Today it’s among the trendiest neighborhoods in the world. Thirty-five years ago, this forlorn corner of Brooklyn was the epicenter of America’s mafia-fueled drug trade.
Settimo Favia’s routine was a fairly simple one. Every night around midnight, the native of Palermo, Italy, would close up his East Harlem pizza parlor and begin the trek back to his wife and home in the sleepy, suburban neighborhood of Glendale, Queens.
Favia, his pockets stuffed with pizza shop receipts, had just parked his car in the small hours of November 21, 1979, when a man stepped in front of him and fired two shotgun blasts. Just fifty feet away from his house in Glendale, Favia was killed instantly, as the assassin leapt into a car idling nearby.
Why this twenty-eight-year-old immigrant was slayed in such a fashion remains unclear to this day, but Favia was, in all likelihood, the victim of a unique breed of mobsters who once ran the rundown streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Now home to some of the city’s trendiest cafes, bars and brunch spots, Bushwick’s Knickerbocker Avenue was at one time the epicenter of a billion-dollar heroin empire.
Plagued by years of crime, arson and indifference, the Bushwick of 1979 was a neighborhood in crisis. Once a working-class community of German beer brewers and Italian factory workers, Bushwick had transitioned to a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood that was poor and struggling. Amid the burned-out and boarded-up buildings on Knickerbocker Avenue remained a small enclave of Sicilian markets and cappuccino houses. At night, men could be seen gathered in front of social clubs and cafes smoking cigarettes and gesticulating at one another.
This wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar scene for Flatbush native Charles Rooney, who was, at the time, a young FBI case agent assigned to monitor Mafia-related activities in the Bonanno crime family’s Knickerbocker Avenue stronghold. But the small talk out front was less important to the Brooklyn-born-and-raised Rooney than the not-so-secret baccarat games going on in the back rooms of espresso joints and hangouts.
“You had a rotating game going on through different cafes,” says Rooney, and along with those games came the predictable fellow travelers often associated with such illicit activities: loan sharks, thugs and mobsters.
It was in the back room of Café del Viale that Settimo Favia’s fate was likely sealed. Rooney and his partner, Carmine Russo, came to believe that the modest young Favia was in debt to the card game’s hosts and he likely fell victim to an increasingly powerful and ambitious crew of Sicilian gangsters.
Commonly referred to as “Zips” by their fellow Mafiosi — likely for their flashy dress, their lightning-quick Sicilian prosody or possibly something more derisive. The Zips were embedded in Sicilian strongholds all across the country during the ’60s and ’70s.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act made it easier for southern Europeans to immigrate to America. For these Sicilians, the tight-knit and deeply religious community of Bushwick was a welcoming and familiar destination. Though their business was in America, they pledged their fealty not to new godfathers in the United States but to their benefactors back in Italy.
“Most of the American-born Mafia members were leery of them,” write Lee Lamothe and Adrian Humphreys in their bestselling book, “The Sixth Family.” “[T]hey kept to themselves, spoke an indecipherable dialect” and always appeared to be working their own schemes and rackets. “They were considered to be a breed apart.”
One of these fresh faces was a twenty-five-year-old Sicilian named Salvatore Catalano. Upon his arrival in the U.S., Catalano — “Toto” to his Mafia associates — took a job on Knickerbocker Avenue in a relative’s Italian gift shop.
Stocky and, according to Rooney, “very plain,” Catalano came here to lead the Sicilian cell of Knickerbocker Zips — and to serve as a stateside conduit for the Bonanno family’s heroin importation. Catalano’s rise to power was, in many ways, inextricably linked to the American Mafia’s long and sometimes complicated relationship with heroin. Going back to the days of its founding father, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the Mafia had always taken a wink-and-a-nod approach on narcotics. The idea often promoted and romanticized in popular films and books about moratoriums and strict restrictions on the selling of drugs was, according to Mafia aficionado and former New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab, mostly a charade.
