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.
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.