A Wiser Guy Emphasizes Wise in Wiseguy

A Wiser Guy, by Louis DiVita, includes mention of a nearly unbelievably wide array of wiseguys, including Willie Moretti, Albert Anastasia, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Vito Genovese.

Some are not as well known.

His forebears wound up in New Jersey's Mafia landscape but first played a decades-long role in upstate New York where they were closely allied with mobsters such as Stefano Magaddino and Joseph DiCarlo.

The Palmeri brothers both backed their countryman Salvatore Maranzano when the New York Mafia split into factions and used murder to finally end an ongoing feud as to who was going to be who. Afterward, the Mafia as we know it today was created.

Louis DiVita is the real deal. He's not over-hyping half-assed connections. He comes from the Sicilians who arrived in this country in the early 20th century and started up what would be formally christened in 1931 as the American Cosa Nostra, the Mafia, the crime families spread across the country.

Sicilian Background
Louis DiVita's maternal great-grandparents, Francesco and Anna Caleca Palmeri, had three sons, Benedetto Angelo, Giovanni, and the youngest, Paolo (Paul), born on Oct. 1, 1892.

Francesco was an affluent merchant, so the family enjoyed the privileges of an upper-class lifestyle in the Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo. ("Sea Fortress on the Gulf" is a rough English translation. The name is based on the seaside town's medieval fortress, located on the Gulf of Castellammare.)

Those familiar with early Mafia history certainly know the birthplace's significance.

The small town in Sicily's Trapani province is noted for being the birthplace of many luminaries in what later became the American Mafia.

Salvatore Maranzano, Stefano Magaddino and Joseph Bonanno all hailed from the town. Two loyalists (and mob heavyweights in their own right) of what later was named the Bonanno crime family also were born there: Vito Bonventre, who'd go on to boss "The Good Killers" gang, and John Tartamella.

In New York City, a violent underworld war broke out and was nicknamed for that town.

Benedetto, who arrived in America via New York City in 1906, relocated in 1912 to Buffalo,where he opened Dante Place, a tavern with an interesting name.

Palmeri met Rosaria Mistretta, a cousin of Vincenza DiCarlo. Her husband, Joseph DiCarlo, is considered the boss of Buffalo's first crime family.

The Friendship: Palmeri, DiCarlo
The couple married and within a year moved into the DiCarlo family's home, living in a separate apartment. Palmeri and DiCarlo became friendly and soon Dante Place (why not Dante's Place, I continually wonder) became a saloon that both men owned.

Palmeri later served as DiCarlo's underboss.

Angelo Palmeri, Louis's great uncle.

DiCarlo, the subject of a two-volume historical biography, was described by newspapermen in various ways: "The Al Capone of Buffalo" and western New York's "Public Enemy No. 1."

DiCarlo and his organization wasn't recognized as the rightful heir to his father's crown. Stefano Magaddino had arrived. This impacted the Palmeris, too, including Louis DiVita's grandfather, Paul.

Paul Palmeri, while only 16 years old, set sail for the United States, arriving in New York City in 1909. He moved to Lower Manhattan's then-immense and growing Little Italy section, where he clipped hair for a living. 

More than five years later he married Elena (Helen) Curti. His best man was Silvio Tagliagambe, an associate of New York-based "boss of bosses" Salvatore "Toto" D'Aquila. (Tagliagambe was shot to death in 1922 on the orders of Joe "The Boss" Masseria.)

Paul Palmeri, his wife and their two children, Anna and Ernesto, moved to Niagara Falls in 1920, where he worked with his brother, mainly in bootlegging, which was poised to pave the underworld's streets with gold, minting fortunes for mobsters from sea to shining sea.

Paul and Helen Palmeri had two more children while in Niagara Falls.

The Palmeri brothers eventually worked with a larger group of bootleggers that included Canadian crime boss Rocco Perri, a major mob power who controlled the flow of illegal (but real) liquor into the U.S.

Rocco Perri, the Canadian Al Capone.

