Travel News

Gangster Trippin'

Southern Italy has always fascinated former undercover detective Colin McLaren, despite its criminal networks – or maybe, strangely, because of them. Kendall Hill travels with him through Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily on a tour with a difference.

In a medieval laneway beside the 14th-century convent of St Anne, a 21st-century nun in full habit is trying to harness her higher powers to shield a cat from the attentions of Chiro the dog. "Ay!" she cries in despair as Chiro gives a rallying bark and hounds the poor puss through the cobbled labyrinth of Gerace.
The sprawling convent is a hotel these days (the nun lives across the lane) and from its elevated terrace in the foothills of the Aspromonte Mountains we have a 180-degree panorama of Calabria. The landscape is rippled with modest slopes and table mountains neatly hemmed with pine and olive trees. In the middle distance the blue border of the Mediterranean ruffles slightly in the breeze as the strains of a jaunty brass band drift up from the valley to put a smile on the day.
What we can't see, but Colin McLaren assures us lurks below, is the murky, malevolent world of the 'Ndrangheta. Derived from the ancient Greek word for virtue or courage, this is the darkly ironic name tag adopted by the Calabrian mafia who blight this gnarled and warty stump of southern Italy. Not just with their criminal activities but also their bad taste in architecture and complete absence of aesthetics. To reach Gerace we had to drive through the town of Locri, a depressing snarl of ugliness where the church spire is dwarfed by the golden arches. In Calabria, mammon trumps God.
'Ndrangheta mafiosi have their corrupt hands in everything here. McLaren says the mafia infestation is "shocking". But we are getting ahead of ourselves; as in any good crime story, let's start with the basics.
We are 16 Australians touring the badlands of Italy under the expert guidance of McLaren, a former anti-mafia squad detective with the National Crime Authority who, posing as crooked art dealer Cole Goodwin, famously infiltrated the Griffith mafia and busted their lucrative drugs-running ring wide open. (His best-selling memoir, Infiltration, was adapted for a telemovie in the series The Underbelly Files.)
McLaren is also the proprietor of the much-awarded Villa Gusto, a boutique hotel and restaurant in Bright in Victoria's alpine region. Filthy criminal networks aside, he has loved Italy and its food since his childhood growing up with migrants in working-class Melbourne.
Since 2006 he has led a series of what you might call drug and dégustation tours for the mildly adventurous. The format is usually 14 guests, 14 days, 14 dégustations (but no drugs - that was just an allusion to the mafia presence). While there is absolutely no danger involved in touring Italy's criminal heartland, you do need a strong stomach for the daily feasting in settings as diverse as old farmhouses and glamorous restaurants. And you will hear many shocking stories of the debauched lives of dons from the always-entertaining McLaren.
The tour kicks off in Campania with pizza in Naples and posing on the Amalfi Coast. By all accounts the latter stay was gorgeous, touring Positano and rubbing shoulders with the leisured classes, but we don't catch up with the group until Basilicata, arriving via a standing-room-only train from Naples. We don't get to see much of the city, but McLaren assures us Naples is like a mongrel dog's breakfast. And the Neapolitans are "just horrible rats". (Neapolitans aside, he's quite fond of Italy.)
At Sapri station we take the lone taxi - a rattling jalopy held together by stray wire and sheer good fortune - for the eight-kilometre drive along an alarmingly winding, narrow and aerial coast road to the gravity-defying cliff-front village of Acquafredda. The driver is obese and, judging by the pong in the cab, he hasn't washed recently. We keep a nervous eye on our luggage in case it slips out the roped-up boot.
It is a reasonably unpleasant journey, but once we step inside Villa Cheta Elite such sublunary concerns melt away, as they do in all great hotels. This is not some gilded celebrity bolthole, but simply a beautifully maintained art nouveau villa where the staff are as pleasant as the balmy autumn weather.
On our first evening there we gather in the ocean-view dining room for a dégustation of casalinga typical of Basilicata, matched with a flight of aglianico, a brooding, dark wine extracted from the very old Greek grape variety that flourishes in this region. Shirley Bassey purrs her way through "Hey, Big Spender" as we tuck in to modestly named plates such as "bruschetta with tomato, fresh cheese and mint" and learn that the cheese, a ricotta, was made in-house that morning and the mint was plucked from the garden that afternoon. No country does fresh ingredients like Italy.
Over an '03 Paternoster from the ominous-sounding Vulture region, we dine on confit rabbit and polenta while McLaren holds forth with mafia-related titbits. Did you know that at Palermo's Ucciardone prison, aka "the Grand Hotel", inmates' wives and girlfriends protested last year against a ban on their boys - most of them mafiosi - wearing designer threads? The new governor wanted to end the displays of social status, power and wealth synonymous with the jail and promptly banned flashy labels like Prada, Gucci and Valentino.
