Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, imprisoned New York mob associate
United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg, Fall 1975
Release Date: September 19, 1990
Director: Martin Scorsese
Costume Designer: Richard Bruno
As an Italian-American with no known organized crime affiliations, I was always drawn to Goodfellas for how much I could resonate with the prominence of food—particularly Italian food—throughout my life, such as large family dinners with heaping portions of delicious pasta, sauce, and meats, usually with Dean Martin or Tony Bennett crooning from the hi-fi in the corner. In the spirit of that most relatable element from my favorite movie, I wish you all a Happy National Pasta Day! (And for those outside the United States, let’s all come together to celebrate World Pasta Day a week from now on October 25.)
Last month, as I was rounding up my 30 favorite style moments for Goodfellas‘ 30th anniversary, I realized it had been almost four years since I last explored any of Ray Liotta’s mobbed-up threads as famous turncoat Henry Hill. When I saw back-to-back celebrations of the Italian culinary tradition in October, I knew it was time to explore one of the most famous scenes from Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus.
You can almost smell the garlic and onions in the pasta sauce as we get acquainted for what prison life means to a connected guy like Henry Hill, serving his four-year sentence at USP Lewisburg, a famous federal prison smack-dab in the middle of my home state of Pennsylvania, not far from Bucknell University.) The sophisticated nonchalance of Bobby Darin crooning “Beyond the Sea” immediately establishes that this is no typical big house experience, illustrated not only by the leisurewear-clad wiseguys shooting the shit while stirring the sauce but also Henry’s narration:
When you think of prison, you get pictures in your mind of all those movies of rows and rows of guys behind bars, but it wasn’t like that for wiseguys… I mean, everybody else in the joint was doing real time, all mixed together like pigs, but we lived alone. I mean, we owned the joint!
Despite the winsome soundtrack and Henry’s insistence that “it really wasn’t that bad,” the fact remains that these guys are doing time. True, their minimum-security prison life is a joke and Henry himself would recall in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy that he eventually talked his way into getting nearly weeklong furloughs that he would partially spend at home. Still, paying for their transgressions means living in a manner with more modesty and restrictions than they would prefer. When Henry comes through the front doors of the prison in the summer of 1978, he’s smiling like he left its stink behind, not realizing that he’s forever marked by not only his time in the clink but also the drug trafficking connections he made and maintained that would eventually ruin his life and those of everyone in his orbit.
On a brighter note, at least they got to enjoy some great steak and pasta while they could!
What’d He Wear?
The wiseguys’ special treatment at Lewisburg extends beyond their accommodations and aliment to their attire. Freed from the rules constricting the khaki-clad criminals among the rest of the general population, the imprisoned mafiosi of the Lucchese crew essentially wear their civilian pajamas and leisurewear for dinner, with practical Paulie in a blue terry cloth robe, the refined Johnny Dio in a brocade silk dressing gown, and old-timer Vinnie with just his sauce-stained apron over an undershirt.
Arguably the youngest and most athletic of the quartet, Henry taps into the burgeoning fashion of the two-piece warm-up tracksuit, later to be infamously immortalized as a “Bensonhurst tuxedo” for its popularity among casually dressed Brooklynites, often of Italian-American extraction and occasionally with cosa nostra connections.
The modern tracksuit evolved in the 1960s, a natural byproduct of the continued innovation of manmade clothing fibers in an increasingly informal world where sports continued to grow as a cultural influence. With more than 40 years of experience making reputable athletic shoes, Adidas began expanding its offerings from the ground up when it debuted a tracksuit designed in collaboration with German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer in 1967. Like their famous shoes, the tracksuit was bedecked with Adidas’ signature triple stripes, a simple but iconic brand mark that had been reportedly been purchased from the Finnish sports brand Karhu Sports a decade earlier for 1,600 euros and two bottles of whiskey… “good whiskey” as Karhu is sure to elaborate on their site, as you’d hate to imagine such a recognizable mark being traded for a few fifths of Bankers Club.
In just a few short years, the tracksuit had migrated from the professional soccer field to the suburban park as gym membership was on the rise. The crossroads of fitness culture and fashion culture in the early 1970s meant everyday Joes, Jills, and Giovannis needed to look their sharpest while embracing the hottest fads like recreational jogging. Of course, one couldn’t wear their polyester leisure suits for sweating off the pounds by day; those were strictly reserved for sweating your way through the hustle by night.
In 1972, Adidas debuted its new “Trefoil” logo in time for the Olympic Games in Munich, aware that their apparel would be on full display as the eyes of the world would turn to Adidas’ home country hosting the competition. The following year, tracksuits had reached the height of pop culture royalty when no less than Elvis Presley was photographed wearing a half-zipped track jacket and matching pants while leaving his divorce proceedings that October. In addition to his well-known penchant for fried peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwiches, Presley wearing his tracksuit with the decidedly non-athletic white open-neck shirt and horsebit loafers indicated that the King had picked out his tracksuit solely for comfort rather than competition.
