Al had a modest house on Landis Place, a working-class section of Yonkers that goes in for big Christmas decorations. Al, who lived with his mother and grandmother—his parents were separated—and a German shepherd, had a couple of giant candy canes just inside a chain-link fence. A neighbor said he’d seen Al walking the dog, cutting the lawn, and thought him a pretty good neighbor. An attorney said Al had been involved with Xpress Ambulette service, though that company was no longer in business. For a time, he may have worked with a family exterminating company. He wasn’t a college grad. Laurie Brasco, an ex-fiancée who lived with him five years ago, called Al a homebody. “Boring,” she said. “That’s why I had to leave.” He had home-remodeling projects, liked to cook on Sundays, and loved to work out. He’d eliminated salt, sugar. “He was six one and really built. He killed himself,” said Brasco. “Not an inch of fat.” They’d stayed friends, though she didn’t know how he earned a living now.
Law enforcement, though, had Albert J. Circelli Jr. down for a different sort of life. They pegged him as a recently made Mafia soldier, a member of the crew run by Anthony DiSimone’s father. “Sources in the organized-crime law-enforcement circles reported that Circelli was a soldier in the Lucchese crime family,” said Joseph F. O’Brien, a former FBI agent and co-author of best-seller Boss of Bosses. If he wasn’t connected then, some wondered, where did he get the cash for all those fancy cars? He had eight cars registered to his name: five Cadillacs, a Chevy, a Ferrari, and a Lincoln. That night, he’d taken the Lincoln to Rao’s, where parking was always available.
Louie, who was said to have his own, less formal, association with the Lucchese family, would later say he was sure that Al was a Mafia soldier. “He had his button,” Barone would say, which was a way of saying that he’d been inducted. “I’m sure he was a wise- guy.” If nothing else, there was the way he mouthed off, as if pulling rank. A lady was singing. Rena Strober stood a few feet away.
“Not this fucking broad again. Get her out of here,” said Al.
Louie felt sorry for his girlfriend, even the parents of the victim. Then he said: “I’m deeply sorry to have done that at Rao’s. Please tell Frankie.”
Louie put a finger to his lips. “Show some respect,” Louie told Al. In Louie’s telling, he was sticking up for a lady, for himself, for the values of the neighborhood and of a place like Rao’s.
It was about 10:30, the time the crowd starts to thin out. Sonny Grosso was outside retrieving a Michael Amante record for Len Cariou. Johnny Roastbeef had also stepped outside. He was checking his messages. Cariou, who’d recently been in Proof on Broadway, had the table right next to the bar. His grandson and granddaughter were with him. His bill had arrived—it’s close to $1,000 for an eight-person table at Rao’s. He was writing out a check.
Louie says he heard Al say something to him after he put his finger to his lips. “I’ll break that finger off and shove it up your ass,” Al said. Nice talk. It didn’t stop there. “I don’t care who you are and who you’re connected to, I’ll take care of you,” Al supposedly said.
It was, in theory, the kind of exchange that an outsider might travel up to a place like Rao’s to overhear. This was no tidy downtown snub. It was a street beef, the kind that earned Louie his nickname—for the lumps he got and those he received. A young Mafia buck, feeling his Cheerios, issued an insult, one that in this neighborhood with its ominous history, its sensitivities, its codes, inevitably drew a response. Louie liked the version in which he played the honorable older gentleman. But also, anybody who knows him knows he has a temper. He could go ballistic losing a bet on a football game. And, of course, Louie could be fluid with the truth. He wasn’t worried about terrorists, despite what he’d said.
Still, to a lot of people, what Louie contemplated hardly made sense based on ruffled honor. Louie had a practical side. He wasn’t a big-shot gangster, or trying to be one. He was 67, thought about getting by, always had. He’d once dated a great girl twenty years younger, but wouldn’t marry her because he figured, What about when he was in his sixties and trying to keep up? Louie wasn’t the kind to overreach. He liked low monthly payments, indoor parking, a girlfriend his own age.
To Louie, another issue seemed to be in play. Al was a big guy, physically big. He understood Al’s words as a very specific threat from a connected guy. “There was fear,” Louie would later say. “I was scared.”
Al Circelli asked Nicky the Vest for the check, threw down some cash. A moment later, Louie reached into his pocket for his .38. In the movie, the next bit would have happened in slow motion. Louie shoots from the hip, not even getting up from the stool, not aiming at Al’s back. It’s a quick gesture. Al doesn’t even see the gun. “He spun off the stool,” Louie said. That’s how he got him in the back. Albert Circelli, hit once in the heart, stumbled twenty feet toward the Madonna in the window, where he fell at the feet of a diner, Al Petraglia, chief clerk of the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court, who grew up with the other owner, Ron Straci. Louie followed Circelli, cruising on that bum knee. He shot again, and missed—“Nerves,” he explained—and instead hit Petraglia in the foot. He tossed the gun aside, pushed out the door. Cinematically, it was perfect. A pool of blood, and the singer who hid under a table.