NEW YORK -- Bravo Sergio is a small, intimate Italian restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side that henceforth will be remembered for more than its veal rollatini.
On a recent Saturday night, Irwin Schiff, a 400-pound businessman, and a blonde companion had just finished their $90 meal when Schiff was gunned down in a gangland-style slaying. The chef described Schiff as a regular customer who "loved to eat."
Now diners are flocking to the eatery at Second Avenue and East 76th Street, which has become something of a neighborhood landmark. If a man alleged to have big money and mob ties chooses to dine there, the reasoning goes, the food must be pretty good.
As a steady stream of pedestrians stopped one recent evening to inspect the menu, displayed on an easel outside the canopied entrance, some expressed disappointment that the double shrimp cocktail and other of Schiff's reported favorites were not listed. "If they don't serve everything that he had," one woman sniffed, "I don't want to eat here."
New Yorkers have long since stopped being horrified at Mafia rub-outs in crowded restaurants, particularly since the victims are usually persons of less than pristine reputation. In fact, keeping track of the gang wars has become a spectator sport to rival the Mets and Yankees.
At least since 1917, when reputed mob boss Nicholas Morello was killed in a Brooklyn cafe, the city's ruling mob families have settled their disputes through violent means in public places.
The most celebrated hit took place April 7, 1972, at Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, where Joey Gallo was slain by a gunman as he celebrated his 43rd birthday with his family. The slaying was said to be in retaliation for Gallo's suspected role in the shooting of Joe Colombo earlier that year.
On July 12, 1979, Carmine Galante, alleged boss of the Bonanno family, was gunned down as he smoked a cigar on the patio at Joe and Mary's in Brooklyn. He was found with the cigar still clenched between his teeth.
Reputed crime czar Paul Castellano met his fate on Dec. 16, 1985 as he stepped from a black limousine outside Sparks Steakhouse on East 46th Street. One result, said veteran crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, is that "Sparks was hot for awhile."
Owner Pat Cetta bristled at the notion. "If anyone would come in here because of that incident, I'd rather they stay home," he said.
As for Castellano, Cetta said over lunch while the waiter changed tablecloths for the serving of coffee, "we found the man to be a gentleman. He was a good customer for 10 years. The reason he was a customer is he thought it was the best. We haven't had an empty seat in 12 years. All the major TV anchormen have eaten here."
Every passer-by who stopped to chat outside Bravo Sergio also volunteered details of the shooting at Sparks. Frank Johnson, a young commodities trader, called Sparks "a great place to take a client and blow a lot of money. When my roommate takes clients there, he says, 'I'll take the nonshooting section.' "
Sparks is clearly expense-account territory. In addition to the $22.95 medallions of beef with Bordelaise sauce or the $26.95 steak fromage, it has a wine list ranging from a $19 Chassagne-Montrachet burgundy to a $105 bottle of Dom Perignon.
By contrast, the curious were surprised to learn that Bravo Sergio is more a neighborhood place, with broiled veal chops the priciest item at $19.50. Some also shook their heads at the notion that mob violence had invaded an upscale area more noted for its overpriced boutiques and fern bars.
Alexandra Kargilis, a waitress at nearby Cafe de Cortina, said the shooting "sure put Bravo Sergio's name on everyone's lips. It's like a traffic accident. People have to see it, they have to know more."
Owner Mario Lazzinnaro was savvy enough to cancel a planned vacation closing when his restaurant made the news. But he and his staff politely but firmly refused to be interviewed -- perhaps because investigators are now examining Schiff's ties to Lazzinnaro, who also runs a Brooklyn construction firm and has been alleged to have mob connections.
Mobsters are often killed in restaurants because "you never know where they're going to be," Pileggi said. "They're constantly moving, constantly changing cars."
But, he said, "they usually have favorite restaurants. They trust the owner. The owner knows they want privacy."
The rub-out is always carried out by a professional hit man, who moves in after a tipster, or "pointer," identifies the target, then flees through a back exit. Most of the killers of Gallo, Galante, Castellano and Schiff have not been identified or caught.
That's not to say things always go according to plan. In 1972, four meat wholesalers having a drink at the Neopolitan Noodle were killed when the gunman mistook them for a group of mobsters who had just left the bar.
Ever since the mysterious Schiff was killed with two shots to the head, tabloid readers have been gorging on details about the victim who has been dubbed "The Fat Man."
First there was the police search for his blonde companion, who fled the restaurant along with startled diners. Then there was the funeral, attended by a dozen beautiful, well-tailored women, and disclosures that the mob owed Schiff a good deal of money.
Schiff left behind a $6 million empire, including a $1.5 million East Side penthouse, two Rolls Royces and a Lincoln Town Car, plus investments in a singing-sister act and an aborted movie project about mobster Lucky Luciano.
For the record, Schiff's last meal at Bravo Sergio consisted of a Caesar salad, double shrimp cocktail, veal rollatini and rigatoni with bacon, onions and tomato, followed by bananas and strawberries flambe. He left a $30 tip.