9237066897?profile=originalBy Thom L. Jones

When you mention Rao’s to someone, you can see their eyes light up. Probably they’ve never been there-you can’t get in the place-but they’ve heard about it: the location, the ambience, the mystique, all those stories. You can only image what it’s like. And then one night, you get lucky. You get in and find out it’s all true. - Regis Philbin

Don’t ask me why, but people seem to want to come to a mob place. Maybe it’s the excitement of mingling with mobsters. - Vincent “Fat Vinny” Teresa, Mafia informer

9237067687?profile=originalIt was then, and probably still is today, thirteen years later, after the event, one of the most remarkable restaurants in New York. In business 120 years and run by generations of the same family, just getting a table at the damn place is soul destroying. Ring up to make a reservation at Rao’s, if you're lucky and they answer the telephone, chances are, on a good day, you only have to wait a year. If you're lucky. The man who helps to run it, Frank Pellegrino (right), is known as Frankie No for obvious reasons. Last year he claimed that every table in the restaurant had been booked for the past thirty-eight years by his regulars and their guests. It’s hard to understand why. The place is almost feudal in concept with a quaint, 1950s décor. It closes at week-ends and doesn’t do lunch. Even luminaries such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and New York’s greatest clown, Donald Trump, can only eat there as a guest of a regular diner.

Rao’s started allocating tables after famous New York Times food critic, Mimi Sheraton awarded it three stars in August 1977, and the place has been full ever since. From the day of that review, Rao’s the restaurant soon became Rao’s the legend.

According to one source, Rao's may well be the only certifiable condominium restaurant in the world because the tables are essentially owned by the customers, as a result of the restaurant's unique concept of customer "table rights." The regular customers who have been occupying the same tables for years continue to occupy them. In fact, to this day no matter how many film stars, corporate moguls, politicians, and sports figures come to eat, the original customers take up most of the space. Rao's regulars know each other so well they have established a market in Rao's tables-trading them like baseball cards. The food critic for The New York Magazine once referred to it “as a tiny fiefdom carved into leases.” Some call it a members’ supper club.

To most people, it is simply that great neighborhood restaurant that you will never eat in.

It's small: six booths, four tables and one “deuce,” what the restaurant trade call a table for two, and a bar, dark wood, red leather trim, with eight stools, all scrunched into a space, sandwiched at ground level in a four-story building on the corner of Pleasant Avenue and East 114th Street, just across from Thomas Jefferson Park. The ceiling is dark tin and the dark wood paneling that covers the walls is dotted with photos of people famous and not so. The restaurant is festooned with a Christmas trim the year round, which brightens up the space. Patrons hang their coats on wall rack near the men’s room and a jukebox box in one corner, plays continually, mainly Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or Frankie Valli or Tony Bennett. Its exterior is painted a bright red and looks more like the jaws of a Chinese eating place than a traditional Italian serving only Neapolitan-inspired cucina alla casalinga—home style cooking. The family who run it always refer to the place as “The Saloon.”

In fact, this version of the restaurant has not been here that long. In 1994, someone tried to burn it down and failed, but in June 1995, someone tried and succeeded, Rao’s was completely gutted by a fire that was deliberately lit according to fire marshals who attended the scene. The restaurant was rebuilt, faithfully re-creating everything the previous one had stood for.

The Rao’s of to-day is all of 21 years old!

Seems a nice, quiet hood. Wasn't always so.  Once, a place of gutted tenements, poverty, and defeat. Seven blocks to the south, at the turn of the 20th century, one arm of the Mafia of America was emerging out of a primeval wasteland of overcrowded slums that would have made a pigsty look like a mansion. The unofficial base was on East 107 Street, which according to one of its residents, looked like a walled medieval town somehow replanted in New York City.