This philosophy was further established when the velour tracksuit emerged by the end of the Nixon era. This plush, comfortable fabric would hardly be effective workout gear, illustrating that it took less for a decade for the tracksuit to evolve from utilitarian sportswear to the sort of civilian leisure-wear that would be popularized by the hardly active gangsters on The Sopranos. (More performance-based nylon “shell suits” would have their moment again toward the end of the ’80s.)
Henry’s navy blue Adidas tracksuit is made from tricot polyester, consisting of a zip-up jacket with a “bomber-style” short ribbed-knit collar in addition to the ribbed cuffs and hem. The jacket has side pockets at hand level, which Henry uses to covertly stash his pills when going out for “a walk in the park”. The jacket’s raglan sleeves are detailed with Adidas’ signature triple stripe in white, extending from the neck to each cuff. If Henry were standing with his arms at his sides, the stripes would appear to continue down the side of each pant leg. The elastic-waisted track pants have slanted-entry pockets along the sides.
Adidas’ recognizable Trefoil logo, still relatively new at the time of Henry’s prison sentence, is embroidered onto the left chest of the jacket and the left thigh of the pants, just in front of the pocket opening.
As of October 2020, Adidas continues to offer two classic navy warm-up suits not unlike Henry wore in prison:
- The 3 Stripes Track Suit can be found in the same navy blue color, made of 100% recycled polyester tricot and correctly detailed from the iconic three-stripe design stretching down the sides from the jacket’s ribbed collar to the bottom of the pants. The only major difference is the logo; instead of the Trefoil, the jacket and pants are marked solely with “adidas” in a retro-inspired font. (Available via Adidas and Amazon)
- The SST Track Suit is the piece to get if you value the Trefoil logo over screen-correctness. Made from a sporty recycled polyester and cotton interlock blend, the SST refreshes a design that debuted on tennis courts in 1979, similar to Henry’s tracksuit but with white piping along the raglan sleeve seams. (Available via Adidas, separated by jacket and pants).”
Based on their mixed leather uppers with “T-toe” overlay and eight eyelets for the flat white laces, I deduced that Henry’s white sneakers are the Adidas Country running shoes, “first released in the 1970s as a durable cross-country runner” according to Crisp Culture. Adidas reissued these sneakers in 2015, and they’re still available five years later from Adidas and Amazon.
With their black triple stripes on the sides, the colorway of Henry’s Adidas sneakers provide a unique visual contrast against the tracksuit itself. Henry wears them with white ribbed crew socks, a functional while considerably unfashionable choice… though not quite as unfashionable as his bunkmate Vinnie’s choice to wear Adidas shower slides with socks.
Under his track jacket, Henry wears one of the blue mesh tank tops he had worn during his pre-prison civilian life, most notably seen when trying to disguise the smell emanating from his trunk after moving Billy Batts’ remains.
Henry also wears his usual gold cross necklace as well as his gold wedding ring, evidently the only personal effects he was allowed to keep and continue to wear behind bars.
In one concession to life in the big house, Henry evidently had to hand over his gold luxury watch, though his replacement piece—a plain steel wristwatch with a round white dial on a black leather strap—is hardly an eyesore.
We most prominently see the watch when Henry’s family visits. For this scene, among the general population, Henry wears the same khaki uniform and drab dark blue T-shirt as the rest of the inmates, not unlike the outfit he describes himself as having worn in Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy.
As Henry recalled, “I was wearing tan Army fatigues I’d gotten at West Street when I signed myself in.” In On the Run: A Mafia Childhood, co-authored by Henry’s children Gregg and Gina Hill, Gregg elaborated that “he wore beige trousers and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off the tattoo on his left arm. It was from the 82nd Airborne, my father’s one stint in legitimate life, a stretch in the Army.”
Dining Like a Wiseguy
In prison, dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course and then we had a meat or a fish. Paulie did the prep work; he was doing a year for contempt and he had this wonderful system for doing the garlic. He used a razor, and he used to slice it so thin that it used to liquify in the pan with just a little oil. It’s a very good system.
“Vinnie was in charge of the tomato sauce,” continues Henry, introducing us to a bespectacled octogenarian played by Charles Scorsese—Martin’s father—who proudly outlines his process: “we got three kinds of meat in the meatballs; we got, uh, veal, beef, and pork.” Consensus among the wiseguys is that the pork adds all the needed flavor.
How very telling that Martin Scorsese cast both of his parents in two of Goodfellas‘ most prominent food-related scenes, as his mother Catherine played Tommy’s mother who—as most children of Italian mothers can relate—can’t help but to welcome her son home with a full breakfast, despite the late hour and the blood on his friend’s dented shoes.
