Prohibition Revisits the East Village

Get out your trilby hats and flapper dresses- Boardwalk Empire, the HBO Prohibition-era mob drama, is filming right here on East 12th Street and 2nd Avenue at John’s Italian Restaurant.  Set in Atlantic City, the series often departs to New York to check in with Jewish mob boss Arnold Rothstein and his then-“employee” Sicilian-American gangster Lucky Luciano, who would become the father of the modern Genovese crime family.  It looks like this episode is depicting one such departure, as the street is lined with astute men in three piece suits puffing away on their cigars.

Today's filming of Boardwalk Empire on East 12th Street in front of John's! The man on the left with his back to the camera is actor Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Arnold Rothstein.

Some of the 1920's era costumes being used on set

Rothstein, Luciano, and the show’s main character, Nucky Thompson who headed Atlantic City’s organized crime web, were all real men who were actually known to have patronized John’s Restaurant in the East Village.  In fact, Charles “Lucky” Luciano grew up at 265 East 10th Street.  On January 17, 1919, prohibition went into effect, cementing the mob’s newest form of revenue- making, moving, and ultimately selling illegal alcohol until its repeal in 1933.  Much of this wheeling and dealing was done in speakeasies.

L: John's Restaurant at 302 East 12th Street; R: Charlie "Lucky" Luciano's childhood home at 265 East 10th Street

Arnold Rothstein and Michael Stuhlbarg playing his character on Boardwalk Empire


Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Vincent Piazza playing his character on Boardwalk Empire

John’s Restaurant was a prominent speakeasy of the era, making wine and whiskey in the basement.  These illegal beverages were served in espresso cups in case of a raid.  Opened in 1908 by John Puciatti, an immigrant from Umbria, this was a red sauce and wine joint that exuded the type of Old World Italian spirit to which mobsters have been known to gravitate.

The front dining room of John's

According to Eric Ferrara, Executive Director of the Lower East Side History Project who leads weekly mafia walking tours, the restaurant is most associated with gangster culture for the fact that, “Charlie Luciano killed Rocco Umberto Valenti on that corner in August of 1922.   Though no one was ever charged, it is pretty well established in gangland history. There are reports of the shooting in NY Times archives.”  Umberto was called to John’s for a “peace offering” with fellow mob boss Guissepe Messeria.  Upon his arrival, he was chased to the corner and gunned down.  Ferrara further notes that Carlo Tresca, historical anarchist and opponent of fascism and the mafia, lived in an apartment atop John’s, was friends with the owners, and ate his last meal at the restaurant before being assassinated by a mafia gunman on 5th Avenue and East 13th Street.

A close-up of one of the paintings on the wall of John's. Could it be of the notorious mob bosses discussing business?

One of the restaurant’s most noteworthy features is its gigantic candelabra that graces the back room.  Dripping wax atop of vintage wine bottles form this rarity which has been in place since the end of prohibition.  The restaurant’s staff has to regularly shave down the wax.  On another HBO mob series note, an episode of the Sopranos was shot at John’s as well.  Even Jackie Kennedy and Tom Cruise have broken bread here!  Today the original tiled floors and burgundy leather banquettes are still in place and easily transport any meatball-eating patron back to the days of the old East Village.

The back dining room of John's and its candelabra

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Dana Dana was GVSHP's Programs and Administrative Associate from 2010 to 2013.