COOKING LESSONS FROM THE MAFIA

by Kira Akerman

Above, Frank Sinatra with Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno. Photo courtesy of Michael Zuckerman

In March of 1978, my dad was a 30-year-old prosecutor for the US Attorney’s office. For his first big case, he was led into a gray, windowless conference room in San Diego. He nervously took a seat across from the notorious mobster Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno, the (former) acting boss of the LA crime family. Jimmy was considered to be the most powerful mobster to become a federal witness until Sammy "the Bull" Gravano agreed to testify against the Gambino crime family in 1991. Jimmy was assigned to work closely with my dad to roll over years of mafia intelligence in exchange for a spot in the witness-protection program. 

Jimmy nodded, sizing up my dad, just over six feet tall, before piercing his fork into the vegetable frittata that he had specially ordered from an FBI agent. For a moment, my dad surveyed the room before taking a seat to study Jimmy’s address book and look for useful names and numbers. He paused on a yellowed page. A fearful recognition overtook him. It looked like he and Jimmy had dated the same woman.

“Now hold on a minute here, Jimmy,” said my dad. “Does she live in the village?”

“Yeah,” Jimmy nodded, smiling as he said, “in one of them little row houses downtown.”

My dad continued: “She’s kinda dark, shoulder-length hair, about five feet five—"

"Real pretty blue eyes, and built, with a nice big chest?" Jimmy interrupted. "You’re fuckin’ kiddin' me! Don’t tell me you know this broad," he said, laughing.

There was a moment’s pause. “She was on a jury in a narcotics case I had,” replied my dad, with increasing discomfort. "The same day the case ended, she called me up and asked me out.”  

The coincidence shocked everyone in the room. My dad was so unnerved that he called for an FBI background check. It was later revealed that Jimmy had dated a woman using the name of the one my father had dated. The shared connection instantly earned Jimmy’s trust—a relaxed rapport that would help my dad to prepare Jimmy for the impending court trials. Shortly after he met my father, Jimmy was relocated to an army base in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. Every weekend, my dad would commute on multiple subway lines to meet with Jimmy to prepare him for his court appearances. They would convene in the fluorescent-lit kitchen of the army base, which resembled a cafeteria with industrial-sized convection ovens, massive stoves, and a wall packed with pots and pans.

In this kitchen, my dad questioned while Jimmy cooked, an activity that would relax the informant and get him talking. The first trial for which my dad prepared Jimmy involved the Westchester Premier Theater, in Tarrytown, NY, where Frank Sinatra often performed as a favor to the mob. My dad would ask Jimmy to recall all the people he’d met there and the machinations of well-financed crime. Jimmy would respond while chopping and seasoning onions for his red sauce. He’d excitedly offer my dad cooking tips, like, “Put a sprinkle of sugar in there to get rid of the acid in the tomatoes.” 

My dad was always eager to improve his cooking. He’d watch Jimmy roll up his sleeves, reach into his big red pouch of chewing tobacco, and place some of it in his mouth before slicing up sweet Italian sausages with his disproportionately large hands— the very same hands he’d once used to strangle the life from his victims. During these sessions, Jimmy cooked his family’s recipes from Sicily, from freshly handmade pasta with pesto to meatballs and lasagna. My dad’s legal-sized notepads were always covered in tomato sauce.

The army base was conveniently located near an Italian neighborhood that happened to be a mafia stronghold. Jimmy directed an FBI marshall to the shops with the freshest burrata, slices of mortadella, fresh green olives, and handmade pasta. He’d often lapse into complaints against the mafia bosses who had turned against him. “No, I wouldn’t say I’m looking for revenge,” Jimmy said, rolling up a slice of prosciutto, “but I’ll tell you one motherfucker I’d like to testify against…”

My dad resolved any issues Jimmy had with the Department of Justice—sometimes Jimmy was concerned about his relocation and, at other times, his wife. My dad figured that a happy testifier was a good one. During Jimmy’s years in the witness-protection program, he testified in 15 criminal trials, sending a total of 37 men to prison. He set new records for the most time in protection, the most testimony of a mafia member, and, unofficially, the most cooking on the government dime. According to Michael Zuckerman’s book Vengeance Is Mine, the Department of Justice reported that it spent nearly $1 million on the Fratianno family in the span of a ten-year period. Jimmy was finally dropped from the witness-protection program because the FBI figured that he could fend for himself and was afraid to gain a reputation as a pension fund for aging mobsters. The twilight of Jimmy’s life was full of interviews and spent as a celebrity criminal. He published two biographies with Michael Zuckerman, The Last Mafioso and Vengeance Is Mine.

I grew up eating Jimmy’s lasagna when my mom, a vegetarian, was out of town. I remember my dad’s thrill as he punctured the spicy sausage in its casing while sautéing it over the stove. The kitchen brimmed with the smell of sausage and browning onions. When my dad's lasagna was ready, my sister and I would sit down at the dining room table, unwittingly eating the recipe of a murderer. 

*A special thanks to author Michael Zuckerman for additional information.

Originally published in VICE.