It was a typical Brooklyn Fall afternoon – petrol fumes mingled with the smell of hot dogs, pretzels and onions, carried on the chill gusts that whipped along the alleyways, scattering faded copies of the New York times and freshly fallen leaves in their wake.
If you were to walk down such a nondescript alleyway, somewhere between Liberty Street and Monroe, between the dumpsters and crushed cardboard boxes, you might find yourself outside a battered steel doorway, wreathed in steam, fragrant with basil and oregano, and the pungent undertones of plum tomatoes, escaping from the half-open kitchen window to which this particular door grants access. The aroma is inviting, but the welcome – to strangers – is less forgiving. This is not a doorway that the unwary should wish to find themselves, for it is the back door to Don Mascarpone’s Italian Restaurant.
Let us say that you had indeed received an invitation to present yourself at this particular doorway on a cold October afternoon. Tentatively, your knuckles rap upon the rough steel of the door – you wait, feet shuffling, uncomfortable in the gusting wind, the sound of traffic muted in the quiet of the alley. You are almost startled by the sound of bolts being shot and the door groaning on its hinges as it opens. Your welcome is an unsmiling face, with five-o’clock shadow and slick, greasy dark hair – he nods briefly, leans out to look both left and right along the length of the alley, then beckons you in. The door swings shut behind you with a clang, the bolts clatter and you walk from the dark coldness of a concrete-floored corridor into the warmth, light and noise of the restaurant kitchen.
There is laughter too: gathered around a table – upon which rests a clean white and red, chequered cloth, laden with bowls of pasta, freshly-baked bread and bottles of chianti – are a number of gentlemen in Italian suits, smoking fat cigars, whilst other, younger and less formally dressed acolytes stand at a respectful distance, or lounge against brushed steel kitchen appliances, exchanging shifty glances and guarded looks. You are ushered to a chair at the table, the laughter stops and you feel all eyes in the room bearing down upon you – you stare straight ahead, and Don Mascarpone watches you quizzically through the smoke of his cigar. The slightest of nods in greeting and the whole room breathes a collective sigh. The laugher returns, wine is poured and business can commence.
Don Mascarpone – or, ‘The Boss’, to give him his formal title – is an imposing figure; a generously built man in a shiny dark suit. You might say his features held a cold brutality, yet there seemed a generosity of spirit and familial care behind those pale eyes. There is an indefinable quality about him that commands respect without explicitly demanding it – you know, just from spending time in the Boss’s company, that this is a cruel, but fair man. He speaks rarely, but all conversation revolves around him and, when he does offer an opinion, those around him hang on his words, almost reverentially.
Mascarpone has been in ‘The Business’ for as long as you can remember, securing his position as ‘Boss’, following a violent and messy takeover which few now choose to remember. Under his leadership, the restaurant has flourished and an increasingly eclectic clientele now frequent the premises to do business, chew the fat and impress new clients over breadststicks and Ma Mascarpone’s special gnocci and spaghetti meatballs.
Today is no exception – the kitchen is a hive of steam and activity and front of house buzzes with the lunchtime rush. The restaurant feels vibrant, full of warmth and companionship… a warmth disturbed only by the occasional blast of cold air as patrons pass to and from the street outside. A rather more subtle chill fills the room however, as a new customer pushes through the entrance door: for a moment, he stands there, blowing into his cold hands, his crumpled gabardine trenchcoat flapping around his legs, before looking up to survey the lunchtime crowd with his one good eye.
As the assembled diners visibly shrink in their seats, Antonia the waitress sidles up to the new arrival and hisses in his ear.
“For cryin’ out loud, Dan! You’re scarin’ the punters”
Detective Danny Sherbet pulls a spotless handkerchief from his pocket and rubs fitfully at the imagined germs his hands have picked up from the restaurant door – he projects an air of nervousness and, to those who don’t know him, this one-eyed, obsessive compulsive cop with a lollipop fetish seems rather an absurd figure.
