April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Early in the morning of April 7, Joseph (“Crazy Joe”) Gallo went to Umberto’s Clam House in New York City’s Little Italy for a late supper. With him were a pair of bodyguards and some family members, including his bride of three weeks. The veteran gangster, who was celebrating his forty-third birthday, had spent most of the night drinking champagne at the Copacabana. On arriving at Umberto’s at around four o’clock, he ordered what police later unhelpfully described as “Italian delicacies.” Gallo had just called for a second helping when a man burst in through a side door and started shooting at him with a pair of .38-caliber pistols. Customers screamed and dropped to the floor as Gallo’s bodyguards returned the fire. After about twenty shots were exchanged, the gunman fled in a waiting car as Gallo staggered out the door and collapsed in a pool of blood on Hester Street. Displaying the constabulary’s traditional gift for the obvious, the chief of detectives said, “This is a gangland operation.”
On the streets of Little Italy, residents discussed the hit like baseball fans analyzing a World Series game. “If you ask me,” one local told a New York Times reporter, “a bodyguard is there to shoot, not to get shot.” Another suggested that Gallo should have carried a gun himself. A man compared the incident to the previous year’s top movie: “It’s just like The Godfather . They filmed it down the block, you know. . . . You seen The Godfather ’ Oh, you should. It’s really good.” In classic Little Italy style, a connoisseur implied that Gallo had deserved his fate for choosing an inferior restaurant: “I don’t know why he even went there. It’s just opened. You want decent food, you go to Vinnie’s down the block.”
The slaying was the latest episode in a feud between the Gallo and Colombo families, prominent members of New York’s underworld snake pit. As far back as 1957 Joey Gallo was thought to have assassinated the criminal kingpin Albert Anastasia in a Manhattan barbershop. In June 1971, just after his release from prison following an eight-year term for extortion, Gallo had ordered a hit on Joseph A. Colombo that left him incapacitated ("vegetabled,” in Gallo’s phrase). Since that time, as the Colombos fumed and sought revenge, Gallo had kept a high profile, associating with show-business figures (including the actor Jerry Orbach, who played a character based on Gallo in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight ) and frequenting Broadway opening nights. The day before he was shot, he had started work as an “organizer” for Americans of Italian Descent, a rival civil rights group to the Colombos’ own Italian-American Civil Rights League.
Over the next week, as Gallo was buried in a five-thousand-dollar bronze coffin, at least four more gang members were killed. Prominent mobsters went into hiding, and not even Little Italy, traditionally neutral ground for all factions, was considered safe. Eventually the bloodbath subsided and the racketeers returned to their traditional occupations. But Umberto’s had acquired a reputation, and until its closing late last year, it was a rare visitor who could pass the corner of Hester and Mulberry without remarking, “This is where Joey Gallo got shot.” In fact, many neighborhood residents believe that Umberto’s notoriety is what kept it in business for so long. It certainly wasn’t the food.