Early spring, 1987, a chill in the air. The River Café is quiet on this late Monday evening. With only a few tables left in the dining room and an empty bar, it was time to sit and have dinner. I was seated at my usual table, right beside the podium, which allowed me to view the entire dining room and bar, should something or someone need my attention.
The barkeep that night, who we will call J, was the longest tenured, oldest, and considered the head bartender. He was antisocial, generally uncongenial to guests he disliked, unfriendly to the staff, and suspicious of all new hires. In all my time there I’d never gotten a drink from him. Nor would I ask for one. When he was behind the bar, the only way of getting that needed cocktail was when he went to pee and one of the other bartenders could slip you something. I don’t think he spoke to me the entire first year I was there.
As I sat eating my dinner, J was slowly breaking down the bar, and the last few tables were finishing up. Suddenly the valet came rushing into the dining room. “Michael, this guy just parked his car in front of the entrance. It’s blocking the door, he’s drunk and is cursing at me, saying he won’t give me his keys. Buzzy [O’Keeffe, the owner of the River Café] is supposed to be coming. We have to get the car out of there!”
This presented a few problems other than the obvious, which is that a drunk and belligerent guest was out driving his car. Should Buzzy show up, as he was apparently expected to do, and see we let an inebriated guest leave his car in front, blocking the driveway and the entrance to the restaurant, we’d all be fucked. The valet would definitely get suspended for two weeks, and I would, if not suspended, get my ass ripped apart.
Just then this guy staggers past me, bulls his way to the empty bar, and asks for a drink. When there’s an unruly guest, what is essential is that everyone on staff is on the same page. Even in fine-dining establishments guests get drunk, obnoxious, and sometimes violent. If a bartender says he is cutting someone off, that person gets cut off. Questions are asked later.
As this guy heads to the bar, I give J the cutoff sign. He sees this, glares at me, and then pours the guy a shot of Dewar’s.
J then motions me to the service-bar area and in a firm, menacing voice whispers, “Do you know who the fuck that is?”
“No, J, I obviously don’t know who the fuck that is or I’d have gone up to him and said hi.”
“That’s Fat Anthony! Just go back to your table and let me handle this.”
I watched as J and Fat Anthony had an animated conversation. Fat Anthony was obviously wasted. Sensing the worst had passed, I went over to the service bar to pour myself another glass of wine.
Fat Anthony spotted me. He was about five feet, six inches, at least 220 pounds, had no neck, was wearing a cheap suit, and was reeking of booze. He walks right up to me, leans his body into mine, and in a guttural, Brooklyn accent says, “I don’t know who the fuck you are, what the fuck you do here, but you fucking disrespected me.”
I tried to not turn away and to keep as calm a face as possible, even as the smell of alcohol on his rancid breath made me want to gag. He pressed his fat stomach against mine and pinned me against a shelf. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but when I do, I’m gonna take care of you.” With that he went back to the bar, downed his drink, and left.
Jesus fucking Christ. I’m now thinking Fat Anthony is going to come back, if not to kill me, at least to break my legs just to make a point.
“I don’t know who the fuck you are, what the fuck you do here, but you fucking disrespected me.”
The next day, as I arrive at the restaurant, the phone rings. It’s Buzzy. “What happened last night?”
“Last night? You mean Fat Anthony?”
“Yes, Fat Anthony.”
I tell him the story, and in typical Buzzy fashion he tells me to not let guys like this in the restaurant, they are trouble, and we don’t want them hanging around. I say, “Sure, Buzz, I’ll do my best,” and hang up.
My next shift was on Saturday evening, and warily I returned to work. Every Friday and Saturday evening, Buzzy had two off-duty city detectives provide security at the restaurant. Both were experienced, suave New York street kids who grew up to become legends on the force. One was Tom Nerney, a former marine, now promoted to the elite unit assigned to investigate cop killings. The N.Y.P.D. paid these guys so poorly that they needed to moonlight for some extra cash.
Tom was on that evening, and when he arrived, the first thing he said was that he’d heard there’d been some trouble here. Buzzy had called him to discuss the situation. Well, at least he was somewhat looking out for me.
At just past 12, I sat down to have dinner, and as was usual, Tom joined me at my table. I glanced over at the bar and suddenly see that both bartenders had moved to the far end and were furtively gesturing to get my attention. Just then I see the back of Fat Anthony walking to the bar, followed by one of the largest humans I had ever seen.
