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At Parisi Bakery, sandwich perfection
Parisi Bakery exterior, sandwich nirvana awaits inside
They call it a bakery, but in reality the bakery is a few blocks away on Elizabeth Street. This outpost of Parisi Bakery specializes in magnificently-crafted heroes — maybe the pictures of Babe Ruth and other New York Yankees provide heroic inspiration.
But finding hero nirvana is never easy and at Parisi’s there is the little problem of the line. The line begins to form just before noon and soon snakes out the door and onto Mott Street. I’ve many times preached my feelings about waiting on line for food. Unless times are very hard, don’t ever do it!
Even for their exemplary meatball hero smothered in deeply-flavored marinara.
There are ways to avoid the line quandary. It just takes a little planning. You’ll need to set your schedule around your visit to Parisi’s. Make that your priority for the day. Take a late breakfast or an early or very late lunch and you should be fine. There is no seating at Parisi’s but who cares? You’ve got your hero. Don’t ask for more...or maybe just a few loaves to take home.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: [email protected]_neckbones.
Fried Neck Bones…and some home fries
“Are you ready to sing,” Beth, the hostess of Papa’s Kitchen asked me as I entered the empty, yet cozy Filipino restaurant on Woodside Avenue in Queens.
I was the first to arrive and her question to me caught me off guard. Zio had chosen this restaurant but with no mention of singing—or worse karaoke singing.
“Sing?” I shook my head. “No, but I am ready to eat.”
“Oh but you have to sing too,” she insisted
What had Zio gotten us into? I was debating whether to take off my jacket and stay or rush back to my car, but Eugene, Mike from Yonkers and Zio arrived before I could leave, thwarting my escape.
I glared at Zio. “Are you ready to sing?” I asked him. He saw the microphone. He saw the television with the Karaoke, both Filipino and English hits, strolling down. “What the…” was his startled response.
Eugene and I kept our heads safely down as we scanned the menu. Zio hesitated. Unbelievably, he was actually contemplating the karaoke thing.
“What about ‘My Way’?” Beth suggested. “Elvis or Sinatra.”
“I don’t know. Do you have ‘Get a Job’ by the Silhouettes?” Zio asked for some bizarre reason.
Beth checked the seemingly endless scroll of possible songs, but couldn’t find the doo wop hit.
“What do you recommend to eat?” I interrupted hoping to get Beth off the karaoke obsession and onto what our task at hand was.
She ignored me and continued to press us into singing. Zio, displaying weakness of character, capitulated. He took the microphone.
He nodded. What followed sounded like the vocal emissions of a man in serious bowel discomfort. My appetite was waning as rapidly as Zio’s sorry vocal chords. The end was definitely “near” and we all, thankfully, faced the “final curtain” on Zio’s rendition of “My Way.”
“Can we please now order some food,” I barked.
“Who’s next?” Beth inquired, again totally ignoring my plea.
Finally, Eugene and Mike from Yonkers stepped in and Beth had no choice but to give us advice on what to order.
“Let’s start with Dynamite?” Mike from Yonkers asked.
Whatever dynamite was, it was listed as one of the appetizers and we wanted it.
What appeared soon after were thin crispy fried rolls stuffed with jalapeno and vegetables, served with a sweet, garlic chili sauce. And we ate them on plates adorned with banana leaves.
Along with Dynamite, we settled on lechon kawali, deep fried pork belly, sitaw kalabasa, beans and pumpkin in coconut milk, the bicoli express, pork loin sliced in a stew of coconut milk and lastly, pancit palabok. When I asked about the pancit palabok, Beth mentioned that the noodle dish was more for Filipino tastes. Whatever she meant by that just confirmed our insistence in ordering the dish.
While we waited for our entrees, Beth once again tried to enlist our usually stoic group from the scourge that is karaoke. And once again, one of us succumbed. This time it was Eugene with a screechy, nails on the blackboard, rendition of “House of the Rising Sun.” Making it even more painful, was the accompanying video, a series of shirtless, buff Filipino men dancing and gesturing to languid, seemingly very bored, females.
Relax folks, it’s only a microphone.
The deep fried pork belly arrived to quell our collective indigestion from the Karaoke debacle and the addition of a pungent liver sauce was a more than welcome condiment to the crisped fatty meat.
After sampling the pancit palabok, rice vermicelli noodles coated in aromatic sauce of fermented shrimp paste and garlic we understood Beth’s hesitance in recommending the dish to those not familiar with such funky exotica. To us, however, it was a revelation. The same, however, could not be said for the uninspired bicoli express, a stew of overcooked pork in a mild coconut milk broth. A similar, but much more flavorful coconut milk broth was the base for the sitaw kalabasa and the result was much more satisfying.
Pancit palabok with sitaw kalabasa in the background.
“Now that you are finished eating, what songs will you be singing,” Beth asked hopefully.
There was only one song left and it was sung by Eugene. Without the aid of the microphone, Eugene smiled and sang those two precious words: “Check please.”
To Experience Manhattan’s Little Italy
Start off the day at the Italian American Museum (155 Mulberry St.) located at the site of the former Banca Stabile, a bank established in 1885, to serve as a link back to Italy for the new Italian immigrants.
Follow Mulberry north to the oldest espresso bar in the country, Ferrara (195 Grand St. between Mott and Mulberry) established in 1892, for a coffee and dessert.
Continue on through the remaining area of Little Italy, mostly crowded restaurants and souvenir shops, and turn right onto Spring St. to try a slice of pie from Lombardi’s (32 Spring St.), the first pizzeria in America, dating back to 1905 when Sicilian, Gennaro Lombardi, peddled his first slice. Then head northwest to Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market (285 Bleecker St.), one of the oldest butchers in New York City.
For a sweet finish, head next door to Pasticceria Rocco (243 Bleecker St.) for cannoli. It’s an old neighborhood favorite: the former Joe Zema’s Pastry, turned over to Rocco ( Joe’s southern Italian apprentice) in 1974.
By Caitlin Doherty — January 12, 2011
Editor’s Note: Our pizza-ologist Caitlin Doherty recently took on the City of Pizzerias for National Pizza Week, visiting the venerable Lombardi’s pizza restaurant in New York, the first such establishment in the United States.
Plaque on exterior of lombardi's pizza restaurant commemorating its position as the first pizzeria in the united states.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
I confess—Pizza is my favorite food. I’m not alone. People here in the U.S. eat over 100 acres of pizza a day, that’s about 350 slices per second or 11 billion slices each year.
Although National Pizza Month is in October, National Pizza Week is the second week January, so to investigate the world of Pizza this month, I traveled to New York City, to enjoy one of the best pizzas you can buy at the first Pizza restaurant in America, Lombardi’s. To truly investigate the world of pizza, this is where you start.
the original lombardi's, founded in 1905 by gennaro lombardi from naples. (Photo © Lombardi's Original Pizza of New York, Inc.)
Back in the late 1880s, Italian immigrants from Naples who were bread bakers in New York started taking their extra dough and making pizza, something for which Naples in Italy is famous (called Neapolitan pizza, or pizza Napoletana.) Pizza was simply something bakeries made as a sideline so that the bakers could keep their bread ovens hot and running even after the morning loaves were baked.
