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Frank Aquilino: The Wisest of Guys

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There are 13,000 taxis of the yellow variety in New York, and when Jason Holmes hailed one downtown to Little Italy, he met with more than just a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

The cab takes me as far as Kenmare Street. I pay the fare and walk around the corner to Mulberry Street, a street that has been seared into my consciousness having been a devotee of countless classic gangster films since I first saw The Godfather at the age of nine.

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The street is a montage of red brick and fire escape, a dark canyon running south in the direction of Wall Street whose narrow walk-up staircases are lit by bulbs that glow with the same intensity as the illuminated icons of St Patrick's Cathedral further up on Mulberry where a young Martin Scorsese attended mass as a boy.

This is the heartland of Italian-American folklore, and Mulberry Street evokes a wealth of classic cinematic moments, from The Godfather to GoodFellas and Donnie Brasco. From this community surged an artistry that left an indelible mark upon 20th century American culture, but things have changed in this neck of the woods.

At no. 247, where once stood John Gotti's Ravenite Social Club, there now stands a shoe shop. It seems almost a perverse sacrilege, but commerce is commerce and the past must be steam-rollered away. To a point.

The street is still lined with Italian restaurants. I stop off for a pre-prandial drink at the Mulberry Street Bar and through the window spot Ristorante La Mela ('The Apple'). It's still open at 11pm. I realise I'm starving, so I throw back my drink and head over.

The table cloths are red gingham and the walls are adorned with photos of diners, past and present. I spot photos of the actors Robert Davi and Harvey Keitel, arms slung around the restaurant's owners. But in every second shot there's a guy in a hat whose face I can't place.

I take my seat at a far table and order. And then I see him come through the doors.

He's gimlet-eyed and savvy and he sees everything while appearing to see nothing. I'm a new face, so he comes over and says "hello." This is old world courtesy, unsullied by modern convention.

"You look familiar," I tell him.

"Well, we're all characters down here," he says, looking away enigmatically, a smirk playing upon his lips, before he slips out back. So, in the interim, I Google the name that inscribes his picture on the wall, 'Butch The Hat', and it turns up 'Frank Aquilino, actor'. Then the penny drops.

Frank Aquilino, 66, has starred in minor roles in a catalogue of A-list films, stretching back as far as 1973 with Mean Streets, to After Hours, Married to the Mob, King of New York, GoodFellas, Bullets Over Broadway, A Brooklyn State Of Mind and Analyze This and Analyze That. It's almost a given that when you have seen Robert De Niro on screen, Frank (or 'Butch' as he's known to his customers) has been over his shoulder, adding verisimilitude to a scene.

"Have you got an agent?" I ask when he returns, which makes him relax.

"Sure," he says with a smile, and we shake hands. "Things are different round here now. There were some bad guys in the past, playing numbers back in the old days, but the connections aren't here anymore. There's no Joe Gallo or Vincent Gigante. Or John Gotti, for that matter."

Between mouthfuls I ask him if he knew Scorsese back in the 1960s. "Yeah, I knew Marty. He was always writing things down, documenting the people around him and the neighbourhood. I knew De Niro back then too. They were all part of the same crowd. We all knew each other."

Before becoming an actor (and restaurateur), Frank had been a longshoreman in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He watches me as I eat. "It's good food, no? Our chefs have been here 20 years." Before I can answer, he's making me down my fork and is taking me on a tour of the restaurant. We go in the back through the kitchen (a moment far too reminiscent of a scene in Goodfellas) into three huge rooms which cannot be viewed from the front of the establishment. "Big parties are held back here. We have 400 seats in here. It's a big place. There are so many ways out of this building, I lose count," he says. "I mean, in the old days if the cops came, these exits were needed."

Of Calabrese stock and born and raised in Little Italy, Frank smiles and gestures at the bank of wall photographs. There's a photograph from the 1950s of a Genovese crew, young and natty in double-breasted suits. "They're all dead now, apart from this guy," says Frank, pointing at another photo of an elegantly-dressed white-haired man at a La Mela table. "See him here old, and there, young, with his crew?" Frank shakes his head. "The things time does to a person," he says, "but the crooks now are the guys who run the banks!" And this makes us all laugh.

So next time you're in Manhattan and in need of a little sustenance, head downtown, for down these mean streets a man must go...

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Portrait photograph of Frank by George Stavrou (gsstavrou@hotmail.com)