Malice's Restaurant

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

But the international said there was no reason to do so. "The officers and executive board members and stewards," George wrote in response, "are continuing to effectively carry out their obligations and responsibilities on behalf of the membership they represent." He then went on to feature Battaglia and his local as a union success story in the February issue of the international's magazine, with no mention of the pending indictments.

One reason for the inaction may be that Local 1181 is the largest in the union and thus holds substantial sway when it comes to electing national officers. A labor official familiar with the players suggested another reason: This is New York, and these guys are with the mob. Why go looking for trouble?

Either way, it wasn't something George or anyone else in the international wanted to discuss with the Voice, failing to return phone calls. Out on Woodhaven Boulevard in Ozone Park, the local union was even less receptive to inquiries. A Voice reporter who managed to make it to the union's third-floor executive offices got a personal bum's rush from Bernstein, who emerged from his office to take a look at the person asking to see him.

illustration: Thomas Fluharty

Wearing a tan sweater and appearing trim and in good shape for his 83 years, Bernstein waved from behind the glass reception window. "Goodbye," he called out. "We got nothing to say to you. I had trouble with you people years ago." When the reporter didn't budge, Bernstein's face grew dark. "Here, you want me to show you the way out?" he said, lunging for the door. For a moment, an octogenarian assault seemed a distinct possibility. Instead, the secretary-treasurer punched the elevator button and said, "Now get the fuck out of here."

Ron Straci said he wasn't surprised when told of his clients' response. "Come on, they're not going to talk to you," he said. Straci also declined to sit down and talk. "Probably not," he responded. "Really, at this stage it is a 'No comment' kind of a thing."

Straci has often opted not to discuss his union clients. In addition to Local 1181, he used to represent a small Teamsters local in the Bronx that, when national union auditors arrived, they found that the office had been turned into a betting parlor run by a longtime Genovese mobster. Another client was an independent Production Workers local whose president Straci represented when he was indicted and pled guilty to embezzlement. The lawyer lost his representation of Laborers Local 731 a couple years ago when the national union closed it down after discovering that the local's president had siphoned off thousands to pay his personal bills, and to buy such items as a $3,000 football jersey signed by Joe Montana.

Straci's firm still represents the Teamsters local for the city's parking garage attendants. He's had the account since the days it was run by Cirino "Speed" Salerno, the brother of late Genovese boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, the cigar-chomping mob prelate who chose national Teamster union presidents while perched on his chair on the sidewalk outside the Palma Boy Social Club on 115th Street, around the corner from Rao's. A former Salerno lieutenant named Vincent "Fish" Cafaro, who defected to the government in the late 1980s, insisted that Speed Salerno and Straci had received $250,000 apiece in kickbacks when the union's East 86th Street building was sold to a developer. Cafaro claimed Straci had been shorted $10,000 on the deal and "still wants" his money—a story Straci has dismissed as a fable.

Although he graduated from Fordham Law School and served as a JAG in the Air Force, Straci had a head start when it came to representing unions. The edge was courtesy of his father, an infamous gangster named Joseph "Joe Stretch" Stracci (the son dropped the second C). A major power in the garment industry, Joe Stretch was said to control the head of the city's Teamsters joint council. But he made his biggest splash in 1950 when he and his brother-in-law "Tough Joey" Rao were used as strong arms by Frank Costello to keep city commissioners and Democratic Party leaders in line. Rao and Joe Stretch became the targets of a special grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan after a group of Democrats said they'd been intimidated into dumping an anti-Costello official after Tough Joey and Joe Stretch showed up at a meeting. Hogan said that the presence of the two "notorious underworld characters," as the papers routinely dubbed them, was like pointing "guns at the heads" of the politicians, but the D.A. brought no charges.

It was Tough Joey's brother Vincent who ran Rao's restaurant for years, the restaurant serving as a friendly outpost for wiseguys around the city, but mostly for the benefit of the tight-knit hoods affiliated with the Genovese and Luchese crime families who still kept a foothold in the old neighborhood. The place stayed low-key for years until Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton slipped into a seat one night in 1977 and wrote a column hailing it as "a genuine find."

After praising "the tenderest squid and slivered scungilli" she'd ever tasted, the critic described the diners as "a mix of rough and ready habitués" of the neighborhood, and suggested readers consult a recent book called The Pleasant Avenue Connection "to get an interesting glimpse into the area's history." The book was written by David Durk, the former police lieutenant who, with Detective Frank Serpico, blew the lid off corruption in the NYPD. Durk's co-author was investigative reporter Ira Silverman. The title referred to the fact that the avenue just west of the FDR Drive, running from Jefferson Park to 120th Street, was city central for heroin importation. Major dealers flagrantly marketed their goods on the strip. City anti-narcotics squads remained oblivious to the merchants until Durk, urged on by a local resident who didn't want his son to become a junk salesman, pressured authorities to take action. Up to then, Durk and Silverman wrote, it was a place where, "if you knew the right people, you could go there at three in the morning to borrow $50,000, buy a machine gun, fix a judge, or pick up three kilos of heroin."

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