October 31, 2019 — The Skinny Joey Era of the Philadelphia mafia began with a gun blast 30 years ago this week, when, according to FBI informants, Joseph (Skinny Joey) Merlino, pumped 8 shots from a MAC-10 machine pistol into friend-turned-rival Nicky Scarfo, Jr. as he ate spaghetti and clams at old-school South Philly dining-staple Dante & Luigi’s on Halloween night 1989. Scarfo, Jr., son of then-jailed don Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo, survived the attack, but the attempt on his life made it clear it was a new day in the Philly mob and Skinny Joey was making a play for power.

Merlino, 57, was never arrested for the attack and went on to serve a short prison sentence for an armored truck heist and then became boss of the Bruno-Scarfo crime family himself in the 1990s, a job he still holds today. Per informants, Skinny Joey plotted to kill Scarfo, Jr. again after he took over the Philly mob.

The 54-year old Scarfo, Jr. was eventually “made” into New York’s Lucchese crime family via an arrangement brokered by his father from behind bars. He was convicted in federal court in 2014 for mortgage fraud and racketeering and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Little Nicky Scarfo died of natural causes in 2017 at 87, having spent the final 30 years of his life locked up in a federal correctional facility.

The Little Nicky Scarfo Era in the Philly underworld was hectic, hell-raising and blood-ridden, a throwback to Prohibition and the brash, headline-grabbing antics of Scarfo’s gangland idol, Al (Scarface) Capone. Scarfo assumed power in 1981 and killed indiscriminately. Salvatore (Chuckie) Merlino, Skinny Joey’s father, was Scarfo’s close friend and underboss. Skinny Joey and Nicky, Jr. palled around together quite a bit until Little Nicky and Chuckie Merlino had a falling out and Little Nicky demoted the elder Merlino from his underboss post.

When Scarfo and his mob entire administration, including Chuckie Merlino, were indicted in a giant murder and racketeering case in 1987 and with them off the streets, the crime family instantly split into two factions, one supporting the imprisoned Scarfo, who delegated his authority through his son and his uncle and acting boss Anthony (Tony Buck) Piccolo, and the other supporting the “Young Turk” camp led by Skinny Joey Merlino and his best friend Michael (Mikey Chang) Ciancaglini, son of Scarfo-era capo Joseph (Chickie) Ciancaglini.

Skinny Joey and Mikey Chang began going after Scarfo-protected bookies and loansharks within weeks of Little Nicky getting put in the can. Mikey Chang is alleged to have driven the getaway car in the Halloween night hit on Scarfo, Jr.

According to witnesses, on the evening of October 31, 1989, a man wearing a Batman mask and carrying a shopping bag filled with candy entered Dante & Luigi’s, went over to where Scarfo was in the middle of his meal and unloaded a clip into him from his MAC-10. The gunmen dropped the MAC-10 at the scene “Michael Corleone style,” a move some say was a message to Little Nicky in prison because of Scarfo’s love of the film The Godfather.

Dante & Luigi’s was opened by the DiRocco family in the early 1900s. In its first 35 years of existence it had a different name. The historic restaurant rests on the corner of 10th and Catherine Street in South Philly’s Bella Vista neighborhood.

Scarfo, Jr. made a full recovery and after a two-week hospital stay took cover behind his great uncle Tony Piccolo. He was jailed himself for racketeering and did four years in federal prison in the 1990s (1993-1997).

Meanwhile Skinny Joey Merlino was climbing his way to top of the crime family by sheer will. Securing backing from Ralph Natale, an old-time labor union fixer and mob hit man he met behind prison walls in the early 1990s (1990-1992), Merlino and Mikey Chang went to war with Scarfo’s successor, Sicilian-born John Stanfa, for the rackets in South Philly. Natale provided them a co-sign from the Colombo and Genovese crime families in New York. Mikey Chang was slain as a result of the warfare, gunned down in front of Merlino in the summer of 1993. Upon Stanfa being indicted and jailed for murder and racketeering in the spring of 1994, Merlino declared victory.

Skinny Joey hasn’t let the reins go since. Natale turned against him in 1999 and testified against him at a 2001 murder and racketeering trial. Convicted of racketeering but acquitted of the homicide counts, Merlino did 12 years in prison and walked free in 2011. Nailed on a gambling offense last year, he just finished up a short stay at a South Florida federal correctional facility and is currently residing in a Miami halfway house.

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