“Stay loyal to the Family or stay true to your family?”
Since r/Mafia moonlights as r/Phillyig, I figured why not talk about the real Philadelphia OGs and not the glorified crew we have around these days. Mafia Prince, written by Phillip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti with the help of co-authors in 2012, is a retrieving tale of how a Family corrupts the family. The book ripped away at the foundation of La Cosa Nostra and through this story, we get to see that these so-called “men of honor” are nothing more than the common hoodlums they scoff at. Phillip Leonetti, once underboss of Philadelphia’s LCN, doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence and provided a deeply personal insight into the mob without bullshitting or exaggerating his role in those events. What he knows he said, and when he didn’t know something, he was straight about that too. While he did portray himself as the victim of his uncle, he also fully acknowledged his responsibility for the crimes he committed and as such provided the most level-headed account of the mob yet. And talk about his uncle! Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, one time boss of the Bruno-Scarfo Crime Family, was one vile, greedy, jealous and hypocritical little man. If you thought Sammy Gravano suffered from a Napoleonic Complex, you have seen nothing yet. This book is a must-read for anyone claiming to be a mafia aficionado and for $3.99 provides an incomprehensible bang for your buck. Since I have nothing bad to say about the book, I will structure my thoughts into two categories: The Good and I Wish There was More.
The book serves as a great introduction to La Cosa Nostra outside of New York. The narrative and storytelling are tight and fast-paced, as new twists and turns unfold with every new chapter. It’s like reading an action movie and a thriller all rolled up in one tale. The book’s writing is structured in a way where the co-authors set up the atmosphere of scenes and provided just enough background information for Phil to takeover with his stories. They set up the punchline for Leonetti to deliver the full impact and gravitas to the audience. The book hooked readers in right away with a suspenseful and disturbing story, ala Pulp Fiction. Vince Falcone, a Philly associate, gets lured and murdered by Phil while Nicky watches a football game. The coldness of Phil’s attitude towards the event left the readers yearning for more. After a brief introduction of LCN’s history in Philly, readers are plugged into the latter half of Angelo Bruno’s regime. While the Gentle Don was not above killing people, he ran his Family more like a business than a gang. Racketeers in that life were looked down upon by gangsters, and despite a stable two-decade reign (an impressive feat as we later find out), his days were numbered after Don Carlo’s death. What followed was a tidal wave of nonstop murder, intrigue, jealousy, and deceit. Reading these, I would think to myself ‘I can’t believe this happened!’. And yet this was real life. Not even the best fiction authors could conjure up what went down in Philadelphia at that time. Phil Leonetti pulled no punches and through his vivid descriptions, readers are taken back to the ‘80s to experience “the life” alongside him. And just how powerful “the life” was. Nowadays there is debate over which mob is stronger: is it still the Italians? Chinese? How about those Russians? Well, there was no debate back then. La Cosa Nostra’s tentacles reached far and wide and all other crime groups played by their program. When the Philly Greek Mob sneered at Scarfo’s street tax, its leader was assassinated right away. The rest fell in line. That kind of power was intoxicating, they had a good thing going, and we get a firsthand perspective of how Scarfo mucked it all up.
Phil Leonetti and the co-authors did an exemplary job of painting a picture that conveyed one thought: La Cosa Nostra corrupts your soul. At the center of the narrative, it is the conflict of the heart. Follow your blood relatives into the Family or follow your conscience and save your family? Phil was unfortunate to be born as the nephew of a homicidal maniac who was, from a very young age, brought up with murder and crime on his mind. Due to a lack of a father figure, Phil longed for love, support, and approval from the only other man in his life, Nicky Scarfo. He misplaced his trust and his role model failed him. After being indoctrinated, Phil followed his uncle blindly, loyally, and dutifully. He committed whole slews of crimes. Friend or foe, he killed when ordered. He was only able to escape his shackles after witnessing the extent of Nicky’s evil. Despite being best friends and knowing Chuckie Merlino (his underboss) for over 25 years, Nicky was actively scheming to harm him and eventually wanted to kill him. He wanted his wife dead. He was actively ruining his middle son’s life by involving him in the mob. But worst of all, he cared not for his youngest’s son suicide attempt. He was just embarrassed by it. But at that point it was already too late, LCN already destroyed the humanity in Phil. Even after renouncing “the life” and denouncing his uncle, Phil Leonetti is scared for life. He understood and acknowledged that what he has done was wrong, but he is incapable of feeling remorse for those crimes. You almost feel sorry for this killer.
