We’re still reveling in yesterday’s excitement of seeing Boardwalk Empire set up a mock-prohibition-era scene in the East Village. In fact, we’re drinking Mint Juleps and listening to Cole Porter right now. Okay, we don’t get quite that crazy at the office, but we have been thinking more about the neighborhood’s connections to prohibition and the mob. So, we decided to visit another historic Italian establishment with links to gangster culture- DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe at 176 First Avenue.
Opened on April 20, 1904 by Paolo DeRobertis, the pasticceria was originally called Caffe Pugliese in honor of Paolo’s Italian birthplace in Puglia, Italy. In 1928, Paolo trained his son John DeRobertis Sr. and passed the business on to him. Today, it is run by John DeRobertis Jr. who grew up on East 11th Street but now commutes in each day from Nutley, NJ to make sure his family’s legacy continues. He is proud of the fact that everything is baked on the premises. The original ornately-tiled floors and pressed-tin ceiling still remain today.
So now back to that mob connection. It’s a pretty well known fact that gangsters like their cannolis, so why wouldn’t they hang out in a pastry shop owned by fellow Italian immigrants? DeRobertis was considered the “safe” mafia hangout of the East Village. Local boy Lucky Luciano often hung out there in the 20’s, holding meetings in the back room with fellow mobster and Lower East Sider Meyer Lansky. In fact, actor Vincent Piazza, who plays Luciano on Boardwalk Empire, spent time in DeRobertis as research for his role.
The mafia connection to the bakery only grew as the years went on and the mob’s stronghold intensified. In 1935, mobster Mike Sabatelli, aka “Mike the Boss,” was arrested at DeRobertis with several others for running an “Italian Lottery” out of the pastry shop. During the 70’s it was a favorite hangout for Carmine “Lilo” Galante, then boss of the Bonanno crime family. In fact, Galante is believed to have murdered Carlo Tresca outside of John’s Italian Restaurant. In 1991, eight members of the Gambino crime family were indicted on murder and other charges. One of these men was John “Handsome Jack” Giordano, who had assumed some of John Gotti’s power while he, at the time, was in prison awaiting trial. The arrests stemmed from the crew’s “office” in DeRobertis where they ran “businesses” of gambling, lone sharking, extortion, drug and weapon dealing, and the sale of forged credit cards. Wiretaps were placed in DeRobertis in addition to a presence of undercover cops and informants. Giordano’s uncle, Joseph “Joe Piney” Armone, had first started running operations out of the pastry shop when he became John Gotti’s second underboss (his first, Frank DeCicco was killed in 1986). Armone went to prison in 1988 for racketeering, at which time matters were handed over to Giordano, who would receive a one-year sentence after the DeRobertis raid (he was shot and killed in 1995 on the Upper East Side). According to a New York Times Articles written about the 1991 arrests, shortly after the commotion everyone went back to merrily eating their Pignoli cookies and sipping espresso. We can’t say we blame them by the looks of those delicious confections.