What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

Once, as I sat eating dinner at the bar, I overheard one of the men nearby mock me: “He’s here to look at the mobsters,” he told his friend. 

I took his point. After a few visits to the place, I’d seen no mobsters. But I kept coming, just to enjoy the Mexican ravioli for its own sake. Malone’s is presided over by Joe Malone, a friendly, hulking Irishman. Malone is the father-in-law of Steve Mazzone, who never did show up on that not-so-fateful night to get killed.

Instead, Mazzone was convicted in 2001 of racketeering charges and acquitted of murder. Upon his release in 2007, he returned to his wife and kids, who live just around the corner. What his future holds is an open question. But it’s a safe bet that men paid by the federal government are watching to find out.

Malone’s still plays host to the mob’s annual Christmas party, during which the criminals revel indoors while the police watch from the street. But Joe Malone recently cut the bar down in size, to accommodate more tables for a growing clientele from outside the neighborhood. And anyone who comes here “looking for mobsters” will probably have to settle for the afterglow of recent history, not the real thing.  

Understanding the state of our current mob requires an understanding of Joey Merlino. For one thing, Merlino symbolizes the mob’s ultimate degradation: its fall from a syndicate with at least some rules about its conduct, to a group of thugs from the neighborhood who got involved in everything from baby-formula heists to cocaine sales, extortion and murder. It’s also Merlino who may return to his post as boss.

The feds are said to be preparing an indictment for Ligambi, who took over the mob in 1999, after Merlino was arrested. In a reversal of fortune, Ligambi’s arrest could set the stage for Merlino’s return, in 2011, to a city in which his two most trusted associates — Steve Mazzone and John Ciancaglini — are already free. Merlino will still be young, at 49 years old. And photos of him in prison show Skinny Joey used his abundant free time to get ripped — his body heavily muscled and perhaps ready for war.

As one criminal defense attorney in town puts it: “Everyone knows, Joey wanted a piece of everything. It’s hard to imagine him coming out and being satisfied with whatever comes his way.”

Throughout my journey, talk of the current mob drew shrugs. The only time I tasted real, bitter fear was at the mention of Merlino’s name. On Passyunk Avenue, where Merlino once ran a small cafe, I ventured into Colombo’s sandwich shop, where the proprietor threw up his hands like two big stop signs at the syllables “Mer-lin-o” and repeated “I got nothin’ to say” until I walked out the door. In a cheese shop down the street, a manager came barreling to the counter: “We don’t know anything,” he repeated, until I went for the exit. In an after-hours club, a woman told me, as if speaking for all of South Philadelphia, “We don’t want Joey back. I hope he never gets out of prison. A lot of good people lost their lives, for no good reason.”