The day after Thanksgiving , we took the N.Y.C Mob Tour, a comparatively new tour which has been around for less than a year . It advertises itself as a “Sightseeing bus tour that reveals NYC’s greatest hits of gangland death and gore history, from the Mafia, Cosa Nostra and Murder, Inc., the Jewish Mob, from bootlegging to bookmaking to organized crime’s headline grabbing killings – they’re all part of this sightseeing attraction that’s as entertaining as a Broadway show! See some of the sites that have made the Big Apple the Gangland Capital of America.”
The tour usually starts at Mulberry Street in Little Italy but since we were a large party , the air-conditioned bus picked us up outside our niece’s apartment in nearby Tribeca. It was a very large bus and each of us was able to get a window seat. As we sipped on the complimentary Prosecco ,the bus crisscrossed Little Italy and our personable guide, Patrick Smith, told us about the beginnings of the Mafia … it’s genesis as a patriotic organization in Sicily , how it took root in America ,the Five Points slum , the Mafia’s rise to power in the early 20th century , the Castelmarese Wars of the early thirties and the Five Families that controlled New York. We stopped at a Sicilian pasticerria , (allegedly) a one time haunt of mobsters , around the corner from the house where Lucky Luciano was born. The variety of pastries in the pasticerria was amazing and delectable and we treated ourselves to biscotti , cannolis , marzipan and the chillingly named osso di morto ( Bones of Death ) . Stay away from the last named ; they are too hard even after you dunk them in coffee. Refreshed, we continued to mid-town to Sparks Steak House , outside which Mafia boss Paul Castellano and his driver Thomas Bilotti were gunned down in broad daylight in 1985. We all got down from the bus to hear how the hit went down , who the alleged shooters were and the reason for the murders. Interestingly , no one was ever charged in the murders even though everyone seems to know all the details : the who, how and why. Back in the bus, we rode uptown to Harlem and East Harlem making one more stop at Rao’s , widely reputed to be a regular meeting place for mobsters . Each of the Five Families has a table reserved for it at Rao’s every night of the year and outsiders are not allowed in the dining area though they may sit at the bar. From the outside , Rao’s with its garish red exterior doesn’t seem all that inviting even though one movie star is said to pay $250,000 annually for the privilege of being able to eat there . I know the tomato sauce is supposed to be great but still , a quarter million is a lot of money…
That was the last stop on our 2- 1/2 hour tour before the bus brought us back to Mulberry Street .Throughout the tour , Patrick continued his discourse on Mafia history. Luciano’s wartime deal with the feds to protect the docks from enemy sabotage , his subsequent deportation to Sicily and his suspicious death , Meyer Lansky , Bugsy Siegel and the building of Las Vegas , Albert Anastasia and Murder Inc., Apalachin , Frank Costello, the disappearance of Teamster ex Prez Jimmy Hoffa , Vito Genovese , Crazy Joe Gallo , Fat Tony Salerno , Vincent ‘ the Chin ” Gigante who used to walk about in a bathrobe pretending to be mad as a ruse to escape conviction… The names just rolled of Patrick’s lips and all this was off the top of his head , no notes . It was an impressive tour de force and ,by far,the best part of the tour.
When you get right down to it , the ” sightseeing ” wasn’t much . Lucky Luciano’s birthplace is an undistinguished rowhouse. Sparks Steakhouse and Rao’s are pretty ordinary looking and all the other “sights” that were pointed out to us were forgettable . If you didn’t know the history behind them , you wouldn’t look at them twice. What made the tour worthwhile was Patrick’s commentary. In the 2 or 2-1/2 hours that the tour lasted , Patrick gave us the entire history of the Mafia in N.Y. City, weaving all the disparate bits seamlessly into a comprehensive whole . He did it too in a way that sustained our interest , sprinkling his talk with little tidbits and flashes of humor.
I have always been interested in Mafia lore and have read at least a dozen books and seen a number of movies on the Mafia . I also worked in New York City for over thirty years and I remember reading the Daily News articles on many of the things Patrick talked about. I can therefore say with conviction that Patrick was spot -on with the tales that he related . I must also say that he told me a few things that I , for all my reading , had no idea of. For instance , I ‘d no idea that the housing complex known as Knickerbocker Village was a breeding ground for the Mafia. I’d been puzzled by the Irish names of some of the Mafia bosses but Patrick cleared that up when he mentioned that the Irish were in charge of the rackets before the Italians got into the act ; some Italians gave themselves Irish names because they thought they were classier. Frank Costello , for example , was born Francesco Castiglia .
Patrick also pointed out some interesting non-Mafia related sights. He said, for instance, that the best pizza in New York City is not served at Patsy’s or Lombardi’s but at a number of no-name joints . He pointed out one such place on 1st Ave between 10th and 11th street ( I think) right next to Manhattan Eye Care . It had a plain glass fronted façade and didn’t even have a name but it had a line of people waiting outside in the cold for their turn to get a pizza. There were another couple of pizzerias that he pointed out in the Village but unfortunately I didn’t note the streets they were on .
For an old New York hand like myself , the bus tour was a trip through nostalgia , recognizing old landmarks and noticing how much things had changed in a city that I have loved . The “Mob sights ” may not have been much but I thought the tour was a pleasant way of spending a couple of hours with friends in a comfortable bus, weaving through the streets of one of the great cities of the world while listening to an expert talk about the Mafia .
After the tour ended in Little Italy , we walked to Il Cortile for a family lunch , a fine end to an enjoyable morning.
Thank you so very much for your detailed, thoughtful and absolutely beautiful review of your trip on the mob tour. Our customers usually know a lot about the mob, and we have to work hard to keep ahead of them, and you have just demonstrated just how difficult it can be to do so. No one — not even the many journalists who have taken the tour — has yet written so comprehensive a review and report of the tour. With your permission I would like to put this on our website. I await your approval.
Thank you for your generous comment. Of course you are welcome to use my post on your website. As I said , we thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it’s the least I can do. Please convey my thanks to Patrick Smith who made the subject come alive for us .I wanted to thank him at the end of the tour but was late getting off the bus and lost track of him. I note that your other tour guides have received good marks from satisfied clients but I can’t imagine anyone better than Patrick. Best wishes to you on your enterprise.