By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
Truman Capote, the late, famous American novelist and playwright, once said, “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” A more than perfect observation of what took place in New York and various outlier areas of north-eastern America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as a New York-based Mafia Family, which had gone through a massive upheaval in the 1960s tearing itself apart and trying to reassemble the fractured pieces, made the headlines again.
The lead players ended up in prison or dead, lives would be destroyed, families ruptured, and one very odd, weird event would stamp the seal on the final, third act, long after the play had closed.
Years of investigations by state and federal law enforcement, a trial that seemed to go on forever, the brutal daylight slaying of a mob boss, somewhere between one and two billion dollars that somehow vanished into a financial quick-sand, men killed or disappeared all over the place. It is a complex story when told in full, easier to browse the highlights and pick the bones of a meal that eaten in full would be too overpowering at one sitting.
It would become known to the world as The Pizza Connection.
Most of us have never heard of Ciminna.
A small town of about three thousand, sprawling across the hills and cliff-sides of rural Palermo province, thirty miles south and east of the city, it’s one of hundreds across the island of Sicily. With their roots in a history that stretches back thousands of years, they beget generations of men who sometimes walk away from poverty and suffering, ignore their ancestors endless endurance, and try to find a new and better life in a country far, far away.
Born, 1941, in the small town on the hillside, he claimed in an interview in 2016 that he had emigrated to America when he was sixteen. That would have been in 1957. Almost all sources claim he arrived in New York in 1967, when he was twenty-six. Immigration records support this option. Why did he lie to the reporter? The nature of all men in the Mafia is to talk saying nothing.
His biological family seems to have been part of the Mafia forever. So many generations pass through a rite of passage to join and serve as members of a criminal fraternity steeped in an endless tradition of Sicily grim. Their uterus and birth-canal simply a conduit to malfeasance as a lifetime occupation. He was allegedly made, inducted into and serving the Mafia clan of the town at the time he moved to America.
His mother died when he was a child, and his father struggled to exist as a bus conductor. By the time Catalano leaves Ciminna, men of honor are fighting themselves and the state to death following the Mafia war of the early 1960s. There was little incentive to stay.
A brother, Onofrio, is or was the boss of the local Mafia clan. Another by this name is a cousin, three years older, living in America, and he is probably the destination when Catalano leaves Sicily.
He travels to New York with two brothers and a sister. Their first address may have been an apartment on Hemlock Street in Brooklyn.
He works various jobs, keeps a low profile. His only arrest record is for carrying a concealed weapon in 1975 when he was running a gift shop, Colosseo, owned by his brothers, Dominic and Vito, on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick. A depressed, miserable dingy enclave of Northern Brooklyn, it was also the domain of a Mafia clan that had been under the wing of Joe Bonanno since 1931, until he stepped down in 1966. The shop was across the street from Cafe Viale, which was a hangout for a merging Sicilian faction of hoodlums which Catalano would come to head.
In 1977, Salvatore buys a business in Queens. A pizza place. At 10315 Queens Boulevard. He goes into the operation with two associates who will stay with him through the next few years. Down the street is a public telephone. Something Salvatore will come to call his second home, spending so much time there, making and receiving calls.
One of his partners is Giuseppe Ganci, a short, thick-set thug who is a native of San Giuseppe Jato, another small town in Sicily, that is infested by the mob, the other one, a very tall, by Sicilian standards, at six-four, is called Cesare Bonventre and is from Castellammarese del Golfo in western Palermo Province. The birthplace of Joe Bonanno. And Salvatore Maranzano, the boss of the family before him.
Ganci lives on 78 Street, in Middle Village, just around the corner from a bakery that Catalano buys in 1979. Two minutes west, by car, Catalano’s home is at 69th Street, in Glendale. They are both unpretentious, brick terraced town houses. Wherever their money was going it wasn't on luxury real estate.
Cesare has a cousin from the same little town, called Baldassare Amato, who will shadow him through the darkness that lies ahead. They are both the same age as this time, twenty-six. In the late 1970s, they become bodyguards for Carmine Galante, the underboss of the Bonanno Family who is running things while the current boss, Rusty Rastelli, is in prison, or too busy with his lawyers. Baldo will end up in prison, forever. Cesare, in pieces, melted into glue figurines in steel drums in a factory in New Jersey.
Nothing has quite the tonal finality of a life gone bad in the Mafia underworld.
