Malice's Restaurant

What Rao's and a gangster-run school bus drivers' union have in common

Most nights Ron Straci helps run Rao's, the city's most exclusive restaurant, a place favored by society swells and hoodlums alike, where you've got a better chance at getting a table if your name is Frankie Brains than if it's Madonna. But in his day job, Straci is a labor lawyer and the work is far less glamorous. For instance, one of his recent tasks has been to handle a group of dissidents who challenged their union's recent election as undemocratic and unfair. In February, Straci sent a letter to the members explaining that the union he represents had considered and dismissed their protest.

"All of the challenges were investigated by the committee appointed by the Secretary-Treasurer," wrote Straci. The committee had recommended, and the executive board had voted, that the challenges be dismissed. The decision was then ratified at a meeting of the general membership, "without questions or objections from the floor." Case closed.Straci made no mention that the secretary-treasurer in question who oversaw this inquiry into democratic procedures was a spry 83-year-old, an alleged veteran mobster named Julius Bernstein, who goes by the nickname "Spike." Nor that the meeting of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union had been presided over by president Salvatore Battaglia, 59, another reputed mob associate. Nor that both men, along with the woman overseeing the union's $268 million in pension funds (the girlfriend of said Spike Bernstein), are currently accused by federal prosecutors of conspiring with an acting boss of the Genovese crime family to obstruct justice and extort a union medical vendor of $100,000.

"Those are still allegations. The case has not gone forward yet," Straci said when asked about the matter recently. Indeed, the case filed in the Southern District of New York on July 28 isn't due to go to trial until this fall. Assuming there is no prior resolution, the government's prosecutors will then play tape recordings of conversations made at a restaurant called Don Peppe's a few blocks from the local's headquarters in Ozone Park, Queens, where these union officers allegedly discussed schemes with another aging Genovese hood named Ciro Perrone. They will also play tapes of telephone conversations of an 85-year-old Mafia legend named Matthew Ianniello, described by prosecutors as the acting boss of the Genovese crime family. Known as "Matty the Horse" for his hefty stature—six feet tall and some 300 pounds—Ianniello became famous as the mob czar presiding over the bars, restaurants, and porn palaces of pre-Disney Times Square. His reputation grew larger after Crazy Joey Gallo was gunned down in Umberto's Clam House, Ianniello's family-owned restaurant on Mulberry Street. The Horse was in the kitchen at the time. He saw nothing.

illustration: Thomas Fluharty

Those are stories that get told regularly and with gusto at Rao's (pronounced Ray-ohs), the restaurant that constitutes Straci's second job. Together with his better-known cousin, restaurateur turned actor Frank Pellegrino, Straci is co-owner of the much coveted East Harlem bistro, which they have made into a destination for everyone from presidents to movie stars and Wall Street tycoons. Bill Clinton has tucked in a napkin there, along with New Jersey's Jon Corzine, George Pataki, and ex-senator Al D'Amato, who wooed a girlfriend or two over dinner. But the pols get fewer glances than celebrity regulars like Woody Allen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal, and Rob Reiner. And the stars make room for such corporate titans as Jack Welch and Ron Perelman, and the steady stream of moguls who dine with tough-talking ex-detective turned private eye to the stars Bo Dietl, who holds down a weekly table.

For sure, part of the attraction is a reputation for excellent red sauce, chicken limone, and seafood salad. There is also the fact that Rao's is a charming and cozy little place, with just 11 tables, lit by perpetual Christmas lights. It is located on a remote corner at East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, across from Thomas Jefferson Park and the old Benjamin Franklin High School.

But even more important than its ambience and clam sauce is the unmistakably strong aroma of Cosa Nostra. As the late author and Rao's regular Dick Schaap wrote in his preface to Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking, one of the lures is "the suspicion that every other diner is the Godfather of something or other."

Actually, it's more than suspicion. On a lovely spring evening last June, Rao's co-owner Pellegrino leaned over Fran Drescher and Dan Aykroyd and crooned his version of "My Girl." Pellegrino, who plays an FBI supervisor on The Sopranos, often serenades guests lucky enough to finagle a seat at his restaurant, and the Post's Page Six gave his warbling a boldfaced mention. Not that he or his place needed the plug. A couple of days earlier there was a much better item in the papers, one guaranteed to prompt more eager reservation requests from Wall Street types. That was the news that an aging mob loan shark named Frank Tramontano had tried to bribe police by splitting $160,000 in cash they found hidden in his Staten Island home, and then sweetened the pot by suggesting the matter be discussed over his table at Rao's.

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