Crime & Nourishment

In Miami breaking bread has become an intricate part of breaking the law

A Coconut Grove restaurateur faces life in the slammer for serving a certain illegal appetizer, one not featured on his menu. A real special. Let's call it cocaine primavera. And you had to know just how to ask for it.

Giovanni Tummolillo owned Cafe Sci Sci, a high-end Italian restaurant in the Grove frequented by wealthy tourists and local movers and shakers alike that once served as a venue for a party hosted by the president of Argentina. But this past October, Tummolillo was convicted of committing six drug law violations. Federal prosecutors argued that he was a "silent boss" who allowed his eatery to operate as a front for drug deals.

The key to the government's case against Tummolillo was an Italian informant named Vinicio Avegnano, who had befriended the pasta purveyor. Their conversations began with talk about exporting goods to Italy but soon turned to drugs. In an April 1993 meeting at the restaurant, secretly recorded by federal agents, the informant indicated he wanted to purchase some cocaine for personal use. Tummolillo responded that his brother-in-law could provide it, got up from the table, made a call from a telephone at the front of the restaurant, and then returned with news that said brother-in-law would be arriving in 30 minutes to deliver the coke. The actual transaction went down a while later in the restaurant's parking lot.

Over the next seven months, federal agents compiled a collection of audio tapes chronicling subsequent deals, some of which involved Tummolillo's knowledge or cooperation. Based on this evidence, a federal jury, in addition to returning the multiple guilty verdicts, also decided Tummolillo should lose both his $500,000 house and his business, which was grossing about $2 million a year. (Tummolillo was scheduled to be sentenced in March, but the hearing was canceled and a new date has not been set.)

Fellow restaurateurs Stefano and Linda Brandino can feel Tummolillo's pain. This past August federal drug agents raided the wealthy couple's three popular Key Biscayne restaurants (Sundays on the Bay, Stefano's, and Linda B Steak House), arresting the Brandinos and charging them with money laundering; also, some of their employees are accused of dealing cocaine at the eateries. As was the case with the Cafe Sci Sci bust, federal agents employed Avegnano as an undercover informant and made extensive clandestine recordings at the Brandinos' businesses. The couple is scheduled to stand trial in early May.

As these two cases illustrate, Miami restaurants and bars are much more than places to merely chow down and bend an elbow. No, they also function as venues for political corruption and shady deals and undercover surveillance and illegal transactions of money and drugs. All over town, from Miami Beach to Sweetwater, more secretive business than you can possibly imagine is being conducted in the next booth or down at the end of the bar -- by shadowy dopers and crooked politicians and bad cops and naughty judges and short-fused mobsters. Some of it may one day come to light. Plenty of it already has: in police reports, media coverage, indictments, and trial testimony. From the lounges of four-star hotels to the glass-covered tables at strip clubs, from the Forge to Denny's, Miami's nosh joints and watering holes have factored into many notable criminal cases as locales for illegal goings-on.

The frequency of this sort of activity suggests that every party of four men in suits may be the wellspring of a political conspiracy; every waiter an undercover assassin; every barmaid an elected official's downfall; every child running to the bathroom the linchpin in a hemispheric drug trafficking network. The following tour of Miami's gastronomic nooks will show why it's no coincidence that bribe rhymes with imbibe, and why asking for a Coke can occasionally cause confusion for the waitstaff.

Fries With That Kilo, Sir?
From the looks of things, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) picks up a lot of checks at South Florida's restaurants and bars. Jim Shedd, spokesman for the agency's Miami office, estimates that on any given day there are about 2000 open DEA investigations throughout Florida and the Bahamas. Undercover meetings in connection with these cases are going on "all the time," he adds, frequently in Miami's cafes, bistros, and taverns.

Rendezvous locations cover the spectrum, Shedd notes. "I've met people undercover at the News Cafe, money launderers at the Grand Bay. And Shooters: They like places [on the water.] They pull up in their boats, a babe on each arm, and are, like, 'Doooood!'

"For a lot of these places, we go there because sometimes, not always, the dopers themselves want to go there. These are locations that everyday, normal people would go to. Narcotics traffickers don't have horns and a tail; they're normal people and they do normal, everyday things and they like to go to places where the ambiance is good and the food is good." Another consideration, Shedd points out, is the ease with which "corroborating evidence" from electronic and physical surveillance can be obtained in such inconspicuous spots. "Citizens can tend to get upset with this [sort of information]. They say, 'How can I be sure that the people next to me aren't dopers?' The fact of life is, you can't."

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