As Simon Wroe writes in this month’s issue, food is playing a central role in Italy’s current anti-mafia movement. Here he looks at five key moments in film and literature where gangsters and gastronomy meet.
It’s no secret: the mafia loves to eat. Food appreciation has become part of the mob’s image, an epicurean touch in stark contrast with its bloodier appetites. Writers and directors are particularly fond of this incongruity; food can show the personal side of a killer or lend sophistication to a thug. The following list has some obvious omissions: I did not fugedabout The Sopranos, or the indie film Dinner Rush. While both dedicate substantial screen time to mobsters eating, I don’t think either offers such definitive examples as those below.
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
If these meatballs could talk… Food is everywhere in this gangster classic, and privy to a lot of trauma. Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) dies in the family tomato patch. The family soldier Clemenza instructs a hitman to “leave the gun, take the cannoli” after a mob execution. But perhaps its most famous food moment is the scene in which the young Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, shoots a clan rival and his accomplice over dinner in an Italian restaurant. Coppola builds the tension masterfully. By the time someone says, “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city,” you want to crawl under the table and cower.
The Mafia Cookbook by Joe “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi (publ. 1993)
Iannuzzi testified against the mob in eleven major trials—and then he wrote a cookbook about it. The result is a bizarre hotpot of cordon bleu recipes and violent episodes from Iannuzzi’s time with the Gambino crime family. Delia Smith would hate it. Iannuzzi discusses chopping a man’s hand off while he prepares veal marsala, cooks “fish en papillote” after smashing a debtor’s face in and “Lobster Fra Diavolo” while wearing a wire for the FBI. On one occasion, cooking for a gangster and his crew who are lying low after a robbery, Iannuzzi discovers there are no dandelion greens in the safe house. One of the mobsters in hiding is sent to the shops to get them.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Food is married to the mob in Goodfellas. When Tommy (Joe Pesci) needs to bury a guy, he goes to his mum’s to pick up a shovel and ends up getting cooked dinner. When the cops are closing in on Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), he’s giving us cooking tips. (The real Henry Hill loved his food enough to write The Wiseguy Cookbook, a grisly stew of crime and nourishment on similar lines to Iannuzzi’s.) But if one scene in the film captures the mob’s curious and often humorous love affair with food, it is the prison dinner, with Paulie’s system for doing the garlic, Vinnie’s tomato sauce, and Johnny Dio cooking the steak. This is mafia food heaven.
On Broadway by Damon Runyon
Runyon was a writer, not a gangster. But he took his inspiration from the hardened characters and hoodlums he overheard in the speakeasies and restaurants of New York in the twenties and thirties. His nameless narrator is especially partial to food, as are several of his mobster acquaintances. Runyon’s stories, studded with great wiseguy patter, play out over the “very nourishing” and “quite reasonable” beef stew at Bobby’s or the Hungarian goulash at Mindy’s, bringing the private world of criminals into the public sphere. One story, Butch Minds the Baby, begins like this:
One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefillte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John.
Now these parties are not such parties as I will care to have much truck with, because I often hear rumours about them that are very discreditable, even if the rumours are not true. In fact, I hear many citizens of Brooklyn will be very glad indeed to see Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John move away from there, as they are always doing something that is considered a knock to the community, such as robbing people, or maybe shooting or stabbing them, and throwing pineapples, and carrying on generally.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1990)
Alright, so it’s not exactly a mafia film. There’s nothing overtly Italian about Michael Gambon as a gangster (“The Thief,” Albert Spica) who holds court in the up-market French restaurant he owns, eating avocado vinaigrette and prawns with his fingers and complaining that the dishes “look like catfood for constipated French rabbits.” While food makes Scorsese’s mobsters kings of the prison, Greenaway’s mob boss is constantly undermined by it. Nevertheless, the film bears the same hallmarks: the salivating descriptions of food and the casual brutality of those eating it. Greenaway neatly blurs the line between the two, exploring the violence inherent in cooking and consuming, the terrible things done with knives and flesh.