The Bizarre Connection Between Artichokes And The Mafia

What do artichokes and the Italian-American mafia have to do with each other? One must look at ancient and modern history to find out. Britannica says these perennial thistles originated from the central and western Mediterranean region and North Africa. What's Cooking America reports that the plant was documented as early as the third or fourth century B.C. by Theophrastus, a Greek naturalist who noted that artichokes were grown in Italy at the time. Though in those days, artichokes were prized for their leaves rather than the immature flower heads (or hearts) we enjoy today.

Artichokes would go on to be valued by ancient Greece and the Roman Empire for centuries, per What's Cooking America. However, it wasn't until the 1400s in Naples that artichokes would resemble the produce's modern form. Today, Italy is the world's top producer of artichokes, yet it wasn't the Italians, but the French and the Spanish who first brought artichokes to the U.S. in the 1800s

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Italian mob's racketeering operations in Sicily included produce, according to Atlas Obscura, but how did our mafia get involved with artichokes?

The Artichoke King

During the 1920s, a California landowner leased their property to Italian farmers and encouraged them to raise artichokes, per What's Cooking America. The land was hospitable for growing artichokes, but these farmers found there wasn't much demand for it in California. According to Kitchn, artichokes went for a nickel on the West coast, but recent immigrants in the East, hungry for a taste of their homeland, would pay anywhere from fifty cents to a dollar for it. 

In New York City, underboss of the Morello crime family, Ciro Terranova, saw an opportunity. Earning himself the title of "Artichoke King," he sent his thugs to coerce importers to sell him artichokes at a discounted rate. Terranova then resold them for twice the amount. His reign of terror even extended beyond the Big Apple. Atlas Obscura found reports of mobsters going straight to the source, intimidating California farmers, with the threat of aerial gas bombings if they refused.

It all came to a head when the mayor of New York banned artichokes in the city, explains Kitchn. This measure allowed law enforcement to do their work without interference and crack down on the Terranova and his goons. About a month later, the Artichoke King was dethroned and they were allowed to be sold again — this time at a fair price. The American mafia lost its stranglehold on New York artichokes, but this spiny, green veggie's role as an Italian favorite remained.