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Life on the Corner: Mala Festa

By the early 1920s my grandfather, Nicola, had saved enough money to buy a small tavern at the corner of Lewis and Commercial Streets which he named Nick’s Tavern. Nonno Nick came to America as a stowaway and there is no record of him entering the country at Ellis Island or any other port of entry. He had to leave Italy in a hurry, one step ahead of the police, and when he made his way to Boston he lived with relatives and friends on Moon Street, right off North Square. Like many Southern Italian immigrants to Boston, he came from a small hill town outside Avellino and North Square was where Avellenese congregated.

Being along the waterfront Nick’s Tavern was always a rough place. During prohibition local fishermen and longshoremen moved a lot of illegal alcohol through Nick’s Tavern and, once prohibition ended, gambling, money lending, and stolen merchandise took its place. When my father and his brother, Willie, took over the tavern after the War, Nick’s was populated by a cast of characters right out of a Dickens novel. Even though we lived upstairs my mother didn’t want me hanging around inside the tavern. The shady guys who gravitated to Nick’s like flies to roadkill might corrupt me. I could run inside to get a cold soda or a bag of chips, but I wasn’t allowed to linger. I longed to smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey straight up, and hang out with the tough guys.

My friends Joe and Tommy grilling sausages at St. Agrippina’s feast, 1969.

One year, when I was about fourteen years old, my dream came true. My father asked me to help out during the Fisherman’s Feast, which was held right outside his front door. The three feast days were the busiest ones of the year for the barroom. He would do a month’s business in one weekend. I was thrilled. My assignment was to grill sausages and peppers on Lewis Street right in front of the tavern and make sandwiches for the customers. At five in the afternoon I fired up the grill, bought several pounds of sausages at Providence Packing Co. on Fulton Street, and started cooking. Everything was going great, the Tavern was packed, everyone was laughing, drinking and having a good time. The bandstand was at the corner of Lewis and North Streets and two opera singers were performing the “Libiamo” duet from Verdi’s La Traviata before an enormous and enthusiastic crowd. The colored feast lights cast a warm glow over my grill. Friends and family walked by; it was a wonderful North End summer night.

By eight o’clock I had about twenty sausages and a bunch of peppers cooking when I noticed a heavy set man, obviously drunk, come staggering down Commercial Street. He stopped in front of the grill and said he wanted a sausage sandwich. I explained they weren’t for sale and were only for the customers in Nick’s Tavern. He got belligerent, started swearing at me and asked, didn’t I know who he was? “Sure” I said, “I know you. You’re the a$$ hole who is trying to steal a sausage.”

Apparently he didn’t like my comment and tried grabbing a sausage off the grill. As soon as he made his move I stabbed his hand with my barbecue fork and held his fat fingers against the grill until they began to sizzle. He let out a roar like a wounded walrus and kicked the grill into the crowd on Lewis Street. Sausages and charcoal went flying, people started screaming and the fat guy lunged at me. Just as I was about to stab him in the stomach with the fork my friend, Big Ron, who was helping me, grabbed me from behind and held my arms. ”Take it easy, Nick” he said while the fat guy pummeled me with punches. Someone in the tavern yelled, “Jerry, your kid’s in trouble.” Within seconds at least fifty guys, mostly fishermen, poured out of the store.When they saw who was beating me up they went at him with a vengeance. Like we used to say, they did La Tarentella on his head. Police cars arrived, my mother was screaming out the window, and someone shoved me inside the front door. An ambulance showed up and brought the fat guy to the hospital. It was a riot on Lewis Street, but I was safe in bed. I put the incident out of my mind and almost forgot about it. Boy, was I wrong.

Years later I found out the rest of the story.

The fat guy who tried stealing the sausage was well known and widely hated by the fishermen. He was called Sammy Eight Ball and had a fish supply company on the Northern Avenue fish pier where he sold fishing gear, line, hooks, nets and other items. He also had the market cornered on live bait, the herring used by the fishermen for their tub trawls, and he charged an extortionate amount for the bait. He loaned money to the fishermen to buy his bait and made them kiss the big ring on his finger when they paid him. His brother, Vito, owned the largest wholesale fish dealership on the pier and the fishermen were forced to buy bait from Sammy Eight Ball if they wanted to do business with his brother. Between the two of them, they ran all the rackets on the pier. Gambling, loan sharking, smuggling, they got a percentage of it all. The fishermen resented it and were happy to give him a good beating. After the Eight Ball got beat up, his brother put out the word that he was coming for me and would send me to the hospital just like his brother. I, of course, knew nothing about any of this, but my mother was beside herself.