Four houses west of Rao’s on 114th Street was the home of Charles Ubriaco who was gunned down in Brooklyn in September 1916. He was a member of the Giuseppe Morello gang, perhaps the first Mafia Family established in New York. Morello himself will die fifteen years later, when he is shot dead in his office just two blocks north, off Pleasant Avenue, at 352 East 116th Street.

Two or three streets up the Avenue from Rao’s a major drug center of New York had its lair. It was, by the late 1960s, based in a tavern on the north-east corner of 117th Street, and run by powerful members of the Luchese Mafia Family and others, including Gerry “Z” Zanfardino, Louis “Gigi the Whale” Inglese, Leo Guirino, John Campopiano and Johnny “The Hook” Capra. The Mafia had been plying their trade here since the late 1940s. They processed and distributed more than half of America’s heroin supply chain from their base in East Harlem. Between midnight and early morning, millions of dollars would move through the hands of these traffickers as they organized their deals. And it wasn’t just drugs. The mob also controlled all the illegal gambling, loansharking and numbers business in this area.

One street north of Rao's, on 115th Street, at the Palma Boy’s Social Club, which was registered in September 1929, was the clubhouse of one of the most powerful Mafia chiefs in America, Tony “Fats” Salerno, who headed the Uptown Crew of the powerful Genovese Family. Legend has it, the 5 feet 6 inches, 240-pound mobster, once high-jacked Rao’s chef just so he could get a table there.

9237068100?profile=originalUp on 116th Street, was the lair of Joe Rao, who lived at number 337, a son of Calogero, who started the restaurant after buying the site from the George Ehret Brewery, founded by the German immigrant who introduced lager beer to New York. Calogero’s family had emigrated to America from Polla, south-east of Naples in the province of Salerno. The first Italians to arrive in East Harlem came from this region in 1878, settling in an area near what is now 115th Street.

At first, Rao’s (right) was a local tavern, where the poorer people would line up to have their beer pails filled each night, then a speak-easy during prohibition before developing into a neighborhood trattoria. The locals began to refer to the restaurant as “The Hole” because of the four steps that led down from the street to the entrance door.

Calogero died young, in 1909, and his brother took over until he died in 1930 and then the other sons of Calogero, managed the place. It was about 1958 that it started to evolve from a bar that served food into a restaurant with a bar when son Vincent took over the management. He was born and lived his whole life in the house next door to the restaurant. He and his wife, Anna Pelligrino, would share the cooking and running of the place. When he was extra busy, he would call on his wife’s young nephew, Frankie Pellegrino, whose great uncle was Calogero, and who was trying to make it as a singer and entertainer, to come and help.

Frankie had been in a 1960s pop group who called themselves “The Holidaes,” and in the years ahead would become an actor with small parts in almost forty films and television series like “Goodfellas,” “Cop Land” and “Mickey Blue-Eyes,” and a recurring role on the highly-rated series, “The Sopranos,” where surprisingly, he played the part of FBI Agent, Frank Cubitoso (photo below).

9237068496?profile=originalFrank Pellegrino and Ron Stracci (nephew of Vincent Rao) assumed control of Rao's Restaurant after the deaths of Anna and Vincent in 1994.

Joe Rao, son of Calogero, was a powerful soldier in the Mafia, controlling numbers, gambling, bookmaking and loansharking, so the restaurant has links into the mob that stretches back almost into the dawn of its history. Joe was a gangster so tough, he could stop fights simply by walking into a room. He was such a consummate drug trafficker, he even organized the distribution of narcotics, for a price, to the prisoners on Welfare Island when he was incarcerated there in 1934. His cousin, Vincenzo John Rao, was the consigliere or counsellor to the Luchese Family.

Rao's may well have been a great place to eat, but it existed in those days, more as a refuge in a jungle of criminal malfeasance and urban poverty than simply a gourmet's delight.

A six-block stretch running from Rao's up to 120th Street was an Italian enclave for more than a hundred years and was regarded as a Mafia stronghold, in fact, and fiction. It was one of the most famous gangland stretches in Mob history. This part of New York before it gentrified, was no place for the meek. It was a landscape of drugs and guns and poverty and despair.