In 1895 Gennaro Lombardi emigrated from Naples and came to New York where he made pizza in a bakery on Mulberry Street, using the same dough recipe his father and grandfather had used in Naples. In 1997 Lombardi opened his own grocery store and bakery at 53 1/2 Spring Street in Little Italy, just down the street from its present location. Lombardi soon decided to sell pizza and in 1905 Lombardi’s was issued a mercantile license by the City of New York, becoming America’s First Pizzeria. It was called, simply, Lombardi’s. It was small. It didn’t even have tables and chairs until the 1930s. But it made great pizza, satisfying the cravings of many a homesick Italian immigrant.
lombardi's now occupies the whole corner at mott and spring streets in nolita (which means, “North of little italy”) in manhattan.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Lombardi was naturally influenced by the great pizza pie recipes of Naples, but he found it necessary to adapt the pizza to American technology and ingredients. Instead of a wood-fired brick oven as in Naples, he used a coal-fired brick oven. That was a good idea, since the lower temperatures of regular ovens dry out the pizza dough before the outside of the crust is crisp and the topping has cooked. A coal oven, however, can reach temperatures of 850 degrees Fahrenheit or more, higher than most of today’s conventional gas or electric ovens. That means that the oven can cook the pizza dough really quickly. Authentic Neapolitan pizzas bake in about 80 to 120 seconds, while authentic Neapolitan-American pizzas take about five minutes.
vIEW OF lOMBARDI'S FROM moTT STREET. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
Moreover, in Naples Lombardi would have used the excellent mozzarella cheese made from the milk of, would you believe it,the Indian water buffalo (mozzarella di bufala). That’s not so strange because farmers raise domesticated water buffalo near Naples. But in America, he used mozzarella made from fresh pasteurized or unpasteurized cow’ss milk, called mozzarella fior di latte. Thus, the Neapolitan-American pizza was born—“New York Style” pizza— and it began to increase in popularity and evolve.
vIEW OF lOMBARDI'S ON THE SPRING STREET SIDE. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
And so, a Lombardi's employee and fellow Italian immigrant, Antonio Totonno Pero, began making “tomato pies” pizza for the store to sell to workers in 1905, based on a classic Neapolitan recipe now Americanized a bit: fresh tomatoes, melted mozzarella, olive oil, a pinch of garlic, and perhaps a sprinkling of sausage. The pizzas cost 5 cents and were wrapped in paper and tied with a string. As New York skyscrapers began to rise in the city, workers of Italian descent would stop by Lombardi’s and pick up pizza pies to take with them to their work site. Most of these guys couldn’t afford the entire pie, so Lombardi sold it by the piece, but there were no set sizes or prices for slices. A worker would just ask for what, say, two cents would buy and they were given that much pizza. This is where the expression “two cents’ worth” comes from.
In 1924, realizing that the expanding New York subway system was going to make Coney Island a major gathering place, Antonio Totonno Pero left Lombardi’s and opened Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano at 1524 Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn, which has been in business ever since. (And since Lombardi’s was closed for a number of years, Totonno’s correctly claims that it is “the oldest continuously operating pizzeria in the U.S. run by the same family.”)
After the move in 1994, this is what lombardi's original entrance on spring street looked like. (Photo © Lombardi's Original Pizza of New York, Inc.)
Lombardi’s neighborhood also changed over the years. First it was called the Bowery, then the East Village, then Soho (which means, “South of Houston Street”), and now NoLita (“North of Little Italy”). But it continued to serve amazingly good pizza. In addition to Antonio Pero, other legendary, master pizzaiolos (pizza-makers) who trained at Lombardi’s during its long history include John Sasso who founded John’s of Bleecker Street and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy’s.
After Gennaro passed on, his son, John, took over Lombardi’s. By all accounts John Grennaro was an affable fellow who toiled long hours behind the coal oven but also enjoyed drinking, partying and generally having a good time. He traveled extensively by ocean liner between Italy and America, visiting friends and relatives. Tragically, he died when he was about 46 years of age.
A Slight Miscalculation
Lombardi’s then passed on to Gennaro Lombardi’s grandson, Jerry. Considered center of the U.S. pizza world by many pizza aficionados, Lombardi’s evolved from a pizzeria to a high-end Italian restaurant, but then a downturn in the economy forced it to close its doors in 1984. Moreover, vibrations from the subterranean Lexington Avenue subway line (the #6) cracked, crumbled and ruined the valuable coal-fired oven. Lombardi’s may have closed, but the family held onto the building at 53 Spring Street.
when lombardi's moved to its new location, the door from the previous oven was installed on the new one, and one can see lombardi” spelled out in mosaic tiles. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
At this point there came rescue in the form of John Brescio, a friend of the Lombardi family since childhood. Brescio’s mother had been raised in the vicinity and his father worked at Lombardi’s his whole life, often taking the pre-teen John to work with him. John would regularly get into some monkey business with the equally young Jerry Lombardi, and Jerry’s father John would keep both boys busy by giving them pizza dough to roll, which inevitably got thrown around accompanied by much laughter. While hanging out there, John Brescio became familiar with the signature Lombardi pizza taste that he could find nowhere else.
The Return of Lombardi’s
In 1994, ten years after Lombardi’s had closed, John Brescio and Jerry Lombardi decided to revive Lombardi’s. They were soon joined by Andrew Bellucci, a chef-turned-pizza fanatic who had worked and trained at making pizzas in two restaurants: Two Boots and Three of Cups. Lombardi agreed to teach Bellucci the nuances of pizza making, to entrust him with the secret Lombardi recipes and take on a general supervisory, ombudsman role once the revived Lombardi’s went into operation.
Although Lombardi still owned the original building at 53 Spring Street, the original site was deemed unsuitable for a comeback, as the oven was long gone. Finding a building with an existing coal-fired brick oven was important, because New York City environmental law does not permit new ovens to be installed, but it does allow existing ones to be “grandfathered in” and used if a new tenant or owner moves in.
everything edible at lombardi's ends up getting the heat treatment in the old coal-fired, brick-lined oven. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
As it turns out, the group found another location with a coal-fired brick oven right under their nose—it was a rental space just half way down the block and across the way at 32 Spring Street. It was an old Parisi bread bakery that had been closed for 21 years—and here, too, the oven had pretty much caved in and had been plastered over. But even though everybody said it couldn’t be fixed, the group found that it could in fact be repaired by a single company in Brooklyn that still knew how to do it, a craftsman from Italy and his two sons. Soon the oven was looking like new. They even fitted the oven with the 1905 door saved from the original Lombardi’s oven, with “1905 Lombardi” spelled out in black and while tiles on the front of the oven.
The two sons from Brooklyn still visit each year to do maintenance on the oven: In the upper parts of the oven, the fire can generate temperatures exceeding 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. This tremendous, almost continuous temperature burns away a little bit of the brick every day. By the end of the year, a whole new brick lining must be installed. (A Pennsylvania dealer supplies the coal.)
“stick men” work long hours, sliding pizzas in and out, and periodically adjusting their position to maintain the proper cooking temperature. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
Every night at 4 A.M. two workers clean out the oven’s grates (unlike wood, coal burns best when air rises up through the oven’s grated bottom surface) and then the oven is relit, a slow process that takes about two hours. (If done quickly, the coal “smothers.”) Since all the food in the restaurant ultimately gets cooked in the big oven, they begin the new cooking day by roasting clams, peppers and perform whatever other prep is necessary before the hectic day begins.
Some Personnel Changes
Much to everyone’s surprise, Andrew Bellucci, perhaps the most publicly visible, outspoken member of the Lombardi’s restaurant group, had a secret in his past. According to the article, “Too Hot Out of the Kitchen Pie Man Told World About His Pizza, Not His Past,” by Eric Asimov in the May 22, 1996 edition of The New York Times, in 1995, Bellucci, age 32, pled guilty in to 54 counts of fraud, accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars embezzled from the New York law firm of Newman Schlau Fitch & Lane, where he was an administrator in the late 1980s, long before he entered the pizza business. He surrendered to Federal authorities in early May 1996 and entered the Federal Correctional Institution in Otisville, New York, to begin a 13-month sentence.
pennsylvania bituminous coal produces the high temperatures needed to produce the amazingly thin, crispy yet chewy crust found in all lombardi's pizzas. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
After Bellucci left the Lombardi’s scene, John Brescio and Richardo Minchalo became even more involved in day-to-day operations. The pizza continued to be outstanding, much to the satisfaction of Lombardi’s somewhat more reclusive owners, Gennaro Lombardi and Joan Volpe.
