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."
Federal officials say that during the busiest drug-trafficking days of the Seventies and Eighties, many undercover meetings took place at locations near Miami International Airport, including the Airport Hilton, the coffee shop at the Marriott, and even Denny's Restaurant.
Especially Denny's, that estimable home of the Grand Slam, purveyor of the exquisite French Slam, and originator of the Play It Again Slam -- a sometime clubhouse for drug dealers. "Just about any Denny's close to the airport was a forum for [secret] recordings over the years," recalls Steven Chaykin, a former assistant U.S. attorney who leaped the fence to private practice. "Virtually all the major undercover investigations involving importation of marijuana or cocaine inevitably had meetings in or around a Denny's." A 1988 federal indictment, for example, accused a cabal of cocaine smugglers of meeting at a Denny's on NW 36th Street to exchange money and flight plans. The smuggling ring allegedly shipped the drugs from Colombia through Cuba, Haiti, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Four years ago a moonlighting general in the Venezuelan national guard was arrested after accepting twenty kilograms of cocaine from an undercover DEA agent at a Denny's near the airport. One-star Gen. Ramon Alexis Sanchez-Paz claimed that because he had failed to wear his hearing aid, he thought the agent was giving him parachutes, and not cocaine. When that gambit failed, Sanchez-Paz pursued an insanity defense, but eventually doctors deemed him to be sane enough to stand trial. Prosecutors say the twenty kilos was a test payload in a much grander plan to smuggle in several thousand kilograms of cocaine and launder millions of dollars in drug money. Sanchez-Paz was sentenced to ten years in prison without possibility of parole.
Smuggling has been the subject of at least one notable mealtime conversation at Victoria Station, located just down 36th Street from Denny's. Constructed of old railcars, the restaurant is a family-style place serving wholesome American cuisine. It also was once the site of some Iran-contra activity, according to Richard Cole, who covered the convoluted Iran-contra case for the Associated Press.
Cole recalls that back in the mid-Eighties, Eugene Hasenfus and some representatives of Southern Air Transport nestled into a Victoria Station booth; Hasenfus wanted to discuss joining the airline as a pilot. (He was aboard their cargo plane that was shot down in southern Nicaragua in 1986, part of the mission to deliver arms to the American-backed contras in their efforts to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. That downed plane marked the beginning of the end of the whole sordid Iran-contra mess.) Cole points out that if Victoria Station hosted any other Iran-contra-related meetings, there would've been a practical reason for it: The place is located across the street from Southern Air's hangars, down the street from the contras' former Miami command post, and around the corner from convicted Iranian arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian's offices.
Another airborne smuggling operation was shut down with the help of evidence gleaned at Monty Trainer's, the sprawling bayside eatery/bar/marina in Coconut Grove. The ring, which ferried marijuana from Colombia to the U.S., was busted up in 1983 by federal agents who arrested dozens of suspects and seized millions of dollars worth of property, most notably several airplanes. The investigation -- code name Operation Screamer -- included meetings at Monty's between undercover DEA agents and a key smuggling operative named Luis Garcia, who lived in an apartment on nearby Grove Isle.
"Lots of arrests and deals have gone down at Monty Trainer's," recalls the DEA's Shedd. "What better place to meet? Dopers would bring their loads in and then they'd celebrate afterward in their boats. They loved that!"
Monty's also functioned as a convenient location for an undercover DEA meeting with Cali cartel representatives. In 1988 federal agents began infiltrating a Colombian-based money-laundering network that allegedly handled $65 million a year from Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles. According to indictments unsealed in 1991, bundles of currency worth hundreds of thousands of dollars were delivered by cartel associates to undercover agents posing as launderers. The transactions occurred at Monty's, as well as at a Holiday Inn and at private residences around Miami.
