Most on-screen mafiosos thrive on the triptych of family, violence, and food—it also shows how connected Italian-Americans are to their food culture. In movies, food has always been the soul of a mobster’s environment and behaviour, and these powerful and ruthless men often ate and drank, and even donned the apron to stir their sauce. Besides, it’s not just the prosciutto or the rigatoni, they are also found chomping on Chinese food. Which is pretty accurate since, in New York City, the gangland Little Italy is really close to Chinatown. In fact, real life mobster Lucky Luciano is known to have loved Jewish food.
Who can forget the erotic gnocchi-making scene between Mary Corleone and Vincent in The Godfather? Or the many delicious sausage-frying, spaghetti-twirling scenes in Goodfellas?
“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli" (The Godfather)
The Godfather has arguably, the best movie line that says it all about being an Italian-American gangster with an undying love of food. Rocco Lampone has shot the cunning traitor Paulie Gatto, on the orders of Sonny Corleone, somewhere on the outskirts of New York (you can see the Statue of Liberty in the background, a masterpiece framing), and as he is done, Clemenza walks to him and says, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Rocco takes the box of cannoli they had picked up for Clemenza's wife from inside the car, hands it over to Clemenza and then they walk away. Cannoli is a Sicilian dessert, a fried pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, sprinkled with powdered sugar and dotted with chocolate pieces, nuts and citrus peels at the open ends—best had croccante, crisp. You cannot but root for Clemenza to remember to take that box.
“Don’t put too many onions in the sauce!" (Goodfellas)
‘Paulie had a wonderful way with garlic,’ Henry says. He would use a razor to slice the garlic so thin and translucent that it would liquify in the pan with just a little oil. In what is an iconic prison scene from the classic mobster flick Goodfellas, you can see how the wise guys are serving time, and yet they are making up the most sumptuous feast ever. Paulie Cicero is in charge of the garlic, Vinnie makes tomato sauce, and Johnny Dio cooks steak in a pan since they did not have a broiler. Johnny was quick to judge you as an aristocrat if you liked medium rare. Paulie warns Vinnie to not put too many onions in the sauce. Vinnie retorts that he hasn't but Henry thinks he has. It is not the prison life you have seen on the screen. You see fresh lobsters on ice arriving, bread, peppers and onions, prosciutto, lots of cheese, a bottle of J&B scotch, bottles of red and white wine. Henry thought Vinnie made a very good sauce even with a lot of onions.
“Ricotta pie with pineapples. I want you to write that letter” (The Sopranos)
One of the greatest mobster TV shows on television, The Sopranos, with its gabagool, rigatoni, cacciatore, macaroni, manicotti, spring beans, cannoli, and almond croissants, has had a very strong connection with food, which runs thick throughout the series, equally prominent like the hot blood that is splattered alongside. Among many scenes involving food, the one that stands out shows how Carmela Soprano plays out a silent but dangerous mobster queen herself, by seeming to sneakily threaten Joan Cusamano, a Georgetown law graduate, to write a letter of recommendation for her daughter Meadow. Her bribe? A delectable ricotta pie with pineapples.
“The most complicated thing I was ever supposed to do; Arancinis.” (Rob The Mob)
A dark indie mobster movie came out in 2014, based on a true story, with Andy Garcia playing Big Al Fiorello, an olde-worlde don. Big Al is giving his grandson a lesson in making arancini—rice balls stuffed with ragu, or mozarella, crump-coated and deep-fried. The flick was fine, but the arancinis are the best take away. He shows his grandson to make a baseball-sized rice ball, make a hole, and stuff meat and cheese in, give it an egg-wash, coat it with bread crumbs, and before putting them in the oil—he reveals a little secret—take a toothpick, and make another hole. This, according to him, will let the oil in, to melt the cheese. “Rice ball! The most complicated thing I was ever supposed to do; Arancinis,” he exclaims to Sal standing in the kitchen. Big Al is likeable, refined, and intense, and it shows in this tete-a-tete with his little one over arancinis, when he stresses that love and patience is the essential part of making an arancini.
“A little bit o’ wine and a little bit ‘o sugar” (The Godfather)
The Sunday Sauce, or the gravy, is the holy grail of any Italian-American family dinner table; a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. After giving Michael Corleone some love advice (“Why dont'cha tell that nice girl you love 'er?”) Peter Clemenza, the capo of the Corleone family, teaches Mikey a thing or two about cooking pasta sauce. “You start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it, you make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil. You shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. And a little bit o’ wine. And a little bit o’ sugar.” Yes, sugar is the secret of a great tasting gravy.
Fun fact: Francis Coppola, who worked with Mario Puzo for The Godfather, sent Puzo a draft of the script of this scene, where Coppola wrote ‘brown some garlic in olive oil,’ and Puzo sent the script back with his correction. ‘Clemenza fries some garlic. Gangsters don’t ‘brown’, gangsters fry.’