Lombardi’s Growing Pains
In any case, the “new” Lombardi’s that opened in late 1994 was basically one narrow room. At the back was the oven, which was actually situated in a courtyard with the oven’s mouth opening into the kitchen, where the pizzas were slid in and out. There were only about 30 chairs. To improve the cash-flow situation, John Brescio realized he had to develop a big pizza delivery operation. He personally delivered menu pamphlets to businesses, condos and apartments across a wide area in Manhattan. Pizza deliveries were initially done by Brescio and the fellow who was the dishwasher. Brescio’s wife even joined in making the deliveries. Later, the pizza delivery operation ramped up to about eight or nine delivery people. After that maxed out, and more and more people wanted to sit down in a restaurant environment, Lombardi’s was able to rent the adjacent store. A year later, a small dining room was constructed over the oven. (Yes that’s right, you could eat pizza in a room somewhere above the oven.) Then a few years after that, the restaurant was able to expand into the corner store, so Lombardi’s now occupies the whole corner.
lombardi's not only doesn't sell slices, it doesn't accept credit or debit cards either. but don't worry, they have atm machines on the premises.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Sorry, No Mass Marketing of Lombardi’s
In an effort to focus on what they do best, Lombardi’s owners have turned down all sorts of potentially lucrative deals, such as offers to sell Lombardi pizza restaurant franchises around the country, publishing cookbooks, or selling pizza and/or pasta sauce products in supermarkets. Heck, Lombardi’s doesn’t even advertise.
And Now, for the Lombardi’s Pizza Experience
It’s a little intimidating walking into a pizza restaurant that Zagat Survey reviewers proclaim as “Best on the Planet.” Lombardi's has been featured on The History Channel and The Food Network.
as the reproduction of one masterpiece (the mona lisa) displays another masterpiece (a lombardi's pizza), Interesting america's pizza-ologist, caitlin doherty, prepares to enter the one and only lombardi's pizza restaurant. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
I am seated in the original, narrow room, surrounded by old photographs and history-laden atmosphere.
I order a small (14-inch, six slice) original “standard” pizza with fresh mozzarella, a tomato sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, and topped with romano cheese, fresh basil, sausage and pepperoni.
Ah yes, pepperoni. According to Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, It Must’ve Been Something I ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything (2003), the most popular topping is in fact pepperoni, which is placed on pizza in 36 percent of the orders, and is an American innovation of the 1950s. (The least popular topping: anchovies.)
Aside from the use of high-quality, super-fresh ingredients, the secret to Lombardi’s supremely delicious pizza is the coal-fired oven. Lombardi’s oven can easily attain 850 degrees Fahrenheit at a distance of a foot from the glowing coals, a bit less under the pizza (toward the oven’s top, temperatures can reach or exceed 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit).
at lombardi's, even a small pizza with pepperoni and sausage is an impressive example of pizza artistry. caitlin is seen here about to dine in the original narrow room. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
This high temperature is necessary to produce the classic Neapolitan-American crust, which is only about 3/16-inch thick. The bottom 1/32 inch crust is very crisp and generally dark and practically charred, with a hint of tartness. In contrast, the next 3/32 inch of the crust consists of dense, flavorful, chewy bread. Finally, the top 1/16-inch is slightly soggy or viscous because the surface is infused with oil and tomato sauce. The crust’s outer rim tends to be loaded with large crunch bubbles.
My pizza arrives. I lift a colorful slice and take a bite. It is a little wedge of joy. My taste buds are ecstatic. The light, thin, crisp yet elastic and chewy crust, the sauce, cheese and meats. Every ingredient is in perfect balance it all combines beautifully. A harmonious composition. A work not of history, but of timeless art.
our pizza-ologist gives her taste buds a real treat, courtesy of lombardi's pizza. (Photo © richard grigonis.)
Truly, Lombardi’s is America’s “Patria della Pizza,” or “Home of the Pizza.” And I have come home to savor its delights.
Still, in the spirit of Pizza Week, I must soldier on, sampling more of what New York, the City of Pizza, has to offer. Look for other visits to interesting eateries in future articles here at InterestingAmerica.com
Caitlin Doherty is Interesting America's pizza-ologist and fun eatery afficionado. She also likes fun places to visit when she can find the time. A New Jersey native, she is a pharmacy technician for a hospital.
Mott Street: 1910
On Shorpy:Today’s Top 5
Raffaele Venezia Cafe or Store circa 1910
I am looking for info on my friend's ancestor, the above named, who had a shop at 166 and/or 171 Mott Street at the turn of the last century.
Lynne Funk AIA
Time and Again
The time travel novel referred to below was called "Time and Again" and in my opinion is one of the best novels of its kind written. It's also illustrated with old photographs of places that the hero visited. That goes along with my "sliced cheese" theory of time, in which past, present and future exist simultaneously like slices of cheese in a package, and to travel from one era to another all you have to do is figure out how to peel back the paper separating them. Looking at these great, large format photos with all their detail makes me feel like I could really travel back in time if I really concentrated.
[What if time is more like a box of crackers? Or a jar of olives? (The kind with pimentos.) - Dave]
Time travel, indeed
I recall a time travel novel that had as its basis the fiction that if one were to be so imbued with a time and place and strove to "live" as though you were in that period in a locale that existed now and then, one would wake up some fine day, open the shades and voila, 1910 would be there. How I wish that were true. For now I'll just sit here and revel in each detail of pictures such as this. Thanks again to Dave and all the other posters.
This is time travel in its purest sense, a view into a moment of time frozen forever. Italian cafe, shoemakers, street sweeper, horse carts, vegetable vendor, little children moving around in their home neighborhood. I love it.
Built to Last
The first home I remember was at 1244 15th Avenue in San Francisco. That was 1936. Went past there recently and the street looks exactly the same and it was anything but new when we lived there.
Bet you won't find today's buildings looking exactly the same 100 years from now. You're doing a wonderful job of teaching/reminding us of our history. Thank you.
Wow, I love pictures like this. Not posed at all, just a moment in time caught on film. There are kids playing with something, a guy reading a newspaper, looks like a guy jumping over a broom and every one wearing a hat. The dog, the groceries. perfect. Probably everyone in that picture has already passed on but this one moment in their lives has been captured.
[Very true, although, practically speaking, there was no film back then. This was caught on glass. - Dave]
Thank You Thank You
Thanks for the opportunity to see this in a gorgeous and detailed vintage view and in an interesting modern view. I am a big fan of the "Then and Now" type books on different cities, and love to compare shots such as these. While I prefer the 1910 photo (if only filmmakers would get this kind of detail in their period-piece movies!), the Google shot has an interest all its own by virtue of one's being able to manipulate the view! Quite amazing, actually.
Mott Street, 1925 and today
This is a fine neighborhood for Dim Sum, and another site immortalized in popular song lyrics, this time in the 1925 Lorenz Hart song "Manhattan":
And tell me what street The great big city's a wondrous toy
Compares with Mott Street
Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by.
Just made for a girl and boy.
We'll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.
The great big city's a wondrous toy
I Heart NYC
Wow! I walked down that street in December when I was visiting NYC (I'm from Brisbane, Australia). I love the black dog on the right. Somehow, I always spot the dogs.
I love that the buildings have changed barely at all. Really interesting to think of the history in those buildings that the people living there now have probably never considered.
I've noticed the last three pictures have been watermarked. Are you going to be watermarking everything from now on?
The Chicken Vanishes
For years, I’ve talked about a chicken in Chinatown that plays ticktacktoe. I’ve mentioned the chicken in newspaper columns and interviews. In a travel book I wrote, there was a chapter called “The Playing Fields of Mott Street.” I’ve described the chicken’s skills in speeches, even when my wife was in the audience and I knew that it was likely to trigger one of her not-that-old-chestnut-again sighs. All in all, I would say that the chicken story is getting pretty well polished.
