By Robert Sberna - www.robertsberna.com
On January 31, 2017, Frank Pellegrino, Sr., the owner of Rao’s, passed away. Pellegrino, who had a recurring role in The Sopranos TV show, was as iconic as his legendary New York restaurant. Since its founding in 1896, Rao’s has attracted a colorful clientele, including many actors, writers, politicians, and, of course, underworld figures.
Rao’s was featured in the opening chapter of the book, “The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist: A Wiseguy Reveals the Untold Story”
Here is an excerpt from that book:
It’s December 14, 2001 at Rao’s, the fabled Italian restaurant in New York’s East Harlem. The family-owned institution only has 10 tables—and most are booked nightly with longtime customers.
Iconic New Yorkers Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Al Pacino are regulars, as are musicians, athletes, and high-line figures from the worlds of business and politics.
The titans of the underworld, also, have long favored Rao’s. Since its founding in 1896, Rao’s has been known for its exclusivity and its wiseguy vibe. On some nights, Rao’s can seem more like a Mafia social club than a restaurant. Lucky Luciano, Paul Castellano, John Gotti and Sammy Gravano are among the mob brass who have broken bread in Rao’s. Some would even say that its gangland aura is a bigger draw than its legendary lemon chicken or baseball-sized meatballs.
On this night, like most nights, there’s a party atmosphere in the small dining room, with diners mingling amongst each other and singing along to the jukebox’s Italian crooners and Broadway show tunes.
Three well-dressed, well-groomed men—Vincent Basciano (photo above, left), Anthony Indelicato and Dominick Cicale (photo above, far right)—are sitting in the midst of the celebration, yet are seemingly apart from it. To some diners, they seem vaguely familiar; perhaps they’d seen their photos in the New York tabloids. Several others cast furtive glances at them, curious about the deferential treatment they’re receiving from the waiters and the proprietor.
The men, like nearly all of the other diners, have standing reservations. Each week, they have guaranteed tables to be used by them or their friends and associates. It’s been that way since the namesake of their enterprise, Joseph Bonnano, dined at Rao’s during his reign from the 1930s to 1960s.
In 2001, the Bonanno crime family, one of New York’s five Italian-American Mafia families, was headed by Joe “Big Joey” Massino. The Bonannos had undergone a rocky period during the 1970s and 1980s, most notably because they were infiltrated by FBI agent Joseph Pistone, whose unprecedented undercover work was the subject of the movie “Donnie Brasco.”
Pistone’s infiltration was so successful that he came close to being formally inducted as a “made” member of the Mafia. After his assignment was terminated, Pistone’s subsequent trial testimony decimated the Bonanno leadership. The resulting vacuum sparked deadly infighting among the family’s remaining captains (capo or caporegime in Italian).
But with the savvy and cautious Massino at the helm, the family rebounded and was once again a major force in organized crime. The Bonannos even regained their seat on the Mafia Commission, a ruling panel consisting of the heads of the five New York families. Not coincidentally, the rebirth of the Bonanno organization occurred during the rise of Basciano, a relentlessly ambitious capo in the family.
Basciano, a Bronx resident, was famously nicknamed “Vinny Gorgeous” because he owned a beauty salon called “Hello Gorgeous” and for his fastidious grooming, hairstyle and wardrobe. Vinny’s growing clout was evidenced by the fact that the Bonnano family’s base of power was transitioning to the Bronx from its traditional hub in Brooklyn and Queens.
The Bronx faction had recently received a boost when Vinny affiliated himself with Cicale, who been released from prison two years earlier after serving a 10-year term for drug offenses.
Dominick Cicale, at 32, was 10 years younger than Vinny Basciano. But the two men were remarkably similar in their work ethic, street smarts, and unbridled drive for financial success. In the mob world, making money is the ultimate—if not only—objective. As such, big earners like Dominick and Vinny were the stars of their crime families.
Indelicato, known as “Bruno,” was a good businessman, but less driven than the other men. He had spent many years in prison, and was now enjoying his freedom. Bruno was not a go-getter, but he was a legacy— the son of a respected and powerful capo, Alphonse “Sonny Red” Indelicato.