This man had obviously borrowed one of the jackets we kept for guests that were unaware of the jacket-only policy in the dining room, since it was split almost entirely down the back from his girth. Behind him, I immediately recognized the dwarf Nunzio. Nunzio was a regular at the restaurant since he was a henchman of “Stem Glass” Vinny, one of the funeral directors in the neighborhood and a regular bar guest.
Vinny was reputedly connected to the Mob, and whenever he came by for a drink, he would pull me toward him, pinch my cheek, and hand me a $20 bill. His nickname arose from his always asking for his Dewar’s to be poured into a stem glass. It didn’t matter that we all knew he drank from a stem glass; he reminded the bartender of this each time he arrived.
Nunzio would always be in tow with Stem Glass. He would run errands and was reputed to be a money collector for the bookies in the area.
The three of them head straight to the bar, order drinks, and then turn directly around and face me. “Tom,” I whisper, “that’s him. That’s Anthony.” Tom whispers to me that Anthony is one of Gotti’s boys, a punk who is suddenly rising in the ranks. Tom believed he’d been made a captain recently and that he was in some way connected to the Castellano killing.
Just then I see the back of Fat Anthony walking to the bar, followed by one of the largest humans I had ever seen.
Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino crime family, was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. It was pretty much assumed that Gotti had ordered the hit, paving the way for him to be the new head of the Gambino crime family. The police believed Fat Anthony was one of the men in the car that night.
With this, Tom excused himself and said he was going to his car to get his gun. “Your what?!” I was now about to shit my pants. Here were three mobsters, 20 feet away, glaring right at me. One of them had probably just murdered the biggest Mafia don in the country.
Fat Anthony approaches. I break into a sweat as he reaches the table, leans in, places both fists on the table, and says, “How you doin’?”
It took me a few seconds to get my voice to work. “I’m okay.” My voice is breaking with fear. “We had a very busy night. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.”
Why the fuck I said that I have no idea.
“You disrespected me. I don’t know what I’m gonna do, but when I do, I’m gonna get you.”
I tried to explain what had happened that night, but he wouldn’t let me. He straightened up, turned, and swaggered back to the bar.
The next day I get a call from Rodney, another River Café maïtre d’ who helped me get the job there, wanting to know the details. I explained what had happened the previous night and that I was afraid for my life. Rodney knew all of the connected guys who regularly dined or drank at the restaurant. He said he was going to make some inquiries, and that I should lie low and wait to hear back from him.
The Waiting Game
I spent the next few days terrified, looking over my shoulder wherever I went, always expecting someone to pop out from behind a car or a door and beat the shit out of me. Finally, on Wednesday, Rodney called. He had just spoken to Mr. T.
T and his wife were some of our great guests. They dined with us weekly, would have their tiny dog in a Louis Vuitton carry bag, park it under the table, and begin with a bottle of bubbles. T owned funeral homes in Brooklyn, and we all knew he was connected.
Rodney told T of my situation. T said he absolutely knew of Anthony, and though he wasn’t one of T’s “people,” T would see what he could do. He let me know T was coming for dinner tomorrow night to talk to me.
The next evening, service began smoothly enough. T had a seven P.M. reservation. I was at the podium, my back to the door, when suddenly someone grabs my shoulder and I feel something against my back. I thought this was it. They were going to kill me right here.
I was about to scream when I hear T’s voice. I turn and he has a pistol in his hand.
“You like the way that feels?” He smiled.
“Okay. Take us to our table. Champagne is on you tonight.”
He was with his lovely wife, who smiled knowingly at me as I brought the wine over. I opened it myself, my hands shaking as I poured them both a glass. “You fucked up, Mikey. This is bad. This guy’s a fucking killer. He’s not my people but I know of him.”
I am once again, for about the hundredth time this week, about to cry. As I finish pouring, T, who’s facing the door, sees Stem Glass Vinny enter. “Ah, there’s Vinny. I’ll be right back.”
He gets up and walks over to Vinny. Both go outside to talk. They were gone for quite some time. Both return to the restaurant. As they enter, Vinny immediately comes over, pinches my cheek, gives me a look of You were a bad boy, Mikey, and hands me the usual $20. T smiles at us and tells me to follow him back to the table.
