By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Those were the years when heroin was flooding the ghettos, a plague that was ultimately to carry away several generations. While it's easy to wax poetic about such mob escapades as running sports books, there's little romance about needles and overdoses. But that was the main and highly profitable industry of Pleasant Avenue. And the biggest names in heroin distribution at the time were local royalty. They included Carmine "Mr. Gribbs" Tramunti and Ralph "The General" Tutino, a pair of high-level Luchese hoodlums and Rao's regulars.
In 1979, two years after the swell crowd from downtown started flocking to the restaurant in response to Sheraton's rave, an embarrassing thing happened to owner Vincent Rao: He was arrested along with six other gangland figures, charged with laundering millions of dollars in cash, much of it from local H dealers. The elder Rao argued that he was simply cashing checks, helping out locals who had no nearby bank to use. But those who knew his operation had few illusions. "He had a room full of money there," recalled one regular. "There's no question what he was up to," said another.
Ultimately, Vinnie Rao pled guilty to criminal facilitation. At his death, the restaurant passed to his widow, Anna, and then to his nephews, Pellegrino and Straci. After the cousins turned the restaurant into a phenomenon, they began marketing the Rao's brand name, selling sauce, roasted peppers, even CDs of the tunes on Rao's jukebox. "You may not get a table at Rao's, but now Rao's brings it home to your family," goes the pitch.
In addition to the unions and the restaurant, Straci has another business as well, a bus company called Whitehall Transportation that has a contract with the downtown business improvement district to provide a free shuttle for tourists. Straci is president of the company and owns it together with family members of his original law partners. It operates nonunion.
Why would the lawyer for the school bus drivers' union run a nonunion bus company?
"It's a fair question," Straci said. "But since I am a small minority owner and don't have anything to do with the day to day, that's why it's that way."
As for the Local 1181 dissidents he has been battling in and out of court for the past few years, Straci said they've gotten fair treatment. "They had their run, they got some votes, and lost," he said. "Their challenges were really unsupported."
Sitting in his bus in Brooklyn, Simon Jean-Baptiste said he wasn't surprised at Straci's comments. "The lawyer is not there to defend the members. He is there to defend his friends, the delegates," he said. "They see us as outsiders coming into their business. They do everything they can to keep us from sitting at their table."