Blackout at Umberto’s Clam House

by

12/19/2021

Neighborhood: Little Italy, Upper East Side

On April 7, 1972, New York mobster, Joey Gallo, was murdered while having a celebratory late night dinner at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. It was his birthday.

On July 13, 1977, three friends and myself made the trek from the Upper East Side down to Umberto’s. We all craved what was widely known as the best spaghetti and clam sauce in the city. In 1977 the word pasta hadn’t come into vogue, spaghetti covered it all.

Just hitting our mid-twenties during that summer of 1977, the city belonged to us. All we had to do was walk out the door. Parties on tenement stoops invited anyone passing by to join in. The smoke from weed mixed with the humid still air. A walk home from work turned into bar hopping just to catch the AC. Also that summer, out there, somewhere, was Son of Sam murdering young lovers. 

But on that night, a soggy 93º, with the concrete of the city raising the temperature even higher, it had to be spaghetti and clam sauce and it had to be at Umberto’s.

George had a sickly avocado-green 1970 Oldsmobile that sat long and low. We had to beg him to drive us downtown as it meant giving up his precious parking spot. Tough decision, but oh, that spaghetti and those clams. Carol sat in the front passenger seat, Dean and I stretched out in the back. Our challenge, as always, was to see if we could make every light from 80th Street, down Second Avenue, to Little Italy. It rarely happened.

Umberto’s had opened in 1972.  It was a small restaurant, brightly lit with a bar and tables. As usual, it was packed that night with locals, Village types, and maybe a tourist or three. Around nine that evening we settled in at a table, in the middle of the room, quickly ordering beer and those clams.

Joey Gallo had arrived at Umberto’s around 4:30 am after clubbing at the Copacabana. He’d seen Don Rickles perform and invited him to join his group after the show. Rickles declined, I imagine as graciously as possible. Instead, the party consisted of Joey’s wife, Sina and her daughter Lisa; his sister Carmella; and his bodyguard, Peter “Pete the Greek” Diapoulas, along with his female companion.

They were there to celebrate his birthday in an almost empty restaurant and ordered up the same spaghetti and clams we were after. But they didn’t get to enjoy theirs.

There’s a dispute as to whether there were one or four gunman who walked calmly into the dining room. Joey was hit in the back, buttocks, and elbow and lurched out the door, before being taken to Beekman-Downtown Hospital and declared dead. Another New York mob war began.

We hadn’t been served yet, but were happy to be in air conditioning with a cold beer, when the lights flickered. They briefly came back, then flickered again. Once more, for a nano-second, the room lit up. Then all went dark.

From our table, Carol screamed, “Get under the table, get under the table.” Pitching her chair backwards she ducked under the butcher block table, while the rest of us sat baffled, not comprehending what she was screaming about.

Then others took up her cry. “Get down.” “Oh, My God.” Chairs were overturned, glasses shattered on the floor, and yet the three of us just sat there, totally nonplussed.

The word came quickly from the street. “The block is out.” Then, “The entire area is out.” And then, “Looks like the whole damn city is out.” The Blackout of 1977 had arrived.

Carol, a Lauren Bacall look alike, righted her chair and, with a shrug, declared that if this had been a repeat of 1972, she would have been the sole survivor. Tossing her blonde hair, she gave us the knowing eye.

The heat quickly turned the restaurant into a sticky steam bath. There was no choice but to open the doors as the wait staff scrambled to assure everyone it was safe, and that the blackout only temporary. 

From outside, noise escalated as restaurants emptied and people took to the streets. Sirens, which would continue to wail through the night, along with what seemed like every car horn in town, turned the lazy summer night into a carnival of chaos.

But a quick thinker from the wait staff brought us one tiny birthday candle, stuck upright on a paper plate, placing it carefully down on the middle of the table. Ah, dining by candlelight.

Surprisingly, in a few short minutes we were all served a hefty white pasta bowl, the al dente spaghetti covered with little neck clams peeking out of their steamed shells. Fine olive oil, just the right amount of garlic, and all the aged, parmigiana cheese we could desire, along with frosty cold beer appeared on our table. We were alive, we had candlelight, and our appetites were about to be satisfied.

The next surprise arrived when we were informed there’d be no charge for what was possibly the best dinner in New York City. Oh, to dine at Umberto’s on this night.

That night New York would experience what all great cities encounter in times of adversity. There are those that have and those who have not. During the 1977 blackout acts of extreme generosity were juxtaposed with violent criminal acts. Our story is a small, personal one, which doesn’t offset what so many others endured. But that night is one of many that my New York enriched my existence.

And our ride back uptown? Though it took more than two hours to navigate through the darkened city, we did it without encountering any red lights.

***

Priscilla Whitley is a journalist and feature writer, most recently for The Record-Review in Katonah, New York. Her creative writing has been published in various anthologies. For 15 years she has been the facilitator of The Candlewood Writers Workshop in Connecticut. No matter where she lives, New York City will always be home.

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§ One Response to “Blackout at Umberto’s Clam House”

  • Peter Goodman says:

    Lived just blocks away from Umberto’s, a few days later shopping in Esposito’ Butcher, the neighborhood cognizenti shook their heads, he should have gone to Vincent’s, a block away, iconic, “protected,” and the best scungilli w/ hot sauce imaginable …

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