The Dark Side of the Pie: Heroin, Mob Cheese, and New York Pizza

Mad Sam DeStefano


Everything has a dark side—even pizza.
Five years ago, John “Johnny Pizza” Porcello was arrested and charged with racketeering in thebiggest mob raid in FBI history.
orcello, once described as a “tough-sounding, but actually-nice-guy” by a pizza trade magazine, was a Bronx pizzeria owner and reputed Genovese crime family associate. Johnny Pizza ended up pleading guilty to loan-sharking and was eventually served a forfeiture order of $18,000.
Though his pizzerias were never directly implicated in any criminal enterprise, his offenses—not to mention his nickname—harkened back to a time when pizza and crime were far more intertwined.
With the arrival of nearly 4 million Italian immigrants in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most ubiquitous foods in America soon emerged: pizza. So too would an alternative form of conflict resolution—one steeped in the clan-based codes of conduct of rural Sicily that would eventually evolve into the American Cosa Nostra, or Mafia.
Through the years, these Italian-American imports would occasionally overlap, but never more dramatically than during the Pizza Connection trial of 1987, when budding prosecutor Rudolph W. Giuliani exposed a vast criminal conspiracy involving dozens of pizzerias across North America.
Using pizza shops as fronts, Sicilian Mafia associates in the United States were able to import 1,650 pounds of heroin (with an estimated $1.6 billion street value at the time) between 1975 and 1984. The trial dragged on for almost two years and was one of the first to establish a clear, irrefutable line between the Sicilian Mafia, which was processing Turkish morphine in Palermo, and the Bonanno crime family in New York City, which oversaw distribution across North America.
Antonio Nicaso is an organized crime expert and author of numerous books, including Made Men: Mafia Culture and the Power of Symbols, Rituals, and Myth. I spoke to Nicaso about the historical link between the grease wheel and organized crime in order to better understand how humble pizzerias could provide the heartbeat for a billion-dollar drug trafficking operation.
“You can do this with any kind of restaurant,” Nicaso told MUNCHIES. “But at the time, it was just easier to buy a pizzeria and it was a great opportunity to make money and sell heroin out of the back door. There were people coming for pizza and people coming for heroin. The pizzerias were linked to the Bonanno crime family, who were the most Sicilian of the ‘Five Families’—the most violent and with the most ties to Sicily. ”
Despite the complexity of the Pizza Connection network, turning a pizza parlor into a criminal enterprise is remarkably simple, according to Nicaso; it just takes pizza, an illicit substance, and some creative accounting. “A pizzeria can be a good way to launder money. Imagine having a pizzeria—most are in good hands, of course—but if a mobster or the associate of a mobster owns a pizzeria, at the end of the day you can produce fake receipts because it’s a mostly cash business.
“So, if you have 200 clients in a given day, a bookkeeper can punch the receipts so that it says 500 customers. And the money that you don’t make from selling pizza, you can put in the cash by selling heroin or drugs and pay taxes. In practical terms, it’s one of the easiest ways to launder money.”
But pizzerias were not just a reliable way of laundering the proceeds of crime. The broad appeal and long reach of pizza delivery also meant that there was a pre-existing distribution network that could be used for drug trafficking. “This scheme was not only financially viable because of the money laundering angle. There was also a distribution network already set up because of pizza deliveries,” according to Nicaso.
“With the delivery system, you can deliver pizza and heroin at the same time, because there was already a network in place. It was a very creative way to deal with heroin and money laundering, with the legitimate business as a cover. Eventually they practically had the monopoly on heroin in North America, thanks to relationships that they had in Canada, and the Pizza Connection even extended to Windsor, Ontario.” 
Despite the best efforts of the FBI, the Pizza Connection trial case did little to curb America’s appetite for heroin—or pizza, for that matter. Less than a decade later, Famous Original Ray’s Pizza on Third Avenue near 43d Street was found to be “the headquarters for a major drug ring” and in cahoots with Brooklyn butcher shop and cafe who moved “tens of millions of dollars” worth of cocaine and heroin across New York, according to federal authorities.
But for mobsters, the appeal of pizzerias goes beyond mere laundering money and drug trafficking. Not long after the arrest of “Johnny Pizza” in 2011, the Village Voice, citing the late crime writer Jonathan Kwinty’s book Vicious Circles: The Mafia in the Marketplace, suggested that a certain Capone might have had as much of a culinary influence on New York cuisine as a Batali or a Chang. 
In his book, Kwinty recounts how Prohibition-era kingpin Al Capone would have intimidated New York pizzeria owners into buying meltier, low-moisture cheese from farms that he owned near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, instead of the “real” mozzarella being produced New York’s, and specifically Brooklyn’s, Neapolitan residents. Those who didn’t buy the Midwest cheese were firebombed, or so mob lore goes.
Out of respect for New York landmarks like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, and John’s, Capone’s Chicago syndicate would have allowed some landmark pizzerias to continue using authentic moozadell, as long as they vowed to never sell pizza by the slice. This is why, according to Kwitny, John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street still has ”No Slices” written on its awning today.
MUNCHIES spoke to a John’s Pizzeria manager who was unaware of any such system existing back in the day, and instead referred us to Scott Wiener. “He’ll have the answers,” I was told.
Wiener is the owner of Scott’s Pizza Tours, pizza historian, a Guinness Record holder for world’s largest collection of pizza boxes, and completely obsessed with pizza. Wiener has even read Kwinty’s book and corroborated most what he wrote.
“Joe Bonanno [head of the Bonanno crime family for three decades] was a part-owner of a company called the Grande, which is the cheese company in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Grande cheese is still around, but it’s not mob-affiliated anymore.”
But back in the day, Grande wasn’t afraid to use a very specific kind of sales pitch, Wiener says. “Pizzeria owners would get calls from distributors saying, ‘Hey, just in case your current cheese company can’t fulfill your order this week, here’s a number to call for another one!’ And, sure enough, the competing cheese company’s office would catch on fire, so it was like, ‘Oh, weird, what a coincidence!’ So there was definitely some of that stuff going on and protection money being asked from small businesses.”
Still, Weiner isn’t buying the “No Slices” racket myth. “They used to say that low-moisture cheese was the mob stuff and if you used the fresh stuff, you could only sell slices. But a lot of those places, like John’s, use low-moisture cheese. It doesn’t really make any sense. The reason that most of these places don’t sell slices is that they use a coal-fired oven, which would just burn any slice you were trying to re-heat.”
“No Slices” aside, Nicasio also corroborated the main elements of Kwinty’s narrative. “Al Capone was one of the first to impose cheese and other ingredients on businesses,” he says, adding that this method of product placement still exists today.
“They used to ask places like pizzerias for ‘top money’ every month,” Nicaso says. “But recent investigations show that now, instead of asking for protection money in Canada and the United States, they will ask restaurants to use their products, which can be tomatoes, cheese, wine, pasta, and coffee. According to the latest report by Legambiente, which monitors food crimes, they found that criminal organizations are more and more involved in the so-called ‘agro-mafia.’”
Al Capone once said, “I am like any other man. All I do is supply a demand.” And, if the recent emergence of the agro-mafia is any indication, we will continue to be at the mercy of men like Capone, as long as we continue to fill our inner void with alcohol, drugs, and pizza. 


