This first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
Everything has a dark side—even pizza.
Porcello, 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.