-A +A
Founding American Cane Corso litter
Future Champion Rocco and his littermates. Rocco would go on to be one of the foundation dogs of the American selection. Photo: M. Sottile

Ground Zero

Was this founding litter of American Cane Corsos descended from rare Sicilian imports ... or just cleverly bred impersonators?

Over the years, there has been much conjecture surrounding the first litters of Cane Corsos imported from Sicily by Michael Sottile Sr. in the late 1980s. Sottile, a Neapolitan Mastiff breeder from Bridgewater, New Jersey, called these dogs Branchieros – basically, a Sicilian variant of the Cane Corso – and they formed the foundation of the Corso in the United States. But even to this day, allegations persist that the dogs were not Italian imports at all, but instead the result of crosses between Neapolitan Mastiffs and Rottweilers in America.  

According to the often-repeated story, in 1988 Michael Sottile Sr. was on his way to a friend’s wedding in Sicily, tuxedo and all, when he saw a farmer with vaguely familiar-looking dogs running in a field. Sottile pulled over, thinking they might be type-challenged Neos, only to find they were Cane Corso-style dogs whose farmer-owner eventually agreed to sell them off. After three waves of these Sicilian imports under his kennel prefix “Alaric,” Sottile developed a registry, a club and a standard loosely based on the Neapolitan Mastiff one used in rare-breed competitions, which he helped develop.  

In Italy, Sottile was well known in Neapolitan Mastiff circles, and he soon become a prominent fixture in the budding American Cane Corso scene. In the first edition of “Il Cane Corso” by Giuseppe Chiecchi and Giorgio Gualtieri, he is listed as the president of the United States delegation of  the Società Amatori Cane Corso, or SACC, Italy’s official breed club. In the United States, Sottile mentored such prominent early breeders as Ed and Kris Hodas (Belmonte), Mark and Tracy Wilson (DiGuardia), Linda Valentine (Valentine) and Linda Sannino (Diamond S).  


Michael Sottile Sr. (right) with venerable breeder Umberto Leone. Photo: M. Sottile Michael Sottile Sr. (right) with venerable breeder Umberto Leone. Photo: M. Sottile


Sottile – known to his friends as “Mickey” – died in 1994, and can no longer share details about these original imports to American shores.   But his son, Michael Sottile Jr., who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, remembers those early days, and has plenty to say about them.  

Michael Ertaskiran, former president of the Cane Corso Association of America and an avid researcher of Cane Corso history, interviewed Sottile Jr. about these early dogs, and the rumors surrounding them.

“Sottile Jr. has been reluctant to speak about his father’s early Cane Corso work because of the vitriol from some segments in the Cane Corso community,” Ertaskiran explains. “He has continued to maintain his own breeding program in relative anonymity over the years, using his purpose-bred dogs for hog hunting. Disheartened by what he says are lies spread about his father, he wants to ‘set the record straight.’”   

Ertaskiran’s interview with Michael Sottile, Jr., is sure to be controversial. There are naysayers who contend that the story is too romanticized to be true, that the first litter was consistent not because the puppies hailed from inbred parents from the Sicilian countryside, but rather because their parents were purebreds of different breeds.  

Then there are others who argue that just because a story has a movie-worthy ending doesn’t make it untrue. Ertaskiran quotes an old Sicilian axiom that applies: “The world is upside down – today I saw a hare chasing a Cane Corso.” And, indeed, Dr. Paolo Breber, the marine biologist who is generally acknowledged as having started the recovery of the Cane Corso – and who saw a greater degree of latitude in the breed, both in terms of geography and type, than many of his contemporaries – nods to the presence of the Cane Corso in Sicily with the quote that opens Ertaskiran’s own story on his research into this little-known corner of Corso history: “They say that there were a few still in Sicily, but I don’t know if they found them.”  

Did Mickey Sottile find them? Read on, and decide for yourself.  

Talking with Michael Sottile Jr.

Interview by Michael Ertaskiran

What is your family’s history in dogs?

My grandfather was from Cerignola, Italy, which is the epicenter for Cane Corsos. He was a captain in the Italian army. He immigrated a year before he brought his family over. He brought his dogs over before his wife and kids. That shows where his priorities were. Dogs first, family second (laughter) … That was in 1911.  

Describe your father’s role in the Neapolitan Mastiff.

My father grew up as a boy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a purely Italian area. He was surrounded by Italian culture. All of the shop owners always had Neapolitan Mastiffs or Cane da Presas … Italian Bulldogs, whatever they called them. He later longed to have Neos again in his life, so he started importing them in 1972-73 from Enzo Testa of Miranapoli kennels in the Naples area. My father was already an accomplished breeder and owner of Bull Terriers, having two National Champions, one male and one female.

