Only in Italy is a daily news column that reports funny and weird news on Italy, the mafia, Italian culture and Italian travel.

Only in Italy is a daily news column that reports funny and weird news on Italy, the mafia, Italian culture and Italian travel.

Only In Italy is a daily news column that translates & reports on funny but true news items from legitimate Italian news sources in Italy.
Only in Italy is a daily news column that reports funny and weird news on Italy, the mafia, Italian culture and Italian travel.Only in Italy is a daily news column that reports funny and weird news on Italy, the mafia, Italian culture and Italian travel.
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April 2004
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"Passion and Anti-Mafia Pasta"   


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"Buona Pasqua!" Happy Easter and welcome to another movie critic issue of "Only In Italy!"

Italy is getting excited for Mel's "Passion" that will soon hit Italian theaters. It should do really well here considering the Pope's blessing to go and see the movie. (We still don't understand why the Vatican has to give movie criticisms. Shouldn't it be more involved with religious sightings and Italian politics?)

The French called "Passion" 'sadistic', 'manipulative' and 'incredibly boring' last week. But, then again, the French think 'Cordon Bleu' (sausage & eggs) is fancy cuisine.

Enjoy the exposure, even the authentic "anticlericalism" that perfectly mirrors the underside of Italian popular religiosity. However, my suggestion is for your "fact checker"; in the article on stealing 5,000 designer jackets, after cutting a telephone cable, you give the value of the goods as 70,000 Euros. Even in Italy, that comes out to 14 Euros per jacket--what kind of self-respecting designer is going to peddle 14 Euro jackets? Keep up the good work. Arthur

Thanks for the keen observation and letter, Arturo! After we received your letter, we were forced to beat our fact checker with a couple of loaves of garlic bread and advised him to do a further checkup on the story for the sake of our readers...and his!

To our surprise, our fact checker confirmed that the facts of the story were indeed accurate. The only part of the article we would have to denounce is the designer being self-respecting! Every goat farmer in Italy who designs a 14 Euro jacket thinks he's going to be the next self-respecting Versace!

Enjoy the issue, keep writing and grazie!

Tanti Saluti,             
"Only In Italy" Staff      


Rome’s Gladiators Were Fat and Sloppy Vegetarians

Rome - April 5, 2004 - Hollywood has portrayed them as muscle-bound and handsome but Austrian anthropologists have found evidence suggesting that Roman gladiators were fat vegetarians who bore scant resemblance to Russell Crowe. The scientists did tests on skeletons of two different types of gladiators "the myrmillos and retiariae" found at the ancient site of Ephesus, near Selsuk in Turkey.

"Tests performed on bits of bone taken from the skeletons of some 70 gladiators buried at Ephesus seem to prove that they ate mainly barley, beans and dried fruit," said Karl Grossschmidt, a forensic doctor who took part in the study by Austria's institute of archaeology. "This diet, which has been mentioned in the oral history, is rather sad but it gave the gladiators a lot of strength even if it made them fat," said Grossschmidt who is a member of Vienna's institute of histology and embryology.

The Austrian palaeoanthropologists relied on a method known as elementary micro-analysis that allows scientists to determine what a human being ate during his lifetime. With the help of a sonar, they could establish the chemical concentrations inside cells in the bone samples taken from the skeletons at Ephesus. From this, they could deduce how much meat, fish, grains and fruit made up the diet of the Roman fighting machines.

This line of testing allowed the scientists to debunk another myth that of the strappy Spartacus sandal sported in the arena.

"The bone density is particularly high in samples taken from the feet, which would suggest that the gladiators fought with their bare feet in sand," Kanz said. He believes that because some gladiators fought with little more than their bare hands, they could have "cultivated layers of fat to protect their vital organs from the cutting blows of their opponents." In ancient Rome, the classical battle of gladiators usually pitted a myrmillo armed with a sword, a helmet and a round shield, against the lightly armed retiarius who carried only a net and a dagger, or a samnite who wore a visor and a leather sheath protecting his right arm.

They were mostly slaves who volunteered to fight because sometimes the victor would be freed as a reward, or poor Romans who fought for pay. The Austrian scientists are still carrying out further tests, but if their initial findings are confirmed it would change the glamorous image of the men immortalized in movies like Spartacus, starring a young Kirk Douglas, and the more recent Gladiator with Crowe in the main role. "It seems that the gladiators tried to put on some weight before their battles," Kanz said.