“I felt he used too many onions, but it was still a very good sauce,” recalls Henry, who doesn’t seem alone in his criticism…
Paulie: Vinnie. Don’t put too many onions in the sauce.
Vinnie: I didn’t put too much onions, uh, Paul. I put ‘tree small onions, that’s all I did.
Johnny Dio: Three onions? How many cans of tomatoes ya put in there?
Vinnie: I put two cans, two big cans-
Johnny Dio: Ya don’t need ‘tree onions!
The silk-robed Johnny Dio (Frank Pellegrino) takes responsibility for the meat, cooking on pans to make up for the lack of a broiler in their quarters. “It used to smell up the joint something awful, and the hacks used to die… but he still cooked a great steak,” Henry shares. You just have to be comfortable with Johnny commenting on what your particular steak says about you. “Hm, medium rare… an aristocrat,” he snarls with a cigar clenched in his teeth while cooking Vinnie’s order. The broiling was likely done on one of the stoves that the real Paul Vario would wire for Lewisburg inmates from smuggled-in hot plate elements as outlined in Pileggi’s book Wiseguy.
As the junior cellmate, Henry is tasked with collecting the necessary ingredients for taking dinner to the next level, picking up anything that doesn’t come in their chilled deliveries of steak and lobsters, such as fresh bread, peppers and onions (ostensibly for Vinnie’s sauce), salami, proscuitto, “a lot of cheese”, as well as the spirited contraband of red wine, white wine, and Scotch. (For those who like to know, the Scotch is obviously J&B Rare and the wine is Bolla.) To this latest development, Paulie declares: “Now we could eat!”
While I’m not culinarily inclined myself (yet), John Gilpatrick took the time to adapt Catherine Scorsese’s sauce recipe—with a few tips from Vinnie—for the readers of Men’s Health, which you can find here.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb. pork sausage links
- 1 medium onion, chopped small
- 5 large garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
- 6 oz. can tomato paste
- 2 28-oz. cans Italian-style tomatoes, strained through a sieve to remove seeds
- Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
- 1 lb. ground mixture of veal, beef, and pork
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus additional for serving
- 1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
- Bread crumbs
- In a large pot over medium, heat the olive oil. Add the sausage and brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a plate lined with paper towels. Add the onion and garlic to the same pot and sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste, three paste cans of water, and the strained tomatoes. Adjust the heat to medium-low, add the salt, red pepper, and reserved pork. Simmer, stirring occasionally.
- As the sauce simmers, make the meatballs: In a large bowl, using your hands, combine the ground meat mixture, egg, cheese, parsley, and 2 Tbsp of the simmering tomato sauce. If the mixture is still loose, add bread crumbs until everything sticks together. Roll them into egg-size balls and place them directly in the simmering sauce. Cook until the meatballs float, about 45 minutes/hour.
- Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage and meatballs. Serve the sauce over pasta, with the meats on top or on the side. Makes 6 servings.
How to Get the Look
While on “Mafia row” in Lewisburg federal prison, Henry Hill wears a navy Adidas tracksuit and white Adidas sneakers that illustrate his athletic youthfulness in relation to the three older gangsters in his shared living space. Polyester warm-up suits like this had indeed dawned outside the gym during the mid-1970s when jogging was the latest fad, setting a new standard for active-wear as acceptable casual attire that would only be further popularized two decades later as the gangsters of The Sopranos lounged in colorful silk tracksuits.
- Navy blue “tricot” polyester Adidas tracksuit:
- Zip-up track jacket with short ribbed-knit collar, raglan sleeves (with white triple stripe), white-embroidered “Trefoil” breast logo, side pockets, and ribbed cuffs and hem
- Elastic-waisted “triple stripe” track pants with slanted-entry front pockets and white-embroidered “Trefoil” thigh logo
- Blue mesh tank top
- Adidas Country sneakers in white mixed leather with T-toe overlay, 8-eyelet lacing, black triple-stripe sides, and “gum” rubber outsoles
- White crew socks
- Gold cross necklace
- Gold wedding ring
- Plain steel wristwatch with round white dial on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
To learn more about the history of the tracksuit and the roles of the brands cited above, please read more from the following sources I found to be particularly helpful while researching this post:
- “adidas – History” (Adidas)
- “adidas Originals Country OG” (Crisp Culture)
- “A Brief History of the Tracksuit” by Gregory Babcock (Complex)
- “The Enduring Appeal of the Tracksuit” by Rocky Li (Grailed)
- “Three Stripes and Karhu” (Karhu Sports)
- “A Brief History of the Tracksuit” by Chris Elvidge (Mr Porter)
- “The Glorious History of the Tracksuit” by Rich Kunkel (Sweatsedo)