“You’re lucky, Mikey, Stem Glass likes you. He thinks you’re a good kid. He knows Anthony very well. They know the same people. We had a little chat outside in the car.”
Could my graciousness really be paying off here?
“Stem Glass,” T continues, “is going to talk to Anthony. You here tomorrow?” I nod yes. “Good. If all goes well, I’ll stop in tomorrow for a drink. Now, what are we eating?”
I take a deep breath for the first time in a week.
The next evening, at 6:30, T walks in the door. This time I spot him before I get the gun in my back.
“Okay. We spoke. You’re fucking lucky, Mikey. I got this worked out. Anthony is going to come in again. When you see him, you need to go over to him and say, ‘Mr. Anthony, I am very sorry for having disrespected you. Please accept my apology. Let me buy you a drink.’ You got that? Repeat it back to me.”
I repeat it back verbatim.
“Okay. Good, Mikey. I’ll be in touch.”
With that T goes to the bar, downs a shot of Johnnie Black, and leaves.
“Take us to our table. Champagne is on you tonight.”
So I wait. The week came and went. Then it happened. It’s Saturday night. The restaurant is just filling up. I am returning to the door when I see both bartenders at the service area of the bar. Each had a look of fear etched on his face.
They nodded to the other end of the bar, where Anthony stood with a female companion. When I finally managed the courage to walk over to them, mentally rehearsing my lines as I approached, she spoke first. She looked me up and down and in a heavy Brooklyn accent blurted out, “Is this the guy?”
Jesus, am I going to be humiliated by his date as well?
Before he could speak, I sucked in my breath, greeted them both, and knowing my lines as though I were in the second year of a Broadway run, I spoke, “Mr. Anthony, I am very sorry for having disrespected you. Please accept my apology. Let me buy you a drink.” I struggled to keep my hands, which were at my side, from shaking.
He listened, looked at me, stepped as close to me as possible, and said, “I don’t need you to buy me nuthin’. I’m expecting a phone call. Come and get me when it comes.”
He turned back to his companion, and I was dismissed. Soon the phone beeped. I went over to Anthony and let him know his phone call had come.
His demeanor changed completely. It was as though he’d made it, he had finally arrived. He was not only making me look like his little bitch in front of his girl, but was also getting personal phone calls at one of the most famous and beautiful restaurants in the world.
He walks to the phone, picks it up, and says, “Hello? … Hello? … Hello? …”
He looks at me. “What the fuck? Deres nobody here?”
This cretin, this Gotti captain, had no idea how to work the phone. I showed him how to press the button to take the call.
He hung up after a minute or so and walked up to me. “What’s your name?”
“Mikey, you know where to find me if I get anudder call.”
“What the fuck? Deres nobody here?” This Gotti captain had no idea how to work the phone.
The worst happened. Fat Anthony became a regular, coming once a week, usually for drinks and once or twice a month for dinner. Each time, those with him could have been selected from a casting call for low-rent mobsters.
Bad suits, greasy hair, foulmouthed, and, what really showed how low-level they actually were, they tipped like shit. Mobsters, the ones that know how to dress and carry themselves, always want to show off, get respect, and are great tippers. Hundred-dollar bills would cross many hands throughout the night.
We had a few wiseguys that would come in and, instead of cash, would leave us enormous tips on their credit cards. We knew something was up when the cards were regularly being declined. The jig was up when the F.B.I. showed up one day inquiring about a credit card scam and a number of charges that had come from this restaurant. We never saw those wiseguys after that.
Though we did have a regular guest, an F.B.I. agent who knew J the bartender quite well. The agent was a favorite of the staff’s, handing out F.B.I. swag each time he came—T-shirts, caps, and the like. The next time we saw him, we asked about the credit card scam, but he knew nothing about it.
One Monday, as I entered the restaurant to begin my shift, J was setting up the bar and, as soon as he spotted me, screamed out, “Did you hear? Did you see this?” He shoved the New York Post in front of me; the headline read, Mobster Shot in West Side Club.
It was Fat Anthony.
To hear Michael Cecchi-Azzolina reveal more about his story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Michael Cecchi-Azzolina has worked at several New York restaurants, including the River Café, Minetta Tavern, Raoul’s, and Le Coucou. His memoir, Your Table Is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D’, will be published on December 6