In legend and literature, Al Capone is often name-checked as a shrewd bootlegger and a gangster. But Capone’s proclivity for dairy products may have not only impacted the cheese that tops some New York City pizzerias’ signature pies, but also is thought to have helped shape the industry’s labeling system as we know it today.
The Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol during the United States’ brief, unsuccessful Prohibition era, which ran from 1920 to 1933. Back then, the alcohol flowed more than ever, though, thanks to an illicit web of corruption and bootlegging ushered in by mobsters such as Capone. Alcohol’s restriction had not only made him extraordinarily wealthy, but it also established him as the reigning kingpin of Chicago’s organized crime network, which also included gambling and prostitution rackets.
Capone’s interests weren’t just relegated to alcohol, though. In the early 1930s, he extended his Midwestern empire by making moves to acquire a milk processor, Meadowmoor Dairies, Inc., along with his brother and other gangsters. According to the Douglas County Museum of Illinois, the hustle was that Ralph Capone would ship in milk from neighboring Wisconsin, which was cheaper. They then bottled it in Meadowmoor’s facilities. That way, the Capones could bypass local fixed dairy pricing and also halt the milkmen’s union from distributing only local milk. Former Chicago police officer and mafia associate Fred Pascente corroborates this in his memoir, detailing how Meadowmoor “was actually a Capone front organization designed to undercut the city’s reigning milk cartel.”
The milk union, in turn, tried to stop the Capones’ operation altogether, which led to what Pascente calls “the ensuing milk wars.” The conflict eventually pushed out mom-and-pop distributors, who couldn’t compete with the Capones’ reach and extra muscle from their own teamsters. It didn’t help that Al’s crew had reportedly kidnapped the milk union’s president, then used the ransom money to buy Meadowmoor and gift it to their attorney, William Parrillo. None of the Capones apparently faced charges from this particular kerfuffle, though Al did get locked up around that time for income tax evasion.
Capone’s interest in squeezing the milk industry for all it was worth is rumored to have altruistic origins. Conflicting stories claim that either Capone or his brother Ralph had been moved by a story about a family member—or was it a family friend’s son?—who had gotten sick after drinking expired milk. At the time, the dairy industry had few indicators of quality control for their products, particularly when it came to knowing when milk went bad.
The sunny version of this story is that Capone, who was seen by some as a kind of common man’s hero, took pity on children’s unknowing consumption of bad milk, and pushed for safety dating on labels. Alcatraz prison acknowledges in its historical pages that Capone, perhaps their most famous, banjo-playing resident, “lobbied for milk bottle dating to ensure the safety of the city’s children” to the Chicago city council. In his book The Outfit, mafia historian Gus Russo reports that Capone’s cronies indeed strong-armed the city council into enforcing a definition for Grade A milk, to the point where inferior grades couldn’t be sold within the city. They also helped pass a dated-milk ordinance, which “allowed mothers to protect their children’s health by screening the milk they ingested.” It’s still unconfirmed if Capone’s clamoring definitively led to the industry’s more stringent labeling guidelines. But Ralph Capone’s granddaughter, Deirdre, insists that her grandfather’s lobbying not only caused the dairy industry to start slapping the bottling date on milk, but also earned him the nickname “Bottles.”
The reality is probably closer to this: The enterprising Capone brothers saw dollar signs in the dairy industry’s lack of controls on milk production and distribution. Rumor has it that the industry seemed so profitable and untapped that Capone once uttered to his associates: “Honest to God boys, we’ve been in the wrong racket all along!”
While Meadowmoor became the Richard Martin Milk Company in the 1960s, its impact may even be more widespread than we realize. The late investigative journalist Jonathan Kwitny reported that Capone’s hand in the dairy industry also meant that New York pizzerias had to use what the Village Voice described as “his rubbery mob cheese.” That’s a far cry from the cheese that Naples immigrants had been making since the early 20th century, when they arrived in New York.
As Kwitny’s 1981 book, Vicious Circles: The Mafia in the Marketplace, revealed, the distribution system for the cheese available at a number of New York pizzerias could be traced back to Meadowmoor and Capone’s, erm, light suggestion that these pizzerias start using the low-moisture cheese from his Wisconsin dairy farms. Legend has it that if local, old-school joints wanted to keep slinging their own mozzarella, they could as long as they didn’t serve individual slices. The awning at John’s Pizzeria, in Manhattan, still warns of “no slices,” and it isn’t because they’re total killjoys against slices. They apparently used it as a signal that they were following mob rules, and thus didn’t want to be firebombed, please.
The “no slices” bit might be mafia lore, but the mob shaking people down over mozzarella is on the record. Joseph Bonanno, a mafia godfather, partially owned Grande, a cheese company based in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. That’s where Capone’s handful of dairy farms were, too. A March 1980 report from the Pennsylvania Crime Commission states that Bonanno “initiated a conspiracy to control the specialty cheese business in the United States in the early 1940s” and that, at that point in time, “he and his associates control[led] the activities of the largest and most prosperous specialty cheese companies.”
But as Antonio Nicaso, an author and authority on organized crime, told Munchies, Capone’s role here has significant implications. “Al Capone was one of the first to impose cheese and other ingredients on businesses,” he says. “They used to ask places like pizzerias for ‘top money’ every month.” Capone and Bonnano’s policies shifted a trend, and with time, more and more organized crime has moved into the area of “agro-mafia.” Instead of pressing restaurants for protection money, they more often suggest they use mob-certified ingredients—or else.
Still, a lot of “maybes” persist when it comes to the Capones and all things dairy. Maybe the law-shirking brothers helped shape the bottling date system that’s ubiquitous in the United States dairy industry today, maybe not. And perhaps some New York City pizzerias’ signature gooey cheese started out as owners being force-fed mob cheese. Either way, dairy is yet another thing to consider as the Capones’ legendary lives (and especially long rap sheets) continue to loom large in the public consciousness.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
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