“I’ve come to see the boss… it’s a personal matter”
Antonia shrugs, shakes her head and disappears towards the kitchen. Slowly and deliberately, the detective reaches into his jacket – instantly there is tension in the room, followed by an almost audible sigh of relief as he pulls a cherry lolly from his pocket and slips it between his lips. Antonia reappears and practically drags the detective from the room – within moments of his departure, the restaurant has returned to its usual hubbub.
“Danny! Danny – my boy! It’s good to see you!” – Don Mascarpone’s welcome is both warm and effusive – “Come on in, take a seat. Boys!… Vino for the detective!”
Dan waves away the proffered glass – “Sorry Don, I’m on duty.”
“Of course. What am I thinking? So, Danny, how’s things in your line of business?”
“Hey Don, you know how things are – it’s murder out there! Hope you don’t me turning up unannounced like this, but I was passing and thought I’d come in… see what’s going down, y’know?”
“Danny, you are like a son to me – any time you like, you can just walk right in here. I gotta no secrets from you.” The Boss paused, “although, Danny, some of my… err, business associates, they kinda get a little twitchy around cops, so maybe next time you give me the uh, how you say… heads up, nexta time, yeah?”
“Sure”, said Danny, examining his lollipop carefully.
“So, Danny… is this a social visit, or you have some sorta business venture in mind?”
“The thing is, Don”, responded the detective, choosing his words carefully, “I’ve been speaking to Julius Gelati about some, er, personal matters, and your name came up… he seemed to think that I should speak to you about it…”
At the mention of the Sicilian’s name, Mascarpone stiffened noticeably. There was no love lost between the two men, although an uneasy truce existed between them – a necessary and practical means of ensuring that the business concerns of both families might be fully catered for, without undue difficulty. Even so, The Boss felt a twinge of unease at what the detective may have been discussing with his business ‘partner’.
“So talk to me, Danny”
The detective examined his fingernails meticulously, pulled a spotless handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his hands carefully.
“The thing is, Don, I went to Julius for advice and there’s a question I have to put to you – he said you wouldn’t mind, in fact his actual words were you’d be ‘made up’, when you heard what I have to say”
Don Mascarpone’s eyes narrowed: “Is that so?”
Danny sensed hostility in the air; he felt all eyes in the room upon him – for some reason he felt incredibly nervous. Once again, he rehearsed the words in his mind that he’d planned to say, steadied his nerves and looked Don straight in the eye.
“Don, my friend, you and me go way back – I think of you like my own brother and I know that over the years we haven’t seen strictly eye to eye over some things… but I’m a cop, and it’s gotta be that way – you know what I mean? The thing is, I have some family business of my own that I need to fix, and I couldn’t think of anyone better than you to turn to for help”
Mascarpone acknowledged Danny’s words with a brief nod and gestured for him to continue.
“The thing is Don, you know me and Jeannie had a kid daughter? Well, she’s the cutest little thing you ever laid eyes on and we wanna do the right thing by her and go and get her christened and, well the thing is… we was wondering if you would agree to being godfather for her?”
Don Mascarpone frowned deeply, then his face lit up in a huge grin:
“Guys!”, he said, clambering to his feet and looking around at the assembled family, “Didya hear that? Danny wants me to be godfather! Can you believe that?”
He turned to the detective and grabbed him by the shoulders, “Danny, I’m more than made up, you have just made my day! You better believe I’ll do this for you… Guys! I’m gonna be a a godfather!”
Primo: A Family Affair
There are some parts of Brooklyn that feel more Italian than insalata caprese, although nowhere near as palatable. Take a walk through Carroll Gardens and you could almost be in urban Napoli – best not go alone without an invitation though. This is where Julius Gelati calls home, but you’d have a hard time tracking down the Sicilian on any given day – he tends to move around a lot. Some say that he has a whole network of luxury ‘apartments’ beneath the streets of South Brooklyn: shipping containers, buried deep in the sewer network, kitted out with all the conveniences of home, but without the inconvenience of prying eyes and curious cops poking their noses in where they’re not wanted.