"But this does not mean that they did not work hard to lose it again once they stepped out of the ring," he added with a smile.

Arghh...What a disappointment!

So, what these scientists are trying to tell us is that gladiators were just a bunch of barefooted fat Italians who ate barley, beans and fruit all day. We don't recall Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe celebrating victories with a bowl of refried beans and oranges.

The films coming out of Hollywood today are trying to come as close to reality as possible. So, why not make another gladiator film based on these scientific discoveries? Having them passing gas and fighting barefoot in the Coliseum is a great idea for a film. There is NO gladiator in the world strong enough to hold in the putrid gas from eating beans, barley and fruit all day!

Now, that's reality cinema!

Italy's Cavemen Cashing In on 'Passion' of Mel Gibson

How does a Hollywood religious blockbuster raise the impoverished town of Matera from the dead?

Matera - April 4, 2004 - For the devout, the Holy Land may once have been the ultimate place of homage, but now a wild and little-known corner of Italy is set to rival Israel on the Christian tourist map.

Thanks to Hollywood, pilgrims, especially Americans, are focusing on a tiny hilltop town in Basilicata - in the 'instep' of the Italian boot. Matera was the chosen setting for Mel Gibson's unexpected and controversial blockbuster, "The Passion of the Christ".

Not only can Matera claim the fame of the film's location - many of its people are basking in the glory of having roles. About 20,000 locals auditioned to be extras when Gibson and crew rolled into this sleepy town in November 2002 and 600 with the swarthiest Mediterranean looks were picked. Matera is braced for a tourist invasion.

Matera Turismo has taken its first bookings from US families for its new Passion Tour, a circuit taking in the sites where the Last Supper and the crucifixion were filmed. At Matera's three-star Albergo Italia, visitors can book Gibson's room where the maid, Maria, still remembers fondly how she helped convert the minibar into an altar for early morning prayers.

Others have been quicker to spot the business opportunity. On a quiet corner overlooking the breathtaking ravine and the desolate spot where Gibson's Christ was crucified, Stefano and Pasquale are quietly chiseling at small blocks of sandstone, turning them into Sassi paperweights, to be sold to the Easter and summer crowds for between two and four euros apiece.

'I can do you a Passion crucifix, if you like,' said Pasquale. 'But it'll take me a day to carve a cross. Depends how much you can pay.'

In Italy, the heart of the Catholic world, The Passion is expected to break box office records. The Pope, who reportedly approved of the film after a preview, received Jim Caviezel, who played Christ, at the Vatican last month. Italy's media is unlikely to give it the dressing down of the French, who called it 'sadistic', 'manipulative' and 'incredibly boring' last week.

For Gibson, this staggeringly beautiful, ancient hilltop town, when framed to slice off the modern blocks of flats above, was the closest thing to Jerusalem. It is a warren of sand-colored and white-washed cave-dwellings, some more than 2,000 years old, packed like honeycomb into the hillside. There is hardly an electric light or a wire in sight. The panorama, the hollow cave-rooms gaping like empty eye sockets and shadowy rupestral churches still decorated with peeling frescoes, created a timeless atmosphere.

Only 50 years ago, old Matera was so poverty stricken that one Prime Minister described it as a national disgrace. Around 20,000 of Italy's poorest peasants lived with their goats crammed into these holes in the ground, with no running water.

Carlo Levi, sent into political exile in this dead end of Italy in the 1930s, described their struggle for survival in his classic Christ Stopped at Eboli (a nearby town). The book caused such outcry that the Sassi were evacuated. Now they are set to welcome a wealthier inhabitant.

As we mentioned before, the Italians are looking forward to seeing this epic film during the Easter season. And what must be more exciting to see is the film's location in Matera!

Forget Florence or Venice. Visit Matera where:

- You can book Mel Gibson's hotel room for $2500 a night, pray at his minibar and get an autograph from "Maria the Maid".

- You can buy a rock for $3-4.

- You'll listen to all the Italian film extras of 'Passion' who insist Mel accepted their directing advice.

- You can visit a hole where a typical peasant once lived with a goat.


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Seized Mafia Land Put to Good Use by Corleone Farmers

Corleone - April 4, 2004 - Workers of pasta factory Colletti hold packages of pasta in front of their laboratory in Corleone.

The Italian government has been distributing large tracts of land and assets seized from the Mafia to young groups of Sicilian farmers and entrepreneurs. The aim is to create employment and give honest Sicilians a chance to benefit from estates once controlled by Sicily's most notorious criminals.