Prep time:  1 min
Cook time:  30 mins
Total time:  31 mins
Serves: 8

•           4 aubergines
•           flour for dusting the eggplant
•           seed oil for frying
•           500 ml of tomato purée
•           extra virgin olive oil
•           1 clove of garlic
•           a few basil leaves
•           150 g mozzarella fiordilatte, finely chopped
•           3 eggs, beaten
•           100 g of grated Parmesan cheese
1.         Wash the aubergine and cut them into 5 mm thick slices.
2.         Arrange the aubergine slices in a colander with a good sprinkle of coarse salt in between the layers, put a plate on top of the aubergines then place a weight over the plate. Leave the aubergines on the sink for about 30 minutes, they will be less bitter and biting.
3.         After this time, rinse all your slices under running water and arrange them on a towel. Pat them dry.
4.         Scoop some flour into a bowl and coat the aubergine slices, shaking off the excess flour from each slice.
5.         Meanwhile heat the frying oil in a large pan: the best ones are those shaped like a wok: you will use less frying oil.
6.         Check if the oil is hot enough sacrificing a slice of aubergine: dip a corner in the oil and when it is surrounded by many small small bubbles it means that the oil is hot enough.
7.         Deep fry the aubergines in batches. Let them brown on both sides, it takes about 5 minutes. When the aubergines are golden and crisp, place them in a dish with some layer of kitchen paper, so that the excess oil is absorbed. Season lightly the aubergines with salt (lightly! they have already been under salt for 30 minutes! believe me when I say it's better to taste them to see how much salt they need, it is not much of a sacrifice). Deep fry all the aubergines.
8.         Make the tomato sauce. Heat a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan with a clove of garlic. When the garlic turns golden pour the tomato purée, add a cup of water and some fresh basil leaves. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook the tomato purée for about ten minutes, until it has lost the taste of raw tomatoes and has become a savory and thick sauce.
9.         Finally time has come to make the melanzane alla parmigiana. Choose your favourite baking dish (about 30 x 20 cm) and spread a few tablespoons of tomato sauce on the bottom.
10.       Arrange a layer of fried aubergines, pour over a part of the beaten eggs, sprinkle with some mozzarella and a generous layer of grated Parmigiano. Spread the tomato sauce on top and keep making layers, until you run out of ingredients. If you have not eaten too many fried aubergine slices - you have my sympathy - you should be able to make four layers. Top with tomato sauce, a few pieces of mozzarella and a lot of Parmigiano.
11.        Bake in the preheated oven to 180°C for about 35 minutes, until golden brown on the top.

12.       Serve the parmigiana warm or, even better, let it cool down completely and warm it again in the evening or the next day, it will be even more tasty.