Or that in August last year 'Ndrangheta boss Francesco Pesce, listed by the Italian government as a "dangerous fugitive", was discovered living in a junkyard in an underground bunker with satellite TV, internet access and mafia-strength video surveillance? "I've become famous," he declared after his capture.
The evening continues with conversations and nightcaps on the terrace sandwiched between inky ocean and twinkly sky. Next day we gather on yet another terrace for a cooking demonstration by the hotel's chef, Maria Sànchez. Despite her Venezuelan roots, Sànchez creates a local dish from Maratea, just down the coast.
It is spaghetti cut on the chitarra and tossed with shallots, capsicum, cherry tomatoes and black olives, some just-caught sardines thrown in for added flavour.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a cooking class than our sun-dappled assembly beneath an ancient spreading tree on a bougainvillea-fringed balcony above the shimmering Gulf of Policastro.
It's also hard to imagine that, for all its charms, the Villa Cheta Elite is located in one of Italy's poorest regions. Rugged Basilicata has little industry but has lately begun dabbling in wine, hospitality and produce-based tourism. But it still feels like a special, untouched spot. The film director Francis Ford Coppola calls it "a region of Italy that is still preserved, that is still authentic, that is still unpolluted". And it is all of those things.
Our first contact with the unruly hinterland of Calabria is at Ristorante Agorà in the 15th-century stone village of Civita, home to an Albanian-Calabrian community with a reputation for secrecy and evading mafia control (even mafiosi don't mess with Albanians).
McLaren warned us the locals are "not too lively - you won't see many smiles" and yet the staff at Agorà are witty and dry, and when the photographer and I go for a walk, a black-clad nonna gladly poses for us by draping herself, laughing, over the bonnet of a Fiat Bambino. These hybrid people seem perfectly lively to me.
It may have something to do with their diet. For Sunday lunch the Agorà serves us a bottomless banquet that begins wonderfully with plates of pecorino, thick slices of purplish cured pork (so tasty), ricottine - small, moulded ricotta - and savoury doughnut-like crespelle. My fellow guests are moaning around the table about the eggplant or the zucchini fritters or the wine, a pleasantly oily Calabrian white called Serracavallo Besidiae. Three pasta platters appear, including fettuccine with chickpeas and paprika that smells like chicken soup, and hand-rolled bucatini with Napoli sauce.
Things turn primal from here on in. The owner announces the next course will be "lamb's brain", but he is telling only part of the truth. What comes to the table is a full sheep's head, so physiologically intact that one member of our group souvenirs a tooth from its jaw. No one is brave enough to try an eye.
The head is accompanied by a plate of what our waitress describes as "intestine of the moo cow" cooked with fresh tomatoes and basil. Then the stunt food finishes - or so I think - and platters of roasted wild pig are arranged on the table. I find it too strongly flavoured to enjoy, the meat stringy and dense. Not really like wild pig at all. The next day McLaren admits the reason it didn't taste like wild pig is that it was donkey. Call me a pansy but I feel a bit sick. It doesn't seem fair to mislead diners into eating something they might not like. Given the (informed) choice, I would not have eaten a dear old donkey.
From Civita we board the tour bus and head south along the autostrada to Gerace, passing stony, monochrome landscapes straight out of the Wild West. The similarities in setting - and in outlaw mentality - might explain why Gunsmoke and Rawhide are two of the most popular TV shows in Calabria. Both have been screened here continuously since the 1950s.
Gerace sits near San Luca and Plati, two of the meanest towns in the south. All the 'Ndrangheta bosses, including the late Griffith drug baron Aussie Bob Trimbole, come from the area and Plati practically owns the global ecstasy trade. (You'd never know it to see the place. McLaren leads the photographer and me on a clandestine dawn visit to Plati - "the worst town in Italy by a mile" - in a borrowed car with local plates. The town's welcome sign is riddled with bullet holes and some surly youths loiter by the rubbish-strewn roadside. But aside from the odd ugly mansion there is no indication this is the global headquarters of the Calabrian mafia. I mean, you'd think they'd take a bit more pride in the place.)
Unlike its nefarious neighbours, Gerace has no mafia presence because the town is too small, the pickings too slim. McLaren added it to the itinerary because "it's clean, beautiful and medieval and not infected by mafia". The only drawback to staying in a picturesque medieval settlement is that its donkey lanes are too narrow for buses, so our group must board a toy train, in the dark, for the ascent to the village.
We load ourselves and luggage aboard this reticulated novelty with its deranged driver who plays the most god-awful techno music including a song apparently called "Dinky Donk". When the moronic train pulls into the main square, we disembark in front of a local audience, all staring at us as if we have just arrived from another planet. The planet of Dinky Donk, presumably.
The pleasure of being in Gerace is not found in its grand monuments or restaurants - there are precious few of either - but in the quiet moments spent wandering its storied lanes and making small discoveries like the remains of ancient fortifications, or an 11th-century church, or emerging into the bijou main square just as a bride arrives for her wedding in a black Maserati.
