Portofino Social Club Sting Helped End Little Nicky Corozzo's Charmed Life In Gambino Family

The FBI didn't exactly hit a home run when it opened a social club in Florida as part of Operation Coldwater, which ran from 1979 to 1981 and was an attempt to infiltrate Santo Trafficante's reach into Florida's Gulf Coast.

The Portofino "social club" that opened in Canarasie, Brooklyn in the 1990s.
The Portofino "social club" that opened in Brooklyn in the 1990s.

While the book Donnie Brasco portrays it as a success that resulted in the 1986 indictment of Trafficant, the FBI's long-simmering effort ultimately came up short: the longtime Godfather of the Sunshine State was acquitted after Frank Ragano, the Mafioso's crafty lawyer, found a gap in the FBI's case.

The Feds had better luck when they pulled a similar sting in New York in the 1990s. Code-named Second Gear, the elaborate four-year operation by the FBI's New York Hijacking Squad included a bona fide social club (secretly owned and operated -- and wired for audio -- by the FBI) and focused on disrupting the Gambino family's Northeast hijacking operations. By its conclusion, Second Gear resulted in the recovery of $6 million in stolen goods (which ranged from lipstick to designer dresses; everything was traced and returned to the rightful owners) but more significantly, it also led to the January 1997 indictments of 47 alleged wiseguys and associates of the Gambino, Luchese, and DeCavalcante crime families. The charges included racketeering, extortion, trafficking in stolen property, loan sharking, gambling, drug dealing, gun dealing and other crimes.

The Portofino clubhouse conversations directly implicated Fat Andy Ruggiano protege Nicholas (Little Nicky) Corozzo, his top aid Lenny DiMaria, and six other members and associates of his crew.

An undercover FBI agent (never identified) helped pull the whole thing off. The agent posed as a big-time fence named Steve; he got to know the local wiseguys and soon opened the Portofino Soccer Club in Marine Park, Brooklyn (not Canarsie, as Funzi noted below in a comment). It was only the second time that an F.B.I. agent had penetrated the inner sanctum of a Mafia family, according to the FBI. The only previously known infiltration occurred from 1976 to 1981, when aforementioned author Joseph Pistone, posing as jewelry thief Donnie Brasco, wormed his way into a Bonanno crime family crew. Operation Portofino occurred prior to the Joaquín (Jack Falcone) García op.

Gambino associate Sonny Visconti was a big help to the operation's success. Visconti had been an informant for years, but in 1993 he agreed to step it up a notch and become a cooperating witness. In that role he introduced "Steve" to the Gambino family's Canarsie crew. Visconti, a longtime mob associate, used his links to various mobsters and associates to help ingratiate Steve with them, as well as to draw more people into the FBI net.

Sonny pulled such a devious, cold-blooded move during Second Gear that he surely must've set some kind of a record for treachery.

Family History
The Second Gear indictment was Nicky Corozzo's second major bust in about a month. When the indictment came down in January 1997, Corozzo was already in prison; he had been arrested two days before Christmas 1996 while gamboling on a sunny beach in Key Biscayne, Florida, for various crimes linked to the Gambino crew in South Florida.. He was ordered held without bail. Up until then, for most of his underworld run, up until late 1996, Little Nicky had led something of a charmed underworld existence: Corozza had never served a day in prison. (In 1987, he came close when he went to trial alongside John Gotti and five others for murder and racketeering. They were acquitted.)

It was like the moment Gambino capos selected him to succeed John Gotti (who was still alive and serving a life term) Corozzo's good luck tanked completely. The Corozzo for boss campaign began when John Gotti's brother Gene, while imprisoned, loudly pushed for Corozzo to become the family's next official boss. After Peter Gotti also started to push Corozzo for boss (though somewhat less loudly), Little Nicky reluctantly agreed to assume the position -- but then he was arrested.

The Portofino Club
A Gambino associate gave Sonny and Steve permission to open the Portofino club; Sonny and Steve paid the associate $250 a week for the privilege of operating on Gambino turf. (The associate loved to pretend he was a made guy, though he wasn't.) The FBI must have considered the $250 weekly payment more than reasonable as the Portofino Soccer Club was a major success among wiseguys, who, as if on cue, started to congregate there to watch television, sip coffee, and chat about stolen merchandise.