According to New York Police Officer David Durke, it was a place where, "if you knew the right people, you could go there at three in the morning to borrow $50,000, buy a machine gun, fix a judge, or pick up three kilos of heroin."

Pleasant Avenue was originally Avenue A until 1879 when the street was renamed. Then it was almost a country lane butting onto the East River. A bucolic bye-water in a busy city. It was, however, anything but pleasant during its checkered history. In 1882, police found the body of a man on a vacant lot on the avenue. He had been beaten and stabbed to death. In 1884 a pedestrian found the corpse of a day-old baby wrapped in a newspaper with its throat cut. Thomas D’ Auria was stabbed to death with a bread knife in 1934-by his own father. In 1949 a bar owner, Candido Perry, reduced the price of a glass of beer to a nickel and was killed soon after by a jealous competitor. By then, the area was the lair of the Mafia.

The immigrants who poured into East Harlem converted the neighborhood into what became the largest Italian colony in the world. It became known locally, as “Vinnie-land.”  It is officially an area bordered by The East River across to 5th Avenue on the west. and from 96th Street to the south up to 125th Street. Just over 1.5 square miles in land size. It was the first place in New York to be referred to as Little Italy.

The church on 115th Street, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which could seat 2,000 and almost always did, at its peak, had 50,000 parishioners, virtually all, Italian. And none of them thought of themselves as Italians. They were Calabrian and Sicilian and came from Abruzzo and Campania, and Basilicata and Molise and Apulia and Bari, their identity rooted in their paese-their village back home.

Anthony Salerno, the Mafia boss, was eulogized at the church where his funeral was held in 1990. Father Peter Rofrano claimed that “God walked with him.”

Hardly anyone even spoke modern Italian in this teeming mass of people. In 1860 a year before unification began, less than 3% of the population of the country spoke the language. Each area had its own dialect, and that is what they brought with them through the great diaspora to America. The most populated street in New York, with over 5000 inhabitants was East 112th Street in East Harlem. By 1900, there were over 100,000 Italian immigrants living in this part of the city.

The 1990 census showed that only 918 of these Italian-Americans remained, mainly clustered around 115th Street and Pleasant Avenue.

Pleasant Avenue was the location chosen by Francis Ford Coppola to shoot the segment where Sonny beats up Carlo outside Charley Ding-Dong's candy store, near the corner of 118th Street and the Avenue, in the movie, The Godfather. In real life, Charley ran an illegal casino in his basement after the shop closed for the day.  A local guy “Johnny Roast Beef” met Martin Scorsese one night over drinks at Rao's and ended up playing a gangster in Goodfellas. Robert De Niro in Analyze That talks about growing up here. Al Pacino, who was born and raised in East Harlem, cites the area in Carlito's Way.

Jimmy Breslin, the famous New York syndicated columnist and writer, used the Avenue as a setting for his wildly funny stories about Un Occhio, the mythical Mafia boss of bosses. Eddie the Butcher’s meat shop on 119th Street never stocked a piece of meat in it for forty years but was always busy doing something. Anthony Loria one of the key players in the famous theft of the “French Connection” drug bust, was born in the neighborhood.

The streets were filled with guys like Angelo Cheesecake, a mob soldier, and his son Angelo Urgitano, aka Joey Cupcakes, whose photo hung on Rao’s wall before the FBI removed it in October 2011, and Vito the Bat and Gary the Lamb and Johnny Pups and Harry Go Goats and dozens more, men whose sobriquets designated their presence rather than their birth names. The line between real life and fantasy was not so much blurred as dissipated in a neighborhood filled with so many crooks it could have doubled as a casting office for Hollywood gangsters.  

The second generation “Purple Gang,” this one of New York origin, which emerged in the 1970s, restricted its membership to men who grew up on the Avenue between Rao's and 120th Street.

