In the late 1960s, the Newark, NJ, mob was in disarray. Its leader, Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo, suffered from crippling ulcers. His father, family capo Richie “The Boot” Boiardo, nearing 80, wanted to retire, care for his garden and lounge at his gargantuan pool. But he kept getting pulled back in to help his son, who was disliked by fellow gang members. At least two of them — soldiers Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo and Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo — were caught on FBI wiretaps gossiping about the likelihood of Tony Boy getting killed by one of their own.
If this setup sounds familiar that’s because the Boiardo crime family inspired the HBO TV series “The Sopranos” and its new prequel movie “The Many Saints of Newark,” which drops in theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 1. The latter, set in Newark amid the 1960s race riots, tells the story of a young Tony Soprano as he began to make his bones. In the film, Tony is portrayed by the late James Gandolfini’s 22-year-old son, Michael.
“Sopranos” creator David Chase revealed to New Jersey Monthly in 2002 that while “90 percent of [the TV show] is made up . . . it’s patterned after this family.”
Many names and situations on “The Sopranos” and in the movie are dead ringers for real Jersey mafiosos. Riffing off Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo, in “Many Saints” Tony Soprano’s father is called Johnny Boy. Reality and fiction both feature thugs nicknamed Big Pussy (the true genesis of John “Big Pussy” Russo’s nickname: he was a successful cat burglar.) And real-life Tony Boy as well as TV’s Tony Soprano both suffered due to their devious lives. They were wracked by emotional maladies with physical repercussions (ulcers for Tony Boy, panic attacks for older Tony Soprano) and hired psychiatrists to cope.
While Soprano’s sessions with Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi are well known to fans, those of Tony Boy, who witnessed his first murder at 14, are less so. “Tony Boy worked with a therapist who had been a military doctor, specializing in PTSD,” Robert Linnett, author of “In the Godfather Garden: The Long Life and Times of Richie ‘The Boot’ Boiardo,” told The Post. “Tony Boy was dealing with the stress of being the Boot’s son and running a mob family, which he was ill-equipped to do.”
Like on “The Sopranos” when Tony took the reins from a jailed Corrado “Junior” Soprano, things weren’t going well for the Boiardos in the ’60s. IRS agents were investigating The Boot — nicknamed for his bootlegging prowess — and feds had begun closing in. DeCarlo was battling cancer while serving a 12-year prison sentence for numbers running. Life magazine ran an exposé on The Boot, his “brazen empire of organized crime” and 30-acre estate in Livingston, NJ, with a home described as “Transylvanian traditional.” The unwanted publicity led to kids throwing cherry bombs over the fence. Frustrated, The Boot actually took potshots at two trespassing kids.
Weirdly, in the midst of all this, he encouraged his teenage grandchildren to patrol the grounds with long guns. “We hunted there and people thought we were bodyguards,” grandson Roger Hanos told The Post. “We kept guns close in case we saw rabbits or squirrels.”
Before their world began to crumble, though, the Boiardos ran Newark. For decades, the clan controlled the city’s crime scene and benefited from racketeering, loan-sharking, theft, gambling and no-show jobs along with other criminal enterprises at the Port of Newark. “It was and is a candy store,” a law-enforcement source told The Post. “The Port is a magnet for criminals. We’ve highlighted 500 longshoremen getting paid a total of $417 million for work that will never get done.”
The family’s lucrative, illicit trade started out innocently, however, with milk.
It all began with a pre-capo Richie delivering the wholesome beverage. His family immigrated from Italy to the United States in 1901. And his parents, who adopted the boy they called Ruggerio at age 6, mostly lived on the straight and narrow, but Richie had other plans.
Around 1915, having worked in construction and already saddled with a bust for running an illegal gambling joint, Richie, then in his 20s, secured a Newark milk route. In short order he became more than a milkman. “He had contact with households and started selling [illegal] lottery tickets to the families who also bought his milk,” Hanos said. “It was a simple way to make extra money.”
