Mafia in our kitchen? No, thanks! 

Caponata (2)

During its activities, Mafianeindanke has frequently come across cases of misuse, in the form of romanticisation, of the attribute ‘mafia’ in the gastronomy and restaurant sectors. The problem has an obvious European scope: think of the Spanish chain ‘La mafia se sienta a la mesa’ (The Mafia sits at the table), or the Parisian restaurant ‘Corleone by Lucia Riina’; or think of all the dishes of the same restaurant chains with which the adjective ‘mafia’ is playfully associated1. The attitude of homage to Mafia folklore also has a wide following in Germany: it is no coincidence that Mafianeindanke has taken a stand through the initiative Was tun gegen Mafia-Werbung? – mafianeindanke e.V., which allows people to report businesses whose name or products recall the ‘Mafia’ brand.  

Whether it is a precise marketing choice of mafia syndicates, or a naive attempt by non-colluding restaurateurs to make their way in a very competitive market, the allusion to the mafia for commercial purposes brings with it several problems. We consider it useful, in order to highlight the consequences of such a tendency, to investigate the causes behind the trivialisation of the ‘mafioso’ and all the imagery surrounding it. In addition to the tendency to misinform about the Mafia, we wonder whether its romanticisation, specifically in the gastronomic-restaurant sector, might not be connected to an erroneous cultural framing: a distortion of the image of Italy and its culture, too often – and too easily – identified as mafia. Mafianeindanke chose to talk about these issues with Cettina Vicenzino, a Sicilian author of recipe books based on the Italian culinary tradition. In her attempt to disseminate an authentic image of Italian culture – not only culinary – in Germany, she had to come to terms with the high degree of stereotyping concerning the latter, as well as its undue association with a fictional Mafia imagery. 

Mnd: You moved to Germany at an early age. Why, after finishing your studies, did you choose to unleash your culinary art, deeply rooted in Italian tradition, right here? 

Cettina Vicenzino: My parents had an Italian restaurant for a long time, where I grew up and helped out. However, I didn’t want to become a chef or write cookery books. I went to Hamburg and studied fashion design. My fashion studies became more and more artistic in the form of fashion art and my art became more and more edible in the form of food art. I combined fashion with art, food and also social and philosophical themes, which brought me back to my Italian roots and my mother Maria’s wonderful recipes.  

Thus, the idea of writing down her recipes was born, but it was only then that I realised how much Italian cuisine in Germany was talked about and influenced by Germans, British and Americans. There were hardly any cookery books by Italians living in Germany. Even in other media they were hardly ever mentioned. And when they were, the perfect Italian had to respond to certain clichés. 

Not only was Italian cuisine and culture mostly explained to me from the German perspective, I was also told how I should be as an Italian woman. I should speak stunted German, be sexy and exuberant and my only passions should be pasta, love and children. Under no circumstances should I be quiet and intellectual. This image has not changed to this day and corresponds to the one that Nadia Caterina Munno exaggeratedly markets as ‘The Pasta Queen’, celebrated all over the world.  

As an Italian and especially as a Sicilian, I have never been able to identify with much of what journalists, who are very much in love with Italy, write about Italy and Italians. Sicilian cuisine has been reduced to lemons, mafia, and the cuisine of the poor, about which there is no need to write a cookbook. Italy is still in the minds of many a single region where everyone only eats pizza, pasta, and tiramisu. For years I have observed that German journalists, predominantly Italophiles, subtly devalue Italy and Italians, spreading very distorted images that do not even stop at the romanticisation of the mafia

In 2009, my first cookbook entitled ‘Mamma Maria – Family Recipes from Sicily’ was published. I was naive enough to believe that it would be interesting if Italians living in Germany were allowed to tell their stories. Unfortunately, the book was largely ignored by the press or received disproportionately unfair coverage. But even without the support of the press, the book has become one of the best-selling Sicilian cookery books in German-speaking countries. With this book, I was able to contribute to giving an image of Sicily as a Sicilian, that is, as a native of this culture. Some Sicilians even thanked me because finally there was no talk of Mafia cuisine and they, and their culture, felt seen for the first time. Since then, the image of Sicilian cuisine has also changed for the better. 

Mnd: In Germany, even though the public debate neglects the Mafia topic to a great extent, Italian cuisine is often wrongly associated with Mafia imagery. How do you interpret this contradiction? 

I believe there are several reasons. One is certainly the word ‘mafia’ itself. I think it would be better to use a completely different word, so that people finally understand what it is all about. In Germany, the word mafia has a very funny or super-cool connotation, influenced by the American Godfather films. People associate a mafioso with the entertainment of a fiction rather than a real and serious danger. It is not only associated with a cool or funny macho guy who makes interesting movements with his hands, speaks such original stunted German and is therefore incredibly funny, but also with Bella Italia, i.e. the sun, the beach, the sea and Italian food! 