On yet another brilliantly sunny afternoon we journey partway down the hill to an old farmhouse with a terrace overlooking the Aspromonte Mountains, rough fists of rock riddled with caves where Calabrian thugs stowed kidnapping victims, including 16-year-old oil heir John Paul Getty III - until a handsome ransom was handed over. "They were extraordinarily successful with their kidnapping," McLaren explains over a glass of wine. "Where on earth do you find a man hidden away in mountains like this that have 10,000 caves?"
Fortunately for well-heeled tourists, the 'Ndrangheta lost interest in kidnappings in the 1990s. They realised there was much more money to be made trafficking drugs. These days the caves are used to hide massive caches of cocaine and ecstasy. The world's biggest ecstasy haul was in Australia in 2008, when police found 15 million pills hidden in tomato tins they traced to a cannery in Reggio-Calabria, just down the road from here.
The 'Ndrangheta is now the most powerful crime syndicate in Italy and rakes in about $50 billion a year in dirty money - equivalent to 3.5 per cent of the national GDP. Italy's anti-mafia squad claims it now controls 80 per cent of Europe's cocaine supply.
It's thrilling to contemplate this dark past and dire present, but they are no match for the sight of abundance before us at the farmhouse. It looks as though a continental deli has exploded onto our luncheon table. Salami and chunky, piccante Calabrian sausages made in casa, veal steaks, rabbits, organic chicken, platters of crumbed eggplant, roast potatoes, green beans, broccoli and pecorino, all laced with chilli… The highlight is an epic, metre-long pig fragrant with rosemary, thyme and onions that has been roasted on a wood-fired spit.
An accordionist strikes up as we settle into gluttony in this garden of century-old olives, pomegranates and roses gone to hips. His rendition of the theme from The Godfather, complete with stirring finger vibrato, draws an enthusiastic response. At the end of the meal he starts a gentle tarantella that becomes progressively more urgent until everyone is up and doing a conga around the table. As they collapse, laughing and puffed, into their chairs, one guest tells McLaren, "You've done it again." And he has, conjuring a perfectly lovely afternoon of indulgence amid the depravity of the deep south.
Our introduction to Sicily is a hulking car ferry that transports us across the Strait of Messina and serves rather good arancini. On arrival we head straight for the hills - to Savoca, the stunning village that starred as the mafia stronghold Corleone in The Godfather. Excited fellow travellers remark that Al Pacino must have travelled this very road (there is only one) - and, Oh look! There's the church where he got married!
It's a beautiful town and quiet enough that our group easily snags a few tables at Bar Vitelli, where Michael Corleone met his future father-in-law, for a lemon granita overlooking the Piazza Fossia. At a bar across the square, tourists can pick up a jar of Il Padrino pesto or buy bottle openers featuring figures of swarthy Sicilians toting guns.
Taormina, by contrast, is all class. Palazzi and cypresses tumble down a steep hill to the Ionian Sea. The city is crowned by a citadel in the form of a Saracen castle above the town. It's a rock-star setting and we are staying in a rock-star hotel - Villa Angela, owned by the lead singer of Simple Minds, Jim Kerr. To someone who frittered away his youth dancing to hits like "Promised You a Miracle", this is terribly exciting news. Much more so than the planned visit to Il Cantante winery on Mount Etna, owned by Simply Red's Mick Hucknall.
The hotel is more homely than high-end, but it is friendly and the 27 rooms all have terraces looking straight across to the mount, today shrouded in smutty cloud but still a massive presence to the south-west.
It is because of Kerr, apparently, that we get a table at the chic Metropole Hotel where Austrian-born chef Andreas Zangerl famously never takes group bookings. But he is the picture of hospitality as we file in, dressed to the nines, and take our seats on the terrace while trying not to gasp at the vertiginous city and shimmering sea below us. We taste the best of Sicily here, from the wines to the seafood and, best of all, the olive oil. It is DOP Monti Iblei, a much-awarded drop made from tonda iblea olives endemic to Sicily. It is so fresh it leaves a slight burn at the back of the throat and fills the mouth with unadulterated, unbelievable olive juice. The hero of the meal.
On our final morning we visit Catania, the wonderfully mouldering baroque city sited in the lee of Etna. It is wildly colourful, from the hysterical glory of St Agatha's Cathedral to the open-air theatre of the fish market, where a troupe of short Sicilian men hold their catch aloft to better display the clarity in the eyes, the sparkling silver of the scales.
And then, all too soon, it is time to leave. There are warm farewells with our fellow travellers, who will spend the remaining four nights exploring the rest of Sicily. As a parting gift, McLaren hands us two cannoli, fried pastry tubes filled with creamy ricotta so fresh and lemony they are like no other cannoli I've had before. And rather than making me happy, his gift makes me a bit wistful. If this is what Sicily tastes like, why on earth are we leaving so soon?