Hanging Out with the Mafia
My girlfriend and I were at a subterranean restaurant in the industrial port-city of Catania, Sicily. Cargo ships filled the harbor, shops sold horse-meat kebabs out of their doorways, and salt water flowed from the faucets. Ever since we’d landed in Sicily, the atmosphere had been one of fine suits, cigarettes, and Alfa Romeos. And this little restaurant, with its proud display of freshly caught fish, eels, prawns, and calamari sitting on ice chips beside the entrance, felt straight out of The Godfather.
The host seated two men at the table beside us, and a flurry of glasses, plates, and wine bottles followed. They were definitely getting better service than we were. The waiters brought course after course, some brimming with squid ink, others lightly fried like tempura. As far as we could tell, the two men hadn’t said one word to the wait staff.
Our tables were close together, and I overheard bits and pieces of their conversation. It involved buying properties across the globe and shipments between Sicily and Brooklyn, but I couldn’t catch the details. They kept switching from Italian to English as though they were trying to hide something. My ears perked up when I heard something about tax evasion in Buenos Aires. “Big Tony’s been doin’ it for years,” one of the men said. When they mentioned Big Tony again, Kristin kicked me under the table. A shiver ran down my spine: Could we be sitting beside two members of Cosa Nostra, the local version of the Mafia? I was horrified and enthralled. Don’t tick these boys off, I thought, or you’ll be sleepin’ with the next night’s dinner.
A street band began playing Italian classics. They played very loud and very fast. After a particularly intense version of “Mambo Italiano,” the little band asked for tips. I only had a five, and I wasn’t going to give it to them. A sharp glance from one of the Mafiosi got the musicians to leave us in peace. I looked over at the guy, and my eyes accidently made contact. After tipping the musician, he turned toward me.
“Hello,” he said in his Brooklyn accent. “We’re chiropractuhs.”
I pictured bones breaking; it had to be a cover. Their names were Freddie and Alfonso. The conversation rattled on, but they didn’t seem too interested. Then, to my surprise, they invited us for an after-dinner drink. At first, it seemed like a bad idea. But curiosity got the better of me.
Freddie and Alfonso went out to smoke, and I tried to get the waiter’s attention. The waiter took forever, and by the time we paid, Freddie and Alfonso had finished their cigarettes and were standing a ways down the street. As we headed toward them, a car squealed into view. It headed straight for us going at a ridiculous speed. The guys grew tense. The car screeched to a stop, and a massive man with a shaved head emerged from the driver’s seat.
He spoke heatedly with Freddie, who spoke just as heatedly back. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I saw Freddie and Alfonso reach for the car’s door handles.
“We’ve got to go take care of something real quick,” said Freddie over his shoulder, and just before he ducked into the passenger seat, “Meet us at the Woxy. It’s straight up the street.”
The car departed as it quickly as it had arrived, wheels squealing.
The Woxy? The Italians don’t even use the letter w, and they hardly use the x. “I think they have some business to attend to, if you know what I mean,” I said. We laughed, partly out of nervousness, partly out of relief.
“They were clearly trying to get rid of us,” said Kristin. “The Roxy’s famous. Maybe that’s the first club that came to mind.”
We made a perfunctory search for “the Woxy” without success, then bought a couple beers and wandered the cobblestone streets of the old town. We tried to guess where they had rushed off to, coming up with a handful of unreasonable explanations. Then, on our way back to the hotel, we saw Freddie leaning out of a parked car.
“Yo guys, you find the bar?”
“No,” I said, stunned. “Are you heading that way?”
“Yeah, it’s straight up the street,” said Freddie. “Alfonso had to go home, but my cousin and I were just on our way there.”
The Woxy really does exist. It’s an Irish Pub in Piazza Spirito Santo. When Freddie arrived, something about his demeanor had changed. He was way more relaxed. His cousin was not the big guy from the getaway car. His name was Marco, and he was a laid-back guy with long hair and torn jeans. He was friendly but didn’t speak English. Freddie started to talk about the woman he was going to marry, who lived in Ft. Lauderdale. That’s when I realized that we’d been totally wrong: Freddie actually was a chiropractor.
“Have you ever heard of Ideal Spine? It’s this genius new way of mapping out the geometric structure of each individual vertebra. You should check it out. W-W-W dot ideal spine dot com. He’s the new way of chiropractory. Nothing this big has happened in the field since the seventies.”
As I listened to Freddie go on about being a chiropractor and about the girl he loves and how nervous he was about asking her to be his wife, I realized that this—what I’d been viewing as my Adventure with the Mafia—was all in my head. I’d taken my preconceived notions of Sicily and slapped them straight onto Freddie and Alfonso. How could I have thought that this chiropractor from Brooklyn could be a Mafioso? I have no idea. But I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t.
After the drinks, we left the bar and Freddie and his cousin took us to a long set of steps packed with people drinking and smoking. There, we learned why Freddie’s demeanor had seemed to relax.
“You want to smoke some weed?” he asked.
On the steps, surrounded by the nightlife of Catania, we told Freddie that our next stop would be Taormina. He called the city “paralyzingly beautiful,” and his cousin nodded in agreement. Freddie recommended a restaurant.
“If you go,” he said, “tell Nino Freddie sends his respect.”
For more writing and photos by Mattie Bamman, the Ravenous Traveler, check out www.europeupclose.com