This is how Julius likes it – to be in control and calling the shots; what he doesn’t like is to share his power and influence, but this is how it has been for many long years. To be foolish enough to mention Don Mascarpone’s name in Julius’ hearing is asking for trouble – if you’ve ever wondered how the Sicilian’s most popular nightclubs ‘Sleeping with Fishes’, and ‘Concrete Boots’ came to be named, all you have to do is mention how successful Mascarpone’s business empire appears to be, and Julius will happily demonstrate the thinking behind those names.
Even so, those who are close to Julius will tell you that he’s a gentleman who will always treat you with politeness and dignity, although you may not appreciate those qualities at the time. Julius appreciates such qualities almost as much as he appreciates discretion and, should you ever find yourself involved in doing business with him you would be well-advised to bear that in mind. You will, of course, have to find him first.
Today, he is at the autoshop on 6th Street, in Gowanus – he’s not there for car repairs, this is one of his many business ventures in the area; coming to think of it, there aren’t many local businesses that he doesn’t have some vested interest in – even those he doesn’t own outright tend to pay a ‘subscription’ for his ‘concierge services’. Not everyone likes it, but most are content to put up with it for a quiet life. Today’s business, however, is a little out of the ordinary, for here, surrounded by the familiar workshop smells of oil, rubber and nervous impatience, Julius has called together his closest advisors to discuss the forthcoming christening.
“Mario… tell me the news I want to hear”.
The Sicilian’s distinctive voice was a slow, Bronx drawl – the sort of voice you might consider a little too intimidating for chainsaw massacre movie voiceovers. Mario – ‘The Fixer’ – was not intimidated, he had worked with Julius for a long time now and had little to fear from his boss. Mario often mused on the circumstances that had put him in the privileged position he now found himself and still found it somewhat surprising that he – a simple plumber – had risen to such heady height’s in the Sicilian’s organisation. To Julius, Mario’s services were invaluable and, whilst leaky taps didn’t feature too prominently in the larger scheme of things, there were many leaks, and blockages requiring fixing, and Mario was the Sicilian’s trusted right-hand man.
“All sorted boss, sweet as a nut. The cop was a pushover, and the big cheese did exactly what you said he would. He’s gonna be godfather for the kid and, better still, he’s letting the cop have the restaurant for a big get-together afterwards… there’s gonna be half the NYPD there and Mascarpone’s laying on security – we won’t get a better opportunity than this, ever!”
Julius nodded in satisfaction.
“Good work, Mario. As longstanding business associates of Signor Mascarpone and acquaintances of Detective Sherbet, I take it that we’re invited to the party?”
“Yeah, Toni owes me a lotta dough over that. Mario, you angling for a promotion or something? What the hell would I do without you?”
“Hey boss, I’m just a plumber – I’m happy just doing my thing – don’t go promoting me or nothing, not sure I could stay the course in management, it’s a bit too cut-throat for my liking!”
Julius smiled in satisfaction, things were turning out better than he’d anticipated. He sat back, relaxed now, and pulled a cigar from his breast pocket. Mario leaned forward, offering a light; Julius drew the fragrant smoke into his lungs and exhaled luxuriously, yes, things were looking good.
“Slim!”, he called out, beckoning the massive form of Rigatoni, his personal minder, from the shadows, “Slim, I want you to ensure that Mario is suitably rewarded for the work he has done, and whilst you’re at it, find me an appropriate christening present for Signor Mascarpone’s bambino, eh?”
“Sure thing boss.”
Julius grasped Mario’s hand warmly before Slim led him to the doorway.
“On your way”, the Sicilian pointed towards Mario, “take him to the cleaners will ya?”
“Sure thing, boss”
“Yeah, take him to the drycleaners… he needs a clean suit if we’re gonna be going to church – plumber’s overalls just ain’t suitable for a christening!”
Il Secondo: Baptism of fire
Could you ask for a better day? Despite the October chill, the day dawned fine and dry, and by mid-morning even the autumn sun had decided to make an appearance.
Danny Sherbet carefully removed the cellophane wrap from his best suit and, having disposed of it in the spotless wastepaper bin in the bathroom, washed his hands for the tenth time that morning. ‘You can’t be too careful where germs are concerned’, he thought to himself as he lathered his hands.
