Earlier this week we marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wise Guy. The book is the “as-told-to” memoir of Henry Hill, a real-life gangster in the Luchese family whose crimes included what came to be called “The Lufthansa Heist” of 1978.
Prior to writing Wise Guy, Mr. Pileggi had serialized the details of the heist in New York Magazine. Subsequently, Mr. Pileggi, along with Martin Scorcese, turned the book into the screenplay for the iconic movie, Goodfellas.
While we deplore the violence depicted in such films, the Wise Guy anniversary prompted us to contemplate a recurring theme in the cinematic depiction of Italian-Americans. Think about it: whenever contracts are issued or hits ordered, more often than not, those discussions occur around a kitchen table or in a restaurant.
Let’s examine Goodfellas. Paulie Cicero—the local capo— hosts a cookout in the side yard of his home. The camera zooms in on a spiral of fresh sausage that takes up most of the grill space on a Weber Kettle. Two dozen guys dressed in sport coats are eating grilled sausage on rolls as Frankie Carbone renders his verdict, “Salsiccia buona.” Good sausage.
Later, we visit members of the crew doing time. Paulie slices garlic with a single-edge razor blade while Vinnie tends to the Sunday gravy and extolls the virtue of including pork in the meatballs. Johnny Dio sears steaks in a cast iron pan, and when Paulie orders his cooked medium-rare, Johnny says, “Oh, an aristocrat.”
Henry Hill enters the “cell” with a sack filled with bread, cheese, salume, and wine; Paulie takes a bottle of red and says, “Now we can eat.”
And in the final frame of that sequence, a prison administrator brings the mafiosi a case of ice-packed lobsters.
Fast-forward to Paulie hosting an extended family dinner so he may admonish Henry Hill to stay away from dealing cocaine. But, this being a dinner in a gangster flick, that detail seems almost immaterial; indeed, the red sauce proves to be more far more important.
In the climax of the movie, Henry Hill—ignoring Paulie’s admonition—is frantically running drug deal errands as he tries to put together Sunday gravy and veal scallopine at his home. All the while, a black surveillance helicopter hovers above… We never do see that meal come to the table.
While not all movies with Italian-American characters are about the mob, it’s safe to say that nearly every production that includes more than one Italian cannot ignore food. In fact, the 1996 favorite, Big Night, is all about food. Long before Rachael Ray, Primo, the perfectionist brother, presented his risotto tricolore to a generation of foodie wannabes. And in preparation of the same feast that included the risotto, Primo showed us how to construct timpano, a.k.a. timballo di maccheroni, whose exquisite complexity was lost on dinner guests who’d drunk too much vino while waiting for the no-show guest-of-honor, band-leader Louis Prima.
In a pseudo-gangster comedy—The Freshman—Marlon Brando, as Carmine “Jimmy the Toucan” Sabatini, assumes the role of ‘Don Corleone Plays Vegas,’ presiding over a highly secretive and exclusive gourmet club whose dinner entrées regularly include endangered species.
If you haven’t seen it, let’s just say that the hero of the movie turns out to be a rather large monitor lizard.
The Godfather isn’t so much about food as it is about family. Nevertheless, with early shots of after-the-party tables and elaborate floral arrangements, Francis Ford Coppola tells us all we need to know about Connie Corleone’s lavish wedding banquet.
While the Corleone crew is sitting around the kitchen table discussing grim topics, “Fat Pete” Clemenza takes the opportunity to show Michael Corleone how to make a good tomato sauce. And like a proper mobster, he includes a warning–not to burn the garlic.
Coppola also adds a comedic note to the mayhem when Clemenza, Paulie, and Rocco Lampone drive to the New Jersey Meadowlands, where Rocco clips Paulie. The tension is broken by Clemenza’s oft-quoted and now-classic zinger to Rocco: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
And while there’s not much focus on the plates when Michael has his fateful dinner meeting with Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey, Sollozzo does comment that, “The veal here is excellent.”