It also solidified his criminal reputation.
In 1920, Prohibition hit and Richie took to producing and peddling bootleg alcohol. He learned the business through a gang headed up by John and Frank Mazzocchi. By the early ’30s, The Boot assembled his own crew and dealt with the competition in classic mob style. “He executed the Mazzocchi brothers,” added Hanos, who avoided the family trade and is now retired from his job as director of human resources at a New Jersey university. “Then my grandfather became a bootlegging king of Newark.”
Over ensuing decades, The Boot made millions by being shrewd and murderous. On a wiretap, gang members laughed about The Boot hammering “a little Jew” in the head before Tony Boy shot him. But he also had seemingly legit contracting businesses that thrived via sweetheart deals from politicians who received kickbacks.
When things got messy, The Boot had a way of destroying evidence. “You’d hear about him burning people, alive or dead. That was weird and scary,” said Linnett, referring to what went down in a large fire pit at the rear of The Boot’s property. “Usually mob guys just put a bullet to the ear. There were not many mob bosses with their own crematorium. That’s brutal.”
However, his son, to the manor born, lacked The Boot’s cunning. Tony Boy, after a brief and unsuccessful military stint, got involved in crime in the early ’50s by working as a frontman to obtain a liquor license for his dad’s restaurant. He quickly worked his way up the ranks as a mobster, but many thugs disliked him.
“Tony Boy was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. He raced around in fancy cars and threatened to kill people,” said Linnett. “Little Pussy, Gyp and others resented it.”
According to Linnett’s book, an FBI report noted, “As soon as Boiardo [The Boot] dies, his son will not have long to live.”
It didn’t help that Tony Boy famously screwed up. In the early ’60s, left in charge by an aging Boot, he organized a meeting that turned to mayhem. It began when he called numbers runner Pasquale “Smudgy” Antonelli to the Fremont Club in Newark for an early morning sit-down. The place was closed and Tony Boy was with Big Pussy and Jimo Calabrese, a Boiardo lieutenant and prolific killer.
Exactly what happened next is shrouded in mystery. But it ended with Tony Boy, Big Pussy, Smudgy and Calabrese all with bullet wounds and needing medical care. Tony Boy was spirited to Florida. An associate of Smudgy was murdered a day later. Needing to clean up the mess, The Boot jetted home from an Italian vacation with his sweetheart.
“I would say he was pissed,” Linnett said. “The innocent bartender who witnessed everything was killed. That was a case of The Boot’s brutality spilling over into the civilian world.”
Throughout that decade, the family business got driven into the ground. Little Pussy, an associate named Jerry Catena and The Boot all landed behind bars on various charges. “My grandfather went to prison, for a little over a year, in November 1970,” said Hanos. “I felt bad about it. I drove my mother and aunt there to visit him in Leesburg State Prison. I fed his dogs and checked out his house. They let him have his own garden at Leesburg.”
Tony Boy died of a heart attack in 1978, at age 60. His father passed six years later, due to heart failure at 93. By then the Boiardo crime family was skeletal, but it did not mark the end of Newark’s mob.
“I fully believe there is an organized Newark mob,” said ex-Secret Service agent Jan Gilhooly, allowing that cameras everywhere complicate being a crook. “But organized criminals spend 24 hours a day thinking about how to steal things. The Port is still heavy in loan-sharking and gambling. Plus you now have street gangs that need to be dealt with.”
According to the law-enforcement source, “organized crime remains alive and well. The mob had a check-cashing place [in the Newark area] through which they laundered $1 million per day. A container full of perfume got stolen [from the Port]; that was worth another million. There was a [wiretap] bug [on which gangsters] talked about NJ belonging to the Genovese family.”
On another tap, they jawboned about something more relatable. “Guys were arguing over which ‘Sopranos’ character is based on who,” said the source, adding that the guys also appreciated the show’s realistic portrayal of their backstabbing loved ones. “Even family members will try to do you.”