"Another gangland killing," said my husband across the breakfast table the other day. "And right on East 46th street where I was walking just yesterday."
"What restaurant?" I inquired. Alex, a native of Boston who spent much of his childhood in Chicago, couldn't understand the logic of the question. But if he had grown up in New York and had had the kind of ultimate Big Apple parents I had, it might have been clearer.
My mother and father reveled in the diversity of the city and were constantly dragging their five children to ethnic neighborhoods and exotic (inexpensive) restaurants to sample the wares. We were lectured about the German-Czech attractions of East 86th Street, the dairy restaurants on the Lower East Side and even the bizarre Cuban-Chinese eateries -- there are dozens on Roosevelt Avenue -- in Jackson Heights. It was all part of enjoying New York -- like going to St. John the Divine occasionally, or to a Russian mass just as long as we had been to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs first.
When I moved to Washington in 1961, my mother made what I still consider the quintessential New York comment: "But dear," she said, "where will you eat?" That wasn't quite as funny 25 years ago as it is today, and every time my parents came to Washington to visit we would scour the city looking for something more exciting than the Mayflower or the Hot Shoppes. I lived in Georgetown, then, and one of my brothers had an apartment on Harvard Street. My father, in particular, thought my brother's Adams-Morgan neighborhood far preferable because of the varied ethnic population -- "Just like the West Side" -- and often asked why I didn't leave that 200-year-old house I was living in and move to Columbia Road. "You can afford it," he'd assure me. At least Adams-Morgan had the Omega and a couple of bodegas.
In the course of searching out the perfect New York neighborhood Italian restaurant -- which took us to all parts of Queens, the Village and areas of Brooklyn where Rambo wouldn't be safe today, a really big, public Mafia shoot-out was cause for great excitement. My mother was a social worker and my father a physician, and no two kinder, gentler people helped humanity more on a daily basis. Their interest in these murders was neither grisly nor moralistic but purely culinary, for it was my father's theory that Mafia bosses ate only in the best Italian restaurants, and you'd be surprised how many of these killings took place at table. In recent years, there have been shootings at Umberto's Clam House on Mulberry Street, Joe and Mary's Italian Restaurant in Bushwick and the marvelously named Neopolitan Noodle on the Upper East Side, just to mention a few.
We once rushed over to a place called La Stella in Rego Park after a multiple massacre only to find a line a block long 24 hours after the murder. Clearly my father was not the only canny Italian-food fanatic in the city. On one memorable occasion, the Daily News, in recounting all the gory details, told us that one of the consiglieri, eating his lunch across from the Queens County courthouse, fell fatally wounded right into his tortellini al pesto. "That must be the best dish in the house," my father noted, and ordered it there at the first opportunity.
You can understand, then, what prompted me to ask whether the late Paul Castellano, last week's victim, was killed in a restaurant for surely it would be worth trying on our next visit to New York. "No," said my husband. "He was just getting out of his limousine."
"Headed where?" I prompted, getting more impatient.
"Oh, yes, it was parked right in front of a restaurant."
Can it possibly be true? Have the Mafia chieftains lost their palates, turned against all tradition? I'd like to believe that the choice of a meat and potatoes grill room was just a tactic designed to throw the hit men off the track, and that Mr. Castellano's sister or mother was waiting inside with some nice linguini with white clam sauce. But maybe it's New York that's changed. All the Mayflower descendants have discovered Ethiopian and Guatemalan cuisine while second and third generation Americans have moved from great cooking to steak, fries and ketchup. The gang wars of the '50s, where the victims last moments were spent sipping espresso with a twist of lemon peel and a dash of anisette, had a lot more class.