Luckily, one of my aunts had married a gigolo who was distantly related to the consigliere of the Boston mob, a guy called ChiChi. ChiChi was the real deal, an old time mobster who made his reputation during the liquor wars of the 1920s. An Irish gang from Gustin Street in South Boston was hijacking mob trucks that were moving whiskey down from Canada. ChiChi and a couple of other guys solved the problem. In 1957 ChiChi represented the Boston guys at the Apalachin meeting with the five New York families in upstate New York, a meeting that was loosely depicted in the movie The Godfather. Anyway, my mother called her sister, who spoke to her husband, who asked ChiChi to intercede. ChiChi called Vito, explained the facts of life to him and the issue was settled. I don’t know if any money changed hands, but that was the last time my father asked me to grill sausages at the Fishermen’s Feast. My career as a wise guy ended before it began.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

29 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Mala Festa

  1. What a story you have a great memory,so interesting to read,I too came from a family that owned a restaurant and barroom very similar cast of characters gambling shi locking hot stuff real McCoy wise guys ,I remember one day as a kid I walked by Lenny quahogs stand a took a lemon slice off the cart he kicked me at the bottom of my back with engineer boots I saw stars startled in shock I stabbed with the quahog knife right through the palm of his hand he ran in the Bluefront424 told my father I stole the rest of story is irrelevant .Tough Lenny Quohog

    1. Your father ran a classy place, Paul. As I recall he had menus, condiments and napkins on all the tables. Very posh. Every so often Al would have to ban a troublemaker, like Sammy Morgan, from the Blue Front. They would inevitably end up in my father’s bar on Lewis Street, a few rungs down the social ladder. No menus, no condiments, no napkins, just a beer and a beating and if you didn’t like that, the second one was on the house.

  2. Everybody has a story of Lennie “Quohog” Paridiso and his Mala Femmina. A demented dangerous character.

    1. That story struck a cord with me. When I see the pictures of street vendors, I wonder whether he was at the next table.

  3. Nick. I needed a good laugh today! This was hysterical. The only thing I could critique was you used the word “soda”, instead of “tonic”.😂

    1. But if I say to my kids, “I feel like having a tonic” they look at me like I’m crazy.

      1. My grand nephew noticed that I liked to add tonic to my drink. So he likes to add tonic to his soda. Of course, he used to call it “onic”. Now he is a few years hence and refers to it as tonic, doesn’t like “baby” words anymore. We miss the baby words and continue to refer to it as onic. He sort of rolls his eyes back.

    2. Excellent piece, Nick!
      Precipitated many memories and I found it very enjoyable. As you know, I grew up on Lewis St and knew the characters you referenced in your article.
      However, being one of your patients, I am grateful you didn’t become a drunken sausage cooking wise guy.
      Thanks for the article please keep up these entertaining stories!

  4. Good Morning Nick, you made my day, as always your stories are the best! I can visualize everything as I am reading. I always tell you and I say it again your should write a book, It would be interesting, fun and about family!!!

  5. Nick, where was the photo taken? It looks like the buildings on Prince across from St. Leonard’s but the “65” over the alley entrance threw me off. Thanks!

    1. You’re exactly right, it’s on Prince Street. St. Agrippina’s feast used to be held in the Polcari playground before they built the basketball courts.

  6. In reading this, I have to wonder if this was the establishment that my mom and my uncles spoke about where they had to go on a regular basis to get my grandfather (who liked to drink) to bring him home at night. They lived on Moon Street at the time and Nonno (who I only knew from the stories I was told) was a fisherman. I often wonder what he would think about the changes in the North End.

  7. I just love your column-living history lessons! Thank you for preserving the memories of the neighborhood.

  8. My great uncles on my maternal grandmother’s side: Sammy and Vito Corsile. Quite a legacy! Thanks for the story; I sometimes forget how the “neighborhood worked”.

  9. Great story Nick! I love hearing the stories from the old neighborhood. I miss hearing them from my grandfather about the stories from Hanover Street. Keep em’ coming!

  10. Nick, Thanks for another great story. We never ran such stories in The Italian News. (Possibly in the Mid-Town Journal, where I previously worked.)

    1. Bob, many years ago my wife taught at the Peter Faneuil school on Beacon Hill. One of her students was Penny Shibley. Didn’t her father publish the Mid Town Journal? Interesting family.

      1. Right, Nick. You have a fantastic memory. Penny was Fred Shibley’s daughter. Fred wrote much of the Journal in his style that he said was classic Dickens. I covered Municipal Court, picking up amazing and astounding stories of Mid-Town life, where all guys were gentlemen and dolls were ladies. I met Penny some 30 years ago at a ceremony at Boston Public Library where Fred’s widow presented bound copies of the Journal to the archives. When published, the ever-so-proper Brahmans running the BPL refused to keep copies.

  11. Great Story as usual You are the best!! Hey Nick I seem to have lost text you sent me about names of people that lived at Casa MARIA before my time Will you text again Thanks

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