Joe Ligambi, the reputed Philadelphia mob boss, spent a decade operating in the shadows.
Unlike his predecessor, the flamboyant Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino, Ligambi, 73, seldom spoke to the media, avoided public displays of bravado, and preferred to spend his nights at home rather than in bars and nightclubs.
But secretly recorded conversations from a mob meeting at a New Jersey restaurant two years ago offer a rare opportunity to listen in as Ligambi breaks bread in a gossip-filled gabfest with several other mobsters.
It’s Ligambi, in his own words, discussing the murderous and the mundane as the wine flowed during a five-hour luncheon meeting at La Griglia, a restaurant in Kenilworth.
A federal judge ruled last week that most of those conversations can be used as evidence in the racketeering trial of Ligambi and seven others scheduled for October.
A federal prosecutor has likened the restaurant session to a meeting of the board of directors of organized crime, but Ligambi’s mocking tone and critical asides were often more reminiscent of the banter in a high school locker room.
“That’s the kind of nuts you’re dealing with,” he said during one story about an alleged mob murder plot, drawing laughter from those at the table.
At another point, he joked that a hapless 78-year-old North Jersey mobster was so poor “he’s selling cakes out of the trunk of his car.”
Again, the table burst into laughter.
But federal prosecutors may get the last laugh.
The conversations were recorded by cooperating witness Nicholas “Nicky Skins” Stefanelli in May 2010. Ligambi and several of his associates met that afternoon with high-ranking members of New York’s Gambino crime family, authorities allege.
During the session, Stefanelli, a soldier in the Gambino organization, drew praise from Ligambi, who described him as “a good man.”
Stefanelli, who committed suicide earlier this year, was wearing a body wire for the FBI at the time. According to authorities, the North Jersey mobster had begun cooperating in 2009 and over two years recorded dozens of conversations up and down the East Coast.
The Ligambi trial will be the first at which Stefanelli tapes will be introduced as evidence. The tapes include conversations from the mob confab at La Griglia and from another meeting at the American Bistro in Belleville.
Though Ligambi unwittingly had nice things to say about a mobster who was a government informant, he didn’t hesitate to mock several other mob members and associates.
He told a story about Vincent “Beeps” Centorino, a down-on-his-luck member of the North Jersey faction of the Philadelphia mob who, Ligambi said, “was selling cakes out of the trunk of his car.”
“I can’t make three cents with him,” added Joseph “Scoops” Licata, 71, a mob capo to whom the aging Centorino reported.
Licata, a codefendant in the pending case, drew more laughs when he said, “We’ll run a benefit for him.”
In that same conversation, Ligambi made an aside about Centorino’s girlfriend, describing her as “the broken-down broad he was going out with in Florida,” and complained about how Centorino had cornered him at a mob gathering in South Philadelphia.
“At the Christmas party we had, he was sitting next to me,” Ligambi said. “He was giving me a ditty how broke he is.”
In another discussion, Ligambi alluded to problems with Danny D’Ambrosia, a South Philadelphia bookmaker and reputed mob associate whose underworld allegiance has often been questioned.
Ligambi said that a few years earlier, D’Ambrosia’s father had come to see him at his South Philadelphia home, claiming the FBI had told him the mob was going to kill his son.
“His father comes over to my house about three or four years ago,” Ligambi said. “Said the FBI said you was going to kill my son. He was telling me this on the step. I said, ‘What . . . are you talking about? Don’t ever come around this house again. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I mean that’s, that’s the kind of nuts you’re dealing with.”
Ligambi also joked about the murder of John “Johnny Gongs” Casasanto and made a passing reference to Fox 29 reporter Dave Schratwieser, although his exact words were too garbled to be understood, according to the transcript.
At the time, Schratwieser was doing in-depth reports on the Philadelphia mob and had focused several times on the unsolved Casasanto hit.
Whatever Ligambi said drew laughter and led Licata to add, “At least we finally got to get him.”
Casasanto was killed in his home in South Philadelphia in November 2003.
Defense attorneys have challenged the government’s transcription of many of the conversations, including that comment from Licata. They contend Licata was not talking about the Casasanto murder and had, in fact, said, “At least we finally got to get together,” referring to the restaurant meeting.
Ligambi and Licata also made fun of an aging North Jersey mob figure who had been proposed for membership by Peter “Pete the Crumb” Caprio. Caprio later became a cooperating witness, and the North Jersey mobster’s chances to be formally initiated died there.
Licata said he told the mob wannabe to “leave it alone.”
But Ligambi said the mobster called his house.
“I said, ‘How’d you find my phone number?’ ” Ligambi told the others at the table.
The mobster told Ligambi he got the number from Rita Merlino, Skinny Joey’s mother.
“He said Rita gave it to me,” Ligambi recalled as the others laughed. “It was Joey’s mother. I told her, ‘What’re you giving this guy my number for? What the hell’s the matter with you?’ ”
Merlino is mentioned several times by Ligambi and others during the restaurant meeting. At the time, the flamboyant mob leader was still in jail, finishing a 14-year sentence for a racketeering conviction. He was released the next summer.
“Joey sends word,” Ligambi said.
Others at the table chimed in on a discussion about how and when Merlino, 50, would be released and where he would go.
Authorities now contend that based on these secretly recorded conversations, Merlino is still the boss of the Philadelphia mob, even though he has settled in Florida.
Ligambi, authorities say, is “acting boss.”
How the mobsters at the table felt about Merlino is difficult to determine from the conversations.
Louis Fazzini, a Licata associate and codefendant in the pending case, referred to Merlino as “slippery,” but it was impossible to determine whether that was meant as criticism or a compliment.
Anthony Staino, a top Ligambi associate who is also a codefendant, drew laughter when he talked about Merlino’s pending release, but again it was impossible to determine whether he was mocking or praising Merlino.
“They’re going to have a caravan wherever he’s at,” Staino said of the day Merlino was to leave jail. “He sneezes, there’ll be five hands giving him a hanky.”