The Mafia in New York has descended in three decades from the brazen hit on Gambino boss Paul Castellano outside the Tony Sparks Steak House in Manhattan, to the tawdry shooting of Bonanno associate Sylvester Zottola at a drive-thru McDonald’s in the Bronx
That’s right, a McDonald’s drive-thru, where a mafioso of yore would not want to be caught dead.
“The gang that couldn’t eat straight,” an investigator initially remarked after hearing where Zottola had in fact been caught as dead as can be at 4:30 p.m. on October 4.
The investigator then learned that Zottola had ordered only a medium coffee when he pulled up in his SUV to the menu board outside the McDonald’s on Webster Avenue.
Zottola proceeded to window 1 and paid his $1.29. He rolled on toward window 2 to get his McCafe—not a drink that would ever have passed the lips of a self-respecting mobster back in the day, when the city abounded in genuine Italian cafes.
The standard McCafe cup that Zottola was waiting to receive bore the standard message on the side:
“GOOD DAYS START HERE. ALL DAY, EVERY DAY.”
The other side o the cup read:
HANDLE WITH CARE!”
But the warning was about to become moot, when a man in a dark hoodie and dark pants strode up to the SUV with a pistol in his hand, intent on making Zottola’s day end.
Back in September 2017, Zottola had been bludgeoned near his Bronx home.
That November, a gunman attempted to kidnap him off the street.
Then, in December, Zottola arrived home to discover three men tearing through his house as if searching for something. One of the men stabbed him in the neck, almost killing him.
Zottola was back on his feet in June, when a man appeared outside his home. Zottola pulled a gun and managed to scare the man away, but was arrested for illegal possession of a weapon.
In July, a gunman shot Zottola’s 41-year old son, Salvatore, outside their home. He was hit multiple times, but survived.
Along with loss of decorum and self-respect, another reason no mafioso should go to a drive-thru McDonald’s is that you can easily get boxed in by cars in front and behind.
Even a gang that could not bludgeon, stab, kidnap or shoot straight was able to get Zottola as he sat trapped awaiting his McCafe.
The gunman fired five times and fled back through the fence that runs alongside the drive-thru lane. An ambulance was summoned, but Zottola was pronounced dead at the scene.
The investigating detectives and FBI agents immediately suspected the Albanian mob, which makes up with viciousness what it lacks in competence.
A senior NYPD official noted that things have changed considerably since the days of John Gotti, who became head of the Gambino crime family in 1986 by having Castellano killed outside Sparks in true “goodfella” fashion. A Bronx mafioso named Frank Locascio became Gotti consigliere. And Locascio brought in an Albanian gangster named Zef Mustafa to serve as his driver.
As one observer put it, “Zef couldn’t drive for shit.” But Mustafa knew a whole host of Albanian gangsters who were each more fearsome than the next, making them Gotti’s kind of hoods.
“Very tough people,” the NYPD official noted.
The Albanians began hanging out in Italian joints and gradually began to assume ownership.
“[The NYPD and FBI] started seeing Gotti and his crew hanging out in Italian restaurants owned by Albanians,” the police official recalls. “It was like a slow, creepy takeover.”
Gotti’s underboss, Sammy Gravano, proved not so tough after all. He turned rat and Gotti went to prison for life.
More mafiosi proved as weak as Gravano, culminating with Bonanno crime family boss Joe Massino. He turned rat, despite being widely regarded as a gangster’s gangster, as tough as an Albanian.
The Albanians continued being Albanians, taking over restaurants even in the heart of an Italian enclave in the Bronx. They also moved into real estate and social clubs, along with such criminal enterprises as narcotics and gambling.
When an Albanian crew found itself outgunned by an Italian crew in a confrontation at a New Jersey service plaza, one of them pointed his gun at a gas pump and threatened to blow them all up. The Italians backed off.
New York mob lore came to include a night when an Albanian mobster was refused a reservation at Rao’s, an East Harlem restaurant where celebrities mix with wiseguys. The Albanian is said to have arrived with 20 henchmen and simply taken the table that had always been reserved for John Gotti before his downfall.
Up in the Bronx, the Albanians took particular interest in video gambling machines, which one federal prosecutor estimated in court to bring as much as $7,000 a week.
Zottola is said to have specialized in such contraptions and he may have come into conflict with the Albanians when the creeping takeover reached his enterprise.
As an associate of the Bonanno crime family, Zottola would have been immune to such worries back in the day. But in the aftermath of Massino’s defection and the Mafia’s general decline, Zottola was attacked again and again with the determination of hoods for whom business is always personal.
After the police arrested Zottola and confiscated his gun, his only hope seemed to have been that his attackers would remain as bumbling as they were brutal.
But even they could not miss when he was boxed in at the McDonald’s drive-thru.
It is, at least, a very nice McDonald’s. The structure is ageing, but a man was repainting part of the interior on Monday afternoon. Two workers for K.W. Price Landscaping were outside by the drive-thru murder scene, spreading cedar mulch and planting flowering shrubs.
Both men were laboring with notable care—raking, smoothing, tamping. One of them, 24-year-old Sean Jamrock, pointed at the yellow flowers of a shrub in full bloom and the purple ones just beginning to appear on another.
“See?” he said.
Jamrock was told that this was the site of the mob hit the week before.
“I heard about it,” he said.
He seemed to have nothing more to say, not out of fear but simply due to a lack of interest. He was asked if he had seen “The Godfather.”
“I think I saw one or two of them,” he said.
Jamrock neatly folded an empty mulch bag and went to get a full one from the truck. He proceeded to spread the mulch, enriching the soil so he could bring a little beauty to this McDonald’s drive-thru in the Bronx, making it not just a symbol of the mob’s decline, but now also an example of honest work.
“Life is good,” he said.
The funeral for Sylvester Zottola is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, by chance the same day and hour he was due in court on the gun charge. The Mass is to be at Saint Teresa’s Church, followed by burial in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery. Others interred there include Fat Tony Salerno, an old-school Mafia boss who declined to turn rat despite being hit with sentences of 100 years and 70 years. He died in prison in 1992, when a fate such as Zottola’s would have been as unthinkable to him as pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-thru for coffee.