The murder of Francesco “Franky Boy” Cali, reputed head of New York’s feared Gambino crime family, has thrown a rare spotlight on the workings of the Italian-American Mafia.

Cali, 53, was shot to death outside his red brick home in the Todt Hill neighbourhood of Staten Island around 9.20pm on Wednesday night, the gunman reportedly firing six or seven times into his torso before speeding away from the scene in a blue pickup truck.

The killing was branded “disrespectful” by one police source quoted by the New York Post because it happened outside of Cali’s own house, with his wife and children inside.

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Cali spent 16 months in federal prison a decade ago after pleading guilty to an extortion conspiracy related to a failed bid to build a Nascar track on Staten Island and is related through marriage to the Inzerillo arm of the Sicilian Mafia in Palermo, with whom he has maintained close ties since rising to the top of his organisation in 2015.

The last known slaying of a New York City crime boss was the hit on Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano, “the Howard Hughes of the Mob”, who was gunned down outside of Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan on 16 December 1985 on the say-so of John Gotti, his rival for leadership of the Gambinos.

Gotti, known as the “Dapper Don”, died in 2002 and Frank Cali was known to be a far more low-profile boss than his predecessor, quietly focusing on the trade in heroin and black market OxyContin and rebuilding the ranks with new Italian immigrant enforcers, according to The Post.

The mob remains an object of popular fascination on screen, where films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and TV shows like David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) are revered.

But many make the mistake of assuming the heyday of the American gangster is long gone, the outlaw having fallen a long way since Prohibition when Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit exchanged Tommy gun fire with their Irish counterparts on the streets of the Windy City in the battle for control of the bootleg liquor market.

Just last October, notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, the basis for Jack Nicholson’s character in Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and Johnny Depp’s in Black Mass (2015), was bludgeoned to death in prison in West Virginia by fellow inmates, at least one of whom attacked him with a padlock stuffed inside a sock.

This came just a matter of weeks after Sylvester Zottola, 71, was shot to death at a McDonald’s drive-through in the Bronx. The deceased, sitting quietly in his car waiting for the medium coffee he had ordered, was a member of the Bonanno crime family.

The Gambinos and Bonannos account for two of New York’s Five Families, the others being the Colombo, Genovese and Lucchesse clans.

The five Sicilian tribes had been engaged in bloody turf wars for control of the Big Apple throughout the roaring twenties until Salvatore Maranzano of the Bonannos – an aspiring priest and ex-Cosa Nostra boss from the old country – attempted to bring order to the chaos in summer 1931 following the 15 April killing of prominent Genovese mobster Joe Masseria.

Maranzano organised a summit where he established clearly demarcated territories for each of the five families and the structure of the modern Mafia: boss (“capofamiglia”), underboss (“sotto capo”), adviser (“consigliere”), captain (“caporegime”), soldier (“soldato”) and associate.

But he made one mistake. In declaring himself boss of all bosses (“capo di tutti capi”), Maranzano violated a pact with Lucky Luchiano agreeing that all gangsters were equal, ensuring that he in turn was whacked on 10 September by Bugsy Siegel, Red Levine and two others under Luchiano’s orders, the men posing as tax accountants to gain admittance to his office.

The position was replaced by The Commission, a board comprising the bosses of each of the Five Families plus the leaders of the upstate Buffalo family and the Chicago Outfit.

The romantic view of the mobster as self-determining anti-hero dates from this period, when Hollywood laid on exciting gangster thrillers “ripped from the headlines” starring the likes of James Cagney, Edward G Robinson and George Raft.

Bobby Kennedy sought to address this during his tenure as attorney general in his brother John’s administration, going after men like Sam Giancana, who fraternised with Frank Sinatra and lorded it over Las Vegas as depicted in Casino (1995).

These days, organised crime in the US is a much less flashy and public affair, less conspicuous, more cloak and dagger.

As Italian author Robert Saviano, living in hiding since publishing Gomorrah (2006), has observed: “The Mafia want to be famous in their own local territory, but not on the international stage.”

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The old Sicilian mob on the eastern seaboard have also faced new competition over the years as successive waves of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe have arrived and entered the fray, seeking dominance over the city’s illegal drugs market, contraband shipments and protection rackets.

But every now and then a story like the killing of Frank Cali or New England Mafia boss “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, given life in prison in September for the 1993 murder of nightclub owner Steve DiSarro, crops up to remind us the old ways have not been abandoned altogether.

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