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One of the recipes for a successful Lower East Side bar is to make a bow to the neighborhood's bad old days, while offering all the comforts of modern hipsterdom.
This was the formula applied by actor-turned-tavern-owner Bruce Peter DuPré when he opened his place on Avenue B between 11th and 12th streets a few years back. He dubbed it "Rue B" for a French touch, and installed dim lights, vintage photographs, a jazz combo, and a menu of $10 cosmos and martinis. The atmosphere is intended as "1940s speakeasy," as he says on his restaurant's Facebook page. Speakeasies were actually long gone by the '40s, but you get the idea: a dose of criminal nostalgia to set the mood and whet the appetite. This worked just fine until the real thing walked in the door.
That was in 2007, when one of New York's last surviving gangster legends, John "Sonny" Franzese, took a liking to the little place. The café owner told the story last week in Brooklyn federal court where Franzese, 93 years old with a wheelchair beside him, is standing trial for extortion and racketeering. The trial has broken new Mafia ground since Franzese's son, John Jr., was the main witness for the government against his own father.
DuPré came on the stand a few days later to tell how the reputed underboss of the Colombo crime family had made him an offer he couldn't refuse. One night, after drinking with his associates at one of the banquettes against the wall, the elderly gangster had politely approached DuPré as he was taking a break outside. "He asked to have a word with me. I said, 'Of course,' and he put his arm around me and we walked down the street together, and at that time he said, 'From here on in, you are with me,' and he said, 'If anybody gives you trouble, then they give me trouble. If anybody tries to do you harm, then they do me harm.' "
Savvy New Yorkers will recognize this as the classic mob preamble delivered to legitimate businessmen shortly before they are sucked dry. That is precisely where things quickly headed for DuPré. The real question is why—of all the martini joints from 14th Street to Delancey—Sonny Franzese wandered into this one.
The answer is that Rue B's owner suffered one of those head-on collisions where the romance of the Mafia collides with the everyday practice of being a criminal. The romance part was on DuPré's end. An actor who arrived in New York in the '70s, he had parts in the soap opera As the World Turns, as well as non-speaking roles in two New York classics, Annie Hall and Taxi Driver. Over the years, he said, "I gravitated to the restaurant business." He opened Rue B with a partner in 2000. He was looking to boost his customer base, while also scoping out possible acting gigs, when he met Franzese.
This was at a restaurant on Second Avenue, where a character actor named Vinny Vella was holding forth at a weekly show where he played a Mafia boss. The mob-movie business is a true growth industry, and Vella has played a wide-girthed, marble-mouthed wiseguy in some 40 films, including Casino and Analyze That. His shows draw a crowd of those who portray mobsters, as well as their role models. DuPré testified that he stopped by "to see what kind of traffic this promotional evening would create in hopes that I might consider moving that venue over to my restaurant."
Among those there to take in the show was Franzese. Vella introduced them. "I stood up and shook hands and said hello," DuPré testified.
DuPré was so impressed that he decided to host the Vinny Vella nights at his own club. "It would be helpful to my business," he explained, adding: "I had a personal interest in perhaps getting work in the acting field for myself."
DuPré welcomed Franzese to his café, even comping him for his food and bar tab. After a few visits, the real-life gangster took DuPré for his arm-around walk down the block. A few weeks later, DuPré got his first lesson in what Franzese meant by the word "with." It was delivered by three of Franzese's young associates, who smashed down the door of DuPré's downstairs office.
In court, DuPré pointed to one of them, a 28-year-old with sandy hair and a hard glint in his eye named Christopher Curanovic. On tapes in the case, Franzese is heard referring to him as one of his "Albanian kids."
Curanovic "began to slap me and berate me and call me names and was yelling why I hadn't returned their phone calls," DuPré said. Curanovic grabbed a screwdriver he spotted in the office. "He tried to grab my hand, and was trying to stab my hand into the desk." DuPré managed to pull away, but the men told him there'd be more of the same unless he agreed to fork over $1,500 weekly. If not, DuPré was told, "he said that he would be very happy to come and throw me a beating and break my leg. That he would like nothing more than to beat the crap out of me." DuPré told the men his tiny restaurant couldn't afford more than $500. The gangsters agreed, taking what he had in a small office safe along with a fistful of tens and twenties from the cash register behind the bar.