A criminal crew made up of young men deep into drug trafficking and other unlawful activities, it had started out as a street gang that gradually developed its organized criminal activities. Many were related and had grown up together in the neighborhood. Most of them were born between 1946 and 1951 and were third generation Italian-Americans.

Filling a power vacuum created in the early 1970s when many top-ranking Mafia drug traffickers were arrested and imprisoned, including Capra, Inglese, and Campopiano, they gradually developed their scope and contacts, often working closely with black American gangs like the ones controlled by Leroy Barnes, Rufus Boyd, Spanish Raymond and Black Zack Robinson. They named themselves after the Detroit Mob of a similar name which had operated in the Motor City in the 1920s through to the early 1930s.

The New York version was originally linked into the Genovese Mafia Family and then the Luchese and Bonanno Families. To be a member you had to be Italian-American and have grown up on this street in East Harlem.

At its peak, according to Lt. Jack Clark of the New York Police Intelligence Unit, there could have been around thirty members and over eighty associates. Their membership rank listed well-known hoods such as Paulie Caiano, Frank Salerno, Ray-Ray Recildo, Patty Prisco and his brother Angelo, Frankie Viserto, Frankie Price, Salvatore Ruggerio, Frank Goodz and Daniel Leo who one day would become the acting boss of the Genovese.

One of their claims to fame may have been the introduction into the world of Mob killings of the .22 caliber handgun as an assassin's weapon of choice. Small, easy to conceal, quiet and yet deadly at close range. The bullet smashing into the victim's head and then tumbling around and around making his brain tissue barley soup.

Hitmen and drug traffickers, they dominated the heroin market in East Harlem and the Bronx. By the end of 1977, law authorities had linked them to at least 17 murders, countless extortion jobs for the Mafia families of New York, a vast-scale drug operation, and international gun-running, particularly into South America from Florida.

The DEA noted in their files, the gang’s “enormous capacity for violence, and lack of respect for other members of organized crime.” They once murdered a man they suspected of being a police informant and left his head on The Grand Central Parkway, in the Bronx.

Joseph Coffey, former commanding officer of the NYPD’s organized crime homicide task force, called the Purple Gang “a group of mad dog killers.”

Some of the members worked for Joe Pagano, a captain in the Genovese Family who was trying to control refuse carting in Rockland and Orange Counties.  At one stage, law agencies believed the gang may have been trying to create a “sixth Mafia family” which could easily have triggered off a war in the underworld. A reporter from the Florida-based Orlando Sentinel newspaper claimed it was New York’s newest terrorist group, operating as a faction of the city’s Mafia.

A former member, Michael Meldish was found shot dead, in his car in November 2013. One of New York’s most dangerous criminals, he had operated for decades in The Bronx and Harlem with seeming impunity. His younger brother Joseph, also a member of the gang, and now in prison, was considered a prime suspect in at least 40 murders. He once killed a man in a back-alley, behind a Bronx social club, after the victim, John Gioia, had thrown a hand-grenade, which bounced off Meldish and then malfunctioned. Although neither brother was of Italian descent, they had somehow, integrated into the gang.

The elder Meldish was allegedly killed by two men, who were part of the Luchese Mafia Family.

Rao's has been called jokingly, maybe not, “The Sistine Chapel of the Mob.” Its roots stretch deep into the social topsoil of the Harlem neighborhood which in turn, has for years been a harvesting ground for the Mafia’s human resources department. Kids turn into crooks. Crooks morph into gangsters and if they are good enough, can sometimes crystallize into Mafiosi. An osmosis that has been part of the New York underworld for over a hundred years. The area was an incubator of the mob almost like no other in New York.

Gangsters have to eat, like everyone else, so over the years, they would wander into Rao’s for dinner, just like normal human beings. Charley Luciano, perhaps New York’s most infamous mobster, dined here, according to Frankie No as did Paul Castellano, one-time boss of the Gambino Family, and the man who would one day have him killed, outside another restaurant in Manhattan, John Gotti.

