John Gotti liked his sfogliatella served warm with a cup of espresso and a twist of lemon. I know this because 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.
My memories of the Dapper Don were limited to a dozen or so interactions where he and the "associates" who joined him conducted their “business” at a table in the back of the shop as discretely as you might imagine a group of mobsters would. People came in, sat with them, talked awhile, and then left. Conversations were usually in Italian which made comprehending what they said challenging. Laughter often followed what I speculated were dirty jokes, but given my embryonic knowledge as an Italian speaker, I could never be sure. What I was sure of were the conversations they had about food. A subject they spoke about with affection and passion. My curiosity peaked, I began listening more closely as they named their favorite dishes along with the best restaurants that made them, gathering and memorizing the names of their favorite eating establishments until I had a list of my own.
Embarking on what I now call my Goodfellas Tour, I traveled the boroughs of New York City in search of la migliore cucina Italiana. The best Italian cooking. 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 toured the Lower East Side to eat Bucatini con le Sarde at Il Caminetto. As each culinary adventure unfolded, 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 handmade 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 honor of having Sofia greet me in the dining room and then bluntly 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". Often times Sofia paired me with visitors from Italy who spoke very little English. Conversations in those situations were typically limited by my vocabulary skills. I was okay if we were talking about food. But anything outside of that and I instantly became the village idiot. This was never more acutely felt than when I found myself describing Easter as the holiday for “the man who died on two sticks of wood”. Or during one very convoluted conversation, and a lot of chianti, where 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 find it's way into Luciano's glass and put him in the mood to 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.