“Narcotics money was too tempting for avaricious dons and their henchmen to forsake,” writes Raab in his epic history of the New York Mafia, “Five Families.” “What they feared most was that … harsh penalties could induce soldiers facing certain conviction to save their skins by becoming informers.” It was this fear, explains Raab, that pushed the American Mafia to engage in a grand pretense of plausible deniability. Heroin and other drugs had become a key source of revenue for Cosa Nostra activities, but its volatility and scrutiny required a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy within the Mafia’s ranks. Keep dealing — but keep quiet.
This awkward but essential relationship with heroin was, according to Raab and a 1968 investigation by the Times, codified at a 1957 meeting at the Grand Hotel Et De Palmes in Palermo, attended by key figures from both the American and Sicilian Mafias, including “Lucky” Luciano, Joe Bonanno and an up-and-coming underboss in the latter’s family named Carmine Galante. An aggressive and extremely violent gangster, Galante had risen rapidly through the ranks of the Bonanno family to become a crucial cog in the syndicate’s narcotics dealings. Serving as manager and go-between for the family’s business in Italy and Canada, Galante was an early proponent of importing Sicilian “Zips” to help manage the family’s heroin operation in America.
But by the mid-1970s the Bonanno family was in disarray. Its leader, Joe Bonanno, had been forced into retirement by Mafia powerbrokers, resulting in an internal factional struggle for control of the family. Fresh out of prison for a narcotics conviction from the decade prior, Carmine Galante saw an opening upon the family throne and moved to grab it. Flanked by a seemingly loyal and murderous crew of Sicilian Zips — and near-total control over the New York Mafia’s heroin shipments — Galante decided to crown himself king of the Bonanno crime family.
In this tumultuous power vacuum, Sal Catalano and his Sicilian associates saw an opportunity. With his hand in a number of pizza parlors and Italian bakeries across New York, and Knickerbocker firmly under his control, Catalano, by the end of the 1970s, answered to few and flew under the radar of most law enforcement agencies. The only thing standing in Toto’s way was his boss and benefactor, Carmine Galante.
But that changed one summer afternoon at an Italian restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue.
* * *
John Dereszewski has fond memories of Joe and Mary’s Italian Restaurant. A longtime community activist, Dereszewski served as district manager of the local community board tasked with helping a neighborhood afflicted with many wounds. Crime, arson and insurance fraud — as investigations at the time by the New York Daily News and the Ridgewood Times revealed in painstaking detail — had become routine, driving out most businesses and eateries not already consumed by flames and destruction.
Joe and Mary’s at 205 Knickerbocker was, according to Dereszewski, an exception to the exodus and decay seen throughout much of Bushwick. He remembers the immigrant restaurateurs, Giuseppe “Joe” and Mary Turano, as simple, decent people just trying to make a business work against all the odds while catering to an old-world crowd looking for the flavors of home. “I don’t think Joe aspired to [be] anything more than that,” says Dereszewski.
Joe Turano was also a cousin of Bonanno family crime boss Carmine Galante, a regular at Joe and Mary’s.
On the warm afternoon of July 12, 1979, Galante, joined by a small coterie of bodyguards and associates, decided to dine in the outdoor courtyard of Joe and Mary’s. Around three p.m., as Galante and his compatriots discussed business over salad, fruit and red wine, a blue Mercury sedan carrying three armed men in ski masks slowly pulled up in front of the restaurant. Exiting the vehicle, the armed men quickly made their way through the front door toward the back patio.
What followed would become one of the most notorious mob hits in U.S. history. The three men opened fire immediately, spraying a stew of blood and bullet shells all across the floral oilcloth atop the patio table. Galante — a short, stout and balding man — was blown back in his chair by a barrage of bullets; his signature cigar still clenched between his teeth when the police finally picked the scene apart.
The heads of New York’s other Mafia families had grown tired of Galante’s antics. Concerned by his ambition and reluctance to share heroin profits, the dons decided it was time for Galante to go.
Left inexplicably unscathed in the storm of bullets on that day at Joe and Mary’s Restaurant were two of Galante’s most trusted bodyguards, cousins Cesare Bonventre and Baldo Amato. Bound by more than familial affiliation, both men had been imported from Sicily as part of Galante’s plan to build his own obedient following inside the Bonanno family.
