At a Mob Trial, Testimony Focuses on the Knife and Fork
It is no surprise that prodigious helpings of murder, betrayal and honor — or, some might say, the lack thereof — have been on the menu, figuratively speaking, at a mob trial in federal court in Brooklyn. The trial, after all, marks the witness-stand debut of the first official boss of one of New York’s five Mafia families to testify for the government.
What has been a surprise to some, however, is that it can seem as though a real menu is required — just to keep track of all of the culinary allusions by the former boss, Joseph C. Massino of the Bonannos. References to food, meals, cooking and the restaurant and catering businesses, along with some choice gastronomic metaphors, have kept coming like so many courses on a tasting menu. They appeared at times to pile higher and higher, as if a groaning board had replaced the prosecution and defense tables in the well of the courtroom.
To those who follow the mob, the close connection between this ethnic underworld and the culinary arts practiced by Italian-Americans is not news. Indeed, momentous events in mob history have happened in and around restaurants: Carmine Galante, a cigar still in his mouth, was shot dead on the patio at Joe & Mary, a restaurant in Brooklyn; Joey Gallo was killed in a fusillade in Umberto’s Clam House as he bolted for the door, only to die on a Little Italy street; and Paul Castellano was gunned down at rush hour amid Christmas shoppers outside Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.
And some of the most memorable moments in film that for some have come to represent organized crime are similarly gastrocentric. There are the phrases “Leave the gun; take the cannoli” and “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city” in “The Godfather” movie. And there is Paul Sorvino, playing a mob capo in “Goodfellas,” wielding a razor blade to slice garlic for his sauce.
Of course, Mr. Massino has acknowledged cooking up quite a few misdeeds of his own. He is appearing as a witness against a subordinate, Vincent Basciano, a former acting boss known as Vinnie Gorgeous, who is on trial for the murder of a Bonanno associate, Randolph Pizzolo. Mr. Massino continued his appearance on the stand on Monday.
Still, while the gun and the knife — as the Mafia’s tools are called during the secret society’s initiation rites — have been center stage, there is a sense that the knife and the fork have been fighting for equal billing, perhaps unsurprising given Mr. Massino’s girth, not to mention some of his job titles other than boss: restaurateur and sandwich truck operator.
For example, when he listed his past crimes last week, including as many as a dozen murders, food came into play. The prosecutor, Taryn A. Merkl, asked about Mr. Massino’s corruption of a prison guard in the late 1980s when he was being held in a federal jail in Manhattan.
“What did you bribe the prison guard to do?” Ms. Merkl, an assistant United States attorney, asked.
“He was bringing in food for us, cold cuts, shrimp, scungilli,” he replied.
More than a decade later, food was again the focus during a conversation he secretly recorded in a different federal jail with Mr. Basciano, the subordinate against whom he was testifying. “I’m belching, I’ve got a lot of heartburn, a lot of agita,” Mr. Massino complained to Mr. Basciano. “I’ll tell you one thing, that sausage wasn’t bad, bo.”
“Yeah?” Mr. Basciano replied, “I left it in the room, I didn’t eat it.”
“It wasn’t bad, I swear to God,” Mr. Massino continued. “I put a little mustard — it wasn’t bad. I had no dinner last night. I had peanut butter, I couldn’t eat. Tonight, I won’t eat, it’s fish.”
The kitchen, in a way, also provided some protection. In the early 1990s, after he served nearly six years in federal prison for racketeering, Mr. Massino’s parole prohibited him from associating with other members of organized crime families or felons and required that he hold a steady job. So he worked as a consultant at a Long Island company called King Catering.
There, he said, he developed a unique way to hold meetings and talk mob business with his underboss Sal Vitale — his brother-in-law, who was also a consultant at the company — while still avoiding law enforcement scrutiny, including physical surveillance and bugs.
“Did you talk Bonanno family business at King Catering?” Ms. Merkl asked.
“If we had to, yes,” Mr. Massino replied.
“Where would you speak to him?” she asked, referring to Mr. Vitale, who preceded Mr. Massino into the ranks of mob turncoats.
“In the walk-in box,” he said.
“Why the refrigerator?”
“To avoid bugs,” he explained tersely.
Mr. Massino’s four days on the stand before Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis in United States District Court in Brooklyn also provided a survey of sorts of a few of the city’s eateries, but the focus was on criminals and crimes at the establishments, not their fare.
He mentioned Caffe on the Green in Bayside, Queens, the scene of a shooting involving Mr. Pizzolo; Napa & Sonoma, a steakhouse in Whitestone, Queens, where Mr. Pizzolo had an outburst of sorts; and Via Oreto on First Avenue in Manhattan, which Mr. Basciano said he successfully claimed as a Bonanno family protectorate, over the objections of the Genovese family.
In addition to his work as a criminal, Mr. Massino held a number of jobs and owned a number of businesses that revolved around food.
His first jobs, as a youngster in Queens, were working in what he called a “food store,” without elaborating, and in a butcher shop.
As a young man, he operated a sandwich truck, known by the less-than-appetizing name “roach coach,” which he would drive to factories and other businesses to sell coffee, cakes and sandwiches. Eventually, he operated a catering company that served other sandwich trucks.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Massino owned a restaurant called Casablanca in Maspeth, Queens, where he could often be found. Menus at the time of the 1996 grand opening, however, did not advertise his association with the establishment.
Instead, there was a front man.
“Your Host: Alfred,” the menu informed diners. Alfred, however, had a few sidelines himself, according to Mr. Massino, one of which was serving as a soldier in Mr. Massino’s crime family.