Nobody has documented or clarified the timeline for the emergence of Sicilian mobsters, commonly known as Zips, who merged into the upper echelons of The Bonanno Crime Family in New York. People come and go. Some stay, some move on. Some become very dead or disappeared. It’s a scenario that makes sense when you understand the dynamics of men whose lives exist on the fractured timeline of uncertainty. They seem to link only into this group. Some sources claim they operated as a separate unit within the New York Mafia, with their allegiance, if they were made men, only to their crime families in Sicily.
The first imports may have arrived as wingmen to Bonanno when he was fighting an internal war in the early 1960s, as a kind of secret asset. Another theory has it Carlo Gambino, the boss of his own family, introduced them into New York. More likely, their immigration was determined, or certainly encouraged by Galante before or during his period of imprisonment, for drug trafficking charges.
His release in 1974 would trigger major problems for the Bonanno Family and end badly for him one hot summer afternoon in Brooklyn.
There are multiple explanations of how these men came to be called Zips. One is that other gangsters used it pejoratively because of Sicilians' passion for ziti. Another theory says it grew from their use of silent, home-made zip guns. Or because they talked so fast, their words rushed like a zipper. Other contemptuous underworld terms applied to them were Siggies or Geeps.
One of the illegal imports is Luigi Ronsisivalle (right), a short, dumpy killer of a man, once described as a “human bowling ball” because of his appearance, by an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.
Born and raised in the slums of Catania, Ronsisivalle arrives in New York in 1966, one year earlier than Catalano, whose path he will soon cross. Sponsored by a contact in Sicily, he joins up with the Bonanno crew based in Bushwick and spends some years delivering drugs by car to various destinations, and killing people. Lots of them.
He’s of interest to this story, because although a relatively minor player in a group that seems to expand, numerically, almost by the month, when he rolled in 1979 and became a government informant, what he discloses in terms of the drug trafficking going on illustrates the staggering dimensions facing the authorities. At that time, the biggest heroin seizure anywhere on record had taken place in New Jersey, in 1971, and totalled eighty-six kilos.
Ronsisivalle, in 1977, had moved fifteen times that amount in one year, himself.
The year before, he had followed the shift of power in the Bonanno group on the avenue. It’s boss, Pete Licata, at seventy, was an old-time kind of skipper. It’s claimed he was anti-drug, others that he trafficked them with Galante and at least one major dealer in another Mafia family in South Brooklyn. On November 4, just before midnight, they killed him near his home in Flushing, Queens. As he and his wife approached their property, a man stepped out of the dark, blasting him with a shotgun. Three days later, Catalano took over as crew chief for Knickerbocker Avenue.
People circulated a story that Cesare Bonventre was the killer, carrying out the hit for Catalano, who would have received approval from Galante. Three days after the murder, he took over as the local boss. The Zips, were moving up to bigger things.
The bigger things were mountains of drugs and more money than God. Illegal drugs, the ultimate passion between supplier and user, have frame-worked America’s social conscious for decades. Criminals, from street thugs, through black gangs and Mafiosi to drug cartels, have used their value as a talisman measuring their success in their chosen careers.
Tens of thousands of kilos of heroin will come to America from the refineries in Sicily, and between wholesalers and retailers, hundreds of millions of dollars will click their way into bank accounts off-shore. They will handle the drugs through pizza restaurants and pizzeria outlets across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
For obvious reasons, when the case broke in 1984, the media referred to it as “The Pizza Connection.”
In this landscape, another major player emerges, one who, it turns out, is apparently the director of the play, the one with at least three acts. His name is Gaetano Badalamenti (right). A Mafia boss from Sicily, controlling the north-west coast of Palermo, he has been exporting heroin into America since the late 1960s or early 70s. He had lived in America, illegally, for three years between 1947 and 1950, with is brother, Emanuele, a resident of Monroe, Michigan, and knew just how huge a market there was for illegal drugs.
Evidence presented in the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on September 25, 1986 showed that Gaetano Badalamenti “was the leader of an international drug smuggling conspiracy.”
Somehow, some way, the boss from Sicily and the skipper from Knickerbocker Avenue become connected. Catalano will become Badalamenti’s primary nexus in the Pizza Connection.