Both men shared another close association: Salvatore Catalano. Though never definitively linked to Galante’s murder, Catalano and his fellow Zips were well positioned to gain from the underboss’s elimination. When Bonventre and Amato turned themselves in for questioning on the Galante slaying, surveillance footage snapped outside of the DA’s office showed Catalano alongside his fellow Sicilian gangsters. That was confirmation enough for FBI agents Rooney and Russo that this was, in a sense, Toto’s coming-out party. Rooney viewed the public display of support as a kind of message from Catalano: “I’m with them — they’re with me.”
Caught in the crossfire on that warm summer afternoon at Joe and Mary’s was the restaurant’s proprietor, Joe Turano. His senseless murder amid the violent Cosa Nostra quarrel rattled an already panicked Bushwick. “It was like putting another nail on a coffin,” said a young and still relatively unknown Vito J. Lopez to the New York Times just days after the killing. Lopez would go on to become one of New York’s most powerful politicians until scandal and censure ultimately ended his career in 2013. Lopez built his resume championing the neighborhood’s underrepresented and marginalized senior citizens, but for anyone with the means to leave Bushwick, the high-profile assassination was yet another indication that it was time to move elsewhere.
* * *
Every summer the Society of Our Lady of Trapani would celebrate the feast of its patroness with a procession on Knickerbocker Avenue and the surrounding blocks. Throughout the duration of the feast, a statue of the Virgin Mother holding baby Christ would be placed in front of Circo’s Pastry Shop at the corner of Knickerbocker and Hart Street. Passersby would often pause, pray and even make a small donation.
Although this annual religious tradition — the oldest Sicilian feast of its kind in America — carried on well into the 1980s, the Sicilian community along Knickerbocker had, by the beginning of that decade, become something of an endangered species.
Bushwick’s middle class continued to flee for more inviting neighborhoods in nearby Queens as the new decade dawned. Lined with its curved row houses and brick one- and two-family homes, the mostly German neighborhood of Ridgewood — along with the abutting communities of Middle Village, Glendale and Maspeth — served as oases for Bushwick’s retreating old world-ers.
As these Brooklyn exiles pushed deeper into suburban Queens, they also tried to build as many walls as possible behind them. But in the absence of moats and drawbridges, they turned instead to the ballot box. In 1978 an ambitious assistant district attorney named Geraldine Ferraro ran for New York’s Ninth Congressional District seat representing Glendale and Ridgewood and decided to tap into the palpable discontent and anxiety.
Initially associated with the Brooklyn zip code prefix of 112, the residents of Glendale and Ridgewood, insistent that their postal association with Bushwick was resulting in insurance “redlining” and high mortgage rates, pushed to divorce themselves from Brooklyn by changing to a Queens zip code. Ferraro, using her position on the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, kept her campaign promise, and in 1979 Glendale and Ridgewood successfully voted to receive their own distinct Queens zip. The long estrangement between these changing communities had finally calcified.
With Knickerbocker Avenue sliding downhill, Salvatore Catalano and his Zips were among those taking up residence and businesses in these quiet and quaint neighborhoods along the Brooklyn-Queens border. Catalano — residing at the time with his wife in a simple apartment in Glendale — opened his own bakery on Metropolitan Avenue, Middle Village’s main drag.
This new dynamic suited the Zips just fine. It had long been understood that the Mafia played a not-so-small part in keeping the peace along Knickerbocker Avenue. But as the Sicilian community there continued to recede, Bushwick’s increasingly poor residents became another potential market for the selling of heroin. With all eyes on smoldering Bushwick, Catalano and his associates quietly walked among the small-town-types of Queens, ate at their restaurants and shopped in the same grocery stores. But underneath the veneer of suburban tranquility was a heroin ring that operated in nearly every major city in the American Northeast and Midwest.
This was something far more ambitious than the simple racketeering and loansharking that went on in the back of Knickerbocker espresso shops. Catalano was empire-building.
