Excitement is high among fans of The Godfather trilogy, with the release of the newly re-mastered films, three movies that are Shakespearean in drama – operatic, and complex. As one of those fans I delved into my archives to search for photographs I took in Savoca, location of a few major scenes of The Godfather, and a reminder of one of those serendipitous moments that occur from time to time in one’s travels.
A shady spot at the Bar Vitelli
It was in Sicily, about 30 years ago, when we came across Savoca, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the Ionian coast. We had driven through the mountains from Taormina, stopping here and there to admire the views from villages clinging to the sides of the mountains, and views of blue seas far below on which floated toy boats. We pulled into Piazza Fossia, saw a parking place opposite a pleasant looking bar with terrace which meant we could sit outside rather than in the inky black interiors preferred by the Sicilians, and entered Bar Vitelli.
The Bar Vitelli
We ordered drinks, and the owner, who was also serving, graciously waved me inside to see what else was available. What she really wanted me to see was her wall of photographs of the stars of The Godfather and various artifacts to do with the film. Most were of Marlon Brando – although he was never in Savoca for filming – Al Pacino, Simonetta Stefanelli, who played Apollonia in the film, and James Caan.
Then I made the connection. This was the small, cliff-side café where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sat with his two bodyguards (one of whom would later betray him) and drank wine. In fact, this small patio with the dappled sunlight playing on the tables, was the location of several scenes filmed over a six-week period during the shooting of the first Godfather movie.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had fled New York City to escape both police and a Mafia mob and came to Sicily to take refuge. Out hunting one day, he saw a beautiful Sicilian girl and immediately fell in love with her.
Back room of Bar Vitelli with photographs and connections to The Godfather
The Bar Vitelli was actually the home of the beautiful young girl he’d seen, and it is here he asks the café owner for permission to court his daughter, the lovely Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). A later scene, depicting a traditional Italian family Sunday dinner and a still later scene of the eventual outdoor wedding reception, was also staged on the terrace of the Bar Vitelli and in the tiny piazza in front.
La Signora watched me carefully and when she could see that I was suitably impressed with the display she sat me down and told me tales of what it was like when she had Pacino and Brando in her café. Of course, I knew that Brando had never been there but everyone’s allowed a little bit of licence and in that small village of less than 100 inhabitants, The Godfather had sprinkled a little bit of magic on the Bar Vitelli.
La Signora sits outside Bar Vitelli.
Savoca owes it’s connection to Hollywood to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola thought that Corleone, a town near Palermo and the book’s setting for The Godfather, looked too modern for his vision of the Sicilian village from which the family came. After much searching throughout the island, he found two small villages untouched by modernisation for his locations, – Savoca and Forza d’Agro.
At the time we were there, few tourists visited this remote village so La Signora was happy to spend time talking to us and showing us some more pictures of the stars of The Godfather, plus some newspaper cuttings she’d collected.
Back room of Bar Vitelli
I never got back to Bar Vitelli but I saw a short film a while back that showed it looking exactly as it had been when I visited, and as it was in the film – right down to the bead curtain in the doorway. La Signora is no longer alive and the bar/restaurant is now successfully run by her descendants: Godfather tours (along with Montelbano tours) are now big business in Sicily, and Savoca is a port of call on the trail.
It was nice to know that it hadn’t been commercialised at all, and that the stone-flagged walls covered in greenery, the terrace with vine covered pergolas, still offers travellers shade, along with coffee granita, supposedly the favourite drink of both Al Pacino and Francis Ford Coppola when they were there.
When I watch the 3-hour long film again on March 26th, I will be carried back 30 years to when I sat on Al Pacino’s chair in Bar Vitelli and heard first-hand from la Signora that, although Pacino may have come from New York, he was molto Siciliano.
This was the prettiest house we saw in Savoca, and we were told it belonged to someone very important. I wonder who it belongs to today?
- In Savoca, apart from Bar Vitelli, the nearby Church of San Nicola was used as a location for the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia. The church is only a short walk from Bar Vitelli.
- Bar Vitelli is housed in the 18th century Palazzo Trimarchi, located in the Piazza Fossia, the town’s main square, near the Town Hall.
The Godfather revolutionized film-making, saved Paramount Pictures from Bankruptcy, minted a new generation of movie stars, and made the author of the book, Mario Puzo, rich and famous. It is compelling, dramatic, and complex and it started a war between Hollywood and the high echelons of the Mob as the makers had to contend with the real-life members of the Mafia. Location permits were withdrawn without notice at inconvenient times, Al Ruddy’s car was found riddled with bullets, and ‘connected’ men insisted on being in the cast (some were given film roles, whether due to threats or talent nobody knows)!