In 1922, DiCarlo died and Angelo served as temporary boss, in control of the Niagara Falls-based mob.

In 1928, Paul Palmeri was a trusted member of Magaddino's western New York crime family. Palmeri also joined with Alfred Panepinto to start a new business. Panepinto & Palmeri Funeral Home was based in Niagara Falls.

Then the Castellammarese War flared up. Both Palmeris sided with their Castellammarese associates and supported Maranzano in the war against Masseria. They'd meet with Joseph Bonanno in Brooklyn to plot Masseria's overthrow. (In his autobiography A Man of Honor, Joe Bonanno discussed his close relationship with Angelo Palmeri, whose home Bonanno visited amid his 1931 Niagara Falls honeymoon, the DiCarlo blog noted.

After the Castellammarese War, Angelo Palmeri suffered from severe ongoing health problems. On Dec. 21, 1932, at 54 years old, he suffered a stroke and died in the driver's seat while parked in his driveway. 

Paul Palmeri relocated to Passaic, New Jersey, in 1941 with his family.

He met with a former partner, Willie Moretti, a close ally to Frank Costello (mob boss of what was later called the Genovese crime family).

This is where Louis's book starts ramping up. He in fact first mentions his grandfather's death. He thanks a newspaper for including certain information in his grandfather's obituary.

He notes that: "We are grateful to the Buffalo Evening News... (which) in December 1932, in the subtitle of his obituary, wrote “Was Benefactor of Italian Colony." 

The obituary stated:

He passed out $5s and $10s to tide his lowly friends until work became more available. To the citizens of the lower west side he was their individual welfare department, a man who could and would aid them when pride kept them from appealing to the organized charities Especially grateful were the members of upwards of a score of families whose only source of food each Christmas for years had been Angelo B. Palmeri.

With his book, Louis seeks to both emulate that aspect of his grandparents' legacy, as well as honor it. To that end, he adds:

Writing this book and telling the stories would not be complete unless a portion of the proceeds were designated to helping others in need. Through the “Buffalo Bill Bountiful Table Project,” we will make a donation for every book purchased...

DiVita's view of "the life" was complicated from the beginning, with perceptions not properly aligning with the facts as he experienced them firsthand.

Anybody who has studied the mob lifestyle at any level thinks they can relate to the mindset of gangsters and those around them. Not so. Gangsters have difficulty distinguishing poverty versus wealth. In the movie Donnie Brasco, Lefty Ruggiero explains the honor of being a Wise Guy and brags about having 23 hits to his claim. But we see Lefty standing outside the crew’s social club, waiting to pay homage to their captain. What man of honor? Especially in light of a scene showing Lefty breaking open parking meters for spending money.

Further disparities are noted.

 Many of my own personal experiences were with made guys and associates who did everything from hustle junk cars, costume jewelry, sweaters, and the like for, as we say, “Corks.” (Corks is chump change.)
This was anything for a buck, because times were lean. The same guys trying to squeeze tens and twenties here and there were tipping bartenders 50 dollar bills. You see, sports betting, loansharking, extortion and all forms of racketeering didn’t always pay off. Kind of here today, gone tomorrow."

A Wiser Guy is one of the more unique Mafia memoirs I've read. It includes historical information, but as viewed through Louis DiVita's eyes, or filtered through the stories told to him by such primary sources as friends and family members.

As Louis writes in a Wiser Guy, "I was born into this world. These are my observations of family members and their associates, my real life experiences as a child, young adult, and fully grown man. I remember everything in great detail, from the 1950s to today."

"I will reveal my personal experiences and the experiences of my grandfather, grandmother, parents, aunts, uncles and close and distant friends. This is my story, written by me, in my own words. It took many years to get it all down on paper, but here it is.... I wrote the stories I felt I wanted to tell but by no means all the stories."

What we have here is a book of stories about wiseguys, with some wisdom that one of them accrued over the course of his life. Louis DiVita serves up a feast in A Wiser Guy.