This is not your usual mob story. Because the mob we got used to — Joey Merlino’s youthful, murderous, Clockwork Orange-style mob, the mob that did the ultra-violence — is 10 years gone now. Imagine ever sitting down for a simple glass of wine with Skinny Joey. Ligambi’s outfit is quieter, more disciplined and smaller, perhaps even tourist-friendly. If a body falls in a darkened room, and only the gunman is there to hear it, does it make a sound? What if no bodies fall at all? The Philadelphia mob hasn’t killed anyone in at least six years — the longest peaceful streak this city has seen since the days of Angelo Bruno, the so-called “Gentle Don,” who was shot to death in 1980. If the mob doesn’t kill anyone, is it still the mob?
Joe Ligambi’s mob, and his behavior, raise that question. And for an answer, I need to go to South Philadelphia.
AT ITS HEIGHT in the late ’60s, the Philly mob had roughly 60 official members and controlled numerous legitimate businesses. Members committed small crimes, like sports gambling. And big things, like homicide, especially after Bruno’s death. In the 19 years immediately following Bruno’s murder, there were 35 mob-related killings in Philadelphia, culminating in the nightclubbing reign of Joey Merlino. Skinny Joey is in jail now, finishing a racketeering sentence. (He was also accused and acquitted of two attempted murders and three homicides.)
Pulitzer-nominated Inquirer crime reporter George Anastasia puts the total number of currently active mobsters at just 20 guys. To put that in perspective, the Blind Bowlers Association of Delaware numbers 24.
Over the past couple of months, I went looking for signs of the mob in South Philadelphia, in restaurants, bars, private clubs, and places without any name whatsoever. Mostly, I gained weight. But after showing my face in several spots around town, I started receiving invitations to no-limit poker games. Talk about tourist-friendly! And in Malone’s Backroom Cafe, a restaurant at the corner of 18th and Ritner, I saw a business trying to strike a truce with its past.
Sixteen years ago, during the city’s last major mob war, a gunman planned to kill gangster Steve Mazzone inside Malone’s; eight years ago, during Philadelphia’s last major mob trial, federal prosecutors portrayed the place as a Mafia hangout; and three years ago, the admission policy was more exclusive than Studio 54’s. “If we didn’t recognize you,” says Johnny, the bartender, “you didn’t get in.”
Today, the door to Malone’s Backroom Cafe is wide open. The flooring is unadorned tile. The tables are bare wood, the kind families carry up from the basement for holiday parties. And the vibe is friendly. This is the restaurant as an extension of your house, serving food that tastes home-cooked, and encouraging cross-table conversations that sometimes swell to include the entire dining room. Malone’s is an Italian restaurant with an Irish name and a Mexican chef. It’s a BYOB, with a bar.