For most foreigners and even mainland Italians, Sicily is synonymous with the Mafia. But in recent years, the island has been trying to shake off the image that everything is run by organized crime, and the residents are proud to demonstrate a good chunk of the island's economy is run by honest cooperatives of young farmers and entrepreneurs.

These cooperatives have been allocated millions of dollars worth of land and property that used to be controlled by the Mafia.

The Mafia had acquired these lands illegally, said Nicolo Nicolosi, mayor of Corleone. These properties were the fruit of money laundering, violence, and drug trafficking. He said the Mafia had taken over the best lands, but now these are being given back to the people.

Corleone, a farming community just 60 kilometers south of Palermo, is Sicily's most famous Mafia town, largely thanks to the Godfather movie trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But Corleone's association with the Mafia is not just fiction.

"There is no doubt," said Mr. Nicolosi, "that the most important Mafia bosses in the past 10 or 20 years were born here." He said Corleone was the birthplace of the "boss of bosses", Toto Riina, who was arrested in 1993. Bernardo Provenzano, who has been at large for 40 years and is believed to rule the mafia today, was also born in Corleone.

Large land holdings were confiscated from Riina, now serving numerous life sentences. The powerful mafia boss ordered the 1992 killings of two crusading anti-Mafia judges, causing outrage in Italy and abroad. In Corleone, Riina was feared and respected by many.

When his seized properties were handed over to a cooperative of farmers, locals were concerned there would be repercussions for those entering what was considered to be sacred territory.

Most people were convinced that assets seized by the Mafia should not be touched, said the mayor. Just as relatives of turncoats were killed by the Mafia, he said, people feared that those who violated Mafia territory would also pay.

This was true in the beginning. The 'Placido Rizzotto' cooperative was assigned 200 hectares of land, partly owned by Riina. The members grow wheat which is used in the production of what has been labeled "anti-Mafia pasta."

"The first year we could find no one to provide the machine to harvest the wheat," said Francesca Massimino. "The police had to intervene to find a harvester. The company that had agreed to provide the machine had been threatened."

But the young Sicilians persevered, and soon will be inaugurating their first country-hotels in formerly Mafia-owned property, then a winery, and a riding school.

Other cooperatives have also faced trouble at first. Their vineyards have been set on fire or cut, or their guard dogs were killed.

The Tempio del Monte Jato cooperative farms the land that once belonged to a notorious mafia boss, Romualdo Agrigento. The cooperative's head, Giuseppe Randazzo, opened a restaurant but had a rough start.

"The Mafia had carried out acts of vandalism," he said. "When we came here in 1998, we found it totally abandoned, destroyed, with walls torn down, vines cut down, pipelines severed - total destruction."

Now Randazzo's cooperative markets a crisp white wine produced from the grapes of the large vineyard on the estate. "The coop has dedicated its wine to a child killed by the Mafia," he said. "The child looks at the Tempio del Monte Jato with hope. It is a message of hope for our land."

The child was the son of a man who turned state's evidence. The boy was dunked in a barrel of acid.

For Sicily, where 20 percent of adults are unemployed, the cooperatives provide welcome job opportunities. And, Mayor Nicolosi says, giving Mafia lands to honest cooperatives has diminished peoples' fear of the Mafia.

The truth could not have been written better...

Our news offices are located just 15 minutes away from Corleone and we must write that there are a few facts missing from this article.

The Mafia is well aware of what their confiscated property in Corleone has turned into but no longer prefer to intervene. Why should they intervene and attract unwanted attention when it is heavily involved with multimillion Euro public works contracts?

Unfortunately, terrorism threats that loom over Italy has shifted away the resources once dedicated to fight the Mafia particularly in Sicily. So, it goes about its very profitable business undisturbed. The little businesses that have been born in Corleone have not put a dent in the business of the Mafia. The threats and vandalism that occurred to these small businesses in the past were results of hurt pride and honor, not lost money.

All of us at "Only In Italy" are very happy to hear that the economy in Corleone is slowly starting to recover thanks to these hard working Sicilians.

You should come visit Corleone sometime and try the new restaurants! You'll love some of their new pasta dinners such as the "Anti-Mafia Rigatoni al Pesto" or the "Fried Season Vegetables" that are salt and mafia free!


Julian - Julius Caesar's cousin
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