This was going to be a big day, the likes of which were unlikely to be seen again any time soon. He pictured in his mind how things would be: his colleagues from the force, resplendent in their dress uniforms, forming an honour guard outside the church, and inside, friends and family, together with some of the most influential businessmen from the community and their associates. Granted, relationships between some of those who would be present could be said to be somewhat strained at times, but Danny was sure that differences could be set aside for such a special occasion, if only temporarily.
As Jeannie breezed into the bedroom and set to work tidying his tie – she was never satisfied with his own efforts – he reflected upon Don Mascarpone’s generosity in offering his restaurant for a get-together after the church. Don wasn’t renowned for his community spirit and Danny suspected that the christening was being used as a convenient front for Don to deal with those of his business colleagues who, under normal circumstances, might be considered a little elusive. Still, it was good of Don to give up his restaurant for the afternoon and Ma Mascarpone’s home cooking was famously good – Danny was looking forward to sampling it, although he made a mental note to take his own cutlery, you just couldn’t take any chances with germs.
Don Mascarpone was not having a good morning. He may have been ‘The Boss’ to his business associates, but in the Mascarpone household there was only one real boss, and Belicosa Mascarpone – Ma, to the world in general – was not a happy woman.
“Why you do a this to me, huh? Here I am, a-slaving over the hot stoves, while you go out onna the town with your friends? And now – I canna scarcely believe it – you tell me I gotta cooka the meatballs for that greasy, no-good, sleaze-bag, Julius Gelati! Pah!”
“Mama, mama, please calm yourself – I told you, it’s a christening for that nice Detective Danny… I’m the godfather, and the boys are just coming to give their support. I know how you feel about the Sicilian, but please, it’s a special day, so just this once can you maybe just not take it to heart?”
Ma Mascarpone glared at her son.
“Mama… if you feel that bad about it, you can spit in Gelati’s pasta, eh?”
Ma dissolved into a fit of giggling and put down the pot she had been wielding.
“Mama-mia! You’re a naughty boy, but you make a me laugh! I tell you what – for you, I do this, but never again, you hear me? Now, getta outta my kitchen!”
Don gave his mother a hug and kissed her on the cheek before doing as he was told and beating a hasty retreat to the restaurant bar, where Antonia, polishing glasses, had intuitively poured a glass of Vin Santo, which he quickly downed.
Taking a more leisurely sip of his second glass, Don admitted to himself that his mother had a point. The last time he’d had any real dealings with the Sicilian, it had been murder and he wasn’t entirely sure that this time would be any better – still, maybe things wouldn’t kick off since it was a special occasion – if things did go wrong, he wasn’t too worried, there’d be cops crawling all over the place! Don wasn’t a big fan of the cops, but they had their uses.
Don Mascarpone looked around his restaurant and sighed – he was getting too old for this business: there was a time when he’d have relished the opportunity to do a little business with the other families in the area, but now he just wanted a quiet life without the distractions that had become so much a part of daily life. Once again, he sighed, before draining his glass and straightening his tie… you’ve got to look good if you’re the godfather!
Julius patted Mario on both shoulders, “Mario, my boy, no-one would ever know you was a plumber – you scrub up good”.
He turned to face the enormous bulk of his minder, “Which is more than I can say for you, Slim! Do something about that gut would you? I ain’t having no-one letting the family down at this gig.”
“Sorry boss, muttered Slim, tucking his shirt in and buttoning his jacket as best he could.”
“Ah, it’s nothing… I’m just nervous. Are you packing?”
Slim nodded, “Yes boss, everything’s packed – the kid’s present is in the trunk.”
“Sheesh!”, exclaimed Julius in exasperation, “I mean, are you ‘packing’? You know, carrying… are you carrying your piece?”
“Oh right, sorry boss, my mistake. Yeah, everything’s in order.”
“OK, just remember, I don’t want no trouble at the church – you hold back until I say the word… and if one hair on that bambino’s head gets harmed… you get my drift?”
