Mafioso Cooking

Safehouse pasta with striped bass, zuppa di Pesce, shrimp Mosca, and notes on slicing the garlic exquisitely.
by A. D. Livingston

One of my favorite short culinary works, The Mafia Cookbook, was written by mobster snitch Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi while on the lam under a witness-protection program. One of his recipes called for thinly sliced garlic. How thin?

Well, Joe Dogs, being a particular fellow and having plenty of time on his hands, sliced each clove with a single-edge razorblade. When I mentioned this fondly in one of my own cookbooks, with full credit to Joe Dogs, of course, a disgruntled female book critic wasn’t amused and pooh-hooed the very idea!

I can see her point, but I’ll have to say that such painstaking care is one mark of a good jackleg cook. A razorblade may not be practical or feasible for the busy modern cook, and may even be dangerous in uncertain hands, but it worked for Joe Dogs and it works for me. A friend of mine I told the Joe Dogs story to bought a pack of single-edge blades to slice the garlic paper-thin for his smoked mullet dip, and the dip was outstanding. Whether or not the razorblade actually improves garlic’s physical qualities can be debated, but the thought and the story help make it memorable stuff.

In any case, here’s a dish suitable for American anglers, adapted from The Mafia Cookbook, followed by a couple of other creations of Italian or Sicilian bent, including a world-class surprise from New Orleans.  

Pasta with Striped Bass `a la Joe Dogs
In this dish Iannuzzi specified a quarter-pound of monkfish, but I use a half-pound of very fresh striped bass fillets. Any good fish with firm white flesh will do, and I have cooked it several times when I had a freezer full of firm-fleshed scorpionfish (Gray’s, April 2008.) If you are a pasta fan as well as an angler, be sure to try this.
1⁄2 pound striper fillets
1 pound linguine
1⁄2 cup flour
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 or 3 tablespoons finely minced garlic
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
1 stick butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup chopped fresh parsley

Start the linguine cooking in two quarts of boiling water. (Don’t overcook. It should be al dente.) Cut the fish into one-inch chunks and shake in a bag with a little flour. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and sauté the fish until golden brown, stirring as you go with a wooden spoon. Add the minced garlic and wine, and simmer for five minutes.

Check on the pasta. When it’s ready, drain in a colander and set aside. Add the butter to the skillet. When melted, gently stir in the salt, pepper, and parsley. Arrange the pasta on individual plates, top with the fish chunks, and pour the remaining pan sauce over all. Serve with a chewy Italian bread and a good red wine. Feeds two mobsters, three anglers, or four honest folks.
Zuppa di Pesce
Here’s a good stewed fish dish from Don Baratta’s The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook. The recipe is common all over Italy and traditionally is made with three different kinds of fish. So try it the next time you bring home a mixed stringer.

I might add that The Sicilian Gentleman’s Cookbook, more substantial than The Mafia Cookbook, it is one of my favorite culinary works. It is quite argumentative and highly opinionated, but it rings true—and the Old Man, as the Sicilian gentleman was called, “did not affect a disdain for other people’s cuisine since, he was fond of saying, he was not French, and his other habits were good.” The book is a good read, and the recipes provide some excellent eating.

6 pounds whole fish (3 kinds)
1⁄2 pound shrimp (shells on)
1⁄2 pound squid
1 pound mussels, bearded
1 medium to large onion, sliced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
12 black olives, pitted
6 whole peppercorns
salt and pepper to taste
1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne
pinch saffron (optional)
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
several slices Italian bread
more olive oil
grated zest of 1 lemon
chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the fish into two-inch pieces and layer them in a Dutch oven or large casserole dish with a tight lid. Then layer on the shrimp and squid, and top with the mussels. Sprinkle on the chopped onion, garlic, olives, peppercorns, salt, pepper, cayenne, and saffron. Drizzle on the half-cup of olive oil and the wine.

Bake in the center of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and discard any unopened mussels. Let the stew sit for a few minutes while you brown some bread slices in olive oil. To serve, lay a slice of the bread in a wide bowl and ladle on a generous helping of the stewed fish. Sprinkle lightly with lemon zest and chopped fresh parsley. Have plenty of Italian bread ready for seconds and for sopping.
Shrimp Mosca
Surprisingly, some of the best Italian-American cooking comes from the New Orleans area, where the Mafia has had a presence since the days of the old Louisiana lottery. The combination of Italian cookery and the abundance of fresh seafood produced some outstanding recipes. Most of the Louisiana Creole and Cajun recipes, such as those from Chef Paul Prudhomme and Frank Davis (a New Orleans culinary sport and writer who married, he said, a girl of Sicilian descent) are simply too long for a short column of this sort. But one of my all-time favorites, Shrimp Mosca, is surprisingly brief, quite doable, and easily memorable. It’s really the method of cooking and the way of eating that makes the dish, not a long list of ingredients.

