In the years following the headline-friendly and carnage-filled Scarfo regime, the Philadelphia underworld went quiet. With the new Philly mob pecking order in a state of limbo, there wasn’t much going on. A once overloaded press corps had little to nothing to report.
The silence wouldn’t last for long.
Upon Scarfo’s imprisonment in the spring of 1987, Anthony “Tony Buck” Piccolo, Little Nicky’s first cousin and Consigliere, was appointed his replacement as Don, purely as a stopgap measure while future long-term leadership options were contemplated. A passive man in nature, the notoriously understated Piccolo didn’t want the job or the responsibility of being a Boss and his short-term reign atop the crime family barely registered a blip on the gangland radar.
About the most significant event of his tenure came when an aspiring mob solider named George Fresolone tape recorded his making ceremony in the summer of 1990. Under Piccolo’s leadership, the mafia in Philadelphia slugged along for four relatively boring years, making few waves, a shadow of its former multi-faceted, high-powered organization of a self.
It was the calm before another proverbial storm of massive proportions ravished the Philly underworld, setting it ablaze in war for almost five years. The city had seen its share of mob-strewn bloodshed the previous decade and it was about to see quite a bit more.
Surprisingly, hardly anybody noticed him.
Being that it was Halloween night, the fact that a man in a ghost’s mask toting with him what appeared to resemble a trick-or-treat bag was making his way through the crowded restaurant, did little to raise alarm. The masked man walked briskly and with purpose, but didn’t appear at all jittery. Most of the patrons at the tiny Dante &Luigi’s, a longtime popular Italian eatery located on the corner of 10th and Catherine, nestled in the center of South Philadelphia’s Little Italy neighborhood, barely raised an eyebrow.
That was until he reached into his bag, pulled out a 9 millimeter automatic pistol and unloaded his entire clip into a young man eating dinner at a corner table.
“Help me,” the wounded man gasped as he tumbled backwards onto the floor in his chair, blood starting to flow profusely out of his mouth. “Someone, please help me.”
The man with the gun, turned and left. As he exited, he dropped his weapon on the floor of the restaurant as he exited alas Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone character in the famous scene from the film “The Godfather.” Swiftly shuttling into a waiting getaway car idling on the burb outside in front of the entrance, he sped off into the night, never to be officially identified or brought to justice.
Such a daring and public gangland hit was a throwback to the not-so-long-departed Scarfo era, a day where outlandish violence like the 1989 Halloween night attack was carried out on a near-regular basis.
There was good reason.
The shooter and victim in the highly-publicized Dante & Luigi’s Halloween hit were tied directly into the inner-sanctum of the Scarfo regime.
The victim of the attack was Nicky Scarfo, Jr., son and namesake of the imprisoned Don and someone who had been acting as Little Nicky’s liason to the street since being put behind bars. According to federal documents, the shooter was Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, a one-time close associate of both Scarfos, the son of Little Nicky’s deposed Underboss, Chuckie Merlino and a future superstar in the East Coast mafia.
In addition to being reminiscent of days gone by, the shooting would also prove a sign of things to come and a return to the times when Philadelphia and New Jersey were virtual mob shooting galleries and the local media covered the mafia like the on-going human soap opera it genuinely was.
Scarfo, Jr, had spent the day with his cousin John “JP” Parisi running around South Philadelphia, making his rounds and meeting with Bobby Simone at his law office before meeting up with a friend of theirs’ named Johnnie Palumbo for dinner at Dante & Luigi’s around 7:00 that evening. Chaz Iannece, son of incarcerated mob soldier “Charlie White” Iannece, came by their table around 7:20 to say hello and departed by giving what some law enforcement officials have described as a “kiss of death,” laying the groundwork for the pending attempted hit.
Only a few minutes after Iannece left Scarfo, Jr’s table, he was gunned down while in the middle of eating a plate of spaghetti and clams. The one-time mob prince was felled with nine bullets by an assailant authorities allege was Skinny Joey Merlino, once a former close friend and frequent social companion of his that had pledged a vendetta against him and his family for the mistreatment Merlino and his family had suffered at the hands of his father. Informants say Merlino was ferried from the scene in a waiting getaway car driven by Michael “Mikey Chang” Ciangalini, Merlino’s most trusted associate whose father and brother were both imprisoned soldiers once under the elder Scarfo’s command.
Astonishingly, even though he was shot nine times at point-blank range with an automatic weapon, the younger Scarfo survived the attack and by Thanksgiving that year was back on the streets with quite a story to tell and if you listen to some, a vendetta against Joey Merlino by him and his father that continues to this very day.
Despite the rampant speculation surrounding Merlino’s involvement in the crime, he was never charged. Nonetheless, it went a long way in enhancing his reputation as a wiseguy and earning respect. Unabashedly, he used it as leverage, an early calling card on the street that he wasn’t someone to be messed with, that he was a force to be reckoned with, someone to be feared. He was no longer a tagalong or simply just Chuckie’s son or Yogi’s nephew. He was Skinny Joey, a bonafide blue chip mob prospect on his way up the ranks at rapid speed.
As the 1990s began it was obvious to anyone paying attention in the Philly underworld that Little Nicky was the past and Joey Merilno was the future.
In many ways it was quite appropriate. Little Nicky and the young Merlino had a lot in common.
Not only did their families go back decades together, both Scarfo and Merlino were power-obsessed ego maniacs with balls by the boatload, magnetic leadership qualities and an affinity for the red-hot glare of the media spotlight. The main difference between the two would wind up being that Skinny Joey’s lust for the throne and top billing in the local news headlines didn’t isolate him from his soldiers or steep him in violent paranoia like it did Little Nicky.
Merlino would always have a loyal support base, lifelong friends that would never think of betraying him no matter what. Their loyalty was to him, to their bond as boyhood buddies, not to any crime family or La Cosa Nostra.
In a day where the old school Sicilian code of honor that the American mafia was predicated upon means little, that was more than enough to get the job done and in many ways was a considerably better way to insure against betrayal in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Before Merlino’s reign atop the Philadelphia mob could begin, however, there were a few speed bumps he would have to encounter first.