A quarter century after "investigative reporter" Geraldo Rivera probed the so-called mystery of Al Capone's vaults, yet another mystery surrounding the infamous mobster is causing a stir: his vats.
Several claimants -- including Capone's great nephew and a company that claims they are using a recipe handed down by Capone's personal cook -- insist that they possess the secret tomato sauce recipe that Scarface used to pour on his spaghetti.
When it comes to something as niche as a deceased mobster's pasta sauce, why not just say fuggedabout it? Well, when the mobster in question is Capone, there's a lot of money at stake -- hundreds of thousands of dollars a year based on one of the sauce maker's accounts. And, as any marketing maven will tell you, the Capone moniker -- nefarious as it is -- has a high recognition factor, making it particularly well-suited for branding and selling a product.
True, some items wouldn't be such good fit, like Capone Athletic Shoes ("When you wanna outrun the coppers, just do it"), or a Capone Computer ("This computer has performed an illegal operation--you got a problem with that?"). But given Capone's Italian background and well-documented love of a good meal, pasta sauce seems to hit the mark.
One of the factions in this sauce war is led by Dominic Capone III, who sells his "Capone Family Secret" sauce at 188 Jewel grocery stores in the Chicago area, and via PayPal. "We've been doing really good--in fact, a lot better than we thought we'd do," says Dominic, who says the recipe comes from his grandfather, Ralph Capone.
Dominic says he is the great nephew of Al Capone, but stresses that while his grandfather was close to Al Capone they weren't actually brothers. So what was the relation? "I can't really say," he responded. "It's a little scandalous, what's going on in the Capone family."
Dominic will say this much: In the past year, Capone's Family Secret has grossed somewhere in the $300,000 range. There are now plans to take the brand nationwide in the next six months and worldwide in a year.
At least one Capone family member had this to say after reading a first edition of the WalletPop exclusive: "At some point, the family will require a percentage of the proceeds to be donated to children's charities from anyone who begins to use the likeness and image of Al Capone, my grandfather, for profit," said Chris Capone.
Yet Dominic -- an actor who has played Al on screen and was on location making a mob film when WalletPop reached him -- doesn't have the sole claim on the Capone culinary favorite. Another outfit, which sells the sauce on its web site caponesauce.com, claims it's the one with the secret recipe.
"This is not an 'Al Capone might have liked this' kind of recipe. It's not an 'Al Capone's favorite Chicago restaurant recipe.' And it's not some phony "Al Capone style" spaghetti sauce. Nope, not at all. This is the real thing! This recipe came to us directly from the daughter of Al Capone's personal cook and housekeeper (her father was Al's handyman and gardener)," the site says.
Dominic Capone isn't buying it, at the posted price of $12.95 or otherwise. "Al Capone really didn't have a personal chef," he said. "As for this person, who knows? It could be some Russian guy in the Dominican Republic."
In fact, the operation behind caponesauce.com is actually a company called Dominion Pacific LLC, which traces back to a Los Angeles-based owner named Robert Castine. Attempts by WalletPop to reach Castine for this story were unsuccessful. But Dominion Pacific does post U.S. copyrights and affidavits of authenticity on its site in order to back up its Capone claims. (Dominic claims he had not heard of Dominion Pacific or its sauce before WalletPop contacted him.)
There are also some testimonials on caponesauce.com, apparently left by people oblivious to how offensive Mafia stereotypes play out in the Italian-American community today. Says one J. McCray of Arizona: "Is this a good meatballs and sauce recipe? No, it's a great meatballs and sauce recipe. The connection to Capone is fun and makes it great for a dinner while watching 'The Godfather' or 'Godfellas' [sic]."
So if caponesauce.com and Capone's Secret both insist that they possess the Boss' Sauce, who has the more legit recipe? WalletPop consulted Jonathan Eig, author of the brand-new, definitive biography Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster (Simon & Schuster).
"There are quite a few Capones out there, and the family is not exactly tight-knit, so there's a lot of gossip across the wires," Eig said. "The family member I was talking to was skeptical about the authenticity of Dominic's recipe. It did seem surprising to me that a relative would attempt to market the Capone name by selling sauce given that the Capones have been trying to remain anonymous for most of the last century.
"But I guess things have changed," he said. "The Capone name is not such a stain anymore, and in this age of instant celebrity, the opportunity to make money and capture public attention seems to outweigh the negative connotations for some people."
Being a full-blooded Italian, I sampled Capone's Secret, and here's the lowdown: This sauce is not for the faint of palate. The classic marinara variety I tried is on the peppery side, and liberally dosed with garlic. If it's actually the recipe Scarface favored, you can bet that a few spoonfuls gave him killer bad breath ... which seems fitting given his "profession."
"Al Capone--and, yes, even his alleged spaghetti sauce--continue to fascinate because he is one of the great American icons," Eig said. "He is a symbol of ambition and crime. Capone was a poor immigrant's kid who made it big. It's the classic American Dream story--only heavy on the machine guns. And, apparently, drenched in spaghetti sauce."
Added Eig: "Capone called it 'gravy,' by the way."
Socially Responsible Investing
Invest in companies with a conscience.View Course »