Historically speaking, New York City has certainly enjoyed its share of colorful criminal characters. Gambino. Castellano. Gotti. Luciano. These are Big Bosses that you know by name. But what about Giuseppe Morello? You ought to know him, because he was the most powerful Boss in the early days of the New York City Mafia. We’re talking capo di tutti capi. So look smart and listen up.Born in Corleone, Sicily in 1867, the Morello family eventually settled in what was then called Italian Harlem, around East 107th Street. Young Giuseppe was an enterprising sort, a charismatic leader, and in the early 1890’s he established a gang known as the Morello Mob (also sometimes referred to as the 107th Street Gang). In 1903, Giuseppe’s sister Salvatrice married the Sicilan Mafia Boss in Little Italy, a rough customer known as Ignazio “The Wolf” Lupo. And with that matrimonial union, one of the earliest and most powerful families of organized crime in New York City was born.Morello was infamous for having a one-fingered deformed right hand, and was known in the underworld as “The Clutch Hand,” sometimes “The Old Fox,” but also went by “Piddu” or Peter. But I’m pretty sure no one ever called him “Clutch Hand” to his face, as everyone was scared shitless of this man. And rightly so: he built his empire based on the merciless ordering of death sentences against everyone and anyone who dared oppose him. His horrible brother-in-law (“The Wolf,” remember?) was his main enforcer, and was responsible for more than sixty murders in a 10 year period. That’s a whole lot of bodies to hide, what’s a button man to do? Well, the Morello family would frequently employ the notorious “barrel murder system.” This system consisted of dumping dismembered corpses into large wood barrels, which would then be thrown into the sea, left on a random city street corner, abandoned in a back alley or shipped to nonexistent addresses in another city. That’s one way to keep your employees and customers in line.And speaking of customers, let’s talk about the Family business. They mostly stuck to the basics: extortion, loan sharking, Italian lottery, robbery and counterfeiting. But Morello was an innovative mobster; he was the first one to make a practice of making dirty money clean. He would run the illegally earned money through legal businesses (such as stores or restaurants) that were owned by the family, making them the first crime family to organize this kind of money laundering. They also introduced revolutionary ways of extorting small amounts of money every week from business owners in exchange for “protection”, as opposed to the theft of large amounts which might bankrupt them. There you go! He not only invented money laundering, he invented “protection.” So now you see how any so-called modern mobster truly owes a real debt of gratitude to Clutch Hand. And you know what they say about paying your debts to a gangster.
With the 1898 consolidation of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx into the Greater New York that we know today, the old police headquarters on Mulberry Street wasn’t cutting it, so this fantastic piece of New York City history was needed to house the new and expanded police department.The Police Building was built by Hoppin & Koen between 1905 and 1909. As crime escalated to epic levels in the 1960′s and early 70′s, it’s likely that this “exuberant Edwardian Baroque” edifice no longer was able to strike fear into the hearts of the city’s underworld, so the cops moved about a mile south to their current fortress at 1 Police Plaza. This Police Building was converted into an apartment house in 1988 and has been home to many celebrities in the worlds of fashion, art, sports and music. Today it certainly strikes passersby with a sense of jealousy for one of the multi-million dollar apartments within.
Before kids, before meaningful responsibilities and certainly before this forum of ours moved from infancy to toddlerdom, there was a cozy and rustic tavern tucked away in a nook at the crossroads of Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Many long afternoons were spent at the perfectly worn zinc bar with great friends and loves nibbling on Devils on Horseback and Smoked Trout, sipping on French 75’s. Sadly, that tavern was too long forgotten by this writer and unfairly so.Freemans at the end of Freeman Alley just off Rivington is back on the radar and it’s as great as it has ever been. No matter how many times you’ve been, Freemans always feels like a find…like you really have to know the underground byways and secret handshakes of this town. When you enter the blue door at the end of the graffiti adorned lane, you are greeted with what they describe as this “rugged clandestine Colonial American tavern” with walls loaded with peeling paint and vintage taxidermy. The menu follows the same mantra, “simple, rustic and inspired by early American traditions.”For brunch, the Piedmontese Cheeseburger is amazing and the Smoked Trout is second only to the ones I smoke at home…but, I digress. The Roast Pork Sandwich is one that also must be tried with its blanket of thinly sliced pickled zucchini and garlic mayonnaise piled between two slices of grilled peasant bread. Dinner brings other fantastic goodies. To start, go for the House Made Country Paté, the Hot Artichoke Dip or Steamed PEI Mussels. For the main, their Whole Grilled Brook Trout is always a winner as is whatever their Daily Market Fish happens to be. Or for something a little meatier, go for the Grilled Pork Loin or Colorado Lamb Stew.Whichever your culinary poison, wash it all down with one of their classic cocktails or traditional old-world wines. If you’ve never been to Freemans, go now. If it’s been a while, let this serve as your reminder. If you go all the time, call me an idiot and have a nice day.
There are so many ways to experience a chef’s talents in this town of extreme culinary diversity. One of my favorites is to book a reservation, sit down, and let the chosen chef bombard your with their talents. Omakase in Japan. Prixe-fixe in France. ”Oh my God!” at Torrisi on Mulberry Street.
Lesa and I booked reservations for the Chef’s Tasting Menu a couple of weeks in advance and our mouths watered heavily as our date neared. I’m going to spare you the blow-by-blow for each course, because you can read about it from actual food writers here, here, and here, but I will tell you that the 22 course culinary journey through the history of New York that unfolded for about three hours after being seated was absolutely phenomenal and, dare I say, fun. Here is a list of each course as presented at the end of the meal.
Every course had a purpose beyond looking good and tasting pretty. The atmosphere is cozy, unpretentious and thoroughly un-modern with a healthy dose of old funk and hip-hop keeping the mood decidedly upbeat. And the service was perfect. Food and wine were never over-described, each course appeared at a perfect clip and everyone working to give each diner the best experience possible seemed to be actually enjoying themselves. The feast felt real…nothing forced or over thought. It was an amazing experience that should be had by as many as possible. We’ll be headed back for round two as soon as the credit card recovers!