano Rocchi, the head chef, who has worked there since the inn opened in
2004. “Turning these Mafia properties into socially beneficial projects is a
way of doing that.”

The Brusca house, known as the Agriturismo
Portella della Ginestra, was the first such Mafia property in Sicily to become
a bed-and-breakfast, and it may have started a trend. Libera Terra
Mediterraneo, an umbrella group of cooperatives founded a decade ago by an
Italian priest, recently opened a second inn – once owned by the Sicilian boss
of bosses, Salvatore Riina – across the Jato Valley and has announced plans for
more. These former Mafia villas offer guests a chance to soak up the island’s
most beautiful landscapes – and, perhaps, get a frisson of horror and
excitement overnighting in places filled with ghosts from Sicily’s criminal

At Portella della Ginestra, where Mafiosi
allegedly once gathered, tourists dine on such exquisite dishes as pasta alla
Norma, made with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, basil and pecorino
cheese, and zucchini in a beer batter. The wine, which bears the Centopassi
label, is made from grapes cultivated in local vineyards that were all once
Mafia-owned. Fields that were overgrown with weeds have been replanted with
chick peas, tomatoes, wheat and other crops, and are threaded with riding and
hiking trails.

Beyond Brusca’s land, an imposing structure
– mounted on trestles and known as the Strada della Liberazione, or Liberation
Road – cuts a swath through a mountain pass and bisects the rolling landscape.
Built a generation ago to link the valley with Palermo, the road met with
fierce resistance from the Brusca family and other Mafiosi, who saw it as a
threat to their domination of the then-isolated region. “It took the government
years to build the last kilometer,” Rocchi said. “They had to send in the army
to provide security.”

Just up the road from Brusca’s former
villa, past his former horse stables (now run by the cooperative), is the
mountain pass at Portella della Ginestra, the scene of one of Sicily’s
bloodiest crimes: On May 1, 1947, a gang led by Salvatore Giuliano, a bandit
and Sicilian separatist in the occasional employ of the Mafia, shot 11 peasants
dead and injured 33 who were holding a protest in favor of land reform. (The
director Michael Cimino recreated the killings in his 1987 film adaptation of
“The Sicilian” by Mario Puzo.)

The curious village of Piana degli
Albanesi, a five-minute drive from the inn, was settled by Albanian refugees
five centuries ago, and is well worth an afternoon visit. Home to a community
of 4,000 of their descendants who have maintained their culture and language,
it’s a perfectly preserved Renaissance-era town, with cobblestone alleys
winding up steep hillsides, several beautiful churches and stunning views of
the Jato Valley below.

Across the valley is the mountain town of
Corleone, which gave its name to Mario Puzo’s crime family in his epic novel,
“The Godfather.” Corleone was also the domain of Riina, nicknamed Toto and
otherwise known as the “The Beast,” or “The Short One”; for decades he was the
fugitive capo di tutti capi of the Sicilian Mafia. A diminutive killer who
personally gave the orders for the murders of magistrates, policemen and scores
of rival Mafiosi, Riina was captured near his villa in Palermo in May 1993,
after 23 years on the run. He is now in solitary confinement in a
maximum-security prison outside Milan. Riina had a rustic property of his own
about eight kilometers outside of Corleone; his farmhouse was turned over to
the Corleone municipal government, renovated with European Union funding and
opened this April as the second bed-and-breakfast in the Libera Terra group.

Adjoined by more than 40 hectare of
farmland and pasture, that property, Agriturismo Terre Di Corleone, is down a
precipitous gravel path, tucked out of sight from the main road. A handsome
stone farmhouse, perched on a rise over cactus groves and stony meadows, has
been turned into a dining room that had not yet opened when I visited in March;
it seats 70 people, and serves organic dishes with ingredients produced almost
exclusively on Libera Terra farmland. A path above the restaurant leads to
Riina’s former stables, now the hotel: five comfortable rooms with 16 beds,
looking out on a bamboo-covered veranda and the Jato Valley beyond.

The estate’s isolation would have offered
Riina a perfect environment to hide from the authorities and plot his reign of
terror, but whether it was actually used by the capo has never been
ascertained. “We know that Riina owned the place, from the property records at
the Corleone municipality, and that his family cultivated the fields here,” said
Francesco Galante of Libera Terra, “but we don’t have evidence that Riina ever
came here personally.”

There’s no doubt, however, that Riina and
his fellow Mafia chieftains maintained near total control of the surrounding
area, and that the bed-and-breakfasts and similar projects are helping to break
that domination.

“The people from the surrounding towns now
get to choose where they work,” said Galante. “They no longer depend on the
favor of Mafia firms, or Mafia-connected businessmen. They feel the difference.”

It is a difference that visitors will feel
as well, as they sip fine wine in rustic splendor, and contemplate the villainy
of the men who once ruled this corner of Italy.