Gambino Genes

Christopher J. Gambino may not be a Mafioso, but he certainly looks the part: six-foot-one, with black hair graying at the temples and a gold chain dangling around his neck. He also has the requisite qualifications: the team of bodyguards, the background in trash collection, the criminal history, the mysterious stream of income — and, of course, the infamous last name.

Gambino has written a novel about growing up in the Mafia — which, if things go according to plan, will be made into a big-budget film, with shooting to begin in South Florida this June. He and his wife, Evelina, run Gambino Apparel, a clothing company whose flagship product is jeans with "bullet holes" in them. The slogan: "It's a crime not to wear them."

But ask him straight-up if he has any connection to the Mafia and he looks away and chuckles. "Mafia?" he asks in a heavy New York accent. "What Mafia?"

Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano's white-templed lieutenant, couldn't have said it with more gruff scorn and blunt, stop-you-in-your-tracks ambiguity. Gambino? He's clean. Honest.

In the 1950s, a mobster named Carlo Gambino became the namesake of an organized-crime ring, or a Mafia "family" — one of five such rings that held incredible power throughout New York City and, eventually, other parts of the country. In the 1980s, the Gambino crime syndicate gained notoriety when it was run by a flamboyant boss named John Gotti.

Back then, a Mafia connection was a powerful, intimidating thing. Members engaged in activities from betting and theft to assault, armed robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Association with such activity was either used for protection or else vociferously denied. These days, it can be a commodity as well. One need look only as far as a bookstore shelf or a Blockbuster aisle to see how the criminal system has been exploited and glamorized.

The nation is as Mafia-mad as it has ever been, and Christopher J. Gambino clearly stands to ride the phenomenon all the way to the bank.

The name alone conjures up Hollywood-sized ideas about organized crime, and the would-be author/clothing magnate could profit bigtime off that simple association — though affiliates of the Gambino crime family have consistently accused him of being a phony whose name may not even be Gambino. He wouldn't be the first — a man named Michael Pellegrino once passed himself off as a member of the Gambino crime family and got a $500,000 advance for a tell-all book (until he was exposed as a fraud and sued by Simon and Schuster). There's even a music group called the Gambino Family — it's made up of black rappers.

In Christopher J. Gambino's case, a proven link to the Mob could invite attention from men with badges; a disproven one might jeopardize his burgeoning empire.

Gambino knows what you're thinking: "You pick up a book and go, 'Wow, this is by a Gambino!' Obviously you associate that with the Gambino crime family: 'Wow, holy shit, how does this particular guy know so much shit?' Obviously, he's got some type of knowledge — or he's a hell of a fuckin' writer."

Exactly. So which is it?

The late-afternoon sun glints off a sleek black limousine as it pulls up to the Palm Beach County Convention Center on a Friday evening in April. Christopher J. Gambino has arrived. He is accompanied by a posse of friends/assistants — all male, all but one dressed in black from head to toe. One of them, 38-year-old Justin Lordi, says they travel by limo all the time, "by necessity." Clean-shaven, with an easy smile, he's wearing khaki pants and a matching shirt.

"He's allowed — he's the consigliere," Gambino says with a wink.

Gambino cuts an imposing figure as he strides through the lobby, chest out, confident. His black ensemble is complemented by a gold necklace bearing a rectangular charm that says "My Only Son." A couple of bracelets drip from his arms; his fingers glitter with rings. When he smiles, though, he looks downright boyish for 43.

Gambino is here tonight for a boxing match called the Friday the 13th Massacre. He has come at the request of friend Jeff Gibson, the promoter. Even Gambino isn't sure what the plan is; when he arrives and is escorted to front-row seats, Gibson informs him that he'll be called up into the ring at some point and be joined by 25 women who have come "from all over the country" to audition as models for Gambino jeans ("The Gambino Hit Squad models") and to vie for a part in the movie. Gambino will be asked to say a few words.

Is he prepared for that? The spotlight? Improvisational speeches? "If you mean, do I have experience with the FBI shining a spotlight in my face?" he grunts. "Yeah, I have a lot of experience with that."

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Deirdra Funcheon