Life in the mafia is rife with secrets, crime, and violence. To grow up in a mafia family may mean a blissful lack of awareness of the nefarious dealings around you. It can also put children of mob members at a bitter crossroads, torn between accepting and rejecting their loved ones.
The mafia in the United States, generally referred to as La Cosa Nostra, grew out of the Sicilian and Italian underworlds. From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mob developed syndicates in major cities like Chicago and New York, with the latter dominated by the so-called Five Families. The Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families, and the Chicago Outfit – overseen by a body known as the Commission – were just as likely to cooperate with one another as they were to feud, creating a tension and danger for members and their families alike.
What it’s like to grow up in a mafia family is, without a doubt, complex. Children of mob members, in the United States and in Europe, may go on to enter the criminal underworld or they may reject it entirely. It’s a unique experience outsiders can never understand, but here are some insights from those who grew up in a mafia family.
Photo: The Sopranos/HBO
‘By 10 You Notice Your Uncles Are A Lot Different From Other People’
Frank DiMatteo grew up in the Mafia, the son of Richard “Ricky” DiMatteo, one of Larry Gallo’s bodyguards. As one of the Gallo Brothers – alongside his siblings Albert and Joey – Larry Gallo first worked for the Profaci family, only to turn on Profaci in 1961.
According to Frank, while Joe Profaci was a La Cosa Nostra boss and founder of the Colombo crime family, the Gallos “became what you might call independents… [and] didn’t answer to any of the ‘five families’… they didn’t answer to anybody.”
Frank DiMatteo watched as his father protected and carried out the wishes of Larry Gallo during the 1960s and 1970s. He insists that, as a young boy, he didn’t realize his father was in the Mafia because he “was busy being a little kid.” That changed about the time he reached double digits:
By 10 you notice your uncles are a lot different from other people. They’re whispering and then there are people coming around and they dress differently than other families. By 12 or 13, I knew who everybody was. By 13, I was driving, and I started learning about the life. By then, I knew exactly what was going on, so I was privy to a few things, but not much.
As a teenager, DiMatteo learned more about Mafia life by serving as a driver to men like his godfather, Bobby “Bobby Darrow” Bongiovi. According to DiMatteo, Bobby hid his dangerous side behind a pleasant mask:
[Y]ou would think he was a jokester, like real schizoid. I mean, the guy was for real, but he was a funny-type guy as far as you could make him out. If you didn’t know him, you really couldn’t make him out at all. These characters are a very strange breed of men.
‘It Didn’t Sound Scary To Me – It Was Nice To Know We Were Being Looked After’
He told me some men in Italy had formed a secret group and vowed always to protect each other and their families – even if it meant stealing or hurting other people. Then he told me he was part of that same group here in America. It didn’t sound scary to me – it was nice to know we were being looked after.
As the daughter of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, underboss of the Gambino family, Karen Gravano slowly realized her family was different. “For a start, Dad didn’t look like the other fathers,” she said. “He had tattoos on his arms, wore flashy jewelry and swore a lot. But I didn’t find it awkward – I thought he was cool.”
While Karen Gravano wasn’t old enough to grasp the types of crimes her father committed, she remembered times when she would find him sitting by himself in a darkened room:
I’d make a joke, then Dad would start chatting away as if nothing was wrong, though we both knew it was. It was just our way of dealing with the things we couldn’t talk about. I guess Dad thought he was protecting us – what we didn’t know couldn’t hurt us – maybe he just didn’t want us to know about that side of his character.
‘Of My Childhood I Only Have Ugly Memories’
Luigi Di Cicco grew up in Italy as the son of mafia boss Giuseppe Di Cicco. The younger Di Cicco once came upon the cadavers of two of his uncles after they’d been slain by rivals. He recalled,
That night I was so traumatized that I hoped I’d be involved in some kind of accident – that I’d be in a coma for a long time and wake up only when everything was over…. Of my childhood I only have ugly memories.
Luigi’s father, active in the Camorra – the Neapolitan criminal underworld – spent much of his son’s life in prison. He heard about Luigi’s birth from behind prison bars. As a result, Luigi, “grew up going around the maximum security jails. It sounds like a joke, but that’s how I learnt the geography of Italy.”
‘Even If He Didn’t Do All The Horrible Things Himself, He Directly Ordered Others To Do Them’
Vincent Gigante, also known as “the Chin,” worked as a mafia enforcer before taking the reins of the Genovese crime family. During the 1960s, Vincent Gigante spent time in prison, although his children were told he was serving in the military. His daughter, Rita, had no insight into her father’s business until she was a teenager – even after seeing Vincent brutally go after a man when she was just 5 years old. Thinking back, Rita admitted,
I didn’t understand what I had just seen, or the implications of it, but I know that it traumatized me and shook me to my core. I tried for years to bury that memory, because it made me so afraid.