For the Tomato Sauce
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic, minced
1⁄2 small onion, minced
1 tbsp. minced parsley
1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
1⁄4 tsp. dried thyme
1 (28-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the Veal and to Serve
1⁄2 cup flour
4 eggs, beaten
1 1⁄2 cups bread crumbs
8 (2-oz.) veal cutlets, pounded 1⁄8" thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1⁄2 cup olive oil
8 slices provolone cheese
3⁄4 cup grated parmesan
2 tbsp. roughly chopped parsley
Make the sauce: Heat oil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium. Cook bay leaf, garlic, and onion until soft, 8–10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients; cook until thickened, about 20 minutes.
Make the veal: Heat oven broiler. Place flour, eggs, and bread crumbs in separate shallow dishes. Season veal with salt and pepper. Working with 1 piece at a time, dredge veal in flour, then dip in eggs; coat in bread crumbs and transfer to a plate. Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a 12" skillet over medium-high. Working in batches, and adding remaining oil as needed, cook veal, flipping once, until golden, 3–4 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet in a single layer. Spoon 1⁄3 cup reserved sauce over each cutlet; top with 1 slice provolone and sprinkle with 1 1⁄2 tbsp. parmesan. Broil until cheese is golden and bubbly, 4–5 minutes. Garnish with parsley.

Linguine with White Clam Sauce

-Heat oil in pan
-Add garlic
-Once sizzling, add garlic
-Once you can smell the garlic, add the clams
-Cover and let steam
-After a few minutes add 6 oz. of clam juice
-When clams start to open, add 4-6 oz. of white wine
-Add chopped clams if desired
-Add cooked pasta to white wine clam sauce
-Add fresh, chopped parsley
Let noodles finish cooking and enjoy!

Gorgonzola sauce and pasta

1 pound dried pasta
1/4 pound Gorgonzola or other beat quality blue cheese
2/3 cup cream
3 tablespoons butter
Lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and set aside. Combine the blue cheese, cream, butter and a small pinch of salt and slowly simmer until the cheese is melted. Quickly add the pasta and mix well. Plate at once, and top with Parmigiano-Reggiano.


Serves 4
Wild mushroom puree:
1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
1/2 pound assorted wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles, morels, porcini, shiitakes, creminis and portobellos, trimmed, wiped clean and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons dry sherry or Madeira
1 cup good-quality canned low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Farro risotto:
1/4 cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup uncooked farro
4 cups good-quality canned low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth, plus a little extra as needed, heated to a bare simmer in a saucepan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon sherry vinegar
A few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley (or another herb) for garnish
First, make the wild mushroom puree: In a saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and saute, stirring frequently, until it begins to turn glossy and tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Raise the heat slightly, add the mushrooms and saute, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are tender and most of their liquid has evaporated. Add the sherry or Madeira, stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Stir in the stock. When it is hot, carefully puree the mixture with an immersion blender, or transfer it to a blender, in batches if necessary, and puree, following manufacturer’s instructions to avoid splattering. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
For the farro risotto, in a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallot, and saute until glossy and tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the farro, and stir until the grains are completely coated with the oil and smell slightly toasty, about 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup of the hot stock, reduce the heat slightly to maintain a light simmer, and cook, stirring continuously, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 3 minutes. Continue adding stock in this way, 1/2 cup at a time, while stirring constantly, until the farro grains are tender but still slightly firm and chewy, 20 to 25 minutes.
Stir in the reserved wild mushroom puree, and cook until the mixture is heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the sherry vinegar.
Spoon the risotto into shallow serving bowls. Garnish with herbs, and serve immediately.

Osso Buco

Serve 4
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 dry bay leaf
2 whole cloves
Kitchen twine, for bouquet garni (fresh herb blend) and tying the veal shanks
4 whole veal shanks (about 1 pound per shank), trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour, for dredging
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small carrot, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
1 stalk celery, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon lemon zest


Place the rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and cloves into cheesecloth and secure with twine. This will be your bouquet garni. For the veal shanks, pat dry with paper towels to remove any excess moisture. Veal shanks will brown better when they are dry. Secure the meat to the bone with the kitchen twine. Season each shank with salt and freshly ground pepper. Dredge the shanks in flour, shaking off excess. In a large Dutch oven pot, heat vegetable oil until smoking. Add tied veal shanks to the hot pan and brown all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove browned shanks and reserve. In the same pot, add the onion, carrot and celery. Season with salt at this point to help draw out the moisture from the vegetables. Sauté until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and mix well. Return browned shanks to the pan and add the white wine and reduce liquid by half, about 5 minutes. Add the bouquet garni and 2 cups of the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover pan and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone. Check every 15 minutes, turning shanks and adding more chicken stock as necessary. The level of cooking liquid should always be about 3/4 the way up the shank. Carefully remove the cooked shanks from the pot and place in decorative serving platter. Cut off the kitchen twine and discard. Remove and discard bouquet garni from the pot. Pour all the juices and sauce from the pot over the shanks. Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon zest.