Sean Bell was pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital in Queens by the time the pastry chef, only a couple miles away, began preparing the 23-year-old groom’s wedding cake. It was going to be a white wedding. Within hours, white balloons, white linens, a white cake, and more than 20 mixed-flower centerpieces were due to arrive at La Bella Vita in Ozone Park, where the 8 p.m. reception was scheduled to take place.
Or so the story now gets told by the owner of La Bella Vita, in the wake of last month’s shootings. A year before the November 25 wedding date, Sean had stopped by to grab a slice with some friends at Tony Modica’s Pizza Dance, on the corner of 106th Street and Rockaway Boulevard, just adjacent to Modica’s La Bella Vita catering hall. The pizza place is a neighborhood haunt; it’s only a couple blocks away from John Adams High School, where Sean and his soon-to-be bride, Nicole Paultre, met. Modica runs ads of himself on local television doing the “pizza dance,” making him a somebody. Every time Sean and his friends passed by, they’d shout, “Hey, Tony, do the pizza dance!” Modica would do his moves—bang it, shake it, spin it, put it in the oven—miming the actions of making a big Italian pie. Sean always laughed: slightly mocking, but amused nonetheless. Then that day, when Sean was enjoying a slice, he asked Modica, as if in anticipation of a certain event: “If I have a party one day, I’m going to come to you. Will you cut me a good deal?” Modica said yes.
Two months later, on January 11, Sean walked into La Bella Vita with his fiancée; their two young daughters, Jada and Jordyn; and Valerie Bell, his mother. Sean was ready to take Modica up on the offer—he was ready to marry and to organize a party. The six of them watched a video, a compilation of Modica’s wedding offerings, set to techno-rave-type music. The couple made selections for the November 25, 2006, wedding reception for 160 friends and family members. The usual price per customer for the sort of deluxe reception Bell wanted was $49.95 per person, which would have meant an $8,000 price tag before Modica’s discount.
La Bella Vita has four large, kitschy, white statues standing guard out front—two lions and two women draped with robes. Smooth-faced rocks, bound together with gray cement, form the facade. Red cursive-neon lighting across the front illuminates the words “La Bella Vita.” A small swath of Astroturf leads the way under the burgundy awning and into the catering hall itself. The grand ballroom, on the top floor, would hold the planned Bell reception. Navy-blue carpeting covers the floor of the room, the size of two basketball courts, and mirrors cover the walls, making the space appear double the size. A rectangular neon-blue light frames the large crystal chandelier and reflects off the polished dancefloor below like a small pond under a starry night. Tables ring the perimeter of the dancefloor. White linen napkins were to be folded into fans and tucked festively into wineglasses. Helium balloons tied to the backs of chairs and arrangements from a neighborhood florist down the street would add to the celebratory atmosphere. The bride and groom would sit at the head of the room, at a table all their own, in two rattan chairs with large, circular latticed backs that look like thrones.
The couple chose what Bruno Caputo, the wedding planner, calls a double-three cake—a three-tier and a two-tier cake connected with a metallic-plastic bridge where the bride and groom figurines would stand. The napoleon cake—flaky pastry with layers of vanilla custard—was to be covered in fancy folds of white icing. The couple also ordered Modica’s “pizza dance march.” The couple’s first evening as husband and wife would begin with the dance, along with a sparkling-apple-cider toast. Sean rejected the idea of champagne and an open bar; he didn’t want his guests getting drunk. The 10 servers and Modica were to fill each flute, one at a time, then open the floor for more toasts, and soon after, for the DJ to begin the first song, “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross.
Two weeks before the wedding, Bell’s mother called to upgrade the affair from the eight-item buffet to the deluxe 12-item buffet, which, besides extra entrée choices, would include embellishments like carving stations and white-glove-clad waitstaff—an effort to make all 160 guests happy. On the wedding day, the chef arrived at La Bella Vita at six in the morning to make the feast. By the time Modica came in at 10 a.m. to prepare his specialty, two large fillets of salmon stuffed with parsley, garlic, and bread crumbs, 75 percent of the food was ready for cooking—trays of rigatoni filetto di pomodoro, roast beef, roast pig, fried calamari, eggplant parmigiana, penne à la vodka, chicken parmigiana, Italian sausage, and cold antipasto. Modica expected Bell’s mother to come by any minute with the guests’ name cards, party favors, and the bride-and-groom figurines to set atop the soon-to-be-baked wedding cake. Instead she called with the news: “My son’s been shot dead.”