Mob Scene: Joseph Licata
They were sitting around talking about the old days, the hits and misses, fashion changes, cultural trends. Just a bunch of aging wiseguys joking and laughing and sharing a meal at the American Bistro, a pub in Belleville just outside of Newark.
Since they were born and raised in North Jersey it was only natural that the conversation would drift to the kid from Hoboken and the time that Tony Bananas wanted to whack him. The kid was “Old Blue Eyes,” Frank Sinatra, the quintessential saloon singer who, legend had it, got his big break when a mobster named Willie Moretti sat down with a bandleader named Tommy Dorsey and explained how things were.
Dorsey had Sinatra under an iron-clad contract and wasn’t about to let the then new singing sensation go. But Willie Moretti had a way with words. Supposedly he sat Dorsey down and placed a release form in front of him that would allow Sinatra to leave the band and start a career on his own. Moretti also placed a gun on the table.
Dorsey was told one of two things was going to happen. Either his signature would appear at the bottom of the release form or his brains would be splattered all over it.
Sinatra got his release.
Mario Puzo retold the story in “The Godfather” and segued from that to a horse’s head in a Hollywood producer’s bed. It was all about making an offer that couldn’t be refused.
Sinatra, of course, went on to become a superstar, a singer without equal, a master at interpreting a phrase. But he also was a perfectionist and, according to musicians who worked with him, he could be a pain in the ass. Artists are like that.
The wiseguys sitting around having lunch at the American Bistro in Belleville back in April 2011 talked about how Sinatra had a reputation for being “nasty.” When he was performing “nobody could move around,” one of them said.
And then another mobster told the story about Antonio “Tony Bananas” Caponigro and why he wanted to whack the Chairman of the Board. Like all the talk that day, it was an involved and convoluted story.
And like all the talk that day, it was picked up on a body wire worn by one of the four mobsters at the table. The tape is one dozens of recordings made by Nicholas “Nicky Skins” Stefanelli, a Gambino crime family soldier who started cooperating with the FBI in 2009. Nicky Skins was wired for sound for nearly two years, but apparently thought better of it and decided he didn’t want to testify against his former mob associates.
He committed suicide in March 2011.
His tapes, however, live on.
One of them was the centerpiece of a case against Philadelphia-South Jersey mob boss Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi that ended early in February with a split verdict. Joseph “Scoops” Licata was the only defendant to beat the case. Three others were convicted. The jury hung on the racketeering conspiracy count against Ligambi and two others. They’re supposed to be retried in federal court in Philadelphia in a few months.
The jury in that trial heard major chunks of conversation from a mob luncheon meeting at La Griglia, another North Jersey restaurant. The American Bistro/Sinatra tape was mentioned, but not played.
Stefanelli was at the American Bistro that day with Licata, a capo in the Ligambi organization; Louis “Big Lou” Fazzini, a top Licata associate, and Nicky Mitarotunda, a Gambino crime family member.
Licata told the Sinatra story.
“Listen to this,” he said. “1968. We’re going to Florida, the Fontainebleau… Everybody. So Tony Bananas said, ‘Youse are goin’?’ He said, `I’m goin’ wit youse.’ Cause he had to meet Angelo Bruno and Johnny Keys at that time. They were trying to do something in the Bahamas.”
Bruno was the boss of the crime family back then. Caponigro was his Newark-based consigliere. Johnny Keys was John Simone, a mob soldier. In 1980, Caponigro and Simone would end up dead after killing Bruno, but that’s a story for another day.
This is when everybody was getting along, making money and staying out of each others way.
But there was this minor problem. When they got to Florida and registered at the Fontainebleau, they saw that Sinatra was headlining there. They all wanted to go see him. Everybody, that is, except Tony Bananas.
“Tony hated Sinatra,” Licata said on the tape. “Hated him. But Don Rickles was next door at the Eden Rock, right?... He takes us to the Eden Rock. We were steaming.
“We couldn’t wait for him to leave. He left the next day and we were right in that Fontainebleau. How could you bypass Sinatra?… That was Tony. He hated him… ‘cause you know why? Tony was in there like a couple of years before at one of the shows and they were talking. The c---sucker stopped singing and made a remark. Tony wanted to f---ing kill him.”
Licata’s lawyer, Christopher Warren, filled in some of the blanks when he told the story to the jury during opening arguments in the racketeering case. Warren said Sinatra told Tony Bananas, “People didn’t come here to hear you talk. They came here to hear me sing.”
Caponigro never forgot.
Mitarotunda, like Licata a 70-something wiseguy, said he was at another Sinatra concert and saw the same thing. Sinatra stopped mid-song and told a group of people to “sit down.” “He’s not the best entertainer I ever saw,” Mitarotunda added.
He and the others then began to debate who was best. Mitarotunda said he liked Elvis. Licata threw out Bobby Darin’s name. Someone else mentioned Tom Jones. And then Fazzini, at 49 the youngest of the group, offered perhaps the most sacrilegious comment of all.
“Elvis sings ‘My Way’ better than Sinatra,” he said.
There are many who believe that comment alone should have gotten Fazzini indicted.
In fact, Licata and Fazzini, based on the Stefanelli tapes, were added to the indictment against Ligambi and several others before the case went to trial last year. Fazzini pleaded guilty and was recently sentenced to 55 months.
Licata took a chance with the jury and rolled a seven.
“The only thing my client was guilty of was going to lunch,” Licata’s lawyer, Chris Warren, argued. The jury apparently agreed.
Nothing discussed at either the La Griglia lunch meeting or at the American Bistro had anything to do with the gambling, extortion and loansharking charges that were part of the Ligambi indictment.
But there was lots of mob talk. The feds said it proved the existence of a criminal organization. Warren said it was just a “bunch of geriatric gangsters waxing philosophically” about the old days.
That certainly seemed to describe the nature of the conversation at the American Bistro.
In addition to the Sinatra story, there was a complaint that “no one dresses up any more” and talk of Brioni suits and a tailor who used to make the finest shirts, not, Stefanelli said, like the shirts he bought in the store.
“They’re garbage,” said the late wiseguy.
Licata, Fazzini and Mitarotunda also discussed how well they slept when they were in prison.
“Like a baby,” Fazzini said.
“There ain’t no phones ringing or nothing,” Licata said. Nobody calling up with their problems, no one asking you to settle some dispute. At home, he said, the phone was always ringing and he was always “arrabbiato” (aggravated).
Too much had changed, they all agreed. Mitarotunda said they were born twenty years too late.
In the old days, he said, wiseguys “made more f---in’ money” and “had no problems.”
Jail terms were shorter. Nobody got more than five or six years for a major pinch. Now the racketeering laws had changed that. Now you had to deal with “rats” and 20-year prison terms.
Best of all, said Stefanelli, “every cop was on the take.”
Back then it was the cops who were selling their badges. But at the American Bistro it was Stefanelli, the guy recording it all for the FBI, who had sold his button.
He was every mobster’s nightmare—a wiseguy wearing a wire. But even he wanted to talk about how much better things were back when Sinatra played the Fontainebleau and wiseguys wore Brioni suits and custom made shirts.