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ROME — By night, the Calabrian immigrant family served up piping-hot pizza. After hours, Italian and U.S. authorities say, the restaurant in the New York borough of Queens was busy filling other orders — allegedly running a cocaine trafficking ring that spanned three continents.
The ring's modus operandi involved suitcases of cash sent by courier to Costa Rica and drug shipments through Pennsylvania and Delaware destined for Spain, Holland and Italy, according to a joint FBI and Italian probe made public at a news conference Thursday in Rome at the headquarters of Italy's national anti-Mafia prosecutor.
The Cucino a Modo Mio (I Cook It My Way) restaurant was a popular local haunt with a secret weapons cache, officials say. Inside a safe, investigators found six pistols, a rifle, ammunition, brass knuckles, other weapons and $100,000 in bills.
The operation points to what investigators say is an increasingly deep-rooted U.S. stronghold for the 'ndrangheta, the southern Italian crime syndicate that has taken advantage of the Sicilian Mafia's disarray and is consolidating ties with New York's traditional Cosa Nostra crime clans.
At least 13 people were arrested in pre-dawn raids in Calabria, the region in southern Italy that is the power base of the 'ndrangheta, which authorities say is focused on consolidating its influence and operations in the United States. They were held on investigation of suspicion of drug trafficking, Italian prosecutors said.
Three Calabrians, identified by Italian and U.S. authorities as Gregorio Gigliotti, his wife, Eleanora, and son Angelo, were arrested in New York two months ago. All were members of the family that ran the pizzeria in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, authorities said.
Angelo Gigliotti's lawyer, Gerald McMahon, said the case against his client is weak. His client pleaded innocent following his arrest on March 11 and is being held without bail.
There was no immediate response to messages left Thursday for the lawyers of the two other defendants in New York.
Cucino a Modo Mio was the command center for an international trafficking operation, said Andrea Grassi, who is in charge of the Rome-unit of a Italian state police special operations division known as SCO. Italian authorities said they seized 123 pounds cocaine in the Netherlands and Spain in an investigation earlier in 2014 that was a run-up to this probe.
The cocaine, in small packets, was hidden in boxes of shipments of yucca, and loaded onto cargo ships setting sail from Costa Rica, Italian police said. The Italian investigators estimated the seized cocaine had a wholesale value of a half-million dollars and would have yielded at least 10 times that when sold on the streets,
Police said operatives bought the cocaine in Costa Rica with cash sent in specially constructed suitcases. The cocaine was warehoused in Wilmington, Delaware, and Chester, Pennsylvania, until it could be shipped, using a produce company as a cover, to northern Europe and Italy, investigators said.
Some 132 pounds of cocaine were seized in those two U.S. cities' ports in late 2014, Italian prosecutors said.