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It’s the Cheese: Why We Love Our Mafia Shin-Deep in Sheep Dip

The ingredient that gives Mafia news that old-world flavor

by Carl Russo

I CAN TELL A CERTAIN news item about the Italian Mafia has gone really big as soon as friends and relatives start sending me the media links. Often these reports of arrests, attacks, and assassinations come with an exotic flair that conforms to our stereotypical view of the mob. Without a touch of the Hollywood—secret initiation rites, a bullet between the eyes—the news doesn’t travel beyond Italy. But when there’s an element of food involved, especially cheese, the story sprouts legs and takes off running.

“I’ve put the ricotta aside for you,” was the opening quote in several news articles about the media-dubbed “Mafia sheep code” that went viral this month. That statement and similar ciphers, recorded by police wiretaps, were made by a pair of Sicilian sheep grazers whenever a message from fugitive godfather Matteo Messina Denaro was ready for pickup. The two shepherds and nine other accomplices were arrested on August 3, the culmination of a five-year investigation and the latest roundup in actions that have bagged the capomafia’s sister, cousin and various in-laws.

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Dirty Laundry

by Bluto Ray

Before April 11, 2006, many non-Italians thought that Corleone was a fictitious Sicilian town from books and movies. That day’s top news flash, “Mafia Godfather Captured,” beamed worldwide, accompanied by the image of a pale old man smiling serenely from the center of a moving storm of armed cops. Video footage showed an impromptu crowd gathered at the gates of the police station to curse the silent figure as he was rushed inside. Bernardo Provenzano, the phantom of Corleone, was apprehended in the last place anyone expected to find him: his home town.

Bernardo ProvenzanoThe police nearly gave him up for dead after his common-law wife, Saveria Benedetta Palazzolo, came out of hiding in 1992 to take up residency in Corleone. Despite the media-fueled scandal that followed, police considered her unusual move as logical for a Mafia widow, especially one with two sons--Angelo, sixteen, and Paolo, nine--in need of schooling. Still, the police kept a constant eye and ear on the three newcomers, frequently rattling them with overnight raids. Saveria and her brood survived numerous humiliations with the support of Provenzano’s relatives in town.

That era of Mafia history is defined by its apocalyptic war on the Italian state. The two fugitives from Corleone, capomafia Totò Riina and his second in command, Provenzano, had toppled the Palermo bosses to take over the Cosa Nostra. Riina, with his scorched earth policy--culminating in the assassinations of top anti-Mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino--had gone too far by even Mafia standards. When police picked him up in early 1993 (“Mafia Godfather Captured”), Provenzano took the top spot in the organization and steered it to calmer waters. Two high-profile informants claimed that he had betrayed the wild Riina to police.

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