In 1981, Sonny Red, along with two other capos, was lured to a meeting and killed in a power struggle over the leadership of the Bonanno family. Joe Massino, one of the perpetrators of the triple murder, had also intended to kill Bruno. But the younger Indelicato didn’t accompany his father to the meeting. Despite Massino’s concern that Bruno would try to avenge his father’s death—and Bruno’s fear that Massino would kill him—the two men maintained a peaceful coexistence.
Now, at Rao’s, Vinny, Dominick and Bruno were enjoying dinner while casually discussing business. At some point in the evening, Bruno told Vinny that they should “start putting the money back.”
Dominick didn’t know what Bruno was referring to, but he didn’t ask questions. For the past two years, Dominick had been spending a lot of time with Vinny and Bruno. He’d proven himself a loyal and productive associate. But he wasn’t a made member yet, so he understood that he couldn’t be taken into full confidence.
“What if Cathy goes in the safety deposit box and sees that all the money is gone?” Bruno asked, his voice tinged with concern.
“You’ll get kicked out of the house,” said Vinny, laughing. He then added, “How about if we put IOUs in there?”
Bruno half-smiled at the joke. “I don’t think we could fit all the IOUs in there.”
Dominick was curious. Sensing that it was safe for him to ask—or perhaps he was emboldened by the Remy XO he’d downed—he asked what they were talking about.
Vinny looked at Bruno. With a nearly imperceptible shrug of his shoulders, Bruno signaled his approval.
“Lufthansa,” Vinny said.
“The airlines?” Dominick asked.
“That’s right,” said Vinny.
Unsure what Lufthansa Airlines had to do with their conversation, he asked, “Are you talking about the robbery?”
Vinny nodded affirmatively.
“They never found the money, right?
Again, Vinny nodded. But this time, he smiled. Dominick leaned forward in his chair, anxious to hear what they knew about the Lufthansa heist…
* * *
Fast forward to 2016, Dominick had been released from prison in 2013, after serving eight years for various mob-related crimes, including murder. He had originally faced a life sentence for his involvement in two killings. But Brooklyn Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis reduced the sentence, citing Dominick’s “extraordinary assistance” in helping the government dismantle the Bonanno leadership.
As a government informant, Cicale said he’s not afraid of possible retribution. “I’m living a different life now and minding my own business,” he said. “I’m not in their backyard and they’re not in mine. I choose not to run. But if I find out that someone is looking for me; if I catch them out of order, then all bets are off. I’m confident that I can handle whatever comes my way.”
Recalling the winter night in 2001 at Rao’s, Dominick said he sometimes misses the camaraderie of the guys, the money, and the power that came with the life.
“The Mafia is not just another criminal organization,” he said. “It’s an elite group in which you might have hardcore thugs who are basically buffoons, but you also have a lot of Mafioso who are very clever. Some of us were rubbing shoulders with bank presidents and politicians. For a street guy to be around people of influence, it’s fascinating and impressive.”
Saying the food at Rao’s was “just okay—I never cared for their so-called famous meatballs,” he admittedly enjoyed the intermingling of gangsters and celebrities.
“I once sat one table away from Bill Clinton,” he mused. And there was the night when comedian Don Rickles looked at Vinny and Dominick and announced, “I better watch what I say; the Mafia is here.” Rickles then attempted a creaky genuflection at their table.
“We laughed; it was in good humor,” Dominick recalled. “We always blended in. We kept it low-key, never loud. The wiseguys from Brooklyn and Queens were noisy, with the pinky rings and the yelling Italian slang at each other. They’d go to clubs with 15 or 20 guys. But guys from the Bronx and Italian Harlem, like us, weren’t showoffs. We had to be discreet because we were in big-money businesses. We didn’t go out in a show of force and attract attention.”
For more, check out “The Mystery of the Lufthansa Airlines Heist: A Wiseguy Reveals the Untold Story”
Robert Sberna is a Cleveland-based journalist who contributes to several national publications. His first book, House of Horrors: The Shocking True Story of Anthony Sowell, was named 2012 True Crime “Book of the Year” by Foreword Reviews. His most recent book, Badge 387: The Jim Simone Story, was released in August 2016. For more information, visit www.robertsberna.com
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