Across South Bayshore Drive from Monty's sits the rotting hulk of the infamous Mutiny Hotel, the vortex of Miami's cocaine-fueled party era of the late Seventies and early Eighties. It was a favored hangout for drug dealers, renowned for its anything-goes-and-everything's-served bashes. Bad-boy banker Ray Corona, who was convicted in 1987 of fronting for a drug dealer, drank and ate there regularly. Mega-smuggler Carlos Lehder Rivas reportedly made at least one pit stop at the Mutiny while passing through Miami about fifteen years ago, as did conspirators in the $1.5 billion drug-smuggling operation that used Pan Am planes to move cocaine from Brazil to New York's Kennedy Airport in the early Eighties.
According to Miami Police Det. D.C. Diaz, "many major cases" involved undercover work at the Mutiny. "That's where the major narcotics traffickers went, the cocaine cowboys. That was the 'in' place." Among its most ardent customers: Willy Falc centsn and Sal Magluta, who were recently acquitted of charges that they imported more than 75 tons of cocaine, valued at more than two billion dollars, over a thirteen-year period. No doubt the pair frequented the place because they just loved the food
Judges Lying, Lawyers Buying, Calamari Frying
There may not be a more emblematic union of food and criminality in Dade's recent history than the Court Broom judicial scandal. The case felled three Dade judges, who were convicted of fixing cases and accepting bribes in exchange for dispensing confidential information and awarding court-appointed work to their friends. Five attorneys were also convicted of offering the bribes. Much of the conspiracy unfolded over food and drink at various places around town. And, boy, did them jurists love to eat!
Among the places the Court Broom defendants took their refined tastes and corrupted ethics was Christy's Restaurant, a posh steak house in Coral Gables. In September 1990, Dade Circuit Court Judge Phillip Davis and criminal defense attorney Ray Takiff, the feds' main snitch, dined on a $500 meal of shrimp cocktail, swordfish, and Dom Perignon. At the dinner, prosecutors alleged, the men began to formulate a bribery plan that would eventually net Davis $30,000. At one point a waiter asked the duo what they were celebrating.
"We are celebrating, ah, life," Takiff responds, according to secretly recorded tapes.
"Right," Davis chimes in. "And understanding."
The Art Bruns Executive Restaurant, a piano bar on NW 33rd Street near the Doral golf course, was the site of two parties thrown for another Court Broom defendant, ex-Circuit Court Judge Alfonso Sepe. The parties were paid for by attorney Arthur Massey. Prosecutors alleged that Massey's largess amounted to a bribe and that in return Sepe gave the lawyer nearly $60,000 in court-appointed cases. Massey was found guilty of the charge; Sepe was not. The club has since closed.
Over on Miami Beach, Court Broom's bad judges often indulged in good food. For instance, at the Forge, the four-star, rococo-motifed restaurant on 41st Street, Ray Takiff had separate chats with former Dade Circuit Court judges Roy Gelber and Harvey Shenberg, both of whom were to become defendants in the Court Broom case. At the 1990 Gelber rendezvous, Takiff, who was fitted with a wire for the occasion, said he wanted to buy the name of a confidential informant whose identity only Gelber knew. The judge refused to agree to the deal at the time. But three days later, Shenberg, identifying himself as an emissary of Gelber's, gave Takiff the confidential informant's name in exchange for $50,000. (Gelber eventually pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion; Shenberg was found guilty of selling the confidential informant's name.)
Food consumption among Court Broom defendants was by no means restricted to zillion-dollar entrees at haute cuisine restaurants. Takiff and Gelber, who evidently know a good four-dollar blintz when they taste one, also trysted at the popular Villa Deli on Alton Road in March 1991. The deli has memorialized the meeting with a sandwich named "The Court Broom." Main ingredient: tongue.
But of all the restaurants where the judges pondered tipping the scales of justice, none may be more ignominious than Buccione in Coconut Grove. This fancy Italian joint was once considered the place to wheel and deal. Any weekday lunchtime would find politicians and lobbyists and corporate barons sitting cheek by well-fed jowl as they yanked the strings of influence and chowed down on fettuccine and fried calamari. One of its regular customers was the aforementioned Judge Alfonso Sepe, who had a taste for minestrone. And according to federal prosecutors, he regularly indulged that minestrone jones; of course he rarely called for a check. Instead, attorney Arthur Massey picked up the tabs. In return, Sepe forked over to Massey $91,400 in court-appointed work representing indigent criminal defendants.
