It’s a cliché, but true: You never know the story behind strangers you meet.

Dennis ryan
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

After spending Christmas on the south coast of Italy with the family of Alessandra, my wife, we decided to visit Naples for three days. Non-Italian tourists often consider Naples to be dirty and chaotic, and an alarming number of people (Italians included) are pickpocketed or robbed at knifepoint. Alessandra calls this “small criminality.” In fact, compared to the city in [the region of] Apulia where she’s from, I found Naples relatively comfortable.

My experience in the historic city was likely influenced by the elegant bed and breakfast we stayed in. Southern Italy being cheaper than the U.S. and much of Europe, we were able to afford a nice room with a loft and a rooftop terrace that overlooked the city. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Veronica, a friendly woman in her early 40s. She was polite, at ease and had the same dark skin and curly hair found on many people in the region. She seemed, by all accounts, a person who had lived a steady, normal life without much interruption. She mentioned that she and her husband also own Cala la Pasta, a restaurant a few streets away. She smiled and wished us a pleasant stay.

It wasn’t until the day after we arrived home that Alessandra shouted at me through the bathroom door, “You’re not going to believe this.”

While in Naples, we had decided against eating at Cala la Pasta. Being Italian, Alessandra takes food very seriously, and back in Ireland, she started researching the restaurant to see if we had made the right choice. Quickly, a backstory emerged. A year ago, Veronica, the woman who handed us the keys to our bed and breakfast, was nearly killed by the Camorra mafia family.


Before marrying into an Italian family, I had assumed – as maybe many Americans do – that major mafia families really only exist in movies and television shows. However, three centuries later and membership in the European Union notwithstanding, syndicated crime organizations still run certain regions of southern Italy. It has been difficult to defeat these groups because they have infiltrated various power structures, from politics to the police. The population is hesitant to resist them, first out of fear and then because, in many cases, they are the only source of jobs in economically depressed areas. Camorra, subdivided into “clans,” is highly active in Naples and the surrounding Campania region.

It is well known, and largely expected, that businesses in towns and cities run by crime societies must pay a fee for “protection.” It is also known that the protection is usually from the group demanding payment. In Naples, it is suspected that many restaurants and shops give part of their income to Camorra. However, Raffaele Del Gaudio, Veronica’s husband and co-owner of Cala la Pasta, refused to give a payment.

Veronica was sitting at a table outside their restaurant when she was struck by a motorcycle. The cyclist fled the scene and left the bike behind. Veronica suffered serious injuries to her liver and spleen and had a fractured arm and leg. She received major facial injuries, and her teeth were broken. She remained in a coma for days, during which it might have seemed unlikely that she would live.

Soon after the accident, a large group of young men from a Camorra clan came to take the motorcycle, removing any evidence of the hit. They threatened to kill Raffaele if he identified any of them to the police.

On the internet, one can find clips of Raffaele declaring that he wouldn’t give in to Camorra and encouraging citizens of Naples to stand up to them. In the end, three men were arrested, although they were only low-level foot soldiers. The individuals who called for the hit remain free. Admittedly, it is striking how self-assured Raffaele seems in these videos when it was his wife, and not him, who nearly lost her life. In fact, regardless of what happened, his type of public statement against a major crime organization is rare. Alessandra thinks that he bartered for protection from another group or that there’s more to the story in some other way.

The presence of the mafia is so widespread throughout southern Italy that it appears that we dealt with them ourselves on the same trip. While staying at her parents, Alessandra and I decided to rent a car so we could explore the surrounding countryside. One rental agency charged only a fraction of the other companies. Even stranger, it was located in a small town in Apulia (next to Campania) away from cities or airports. When we went to pick up the car, the man behind the desk said we had to pay double because Alessandra booked the car with a debit card instead of a credit card, even though the website permitted her to do it. He wouldn’t allow the car to be booked on my credit card. He smiled and quietly but firmly insisted that we pay the higher fee.

When we drove away Alessandra said to me, “Something wasn’t right there. He was scary.”

A few days later, Alessandra described the situation to a friend. That’s when we were told that the town was the headquarters of Sacra Corona Unita, the mafia organization in Apulia. They often own car rental agencies so foot soldiers can use vehicles on hits that weren’t registered to them.

In southern Italy, there are narratives under the surface that most citizens try to be ignorant of. While it makes for good television in other countries, the existence of the mafia is still an everyday part of life for people in certain Italian regions. The major organizations have immense assets that allow them to take control over local economies, making them more powerful than the national government (a 2013 study found that one group, ’Ndrangheta, made the equivalent of $58 billion that year, more than twice the profit of McDonald’s.) With that type of power, the mafia is going to be a part of Italian existence for a long time still.