The club was in a red brick building at 3516 Flatlands Avenue, near East 36th Street. It looked like any other nondescript social club. The F.B.I. used concealed cameras to tape the discussions in the Portofino. None of the hijackings were planned there. The thieves came to the club to make deals for the disposal of the property. The thieves then delivered the property to a nearby warehouse, where the deliveries were taped. (The agent and Sonny Visconti had also leased the warehouse, which was at 5803 Avenue J, near East 58th Street Brooklyn, for the op.)
FBI surveillance recorded doings inside the Portofino.

Visconti had gone through thick and thin with Louie Facciola. They formed a tight-knit group that also included Sonny and Louie's brothers, Alfred Visconti and Bruno Facciola. The four of them were together aligned with the Luchese crime family. Then, in the early 1990s, Luchese management took a dark turn after Vittorio (Vic) Amuso and Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso became boss and underboss and embarked on a murderous rampage that violently ended many lives, including Alfred and Bruno. Bruno was the first to go. He was gunned down in August 1990 and left in the trunk of a car. He was found days later; a canary stuffed into his mouth. Alfred Visconti got it on March 1991, when he was gunned down in the lobby of his apartment building in the Flatlands section. (Amuso and Casso marked the wrong brother for death. Sonny was the one talking to the Feds. As for Bruno Facciolo, at the 2004 murder trial of Luchese acting boss Louie Daidone prosecutors told jurors that he wasn't an informant.)

Because Sonny was broke when his brother was murdered, Louie dutifully stepped up and handed him $10,000 to pay for Alfred's funeral and wake at Guarino's Funeral Home.

During the Portfofino op, Sonny Visconti -- who never forgot how Louie had helped him out, used his friend's gracious act to burn him. Sonny told his pal that, since he was now flush with cash, he finally wanted to pay Louie back for Alfred's funeral. Gang Land News reported the transcript of the discussion: Sonny had told Louie: "It's been on my mind all these years. I never thanked you. Now that I'm getting off, I want to pay you back for what you paid for the funeral." He gave Facciola seven VCRs and $500 as a down payment.

"You don't have to do this," said Facciola.

"I want to do this," said Visconti. "I want to pay you back."

Neil Dellacroce and Lenny DiMaria.
Neil Dellacroce and Lenny DiMaria.

Gambino capo Leonard DiMaria also became deeply ensnared in the sting. When he got a hold of a load of counterfeit Super Bowl sweatshirts, he sought to use the Portofino pipeline to offload the merch. He even visited the FBI's warehouse, which was less than a mile from the social club. 

It wasn't long before Steve and DiMaria "became best buddies," one law enforcement source would say after the indictments. "They did everything together. They went out together, hung out together."

Corozzo pleaded guilty to both the Florida and Brooklyn indictments and was sentenced to eight years. He was let out in June 2004, and by 2007, when his supervised release restrictions ended, Little Nick began meeting with family members and started puffing his chest out. By the 2007 holiday season, Little Nick was flexing his muscles and making aggressive moves to take the top slot that had eluded him in the late 1990s. He had a strong emissary in his brother Joseph. During the Gotti reign, Jo Jo Corozzo had been the boss's bodyguard-chauffeur; when Little Nicky renewed a push for boss, Jo Jo was Gambino consigliere. Two other Corozzo brothers, the twins Blaise and Anthony, also were in the Gambino family. Blaise was a reputed soldier and Anthony a reputed associate.

But whatever dynasty the Corozzo brothers had envisioned, it never reached fruition. In 2008, Little Nicky was hit with racketeering and murder charges over the 1996 gangland hit of a drug dealer. He copped a plea deal and did his time.

He was released on November 20, 2019, just in time for Christmas -- and just in time to miss joining the cohort of imprisoned mob elders catching COVID-19 while in the can.

Maybe some of that old-time charm has come back for Little Nicky Corozzo.