Food for the Mobster’s Soul
[From The New Yorker]
Do you remember “Babette’s Feast” in Denmark and “Like Water for Chocolate” in Mexico and that “Big Night” on the Jersey Shore? Of course you do. Who could forget the caille en sarcophage avec sauce périgourdine that melts the resolve of all those God-besotted, pleasure-abjuring Jutland villagers, or the kitchen magic with which Tita makes a hundred compadres weep for lost love at the wedding that should have been hers, or the big, beautiful timballo that Primo serves on the night before his Paradise restaurant has to close. Movies have been making metaphors of food since Charlie Chaplin ate his shoe in “The Gold Rush.” But how do you make a metaphor like that for a Mafia don? Forget the party that Vito Corleone threw for his daughter’s wedding, in “The Godfather,” or, for that matter, Carmela’s kitchen lessons for her infatuated parish priest, in “The Sopranos.” Those were arrivista fantasies. For meaning like Chaplin’s—meaning in a few bites—the movie to see is the wonderful indie “Rob the Mob,” now playing at the Angelika, and the bites to watch for are the ragu-stuffed, bread-crumb-coated, and deep-fried balls of saffron risotto known to Sicilians as arancini (as in “little oranges,” which is what they look like if you stick an orange twig with a leaf on it in them).
“Rob the Mob” is a crime caper based on an arguably less amusing, and, until now, mainly forgotten true story from the early nineties. A young crook named Tommy Uva, fresh from jail for robbing a flower shop in the Bronx, starts slipping into the back benches at the John Gotti trial, and hears a weary hit man testify about the “social clubs” where the Mafia’s aging lieutenants hang out, like Chelsea pensioners, drinking and playing cards. When the mobster mentions their honor-among-thieves agreement—no one will enter any of those clubs armed—Tommy’s small but actually quite genial brain starts working. In no time, he acquires an Uzi, starts holding up those clubs, and makes a bundle. His girlfriend, Rosie, drives the getaway car.
You have to love Tommy and Rosie, at least the celluloid pair—Michael Pitt, of “Boardwalk Empire,” and Nina Arianda, the Venus of “Venus in Fur.” They’ve had rum lives, but they’re lovebirds now, working for a debt collector—not the Mob kind—building a nest, and saving to get married. Rosie buys bed-linen sets, and Tommy uses the pillowcases to carry away fancy watches and fat wallets, which pile up on the floor of every social club the minute he fires a warning salvo at the ceiling and the Uzi (not the easiest weapon to control) starts jumping in his hand. For a year, it seems like a pretty good way to earn a living. The crooks robbed by Tommy and Rosie are unlikely to dial 911, and the press treats the pair like a latter-day Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Then, emptying a pillowcase one night, Tommy discovers a curious list in one of the wallets. It turns out to be a chart of the hierarchy within the Mafia family they have spent their time humiliating—from the extortionists and enforcers to the hit men and neighborhood bosses to the heretofore unassailable don himself. The don in this case is Big Al—a man, as Andy Garcia plays him, of decorous menace, who rules his turf under the cover of a gleaming Brooklyn deli, and whose particular passion is making arancini.
“What we did was eat and observe,” Raymond De Felitta, who directed the movie, said. “We shot it in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. We did a lot of scouting. We were in the van all day, and we saw that every neighborhood we used, or even drove through, had an Italian deli. I said to Bill”—Bill Teitler, the producer—“ ‘That’s the sense of neighborhood I want.’ We all gained weight!”
“Rob the Mob” is De Felitta’s first Mafia movie; the movies he made before had names like “Two Family House” and “City Island” and “Bronx Cheers.” (The last, a short, was his film-school thesis and an Oscar nominee.) But he had worked with actors from “The Sopranos.” Two of them, Michael Rispoli and Joseph R. Gannascoli, are in “Rob the Mob,” along with a few he describes as “guys who were once ‘the neighbors’—who’d grown up in Mob neighborhoods, and shopped at delis like Big Al’s, and ‘reinvented’ themselves when the acting bug bit.” De Felitta himself lives on the Upper East Side, and gets his Italy fixes around the corner from his apartment, at Salumeria Rosi. But his grandfather, Pasquale de Felitta, came from Naples, where everyone is a kitchen connoisseur, and his father, Frank, in Los Angeles—he wrote the famous thriller “Audrey Rose”—is a home cook of such local renown that the Los Angeles Times called one of his parties a culinary “event.” “My father was cooking pasta when it wasn’t yet pasta, it was spaghetti,” De Felitta said. You can see why he gained weight, scouting Italian delis.
“We knew that most Mafia dons are hidden behind other kinds of businesses—look at Tony Soprano—but a deli seemed right for Andy Garcia,” he said. “We developed Big Al for him, and we wanted something, well, delicate–something different, a kind of gravitas and measure that set him apart from his men, hanging out in those dark, dusty clubs. We found a mansion on the water in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, for him to live in. We gave him a beautiful home kitchen, with a big table for putting together his arancini. We made him the guy who had gone from a food truck to that table.”
Garcia uses his arancini to riveting effect, crafting a character as rich and complicated as the recipe. His rice balls can be menacing—arancini deployed to enforce respect, obedience, and more than a little fear and trembling—or tender. Consider this scene: Big Al is in the kitchen with his grandson, who has come to visit him. The boy is a quiet, serious kid, and he watches intently as Big Al demonstrates the artistry, diligence, and perseverance involved in making those intricate little balls, all the while delivering a monologue on a different kind of respect: the self-respect that comes from a job well done. This time, it’s rice balls deployed to turn Big Al into Exemplary Al, for his grandson and for himself.
De Felitta doesn’t really like arancini. “We made arancini on the set, and I wasn’t mad for them,” he said. “I’m more of a mortadella man. I don’t know why people are terrified of mortadella. It’s the ‘real bologna,’ the caviar of bologna.” Still, you couldn’t turn mortadella into a metaphor for Big Al. The recipe may be just as long and just as complicated as arancini’s, but mortadella comes from Emilia-Romagna, while arancini are as Sicilian as the Mafia family that, in fact, produced Big Al. (It’s worth noting that when old Neapolitan families like De Felitta’s made rice balls, they called them palle di riso, as if to say, nothing special.) De Felitta himself is pitching a new movie he hopes to make—“Married and Cheating”—and he doesn’t have much time for cooking. “When I do cook, I make a Sunday sauce, and it’s an all-day affair,” he said. “I begin in the morning with the ribs and sausages. I add carrots, onions, and red wine, and watch it percolate for hours.” Not a metaphor. Not a movie. Dinner.