What were the circumstances surrounding the first imported Cane Corsos from Sicily – the litter that contained Cocomo?

The first litter was [a matter] of being in the right place at the right time. My father was attending a wedding of my family on my grandfather’s side – the Sottiles are from Castelbuono and Castellamare del Golfo in Sicily … While driving, he saw some dogs near the side of the road in a field near some people tending to their cattle that looked like Neo-ish type dogs; remember, my father had dogs through the Neo recovery, so Neos weren’t all overdone like they are at present. This was nearly 30 years ago, circa 1986-87.  


At left, a somewhat young Cocomo. The longer tail crop is done in the Sicilian tradition of the eighth vertebrae. Photo: M. Sottile A somewhat young Cocomo (left). The longer tail crop is done in the Sicilian tradition of the eighth vertebrae. Photo: M. Sottile


So the story about your father in the tuxedo on the side of the road is true?

Yes, it is. No Rottie/Neo crosses. Sorry, folks. If you go back to photos of Cane da Presa in Sicily circa 1950-1970s, our dogs look identical to the Sicilian dog.  

How did he procure these dogs?

He haggled with the farmers who owned these dogs. A lot of wine and a lot of Italian bulls—t later, he made a deal to send a pregnant female over to the USA. Among the old-timers in Italy, there was no contract. A man’s handshake was his word. If you didn’t honor your word, you lost face; it’s called brutta figura.  

So a pregnant bitch was sent here. Where did she whelp?

Partially in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean. The rest in our basement in Bridgewater, New Jersey. When we picked up the female at JFK, she already had puppies in the crate; luckily at that time the crates that came from Italy were wooden, homemade, huge boxes.  

What became of the dam?

She died after giving birth. She was old to begin with, and the owner who sent her waited way too long in her pregnancy to ship her. The name of the guy who sent the dogs was Joshua (Giosué) Sardo.  

How many were in the litter?

There were 14. Thirteen survived.


Michael Sottile Jr. circa 1991 doing protection work with “Coke.” Michael Sottile Jr. circa 1991 doing protection work with “Coke.”


Do you recall the names, and where some of the lesser-known puppies went?

Duro stayed at Alaric, so did Tori. Coke was mine; later at two years old I sold him to Eddie Hodas. Linda Sannino had Malochia. A guy who was a hairdresser in New Jersey got one. Buie went to a Bull Terrier breeder in Pennsylvania, some I can’t recall who got what; it was a long time ago. I know a lot of them were placed out on co-ownership.  

What breed did the farmer say they were, and what were they used for?

He called them Branchiero. This man knew nothing of show dogs or even current events. He was just a simple man. He had never shipped a dog in his life. From what I gathered from impression listening to my father tell us things, this guy wasn’t going to do it – ship the dogs – but he liked my father for some reason.  

Why the name change? There is confusion over Cane Corso and Sicilian Branchiero.

Well, we were under the impression Branchiero is what they were called, but when my father had conversations with Neo people and showed them pictures, he was corrected. They were Cane Corsi. My father had no idea.  

What happened to the farmer?

Don’t know, he was an older gentleman from what I was told … probably dead now. He was elderly, close to 70, 75 years old.  

Can you tell us something about these dogs as adults?

Well, one thing I noticed for sure was these dogs were aggressive as they matured out; they were very sharp on dogs, animals and on strangers. However, if you raised them together, the dogs would bond together. Their temperament is kind of close to a Neo, but not nearly as lazy.  

What were the circumstances of the second dogs imported from Sicily? Was it a whole litter: Sarafina and Santino?

No, it was not a litter, it was a group of puppies sent over in a cage, and they were half-brothers and sisters to the first litter, I believe. Needless to say, they were inbred.  

What can you tell us about the third litter, containing Midnight, Lucretia and Vampira?

I honestly don’t remember those dogs too well. I had moved away from New Jersey to Florida, going to school back and forth.  

The dogs behind Cocomo that appear in the pedigrees such as Turiddu and Saracena – where did their names come from?

The farmer verbally told my father; they had no registry.  

What were the sizes of the original dogs as adults?

Coke was 110 to 115 pounds max, when I owned him. Duro was about the same. Ballo was 140 to 150 pounds – he was the biggest pup in the litter. Bruno – guesstimating 95 to 100 pounds, and Tori about the same. Santino was the smallest of them all.  

There are those who say your father mixed dogs to develop the Cane Corso in America.  