Likewise, the foundations of La Cosa Nostra were torn apart throughout the book. “This thing of ours” was not built on honor and brotherhood, but rather on lies, greed, treachery, and manipulation. They portray themselves as “men of honor” and scoff at common hoodlums and gangs – yet they are no better. Nicky Scarfo, a big “believer” in old-school LCN rules, repeated ad nauseum that the Boss is the Boss. Of course, it was only so until it impacted his bottom line. He failed to support Angelo Bruno when he was having difficulties with his administration and got livid at being boxed out of Local 54. He disrespected Joe Rugnetta (Bruno’s previous consigliere) by calling his daughter ugly. How is that Cosa Nostra? In fact, Bruno was set up by the Genovese Crime Family because years ago Anthony “Tony Bananas” Caponigro won a dispute over Frank “Funzi” Tieri (Genovese Front Boss) regarding gambling operations in North Jersey. Despite all being part of a supposed sacred brotherhood, mobsters manipulated and murdered each other over greed. Worst of all, Angelo Bruno was portrayed as a model Boss, harboring all the old-school qualities that made the likes of Don Carlo so successful. Yet, Ange was making money hand over fist selling drugs with Raymond Martorano but forbade others from participating in narcotics. Talk about hypocrisy. The mob life is destructive, it pits blood against blood and friend against friend. Maybe centuries ago, Cosa Nostra in Sicily meant “our thing”, but La Cosa Nostra in America was always “my thing”.
Although the Government is often lauded as slow and ineffective, Mafia Prince makes readers appreciate just how efficient the Feds were at utilizing the RICO statute. The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act as a tool was a game-changer for law enforcement and the mob. Mafia members for years were able to dodge indictments and beat cases only to be swallowed up by tentacles of the Kraken that is RICO. Phil Leonetti was able to beat the Pepe Leva murder case, the Falcone murder case, an extortion case with the ex-mayor of Atlantic City, a federal drug case, and the Salvie Testa murder case. But trying to beat RICO is almost futile and Phil would get 45 years in prison for his role as the underboss of the Bruno-Scarfo Crime Family. This just reinforced my belief that the old, admired dons: Frank Castello, Carlo Gambino, Joe Profaci, and Phillip Lombardo were no better at evading law enforcement than the new generation of Mafia leaders that replaced them. They went out on top because they died before those RICO indictments came down to swoop them all up.
Something unique about this book is its in-depth exploration of what it’s like for an ex-mobster to integrate back into society. While Michael Franzese’s book made it seem like he rode off into the sunset with God and his new wife and Sammy Gravano’s book finished right before he started LARPing as Pablo Escobar, a healthy portion of Leonetti’s book is dedicated to life after the mob. We got to see how he was able to put his mob experience in construction to good use by creating legitimate landscaping and concrete companies. Phil Leonetti’s first run after his relocation perfectly illustrated how suffocating the mob life is. On his first morning run, he greeted all the people he ran by, euphoric at finally being a free man. But life after the mob is not smooth and is still full of tension, and soon Phil would find himself back in his old stomping grounds to take care of his grandmother. Seeing how he was able to navigate Atlantic City again and his interactions with people from his former life was a delightful read. How about the ever-present thought of your new identity and home being exposed? Phil Leonetti doesn’t live in fear, but he can never truly relax. He is always ready for anything that might come.
I Wish There Was More:
While I can hardly come up with new ways of expressing how great this book is, I do wish it expanded on a couple of topics that were glossed over. I know the authors intended to create a tight fast-paced narrative and elaborating on any of the following themes could have dragged certain sections of the book. One aspect that I found intriguing, and one which is hardly mentioned in other Mafia books, is the cultural and sub-ethnical environment within the mob. Unlike Italy where every region has its own mob-like organization, La Cosa Nostra in America is a melting pot of different Italian groups: Sicilians, Calabrians, Neapolitans, etc. Throughout the book, we get hints of tension within the Philly Borgata based on this regionalism. Nicky Scarfo and Phil Leonetti both distrusted fellow Sicilians and called them “Siggys”. They thought of them as greedy and selfish (the irony!). In the same vein, a lot of Angelo Bruno’s close circle was made up of mobsters of Sicilian descent. After Scarfo was deposed as boss, the Sicilian faction of the Gambino Family pressured John Gotti to install John Stanfa, a fellow Sicilian, as its new leader. Despite LCN supposedly being built on the foundation of a united blood-bound brotherhood, their backgrounds, and cultural divide was a disuniting force. I just wish more was explored about this subtle friction within the Families. Moreover, I came away disappointed about the lack of discussion and detail around the infiltration of Atlantic City’s bustling casino scene. While I understand that their operation was not on the same level as the Outfit’s in Las Vegas, I do wish more was talked about it. We get brief passages here and there about control of Local 54 or the Roofers Union and how fifty to a hundred thousand dollars per month was extracted from it. Was that it? That was the entire extent of the casino operation? In fact, the book is fairly scant of white-collar crimes, and the Bruno-Scarfo family was presented to not be as sophisticated as their New York counterparts. At the height of their operations, they only brought six million dollars a year. That shocked me and made me appreciate Michael Franzese’s operation even more. On a similar note, Phil Leonetti mentioned they visited the ageing legend Meyer Lansky during their trips to Florida. I wish he told us more about his interactions with the man who elevated Italian street gangs into a nationwide criminal corporation.
I reiterate that this is the most level-headed and honest portrayal of a mobster I have read so far. Phil Leonetti makes no bones about who he was and as such is a mandatory read for anyone interested in learning about La Cosa Nostra.
I will continue with the Philly theme, so pray for me because I will be reviewing Ralph Natale’s book, Last Don Standing, next.