The recent release of the much-anticipated Netflix movie THE IRISHMAN, starring film legends Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (as The Irishman), sparked in me memories of a fascinating real-life story about a member of New York’s Gambino family and a man they called The Dentist.
THE IRISHMAN, from famed director Martin Scorsese, is a story about Irish hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he looks back at his time as a member of the Bufalino crime family and the decades leading to the disappearance of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. While the accuracy of THE IRISHMAN remains debated by filmmakers, historians, and law enforcement professionals, the following story is true.
(Some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” but when it comes to mobsters and Hollywood movies, it’s safe to say it goes both ways.
This particular story takes place in New York, but it begins in central California...
Tony Calabrese was a mid-50s devoted husband and father to twelve kids who loved a good whiskey and a fine cigar. He lived a modest life, despite doing well as a small-town dentist. Known as “The Dentist” to his friends, Tony was spontaneous, confident, belligerent in his world view and faith, but insanely funny...life of the party kind of funny.
Tony’s laugh was a deep throated air-filled sputter that came out in rapid fire. It was very contagious and as amusing as his long-winded stories. His disarming personality was like a magnet to people around him. The kind of personality where he could use levity to challenge someone’s life choices right to their face. And no matter how personal, he could do it in a way that was viewed as just another humorous exchange.
In 2000-something, Tony’s well-to-do business owner friend, Jimmy Russo, invited him on a three-day jaunt to New York City. It was just a quick business trip, but Jimmy thought they could bring their wives and make a little vacation out of it. Tony hadn’t been to New York in decades, but it was once one of his favorite cities, so he wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to go back. The real clincher was when Tony learned they’d be dining at Peter Luger Steakhouse and staying at the famed St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.
Jimmy and Tony were like-minded in their views on life and family, but they had polar opposite personalities. You could say they agreed on what mattered and complimented each other in ways more frivolous. Jimmy was quiet and reserved…the strong, silent type. Then when you throw into the mix his significant financial success, he got a lot of fear from those who didn’t know him and a lot of respect from those who did.
Tony and his wife climbed onto the private jet in silent disbelief at how fortunate they were to be able to enjoy such an excursion. Two hours into the flight and everyone but Tony had fallen asleep. Still as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve, Tony couldn’t close his eyes long enough to enjoy the same degree of relaxation. Left to himself, he was stuck reading the only magazines he could find on the plane, entertainment magazines. He preferred more highbrow intellectual reading, but that clearly was not an option.
When they walked into the St. Regis Hotel, Tony was overflowing with the same energy emanating from the City-That-Never-Sleeps. He stood in awe at the grandiose lobby with all its fancy trimmings. “This is gonna be a great trip,” he thought to himself.
The wives went off on their own to explore the city, so Jimmy invited Tony to sit in on his first of a handful of meetings. It was a casual meeting scheduled in the King Cole Bar & Salon located in the St. Regis. The King Cole Bar is a small upscale lounge with a long and esteemed history. It was frequented by the likes of Salvador Dali, Marilyn Monroe, and John Lennon and has served as the backdrop in multiple movies and TV shows. It’s really a fantastic place to enjoy an overpriced cocktail or two. But it’s the scenery and the history that totally make it worth it.
At the bar, Jimmy introduced Tony to a quasi-celebrity chef and restauranteur by the name of Luigi. Luigi was a look-at-me kind of guy. He had a gross arrogance about him that turned Tony off right away. It wasn’t enough to wipe the plastered smile off Tony’s face, but it was noticeable nonetheless. Jimmy worked with Luigi in the past, so he knew what to expect from him. Besides, this was just business.
After initial pleasantries were exchanged, Luigi lowered his head and leaned toward Jimmy and Tony as if to be discreet and said, “There’s a guy I know that likes to come here. If he shows up, he might make us have a drink with him.”
Not thinking much of it, Jimmy and Tony nodded in agreement.