The two lackeys nodded.
“Right boys, let’s get a move on. I want to get a good seat at the church!”
Across town, Toni Ciabatta was admiring himself in the mirror.
“Toni, you are one hell of a handsome man… watch out ladies, here I come!”: smiling brilliantly at his reflection, he struck a pose… “Are you talkin’ to me?… Are you talkin’ to me?… ‘Cause I don’t see anyone else around here!”
He gave himself a wink, smoothed down his Armani jacket and slipped the little ‘surprise’ he was saving for the party into his belt.
“Toni, today is your big day. Today is the day that Mascarpone and Gelati get to see what Mister Ciabatta is made of… toast! Those guys are toast!”
Walking to the window, Toni shouted down to his waiting acolytes: “Hey, Campari, Porcini! Stop flirting with the babes and go get the car – we’ve got a christening to attend!”
The little church on Linden Boulevard was packed to capacity, although a casual observer may have come to the conclusion that the gathering was for a funeral, rather than a christening, based on the large number of blacked-out limos parked outside.
It’s not unusual for parents to be somewhat nervous at their daughter’s christening; it’s something rather more disquieting to find that the greater share of nerves were being experienced by the guests. Snipers, strategically placed on the rooftops surrounding the chapel certainly didn’t help ease the tension, neither did the mandatory ‘pat-down’ at the entrance by SWAT officers. Some, such as Toni Ciabatta, were taking things a little too personally…
“Hey man! Watch the threads – that’s genuine Armani, y’know?”
“Sorry sir, just doing doing my job… and what do we have here?”
“You just be careful with that Beretta, it’s an heirloom from my papa – God rest his soul – Hey, what you think you’re doing with it?”
“No shooters in the church, sir. You can have it back after the service.”
Eventually, the guests were shepherded into the old stone building, leaving a small army of chauffeurs, fixers and bodyguards in the street outside, restlessly shuffling their feet and taking fitful drags of Dina cigarettes, whilst suspiciously eyeing up the opposition.
Inside, the atmosphere was similarly strained, men who would normally have been at each other’s throats found themselves sharing hymn books and grappling with the unfamiliarity of ‘Morning Has Broken’ in broken, Italian-English… however, somewhat miraculously, their rancour passed, and by the third verse of ‘Sing Hosanna’, there was open competition between the families gathered and the boys of the NYPD choir to see who could sing the loudest! Honour regained, the congregation settled down for the main event.
Danny and Jeannie Sherbet took to the platform, little Poppy in their arms, and were greeted by a universal “ahhhh”, from all those in the church, closely followed by a collective intake of breath and an animated groping for non-existent weapons, as Don Mascarpone stepped into position. Thankfully, the tension in the atmosphere soon eased sufficiently for the assembled crowd to relax and enjoy the proceedings.
The service passed without incident and the only shots taken were by the official photographer of a beaming family, and an equally jolly godfather.
“Friends, families and compatriots, today is a special day – a day when we should set aside our differences and celebrate the wonder of life. It has been my privilege to perform the duty of godfather to this little bambino today and it reminds me of those days long ago when I was also innocent and pure. Maybe there is hope for me still, no? If only for today, let us all celebrate the good things of life… you are all very welcome to join me and my family at the restaurant to toast this little girl and wish her good health and a long and happy life. Letsa go and have some fun, eh?”
Antonia Pecorino wished, for the hundredth time that afternoon, she had taken the day off. It wasn’t the crush of bodies in the restaurant, or the mayhem of the kitchen – she’d coped well enough with busy days on many occasions, but she couldn’t remember a time when serving meals had been such a unnerving experience. During a lull in service, she peered through the kitchen door into the melee taking place front of house and examined the faces of the men in their dark suits and equally dark expressions.
She’d never seen so many shifty looking characters gathered together in one place – some of whom she recognised, not from their regular meals at Mascarpone’s, but rather because that was generally the last place you’d ever think to see them. The various families tended to keep themselves to themselves and, you could clearly see the way in which each faction distanced itself from the other tables. Behind the bottles of chianti and cigar smoke, hidden behind dark glasses were faces she knew of old: Canneloni, Gelati, Rigatoni, Ciabiatta, Fusili… names that had the influence and power to make or break lives, and none of them particularly predisposed to small talk and pleasantries.