Oddly enough, the story is completely true. On walks from my house in Greenwich Village to Chinatown, I have truly had the custom of taking out-of-town visitors to a Mott Street amusement arcade, otherwise known for video games, where the out-of-towners get to try their hand at playing ticktacktoe against a chicken. My wife waits on the sidewalk. She has a low tolerance for video games, and she somehow acquired the impression that requiring a chicken to play ticktacktoe is cruel. (“Cruel!” I say to her. “I’ve never seen the chicken lose. What’s cruel?”)
The chicken is in a glass cage that is outfitted with the sort of backlit letters common to pinball machines—so that, at the appropriate time, “Your Turn” or “Bird’s Turn” lights up. When it’s your turn, you push a button on the outside of the cage to light up your “X” in one box or another when it’s the bird’s turn, the bird goes behind an opaque piece of glass marked “Thinkin’ Booth” and pecks once to produce an “O” in a box you were sort of hoping it wouldn’t notice. If you win, you get a bag of fortune cookies. I furnish the entry fee—fifty cents. I am, after all, the host. When I tell the chicken story, I always point out that nearly all the people I take down there have precisely the same response to the prospect of playing ticktacktoe with a chicken. After looking the situation over, they say, “The chicken gets to go first!”
“But she’s a chicken,” I say. “You’re a human being. Surely there should be some advantage in that.”
Some of my guests, I always report with some embarrassment, don’t stop there. Some of them say, “The chicken plays every day. I haven’t played in years.”
There you have the chicken story—unless, of course, you want to get into the B. F. Skinner part. Some people have been surprised to hear that the chicken story has a B. F. Skinner part. Some years ago, though, the writer Roy Blount, Jr., informed me that in Arkansas he had once met the people who trained the chicken to play ticktacktoe, and, as he remembered it, they turned out to be former graduate students of B. F. Skinner, one of the giants of behavioral psychology. After that, I sometimes added the B. F. Skinner part when I told the chicken story. I said that I hoped that part was true because it would be another refutation of the fallacious notion that graduate study is of no value in the practical workaday world. O.K., I sometimes said “canard” instead of “fallacious notion.”
Alas, it took the death of a chicken to reveal that the B. F. Skinner part was just as true as the rest of the chicken story. In 1993, only a day or two after I began to hear disturbing reports that the cage at the amusement arcade was empty, the Times ran a piece reporting that the incumbent fowl, a chicken named Willy, had expired. The Times piece, by Michael T. Kaufman, was respectful, obviously written by someone whose admiration of the chicken’s skill at ticktacktoe buried any resentment he might have harbored about constant losses over the years. I said at the time that many a congressman had been put in the ground to the accompaniment of a less heartfelt and eloquent eulogy.
In the Times piece, Kaufman mentioned that Willy had been trained in Hot Springs, Arkansas. With that partial confirmation of Blount’s testimony in hand, I tracked down a phone number for Educated Animals, a tourist attraction that shared a short block in Hot Springs with the House of Crystals rock and souvenir shop and Tiny Town (“World’s Largest Animated Village”). The proprietor, Mark Duncan, told me that Educated Animals didn’t have coin-operated units, but that Willy might well have been trained by the people who once ran a place on the same premises which was called I.Q. Zoo. While we were on the phone, he informed me that Educated Animals featured, in addition to such acts as a Vietnamese pig that drives a Cadillac and a parrot that roller-skates, a chicken that dances while a rabbit plays the piano and a duck plays the guitar. “What tune do they play?” I asked. Duncan said it was their choice.
To my great relief, Willy was soon replaced I assumed that the fresh bird had been sent to Mott Street from Hot Springs, where animals with unlikely skills did appear to be thick on the ground. My assumption was eventually confirmed by some material I received in the mail on the subject of how Hot Springs, which announces at the city limits that it is the “Boyhood Home of President Bill Clinton,” could just as easily call itself “Small-Animal Training Capital of the World.” In 1950, in the days when Hot Springs attracted tourists seeking the comfort provided by thermal baths and/or roulette wheels, a couple named Keller and Marian Breland, both psychologists with an interest in animal behavior, arrived from Minnesota, where they had founded Animal Behavior Enterprises, an operation designed to support both their family and their research. A.B.E. eventually produced, among other things, chickens that walked tightropes, dolphins that entertained at Marineland, and pigeons that could tip off Army patrols that there was an ambush ahead. After Keller Breland died, in 1965, Marian Breland just kept on training, and eventually married Bob Bailey, a fellow animal trainer who had joined the business. All this information came from Dr. Marian Bailey, who, some years past customary retirement age, was still teaching advanced psychology at Henderson State University, in Arkadelphia. She included a curriculum vitae, which said, in its second sentence, that in 1941 she had been “one of B. F. Skinner’s earliest graduate students and research assistants.”
Not long ago, I received a call from a denizen of Chinatown who sounded alarmed. He informed me that Willy’s successor was gone. I tried to remain calm. I reminded the caller that chickens, like those they compete against at ticktacktoe, have finite life spans. The cage might be empty now, I said, in a soothing tone, but other chickens would come along to fill it—chickens just as good at ticktacktoe. That seemed unlikely, the caller said, because it wasn’t only that the chicken was gone the cage was gone, too. I hurried down to Chinatown.
I think of my experience on Mott Street that day as being very much like a scene from a Hitchcock movie: The hero thinks that he has witnessed a brutal murder in a large country house or sanitarium—overturned furniture, blood all over the carpet—but when he comes back with the police there is no sign of any problem. The furniture is in order. The carpet is spotless. The owner of the house is polite, but his conversation with the police makes it clear that they all think the witness is, at best, hallucinating. At the amusement arcade, there was no sign at all that the chicken had ever been there. Where the cage had once flashed those comforting beacons “Your Turn” and “Bird’s Turn,” the proprietors had installed a video game called Jr. Pac-Man, or maybe a video game called Tournament Arkanoid. (I was having some trouble remembering precisely where the chicken’s cage had been.) Obviously, I was in a state of high excitement. After I left, I realized that I’d forgotten to look at the marquee outside to see if it still mentioned the presence of a ticktacktoe-playing chicken that had once appeared on Channel 5.
Why didn’t I just ask the proprietors of the arcade what had become of the chicken? I did, sort of, but I have to say that over the years I have not found the proprietors of the arcade to be deeply communicative. It may be that conducting business in a place that has fifty or sixty video games going at once limits one’s zest for conversation. The man who used to be in charge—he was not Chinese, but of indeterminate foreign origin—always struck me as one of those people who, while having an enviable ability to get by in any number of countries, seem to have no first language. Once, when I complained that the chicken seemed reluctant to compete against some out-of-town guests I had brought all the way from the Village, he said, “Egg in stomach,” and, sure enough, not three minutes later the chicken laid an egg. (“Forfeit!” one of my guests started shouting, but I counselled against pursuing the claim.) Then the chicken proceeded to peck apart its own egg, providing us with a rare opportunity to witness nature in the raw on Mott Street.
On the day that I found the chicken booth replaced by either Jr. Pac-Man or Tournament Arkanoid (a term that, to judge from a close inspection of the game, has nothing at all to do with the state of Arkansas), the proprietors of the amusement arcade didn’t offer much information about the chicken’s disappearance, although they did offer to change any bill I had into quarters. Judging from the accent of the man who seemed to be in charge, he might have come from a village quite near the egg-in-stomach man’s village. Or maybe he was the egg-in-stomach man. My concern was simple: What were the prospects for the chicken’s return? Had it failed to attract enough quarters to justify the space that could be occupied by a truly addictive video game? I’d seen that happen in French cafés with the table-soccer game that Americans sometimes call foosball and the French call “babyfoot.” Even if the amusement arcade reconsidered its decision, was there anyone who still trained chickens to play ticktacktoe? If the chicken was gone forever, what was to become of the chicken story? I resolved to find Marian Bailey.
