Everybody knows the importance of food in mafia movies. The spread they lay out in The Godfather alone is enough to get your mouth watering. Sarah Vowell wrote an entire book deliciously entitled Take the Cannoli and she doesn’t even have a vowel at the end of her name. On TV, HBO’s The Sopranos put so much effort into the simple act of pouring wine that the very sound made me reach for peasant red.
These stories come out of real life. Mob bosses and captains did actually cook for and feed, not only their men, but the cops who were keeping surveillance outside. Not all of them, but enough. I happen to read a lot of true crime books, specifically about the mob, and the scenario invariably comes up. Even Crazy Joe Gallo’s father would send down some fried clams in a red sauce to the long-suffering task forces staking out his Sundays.
Clemenza, a capo in the Corleone family in The Godfather makes sauce. Paulie, played by Paul Sorvino in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a capo in the Lucchese family, makes prison life bearable with his own, razor-garlic-sliced sauce in stir. It was a thing that capos did with pride. You do a quick fry-up of the meat, just to hold it together, heat up the onions and the garlic, pour in the tomatoes (Scorsese’s mother says to use cans of Redcap tomatoes, I prefer Pope or Tutto Rosa from the commercial brands), throw in the meat, a little wine, a toss of sugar … and that’s the secret. Remember that you might have to cook for forty thieves some day, Ali Baba.
The wine or the sugar is supposed to sweeten the acidity of the sauce. You can also throw in orange peels or a little cinnamon. Not in addition, though, any one of these ingredients is sufficient, to mix them can throw off the balance. Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza, used to run a construction outfit in the seventies. My father, another life-long construction worker who loved to cook, had a general contract on the same site and asked Castellano about the sugar. Castellano told my old man that he’d never heard of using sugar until he did the movie, but it was now a part of his saucy repertoire.
As to cell-block cuisine, Henry Hill tells it best “In prison, dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course and then we had a meat or a fish. Paulie did the prep work. He was doing a year for contempt and he had this wonderful system for dicing the garlic: he used a razor. He used to slice it so thin that it would liquefy in the pan with just a little oil. It’s a very good system.”
The spaghetti tradition goes back a long way in gangster movies. In The Roaring Twenties, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart can’t negotiate with crosstown rival Nick Brown until he finishes his spaghetti. Boardwalk Empire had an episode called “Spaghetti and Coffee” that was influenced by Edward G. Robinson’s order in the opening scene of Little Caesar. The spaghetti comes with little balls of meat, just like mama used to make. In The Godfather Part II, there’s a scene where DeNiro and Bruno Kirby are yammering on in Italian about being shaken down, while Corleone’s wife dishes out three full bowls of spaghetti. Robert De Niro almost gets chopped nuts with his spaghetti at the dinner table in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
No matter what your crime, you can always count on a home cooked meal. Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta play out a great scene with Martin Scorsese’s mother as they argue hoofs or paws over spaghetti in Goodfellas.
Not only home cooked meals, either. Mob movies make take out look good. James Cagney makes that fried chicken look mighty tasty as he shoots ventilation holes in the trunk of his getaway car in White Heat. I wanted to order pastrami when Donnie Brasco walked into Katz’s Deli. My chop sticks were already out when Tessio’s crew broke out the Chinatown cardboard containers in The Godfather.
Gangster book after gangster book says that this was accurate. A lot of people frown on the idea of Italian gangsters eating Chinese food, but Little Italy was blocks away from Chinatown. When Lucky Luciano was deported to Naples, he said one of the things he missed most was Jewish deli food. Just like in real life, in the more modern classic gangster movie Billy Bathgate, Dustin Hoffman’s Dutch Schultz, was gunned down in a New Jersey Chinese chop house.
By the way, in China, Chinese food is called food, much like the popular vote is usually called the vote.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The most important meal of the day is breakfast, as Paulie Walnuts reminded Christopher Moltisanti while they were on their way to the Pine Barrens of Jersey. Breakfast with Cagney is no piece of cake. Especially if you go for the grapefruit, like Mae Clark did in Public Enemy. Walter White, the chemistry teacher turns gangster on Breaking Bad, celebrates his birthday with an annual bacon and egg breakfast.
Mobsters aren’t really known as brunch kinds of guys, but they do do lunch.
Food is bonhomie and any lunch counter is a great way to introduce characters. How people eat and talk gives great insight into what makes them tick. Look at the opening diner scene in Reservoir Dogs, we learn so much about that crew that we would never come across in a straight ahead crime picture. They get to joke and be at ease with each other. They playfully threaten each other with death and no tips.
James Cagney feeding the Dead End Kids in Angels With Dirty Faces is probably the most fun scene in the movie. The perfectly thrown and caught pickle jar and the beans, soapy but good, cracks me so consistently, as Fat Tony would say on The Simpsons, up. It is a great overview of the characters in a setting off the street.
Lunchtime on the mob-controlled docks is also great place to kid around, but the takeout is better. In On the Waterfront, Johnny Friendly yells to a young Herman Munster to “Stop breathing that clam sauce on me.”
Food in mob movies can be dangerous or at least foretell of bad things to come. Every time one of the characters is about to be threatened in The Godfather, we see oranges. Paul Muni’s Tony Carmonte looks more pissed off that his dinner is ruined than because he has a bullet in him when he is shot by Boris Karloff in the original Scarface.
Supperus interrutpus, it’s an old Latin term from the Roman Empire that Salvatore Maranzano probably quoted, plagues gangster films. We get a primo sampling of this in the restaurant scene in The Godfather when Michael takes his revenge. The waiter pours a beautiful, full-red wine, which adds not only flavor, but suspense. The look that McClusky. the hard-boiled Irish cop Sterling Hayden plays, gives to Michael before the second shot says that he was in the middle of the best forkful of the night. Try the veal, it’s supposed to be the best.
A fine cuisine is as important as a good-looking dame as far as gangster stature. As Owney Madden explains over a varied buffet of the most succulent fair in Cotton Club, “This is why we work so hard. To live like kings.”
But the icing is the cake. In Some Like It Hot the machine gunner who takes out the upper echelons of crime, including George Raft, at their own going away party comes out of a white frosted cake that’s purely divine. We learn not to nibble pastries at the opera in Godfather Part III. The froth at the top of espresso in the execution scene in The Pope of Greenwich Village looks so good, who cares if there’s lye in it?
My favorite scene in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America is the pastry scene. One of the kids, the one who grows up to be William Forsythe I think, buys some cake so he can get a little something sweet in exchange from the neighborhood tart. The kid gets a quick glance at the goods when George Costanza’s mother from Seinfeld opens the door just enough to let him see the girl lathering herself in the tub in the living room. He sits outside her apartment waiting for his turn, every now and then taking a little fingerful of the cream. Then he rearranges the cake so it doesn’t look like he fingered it. Then he takes just a little more. After a while, the allure of pastry outweighs any raging hormone and he stuffs the whole cake in his mouth. It is a very touching scene.
Food is also a peace offering, Carmela Soprano, played by the consistenly magnficient Edie Falco, tries to bribe college deans by kicking up ricotta pie to the neighbors.
Tony Soprano ended most nights with a bowl of ice cream tucked underneath his chin. The Sopranos ended in a family restaurant, munching on onion rings for the table.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.