Nervously, she glanced towards the doorway where a host of New York’s finest kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. Sherbet and the other cops – off-duty, of course – were making the most of the opportunity and working through the restaurant’s reserves of grappa, even so, Antonia could tell they were twitchy – never a good way to be with the sort of company assembled around the tables today. A flurry of movement in the far corner caught her eye, as one of the younger – and some would say, more foolish – of the bosses came unsteadily to his feet.
“A toast!”, shouted Toni Ciabatta. “A toast to our host, the most venerable godfather and man of the moment… Signor Don Mascarpone!”
The mood in the restaurant grew tense – there were many gathered here who would struggle to raise a glass to The Boss. Ciabatta laughed.
“Why gentlemen, is it so difficult to set aside our differences even on an auspicious a day such as this? So be it! May I suggest an alternative toast then? To our friends, and equally to our enemies, may we all outlive one another!”
Grudgingly, glasses were raised, but not without some hostility, directed both at Toni Ciabatta, and in fairly equal measure, to all those around them.
Ciabatta continued: “Gentlemen, we have drunk to our enemies but there is much to be gained from friendship. It is no secret that I take Don Mascarpone to be an old fool, well past his prime…”
At this, the group surrounding Mascarpone bristled, reaching for their concealed weapons, causing the cops to stiffen. A glass fell to the floor, the sound of broken glass now loud in the silenced restaurant. Toni raised his hands placatingly and lowered his head.
“Scuse! La prego di accettare le mie scuse. I’m sorry, it was not my intention to provoke. What I mean, is that it is no secret that I appreciate Signor Mascarpone’s contribution to our community over the years… but maybe, it is time that he has earned the right to, er… retire and perhaps give a younger and more able man an opportunity to build on what he has established. No?
Also, it is no secret that I am somewhat indebted to Signor Gelati – quite substantially indebted if I am to be honest”, here Toni laughed nervously, “and it is also no secret that my resources are somewhat limited at the present time… however, I have a business proposition that I believe will not only provide myself with the means to repay what I owe, but which will also, ultimately be to the benefit of myself, Signor Gelati and to our little community as a whole!”
The atmosphere in the restaurant was palpable – tension was running high and Antonia found herself involuntarily performing the sign of the cross behind the closed kitchen door.
The Sicilian’s voice was as dry and deadpan as his expression: “What exactly do you propose?”
Ciabatta laughed nervously once more.
“Simple. You and I become partners, and our old adversary, Signor Mascarpone gracefully retires to somewhere sunny and warm, where his rheumatism will no longer trouble him…”
“And if Signor Mascarpone does not wish to retire?”, the Sicilian replied, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Then we ‘encourage’ him to do so!”
The vast bulk of ‘Slim’ Rigatoni, moving faster than Antonia would have thought possible, exploded from behind Mascarpone’s table.
“Why you filthy…!” He blazed, drawing his weapon as he sprang forward.
That was the cue for complete mayhem! The restaurant burst into a free-for-all, the sound of gunshots and hysteria filling the air.
In just six minutes, it was all over – broken men lay strewn over broken tables; the groans of the wounded filled the air, and the bodies of both Toni Ciabatta and Julius Gelati lay still and unmoving.
As the smoke cleared, Detective Danny Sherbet lifted his head and slowly raised himself from his crouch. At his feet, Don Mascarpone lay, a dark red stain spreading slowly across his chest.
“Don! Don! I’m so sorry – this was all my fault!”, Danny exclaimed, taking the prostrate man’s hand in his own.
“Eh, what’s that?”, stuttered Mascarpone, awkwardly rising into a sitting position. He looked down at the stain covering his white dress shirt, and frowned.
“Mama mia! Will ya look at the state of this shirt!” – he looked Danny in the eye – “I tella you – this tomato sauce is a nightmare to get out in the wash!”