Italians and also mafiosi are associated with good food, but not with the ability to organise well. There is therefore no need to fear organised crime from the Italians. The second problem is the image that many Germans have of Italians. They are nice but not particularly intelligent, they do not get much done and spend the day with ‘dolce far niente’ or eating for hours on end. And if they are imitated, discriminated against, or marginalised, they don’t even get angry. Italians are low maintenance and do not cause any problems. Where should the danger come from? That is the idea. It is a structural racism that does not want to be seen, but unfortunately it is a breeding ground for the mafia. 

Mnd: During your professional career, how did you deal with the stereotype that associates Italian cuisine with the Mafia? Could you share some significant episodes and how you handled such situations?  

When I was asked to create Sicilian recipes for a German author’s cookbook, I was given a list of sample recipes. Among them was ‘Pasta Mafiosa’. The people present at the meeting, who were not part of the Italian culture, did not realise that this was an insult. After my objection, the idea of creating a Mafia dish for the cookbook was also cancelled. Unfortunately, it is not the rule that Italians come up with recipes for Italian cookery books or magazines, this is the exception. 

But I often can’t help it when, for example, German journalists who have also studied Italian literature, after reviewing my cookbook ‘Sicily in my Kitchen’, end up recommending the film The Godfather Part 2, even though in my book I had explicitly declared myself against this Mafia cult. The same journalist, however, felt that the title of my first cookbook ‘Mamma Maria!’ was a cliché, even though that is my mother’s name. A crazy world! And here it becomes clear that people in Germany do not associate Italian cuisine and culture with real people living in that culture, but see Italy and Italians as a construct, a marketing idea, or a lifestyle product. 

Another journalist, who made a documentary on Sicilian food and even bought my book ‘Sicily in my Kitchen’ as inspiration, presented the tour in the footsteps of the Godfather in her documentary after I had even asked her not to. She justified herself by saying that ‘The Godfather’ was not a mafia cult, but a cinema classic. This leaves me speechless, because even in Germany it is now known that these films are seen by mafia bosses as good publicity for their organisation. 

As an Italian, it is impossible to fight against these stereotypes because unfortunately too many journalists support the Mafia cult and do not recognise its denigrating nature. When I once said in an interview with that ‘it is difficult to spread authentic Italian cuisine in Germany’, I really meant this. Below this sentence in my interview, another food journalist wrote that a couple of German authors, known for their Italian cookery books, would be very successful in spreading authentic Italian cuisine. She was referring to the authors who associate caponata with Al Capone. This is the kind of book considered authentically Italian by many German journalists. 

The fact that ‘Mafia cuisine’ and ‘authentic Italian cuisine’ go together for many people is unfortunately also reflected in the numerous Mafia cookery books. The related positive reviews are no less disparaging. For example, on Amazon under the 2020 cookbook ‘The Godfather: The Corleone Family Cookbook’ it says: ‘A fantastic traditional Italian cookbook’ or ‘The perfect gift for every Italian’. 

Mnd: In your opinion, what influence does the use of these stereotypes have on the way Germans see and conceive of the Mafia? 

As long as the Germans adopt and reproduce the image of Italy that the Americans and, in particular, the American film industry have, covering it with their romantic nostalgia without looking any closer, nothing will change. On the contrary, they are playing into the hands of organised crime. Because there is nothing better for organised crime than the romantic people around it, who become willing accomplices by spreading these stereotypes about Italians and keeping them alive. Stereotypes and romantic nostalgia trivialise the real danger and mock the victims of the mafia. 

Mnd: Do you think that some Italians, despite greater awareness on the subject of mafias, may also have contributed to the spread of the stereotypes in question? 

Italians should consciously look at stereotypes before they unknowingly adhere to them and end up harming themselves and others. Awareness is always the decisive step to protect one’s own culture. Unfortunately, however, many Italians living in Germany do not do this. In Zeitmagazin’s interview of 12 May 2022 with five Italians, an Italian restaurateur responded to the question of how exhausting it was to be a ‘projection surface’ for Germans by saying that she did not care what Germans projected onto her. 

Some knowingly play along because they can gain from the cult of the mafia and the distorted cult of Italy. There are groups of foreign tourists for whom a mafia night is organised in Sicily in which they disguise themselves as mafiosi in order to be one at least once in their lives. Why do hoteliers indulge them, even though they are disgusted by them? In the face of this perversion, I simply cannot find the person responsible. 

Others say that in a foreign country, where they feel they are gastarbeiter who are mainly allowed to do the dirty work, they have managed to gain respect with this stereotype. So, they played at being mafiosi. 

