Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

The Day the Mafia Was Run Off â Or Was It?

By Rick Nathanson
Journal Staff Writer
          Think of them as the Italian version of the "Magnificent Seven," the old Western film about tough guys hired to rout bandits taking over a small town.
        In this case, the crew of seven, as seen in a 1928 photo, comprises members of Albuquerque's early Italian-American community, some with now-recognizable last names. What brought them together for this photo is pure speculation, but some of the descendants of those pictured offer what they think is a plausible explanation, based on their family lore, which may or may not be true.
        According to Dave Menicucci, whose maternal grandfather, Modesto Dalle Piagge, is in the photo, the local businessmen were tipped off in 1928 that Mafia advance men were on the westbound train out of Chicago headed to Albuquerque "to establish a presence here." The Albuquerque group of men convened and met the alleged underworld characters at the train station.
        "They flexed their collective muscle and told them they would be up against stiff resistance from the legitimate business community and that they should get back on the westbound train," says Menicucci, 58, a retired research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories.
        Apparently the Mafiosos took them seriously and kept going to Los Angeles. If the story is true, Menicucci says, the local businessmen "saved Albuquerque" from the grip of organized crime.
        Menicucci says that when he was a child, his maternal grandfather "told this story all the time." He says he also often heard it from his mother and aunt during holidays and reunions.
        His mother, Emma Menicucci, 79, confirms hearing the story from her father and other relatives. "I also heard it from Gino Matteucci," she says. "He was a lawyer here in town and his father, Amadeo Matteucci, is in that photo."
        Familiar names
        The story got a fresh outing recently when Amadeo Matteucci's grandson, local attorney Paul Matteucci, 72, found the photo with old family pictures and memorabilia. Handwritten on the photo are the date and names of the people pictured, but he says he doesn't know who annotated it or when.
        A number of local sources, all descendants of those in the photo, identified nearly everyone in the image, most of whom owned and operated businesses in the Downtown area:
        Modesto Dalle dropped the Piagge part of his name to simplify it. He owned the Mint Bar after Prohibition ended; Pete Vichi ran a grocery store; Cherubino "Choppo" Domenici operated the Montezuma wholesale grocery business (he married Vichi's daughter, Alda, and among their progeny was former six-term U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici); Frank Petroni ran the Metropolitan grocery store; Joe DelFrate was later in the liquor business; Amadeo Matteucci co-owned the Matteucci and Palladino grocery; and someone identified only as Barsanti frankly has everyone stumped.
        Healthy skepticism
        Paul Matteucci says he recalls hearing "a story about some early members of the Italian-American community concerned about some people migrating West from somewhere back East. ... I can't remember when I heard the story or from whom I heard it, and I don't know if the people in the picture are the same group of local Italian-Americans."
        The skeptical Matteucci adds, "I think it's a fable, at best." Nevertheless, he shared the story and the photo with his cousin, Ed Matteucci, 58, also an attorney. Ed Matteucci then shared the photo with childhood friend Dave Menicucci, who digitized the image, passed it around and did research to determine if the Barsanti figure is an early image of his uncle. It's not.
        Former Sen. Pete Domenici and his sister, Journal columnist Thelma Domenici, say they never heard the Mafia story, and Pete Domenici says he only recently saw the photo.
        So what does it all mean? Dave Menicucci says we're still left with a historical image of prominent members of Albuquerque's early Italian-American community, who may or may not be a group that allegedly ran off the Mafia, which may or may not have tried to establish a base here, according to local lore that not all of the descendant families buy into.
        "When you hear a story so much, there must be some truth to it," suggests Emma Menicucci. "It might have been embellished over the years, but I'd like to think it was true."
        And maybe it is.

Call 505-823-4400 to subscribe
Submit a news tip | E-mail reporter