B. F. Skinner once played ticktacktoe with a chicken. Yes, the man himself. I have it on videotape. I got the tape from Marian Bailey, of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Last May, Dr. Bailey finally retired from Henderson State. By then, she and her husband had gradually closed down their businesses—Animal Behavior Enterprises and I.Q. Zoo and a theme park called Animal Wonderland. I caught up with them shortly after my Hitchcockian experience in Chinatown—this was in Los Angeles, during a trip they were making to the West Coast—and they showed up both times we met in matching Hawaiian shirts, as if to underline their status as retired. On the other hand, they acknowledged that they were hauling a trailerload of chickens behind their car. With the help of the chickens, they’d been teaching some guide-dog trainers in Northern California the methods that were developed from the Skinner system called operant conditioning, or behavior analysis—reinforcing correct behavior with rewards and simply ignoring incorrect behavior until it drops away.
Dr. Bailey turned out to be a small, gray-haired woman whose nickname is Mouse. It almost goes without saying that she has trained many a mouse, but that’s not the sort of thing she’d bother to brag about. This is, after all, a woman who, finding herself with extended downtime on a secret project during the Second World War, trained a cockroach to turn out a light. The secret project itself involved training pigeons to guide bombs. No, the pigeons did not fly ahead of the bomb and then swerve away at the last moment even pigeons aren’t that clever. They were inside the bomb, in a ground-glass cone, triggering corrective instrumentation by pecking at what they thought was the picture of, say, an airfield that they’d been taught to peck at. Although the pigeon-projectiles were never actually used in combat, Bob Bailey, for one, regards them as the first “smart bomb.”
Bob Bailey, who started out training dolphins for the Navy, has never trained a cockroach, but he has trained turtles and he has trained snakes. Over the years, the Baileys told me, they have trained what they estimate to be between twelve and fifteen thousand individual animals. Although they’ve concentrated on chickens, rabbits, and ducks, they have also trained reindeer and zebras and coyotes and peafowl—a species of bird they try their best to discuss without using the word “dumb.” Chickens trained in Hot Springs have told fortunes and sold postcards and played baseball—the batter pulling a rope to swing the bat and then, only if the ball gets to the outside wall, running like crazy toward first base.
In the middle seventies, the Baileys, who had long produced coin-operated animal acts, sent out a couple of hundred units of what they called Bird Brain—a chicken that could, with the help of a primitive version of a computer, play ticktacktoe over and over again without losing. Chickens mowed down opponents in mom-and-pop amusement parks and in places like Six Flags Over Georgia and Circus Circus, in Las Vegas. Human beings were humiliated on playing fields as far away as Tokyo. As the Baileys remember it, the Mott Street unit went in around 1974, and one of its chickens lived for twelve years, going out there every day like an aging but consistently effective relief pitcher. So much for cruelty!
A few years after the installation of the Mott Street chicken, the Baileys took the same sort of unit to an annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis, and B. F. Skinner faced the bird.
“Do you remember how Skinner did?” I asked the Baileys. “Did he at least get a draw?”
“I think he actually got one draw,” Bob Bailey said.
“Yes,” Marian Bailey said. “But most of the time he just plain lost.”
Most of the time, of course, everybody loses. I asked Bob Bailey if it was fair to assume that the chickens were undefeated. He said that some years ago the operator of a Las Vegas casino called Vegas World told Animal Behavior Enterprises that he wanted a Bird Brain unit and intended to offer the Las Vegas version of a bag of fortune cookies—a hundred thousand dollars—to anyone who beat the chicken. Although Bob Bailey had never heard of a chicken losing, he warned that there was no way to completely rule out the possibility that the mechanism in the Bird Brain unit could malfunction. The casino operator decided to lower the offer to ten thousand dollars. In the first week of operation, the board displayed a row of “X”s against the chicken. Something in the machinery had gone haywire. Naturally, the house paid off. When I heard that from Bailey, I couldn’t wait to pass it on to the next person I took to play the Mott Street chicken: The human being playing at Vegas World that day hadn’t whined about the chicken’s advantages. He had simply soldiered on, and he had triumphed, to the tune of ten thousand dollars. Then I remembered that the Mott Street chicken was no longer there.
There isn’t any chicken at Vegas World, either. Or at Six Flags or Circus Circus. The heyday of coin-operated animal acts had ended by the early eighties. The mom-and-pop amusement parks were starting to die out, and a dancing chicken was never a perfect fit for the more modern operations. The people Bob Bailey occasionally allows himself to refer to as the “humaniacs” were becoming more likely to complain about how, say, a rabbit that kissed a plastic rabbit on command was being treated, even though the Baileys always insist that it was being treated a lot better than rabbits with no demonstrated interest in smooching. It’s been several years now since the Baileys trained a replacement chicken for a ticktacktoe unit, and, having shut down the facilities at Animal Behavior Enterprises, they’re not eager to train another one. A Bird Brain unit is in operation at a place called the Edgewater Packing Company, in Monterey Bob Bailey had stopped to unclog its feed chute on the way down the coast. Otherwise, the only functioning Bird Brain they are certain of is in the Black Hills Reptile Gardens, near Rapid City, South Dakota.
When I phoned Rapid City, I found out that the Bewitched Village section of Reptile Gardens does indeed have among its coin-operated units a ticktacktoe-playing chicken. The resident animal-trainer, Kathy Maguire, told me that she’d trained the chickens herself she’d learned the method from her predecessor, who’d learned it from the Baileys. I was pleased to hear that residents of Rapid City could take out-of-town visitors to play ticktacktoe with a chicken—I suppose they might drop in after that to the Mt. Rushmore memorial, if they had some extra time on their hands—but, for people in Lower Manhattan, Rapid City was obviously a fallback too distant for all but the most desperate cases of ticktacktoe deprivation.
The more important fact I had realized from my call to South Dakota was this: there must be any number of people around the country who were taught by someone who was taught by the Baileys—who, let’s not forget, were taught by B. F. Skinner—to train chickens to play ticktacktoe. Apparently, excitement over holding the World Cup in France last summer caused a revival of interest in babyfoot. If there were a similar revival of interest in Bird Brain, people like Kathy Maguire might be available to train the chickens. The last couple of times I’ve passed the amusement arcade on Mott Street, I’ve imagined myself inside after the revival. Jr. Pac-Man and Tournament Arkanoid have been relegated to the cellar. The chicken is back. I put in the fifty cents. My out-of-town guest is an older gentleman. He looks an awful lot like B. F. Skinner, down from Cambridge for some New York bright lights, although I’m aware that B. F. Skinner died in 1990. The machine flashes “Bird’s Turn.” There is no complaint from Skinner about the bird going first. The man’s a professional. Then it’s Skinner’s turn. He pushes a button. The machine malfunctions, and three “X”s show up in a line. The egg-in-stomach man comes out from behind the counter. He is carrying a bag of exceedingly stale fortune cookies, and, without a word, he hands them to B. F. Skinner. The man himself. It’s a pleasing scene. I’m thinking of adding it to the chicken story. ♦
Ferrara’s Bakery Tiramisu
Enrico Scoppa and Antonio Ferrara, opera impresario and showman, opened the cafe in New York City called Caffé A. Ferrara. Enrico Caruso, the great opera singer, thought the coffee marvelous but loved the cookies and cakes.
- 1 box (7 oz.) Savoiardi or Lady Fingers
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 pint heavy cream
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup strong warm coffee
- 1/4 cup coffee liqueur
Arrange Savoiardi in rectangular serving dish, (approximately 11″ x 13″).
Lightly soak Savoiardi with a mixture of coffee and coffee liqueur.
While gradually adding sugar, beat egg yolks (approximately 5-10 minutes) until very stiff and egg yolks appear pale in color.