* * *
One thing Meryl Meisler remembers clearly from her time as a high school teacher in Bushwick during the 1980s is the desolation and emptiness. On her walks to and from the subway, Meisler would wander the burned-out neighborhood searching for signs of life. Bushwick in 1981 looked like Hiroshima after the bomb, says Meisler. “White flight was over, and any old-world types remaining — teachers, librarians — [had] made a choice to stay” and fight for what was left.
Empty lots and boarded-up buildings served as fertile ground for junkies and pushers. Seeking heat and a hot meal — commodities in blighted Bushwick — school became one of the few remaining refuges for young people growing up in the neighborhood. But even that became a survivalist battlefield.
“If you saw a girl with Vaseline on her face, you knew there was going to be a fight,” says Meisler, who witnessed firsthand what addiction and poverty were doing to Bushwick, as students fought one another on a near-daily basis to cling to the few possessions of value they had.
The urban corrosion witnessed in many American cities at that time had a number of culprits, but it was apparent to Meisler that someone had to be profiting from the community’s suffering. “A lot of people looked to make a buck and keep the cycle going.”
That cycle was precisely what Salvatore Catalano was counting on to keep his pockets lined, and as his former stomping grounds continued to deteriorate, Toto continued to move up in the world.
And some began to take notice.
* * *
It was a strange sight to see in outer-borough New York. “Foreign faces,” says FBI Agent Rooney, began showing up on the streets of Middle Village and Bushwick in the fall of 1980. Different from the American wiseguys they had cut their teeth on, these gangsters looked more like something from “The Godfather.”
“These guys were walking down the streets with wide-brim fedoras and capes over their shoulders, but they were out of place in 1980s New York City,” says Rooney.
What Rooney and Russo would soon learn was that these visitors were in fact overseas gangsters in New York. They were celebrating the St. Patrick’s Cathedral wedding of a prominent Sicilian mobster and narcotics slinger with ties to the Bonanno family’s heroin operation.
These “foreign faces” seen around Bushwick and nearby Queens made it obvious to the agents that Sal Catalano was more than a mere street boss. The Zip commander was low-key and spoke almost exclusively in Sicilian, and his simple dress and demeanor made it easy for him to blend in with all the other Mafia mug shots. “You wouldn’t confuse him for John Gotti,” says Rooney.
But dots were beginning to connect for the agents, as Catalano continued to pop up at Christmas parties and weddings with other prominent Mafiosi from all five of New York’s crime families.
Bodies began to mount alongside the evidence. Around the same time as the murder of Settimo Favia, Carmine Galante’s few remaining partisans were soon found dead, scattered around the city. Months later, another local pizza maker — like Favia, a Sicilian immigrant from Palermo — was discovered murdered in his car, a bullet in his right ear and side. And just like Favia, Salvatore Mannino, forty-seven, was reported by the Ridgewood Times as being a heavy card player at Sal Catalano’s café on Knickerbocker Avenue.
Evidence and witnesses were hard to come by in this private and parochial part of New York, but Rooney and his partner suspected that both of these Sicilian immigrants had paid the ultimate price for refusing to serve as smugglers in Catalano’s growing heroin scheme.
Carmine Galante. Settimo Favia. Salvatore Mannino. Terrible things tended to happen to people who got in Catalano’s way.
The residents of the suburban-style Queens neighborhoods that Catalano’s Zips lived and did business in spent much of the early 1980s fretting over small-town matters like teenage alcoholism, minor drug busts and rodents from nearby Bushwick. But what agents Rooney and Russo were unearthing through surveillance and wiretapping was a global plot involving players across Europe and North America.
New York City had already been the wholesale hub of the American heroin market for much of the twentieth century. “With one of the world’s greatest harbors, rail and highway connections to the rest of the nation, and criminals with experience in the delivery of illicit services,” New York possessed all of the necessary ingredients required to be a bulk distributor, explains University of Pennsylvania Professor Eric Schneider in his study on the relationship between heroin and the city, “Smack.” The collapse of the infamous “French Connection” during the 1970s had left an opening for enterprising Mafiosi to take the reins of the smack trade in the northeast and control distribution throughout much of the country.