Like The Godfather, The Pope of Greenwich Village is more about famiglia than food. But as the movie opens, the main characters, Charlie and Paulie, are both working at a restaurant, Charlie as the maitre d’ and Paulie as a waiter. After they’ve been fired for tampering with dinner checks, they wander around Little Italy, where Paulie buys a large bastone, what appears to be more than a pound of prosciutto, and an equal amount of provolone. The guys walk down to the Hudson River, where Paulie proceeds to make a huge sandwich and eat the whole thing.
In another scene, a corrupt police detective, Bunky Ritter, meets “Bed Bug” Eddie Grant at a restaurant where Bed Bug is eating a dish of calamare in tomato sauce. Bunky asks why Bed Bug hasn’t ordered his usual scungilli, to which Bed Bug answers, “I got a sour stomach. I’m trying to eat light for a while.”
But the most food-oriented gangster show of all time is not a production from the silver screen, but one made for the 55-inch LCD: Many a commentator has noted that food takes up at least 50% of each episode of The Sopranos. If the commentators are correct, after six seasons of highly acclaimed production for HBO, that 50% amounts to a full three seasons of Italian food during prime time.
A typical scene might feature Tony and Carmella dining in with their offspring, Meadow and Anthony Junior; monosyllabic interchanges with the kids never distract viewers from Carmella’s baked ziti. We may see Tony, Bobby Baccala, and Paulie Walnuts taking their espresso at Satriale’s Pork Store. On a less innocent tack, Tony might invite Christopher to share some braciole at the Bada Bing Club where others discuss more sordid matters.
Without a single gangster, one movie puts the fun back in dysfunctional. Moonstruck, capturing the spirit of the Italian-American household like no other film, has earned a special place in our hearts.
Two of the main characters earn their living in the food industry: Rose Castorini’s brother, Raymond Capomaggi owns an alimentaria. Loretta’s ultimate love interest, Ronny Cammareri is a professional bread baker.
The Castorini family kitchen is the central stage for this film made long before the Food Network came into existence. We watch as Rose, with methodical economy, prepares breakfast. She cuts a hole into the center of a slice of Italian bread before she fries it in olive oil and then cracks an egg into the hole. She tops it all with roasted red pepper. How easy is that?
Other Moonstruck scenes take place in a neighborhood restaurant where the clientele are on a first-name basis with the waiters. Loretta advises her then-fiance Johnny not to order the fish before he leaves on a flight to Palermo. Instead, she orders him a plate of manicotti, saying, “That will give you a base for your stomach. You know, you eat that oily fish, you go up in the air, halfway to Sicily you’ll be green and your hands will be sweating.”
In another scene, in Johnny’s brother’s apartment, Loretta and Ronny have the following exchange:
Ronny: What’s that smell?
Loretta: I’m making you a steak.
Ronny: I don’t want it.
Loretta: You’ll eat it.
Ronny: I like it well done.
Loretta: You’ll eat this one bloody, it’ll feed your blood.
Finally, when Loretta comes home to tell the family about her engagement to Johnny Cammareri, one brief exchange with her father leaves no doubt about where Italians make their executive decisions:
Loretta: Pop, I got news.
Cosmo: Alright, let’s go into the kitchen.
Central to so many films is The Kitchen, or more broadly, any place where food is shared. Tables are where marriages, births, and deaths are announced, celebrated or mourned. They are where wise guys put out contracts and settle vendettas, but also where set aside their gritty lives to enjoy a home-cooked meal with their extended families.
Whatever unsavory things fictional or real-life wise guys may do, we have to give them their due as spokesmen for a wonderful culinary tradition. Their stories keep alive the legacy of their forbears who landed in America, where most found that, for the first time, they had more than enough to eat.
The generous culture that grew out of the first Italian immigrants’ gratitude for such abbondanza is what some call Wise Guy Food, and it’s what we investigate and affectionately record as “Almost Italian.”