So to some, even more important than its ambience and clam sauce is the unmistakably strong aroma of Cosa Nostra. Author and one-time Rao's regular Dick Schaap wrote one of the lures is "the suspicion that every other diner is the Godfather of something or other."

Rao’s themselves are happy to confirm this. In a “Gangland Column” Jerry Capeci quoted:

“Owners Frank Pellegrino and Ron Straci are not shy about proclaiming their wiseguy connections or notoriety.”

An ad in an airline magazine put it this way: ‘Until now, only made men and movie stars got a table at Rao's.’"

The odor of the Mafia clings to the bar and restaurant like some impermeable carapace that nothing can penetrate, physically, or metaphorically. No one really minds. It’s good for business.

Mobsters have fought over the right to a table here over and over again. In 2001, a major dispute erupted about the one allocated to Anthony Baratta, a capo, or crew chief, in the Luchese Family and Genovese captain, John “Buster” Ardito, over ownership rights when Baratta was away, locked up in prison, and was only resolved by the intervention of Mario Gigante, brother of the infamous Genovese Family boss, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante.

An article in The New York Post, in 2005, claimed an indictment at the Queens Supreme Court charged 12 men with running a gambling and loansharking ring. Prosecutors said a search of Bonanno crime family associate, Frank Tramontano’s million-dollar Staten Island home turned up $160,000 in cash hidden in a wall behind a television. One arresting officer said Tramontano told cops, “It must have come with the house.” Assistant District Attorney Catherine Kane told the judge that Tramontano, whose rap sheet goes back to 1968, offered to split the cash with cops and would be happy to discuss the matter with them “over his table at Rao’s.”

In the same year, FBI wiretaps recorded Gambino captain Greg De Palma bribing doctors for huge supplies of medical drugs with promises of the use of his table at Rao’s.  “You’ve got to tell me if you need some tables,” the Feds heard him say to a doctor. “I gave up from May already. I still got the rest.”

De Palma was so obsessed with his seating at the restaurant, that in 2002 he tried to hire a hit man to whack a rival, Nicky La Rosa, a car dealer, who had tried to steal his spot while De Palma was in prison.

If Calogero “Charles” Rao the founder and his sons Louis and Vincent who carried on the business through the years that followed, were not Mafia themselves, there is little doubt that they were connected into the Mob through bloodline. Charles’ son Joseph, and his cousin, another Calogero, and his son, Vincenzo John Rao, were some of the links into New York’s Italian-American underworld, working the streets of East Harlem representing Cosa Nostra. This other branch of the Rao family traced their Mafia roots right back all the way to the founding father of the Luchese Family, Gaetano Reina, who created the gang sometime prior to 1930.

During the 1960s, according to FBI reports, agents of the bureau kept Rao’s under surveillance from time to time trying to dig up Intel on the mob’s activities in the East Harlem area. “Hoodlum-looking types” were observed leaving the restaurant and driving off in expensive limousines. The agency set up a photographic unit in Benjamin Franklin High School across the road to record the mob activities at the restaurant.

Agents observed Joe Rao, “Trigger Mike” Coppola and Anthony Strollo aka Tony Bender, meeting at Rao’s, all of them top-ranking captains in the Genovese crime family, and their informants confirmed that “Fat Tony” Salerno received his cut from the local policy racket out of these premises. In August 1961, an FBI report confirmed, “Rao’s bar is a known hangout for gamblers and individuals from the hoodlum element.”

It’s hardly surprising it was. With maybe as many as 5000 made men and associates operating across the city in this period of time, convenient places to meet and discuss business were often in short supply for the Mafia.