Badalamenti had been posato, expelled from the Mafia in Sicily following a coup orchestrated by Salvatore Riina and his allies in the lead up to the great Mafia war of the early 1980s. He left the island and at first settled in São Paulo, in Brazil, before moving to America and then back to Europe and Brazil, with visits to and from Sicily. He was a man always on the move.
One of his associates in mob life and the dealing of drugs was Tommaso Buscetta, the Sicilian Mafia’s most notorious defector, who will not only testify in the Mafia Maxi trial of Palermo in 1986-87 but also against his former friend in a court in New York. Of Badalamenti, he said, “Among evils, he was one of the best.”
Badalamenti has a nephew, Pietro Alfano (left), who runs a pizza place in Oregon, Michigan, one of his top links into the United States. His fixer and go-to man. On a telephone tap, investigators will hear Badalamenti tell him how important they are to the drug dealing into America: “They need us. They don’t have an import license. We have the license,” he says, confirming their source of the finished product out of mob-controlled heroin labs in Sicily.
On June 18, 1979, police are called to Punta Raisi international airport in Palermo. Someone left two large, blue suitcases on the carousel at international arrivals. When opened, they contain US $500,000 in cash, wrapped in cooking aprons with the logo Piancone Pizza Palace printed on them. Salvatore and his brother Matteo Sollena operated a chain of pizza parlours called Piancone Pizza Palace in Pennsylvania. They were associated with the Gambino Mafia Family, which is arguably the largest in America. The family was now involved in the drug trade and receiving a share of the profits. Getting their share of the spoils.
Someone will murder both the Sollena brothers, who are nephews of Badalamenti, in 1983.
Their links into the New York Mafia are through what law enforcement agencies will come to call The Cherry Hill Gambinos, a faction based in south Jersey and Pennsylvania, run by Sicilian members, three brothers, who had been in America since 1964. Although Gambinos, (Carlo Gambino was their cousin,) their allegiance was to Palermo, and their links to Salvatore Inzerillo, the boss of Passo di Ragano in Palermo.
The head of the Palermo Flying Squad, Boris Giuliano, is the lead investigator, tracking drug refineries and money links, especially the cash trail. The tobacco road (cigarette smuggling) of Sicily’s Mafia was now being replaced by a river of heroin. And so the Mafia kills him, one morning in 1979, as he drinks coffee and reads the morning paper in his local cafe. They will kill his successor in the investigation and then his replacement. An endless chain of death will roll in Sicily with no one apparently able to stop it as the Mafia and the state fight a war for control.
Six days earlier, Carmine Galante, the raging bull of the Bonanno family, is also dead. The whack-out on Lillo, as he was often referred to because of his ubiquitous cigar, takes place at a restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue on a dog-day afternoon in Bushwick.
After a long, leisurely lunch of grilled fish and salad, washed down with a jug of Dago Red, Galante, the owner, Joe Turano, and a man called Leonardo Copolla are blasted to death on the patio by three masked gunmen. Bonventre and Amato, the bodyguards, were conveniently otherwise engaged during the slaughter, and quickly left the scene.
Detectives in the New York Police Organized Crime Squad who had been observing the movements of Gambino Family boss, Paul Castellano, had wondered why he was meeting with two relatively unknown mobsters of another family, such as Catalano and Ganci. The killing of Galante seemed to show the reason.
Although the Cherry Hill mob were answerable to Sicily, Castellano knew some of the drug money would filter his way, especially if Galante was out of the picture. He was just too big to be ignored. It has been claimed Castellano was anti-drugs, and in fact, a schism in the family that was triggered by this attitude would trigger his murder in 1985. He was a mob boss and, like all his peers, he was driven by the desire for power and wealth. If that came through the rivers of money drug trafficking generated, it’s hard to believe he was not part of it.
In February 1980, Catalano travels to Sicily, back to the little town on the hillside where he was born, and marries his sweetheart, Caterina Catalano. Same name, but no relation. During this visit he travels to Bagheria to meet the local mob boss, Leonardo Greco, and a group of men who are playing a major part in the drug trafficking ring back in the US.
Present at a farmhouse near the town were Giuseppe Ganci, Gaetano Mazzazra, Francesco Castranova, and Salvatore Greco, brother of the boss. This one runs a pizzeria in Parlin, New Jersey. The men were gathered to check out product quality and organize continuing distribution into North America.
Ganci is important to the New York based ring. His company, Pronto Demolitions in Brooklyn, will distribute a considerable portion of the heroin shipped into America..