Sepe's free lunch ended with a Court Broom indictment in 1991, but Buccione's bad karma didn't. The restaurant's name cropped up again in connection with the crack-and-hookers case of former Metro-Dade Commissioner Joseph Gersten. In 1992 Gersten told police his blue Mercedes had been stolen from in front of his Coral Gables house. In it, he said, were sensitive documents relating to Buccione and to then-airport czar Dick Judy and to long-time Port of Miami pooh-bah Carmen Lunetta. But several known drug dealers and prostitutes told a different story, namely that they had stolen Gersten's car from in front of a crack den off Biscayne Boulevard, where the commissioner was getting high and lounging around, wearing only his socks and a smile. Rather than face prosectors' pesky questions, Gersten fled the country and at last report is wandering around Australia.
More bad Buccione karma: Buccione owner Pietro Venezia stands charged with killing a tax collector who froze his bank accounts because of unpaid taxes. Venezia allegedly sank four bullets into Donald Bonham on Christmas Eve 1993 while standing on Bonham's front doorstep. After the shooting Venezia fled to Italy, where he is in prison, awaiting extradition.
Reports of all the meals-and-deals activity on the part of Court Broom defendants somewhat overshadow one of the most celebrated mergers of food and alleged judicial corruption in Dade's recent history. Shortly before 8:00 p.m. on September 16, 1981, then-U.S. district judge Alcee Hastings stopped by the main dining room at the Fontainebleau Hotel for dinner. According to federal prosecutors, Hastings had more than nourishment on his mind. William Borders, Jr., president of the National Bar Association at the time, had arranged a date between Hastings and an undercover agent posing as an associate of two convicted racketeers, brothers Thomas and Frank Romano. The Romanos proposed a deal to Borders: They would give Hastings $150,000 and the judge would reduce their sentences and return "a substantial amount" of the money and property they had forfeited. Borders promised that Hastings would appear at the Fontainebleau restaurant at an appointed hour in a show of good faith.
Events subsequently unfolded thusly: Hastings, Florida's first black U.S. district judge, ultimately signed an order returning $845,000 in property seized from the Romanos. In 1983 a jury rejected bribery charges against Hastings. Six years later he was ousted from the bench when Congress impeached him. A federal judge later set aside the impeachment. Hastings is now a U.S. representative.
Serve It Where the Sun Don't Shine
When it comes to sidling up to the buffet table for a bit of covert deal cutting, politicians aren't about to be outdone by their judicial brethren. Check out the Grand Bay Hotel dining room any morning, or Monty Trainer's at lunch, or Joe's Stone Crab for dinner. Or Chico's Restaurant on Twelfth Street, a popular haunt among Hialeah officials. And for years the crummy Holiday Inn at the Miami end of the Rickenbacker Causeway (now a not-so-crummy Hampton Inn) was the hangout for elected officials and lobbyists. It was known as the "Conspiracy Inn."
Metro-Dade Commission Chairman Art Teele and fellow Commissioner Bruce Kaplan chose the darkened atmosphere of Mike's Pub, located in the Plaza Venetia condominium in downtown Miami, as their venue to break bread and break the law in 1994. There the two politicians discussed the upcoming vote for county manager, a blatant violation of the Sunshine Law, which prohibits private conversations between elected officials about issues they may vote on. Both men have since admitted their guilt and paid fines.
The Sunshine Law also appeared to have been violated at Wolfie's, the venerable Miami Beach deli/restaurant on Collins Avenue, where several members of the Miami Beach Housing Authority's board of commissioners and the authority's attorney gathered for lunch in the summer of 1993. Two of the commissioners told investigators that the group had discussed the appointment of the attorney, David Nevel, as the housing authority's executive director. While Assistant State Attorney Joseph Centorino was unable to prove that a Sunshine Law violation had occurred during that particular meeting, he did bust three of the commissioners for similar transgressions based on other evidence.
