A Former Made Man Opens Up About Life in the Mafia

New York City in April 1980
Fortgens Photography

It’s one of the most iconic scenes in movie history and it involves a made man.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic The Godfather, Michael Corleone, played by a young Al Paccino, tells his wife Kay, “Don’t ever ask me about my business.”

It’s a poignant scene to remind us that his line of work is so gruesome, he can’t even share the nature of it with his spouse.

The Godfather ushered in several decades of Cosa Nostra cinema. But from that very first film, if there was one thing the general public could take from these classics, it’s that the less you know about someone’s questionable dealings, the better.

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Several seconds later, Corleone gives in to Kay.

“This one time,” he says, “This one time, I will let you ask me about my affairs.”

She does. And he lies to her face, but that’s not the point. The point is, we had an opportunity to talk with a real-life caporegime of one of New York’s infamous five families, a one-time pass to ask about his affairs…his life in the mob, a chance to sort gritty reality from the Hollywood fantasy.

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NYC’s John Pennisi is a reformed criminal who speaks freely about his former life. He has a blog and recently hooked up with New Jersey media professional Tom La Vecchia. Together they do a podcast called The MBA and the Button Man all about “our thing.”

Putting together a podcast

Men’s Journal: So, a capo of the Lucchese Crime family has a podcast. How did that come about?
TOM LA VECCHIA: I started The New Theory Podcast about three years ago. I’d had a moderate level of success. Organized crime is sort of my personal interest. And I noticed that whenever I had anyone on from that world, it tended to do better than other guests. Then I read Cosa Nostra News one day, where John Pennisi was featured in a three-part series. I said, ‘I like this guy.’ We chatted, became fast friends and came up with the idea of recording a sit down with a made member of the mob. I was getting about 5,000 hits per podcast and this swelled up to like 15,000. So we recorded what turned into a nine-part series, and organically within a month, we had 100,000 streams. We put our heads together and formed The MBA and the Button Man Podcast.

John and I are two Italian-American guys. We took two totally different routes. But when we talk, we find a lot of commonality, comparing “the life” to my work in corporate America. We’re about five or six episodes deep. For a new podcasts, the numbers are off the charts.

Really the main thing we need to know here is, John, how you’re able to speak so freely about the things you know the things you’ve witnessed. One thing we all know is that secrecy is the key to that life. How are you able to talk about it?
JOHN PENNISI: Well, I’m no longer in the life.

John Pennisi
John Pennisi Courtesy of John Pennisi

 

Changing direction

Right, but how were you able to leave the life without repercussions from the mob or the law?
PENNISI: What had happened was, I was falsely accused of becoming a rat, or an informant, or whatever way you want to phrase it. And the mob will do their homework. And when they did their homework and realized it was a mistake, it was too late. I couldn’t trust anyone anymore. I walked away on my own. Usually there is no walking away. As far as legally, I don’t think I have said anything that probably hasn’t been said already or that the government doesn’t know about. As far as repercussions, I don’t know what’s on their mind. We’re living in a different world today. The mob is not what it once was.

Help us to understand this… You were a made guy. From the pop culture standpoint, we assume that you’re basically upper management in an organized crime family. It’s elite and no one can give you a hard time without consequences.
PENNISI: Yeah. That’s pretty accurate. You have the boss of the family, one underboss and then the captains, made guys, who are the head of different crews. The family, as it’s known, is made up of smaller crews of “associates.” There’s a big gap between an associate and a made man.

And Tom, you are literally a Master’s of Business Administration?
LA VECCHIA: Yeah, I’m a Jersey guy, 20 years in corporate. Ten years ago, I decided to hang my own shingle as a multi-media digital marketing entrepreneur. I think I bring a neutral, real-world point of view to the conversation.

Tom La Vecchia
Tom La Vecchia Courtesy of Tom La Vecchia

 

Fighting and embracing stereotypes

All races and ethnicities in this country have historically worked to separate themselves from certain stereotypes. But the mob thing doesn’t seem to hurt Italian-Americans as much. There are plenty of legit Italians who aren’t in a hurry to distance themselves from it all.
PENNISI: I would say that shows like Mob Wives and The Jersey Shore would hurt Italians more than anything. And no knock against either of them, but those type of stereotypes are not good. We were kind of a black eye to the hard-working civilian Italian-Americans.

LA VECCHIA: You have a group of Italian-Americans that wants nothing to do with it. My parents were off the boat. My mother hated the Mob. She hated seeing John Gotti on TV. I had an estranged cousin who married Sammy the Bull’s niece. We weren’t really allowed to go to the wedding. We distanced ourselves.

My experience has been that Italian-Americans that are kind of connected, hang out with other connected families. My mother made it a point to annex us away from that stuff. But for other people, there’s a sense of pride whether we like it or not. You watch The Godfather and you pump out your chest a little bit. My listeners have a bigger appetite for John than they do for people from the legitimate business world. I’m personally fascinated with it. Would I want that life for my friends and my family? No. The reason I like John a lot is because he is legitimately trying to change his life. He’s genuine in his message.

