Napoli — a slightly darker side

It’s hard to think of Naples without having the words “organized crime” run – however briefly — through your mind.  Their particular brand is called the Camorra.  I don’t know if what we witnessed was part of the Big Boys or was just an example of a common neighborhood gang, but to me it represented what the consequences of living with this mentality in your community can mean to the everyday citizens.

We always try to find someone in our hotel who looks like he/she knows and loves whatever town we’re in.  Then we ask them where they go to get a favorite meal, rather than where they send the tourists.  Our resident expert in Naples told us about a little restaurant close-by.  The windows in the front folded back so in good weather, it was almost like sitting outside, and we were able to snag the second table from the sidewalk.  The owner and our waiter were great fun and we had a wonderful time joking with them in our fractured Italian.  The food was as fresh and delicious as our expert had predicted.  Everyone in the restaurant was in a good mood.

Then the family at the outside table in front of us left, and five men immediately sat in the chairs.  I’ve never felt so dramatic a change in the atmosphere.  It seemed that an evil force had sucked the oxygen out of the room, and turned up the temperature to a steam bath setting.  And it was obvious we weren’t the only ones who felt this.  The other patrons stopped their conversations.  The smiles of the owner and waiter were replaced by very worried looks.

And the men?  I have no idea if they were really attached to an organized group or just neighborhood bullies, but I’m being very generous by referring to them as thugs.  I never saw them order, but within five minutes of their sitting down, the waiter brought them all very large steaks, which they ate with the same table manners as a pack of wild dogs….though using that comparison is insulting to wild dogs.  I couldn’t believe that the chunks they ripped off could actually fit in their mouths, but somehow they managed to shove both the meat and huge pieces of bread in at the same time. It was quite obvious that their mothers had never taught them that it’s not polite to eat with your mouth open and stuffed with so much food that it splatters down the front of you. We tried to joke with the owner, but he responded with a stony face.  He just kept bringing them plate after plate of food until suddenly, one of the thugs gave a sign.  The food stopped and the men left.  No words, no bill.

It was as if everyone in the restaurant had been frozen in place while they were at the table, and with a collective exhale, we all started breathing again as soon as they left.  Conversations resumed, the owner and waiter once again joked with people, food was once again served with a smile.

THAT is the day-to-day face of organized crime.  It’s not the inter-gang murders.  As tourists, we certainly didn’t feel at all threatened.  No– it’s the little restaurant or shop owner who suffers.  He’s the one trying to make a living for his family, and in order to do that, he must endure the ever-present possibility that his domain will be invaded by a band of low-level thugs who can make life very difficult for him if he doesn’t accommodate them.

I ended my previous piece on Naples (August 29th for those of you just joining me) recommending that it should definitely be somewhere on your “to do” list, and I don’t want this piece to make you change your thinking.  It’s a wonderful city that just has a few more “complexities” thrown into it.  Considering that the people live with an awful lot of hassles, it’s all the more remarkable how incredibly friendly and cheerful they are.  And in the end – THEY are what makes it so interesting, enjoyable and very well worth visiting.

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6 thoughts on “Napoli — a slightly darker side

  1. The line between being profitable or not is a very thin one. This ‘comped’ meal conceivably not only consisted of steak, bread, and whatever else, but also the profits for the week. Hard to make a living in these circumstances.

  2. This could be a scene right out of “The Sopranos” (a hugely successful HBO series from years back, for those not familiar)….except that in the series, they had better table manners! What an experience–thanks for sharing.
    And by the way–happy belated birthday! We’ll celebrate on the 31st–really looking forward to it.

  3. Thank goodness this seems to be dying out in Sicily. Sicilians got sick and tired of the “Friends of friends” and started to fight back. Last summer we visited Corleone, the seat of the Sicilian mafia, and discovered much to our surprise an anti-mafia museum! In Corleone! Some times the winds of change are for the good.

  4. Ciao Susan,
    I’ve heard the same thing. My daughter has no fear and has travelled everywhere often by herself but the one place she was scared was Napoli. (she lives in Berlin now). My wife and I bought a small apartment in Montepulciano not long ago. Just a train stop from Orvieto. Never a worry about walking alone a night. We have friends that own a little wine/coffee bar (Al Tocco) and he says never never walk around Napoli showing any valuables. No jewelry, no camera of any value (big problem for me, a photographer). Che peccato! So Susan, do you post your photos to Flickr? If so I’d like to make you a contact. We are, after all fellow half-year-Italians. You can find me at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bellamontepulciano/
    A presto
    Jay Rogers

    • While we never felt threatened, I just say that I held my purse a bit closer than I do in Orvieto. As for Montepulciano — I’ve been there many, many times and absolutely love the area. How wonderful to have an apartment there. In Italian terms, we’re neighbors, so perhaps we can all get together when we’re there in the Spring.

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