Well, people like to make themselves sound important and make s—t up; my father never used a Rottie to cross into Corsos. These dogs looked exactly like the Sicilian dogs on the Il Contado del Molise website so either we are geniuses, recreating those Sicilian dogs with Rotties and Neos, or we actually got our dogs from Sicily. If our dogs were Rotty/Pit/Neo crosses, why didn’t people make more just like they say we did; obviously they had a blueprint, because we didn’t make them, or everyone would have copied us. There wouldn’t have been a need to get dogs from Puglia.  


“Zak,” the Sottiles’ 170-pound Puglian import. This dog’s blood still runs through the veins of many of Sottile Jr.'s current hog dogs. Photo: M. Sottile “Zak,” the Sottiles’ 170-pound Puglian import. This dog’s blood still runs through the veins of many of Sottile Jr.'s current hog dogs. Photo: M. Sottile


Are you aware of any crosses that happened later on?

Yes, I am, but they were crosses that were made by me to use for hog dogs in Florida. I never sold any crosses and pedaled them off as Corsos; my intention was for private use only as catch dogs. I know breeders who crossed their Corsos on purpose and sold their dogs as pure, but I am not about to bad-mouth people for something they did 20 years ago, especially since we have the fact that most all breeders in Puglia constantly mix their blood with Boxer, Dogo and Pitbull. What few isolated cases in the USA don’t even come close to the fraud the Italians have perpetrated on the Cane Corso community worldwide with their deception.  

Can you tell us of your trips to Italy, especially Puglia in the 1990s?

I went to Puglia 1992. I was in Naples for the Neo National Specialty, the Mose versus Caligula show. My father and I met a person who looked just like my cousin Salvatore – it was like meeting a twin ghost of him. We started talking, and we asked him where he was from. He said the city of Cerignola, Puglia. Then we asked him his name, and we told him that our family was from Cerignola. Come to find out his mom’s maiden name was Grimaldi, same as my great-grandfather. He was our distant cousin!  

Was he in Cane Corsos?

Yes, his family are farmers. They have always had a few Corso, and he was a dog enthusiast. It’s funny – genetics is a strong thing. He invited us to come back to Puglia with him after the dog show to introduce us to our family and to introduce us to the Cane Corso.  


Kris Hodas with long-lost Sottile relative Corrado Bellapianta. Photo: M. Sottile Kris Hodas with long-lost Sottile relative Corrado Bellapianta. Photo: M. Sottile


What can you tell us about the dogs you encountered in Italy back then?

Well, they were all aggressive! I went to about 15 kennels or farms. The breed type was diverse and the size was also. Some dogs looked like Danes, others looked like Boxer hybrids, some like Dogo/Pit Bull on steroids. No consistent type of dog; I asked about that fact. They told me that a Cane Corso is not a show dog, it is a working dog, and it is a type of dog, not a pure show breed.  

What did you and your father think of the dogs like Basir, Bulan and Dauno?

Nice dogs, small using our dogs as comparison.  

Is it true you owned the dog on the cover of the first Cane Corso book, Nerone?

Yes, I received him in 1993 with about six other dogs. My cousin Corrado sent him over to me personally.  


The first book written about the breed, it detailed the historic conference of the Civitella Alfedina. The Sottiles eventually imported the cover dog, “Nerone.” Photo: Ed Hodas The first book written about the breed, it detailed the historic conference of the Civitella Alfedina. The Sottiles eventually imported the cover dog, “Nerone.” Photo: Ed Hodas


What was he like physically, temperament and in reproduction?

Well, he was a black brindle, an older dog maybe between five and seven years old. I estimate maybe older, from looking at his teeth. He was like 75 to 80 pounds top weight. He was a very aggressive dog when around other males, and he didn’t like wild boar, either. I had him agitated and he came out right away and hit the sleeve – tough dog. But when I bred him he produced nothing but small-looking, non-typey, substandard show dogs. But he reproduced his  temperament 100 percent.  

Did you get any results in reproduction out of the dogs you imported from Puglia?

Not really. Not with other Corsos, anyway. They produced that temperament real good with my bulldog-pit mixes I had for hog catching; in fact I still have Nerone blood in some of my hog dogs. Nerone had a scissors bite, so did Zak. Guigliona was really undershot; she was a lot of Boxer blood. She was very aggressive, her temperament was spot on. I didn’t keep anything from her.  

Would you ever decide to take a more prominent role in the breed?

I haven’t really left Corsos. I have just not been active in all the show politics. I didn’t like the way it was heading. I would love to be active publicly and educate the less seasoned or novice breeder.  