Not five minutes later, their conversation was interrupted by a raspy voice with a New York/Italian accent, “Luigi! Hey, Luigi!”
Luigi snapped his head over to a side table as if he knew exactly where the sound was coming from. A short middle-aged Italian man with dark complexion was sitting at a table with a couple of younger muscle-bound Italian mobster looking guys...greasy hair, nice clothes and all the mobster characteristics you might see in the movies. The little Italian guy gestured for Luigi to come over.
“This is him,” Luigi said to Jimmy as he led them over to the table.
Jimmy and Tony shared an uncomfortable glance on the walk over to the table. It was clear that while Luigi wanted to be somebody important, this Italian guy was somebody important.
Luigi and the Italian man greeted each other with a half hug. Then Luigi, whose demeanor had noticeably softened, almost to the point of humility, said, “Jimmy, Tony, this is Daniel Marino.”
Comical quips about post NFL life popped into Tony’s head (it obviously wasn't Dan Marino from the Miami Dolphins, which is what made it so funny), but for some reason he refrained. It probably had something to do with the fact that Daniel never even looked at him or Jimmy. It was like they weren’t there. Despite that, Daniel in his low volume raspy voice told them all to sit. And without hesitation, they did.
It was not clear to Tony and Jimmy who this guy was at first. These are just a couple of normal guys from California, what did they really know about New York City? But in a synchronized moment of illumination, when their butts hit the seat they realized who they were sitting with.
This was Daniel Marino from the Gambino crime family…the Daniel Marino! The same Daniel Marino who allegedly killed or ordered the killing of God knows how many people on behalf of the mob. In the 90’s he was convicted of multiple federal crimes including conspiracy to murder mob “rat” Thomas Spinelli. Co-conspirators of the Spinelli murder included John Gotti (then boss of the Gambino family), “Sammy the Bull” Gravano (Underboss), and James Failla (Gambino family captain).
CNN Law Enforcement Analyst and former FBI Agent James Gagliano was on the arrest team in 1993 after Daniel was indicted for his involvement in Spinelli’s murder. Between the arrest and processing, he spent the better part of a day with Daniel. According to James, Daniel was befuddled by the whole experience, even going so far as to ask, “Why you? You’re Italian, kid. Why?” It seems Daniel actually saw it as a personal betrayal to have this Italian FBI Agent put the cuffs on this Italian mobster. It just didn’t make sense to him.
Tony, who’s used to being the life of the party, sunk into his seat and committed himself to enjoying the Crown Royal XR Daniel just ordered and keeping his mouth shut.
Jimmy was used to sitting quietly and listening, so keeping his mouth shut and staying out of trouble was easy for him. But for Tony, not so much. Especially by the third or fourth round of drinks.
They had spent an hour with Daniel and the two muscle-bound guys (who never spoke) when Luigi said, “Danny, you gotta tell them your meatball recipe. Big cooks these guys.”
Daniel gestured with his head toward Tony and without actually looking at him said, “This guy Italian?”
Luigi replied, “Oh, yeah, Anthony Calabrese. He’s Italian. Both of ‘em are.”
“What’s he do?” Daniel snapped back.
Now, Tony being Tony saw this as an opportunity to break the tension and lighten the mood. So before Luigi had a chance to respond, Tony, wearing a half smile, chimed in with his best Marlon Brando from THE GODFATHER voice, “I hurt people.”
Jimmy couldn’t believe his ears. “Did Tony really just say that?” He thought to himself. Jimmy instinctively started looking around the room for the exit as Luigi raised his hands in a defensive fashion toward Daniel, “No, no, no he’s a dentist.”
Tony, unsatisfied with the lack of appreciation for his joke, decided he’d go in for another swing. And again, with his Brando voice, “See, I hurt people. They call me The Dentist.”
While the booze provided Tony with the courage he needed to finally say something, Daniel’s real life Robert De Niro-esque look of disgust took all that courage away. Tony fell back into his seat and recommitted himself to not opening his mouth as it became abundantly clear how absolutely stupid it was the first time. Jimmy, admittedly, kind of found it humorous watching Tony squirm.
