How a southern Italian restaurateur stood up to the mafia
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Mount Etna is fading into a velvet gloom across the straits of Messina and the painted fishing boats on the beach of Lazzaro are catching the last rays of sunset.
Judges, prosecutors, police chiefs and other high-profile guests settle into their seats in the Arabesque L’Accademia restaurant in this small town on the southern tip of Italy, eager for refreshment after a day of speeches, prize-giving and a parade by a military brass band marking the constant struggle against organised crime.
“Fighting the mafia is like digging a hole in the Sahara desert,” remarks Julian Fantino, a Canadian government minister and former Toronto police chief, one of a number of international dignitaries invited, each with their own experience of the mafia.
The first course arrives – succulent cuttlefish marinated in locally grown bergamot, with strawberries and black Venus rice from northern Italy. King prawns in a tempura of maize follow, then fresh pasta and leaks, and finally swordfish with gently spiced aubergines alla Norma.
The hero of the moment is Filippo Cogliandro, restaurant owner and master chef, but not just because of his culinary expertise, as all the guests are well aware. Cogliandro and his family have long battled against the local ’Ndrangheta, the most powerful of Italy’s mafias (which also include Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Camorra of Campania) in its Calabrian stronghold.
Over a coffee the next morning – while preparing handmade open ravioli with seafood and sweet tomatoes, and a silver scabbard fish roulade for a communion celebration dinner – Cogliandro tells his story. His father, Demetrio, had run a successful service station and simple restaurant on the coastal highway that cuts through Lazzaro. “ ‘Let’s expand. We could open a bar too,’ we children used to say. But Dad always said ‘No, we are fine as we are’,” recalls Cogliandro, now 43 and a father of two.
“The truth came out in 1986. He was coming home and putting the key in the door and then he was gambizzato [shot in the legs],” says Cogliandro. Gunmen on a motorbike had meted out the customary punishment for those who refuse to pay the pizzo, or monthly extortion money.
“The objective of the ’Ndrangheta is to break anyone who opposes them. ‘If Cogliandro pays, they will all pay’ was their reasoning.” But his father survived, even with his legs badly damaged, and died some years later of natural causes.
Cogliandro, rotund and animated with a glint in his eyes that matches his earring, went on to set up his own restaurant in 2004, borrowing €200,000 from the bank. Locals flocked to discover the regional products revived by this skilful chef, including the fearsome eel-like scabbard fish which, according to a recipe held in a monastery over 1,000 years ago, used to be donated to the poor.
But one evening four years ago, three men and a woman took a table at L’Accademia, whom locals feared were members of a mafioso family, itself in trouble with the wider clan network since one of their number became a pentito and gave evidence to the police. They asked for an “appointment” and demanded extortion money. “They said leave the money in an envelope marked ‘thoughts for the cousins’,” Cogliandro recalls.
Tortured by memories of what happened to his father but also the thought that his own children would never forgive him if he gave in, Cogliandro did something unheard of. He went to the nearby city of Reggio Calabria and reported the incident to the police.
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