Getting The Handle On The Mob: Gangs Of Colorful Nicknames

Posted: October 04, 1988

Frank "The Dasher" Abbandando, a member of Murder Inc. in Brooklyn in the 1920s, got his nickname from one incident in his youth.

Assigned to dispatch a man who had fallen out of favor, Abbandando confronted the "victim," pointed a gun at him and - nothing. The gun misfired. The "victim," by now a bit upset, charged Abbandando. Abbandando ran. The chase was on.

Abbandando's flight took him around a building. His pursuer fell behind. And, lo, soon Abbandando was coming up behind the man chasing him. When he got close enough, he tried the gun again. This time it worked.

Boom, boom, boom. The job was done and Abbandando was, from then on, known as "The Dasher."

Not all those who follow the profession loosely defined as mobster get their nicknames in such memorable fashion. But, whatever the means, a high percentage of the men in that profession do acquire nicknames on the street. And those street names are frequently the only names by which members of this calling know each other.

For instance, on trial now in U.S. District Court here on racketeering charges are one Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, identified by the law as leader of the local crime family, and a group of his closest associates, many with nicknames. They include:

"Little Nicky" himself. The man is not big. Important perhaps, but not big.

Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti. Police and FBI agents familiar with this segment of our society say Leonetti picked up this nickname in his youth

because he was not hesitant to do anything. At one point, said former Philadelphia detective Mike Chitwood, Leonetti "glowed in the title." Now his lawyer is asking the press not to use it, claiming he was never called that by his associates.

Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino. No explanation. Dozens of men who grew up on big city streets are nicknamed "Chick" or "Chuck" or derivatives thereof.

Another Chickie is Joseph Ciancaglini, who also gets "Joe Chang," a shortened version of his name.

Francis "Faffy" Iannarella. A family nickname, probably from a child's attempt to say "Franny."

Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino, so-called, according to Chitwood, "because he looks like Yogi the Bear."

Charles "Charlie White" Iannece. From his light skin and hair, according to a homicide detective who, in the line of duty, became well acquainted with many of this group.

Salvatore "Wayne" Grande, whose nickname isn't one. It's his real middle name.

Joseph "Joey Pung" Pungitore. Another shortened version of his real name.

Ralph "Junior" Staino, because he is a junior.

Joseph Grande. No known nickname, but he's the son of the colorfully named John "Coo Coo" Grande, who, a retired police inspector says, got his name the same way "Crazy Phil" got his - he earned it.

Nick "The Blade" Virgilio, apparently from a fondness for knives or some skill with those implements.

Salvatore "Tore" (pronounced Tory) Scafidi, from the last part of his first name.

The other defendants - Philip Narducci, Frank Narducci Jr., Eugene Milano and Anthony Pungitore Jr. - apparently have no nicknames, possibly entitling them to a plea of not guilty by non-association.

Also prominent in the trial will be Nicholas "Nicky Crow" Caramandi, mobster-turned-songster, who will testify against his ex-pals. An FBI source said Caramandi's nickname came from his being "a wise old bird," as Caramandi himself said in one of his court appearances. But a homicide detective said it comes from Caramandi's dark skin and hair.

All sources - former and current police detectives and FBI agents, as well as Pennsylvania Crime Commission investigator Gino Lazzari - say all these nicknames are street names.

However, not all the origins could be traced. No one could be found who remembered why Vincent Pagano was known as "Al Pajamas" or how Pasquale Spirito came to be "Pat the Cat."

Harry "The Hunchback" Riccobene - from his stooped posture. Chitwood guessed that this name came from law enforcement, not from the street.

In some cases, as in Phil "Chicken Man" Testa, late leader of the local organization, it's unlikely that the nickname would be used to its owner's face, except with extreme risk.

But, the sources insist, these are the names their friends use when referring to Testa, Leonetti et al. "Chicken Man" came from the fact that the Testa family business was a chicken store.

Testa's predecessor, the biggest local name in his line of business from 1959 until his somewhat sudden death (shotgun) in 1980, was Angelo Bruno.

He had no street name except "Ange," although one of his associates referred to him in a conversation recorded by the FBI as "Sure Shot Charlie," because he never made a deal that wasn't profitable, and "Jefe," the Spanish word for chief.

"The Gentle Don" was a sobriquet for Bruno that originated in and was used only by - blush - the press.

Other intriguing nicknames in the Bruno-Testa-Scarfo crowd include:

John "Johnny Cupcakes" Melilli, a teasing reference to the fact that in his youth the girls thought him cute.

Nicholas, Joseph, Michael and Anthony Piccolo, known respectively as ''Nicky Buck," "Joey Buck," "Mike Buck" and "Tony Buck," but no one remembers why.

Dominick "Mickey Diamond" DeVito, from his fondness for card games.

John "Johnny Keys" Simone, apparently named because he was active in the mob's pre-World War II gambling operations in the Florida Keys.

Antonio "Migo" or "Mr. Mig" Pollina, Bruno's predecessor. His names apparently are shortened versions of amigo, or friend.

Among name fanciers, there have been some complaints that the Philadelphia non-gentry are not the most imaginative to be found.

In North Jersey, for instance, there were John "Big Pussy" Russo and his brother Anthony "Little Pussy," so named because of their skill as cat burglars.

Nick Pileggi, author of the best-selling "Wiseguy," has a fondness for Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo, of New York, who got the name from his ability to duck subpoena servers, nosy detectives, bill collectors and the like.

Pileggi also recalled Anthony "Big Tuna" Accardo, of Chicago, who was so fond of his nickname he had the top of a cane hand-carved in the likeness of a fish, and Johnny "Echoes" Compiano, who had a nervous habit of repeating the last few words he said, as in "How are you, are you?"

Another Pileggi favorite: Thomas "Tommy Brown" Lucchesi, a powerful New York boss. He had only three fingers on one hand, as did Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, a standout major league pitcher of long ago.

Lucchesi's nickname started as "Three-Finger Brown," but evolved into the more simple "Tommy Brown," proving that nicking a name isn't always easy.

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