Say Hello To The Silicon Dons

Think Sicily, and most people imagine bloody gang scenes from "The Godfather," played out against the picturesque backdrop of a wild and mountainous Mediterranean isle. But it's time to take another look at Sicily. Sure, the mafia is alive and killing. Mount Etna still smokes and rumbles. Yet the place that has long been one of Italy's poorest provinces--an economic and social black hole, where unemployment runs at 25 percent and incomes are among the lowest in Europe--is fast turning into something surprisingly different. To wit: an emerging electronics and high-tech hub. Welcome to "Etna Valley," as locals call it, where the mystique of godfathers meets the geeks of Silicon Valley.

Improbable as it may seem, given Sicily's historic backwardness, multinational companies are opening factories and research centers in record numbers--60 in the last year alone. Why has Sicily suddenly become a business paradise after so many years of neglect? Money. New European Union incentives--including grants up to 66 percent of an investment--have helped make Sicily one of the most attractive places in Europe to set up a high-tech shop. Wages are low. Labor is abundant. And local governments have added perks of their own--like generous tax breaks. Foreign investors have poured an estimated 2.4 billion into Sicily since the end of 2001. IBM, Alcatel, Nortel Networks and Nokia are just a few of the global electronics firms that have recently come to the island of sun.

Great as the economic incentives may be, Sicily's biggest draw is its (very) new conception of itself. Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi recently visited the island, brimming with enthusiasm. "I found something new here, a change of attitude and new state of mind." Antimafia police and prosecutors are out in force, netting longtime fugitives and arresting thugs. "The bosses are not as strong as they used to be," says crime author Girolamo LoVerso. Unabashed locals are even making money off the island's gangland image--by sponsoring so-called Mafia Tourism. Hard-core "Sopranos" fans and "Godfather" wanna-bes are flocking to new mafia museums, such as the one in Corleone, to view gruesome police photos, rap sheets and even bullets confiscated from crime scenes. The mobsters are still a dangerous part of Sicilian life, but they are making room for the high-tech set who've won favor with all Sicilians. Clearly, it's an offer they can't refuse.