Vincent Rao was in fact convicted of money-laundering charges in 1979 that tied him into the Genovese.  It was claimed he washed $100,00 a week through the restaurant’s books for gangster and heroin trafficker Ralph Tutino, a soldier in the Luchese Family, and Ardito, who were part of a multi-million-dollar loansharking operation in the Bronx. Vincent was actually doing the dirt with the mob long before.

In 1962, FBI agents confirmed that Ruby Stein, the biggest shylock in New York, went to Rao’s twice a week where he would discount his cheques with Vincent who had some method of putting them into circulation so that they could never be traced back to either of them.

Rao’s was also linked to the Mafia through its other owner-Ron Stracci. Son of infamous mobster, Joseph “Joe Stretch” Stracci, a long-time soldier in the Genovese Family, who married Cecilia, Joe Rao’s sister, and who died in 1984. Mob informant Joe Valachi claimed “Joe Stretch” was one of the killers of Giuseppe Masseria the big boss, during the infamous Castellammare War that rocked the New York underworld during 1930 and 1931. The “war’ was, in fact, nothing more than a fight between the gangs, over power and especially, money, which has, however, been immortalized ever since as something much bigger than it ever was. 

Stracci is a labor lawyer who was tight with Tony Salerno’s brother, Cirino “Speed” Salerno, and on one occasion had shared a half million-dollar kickback fee with him, on the sale of a Teamster’s union building on 86th Street. This was confirmed in testimony from Vincent Cafaro, Tony Salerno’s right-hand man at the time.

According to Steve Fishman in his article in New York Magazine, of the incident that took place that night just before Christmas 2003, one of the things that drew people to Rao’s was the thrill of mixing and mingling with gangsters.

“Not that Rao’s was off-limits for weapons. Wasn’t that part of its charm? Rao’s, with all of eleven tables, is located way up in exotic East Harlem. “Who eats in Harlem? Who even goes to Harlem?” said one restaurateur. And yet the place was nearly impossible to get into—Madonna was, famously, turned away. And some fraction of the draw was, as one Mafia lawyer put it, the patina of danger—in a safe way, of course. Part of the charm, in other words, was that a mobster might be at the bar. As one titillated downtown PR exec explained after a night at Rao’s: ‘I hugged one guy and I could feel he had a gun on his waist, and then I hugged another guy and felt his gun. The place is a pisser.’”

The restaurant normally opens about seven in the evening. Monday, December 22nd was no different. Except it would be. Since its beginning in 1896, this would be a night to remember. The night the gun took preference over the cannoli.

As usual, the place was packed by early evening. Bartender Nick Zaloumis, known to everyone as “Nicky the Vest” for his collection of 136 of them, and the man in charge of drinks since 1976, was busy behind the bar pouring at full speed. People were sitting and standing three deep here. One of the drinkers was an older man, late sixties, average height, stocky, big belly. He was wearing a windcheater and on his head, a bill cap sporting the logo: Nassau/Bahamas. Near him, drinking with a buddy, was a tall, muscular, dark-skinned younger man, with thick, black, greasy hair. He was wearing a black, leather jacket.

9237069254?profile=originalThe older man was Louis Barone (right). He was born two blocks from Rao’s and now lived in the Bronx and everyone called him “Louie Lump-Lump,” for all the knocks he had taken and given, over the years. The cops had him down as a numbers runner, or into illegal gambling, or something like that. He was linked into the Genovese some said. Others claimed he belonged to the Luchese Family.

The cops knew his brother “Paulie Fats” far better, for the wire rooms he ran, taking bets. Their father had been with The Westside (Genovese.)  A family affair in crime, like so many that filled the streets of East Harlem.

In his jacket pocket, he was carrying a five-shot Smith and Wesson revolver. He’d been coming here to Rao’s for forty years but still didn’t have a regular table. Frankie No had found him one for his birthday the previous November, but there was no guarantee when the next one would come around. Still, Louie respected Frankie and Rao’s. Respect was a big thing in his life. Respect was the anchor that kept the ship of life stable. It was about to cause him a lot of trouble.

