The year is 1922; the time is 11:45 a.m. On the southwest corner of 12th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City, Agnes Egglineger, age eight, was playing outside with her grandfather when she was abruptly shot in the chest. Three gunmen, possibly four, had rushed out of a local restaurant, not only seriously injuring the girl and an innocent street cleaner but also successfully murdering one of their intended targets, Umberto Valenti. It was the second open gang-war that week, and only one in a series that would occur within that area of that time, for the restaurant to those who knew signified much more than a place where families could go and eat.
New York’s Lower East Side, the area in which John Pucciatti and his wife lived and where their restaurant would be opened, was heavily populated by Italians who had been continuously emigrating to the United States since the 1870s from factors such as poverty and natural disasters. Due to their general illiteracy and status as manual workers, Italians were (like so many immigrants before and after) heavily disregarded as true members of American society, sticking close to members of their own ethnicity in response. Much like Jews, which had suffered from prejudice far longer in Manhattan than they had, Italians took matters into their own hands, forming their own laws that helped them counteract those lawmakers which refused to protect them. John’s Restaurant and its surrounding area would become an enclave for such activity.
With the advent of the 18th Amendment, many men with keen eyes for business saw opportunity to get rich quick, albeit illegally. It makes sense, then, for this prospect to be particularly pleasing to a struggling lower class with minimal social and educational mobility. It would also make sense that, in such a heavily Italian-populated neighborhood as the Lower East Side, John’s Italian Restaurant would become one of the more well-known speakeasies in the city. The restaurant was opened in 1908 by John, an immigrant from a small village in Italy’s Umbrian region, and his wife to whom patrons affectionately deemed “Momma John.” Seeing opportunity in the now unlawful liquor business, the two constructed a “hooch” still in the backyard where they concocted wine and whiskey to sell to patrons in the upstairs speakeasy. It was here that those locals in search of a now illegal good time could go. It was also here that some of the most notorious names of Mafia history came to discuss matters surrounding the burgeoning organized crime world, a world which was most notoriously created by Italians, a culture that remains to be synonymous with the word “mob.”
It was in the buildings surrounding job that some of the most notorious mobsters lived. At 265th East 10th Street, merely two blocks from John’s, lived Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano would become known as the father of modern organized crime. Together with his Jewish partner, Meyer Lansky, Luciano would divide the New York City mafia into five different “families” headed by one unified Commission. This, however, would not occur until the 1930s. In 1922, when the shooting in front of John’s occurred, Luciano was one of the top men in Joe Masseria’s organization. Masseria, growing up only five blocks away from John’s, became known as the “man who could dodge bullets” when he survived an attempted assassination with only two bullet holes in his hat. It was Masseria that would arrange for a peace meeting at John’s Restaurant between himself, Umberto Valenti, and another former underworld boss named Peter Morello. The only problem was, when Valenti and his men showed up at the restaurant, only Masseria’s men were present. When it became apparent the “peace conference” was a setup, all men went for their guns and opened fire, Valenti managing to open fire from a hailed taxi cab before being shot dead himself. It was rumored that Luciano was the one who fired the shot that ended Valenti’s life, the assassination earning Masseria a place as a head in Morello’s family, a spot that would eventually take him to the top. Ironically, it would eventually be Luciano who killed Masseria in yet another restaurant, this time located on Coney Island, breaking bread with a man before allowing his own underlings to shoot him to death. The Mafia would then break from its confines in the area surrounding John’s, spreading nationwide and making its mark in history as how a wronged people can, with the right opportunity, turn an entire country upside down.
Although the Italian mafia is gone and new immigrant groups have emerged, John’s Restaurant still stands. To signify the end of prohibition, a giant candelabra was placed in the back of the restaurant. To this day the candles are lit, and to this day staff must tame the wax that drips over vintage wine bottles whose sale was once so eagerly and bloodily fought over, a grotesque reminder that eventually, after if filled with criminality and murder, life quickly empties out and leaves one eternally hollow.