In His Own Words

“Five years ago I made a trip to Sicily. While there, I attended the wedding of a friend. On the way to the ceremony, we drove along a road in the country. I just happened to see a farmer in a field with his cows. Working among the animals were these impressive dogs. I asked my friends to stop the car and I called out to the farmer. There we stood, on the side of the road, dressed in tuxedos. We must have looked really funny. The dogs turned out to be Branchiero Sicilianos, the same dogs I’d seen in that book. I explained to the farmer that I was very much interested in these dogs and would like to purchase stock for show and breeding. ‘Do you have cows?’ he asked me. When I said, ‘no,’ he asked why I would want to breed these dogs.”   – Michael Sottile Sr., recounting his first view of the Sicilian Brachieros he later imported, from “Celebration of Rare Breeds” by Kathy Flamholtz, 1986.


Original American Cane Corso Standard

Written by Michael Sottile Sr., the original standard for the Cane Corso in the United States departs from today’s standards in certain key elements of type, in particular its call for parallel head planes and a scissors bite. The reference to uncropped ears as a serious fault is a far cry from where we have arrived today.

“The Cane Corso is not a fighting dog,” Sottile wrote in a description that accompanied the standard. “As in Italy, they often work in groups. Of course, they are strong dogs and will not run from a fight, but they are not aggressive with other dogs. The Cane Corso is probably the only true coursing mastiff left in the world.”

GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The Cane Corso is a muscular and robust dog and should give the impression of great strength and working ability. In its native homeland of Italy, the Cane Corso is used for hunting large wild game (wild boar, stag, etc.). It is also used as a cattle catching dog and as a protection dog for farm and family. The Cane Corso is a highly trainable dog and must be able to work in concert with other dogs. It is an active dog and should always be in working condition. It must be able to cope with the elements and withstand great stress with the intelligence and confidence of a superior working dog.  

HEAD: The head is massive, with a wide, broad, flat skull which is widest between the ears. The muzzle should be wide and square with a deep, powerful underjaw and denote great strength when viewed from any angle. It should never exceed more than 40 percent of the total length of the head. The muzzle should run parallel to the line of the skull, which has a defined stop. The color of the nose should correspond to the coat color of the dog; black in black dogs, lighter in lighter colored dogs. The lips are thick and heavy. The teeth should meet in a scissors or level bite. Slightly undershot is acceptable, but not desirable.  

EYES: The color of the eyes in adult dogs ranges from black to hazel and should to the color of the dog’s coat. The expression of the Cane Corso is intense and intelligent when alerted. The eyes are tight-fitting, deep set, almond shaped and set wide apart.  

EARS: The ears are pendulous and thick when natural, and should be cropped very short to form a triangle. Uncropped ears are not desirable and considered a serious fault.  

NECK: The neck should be powerful, muscular and well arched. The lower side of the neck should have some loose skin and dewlap, but not in overabundance.   BODY: The chest should be broad and deep with ribs well-sprung and descending below the elbows. The topline should be straight and show no weakness. It should flow smoothly into the hindquarters, which are slightly rounded when viewed from the side. The belly is slightly tucked. The dog should appear a little longer than it is tall. Most important is that the dog appears balanced and athletic.  

HEIGHT AND WEIGHT: Males: 24 to 28 inches; 100-140 lbs. Females: 22 to 27 inches, 80-110 lbs.  

FOREQUARTERS: Shoulders are muscular and well laid back and free in their movement. Elbows are straight and tight against the body. The front legs should be straight with massive bone. Pasterns should be upright, but must have flexibility. Feet are compact; oval shaped, with thick pads and toes well knuckled over. The feet should not turn in nor out. Rear dewclaws, if any, should be removed.  

HINDQUARTERS: Hindquarters should be broad, well developed and very muscular. Thigh is moderately long and powerful. Stifles should be moderately bent, hocks let down and parallel to each other when viewed from behind.   TAIL: The tail is thick at the base and slightly tapered toward the tip. It should be docked to one-third its natural length.  

COAT: The coat is very dense and should be harsh to the touch. In cold weather the Cane Corso develops a more dense undercoat.  

MOVEMENT: Movement should be free-flowing and powerful, yet effortless. The front legs should reach with long strides and the rear should thrust with great drive. When viewed from the front and rear, legs should move parallel to each other and cover a great deal of ground with each step.  

FAULTS: Any departure from the aforementioned points shall be considered a fault, and the seriousness of the fault shall be in exact proportion to its degree, i.e., a very crooked front is a serious fault, a slightly crooked front is a slight fault, etc.  



© Modern Molosser Magazine. This article may not be reposted, reprinted, rewritten, excerpted or otherwise duplicated in any medium without the express written permission of the publisher.