9237068869?profile=originalThe trouble was Al Circelli (right), the man in black standing next to him. Thirty years younger than Louie, although his family had once owned a brownstone on the same block as Rao’s, he now lived with his mother in a modest house in Yonkers. He was apparently unemployed although the owner of eight cars, including a Ferrari, and was, according to the FBI, a Mafia soldier in the Luchese crew based in the Bronx under Salvatore “Sally Bo” DiSimone. He was a gym rat, tall, fit and strong, and carried the patina of menace so many younger mobsters strived to achieve.

At the end of the bar, nearest the door, Frank Pellegrino waited to greet his customers, most of who he knew by name. Immaculately dressed as always, he was, as always, smoking a Parliament cigarette

This night some of the more notable diners were Michael Amante, celebrated actor and stage singer, Len Cariou, who currently appears on the television series “Blue Bloods,” Sonny Grosso, a former NYPD detective, famous for his part in the 1960s “The French Connection” drug operation, and Rena Strober, a Broadway chanteuse, who had played a role in the musical “Cats.” She would be the catalyst for the rumble at Rao’s.

One of the long-standing traditions at the restaurant is the diners being serenaded by Frankie No sometimes using the jukebox as his orchestra. This night was no exception, and after he had finished his round of the tables, he asked Amante to entertain the crowd, which he did, with his version of O Sole Mio a 19th Century Italian ballad. He had once sung for the famous Neapolitan actress, Sophia Loren, here in this very restaurant. She kissed him on the lips, and he claimed he never washed his face for a month.

About 10:45, after Amante had finished, Pellegrino approached Sonny Grosso’s group at his usual Monday night center table, and asked one of his guests, Strober, if she would do an encore. Under much protest, she stood up and belted out “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” to much applause from the dining room. Strober stood at the back of the restaurant while she performed, and up at the bar, near the entrance, there was at least one dissatisfied customer. 

9237069671?profile=originalAs Rena (right) was singing, Circelli turned to his companion, and in a loud voice said something like, “Not this fucking broad again. Ah, shut up. She sucks. Get her off.” 

Barone, standing nearby, leaned in towards the younger man, holding his finger to his lips and supposedly said, “Mind your manners. Watch your mouth. You’re talking about a lady. Show some respect.” That word again.

Circelli, it was reported, snarled back at Louie, “Fuck you. I’ll break that fucking finger off and stick it up your ass. I don’t care who you are and who you are connected to, I’ll take care of you.” At which point the entente cordial between the young and the old guy came to a dramatic end.

Throwing a handful of bills onto the bar, Circelli turned to leave. Louie later claimed when interviewed by detectives, that he was scared by the attitude of the guy. Louie also had a temper himself, which just then, manifested itself.

“I was really mad,“ he said, “I had blood in my eyes. I lost face. I had to defend my honor. I had no choice but to shoot him. I had no choice but to kill him.” 

Pulling out his revolver, he fired one shot into Circelli, who spun off the bar stool and staggering across the floor, collapsed next to the table of Al Petraglia, the Chief Clerk of Nassau County Surrogate Court, and a personal friend of Ron Stracci, who just happened to be sharing his table than night. Louie followed his victim, firing one more shot, which missed the target and shot Petraglia in the foot. As he sat staring down at the corpse, in horror, he later told a reporter, “I felt sorry because I knew I was going to the hospital and I knew he was going to the morgue.”

“I snapped at that point. I went ballistic,” Louie later confessed to the cops. Dropping the gun, à la Michael Corleone in the immortal restaurant killing scene in The Godfather, he walked out straight into the arms of two police officers from the 23rd Precinct who had just happened to be standing outside the restaurant.

By this time Rena, aware of what was happening, had dived under a nearby table where she lay saying a Jewish prayer for help, first reciting the “Shema,” the Jewish invocation that is a declaration of a faith and is said on a deathbed.

