The crowd was three deep at the bar at Rao’s that night. The East Harlem red-sauce joint, famous for its lemon chicken, celebrity clientele, and the impossibility of securing a table, was never known for a booming bar scene. But this was three days before Christmas in 2003, and on this Monday night, the 10 stools were full and patrons had come to party.
As bartender Nicky Vests — so nicknamed for the more than 100 vests he owns — mixed drinks, Rena Strober, an up-and-coming Broadway actress, dined at one of the 11 tables. She was a guest of Sonny Grosso, a Rao’s regular and an ex-cop immortalized by his work on the “French Connection” case. He was now a TV producer and something of a father figure to the 27-year-old Strober.
Frank Pellegrino, a Rao’s co-owner and sometime actor, came up to the table and asked Strober to sing. This was his routine ever since he learned Strober, a blue-eyed redhead, was in “Les Miserables.”
Pellegrino had long ago decided that “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” was Strober’s song, but on this night she tried to demur.
“I was very hesitant. It was so loud,” she recalled. “It was a party atmosphere. Maybe I should wait.”
But Pellegrino pushed play.
“Once the jukebox starts, that’s my cue,” she said.
She began belting out the song made famous by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”
Louis “Louie Lump Lump” Barone confessed to killing Albert Circelli in a dispute over a song sung by Rena Strober.
Mobster Albert Circelli was killed.
Strober finished to applause and sat back down at the table, continuing to talk to her dining companions, save for Grosso, who had gone outside.
“I heard a sound that I thought was someone dropping a glass. I didn’t think anything of the first pop. It literally just sounded like a sifter fell,” she recalled.
“Then I heard a second pop and a scream over near the door and I immediately without even thinking went under the table.”
One mobster shot another over a song.
Louis “Louie Lump Lump” Barone, a 67-year-old “associate” who would show up at Rao’s about once a year, shot to death Albert Circelli, a 37-year-old Yonkers resident and a “made man” in the Lucchese crime family.
The pair were not the first mobsters to visit Rao’s nor was it the first felony to unfold there (a 1995 arson gutted the place). The restaurant — which Charles Rao opened as a neighborhood saloon in 1896 — has been host to the likes of Lucky Luciano and John Gotti.
But legendary law enforcers were just as likely to be dining at Rao’s as goodfellas. Regulars included former NYPD Detective Bo Dietl, who showed up after the murder, and ex-prosecutor-turned-novelist Linda Fairstein, whose book covers adorn the walls. Former (and now incoming) Police Commissioner Bill Bratton broke bread there a half-dozen times and even Rudy Giuliani, when he was the mob-busting Manhattan US attorney, reportedly ventured there two decades ago. Legend has it that he was picked up on a wiretap and never went back.
The eatery was rebuilt after the fire, with a few more tables and crowds clamoring for a rarely granted reservation in a restaurant with only one seating a night. The place was closed on weekends.
Pellegrino, who played an FBI supervisor on “The Sopranos,” earned the nickname “Frankie No” for turning away diners.
He had a unique crowd-control measure. Regulars, including Ron Perelman and Tommy Mottola, got a table assigned to them one night a week. If they couldn’t make it, Pellegrino could seat whomever he wanted.
Grosso had a table on Mondays (and still does). The former NYPD detective had worked with partner Eddie Egan to break up the “French Connection” drug smuggling ring. In the movie, the first R-rated picture to win the Oscar, Grosso was played by Roy Scheider, and Egan by Gene Hackman.
One Monday night about 13 years ago, Grosso and Strober crossed paths at the restaurant.
Strober, who earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from Skidmore College, had just landed a spot in the touring company of “Les Miserables.”
A mutual friend of Strober’s and Grosso’s, who was a writer for the television show “Touched by an Angel,” brought her to Rao’s so Grosso could hear her sing.
They kept in touch while Strober was on tour. She returned to New York in 2001 and joined the Broadway cast of “Les Miserables” as an understudy for the waif Cosette. She became a regular at Grosso’s table on Monday nights.