Others even lend themselves because they feel compelled. Recently, I suddenly saw on the website of a very good pizzeria: Pizza Mafiosa. I was very disappointed and asked for information. The response was a bit disconcerting for me. As guests kept asking about the Mafia, the answer was this pizza. Not good at all. 

Mnd: What do you think could be a constructive approach to break down stereotypes and trigger a turnaround? What is your way of being anti-Mafia in your profession? 

In short: cultural exchange (respect for a foreign culture and the people in it, understanding that they are human beings and not marketing constructs) instead of cultural appropriation (commercialisation, distortion of a foreign culture and devaluation of those in it) would solve the problem. Easy to say, were it not for the Germans’ infatuation with Italy, which prevents precisely this. Julia Hitz very aptly writes in her article: ‘Land of longing: The transfigured love of Germans for Italy‘: ‘Germans are in love – and have been for almost two centuries. Infatuation, not love, characterises the relationship between the Germans and Italy, because the cognitive distortions typical of infatuation are clearly manifested: narrowing of consciousness, positive exaggerations, rampant projections‘. 

This is a serious problem that, despite education, has not yet been overcome. This infatuation completely ignores the suffering of Italians, who are often excluded and marginalised when it comes to their culture. Interestingly, Italian cuisine and culture are no longer seen as something foreign, but as a cultural asset German . People often tell me what Italian cuisine is, as if I, as an Italian, could not know. 

It is very evident in German cookery book competitions, where Italian cuisine is also judged. There are only Germans in the jury: most of them don’t even notice this everyday racism against Italians. I often see it in the newspapers too. In the well-known magazine Merian, four chefs – all German – were allowed to present and explain Sicilian cuisine. Anna Sgroi and I were the only Sicilians, but we were only quoted out of necessity: me because they used a photo from a German author’s cookbook for which I had created Sicilian recipes; Anna Sgroi because one of the four chefs had studied under her. I think cultural appropriation has to do with capitalism and colonialism. All that also characterises organised crime. 

Excluding Italians when discussing their culture is not only discriminatory, but promotes stereotyping, denigration, and romanticisation of the mafia. That is why it is important that when writing or reviewing texts or cookbooks on Italian culture, one should involve ‘sensitive readers’ who belong to that culture. I was therefore not surprised that the introduction to Sicilian cannoli in Merian magazine begins with the film ‘The Godfather’. 

Although there are Italians who support these stereotypes, I personally know enough Italians who deeply detest this mafia cult, but who cannot change anything in Germany because the Italian-loving food journalists are extremely obstructive. The first thing to do is to make them recognise their romantic view of Italy, which often goes hand in hand with structural discrimination against Italians, and then deconstruct it. 

I am a big fan of the approach of Leoluca Orlando, the former mayor of Palermo, whom I also met in person. During his long tenure, he was able to convey to his citizens that the city can only be taken away from the mafia if people realise their own identity and culture, which has nothing to do with the mafia. The mafia has appropriated and perverted Sicilian culture. And the distorted nostalgia for Italy fuels it. 

As Cettina points out, the extent of the problem easily emerges with a search on Amazon or a quick glance at the German media. A romanticised view of the mafia, however easily passing itself off as ironic and harmless, gives rise to serious problems: the mockery of the victims of organised crime, the trivialisation of the anti-mafia movement, as well as the dissemination of misleading stereotypes that conceal the role the mafia really plays within contemporary socio-economic reality. The dissemination of the aforementioned stereotypes facilitates the camouflage of mafias, who are happy to hide their dangerousness and their associates behind appetising recipes or inviting restaurants. 

“Talk about the Mafia. Talk about it on the radio, on television, in the newspapers. But talk about it’. To these far-sighted words of Paolo Borsellino, we would like to add an invitation. Let us talk about it with a critical sense, avoiding lapsing into trivialisation and spreading an unrealistic imagery that does not reflect what the mafia really is: an element of strong corruption and instability for civil society and democracy.  

For these reasons, Mafianeindanke, in addition to receiving reports on any commercial use of the Mafia brand, is campaigning for the introduction of a civil society organised crime monitoring centre (BOK – Beobachtungsstelle für Organisierte Kriminalität). In our view, the introduction of such an observatory would help to spread truthful knowledge, collect data and make it easily available to civil society, decisively counteracting disinformation and the resulting stereotyping. 

  1. Some articles by Mafianeindanke on the topic: What makes Mafia romance attractive to Italian restaurants – mafianeindanke e.V.; Why Germany needs anti-Mafia heroes – mafianeindanke e.V.; Ein Gerichtsurteil, das Italien erbost – mafianeindanke e.V. ↩︎