Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Officials Say a Little Italy Tradition Is Back: The Mob at San Gennaro

Feast of San Gennaro in New York.Feast of San Gennaro in New YorkLittle Italy — or Littler Italy, as certain wits have called it — has lost a good deal of its square footage and authentic flavor over the years. Caught between an encroaching Chinatown and a growing SoHo fashion trade, its pork stores and red-sauce joints have been left to huddle largely on its main drag, Mulberry Street. The 2010 census failed to find a single neighborhood resident — not one — who was born in Italy.

Imagine the surprise, then, when word got out this week that an old, if undesirable, tradition had returned in recent years to the Feast of San Gennaro, Little Italy’s most important cultural event. That tradition, the authorities say, is Mafia corruption. Even though the former mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, declared the feast to be gangster-free in 1996, on Wednesday federal prosecutors charged an alleged mobster — who also ran a cannoli shop — with shaking down vendors at the fair in 2008.

It was impossible to know from the indictment, handed up in Brooklyn, if La Cosa Nostra’s inroads on the feast had been there all along, if they had come back intermittently or if the government was wrong. Still, it says something about the Mafia’s commitment to controlling certain cash-rich environments that prosecutors believe it has managed to survive where other, more lawful businesses have not.

“I went back to the neighborhood because I felt a change and wanted to preserve what was vanishing,” said Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa, who is originally from the area and returned to found the Italian American Museum on Mulberry Street. “Obviously, the federal government has reason to believe it hasn’t changed.”

The defendant in the case, Conrad Ianniello, 68, was described in the indictment as a captain in the Genovese crime family with a history of offenses that includes a conviction on gun possession charges in 1986 and a five-year term of probation for grand larceny in 1972. Mr. Ianniello, a relative of Robert Ianniello Jr., who owns Umberto’s Clam House, on Mulberry Street, was charged with 10 other men, including several union leaders, on various allegations including bookmaking, extorting subcontractors at a Hampton Inn in Queens and the crimes at San Gennaro.

“I know Conrad — he used to have a dessert place, Lo Spuntino, on Mulberry between Hester and Canal,” said Mort Berkowitz, a street-fair specialist who has been running the feast since 1996, when Mr. Giuliani appointed him to the job with a mission to clean up the notorious corruption. “His wife, Rosalie, used to make the greatest gingerbread-house Christmas cakes. To me, he was always a nice guy.”

Mr. Berkowitz, who once described his own relation to the feast as “the hired help, the Jewish guy from the Upper West Side,” said he had no idea that gangsters still ran roughshod over its vendors.

“I find it incredible,” he said. “No one’s ever said a word to me — and some of these people are my close friends.”

The reactions of business owners in the neighborhood were equally incredulous and seemed to fall into one of two groups. There were those like Lou DiPalo, proprietor of DiPalo’s, an Italian delicatessen on Grand Street, who said the indictment would distract people from the contributions Italians had made to the city — the building of its bridges, for example, and the cooking of its food. Then there were those who simply puffed their cheeks and offered up their palms, professing ignorance of Mafia involvement in the fair.

Randy M. Mastro, who led Mr. Giuliani’s reform of San Gennaro, had an interesting response to the news: he laughed out loud, in an “ain’t-that-something?” sort of way. He quickly added: “We always said the mob wasn’t going to go away overnight, that it would take a persistent effort over time. Has that persistent effort been maintained? Today’s indictment probably gives an answer.”

The reasons Little Italy have shrunk are familiar to demographers: immigrant neighborhoods naturally disperse as successive generations, more affluent and assimilated, slowly move away. Some things, however, remain. Mr. Ianniello is not the only alleged mobster in recent years to have been tied to San Gennaro, which is held each year in September and remains a major tourist draw. Every now and then, it seems, a gangland figure will surface from the festival’s organizing body in an uncomfortable, if not always incriminating, way.

The last was a man named Perry Criscitelli, a Mulberry Street restaurateur, who in 2004 was linked to the Bonanno crime family by a witness at the trial of Joseph C. Massino, the family boss. Mr. Criscitelli was the president of Figli di San Gennaro, the group that runs the new, improved fair. (He quickly resigned from that position.) When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was asked at the time if he was confident that the feast’s operations were free of Mafia influence, he said, “No, but I am confident they will be free.”

The most serious recent threat to the festival may not be the mob but the neighbors. Last year, in another sign of Little Italy’s erosion, a coalition of fashionable newcomers — baristas, owners of designer stores and residents who use the name “NoLIta” — filed a motion with Community Board 2 to reduce by half the footprint of the fair. Though the motion was defeated by a 20-to-13 vote, the board won some concessions from the feast.

Among them: a promise not to sell any garment with a logo or a slogan praising the mob.



Post a Comment