Daniel did end up sharing his meatball recipe, but I’m not sharing it here.
Somehow the conversation between Luigi and Daniel persisted for another hour. They talked about their favorite restaurants in New York and New Jersey, and they shared with each classic Italian recipes. It was surreal. Just a couple guys chatting it up about food while four other guys sat in uncomfortable silence.
The conversation eventually shifted to the King Cole Bar. They commented on the impressive trappings, the great service, and the monstrosity of a mural behind the bar. Then Daniel’s face lit up in a way that it hadn’t all night. He actually smiled as he pointed to a table and said, “You see that table?”
He was only talking to Luigi, but everyone turned to look.
Daniel continued, “That’s Robert De Niro’s table. I see him here from time-to-time and that’s where he sits. We have drinks together sometimes.”
Most people who piss off a mobster and convicted murderer would probably just sit tight, lick their wounds, and hope to be forgotten, but this is Tony and Tony isn't most people. I guess he thought he would sleep better while in New York if Daniel Marino didn’t want to kill him. So, he decided to brave the unknown one more time and try to redeem himself.
“I just read something about Robert De Niro on the flight out here,” Tony said. “You know he’s like 75% Irish?”
Nobody said a word for what felt like an eternity. Daniel glared at Luigi, who knew better than to come to Tony’s defense a second time.
Remember, Daniel is the kind of guy who couldn’t understand why an Italian FBI Agent would arrest him; the same guy who wouldn’t share his meatball recipe if he didn’t know everyone at the table was Italian.
The weight of what Tony had said finally hit him when he saw the terror on Jimmy’s face from across the table.
Daniel turned his whole body toward Tony. He stared him square in the eyes. This was the first time Daniel looked at Tony all night and Tony didn’t like it much. This little Italian man seemed ten feet tall when he looked at you, and I mean really looked at you. He had the same cold look as Robert De Niro when he played Al Capone in THE UNTOUCHABLES just before splitting his captain's head with a baseball bat at dinner. And just when Tony was about to stand and excuse himself for the night out of sheer desperation and self-preservation, Daniel slowly and emphatically said, “Fuck you.”
The evening ended shortly thereafter without incident. And fortunately for Tony, he wasn’t whacked.
I’ve heard this story from Tony dozens of times over the years and I laugh every time as if it’s the first time hearing it. I joke with him that if the FBI was listening outside the King Cole Bar, they probably spent the first half of the night trying to figure out who The Dentist that “hurts people” was. Then they spent the second half of the night wondering if they had to put The Dentist in protective custody, so Daniel Marino didn’t kill him.
In 2010, sometime after Tony’s epic fail recorded above, Daniel was arrested along with a gaggle of other mobsters for various federal felonies including racketeering, extortion, sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder, and other crimes. In 2011, Daniel received a 5-year maximum sentence after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy for approving the murder of his own nephew, Frank Hydell, who Gambino family members believed was cooperating with the FBI.
According to the NY Daily News, the lead prosecutor on the case, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and current CNN Legal Analyst Elie Honig, said, “For Mr. Marino, the Mafia has always come first. It came before his friends, before his family.”
I still have a lot of questions for Daniel Marino about that night, but since THE IRISHMAN came out, what I’m really curious about is how he feels seeing a real life Irishman like Robert De Niro playing an Irish hit man for the Italian mob?
Who knows, maybe Daniel gave Robert De Niro some pointers on how to play a mobster in the flick. Then again, maybe it was Robert De Niro who gave Daniel some pointers on how to be a mobster in real-life.
Jeff Cortese is a financial crimes manager in the private sector, is the former acting chief of the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit. Before his career with the bureau, he worked as a dignitary protection agent with the U.S. Capitol Police and served on the security detail for the Speaker of the House. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycortese or find him at his website www.jeffcortese.com.