The genius of the television series The Sopranos, which will air its last episode ever in the United States tonight, was the mix it achieved between the comic and the morally repugnant. Tony Soprano, as the emotional head of a New Jersey mob clan, was at once devilish and devilishy sympathetic. We caught ourselves smiling at his frailties even as fresh blood seeped across our screens.
It was clever especially, though, because it is more or less so when it comes to the Mafia in real life. American fans of The Sopranos need not mourn its passing too deeply, because the show goes on, if not in their living rooms then in the courtrooms of New York. Rarely a month passes without a sprawling new Mafia epic opening before a jury. Every one combines shock value with almost music-hall slapstick.
The most recent, which played out in a Brooklyn courtroom last month, ranked among the best. It featured ageing hoodlum Dominick "Skinny Dom" Pizzonia, accused of gunning down a young Queens couple for daring to hold up a number of Mafia social clubs in the early 1990s. (How dumb were they, you might ask?) His fate was largely in the hands of mobster turncoat and star prosecution witness Michael "Mikey Scars" DiLeonardo. No scriptwriter could have dreamed up a tale more entertaining or bizarre.
Of course, there are differences between fantasy and fiction. We are assuming that the creators of The Sopranos will wrap things up all neat and tidy this evening. As the credits roll one last time, Tony will either be dead or in an FBI cruiser on the way to a judge. But the non-fictional war between the feds and the wiseguys of New York is far more messy. And so are most of the trials. This is how it goes between the US government and the crime families of New York: just when the feds seem to be making headway, they lose a big case, or half lose it. For them it's always a frustrating two steps forward and one back.
The prosecution of "Skinny Dom" Pizzonia was a case in point. A former captain with the Gambino crime family who is 65 and illiterate, he was perhaps not the biggest of big fish. But the trial promised entertainment because it re-told one of the most storied incidents in New York Mafia-lore, one that had all of The Sopranos' magic of human dumbness and stupefying violence. In the end, it also became a model for everything that should work for New York's prosecutors in pursing the mob - but often does not.
The real stars of the trial, however, were a uniquely misguided young couple named Thomas and Rosemarie Uva. It was the early 1990s and the pair, both of whom had previously served time, were newly- weds working at a collection agency in Manhattan. But bored and short of cash, they hit upon a self-enrichment scheme that to them seemed brilliant. They would scope out and shake down the numerous social clubs around town, including in Little Italy, in Queens and in Brooklyn, owned and patro-nised by Mafia bosses.
If you have seen where Tony hung out with his lads, you know what kinds of places they were. Black-and-white pictures of Sicilian great-uncles above the bar and gingham table-cloths. They could look like legitimate spots - you and I could eat some rigatoni and sauce in any one of them without realising where we were. But they had back-rooms for poker, hatching heinous crimes, hiding the cash and entertaining ladies. All, in fact, were the private domains of senior Gambino henchmen, including Pizzonia - places such as the Hawaiian Moonlighters in Little Italy and the Veterans and Friends in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Pizzonia's place, the Cafe Liberty in Queens, was hit by the Uvas not once but twice.
Rosemarie, 31, was the wheel-woman, waiting, foot poised on accelerator, while Thomas, 28, did the business inside. This was never complicated but involved bursting in with a loaded Uzi sub- machine gun in one hand and an …