“This eel is delicious!” (The Sopranos)
Tony Soprano and his wife Carmela give the re-heated chicken parmesan and ziti a pass as they go have dinner at Nori Sushi. They eat spicy hand-rolled shrimp, yellow tail and oysters. One can see they are obsessed and Carmela tells Tony how she has been fantasising about this place ever since they discovered it. Tony's confession is a little more blunt; he has been fantasising about the food too, but sometimes even while making love. They talk about more serious things as they chomp down tekamaki and salmon with tomato. That same episode sees the couple coming back again another night to Nori Sushi for dinner that consists of Spanish mackerel; Carmela finds the eel delicious and Tony asks for more saké . Carmela has now marked this as their special place as she persuades Tony for dinner there another day, and much to her shock, he says he had already been there, eating by himself. “I was hungry, Carm!” he says.
“Wrap it up pretty!” (Once upon a time in America)
Sergio Leone’s swansong is a stunning and stylish masterpiece, and one cannot but talk about the iconic pastry scene. Here, a young Patsy buys a charlotte russe, the “five-cent one” with a lot of whipping cream, and asks it to be 'wrapped up pretty’, for he is taking it to Peggy, to get a little sweet something in return. He goes up to her home, gets a glimpse of her mid-bath, and sits outside her apartment waiting for her to come back after her bath. The sequence that follows is nothing less than poetic. Little Patsy, now unable to control his temptation—not for Peggy, but for the cake—takes a finger-full of cream. Suddenly overtaken with the thought of Peggy, he tries to pat the piece to look like he hadn't touched it. But greed ultimately wins, and he proceeds to unwrap it, licking more of the cream and crumbs. He relishes the cherry on top, and bite by bite, the young fellow ends up devouring the whole piece of pastry.
“I have a jones for your baked ziti” (The Sopranos)
On a rainy night, while Tony Soprano is away with daughter Meadow on a college tour, Father Philip Intintola, Carmela's spiritual mentor, drops by home, all drenched, to meet her who wasn't keeping well. In a scene filled with sexual tension, Carmela helps Father Phil remove his raincoat, and as the rain pours, Father Phil confesses, “I have a jones for your baked ziti,” implying his desire for her dish. When she happily goes to warm it up, he proclaims that reheated ziti is the best as “the mozzarella gets nice and chewy”. Even as he worries of being looked at as someone who shows up for free grub, he grabs a jar of cajun-stuffed olives from the refrigerator. Red pepper flakes make all the difference, he says. The two of them, just sitting there, eating ziti, and drinking Chianti. Later, while watching 'The Remains of The Day', Carmela confesses, receives communion, and Father Phil comes very close to kissing her. They do nothing more than that, but the father is very stricken with guilt and awkwardness the morning after. Carmela asks him, “Is there a commandment against eating ziti?”
“Upstairs is one of New York's most important food writers! Not one mistake!” (Dinner Rush)
Salivating scenes ahead! Udo Cropa, the chef at the hot new Italian restaurant in town Gigino, is preparing for a big night. The eccentric restaurant critic Jennifer Freely is upstairs for dinner, and he has to make an impression—but with “absolutely no butter,” as she has asked for. And downstairs, the kitchen goes into high adrenaline mode, as Udo, with his sous-chef and chronic gambler Duncan, prepare what is described as a "Montauk lobster and rock shrimp in a champagne shallot sauce with vanilla bean, garnished with salmon caviar, and a Tobiko caviar which has a wasabi flavour and some chives—and no butter.” Needless to say, the scenes where they freeze-fry spaghetti look delicious, and the final lobster dish is towering, and unique.
“It's not mozzarella, it's called burrata” (The Sopranos)
For Artie Bucco, the head chef of Nuovo Vesuvio, a local go-to Italian restaurant for Tony and the crew, food meant life, joy, family, love and tradition. “Don't talk, just eat,” Artie says at one point. He also introduces Carmela and Rosalie Aprile to burrata, which he explains is mozzarella on the outside, but is more “subtle and smooth with an almost nut-like flavour.” In another episode, you can't blame Artie when he shoots a rabbit for eating his arugula plant. The seeds were brought in all the way from Italy, safely in his shaving kit, so what do you expect? At least the rabbit ends up as someone's dinner, when a young couple comes in at the closing time. Artie's passion and love for food shines through in the kitchen. He takes the dead rabbit out of the refrigerator and reaches out to his grandfather's old cook book for the magic recipe. In silence, he fries the garlic and makes the rabbit dish. All with just one hand as a mobster had dunked Artie's right hand into a pot of hot marinara sauce, leaving it severely burnt. It is one of the most beautiful cooking scenes in The Sopranos.
Hungry yet? Mangia Bene!