Beat heavy cream until very stiff and fold into egg yolks.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites with a wire whisk or electric beater until very stiff and gently fold egg whites into the cream mixture. Add vanilla and fold gently.
Cover Savoiardi with this cream mixture. Cover with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
Refrigerate at least one hour before serving. Sprinkle with cocoa or chocolate flakes before serving.
Tiramisu may be frozen and should be defrosted in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving.
The Making of “The Godfather”—Sort of a Home Movie
As was his custom before the drive home from work with his son, the old man walked across the narrow, tenement‐lined street in Manhattan’s Little Italy to buy some fresh fruit. The grocer, who had known him for many years, helped the old man sort out some prize oranges and, as a gift, handed him a perfectly ripened, home‐grown fig. The old man smiled, accepted the backyard offering with a slight nod and started toward his car. It was then that he spotted two gunmen.
He called out to his son and began to sprint toward the safety of his car with surprising speed for a man of his age, but the gunmen were too quick. As they opened fire, the old man seemed caught in a great leap, suspended momentarily in the air, his arms thrown protectively around his head. Loud shots hammered through the street, bright oranges rolled across the gray pavement and the old man crashed onto the fender of his car and collapsed. The people of Mott Street watched in silence from tenement windows, fire escapes and rooftops as the gunmen slipped away. Then, to spontaneous applause, the grim street tableau came to life, and the old man—the godfather, Marlon Brando—lifted himself slowly from the ground, smiled at the cheering crowd and bowed.
At 11 o’clock on April 12, just as Brando was getting shot on Mott Street, Carlo Gambino, one of New York’s real godfathers, sat around the corner in a Grand Street cafe, sipping black coffee from a glass and holding 18th‐century Sicilian court in 20th‐century New York. He had arrived moments earlier in the company of his brother, Paul, and five bodyguards. It was his custom, as well as his duty as head of a Mafia family, to hear at regular intervals the endless woes of racketeers, dishonored fathers and deportable husbands. They were ushered before him, one at a time, from a waiting area in a restaurant across the street. He was the final judge to people still willing to accept his decisions as law.
Back on Mott Street, two Mafiosi assigned to observe the movie production were unaware of his arrival. For hours, they had been watching Brando getting shot. They had had innumerable cups of coffee and had adjusted their open‐throat, hand ironed shirts so often that their collars had begun to wilt. Neither of them had been impressed when they heard Brando was to play the godfather, so they watched his performance critically. They volunteered to grips, cameramen and extras that they would have preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn.
“A man of that stature,” one of them said, pointing to Brando, “would never wear a hat like that. They never pinched them in the front like that. Italian block, that’s the way they wore them, Italian block.”
They did not like Brando’s wearing his belt below his trouser loops, either.
“He makes the old man look like an iceman. That’s not right. A man like that had style. He should have a diamond belt buckle. They all had diamond belt buckles. And a diamond ring and tie clasp. Those old bosses loved diamonds. They all wore them. Brando makes the guy look like an iceman.”
In truth, Brando did not look like the traditional double‐breasted, wide lapeled, blue‐serge racketeer. He had accepted the advice of an Italian American friend, rather than the Mafiosi themselves, and made himself look old and bent. He wore a sack shaped suit of an undistinguished brown stripe and an outsize over coat. He wore a cardboard‐stiff white shirt with a collar at least two sizes too large and a striped tie so indifferently knotted that its back, label and all, faced front. The makeup man, who was never very far away, had fixed Brando with an elaborate mouth plate that made his jaw heavy and extended his jowls. Brando’s complexion was sallow, his eyes were made to droop on the side and with his graying temples and mustache many people on Mott Street that day did not recognize him until the filming began.
There was an aura about the production that was unmistakable, just as there is an aura of real and imagined power around the honored society itself.
The two Mafiosi did approve the vintage cars and were amused by the streetlamps, pushcarts and prices, circa 1940, tacked up in store windows. But they did not like the way the godfather’s assassins fired their guns.
“They hold pieces like flowers,” one said.
Shortly before noon a third man came up behind the pair and whispered:
“The old man’s around the corner.” The two men were stunned. “You kidding?” one asked. “Believe me, he’s around the corner.”
Without further hesitation—and with the same pitch of excitement most neighborhood people saved for a peek at Brando—the trio left the movie set. They walked quickly toward the intersection and stopped. One of them darted his head around the corner of the building for a quick peek and shot back to his friends: “He’s there. He’s there. I see his car. I see Paul’s guy.”
Mario Puzo’s best seller may have started out to be just another multimillion‐dollar movie for Paramount, but it wasn’t long before its producers realized that to the Mafiosi themselves the making of The Godfather was like the filming of a home movie. Before Puzo’s book, cops‐and‐robbers novels and films about organized crime left the mobsters cold. The Godfather was different. When it was published in 1969 word quickly spread across the country’s most regularly tapped telephone wires about this different book on the “honored society.” It was their Forsyte Saga. It was filled with bits of underworld gossip and its characters could be compared to live dons, singers, movie moguls and hit men. It depicted not only their lives, but the lives of their children, wives, enemies and friends. It emphasized their peculiar code of honor rather than their seedy, greedy little maneuverings. It dealt with their strong sense of family and their passionate loyalties. It romanticized and exaggerated their political power, wealth and influence in legitimate business. But most important, it humanized rather than condemned them.
The godfather himself, for instance, was shot because he refused to deal in the dirty business of narcotics. Sonny Corleone, his impetuous heir, was killed in an ambush because he tried to save his pregnant sister from a brutal husband. Michael Carleone, the godfather’s college educated war‐hero son, assumed his father’s Mafia mantle not out of greed, but from a sense of responsibility to his father, who, for all his illegal activities, was a far more honorable man than all the crooked cops, venal judges, corrupt politicians and perverted businessmen who peppered the plot.
Though certain Italian‐American politicians and organizations condemned Puzo for defaming all Italians, the author heard no such criticism from the society about which he had written. In fact, shortly after his book’s publication, Puzo found that some Mafiosi were anxious to meet him. They wanted to compare notes with the author of The Godfather. They, like other fans, refused to believe that the book was all fiction. In Las Vegas he found that a gambling debt he had run up was somehow marked paid. When Puzo protested he was told, “It’s a certain party’s pleasure.” On other occasions, bottles of champagne would arrive at his table unordered. Multisyllabic names were whispered in his ear by reverential headwaiters, and men with sunglasses and diamond rings waved at him across darkened restaurants.
Six weeks before the Mott Street shooting of Brando, Albert Ruddy, the film’s producer, was uncertain whether he would be able to make the movie at all. Paramount had been deluged with letters describing the project as anti‐Italian and threatening demonstrations, boycotts and wildcat strikes by everyone from maintenance men to electricians. Letters had come from Congressmen in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, as well as from dozens of New York State legislators, judges, civic leaders and businessmen.
One of them began: “A book like The Godfather leaves one with the sickening feeling that a great deal of effort and labor to eliminate a false image concerning Americans of Italian descent and also an ethnic connotation to organized crime has been wasted …. There are so many careers and biographies that could be made into constructive and intellient movies, such as the life of Enrico Fermi, the great scientist Mother Cabrini Colonel Ceslona, a hero of the Civil War Garibaldi, the great Italian who unified Italy William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence Guglielmo Marconi, and many, many others.”
The letter was signed by “the Grand Venerable of the Grand Council of the Grand Lodge of New York State’s Sons of Italy.” It also informed Paramount that the studio could expect an economic boycott of the film, petitions of protest from all Sons of Italy lodges, regional meetings to plan protests, a complaint filed with the State Human Rights Division and demands that no governmental authorities give the production any cooperation whatever.
And as if this were not enough, there were rumors of union walkouts, work stoppages and boycotts. Ruddy could envision costly delays. He had already run into trouble trying to negotiate with householders in Manhasset, L.I., for a site that looked like a godfather’s compound. The entire community and its bureaucrats had ganged up to sabotage his efforts.