It was the kind of Grand Guignol entertainment that only Gotham could have produced. The New York Post front page headline read:

“Diva diss sparked geezer’s gunfire.”

Frankie No picked up the tab for all his diners that night. Sonny Grosso said when everyone finally left, Frankie was sitting at a table with his head in his hands.

Remanded to Rikers Island, Barone was charged on December 23rd with second-degree murder and assault, what some wit referred to as “homicide for bad manners,” the latest entries on a long rap sheet that went back to 1962 and included convictions for gambling and assault.  

Louis pleaded guilty in 2004 to manslaughter and assault and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He died in April 2013, of natural causes, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Family and friends buried Albert Circelli from St. Theresa’s Church in Pelham Bay, Bronx, on December 27th under bright, blue skies. For him at least, on this occasion. there was no rain on the parade. His career as a mobster and a music critic ended simultaneously by a man he so badly underestimated. An all too fateful error in his line of business.

The killing of Al Circelli did nothing to damage the mystique of Rao’s. Closed for a few days, it reopened before New Year to a packed house, same as always. The television series Law and Order created an episode based on the incident; mob bosses were caught on wiretaps expressing consternation at their canceled dinner bookings because of the shooting, and reservations went from unachievable to rocket-propelled absurd.

Getting killed in or near a bar or restaurant in New York was often par for the course if you were connected to the mob. Dating back to April 1931, when Giuseppe Masseria the boss of all bosses was shot dead in one on Coney Island, some of the most notorious hits have included:

1935: Dutch Schultz in The Palace Chop House, Newark, New Jersey.

1951: Willie Moretti in Joe’s Elbow Room, Cliffside Park, New Jersey.

1972: Joey Gallo in Umberto’s Clam House Manhattan.

         Gennaro Ciprio  outside his restaurant in Bath Beach, Brooklyn.

         Al Bianco in Tony’s Luncheonette, Brooklyn.

         Sheldon Epstein and Max Tekelch, meat brokers shot dead by mistake by a gunman in The Neapolitan Noodle House, Manhattan. He thought they were part of the Colombo Family.

These five were victims in what the media came to call the “The First Colombo War.”

1979: Carmine Galante shot dead after lunch at Joe and Mary’s Restaurant, Brooklyn.

1985: Paul Castellano, Gambino boss, outside Spark’s Steakhouse, Manhattan.

1987: Irwin Schiff gunned down as he was eating dinner with a lady friend in Bravo Sergio Restaurant, Manhattan.

According to the famous Zagat Survey, a restaurant guide based in New York, “Shootings are good for the restaurant business. It’s more publicity that a place would get through reviews: it’s worth millions.”

It’s not over ‘till the fat lady sings.

Meaning: nothing is irreversible until the final act is played.

Origin: Maybe from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung, when Brunnhilde, the extra large heroine, concludes events with a ten minute solo.

Maybe from a statement made by American sports commentator, Ralph Carpenter in March 1976:

Bill Morgan (Southwest Conference Information Director): "Hey, Ralph, this... is going to be a tight one after all."

Ralph Carpenter (Texas Tech Sports Information Director): Right. The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings."

These are two of many interpretations of the origin of the expression.

Rena Strober is 5’ 4” tall and weighs 120 pounds.

Note: Rao’s does not offer cannoli as part of their extensive menu.


In addition to various books, government documents, and other sources, I used information from the following to help in the construction of this story:

New York Magazine

New York Post

New York Daily News

New York Times

The Village Voice

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  • I ate at Rao's since I was a boy with my father, lawyer, Jimmy LaRossa (Paul Castellano's lawyer, amongst others). Never a menu, Nicky (vest), Frankie (nose) and Frank P (of course) always made for a memorable night. I recently ate at Rao's in Los Angeles. No Comment.

    Jimmy Jr. (jimmy@larossa.us)

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