This meeting will be a watershed for the mob for all the wrong reasons. One of the local Mafioso attending, Salvatore Contorno, will give evidence in 1986 against the traffickers in their New York trial.
The Pizza Connection inquiry began as an adjunct to the New York district’s attorney’s investigation into the five Mafia families (that have dominated the city’s underworld for generations,) in order to try to break them-forever, and a simultaneous investigation by the New York Office of the FBI. One of their undercover agents, Joe Pistone, had tipped them off about the activities of the Bonanno Family involved in heroin drug trafficking through their Sicilian born members based mainly in Brooklyn and Queens.
The police arrested Gaetano Badalamenti and his son while they were walking along a street in Madrid, Spain, on April 8, 1984. The next day, the task force which had been tracking suspects for four years, move in. Agents of the FBI, DEA, ATF, NYPD and Customs arrest over thirty suspects. The investigation had covered the US, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and even Great Britain.
The court case will take place in New York between September 1985 and March 1987. The longest criminal jury trial in US history. It will provide evidence that between 1975 and April, 1984, the enterprise shipped at least $1.6 billion of heroin into the U.S. The indictment said they used pizza parlor owners as middlemen to arrange drug deals between Sicilian suppliers and domestic distributors.
Before it even begins, one suspect is already gone, murdered eight days after the great take-down. Cesare Bonventre, a victim of his own desires and apparent arrogance. Bonanno Family killers shoot and dispose of him. Although a suspect, but never charged, Paul Castellano, the Gambino boss, is gunned down on a Manhattan street three months into the proceedings.
Someone shoots Pietro Alfano three times as he walks down 6th Avenue with his wife one evening, during the trial. He survives, although paralyzed for life. Gaetano “Tommy” Mazzara, another defendant, is not so lucky. Out on bail of $1.5 million, he disappears on November 27 1986. His body is discovered at 10.20 am on December 2, wrapped in garbage bags and dumped in the gutter near the junction of Gardner and Metropolitan Avenue, in Greenpoint.
The authorities indict Pasquale Conti, a skipper in the Gambino Family, for the shooting of Alfano, but they fail to prove the case against him.. Nobody faces charges for the murder of Mazzara. Of all the defendants in the trial why were these two selected for termination? Like so often when researching what goes on in this strange, immoral world, we find a place filled with complexities, terror and, above all, uncertainties. The decision makers are often psychopaths with deep narcissistic tendencies. They often rise to the top by their appetite for greed and violence, and when they fall, the echoes last. Until the next one.
The court finds all the defendants, except one, Badalamenti’s son, guilty and imposes various terms of imprisonment and levy significant fines on them. Catalano and Badalamenti get the biggest drop: 45 years each. Baldassare Amato gets five years for his part in the conspiracy. In 2006, they imprisoned him for life for a double murder. Giuseppe Ganci died of cancer before the trial began.
The Pizza Connection case was included in the sentence - order of the Abbate Giovanni+706 proceeding - the Palermo maxi-trial with which the Palermo anti-mafia pool included many defendants of the American investigation.
One of the most puzzling aspects of the whole thing is where are the drugs and the money?
The biggest single amount seized in the famous French Connection case of the 1960s was 112 kilos. Tons of heroin apparently entered America, and traffickers handled hundreds of millions, but they did not produce any as evidence. And the money? Everywhere and nowhere.
They released Salvatore Catalano in 2009 and deported him back to Sicily. Which is where he probably is, living in a house in Ciminna, which he had built while serving his time.
In 2011, many people turned up in the town to attend the funeral of Agatha Scimeca Cali. People rumored that Francesco, born in New York, is a big shot in the Gambino Crime Family. Maybe he’s the boss, maybe he isn't. Many people called Inzerillo are among the mourners. Frank has married into their family, one of the oldest established Mafia clans in Palermo. They come from New York and Palermo to pay their respects. The police and carabinieri (military police) monitor the event and add names and connections into their records for future use. The Inzerillos were one of the big losers in the Mafia war of the 1980s. Now, they are making a comeback. The Mafia is an endless spring source waiting to be filled.
- READ: Franky Boy is Gone.
And then there is the strange, almost unbelievable footnote to the story of drugs, money and power craving in the Mafia underworld of America and Sicily. The really badly written third act. A finale that even Shakespeare may have considered doubtful as an ending. The man who wrote “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” may well have struggled to introduce a finale in one of his plays, quite like this. Something so morbidly rare, there are no words to describe the indescribable.