After John Gotti went to jail in 1986, Vincent Gigante’s power in the New York underworld grew. In light of what she remembered about her father, his unusual antics, and what she knows about the kind of influence he had, Rita struggled to reconcile the past:
He controlled everything…. Even if he didn’t do all the horrible things himself, he directly ordered others to do them.
‘It’s Still My Father. What Was I Really Gonna Do?’
Linda Scarpa, daughter of Gregory Scarpa, Sr., had a complicated relationship with her father. Gregory Scarpa was known as the “Grim Reaper” of the Colombo crime family due to the sheer number of people he slayed.
Linda asserted, “I loved my father – he was everything to me.” However, she also recalled how much pain her father caused, even to her closest friends. On one occasion, she was caught smoking marijuana and, while she escaped punishment, her male companion, Greg Vacca, wasn’t so lucky. As he described it,
There must have been 10 or 12 guys… and they just friggin’ pulverized me. I ended up with a broken nose, a concussion, two fractured ribs, and the rest of my body was bruised everywhere. My head was so swollen, I looked like the Elephant Man.
In Mafia Women with Trevor McDonald, Linda admitted the incident made her angry but also acknowledged, “It’s still my father. What was I really gonna do?”
Linda remembers her father as a family man who liked to spend his evenings at home, so his associates had to come to him. As a result, Linda overheard plenty of conversations about mayhem, illicit substances, and the like, “All of these things were brought into the house and then we would basically hear it all.”
‘My Father’s Charisma Was, On A Scale Of One To 10, It Was 11.’
John Gotti Jr. was in awe of his father. As he put it, “It’s intoxicating. My father’s charisma was, on a scale of one to 10, it was 11.”
As the son of Gambino family crime boss, John Gotti, John Jr. lived nine out of the first 13 years of his life with his father behind bars. With his mother, Victoria, functioning as a single parent, John Jr. was “protected [by]… a fierce mother bear… she made our home probably as normal as possible.”
When John Jr.’s father was around, the younger Gotti,
[W]atched all the people come and go every day, gravitate to him and circle around him, and want to please him, wanted to be like him. Most sons aspire to be like their father in some way, shape, or form.
‘I Know What It Is To Them To Take That Type Of An Oath, And That’s The Life’
That day was really hard for me… [because of] the closeness me and my father had, prior to that incident. I just remember my mom screaming and I remember holding on to him… I wanted him, you know, he was my main caregiver from the time I was born because my mom had post-partum depression, and he did so much for me that we got this bond.
For Maria, the trauma of being separated from her father continues to cause stress in her life, especially when it comes to relationships. Even with that, when asked if she wished her father had cooperated with authorities to have a lesser sentence, she said, “To be honest, I know what it is to them to take that type of an oath, and that’s the life… it’s just the way things are.”
In an interesting twist, Maria’s grandfather, Greg Scarpa, Sr., worked with the FBI for decades, something Gregory Jr. refused to do.
Ultimately, Gregory Jr. received 10 years off his 40-year sentence for racketeering charges in 2016 – for informing on Oklahoma City bombers Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh – but his full sentence was reinstated the following year.
‘When I Would Go Out Into The Streets, I Was Seen As The Son Of A Boss’
Son of Giuseppe Di Cicco, a prominent member of the Camorra in Naples, Italy, Luigi Di Cicco grew up visiting his father in jail. Luigi was still surrounded by uncles who were equally involved in the Neapolitan underworld, living in a “house… like a fortress, with CCTV… [and] fences.”
Luigi recalled, “when the security forces came, it would be by surprise in the middle of the night. It was chaotic. They would come with dogs, helicopters… I was very scared. I just wanted to disappear.”
With all of the activity going on around him, Luigi enjoyed prominence within his community:
When I would go out into the streets, I was seen as the son of a Boss – as the family’s future “Capo.” I was already respected when I was 15 or 16. These people would shake your hand and look into your eyes with respect.
Despite “tempting occasions,” Luigi never went into the family business. Luigi credited his father, who never pushed him into making the same “wrong” choices he’d made, and spent his life as salesman and restaurant worker instead. Luigi insists,
It wasn’t easy to avoid falling into the trap that life had extended before me. My life shows that evil can be rejected. That you can choose a different path – full of sacrifices, and suffering, and mistakes. But one that allows you to enjoy freedom, the people you love and the beautiful things in life.
