Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Uncle Priest, the Bootlegger

I have no memories of him. He went back to Italy as soon as Mussolini fell, but the stories about him are legion, some to admire and some to hate. One of former: he came to the States to avoid arrest by Mussolini for his anti-fascist activities. The latter: he prevented my mother from finishing high school and training as a nurse because that was an immodest profession for a young woman from a good family.

Here is my favorite. You be the judge of whether it makes him a good or a bad guy.

When Zio Prete (Uncle Priest) came to New Jersey stay with his oldest brother, my maternal grandfather, Prohibition was still on. He didn't have a position as a clergyman in the Diocese of Paterson, so he busy-bodied around the family until he found his temporary calling in the US. Among the immigrant community in Northern NJ, he found a couple of old schoolmates who like him were from the classier but impoverished prominent families of Naples. One whom I will call Federico Aquila was an undertaker in the New World. The other, let's use the name Cosimo Castoro for him, owned a hillside in North Haledon with a marvelous peach orchard, where he also grew grapes, made mediocre wine, and delicious grappa.

Who actually plotted the scheme carried out by these three is shrouded in the veils of time, but Zio Prete, the idle political refugee soon found his intriguing and highly remunerative temporary calling on this side of the pond. Castoro supplied the hooch: bottles of strong grappa. Aquila supplied the smugglers’ transportation: secreting the contraband alcohol in coffins and driving them around in a hearse. And Zio Prete lent solemnity to the funeral cortege as it wound its way around Northern New Jersey passing by various speakeasies on its way to the "cemetery."

With the end of the war, Uncle Priest took his share of the loot back to Naples and word has it that buying a beautiful apartment and a Lancia touring car and hiring a chauffeur and a housekeeper were among the good works he did there.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Oh what a wonderful story! This is so much fun it makes my day, reminding me that there is rich life outside a r3etirement community in Florida.
    This is filmic (filmatic); would be great on the screen.

  2. Mary Frances, I am so glad you enjoyed it. I have heard back from family members and learned new stories about him. He would make a good character in a film, but would he be a hero or a villain? Not knowing makes him a much more interesting protagonist!