John Gotti liked his sfogliatella served warm with a cup of espresso and a twist of lemon.
For those of you not familiar with this wonderful Italian pastry, the Sfogliatelle (plural form of Sfogliatella) means "small, thin leaf" or layer. This shell-shaped pastry is a native of Campania with a texture resembling stacked leaves and stuffed with a sweet ricotta cheese. Originally created inside the confines of the Santa Rosa monastery in Salerno during the 17th century, it was Pasquale Pintauro, a pastry chef from Naples, who acquired the recipe and introduced it to the public when he began selling them in his shop in 1818.
For those of you curious to know why I happen to be familiar with the Dapper Don's pastry preferences, I was a waitress in a pastry shop he frequented in Little Italy after he became the crime boss of the Gambino Family. I assumed, evidenced by the deference shown to him and the flamboyantly expensive suits he wore, that he was an eccentrically wealthy Italian entrepreneur of some kind. But not necessarily of the deadly kind. Discretion being the better part of valor, my naïveté was left uncorrupted by the owner of the store, along with the bakers in the kitchen, who either feared telling me or simply chose not to clue me in.
When Signore Gotti and his "Associates" came in for their Sfogliatelle, I often heard them speaking Italian. A dialect of Sicilian derivation coupled with my embryonic knowledge as an Italian speaker, made their conversations difficult to follow. The bits I did understand were usually related to food and restaurants. A subject that came up quite often where favorite dishes were named along with the best restaurants that made them. My curiosity peaked, I began making a list of their favorite eating establishments and later embarked on what I now call my Goodfellas Tour.
Sometimes taking my boyfriend along, but more often alone, I travelled the boroughs of New York City in search of Italian culinary delights. I ventured to Brooklyn to eat Risotto alla Pescatore at Osteria Brincello; I took the A train up to The Bronx to eat Arancini Margherita at La Bottega da Nello; and I meandered through the streets of the Lower East Side to eat Bucatini con le Sarde at Il Caminetto.
So many delicious meals, so many remarkable experiences, I filled my journal with the savory details of every one of them. Among the many memories I have, there was one restaurant, and one meal in particular, that deserves honorable mention: Trattoria Simoni and their sublime Ravioli ai Funghi. A beautifully hand made pasta stuffed with portobello mushrooms and mascarpone cheese, these epicurean angels were then delicately placed on a glistening pool of creamy rosemary garlic sauce and topped with a shaving of truffles. A meal I can say with longing was as close to sex on a fork as you can get.
Trattoria Simoni was a family owned restaurant situated in Williamsburg, New York, decades before Williamsburg was trendy and run by Sofia and Luciano Simoni. A non-descript exterior as restaurants go and located in a residential area, you could easily pass right by it and not know what gastronomic pleasures were hidden inside. As you breached the door you were greeted by Luciano who was usually standing behind a dark oak bar. The smell of roasted meats and garlic teased your senses as you were led inside the warm glow of a dining room decorated with pink linen tablecloths and candle lit tables.
Their chef was a distant cousin from Liguria but Sofia was the person who still made all of the pasta. Luciano, for his part, took care of his customers by placing a bottle of wine on your table, pouring you a glass and then gesturing for you to drink it. Modeled after the Italian custom of only charging you for what you drink, it was difficult to refuse his bonhomous suggestion.
My frequent trips back to Trattoria Simoni awarded me the distinction of becoming part of their restaurant family where Sofia would ask me "Perche mangiare da sola?" (Why are you eating alone?) This was quickly remedied by seating me with other family members so that we could "mangiare insieme". The Italians are a social people by nature and dinner conversations were typically friendly and often times hilariously ribald. Not only did I eventually learn that Signore Gotti was indeed the infamous Teflon Don, but I also accumulated a collection of really good dirty jokes. Other times, Sofia would pair me with a lone diner visiting from Italy who spoke very little English. The experience of playing the role of the village idiot while trying to have conversations that were beyond my vocabulary skills was never more acutely felt than when I described celebrating Easter as "the man who died on two sticks of wood". During the course of one such convoluted conversation, and a lot of chianti, I may have actually told one of Sofia's befuddled cousins that I was a taxidermist who had an extensive collection of bats. Or something equally absurd.
Occasionally, the chianti would also make its rounds into Luciano's glass where he would sit down with the customers to enjoy a bit of "chiacchierare". More often than not this would amiably go unmentioned by Sofia, but every now and then she'd drop a comment under her breath, and then the both of them would entertain us with a mixture of good natured banter and an ongoing argument over the division of labor that either ended up with Luciano patting Sofia on the behind, or with Sofia making colorful barbs on the character of men. In either case, it was always a rich resource of new Italian vocabulary words.
While my Goodfellas Tour only ran the course of a few months before I changed jobs, it introduced me to the culinary joys of Italian cooking that I have enjoyed most of my life. As to the practice of dangling eyeballs and the likes of Signore Gotti, the closest I personally came to anything that eye popping was when John Gotti asked me if I wanted to sit on his lap.