One of the many suspects in the trial is a man called Giovanni Ligammari. An alleged soldier in the Bonanno Family.
His part in the conspiracy seemed to have focused around money. A wealthy contractor, married with a son and daughter, he lived in Saddle River, Bergen County New Jersey. An affluent community, a short train journey to Manhattan, it attracts rich and successful people who enjoy its rural atmosphere, while being close to big city amenities. Law enforcement observes him in meetings with various members of the Bonanno Family, while he fronts up big dollops of cash to fund drug deals..
At the trial sentencing, the judge handed him down fifteen years and fined him $200,000.
He completed an eight-year sentence and got probation in 1995. Then, nothing until 1999.
On May 21, Saddle Brook police receive a frantic telephone call from a woman saying she had found her father and brother dead. First responders find Giovanni hanging from a rafter in his basement. Facing him, hanging from another rafter, is his son, Pietro, age thirty-seven. On a small table nearby are two empty glasses and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. On the floor, an upturned chair.
Dyadic suicides of parent and sibling are so rare, there is little in the way of published statistics to show how often it happens.
''I know of no other dual pact like this with a father and son, none,'' said Dr. Andrew Slaby, a professor of clinical psychology at New York University and a former president of the American Association of Suicidology. ''It's a truly remarkable case,'' he said, adding, ''if it's actually a suicide.''
Picture the scene, Dr. Slaby said: “Father and son standing on the same small chair, facing death, staring into each other's eyes.”
Rumors circulate: An FBI agent claims the father had been trying to get back into drug trafficking, living as he was only on social security and income from renting part of his home. That prison had left him a broken man. Another agent from the FBI told a New York Times reporter, “It doesn’t jibe at all, you know? A source of a former prosecutor who had worked the Pizza Connection case claimed that they had been murdered.
The coroner’s investigation into the deaths formally ruled it was suicide.
Ligammari’s death was the fourth in a series of violent deaths possibly involving men linked into the Pizza Connection.*
Thirty-six years after the trial, nothing has changed. Heroin, cocaine, meth and now opioids continue to fuel miserable lives. As long as there is a demand, there will always be a supply-chain of illegal narcotics. Most who use them can least afford to, and so crime becomes their rate of exchange in a currency that always falls short of expectation.
The poorest who need the most protection, get the least. History has watched over us for a thousand years and never thought to change the order of things.
In a complex, multi-layered narrative about drug trafficking, violent deaths and Mafia conspiracies, its easy to understand where Neil de Grasse Tyson was going when he said, “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
* In 1990, Edward Lino, a capo in the Gambino Family is found shot dead in his Mercedes, in Brooklyn.
Unknown assailants shot Joe LoPresti, an alleged financier to the heroin ring, in the head and left him near a railway track in Montreal in 1992.
Three months prior to Ligammari's death, someone found Geraldo Sciassia's dead body in the Bronx. He was a suspect in the case, but never formally accused. He had four gunshot wounds to the head.
Although these victims may have died for other reasons, a prosecutor claimed there had been a lot of conflicts within the underworld over the arrests and trial, and in particular, how much information had been disclosed about people and their place in the drug trafficking ring. A lot of grudges were put on hold until the timing was right to avenge them.
Stille, Alexander: Excellent Cadavers. Jonathan Cape, London, 1995.
Lupo, Salvatore: The Two Mafias. Palagrare MacMillan, New York, 2015.
la Repubblica. Cosa Nostra Connections. November 28, 2007.
FBI Report: Luigi Ronsisvalle. Information concerning murder, Queens, New York. April 30, 1979.
New York Post. Ronsisvalle was Forest Gump of Mafia. November 26, 2022.
Sterling, Claire: The Mafia. Harper-Collins, London, 1991.
Greco+161: Antonino Cassara report submitted to Questura of Palermo, July 13, 1982.
Blumenthal, Ralph: Last Days of the Sicilians. Random House, New York, 1988.
Alexander, Shana: The Pizza Connection. Weidenfeld & Niicholson, New Yor, 1988.
Parker, John: The Walking Dead. Simon & Schuster, London, 1995.
New York Times. Officially, a Father-Son Suicide, But Mobster's Death Stirs Doubts. June 6, 1999.
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