“First, they’d complain that we would bring additional cars into the area and take up parking space,” Ruddy said. “So we’d promise to bus our people to the locations. Then they’d say they didn’t want buses in the area. Some said that if we did use their homes for the mall and the wedding the newspapers couldn’t know about it. How could we guarantee that? We were ready to pay, rent, replant, repaint, replace everything in the area for them. We were ready to make all kinds of concessions, but in the end I realized that they just didn’t want us. They never flat came out and said no, but it amounted to the same thing.
“For example, the godfather’s compound is surrounded by a stone wall, which we had planned to build to our own specifications out of Styrofoam. Well, one day a local official arrives and says we can’t build a wall in Manhasset over three feet high that isn’t permanent. I tried to explain that sections of the wall had to be removable for special camera angles, to say nothing of the time and expense of building and then tearing down a 12‐foot stone wall to run over several people’s property. Manhasset was full of that kind of stuff. I began to see the place as a swamp full of quicksand, and before I drowned I decided to start looking for another site and a little help.”
Ruddy is a tall, thin, nervously enthusiastic man who sees himself as a shrewd manipulator. At only 36, after all, he had managed to parlay the dubious distinction of producing Hogan’s Heroes for television and two money‐losing films (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, Making It) into the job of producing Paramount’s biggest potential money maker. Ruddy had always been able to talk his way through obstacles. It was his gift of glibness that got him into the movies in the first place. According to a brief biography put out by Paramount, Ruddy’s knowledge and enthusiasm so impressed the Warner Brothers president, Jack L. Warner, at a party that Warner hired Ruddy for an executive post on the spot. At the time of this fortuitous meeting, Ruddy was working for a construction company in Hackensack, N.J.
On Feb. 25 Al Ruddy went for help. He went in search of a godfather of his own. On that night he was driven to the Park Sheraton Hotel for his first meeting with Joseph Colombo Sr. and about 1,500 delegates of the Italian‐American Civil Rights League. Colombo was not only the boss of one of New York’s five Mafia families and thereby qualified for godfather status, but also the founder of the League, with which he had established himself as the dominant force in New York’s Italian‐American community.
In the year since he had founded his group, Colombo had drawn 50,000 people to a rally in Columbus Circle had forced the Justice Department to order the F.B.I. to stop using the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” in its press releases (and had watched the Governors of New York, Connecticut, Alaska, Texas and South Dakota follow suit) had persuaded Frank Sinatra to come to New York to help him raise money at a concert in the Felt Forum, and had been named Man of the Year by The Triboro Post, a New York neighborhood weekly. After 48 years of hiding behind his lapels, Colombo had emerged as a formidable public figure. He posed for pictures, kissed children, signed autographs, talked to Dick Cavett and Walter Cronkite and generally comported himself more like a political candidate than a Mafia boss.
Ruddy approached Colombo confidently that night because he had previously sat in midtown restaurants with Colombo’s son, Anthony, and worked out a tentative accord. Ruddy had agreed to delete “Mafia,” “Cosa Nostra” and all other Italian words from the script. He had promised to allow the League to review the script and change anything it felt was damaging to the Italian‐American image. And finally he had agreed to turn over the proceeds of the film’s New York premiere to the League’s hospital fund.
When Ruddy arrived at the Park Sheraton and found 1,500 members of the League seated in the Grand Ballroom looking very dour, he was at first confused. Colombo’s son quieted a few of the early boos by telling the delegates about the script deletions Ruddy had agreed to make. He told the crowd about the League’s getting the proceeds of the premiere.
“I couldn’t care less if they gave us $2‐million,” the elder Colombo suddenly interjected. “No one can buy the right to defame Italian Americans.”
It was Ruddy’s turn then. He said the film would depict individuals and would not defame or stereotype a group. It was really a movie about a corrupt society. A movie about America today. A movie about what happens to poor immigrants faced with prejudice and discrimination. He pointed out that there were many roles in the film, and certainly not all of the bad guys were Italians.
“Look at who’s playing the roles,” Ruddy said, about to continue with a list of non‐Italian villains in the film.
“Who is playing?” Colombo suddenly asked.
“Lots of people,” Ruddy said. “How about a good kid from Bensonhurst?” Colombo asked.
When The Godfather opens next spring, Paramount will not only have the distinction of being the first organization in the world to make money on the Mafia, but will also have conned Mafiosi into helping them do it.
Ruddy smiled. Now he understood. During all his discussions with Anthony Colombo, casting had never been mentioned. Soon, with Colombo pointing to one delegate after another and Ruddy nodding in agreement, the crowd began to cheer as bit players and extras were chosen. At the end of the meeting, Colombo himself inserted in Ruddy’s lapel a pin designating him a captain in the League.
Of course not everyone was enchanted with the Ruddy‐Colombo agreement. New York State Senator John Marchi felt Colombo would gain a “psychological lift” from such an agreement and that his League would “undoubtedly get more members, because the whole presentation makes it look like the League came home with some prize.” When the terms of the agreement appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, Charles Bluhdorn, chairman of Gulf and Western, the conglomerate of which Paramount is a part, was outraged. Bluhdorn was reported to have been so angered and embarrassed by Ruddy’s arrangement with Colombo—especially when the New York Times published the Page 1, three‐column headline: “‘Godfather’ Film Won’t Mention Mafia”— that he seriously considered firing Ruddy as the producer. However, Bob Evans, Paramount’s vice president in charge of production, kept a cooler head. Anyone like Evans, who got his start in the garment center knows better than to disregard the men in the big hats. Evans knew how much trouble Colombo and his League could make for the film. So Evans prevailed, Bluhdorn’s rage was calmed, the furor in the press died down and Ruddy stayed on.
The moment he reached that agreement with Colombo, Ruddy’s troubles were over. There were no more Manhassets. Suddenly, with Colombo’s imprimatur, the threats of union woes evaporated. Planned demonstrations and boycotts were called off. A location for the godfather’s mall with a garden large enough for the huge wedding sequence was found on Staten Island, and Colombo’s men made a house‐to-house tour of the neighborhood, smoothing ruffled Italian‐American feathers. Somehow, even the protest letters from Italian‐American groups stopped once it was understood that an agreement had been reached with the League. When the filming actually began, Ruddy found that with Colombo’s men around, instead of being harassed by neighborhood toughs, shaken down by various unions, visited by corrupt cops and generally treated like any other movie company in New York, The Godfather troupe was untouchable. The owners of old‐fashioned restaurants, funeral parlors and waterfront bars who had been reluctant to rent their facilities to Ruddy changed their minds. One Mulberry Street restaurant whose owner had sworn to his regular customers that no member of The Godfather cast would eat in his place had to set up special tables for the actors and crew. “They’re O.K.,” a League official told the owner. “Let ’em alone.” Ruddy even managed to miss being caught in the middle of a war by finishing his location filming in New York just before Colombo was shot and gravely wounded at a League rally at Columbus Circle on June 28.
Before the shooting, Colombo’s power could be felt everywhere. During the New York filming, for example, the father of one project member found himself in a hospital recuperating from a minor heart attack. On his second day there, an enormous basket of fresh fruit and flowers arrived bearing red, white and green ribbons and a card signed by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Colombo Sr. The patient had never met Colombo, had never even seen him, but the presence of that basket changed his hospital life. Doctors began filing into his room to look at it. Smiles materialized on the faces of nurses he had never seen before. The hospital dietitian would arrive in the morning to ask if there was anything he might particularly enjoy that day. His familys visiting hours were suddenly made flexible, and orderlies appeared with the chairs, ice and extra glasses that had been so difficult to find before the Colombo basket arrived.