When it comes to the cheap, convenient get-together, politicians, like their doper confreres, know where to go: Denny's. Alberto "The Great Corrupter" San Pedro, a real estate developer, casually handed over $2000 to an undercover detective posing as an overcover detective in exchange for confidential police files in 1985. The transaction took place at a Denny's in Hialeah and emerged during San Pedro's 1988 trial, in which he faced 39 charges, ranging from bribery to murder conspiracy.
But San Pedro didn't do all of his business over the greasy terrain of a Super Slam. Sometimes a more upscale place was just the thing. Like the Holiday Inn in Miami Springs. There, in 1986, he introduced then-Hialeah councilman Silvio Cardoso to another undercover police officer, from whom San Pedro had purchased top-secret FBI files that related to an investigation of the councilman. Cardoso denied any wrongdoing as he studied the reports. The pair's conversation was secretly recorded and featured highly eloquent statements from Cardoso, including this one (as reported by the Miami Herald):
"I don't know what they [the FBI] can make up on this. What happens if a guy goes to somebody and says, you know [inaudible] he's a friend of yours, and he says, ah, I got friends on the council but you will have to give me some money to do this, and you know, he just asked me for the vote and I say, 'Okay, I'll vote for it.'"
And this one, wherein Cardosa tells the undercover cop about his relationship with San Pedro: "We used to fight together in junior high school and shit, so we've been together for a long time, and before then, before I was councilman, before any of that shit."
It was back to a Denny's in Hialeah for a meeting in 1986 between then-vice mayor of Opa-locka Brian Hooten and hotshot lobbyist Ron Book. Details of the meeting came to light during an investigation into charges that Book had bribed Hooten the previous year. Book's law firm had been hired by Southern Combustion Technologies to lobby the Opa-locka City Commission for approval of a ten-million-dollar hazardous-waste recycling plant. Cooperating with authorities, Hooten twice met with Book while wearing a wire.
Two weeks later, Donald Dugan, an alleged associate of Book's, dropped by Hooten's house and slipped him $4000. The money was supposedly intended for Hooten and a commissioner, as well as members of two city boards that would be reviewing the proposal. The next day the commission voted 5-0 on first reading to approve Southern Combustion's proposal. Dugan eventually admitted to paying the bribe; Book was never charged with a crime.
And in 1989 at a Denny's in West Dade, a businessman met with a Sweetwater city councilwoman to discuss a $10,000 zoning bribe. The councilwoman, Carmen Menendez, was later convicted of conspiring to extort Maurice Barakat, a shopping-center owner who was seeking a zoning variance for his property. A second council member and the city's mayor were also convicted of the same charges.
Too Many Cops in the Kitchen
The downfall of ex-Miami Police homicide detective Ted MacArthur arguably began in the Marine Bar, a once-seedy tavern on Miami's NW Seventeenth Avenue. That's where in 1988 MacArthur met Joan Kite, then a police reporter for the Miami Herald. The two plunged into a long love affair, which became public knowledge during MacArthur's 1993 trial on charges of murdering his wife. His motive, according to prosecutors: insurance money and the younger woman. MacArthur was convicted of first-degree murder.
For some City of Miami police officers, women and wine were the order of the day at the Bowl Bar in 1993. There, according to prosecutors, three officers received free drinks and prostitutes, as well as cash, in return for protecting a drug operation that used the popular Little Havana tavern as its headquarters. Two of the officers were convicted of drug-conspiracy charges in 1994; the third was acquitted. Additionally, the bar's owner and a partner were convicted of running a cocaine distribution network. The bar subsequently closed; a sign on the outside wall says "Re-open soon under new management."
