Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Little Italy restaurants and the Five Families of New York City

Does Little Italy still have Mafia restaurants, those establishments where tourists might be served an excellent fettuccine in the front of the house while nefarious discussions are going on in back?

"The way to tell is on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, if you see a group with big necks with no wives around, enjoying a conversation," explained Jerry Capeci, one of the authors of "Mob Boss: The Life of Little Al D'Arco, the Man Who Brought Down the Mafia"

"The answer is yes," added his co-author, Tom Robbins, a longtime investigate reporter for the Daily News and the Village Voice. "There's more than a few."

I mentioned the name of a restaurant on Mulberry Street that I've patronized for several decades, and where I always order the same thing: an excellent spedini (a loaf of mozzarella baked in a tomato anchovy sauce). For obvious reasons—among them, that I prize my kneecaps—the restaurant will remain anonymous.

"That would qualify," Mr. Capeci said of the place, though he added cautiously that he knew it only "by reputation."

Alfonso D'Arco, a former acting boss of the Lucchese crime family, was the highest-ranked member of the Mafia to turn government witness when he "flipped" in 1991 after he was slated for execution himself. Since then, he's testified against his former colleagues in 15 trials, sending more than 50 gangsters to prison.

Mr. Capeci is an expert on organized crime who has written six books on the mob and runs Ganglandnews.com, a weekly online column about all things Mafia. He said what made Mr. D'Arco, whose stories and secrets double as an anecdotal history of the Mafia in recent times, such a superb witness wasn't just that the Brooklyn native knew all the players, sat in more than a few meetings with them and had his fair share of blood on his hands; it was that he possessed a Proustian memory.

Among those he testified against was Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, the Genovese crime family boss who took to walking the streets in a bathrobe and slippers while trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to persuade the feds he was insane.

"He was the greatest witness I ever saw," said Mr. Robbins, who these days is the investigative journalist in residence at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism. "Phenomenal memory, great sense of humor. Reporters loved him. He was such a quotable gangster. He wasn't just a thug."

"He didn't 'yes' and 'no' answer," Mr. Capeci added. "'There was a dog outside barking. Joe was to my left. It was a red tablecloth.'"

The authors spent days debriefing Mr. D'Arco at an undisclosed location.

By the way, Mr. Capeci asserted that the "Five Families"—Lucchese, Gambino, Bonanno, Genovese and Colombo—still exist in the New York area, each with a boss at the top. And they still meet to resolve issues, such as labor racketeering, more or less peacefully. "One rule the commission put in place was to outlaw the killings that put so many gangsters in prison for the rest of their lives," Mr. Capeci explained, "and that helped the government create informants because people were looking at so much time in prison they flipped."

I'm as interested in the Mafia as the next person, in guys with their own proactive code of honor. I've encouraged my kids to read "The Godfather." But I was also eager to get answers to a few questions that occur whenever I stroll through Little Italy, or what's left of it: As I said, how many of the restaurants in the neighborhood are Mafia fronts? Where's the Ravenite Social Club, where mobster John Gotti held court? And do those little old ladies who served as lookouts still exist?

Messrs. Capeci and Robbins suggested a walking tour, our first stop Mexican Radio, a restaurant facing Petrosino Square (formerly Kenmare Square). That's a small triangular park bordered by Lafayette Street and just south of Spring Street. It's named in honor of Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, a decorated NYPD officer from the early years of the last century who put hundreds of organized-crime members behind bars before he was killed on assignment in Sicily.

Between 1987 and 1991, Al D'Arco owned a restaurant, La Donna Rosa, on the site now occupied by Mexican Radio. "He got a hoot it was right across the street from the park named after Joe Petrosino," Mr. Capeci said. "They'd have walk talks right around the park."

"Walk talks" are ambulatory business meetings popular with gangsters because they make it harder for the feds to bug the conversations. Another walk talk practitioner, though imperfectly, was John Gotti. "They used to come out this door," Mr. Capeci explained.

By now, we were standing outside the Ravenite at 247 Mulberry St. He was referring to the "Teflon Don" and to "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the Gotti underboss who turned informer against him. "They used to walk out the door and make a left on Prince Street."

According to Mr. Capeci, Mr. Gotti's undoing—besides Mr. Gravano's disloyalty—is that walk talks, no matter how efficient, lose their romance come January and February. "In the wintertime, when it would get cold," he explained, "they used an apartment on the third floor where the widow of an old gangster lived. The FBI bugged it and they caught Sam and John."

All that remains of the club is its cracked tiled floor. "People come and kiss the floor," reported Leila Mae Makdissi, the owner of Shoe, the store that now occupies the space. She was referring more to thrill-seekers than nostalgic Mafiosi. Ms. Makdissi, who moved into the neighborhood in 1981, remembers Mr. Gotti and his cronies. "I saw him many times," she said. "I didn't kiss him on the cheek."

She also remembers the little old lady lookouts. She said a few still exist. "If you ever did anything different, they'd note it," she recalled.

We also visited a couple of Mr. D'Arco's former residences, one of them subsidized by the Little Italy Restoration Association at 21 Spring St. "All the wise guys made sure they got apartments," Mr. Capeci said. "As Al told it: 'We built it. It's our neighborhood.' He lived here until he flipped."

After dropping by the Mulberry Street Cigar Company, the former site of the Hawaiian Moonlighters social club at 140 Mulberry, where Mr. Capeci said Mr. Gotti and associates played cards, I had to go. My spedini was calling.

Perhaps it was paranoia after spending the previous hour in the company of Messrs. Capeci and Robbins and the ghosts of mobsters past, but I thought I noticed the maitre d' at my favorite Italian restaurant giving me the evil eye. Then I realized I'd left a copy of "Mob Boss" on the table. I quickly tossed it on a chair out of view.

My spedini tasted as good as ever. And I still felt fine the next day.



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