Joseph Massino, the restaurant's operator, is an important part of the family. The Family. The Mafia; the Mob; La Cosa Nostra. The FBI says and his defense lawyer does not contest that Massino is head of the Bonanno clan, one of the Five Families of crime incorporated by Lucky Luciano in 1931. It was Massino who revived the Bonannos after the humiliation of the Donnie Brasco caper, in which FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone infiltrated the gang and spent five years posing as a hoodlum named Brasco and, with his court testimony, helped send 200 Mob men to prison. Already reeling from the Pizza Connection prosecutions (after a bust that exposed a giant heroin distribution racket run from pizza parlors), the Bonannos were thrown off the Five Families commission and left for dead. With brains and muscle, Massino restored the clan to its old strength. And "Big Joey" (his weight was once nearly 400 lbs.) did it on the street, not in the stir, where the other four bosses languish. In fact, Massino is the only New York Mafia boss who isn't doing hard time or awaiting sentencing for a conviction. That makes him the Last Don.
Massino, 61, has other legitimate businesses (Cafe Via Vento, in Maspeth) and properties (in Queens and Palm Coast, Fla.), but his favorite is the CasaBlanca. From that neighborhood ristorante, he has allegedly run an operation that, the feds assert, includes extortion, loan sharking, illegal gambling, narcotics and murder in a vast criminal empire whose tentacles stretch up into Canada and back to the Sicilian motherland. Investigators say he certified his power in 2000, when he convened a meeting of four of the Five Families, at where else?--the CasaBlanca.
Soon it won't be just agents who get to peek inside Massino's world. His life is about to become a media circus. He was even discussed on a recent episode of The Sopranos, when one character compared the legal troubles of the fictional Tony Soprano to the legal woes of the all-too-real Massino. On April 19, Massino will be sweltering in the spotlight in a Brooklyn federal courtroom as a jury is selected for United States of America v. Joseph Massino et al. Defendants. "He's big-time," says retired FBI agent Bruce Mouw, who nailed John Gotti and ran the bureau's Bonanno squad in the 1980s. Says Pat Colgan, a retired FBI supervisor who tailed Massino for more than a decade: "Joey didn't get the reputation he had on the street because he was Mr. Nice Guy. Everybody knew. We knew, the bad guys knew, Joey's in charge." George Hanna Jr., current head of the FBI's Bonanno squad, describes Big Joey as "extremely smart, very cautious. A treacherous guy."
And probably someone you've never heard of, a big-time mobster with a small p.r. budget.
For the past 20 years, other Big Apple bosses have courted celebrity. Gambino-family boss John (the Dapper Don) Gotti would saunter in his $2,000 suits, bantering with TV reporters; Genovese family boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante, feigning dementia, would wander through Greenwich Village in his bathrobe and slippers. The American public, fed on spicy tales of colorful men who rose from poverty to power and used violence to defend their honor, demanded star quality in its bad guys. Gotti and Gigante provided it. The suspicion is that both men bought dangerously into the Mafia movie myth. They wanted to be the wiseguys with lethal charm, the types who get immortalized onscreen by the "O Team"--Brando, De Niro, Pacino. And maybe become their own O team: Soprano. The FBI loves this, because a mobster's ego is the most fragile weapon in his arsenal. Set it off in public, and it can explode. Indeed, the mythologizing of the Mob by Hollywood and HBO could almost be a giant sting operation.
In this carnival atmosphere, Massino is an anomaly, an anachronism the Masto-Don. He does not frequent posh nightclubs, Vegas high-roller rooms, designer-clothing stores or the front page of the New York Post. He does not care to give interviews (though he seemed amused when asked for one, and told a TIME reporter, "Have a nice day"). His couture is less dapper than schlepper: jeans and T shirts (he doesn't like wearing a tie), without the usual mobster adornments of a siliconed blond on each arm. He has never been accused of swagger. About as close as he got to being a public figure was in '87, when he was tried and acquitted for the slaying of three rival captains. (The charge was only conspiracy, so he can now be tried for the actual murders.) One day in the courtroom he joked with Pistone, who was about to publish a best seller about his exploits. As Pistone recalls it, "So he asks me, 'Hey, Donnie, who's gonna play me in the movie?' I say, 'Joey, we're having a problem. We can't find an actor as fat as you.' He just started laughing."