And in the early Seventies, another group of police officers, this time from Metro-Dade and Miami, got into a spot of trouble at Pier 17, a defunct drinkery located near the Marine Bar on NW Seventeenth Street. The place was popular at the time among cops and prosecutors. Lt. Gerald Green, a 28-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, recounts the story: "There were two, three Metro officers and two or so Miami officers drinking at the bar. The two groups of individuals had a difference of opinion about speaking rudely to a barmaid." The Metro officers had allegedly said some "ugly things" to the woman, recalls Green, whose now-retired partner was one of the Miami cops involved. "From that point on some ugliness happened. It ended up in a lively discussion from the bar stools to the floor to the sidewalk out front."
At this juncture in the story, Green says, rumor has kicked in, with tales of arrests, a gun discharging, and an all-out brawl in the gutter making the rounds. "There was a Metro officer detained in a police car until the brass got over," he notes. "The captain of that shift decided the incident would be handled by the respective departments." In the end no charges were filed, but the event generated some animosity between various members of the two departments. "Now, though, it's just one of our many campfire stories," Green chuckles.
At least one eatery played a role in the case involving the most notoriously corrupt law-enforcement officers in recent Dade history: the so-called Miami River Cops. The case began following a 1985 police raid on a drug boat docked on the river. As the officers stormed the cocaine-laden vessel to steal the cargo, the six men guarding the drugs leaped overboard. Three of them drowned. The ensuing probe resulted in the arrest, suspension, or punishment of more than 100 officers. Before their untimely death in the Miami River, the dopers had just finished a fine repast A their last supper, as it turned out -- at an establishment called La Mar Seafood on SW Eighth Street (now a Chinese restaurant). The attorneys who prosecuted the case dined at the restaurant on the anniversary of the deaths to commemorate the event.
Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Busboy
In many cultures, sated diners burp heartily to show their appreciation for a good meal. In Miami you blow somebody away.
Okay, maybe it's not quite a tradition, but the aromas of food and gunpowder have commingled fairly frequently in recent Miami history. The now-defunct Neon Leon's in South Miami experienced not one but two shootings on its premises. The first, in 1980, claimed the life of the restaurant's co-owner, Lionel Fernandez. He was shot to death outside the place. Six months later DEA agents killed a fugitive during a stakeout there. (Neon Leon's closed a couple of years later and has since been revived as more than a half-dozen different eateries; it's now Chilango's Mexican Restaurant.)
In 1982 an argument at the erstwhile Roger's on the Green on Key Biscayne also resulted in death. Ricardo "Monkey" Morales -- confessed murderer and terrorist, with links to the CIA, the FBI, the DEA, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, and the Venezuelan secret police A met private detective Orlando Torres at Roger's, located in the building that now houses the Missing Link Restaurant. Morales was reportedly drunk, or well on his way, when he began hassling Torres. The private eye called Morales a "maric centsn" -- Spanish for faggot -- and as Morales reached for a gun in an ankle holster, Torres blasted a bullet into Morales's brain. The shooter was never charged with a crime because the killing was deemed an act of self-defense.
With some dextrous use of a gun in 1989, one unhinged waiter almost singlehandedly nipped in the bud what has since become a South Beach gastronomic plague: Italian restaurants. Rafael Enrique Rivera, a 59-year-old waiter at the Washington Avenue restaurant Osteria del Teatro, had developed a strong dislike for chef Diego Rachetto. Rivera decided to resolve the hostility. He walked into Osteria del Teatro one evening and emptied several rounds from two different guns into Rachetto as the chef was toasting a seafood supplier. Rivera waited patiently by the pastry cart for the cops to arrive. Needless to say, the shooting put a damper on business. But Miami's memory being as short as it is, business eventually picked up again, and the place's extraordinary success has been credited with spawning other Italian restaurants on the Beach, which now number in the tens of thousands.