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Made men named Sideburns, Frog Eyes, and Quack Quack

One thing we love when we read your blog or listen to the podcast is the nicknames.
LA VECCHIA: I like Johnny Sideburns.

PENNISI: Oh my God (laughs). There’s so many. There was Louie Bagels, the acting boss of the family. There was Johnny Sausage. Frog Eyes Grillo, Big Bird Guzzo, Frank “Chiclet Mouth” Radice, Tommy Sneakers, Allie Shades, and Angelo “Quack Quack” Ruggiero. There are so many guys called Meatballs. They called me Johnny. They called me Young Gun or Young John, nothing bad.

There’s this notion that the life is a thing of the past and there’s a different world now where the mafia doesn’t exist. Can you tell us if there is still organized crime happening among a hierarchy of Italian-American families?
PENNISI: Oh, absolutely. You’re always going to have organized crime. But there’s no comparison to years past. Believe it or not, they’ve moved into more legitimate business—restaurants, construction, and real estate. There will always be an undertone of organized crime, but it definitely has changed a lot from shakedowns and extortion

LA VECCHIA: One thing I would add, John maintained his job as a construction manager while he was an inducted member. I believe that was part of his strategy. When he did interact with the government, they didn’t even know who he was. He had a job. We joke about it. If someone were to surveil him, by Thursday they would go home because they’re just sitting in a parking lot, while he’s down in the mud, directing guys on a worksite.

 

John Pennisi
John Pennisi Courtesy of John Pennisi

 

The Mafia in media

I’m sure you guys have seen all the mafia movies and TV shows. There’s a lot of Hollywood element. But if you had to pick one, which is the most accurate portrayal?
PENNISI: It’s hard. TV and the movies are very different than that life. The Godfather was probably very close, but there were aspects of the Godfather that would have never taken place. The same with Goodfellas and A Bronx Tale. There are little bits and pieces of reality but it’s still Hollywood. I believe people from the life were advisors on some of those movies.

It would seem that subculture exists as the opposite of political correctness. Among broader cultures, there have been changes in the past few years of acceptable ways to talk and act. Has the organized crime life seen any changes to reflect that?
PENNISI: It’s funny that you say that. Years ago, they would refer to a person from “the other side,” meaning from Italy, and they would call them a zip or a greaseball, which is a derogatory name. And I’m sure that anyone who spoke that way wasn’t trying to knock them. It was just a learned behavior. Just like throughout history, they would call us WOPs. And I noticed that in like 2017, someone had said something along the lines of, “Yeah, that greaseball….” And someone else said, “Hey you know, you should watch what you’re saying because you’re going to insult them. You shouldn’t really talk like that.” Now years ago, you would never hear someone corrected like that. But that’s the only thing that I’ve seen. Nothing else. Organized criminals are not being politically correct. They don’t care.

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Food culture

Food is a very specific part if this culture. What’s your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant?
PENNISI: I would have to say most of the food at Rao’s in Harlem. Everything is very good there, especially the seafood salad. Rao’s is a good spot.

LA VECCHIA: I didn’t eat out Italian food as a kid. It was kind of a bad thing to do, out of respect for your parents’ cooking. But now my mother has passed, I have more of an appetite for it. But for some old school Italian, the Belmont Tavern in Bloomfield is very good.

PENNISI: Oh, that’s a great spot. That was our spot, a Luchesse spot. The food is incredible at the Belmont Tavern.

LA VECCHIA: And I know it’s a standard, but Maruca’s Pizza in Seaside Heights. That Trenton tomato pie. I’m getting more into that flavor the last few years and Marucca’s got it down.

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Leading a Reformed Life

John, you’ve mentioned that you’re a changed person, leading a new life. Why don’t you give me a little bit of that reformed worldview?
PENNISI: From when you’re inside that fishbowl, you see things differently. A lot of people look at it like it was such an honor. In the street, it was the highest achievement to be a made capo. But when you’re on the outside looking in at my former life, to be completely honest with you, it’s now become an embarrassment to me. I look at things very differently. I always, even in that life, try to help people. Still do so today. I’ve apologized already to a few people who I’ve wronged. I wish I could apologize to everybody.

There came a time I was somewhere near a footbridge. And I kept saying to myself, “If I walk over that footbridge and go on to the other side, I’m leaving that life behind me.” And I couldn’t do it.

One day I had a lot of stress. I was jogging and I wound up right at that footbridge. I walked over. And when I walked over that footbridge, I left all that negativity of my former life behind me. I kept going positive ever since. Violence comes with that life. I never went back to my former life, thinking or acting that way. Changed my life for the better. I keep my head up and focus on what’s ahead of me. My former family has definitely wronged me. I forgave everyone who wronged me.

Every day is a blessing and so much good has come to me this way. I have two daughters; one is 25 and one is going to be 10. I love the both of them. I want them to learn from me now, not who I was. Especially with daughters. They want to meet a guy who’s like their father. I’d rather they meet a guy who’s like me now, than what I used to be.

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