The recipe was named for Nick Mosca, a chef at the old Elmwood Plantation near New Orleans. I adapted it from The New Orleans Italian Cookbook, a committee venture put together by the Italian-American Society of Jefferson Auxiliary. I’ve seen several other shrimp Mosca recipes, some with much more garlic. But maybe it’s best not to overdo a good thing, unless you want to smell like a Sicilian (as Don Baratta’s Old Man implied.)

Note that the dish must be cooked with un-peeled shrimp, preferably with the heads intact. You can reduce the measure and use beheaded shrimp if you must, but they must be unpeeled. Peeled shrimp simply won’t work. You see, the seasonings and olive oil make the dish finger-licking good.

This dish is near the top my list of the world’s best seafood recipes, although I’m also partial to shrimp simply boiled for three or four minutes in salty water (preferably seawater, or salinized with sea salt) and served with a dipping sauce made from melted butter and lemon juice. Anyhow, I present to you shrimp Mosca.

3 pounds heads-on shrimp
1⁄4 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dry Italian oregano
1 teaspoon rosemary
2 tablespoons sauterne
a few sprigs of parsley
no Tabasco
Heat the olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet. Sauté the garlic for a couple of minutes, then the seasonings. Add the shrimp and cook for five minutes, turning the shrimp once. Add the wine and cook for a few more minutes. Let it coast while you set the table and slice some good chewy Italian bread. Serve with lemon wedges and a few sprigs of parsley for color.

Note that most recipes specify a longer cooking time. Suit yourself, but be warned that overcooked shrimp are difficult to shuck and a little tough to chew. Ideally, the peeled-at-the-table shrimp and their inner juices should sort of burst in your mouth, mingling with the olive oil and spices left on your fingers. So hunker down. It’s truly an Italian flavor, needing no Tabasco sauce or Cajun dust.

A friend of mine once spent several days in the New Orleans area trying to track down the authentic recipe for shrimp Mosca. After going to so much trouble and expense to find the recipe, I assumed he would have taken the time to personally shop for the garlic at the market instead of sending his wife.

Let me explain. The fellow and his wife, quite successful in several businesses, operated a hunting lodge for paying guests and as a tax-free jaunt for important clients or political contacts. From time to time I was invited to cook for them. On once such occasion I was to prepare, free of charge, some quail and wild-game recipes for some paying guests, important business associates, and a couple of TV show people. The lodge, of course, was expected to provide the ingredients, procured from my list. Well, when I got started cooking, I had to ask, “Where’s the garlic?” I had clearly specified 24 large cloves of garlic. In fact, I’d even underscored “large” three times.

The guy’s wife promptly opened a kitchen cabinet and handed me a bottle of powdered garlic. I looked at her in disbelief. “Garlic is garlic,” she said, making a second thrust.

“No hell it ain’t,” I said, shaking the razor blade at her. The poker players around the dining table fell silent. Maybe I had raised my voice, I realized. Of course, not wanting a scene, I put away the razor blade and proceeded as best I could with the odorous garlic powder. The guests, primed with bourbon, didn’t seem to know the difference. But I did. I still do. The hunting lodge, I might add, has long since folded and I have lost touch with the owners.

Everything might have turned out better if I had heeded the advice implied by Joe Dogs Iannuzzi in his new work, Cooking on the Lam: “Whenever I cook a dinner,” he wrote, “I like to do my own shopping for the groceries I need.” I should have known.

The Sicilian gentleman also noted that finding the right ingredient is half the culinary battle, saying, “You will have noticed how Italians spend a good deal of time searching among the produce, always seeking perfection. Some have been known to stand at attention and salute a particularly fine specimen.” One musically inclined fellow, the Gentleman goes on, even broke into song on one occasion. I like to think he had found a whole head of large, plump garlic cloves. n
A. D. Livingston is on the lam in the Florida Panhandle, where he chews on tough homemade Italian bread, raises his own garlic, dreams of hard Parmigiano-Reggiano, and drinks Carlo Rossi’s Paisano by the jug. He's the author of many books, including
Pro Tactics: The Freshwater Fish Cookbook.
Tag it: