05.22.09

TV's Real Mafia Princess?

Real Housewives of New Jersey breakout star Caroline Manzo tells The Daily Beast her family had no Mob connections. Local law enforcement begs to differ.

In the world of reality television, Caroline Manzo is a made woman. The tough redhead is queen bee of the sisters, sister-in-law, and frenemies who make up The Real Housewives of New Jersey, a certified hit for Bravo whose premiere this month drew 1.72 million viewers, double the number that tuned in for the first episode of the much-buzzed-about season of Real Housewives of New York.

Much of the curiosity centers on the Manzo clan, wealthy Italian-Americans in the catering-hall business whose similarity (assumed or impugned) to a certain fictional crime family has some people calling the show “The Mezzo-Sopranos.” But don’t tell Caroline that.

“The one similarity that I feel we have to The Sopranos is family.”

“The Manzo/Soprano thing is nonsense,” she tells The Daily Beast via email. “The one similarity that I feel we have to The Sopranos is family. As an American of Italian descent, our traditions are very strong regarding love of family, hard work, and loyalty. The buck stops there.”

Of course, not every family has a 350-pound skeleton in its closet. Albert “Tiny” Manzo, the hulking father-in-law to two of the Housewives, ended his life naked, bound in plastic, and stuffed in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental with four slugs in his chest. It has been reported that Tiny was whacked after he was caught skimming the take from an illegal casino owned by the Gambino crime family in Staten Island.

Such talk rankles Caroline, whose first episode quote, “Let me tell you something about my family: We're as thick as thieves, and we protect each other to the end," has become her catchphrase.

She tells The Beast: “In August of 1984 my husband and his family were victims of a horrific crime [Tiny’s murder]. To this day, 26 years later, the family does not know the whys or the hows of that event…the real crime here is the assumptions that are made against this family.”

Asked specifically whether she believes Tiny was caught up with the Mafia, Manzo responds: “As far as my father-in-law goes, in his lifetime there was never so much as an accusation of him being involved in organized crime.”

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Bravo

Well, that’s not entirely true. Robert Buccino of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, who in 46 years in law enforcement has charged more than 450 made members of La Cosa Nostra, says he knew Tiny Manzo. “He was well-known in the Paterson area,” he tells me, “and his association with organized crime was well-known.”

“As far as his family goes, his sons and daughters, there’s no allegations about them that we know of,” he adds. “But the father certainly was a player in the scene with organized crime.”

The gregarious Manzo was well-liked, says Buccino. His only legal entanglement, according to a New York Times article from 1974, seems to be a grand jury investigation over “possible collusion in the awarding of demolition contracts” during what would be an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Paterson. He ran as a law-and-order candidate who advocated public hangings.

Whatever Tiny was up to in the demolition business, it was the Brownstone House banquet hall, which he bought later in the 1970s, that would become his legacy. “It’s very nice,” says Buccino. “They do a lot of law-enforcement retirements.” Still run successfully by his sons Al (married to Caroline) and Tommy (married to Caroline’s sister and co-star, Dina), the baronial premises were even used as a location on The Sopranos.

To hear Caroline tell it, that’s as close as the two clans some to intersecting. She says she is enjoying being a freshly minted reality-TV star, but admits that some of the Internet chatter about her family has been difficult. “The blogs have been a challenge for me. I am the type of person that ‘needs to know’” what people are saying, she says. “However, I have stopped reading them for the most part, if for no other reason than the fact of the blogs having the ability to literally consume your life if you let them.”

Much like the Gambino family. Allegedly.

Ben Widdicombe writes on contemporary culture for outlets as diverse as The New York Times and Star magazine, and is a weekly commentator on the Fox network and CNN's Headline News.