Mafia mania keeps 'The Chin' up

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To my knowledge, I have only come into direct contact with the Mafia in New York once.

To my knowledge, I have only come into direct contact with the Mafia in New York once. Sort of. I was just across the East River in Queens. I knocked nervously on the door of this fancy-looking caravan parked outside a scary warehouse and a very big, hairy man stepped out in a dressing gown and slippers. The garb seemed appropriate. This happened not long after the conviction of Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, the former head of the Genovese crime family who evaded justice for years by feigning insanity, in part by wandering the streets of the West Village in his night robe. They finally got the Chin for a series of murders. Now there is one less "character" giving colour to the streets of New York.

If you detect a whiff of nostalgia for times when the Cosa Nostra ruled Gotham with impunity, then I apologise. I am only trying to fit in. Because, for whatever reason, just as New York can claim to have more or less dismembered the Mob, there seems no limit to the eagerness of its denizens to romanticise it. It's not that they want them back exactly, but the Mafia lent some thrill to the city.

Which brings us back to the caravan. In truth, I was on the set of The Sopranos, the Mafia soap that set a new standard for gangster glamorisation. The warehouse was the studio where they shoot most of the episodes and the big guy was James Gandolfini, who plays the emotionally dysfunctional Tony Soprano. He did lay a finger on me, but only in a pat-on-the-back way of an actor charming a reporter.

The creators of The Sopranos are far from alone in mining our fascination for organised crime. The city's papers are all over any Mafia story they can find. I think it's the silly names that fascinate them. Every time the District Attorney announces another Mob arrest, the unfortunate perps have names like "the Horse", "Gaspipe" or "Three-Finger Brown". Or the Chin. And in recent weeks, the tabloids have been having a field day. Early this month, we had the arrest of 32 alleged Mafia wise-guys now facing prosecution for, among other things, strong-arming my favourite pop radio station, WKTU, to run commercials for businesses they were involved in - mostly "gentlemen's clubs". The sting had been conducted by an FBI agent who infiltrated their ranks, posing as a specialist in acquiring stolen goods, like plasma-screen televisions - all supplied by the Feds, of course.

It was only a day later that the city revealed it had arrested two former cops for moonlighting for the Mob for years. The motley pair of ex-detectives were yanked out of retirement in Las Vegas and accused not only of feeding the crime families with intelligence about NYPD investigations into their illicit operations, but helping out with half a dozen or so of their murders.

The real embarrassment in this case was that Louis Eppolito, one of the two accused men, had been under suspicion inside the department for years and had even had the nerve to write a book called Mafia Cop, describing his background as a son of a crime family in New York. And guess what? The book, which had been out of print, is back in demand. Pocket Books, the publisher, announced last week that such is the public hunger for the memoir that a reprinting was being organised to get it back in the shops. Never mind that the premise of the book has been revealed as an outright lie. If I don't buy Mafia Cop, I have plenty of other opportunities to graze New York's gangster pastures. The Sopranos is still on television and I am thinking of going on the madly popular Sopranos bus tour at the weekend. The organisers are asking for a mere $40 for a four-hour trip to visit an array of locales associated with the show. None are in Queens, of course, but rather in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, I am excited about going to see a performance of the off-Broadway musical We're Still Hot!. The producers recently announced that their leading lady is departing the show and is to be replaced by Victoria Gotti. Never mind that Ms Gotti, a brazenly Botoxed blonde, has zero experience of acting - the crowds will come purely because she is the daughter of the former Gambino family don, John Gotti - also once known as the Dapper Don - who died in prison two years ago.

There is no shame in indulging a little in New York's Mafia past, because these days it is more or less safe to do so. The Mob is a shadow of what it once was, but we still get a kick out of its violent past.

400,000 reasons not to take a break

My thanks to New York Magazine for reminding me that time is running out on snagging a decent rental for those lazy summer weekends. There is the Hamptons on Long Island to consider, of course, or maybe I should follow the hip crowd and take a more bucolic joint in the Catskills.

Long Island is getting a bit pricey, anyway. Of all the options described by the magazine, my eyes settled on a modest beach-side estate outside East Hampton. It looks terribly pretty and the owner is Taya Thurman, the older half-sister of Uma. But my accountant is discouraging me from paying the asking price of $750,000 (£400,000). I have pointed out that this will get me the whole spread for a full year, but he suggests I could buy somewhere for the same money. True. But I still think he is a spoilsport.