‘I Knew In My Heart Something Bad Was About To Happen, And I Was Terrified’
Karen Gravano asked her mom if she could have a sleepover with friends. Her mother told her to ask her father, Salvatore Gravano – better known as Sammy “The Bull” – if and when he came home.
Gravano – who would later be an underboss in the Gambino crime family and, ultimately, turn government informant – did make his way to his family home that evening, dashing into the house and locking himself into his bedroom. When Karen entered, he asked, “Don’t you knock?”
As Karen thought about her answer, she tried to understand why she had just seen her father holding a gun. Gravano told his daughter, “Not tonight… I gotta go.” As he left, he grabbed a pair of gloves and headed down the stairs.
Karen called after her father, “Why do you need the gloves? It’s the middle of summer.” He didn’t answer and, as much as she tried to convince herself it wasn’t the case, she knew in her “heart something bad was about to happen, and… was terrified.”
The next morning, Karen saw the headline of the newspaper that read, “[Slaying] Outside The Plaza Suite.” Even as her father behaved normally, she knew the victim, Frank Fiala, “had been doing things to annoy” her father. Once Sammy “The Bull” sat down to join Karen at the kitchen table, she “stopped reading… neither of [them]… said a word.”
Karen was right. Her father did have a hand in the demise of Frank Fiala, which he admitted to when he testified against John Gotti in 1992.
‘I Remember Sitting On His Lap, And How He’d Rub My Back To Help Me Get To Sleep’
Rita Gigante was largely raised by her mother, an intentional choice she believed was meant to protect her and her siblings from her father, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante’s mafia dealings. Rita later found out her father had a separate family in New York, another betrayal she struggled to understand.
Rita recalled some sweet, caring moments with her father, however:
I remember sitting on his lap, and how he’d rub my back to help me get to sleep. And I remember him dancing in the lounge to Elvis, who he loved.
According to Rita, her father loved Marlon Brando as well.
While the family didn’t enjoy flashy cars or expensive jewelry, her father would dole out cash as gifts on holidays, tight wads of bills with rubber bands holding them together. Until she was 16 years old, Rita Gigante didn’t know what kind of business her father was in.
I didn’t even know how to begin to deal with the fact that he was a [slayer], and all the horrifying, illegal things that he was involved with to gain money and the power…. It took me an awfully long time to really work all that out.
‘Family Meant Everything To My Father’
John Gotti’s daughter, Victoria, insists,
Family meant everything to my father. Everything else, he could control with money and power. But those things might not be able to help him… and that really scared him.
As the child of the later head of the Gambino crime family, Victoria remembered growing up poor, surrounded by her siblings as her mother struggled to keep their lives in order. John Gotti was absent often in jail, but the family, “loved each other… we felt secure. We were told how much we were loved.”
Victoria Gotti and her brothers and sisters visited their father in prison, and were told they were there to see the person “building the facility.” When she was 5 or 6 years old, she recalled:
I happened to look up at this big tower and I’d never see it before all those visits prior. I don’t think any of us did. And I saw this man, and it was kind of a weird moment… and he was by the top of the tower window, and he had this huge big gun that came out. It wasn’t just like a shotgun or a rifle, it was a big gun. And I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s scary. Why would anybody have that at my father’s work?”
Victoria continued to visit her father during his various stints in prison up until his demise in 2002, always seeing him, “as this strong lion… people asked me, ‘What do you miss about him?’ after his death. To this day, I think it’s the protectiveness. When he went, that went.”
‘Every Other Saturday, I’d Wake Up… And Go Visit Dad In The Dungeon’
Rita Gigante saw her father, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, at their family home in New Jersey or when visiting her grandmother’s apartment in New York City. Rita called the basement area of her grandmother’s apartment the dungeon because it was dark and secluded with heavy curtains over the windows.
In the dungeon, men would meet with her father, a prominent member of the Genovese crime family, always talking in hushed tones with loud music playing in the background.
Of her visits to the dungeon, Rita recalled:
I loved him and wanted to be with him, but at the same time, I never knew what torture awaited me in the dungeon.
Rita never knew when she’d be allowed into the dungeon, only told she could enter once her father woke up from a night of “work.” She’d often find her father “just sitting there in his underwear,” still dominating “the room and exuding power.”
While eating his breakfast, he’d give me a nod to come to him. I’d go give him a hug and kiss on the cheek. He’d stay sitting, but grab me and give me a big strong hug and kiss back. This two-minute exchange would signal the commencement of our father-daughter quality time that weekend.
After a series of questions about school, her mother, and a quick exchange of “I love you,” Rita would then “be dismissed until further notice.”
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