Besides enjoying the benefit of Colombos help with community relations, the Paramount people found they had uncovered the best of all possible technical advisers. Ruddy and his assistant, Gary Chasen, began to join Colombo associates for drinks at Julys and dinners at the Copa. They visited a few of the Leagues neighborhood offices and eventually were introduced to a couple of the men about whom their movie was being made. Soon such actors as Jimmy Caan, who plays the impetuous Sonny Corleone in the film, joined the socializing.
“They’ve got incredible moves,” Caan said. “I watched them with each other and with their girls and wives. It’s incredible how affection ate they are to each other. There’s tremendous interplay. They toast each other — ‘centanni,’ ‘salute a nostra’—all of this marvelous Old World stuff from guys who were born here and don’t even speak Italian.
“I noticed also that they’re always touching themselves. Thumbs in the belt. Touching the jaw. Adjusting the shirt. Gripping the crotch. Shirt open. Tie loose. Super dressers. Clean. Very, very neat.”
Caan, who prides himself on his mimicry, says he is really indebted to a number of these men for whatever credibility he brings to his part.
“Their moves are easy. You can watch and fake that. But their language, that’s something else. They repeat certain words, like ‘Where you been, where?’ They have a street language all their own. It’s not Italian, certainly, and it’s not English. One guy, to indicate to another that someone they both knew had been killed, raised his hands in front of him, fixed his fingers like guns and pointed them to the ground. ‘Baba da BOOM!’ he said, and they all laughed. When we’d go to a bar or somewhere, they were always known. They didn’t go where they were not known. They always bought a bottle, too. They didn’t buy drinks by the glass.Always a bottle.”
Caan, in fact, was seen in the company of Carmine (The Snake) Persico and other federally certified Mafiosi so often and had absorbed so many, of their mannerisms that undercover agents thought for a while that he was just another rising young button in the mob.
There was an aura about the production that was unmistakable, just as there is an aura of real and imagined power around the honored society itself. A few of the actors began to think of themselves as Mafia heavies. One supporting player got so confused about who he was that he joined a carload of enforcers on a trip to Jersey to beat up scabs in a labor dispute (as it turned out, they had the wrong address and couldn’t find the strikebreakers). And a few Mafiosi began to think of themselves as actors, demonstrating hand gestures and facial expressions over and over for their theatrical pals.
As if assuming the style of their advisers, an extraordinary number of actors and technical people began getting into various degrees of trouble with the police. One actor was arrested for driving with a forged license while another spent a night in jail when a desk officer misread the charge against him as “switchblade” instead of “switched plates.” Even the off‐duty cops hired as guards on the film got into trouble with their colleagues. They had been instructed by Paramount’s public relations office to buy, beg or wrestle cameras away from any photographers who might have taken pictures of Brando in his godfather make‐up. Paramount had a deal with Life magazine in which a cover picture of Brando in full make‐up would be virtually assured if the movie company could keep other pictures of him from being published. Unfortunately for the moonlighting cops, one of the photographers they roughed up was from The Daily News, and within 20 minutes an inspector, two captains and a deputy police commissioner were on the scene questioning them.
When The Godfather opens next spring, Paramount will not only have the distinction of being the first organization in the world to make money on the Mafia, but will also have conned Mafiosi into helping them do it. Now, with the film being edited, Joe Colombo in critical condition, his lieutenants in hiding and Al Ruddy no longer available for their calls, a few mobsters have begun to see that they have been taken. Seated glumly in their Brooklyn cafes or slouching outside their social clubs, they realize that their movie days are over. They no longer go to Jilly’s and the Copa with movie stars. There are no more private screenings at the Gulf and Western Building. Today their only contact with Hollywood and the movie they helped to make is through the business section of the trade journals, where they read that their godfather is being turned into a goldmine of by‐products. Paramount’s merchandising staff is selling the rights for Godfather sweatshirts, Godfather spaghetti and Godfather parlor games. There will be Godfather pizza franchises and Godfather hero shops, bakeries and lemon‐ice stands. Books about the filming of The Godfather are being commissioned by Paramount, a Godfather television series is planned and another film, called for now Son of Godfather, is being discussed.
“And when it comes out,” one Colombo man active in the first film’s production admitted, “it’ll cost me three bucks and an hour on line to see.”
11/13/07: Even standing in the cold rain, the Baroque facades on these buildings are fantastic. Brussels has some of the best architecture in the world, all types, all styles. Standing in the middle of the main town square one is overwhelmed with the magnitude of detail and size.
11/14/07: I am currently in Brugge in NW Belgium. It appears to be a quiet town with all old and small buildings, perhaps pre-Victorian, with a network of canals similar, but without the gondolas and singing rip-off-the-tourist gondoleers. I'll learn more tomorrow as we get a tour prior to dinner.
12/5/07: Just finished a fresh grilled tilapia sandwich while sitting outside looking at the expansive white sands of Clearwater Beach and the far reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, realizing I am flying back to DC tomorrow morning into the remnants of the latest Alberta Clipper to wreak havoc on the Nation's Capitol. Enough to upset the strongest and staunchest among us.
Fall Recipes: Hot Apple Cider and Caramel Apples
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It’s September! That means that this hellaciously hot summer is SO close to being over. Woot woot. I’m so ready for football, hoodies, Uggs, Pumpkin Spice Frappuccinos, breezy weather, and fall baking! Baking in the Fall and Winter is like my favorite thing to do. Of course, it’s still hot outside so I settled for some no-bake fall recipes this weekend. Awww yeah.
I was browsing Pinterest the other day and saw these super cute caramel apples. I’ve never made them before and assumed that it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy (as my niece would say). I was WRONG. Never again will I trip over a $10 price tag on a caramel apple. Uh-uh. It’s worth every single penny. Because those things are not as easy as they look. Now, if you’ve been a reader for a while, you may remember my last bout with caramel didn’t go so well.
This time around… wasn’t much better. But this time, after my own quick and embarrassing failure, I consulted with my mother and she suggested I use a mini Crockpot to cook the caramels. Genius. That woman is always coming up with genius solutions for me. I probably should’ve taken her to the store with me, she would’ve had better ideas than I did.
Guess what? They came out freaking amazing. I didn’t dip them though, my mother did. Because I’m never meant to handle caramel. I get along very well with chocolate. I understand it’s temperament. Chocolate and I have such a beautiful understanding of each other. Caramel, on the other hand, is a jerk. It has no respect for me and my prowess in baking. It makes a damn fool out of me every single time I use it. Jerk.
So you know what I did? I covered these beautiful little caramel apples in chocolate. Tons and tons of chocolate. Not just any chocolate, but some yummy Milk Chocolate M&M’s. And they are the #HarvestFun kind with the decorative bag and warm fall colors.
Take that you temperamental glop of sugar! Who’s laughing now? Me! Bwahahahaha. If you’re not a baker, I don’t expect you to understand my hatred for this particular sugary substance. Don’t judge me.
Anyway, once I got this caramel apple gooeyness into the fridge I decided to make something a little less sugary. I had some spare apples that never got dipped and thought I would turn my kid’s regular ol’ Mott’s Apple Juice into something a little more Fall-ish.
The mini Crockpot was still on the counter so I started filling it with anything and everything that reminded me of the autumn months. In went tons of apple juice, cinnamon, cloves, honey, and a little sugar. I wanted it to be a little extra treat for the kids, so I hallowed out some apples and set about making ‘cups’. It was actually super easy and totally cute.
I mean, c’mon. This took about 10 minutes from start to finish and the kids went bananas over them. I added a cinnamon stick and some star anise for a little added zing. These are perfect for kids and adults. I was surprised by how delicious the cider was. I was seriously just throwing things together but WHOA I’m obviously a super secret cider making specialist. The recipe to this little bad boy is below. You’re welcome.
Now go! Go and bring some Fall into your home. Turn your M&M’s and Mott’s Apple Juice into something extra special this season. And be sure to snag these coupons for M&M’s and Mott’s!
Remember, that caramel is a real jerk… so watch your back.