Another seemingly puny dispute also ended in death, this time at the Forge. In 1977, Richard Schwartz, the stepson of mob chieftain Meyer Lansky, was having a drink at the restaurant with an acquaintance, Craig Teriaca, the son of an alleged underworld figure. When it came time to settle the tab, the two began to quarrel over ownership of a ten-dollar bill sitting in front of them on the bar. So Schwartz pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and shot Teriaca dead. Three months later Schwartz ended up on the wrong end of a shotgun, murdered while sitting in his Cadillac behind the Bay Harbor Islands restaurant he owned (the Inside Restaurant, on Kane Concourse). While the assailant was never found, it was widely speculated that Teriaca's compatriots were avenging his death.
Considering the amount of past mob activity in Miami, and adding in the gregariousness of your average goodfella, it's no surprise that mobsters have been commonplace in local eateries. Meyer Lansky, for instance, masticated and machinated at his favorite Miami Beach haunts, which included the Rascal House on Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles; the coffee shop at the old Singapore Hotel on Collins Avenue; the coffee shop at the Imperial House, also on Collins Avenue; and a former incarnation of Embers Restaurant on 23rd Street.
In Robert Lacey's biography of Lansky, Little Man, the author recounts the aging gangster's affection for Wolfie's in the years before his death in 1983. "It was a daily ritual, this gathering over the coffee and cake," Lacey writes. "Meyer Lansky did some of the best deals of his life in deli booths, the bowl of pickles on the table, the ashtray filling with butts. The morning 'meet' over coffee and Danish was the daily partners' conference, where the progress of existing business was checked up on, and where new business was done."
In the Sixties and early Seventies, a considerable amount of mob activity occurred in North Bay Village. Where today that sleepy burg functions as little more than a Miami/Miami Beach thruway (okay, it's also the home of a television station charitable enough to employ Rick Sanchez), 30 years ago it was jumping with all-night parties and rocking nightclubs. Dean Martin owned a place on the town's bustling Restaurant Row, and entertainers such as Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra (no surprise) were visitors.
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In fact, Miami's most famous mob-related hit took place on Halloween night in 1967 at a North Bay Village restaurant called Place For Steak. There, Tony Esperti mowed down Tommy Altamura, a Mafia enforcer. The restaurant, located on 79th Street, is now being transformed into a branch of the Nicaraguan restaurant chain El Novillo. (Churrasco con balas, anyone?)
Finally, the 1993 bust of an alleged mob chief on charges of gambling, loan sharking, drug dealing, bribery, and credit-card fraud depended in part on some evidence collected at A you guessed it A Denny's. The capo and his henchmen allegedly paid $30,000 to agents posing as helpful cops. Of that amount, $200 stuffed in a pack of cigarettes was handed to an officer at a Denny's in Hollywood. (Perhaps the same Hollywood Denny's where, ten years earlier, the presidents of South Florida's two largest soda-bottling companies met over breakfast and decided to gouge their customers.)
While mobsters in South Florida don't often knowingly socialize with their adversaries on the other side of the badge, Dade Assistant State Attorney Dennis Bedard recalls a bar in Manhattan where the law and the lawless would congregate. "There used to be a place in Little Italy where after a trial many FBI agents would go, and many of the defense lawyers and mobsters would be there too," explains Bedard, who was formerly an assistant district attorney on Long Island. "Everyone would leave each other alone."
Peaceful coexistence of that sort depends, of course, on a certain basic awareness: You must know your enemies as well as your allies. In Miami, where not everyone is actually who they seem, the line between crook and cop often blurs. Attorney Mark Schnapp has seen how this fuzziness can get hazardous. Several years ago when he was still an assistant U.S. attorney, Schnapp showed up one evening at the Taurus Steak House in Coconut Grove just as the dust began to settle from a near-brawl. "An argument started and it escalated into a fight A a lot of pushing and yelling," Schnapp remembers. "Then someone said, 'I'm a federal agent.' And then another guy said, 'I'm a federal agent, too.'" Then a couple of the pugilists revealed they were off-duty police officers. "Everybody involved in the fight," Schnapp chortles, "turned out to be either an agent or a cop!