Working in conjunction with law enforcement agents in Italy, Rooney, Russo and the FBI discovered that it was the Sicilians who had grabbed those reins.
Cells of Sicilian immigrants positioned in pizza parlors across the country by the likes of Carmine Galante became perfect conduits for the distribution of heroin. Moreover, cash-only fronts like Italian eateries and slice joints were ideal for the laundering of narcotics cash before it was smuggled back to the distributors in Sicily and other parts of Europe.
With Galante out of the picture and the Bonanno family hooked on heroin lucre, Catalano had made himself a seemingly irreplaceable broker between old and new-world criminal syndicates. “[T]he Atlantic was not the Mafia boundary it was long depicted to be,” writes veteran Times journalist Ralph Blumenthal in his definitive text on the subject, “Last Days of the Sicilians.” “Here in America, a Sicilian clique was flourishing … under the aegis of the Bonanno Family. And at its head was Salvatore Catalano.”
But by the fall of 1983 the walls began to close in around Catalano and the Zips. Bagmen and distributors began to slip up, and law enforcement took notice. Agents and officers in cities across the country worked in unprecedented cooperation with an alphabet soup of U.S. anti-drug trafficking agencies. Joined by their counterparts in Italy, investigators patiently pieced together the operation’s supply chain and worked to tie all the regional heroin operations together.
For the ever-calculating Catalano, the ring at the door on the morning of April 9, 1984, came as a surprise. Though no heroin was located in his home, investigators had all they needed — surveillance tapes, bank records, telephone call transcripts — to link the Zip leader to the extensive heroin enterprise. “Catalano was in his pajamas, gazing at the agents in disbelief,” writes Blumenthal. The “Pizza Connection,” as it came to be known, was finished.
“It was a classical conspiracy case,” said U.S. Attorney and future New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. “You go over back deals they made and prove them. The purpose was not to seize drugs but to break up an organization.”
Catalano and his associates had other problems. The Bonanno family — which had long tolerated the behavior of its Sicilian wing because of the illicit cash it pulled in — had grown increasingly concerned about the Knickerbocker Zips. Around the same time agents busted down the door of Salvatore Catalano’s home in Glendale, Queens, Toto’s close associate Cesare Bonventre went missing. Bonventre — always the most visible and flamboyant of the Zips — worried and angered acting Bonanno boss Joe Massino, who “was determined not to make the same mistake that had cost Carmine Galante his life,” write Lamothe and Humphreys.
Catalano and dozens of additional players from both sides of the Atlantic were arrested, arraigned and ultimately convicted for their roles in the Pizza Connection case. Toto’s rise to power ended as quickly as it had begun.
The gift bequeathed by Catalano and his crew to Bushwick and, indeed, all of New York, was a city flush with cheap and easily accessible smack. The Bonanno family continued to dump its heroin in the area, but in the years that followed, other organized crime syndicates — Colombian, Jamaican and Chinese, to name a few — would pick up where the Sicilians left off, using their blueprint to keep suffering communities like Bushwick hooked on heroin, crack and other drugs for years to come.
“Most menacing,” writes Blumenthal, “was the ascendancy of a Chinese organized crime network rooted in ancient triads … if anything, even more disciplined and ferocious than the Sicilian Mafia.”
The gradual expansion of New York City’s heroin market likewise had a kind of democratizing effect on those afflicted with addiction. Heroin use among the city’s Latinos, according to a report in the Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, tripled between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s.
On March 2, 1987, Salvatore “Toto” Catalano, the boss of Bushwick, was sentenced to forty-five years in prison on charges of drug smuggling and distribution. He had his sentence reduced and was released from prison in 2009 at the age of sixty-seven.
Where he is now is anyone’s guess. “I don’t know even if he’s in the United States anymore,” says Rooney. Always viewed as a stateside asset by his taskmasters back in Sicily, Rooney suspects Catalano may have booked a one-way ticket back to Italy — courtesy of his Sicilian patrons — where he could be monitored or, if need be, silenced.
And just like that, Catalano returned to the relative obscurity from which he came, leaving an indelible mark on Bushwick and all of New York City.