Strober dined on lemon chicken, stuffed clams and Chianti.
“There were always the noodles that came out with the famous sauce with a dollop of ricotta, which I loved,” she said.
Pellegrino would put “My Girl” on the jukebox and walk around and sing, with patrons crooning along merrily.
Strober would sometimes join another Grosso guest, opera singer Michael Amante, in a rendition of “Time to Say Goodbye.”
The soprano sang for Bill Clinton and Billy Joel. Friends would call her on Tuesday mornings to ask what she had sung and whom she had sung for.
She said the tiny space at 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, its walls lined with celebrity glossies, felt like a living room, and called Rao’s friendly staff her “famiglia.”
“I called it my Italian Passover seder every week,” she said.
Strober’s photo even earned a key spot on the eatery’s wall, right above the jukebox.
“It was never a gig,” she said. “It was merely people who loved music, and Frankie, who loved his clientele.”
As Strober belted out “Don’t Rain On My Parade” that night, singing toward the back of the restaurant, she was unaware of what was happening at the bar.
“Ah, shut up. Get her off. She sucks,” Circelli snarled to a friend, according to shooter Barone’s confession.
Barone made a “shhhh-ing” gesture by holding his index finger to his mouth. Then, he said, Circelli threatened him, saying “I’ll open up your hole. I’ll f–k you in the a–.”
“He had his finger in my face. I said, ‘You don’t have to talk to me like that,’ ” he told police.
The insults continued until, Barone said, “I was really mad. I had blood in my eyes.”
“I lost face. I had to defend my honor. I had no choice but to shoot him. I had no choice but to kill him.”
As Circelli started to leave, Barone pulled his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver out of his right pocket and shot him. As Circelli fell face down, he got off another round.
“I snapped at that point. I went ballistic,” he confessed.
The second bullet missed badly, hitting the foot of Albert Petraglia, a 57-year-old chief court clerk who had the misfortune of having a corpse land in front of him.
“He was staring up at me and I was staring down at him,” Petraglia said at the time. “I felt sorry because I was going to the hospital and I knew he was going to the morgue.”
After the second shot, Barone dropped his gun, just like “The Godfather,” and walked outside, right into the path of two police officers. He told them someone had been shot. An off-duty cop who had been dining inside ran out and fingered him as the killer.
As the second shot rang out, Strober dove under her table and began to pray, first reciting the “shema,” the Jewish prayer that is a declaration of a faith and is said on a deathbed.
She was especially frightened for Grosso, who had gone to his car to get some of Amante’s CDs to give out as gifts. She did not know where he was.
“In my mind, having seen movies like this, I sort of flashed to someone taking us all out,” she said.
Strober called her boyfriend to come take her home to Brooklyn, her heart still racing. Within days her photo was all over the press, the face of a mob hit.
“I think Jay Leno was talking about it. It was everywhere,” she said. “This was the last thing I wanted. I might be an actress, but this is not how I wanted to be in the papers. A man was killed.”
Strober returned to Rao’s the next night to let Pellegrino and Grosso know she was OK, but the shooting haunted her. She jumped at an opportunity to leave town with another tour of “Les Miserables.”
While on tour she wrote a one-woman show called “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls,” which she described as how “being involved in that Italian world ironically led me back to my Jewish roots.” She performed it off-Broadway.
Strober moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and does voiceovers for cartoons and video games. She has acted in regional theater, but not again on Broadway.
Barone pleaded guilty in 2004 to manslaughter and assault and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He died in April of natural causes, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Although Rao’s now has outposts in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Strober has yet to visit them. Nor did she ever return to her regular Monday nights at the East Harlem eatery, although she said she doesn’t regret her time there.
Instead, she joined the Friar’s Club and would sing there every Thursday night.
“I just figured old Jews with no guns is probably a better place for me,” she said (source).