This appeared in the Toronto Star in 1993 when “The Mafia Cookbook” was published by Simon & Schuster. Former U.S. mobster Joe “Dogs” Iannuzzi wrote the book and phoned me from parts unknown when he was under the Witness Protection Program after he was an FBI informant. He died in Texas in 2015.
By Marion Kane
“Remember the crowd I was feeding — any meal may be their last, so it better be a good one. Crime may not pay, but it sure gives you a hell of an appetite.” — The Mafia Cookbook by Joseph (Joe Dogs) Iannuzzi
Joseph (Joe Dogs) Iannuzzi isn’t sure which he liked better: being a crook or being a cook. And he’s had plenty of practice at both.
For more than 30 years, as a mobster and major player in the Gambino crime family, Iannuzzi worked out of Florida and New York dealing directly with such high-level Mafia members as Joe Gallo, the Gambino family’s consigliere, and Carmine “The Snake” Persico, infamous head of the rival Colombo crime family.
His criminal activities ran the usual gamut: everything from loan-sharking to leg-breaking. But, as the Gambinos’ resident and well-respected chef, his specialties were of a different kind. They included Manicotti Marinara with Mint, Pasta Fagioli, Lemon Granita and Shrimp Scampi.
These days, in hiding somewhere south of the border under the federal witness protection plan, Iannuzzi has plenty of time to think, cook and hone his latest pursuit — writing books.
The first, published earlier this year, Joe Dogs: The Life and Crimes of a Mobster (Simon & Schuster) is the graphic, lively account of his life. The Mafia Cookbook (Simon & Schuster), due to appear in Canadian bookstores by the end of September, is a wonderfully witty little tome packed with his and his cohorts’ favorite recipes peppered with terrific anecdotes about where, when and to whom the meals were served.
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“And now I’m stuck in the Witness Protection Program, being taken to dinner out in the middle of wahoo land by U.S. marshals in joints that advertise ‘Italian Night’ and then serve %*#@ing macaroni and ketchup instead of pasta. I guess it serves me right.” — The Mafia Cookbook
Iannuzzi decided to turn informant for the FBI after his mentor, co-mobster and, as it turned out, nemesis Tommy Agro tried to kill him over some unpaid debts at Don’s Italian Restaurant on Singer Island, Florida, in 1981. He describes the incident in his cookbook thus: “Then I had a terrible accident. I kept walking into this baseball bat and this iron pipe. Some of my pals were trying to see if my head was harder than those two instruments. It was, barely.”
He was the star witness at 11 major trials during the 1980s. “I put away 20 of the top Mafia in New York and Florida — although most of them wound up doing it to themselves — including Tommy Agro and a chief of police.”
Now in hiding after an attempt on his life a year ago, he spends his time writing, cooking and talking about his former life as a Mafia cook/crook.
“I’ve liked cooking for as long as I can remember,” Iannuzzi told me enthusiastically in his inimitable Brooklynese the first time he phoned from places unknown at an appointed time arranged by our mutual contact, his publisher.
“I learned a lot from my mother, who’s an excellent cook, and from other relatives,” he continued.
Iannuzzi also had some professional training when, as he told me, “I worked for a chef at a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, where I learned to make really good soups and sauces. “They let me into the Mafia because I knew how to cook,” he says.
And he loves to wax eloquent about how the mob loved his cooking.
There was the time in Queens in 1976 when he made his famous Mandarin Pork Roast for a Colombo family group that included Thomas DiBella, the Colombo boss, and soldier Dominick (Little Dom) Cataldo.
“Joey, I want you to know how much I enjoyed that meal,” DiBella told Joe Dogs after dinner. I know it was some kind of southern dish because Little Dom tells me you’re from the south. So where exactly in South Brooklyn you from?”
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“I’d never tell my crew what I was cooking if it wasn’t a recipe from the old country. They wouldn’t have eaten it (and they might have shot me). But once they were licking their chops, I’d let them in on the fact that they were wolfing down Mandarin Pork Roast, or Steak au Poivre, and I never received a complaint.” — The Mafia Cookbook
“Most of the meals I cooked were at someone’s apartment when we were on the lam,” Iannuzzi told me during our second phone interview. Cooking for his colleagues kept him busy: “They eat while planning crimes and they eat after committing crimes, and when there are no crimes, they eat waiting for them to happen.”
Some tidbits from the book:
* On turning informant: “The guys in my new club asked me to spy on the guys in my old club who had tried to kill me. I had no problem with that. Revenge, like my Cicoria Insalata (Dandelion Salad), is best eaten cold.”
* Intro to a Bouillabaisse recipe: “A nice fish stew for someone who some day may sleep with the fishes.”
* On cooking at an FBI safe house: “I decided to do up something extra special, just in case this was my last supper.”
* A tip for “would-be compares“: “If any guy wants to join your crew and tells you he’s just out of the joint, take him to dinner. If he orders anything but steak or lobster, he’s lying and probably a Fed.”
* His dedication: “This book is dedicated to my good friend and compare Tommy Agro. Without you, this book would not be possible. Rest in Pieces.”
And, in case you’re wondering if Joe Dogs glorified his former lifestyle, he told me: “I got into the mob for the girls, the money and the red carpet, and I’m honest in my books about the bad guy I was. However, I hope my writing about it will show younger people not to get into a life of crime.”
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“They all ate like they were going to the chair. You don’t have to eat that way with the recipes in this book. You just have to enjoy them. Because they’ve been tested on the worst of the worst and the best of the best. And they’ve all passed with flying colors.” — The Mafia Cookbook
And now, a recipe inspired by the The Mafia Cookbook. The recipes in this book have too much oil, alcohol and sugar. Instead, I developed a quintessential sauce that’s ubiquitous in Italian cuisine.
Simple Marinara Sauce
This is easy and the best marinara sauce I’ve made. It’s slightly adapted from the website Cookie and Kate. They recommend high quality canned tomatoes — so do I. I buy cans of Muir Glen or Martelli brands or any canned San Marzano tomatoes. This recipe is full of flavour, intense and clings to the pasta. The recipe makes more than 2 cups of sauce; double the recipe if desired. You can toss the sauce with cooked pasta as is or you can put meatballs in it, leftover chicken or veggies.
28 oz/796 mL can whole peeled tomatoes
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
2 large cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt to taste
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine tomatoes with their juices, halved onion, garlic cloves, olive oil, oregano and red pepper flakes.
Bring mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, partially covered. Remove the saucepan from the heat and discard the onion.
Crush tomatoes with a potato masher or, if you want a smooth sauce, use an immersion blender to (partially) blend the tomatoes. (I like a slightly chunky sauce.)
Add salt if necessary. Toss while warm with al dente pasta or over grilled meat or cooked vegetables. Serve grated Parmesan cheese on the side.
This sauce keeps well and refrigerated for up to 4 days. Freeze it for up to 6 months.
Makes about 2½ cups of sauce, enough to coat 6 cups of cooked pasta (12 oz/375g uncooked pasta). Makes 4 to 6 servings.