When Stratis Morfogen opened his first restaurant in Manhattan in the 1990s, he had no intention of ever telling a member of John Gotti Jr.’s team.
But for “The Golden Greek” – a nickname Morfogen got from his mob contacts for his ways of making money – taking on the mob has become a way of life as a New York restaurateur. Now, the owner of Manhattan’s Brooklyn Chop House is naming names in his new book, “Be a Disruptor: Streetwise Lessons for Entrepreneurs – from the Mob to Mandates,” out on Tuesday.
Morfogen opened the Gotham City Diner on the Upper East Side in 1993. Soon after, the mob made its presence known.
“I had a head of promotions, his name was Noel Ashman… one night Noel came in with a black eye, I said, ‘What’s going on?’” Morfogen told The Post in an exclusive interview.
“Some gangsters said we have to pay them every month or they will start beating us continuously,” Morfogen said. “[Ashman] pointed out some names to me and I recognized these are Gambino guys.”
Sage in wiseguys
Morfogen was not naive about Cosa Nostra. He grew up on Long Island in the 1970s and his family owned a Howard Beach restaurant, where mobster Carlo Gambino was a regular. Gambino dropped 6-year-old Morfogen’s anxious $20 bills and asked him about school.
After he opened his own location, Morfogen received frequent visits from Ralph Coppola and Bobby “Bucky” Carbone of the Genovese crime family.
Underboss Coppola got so close he called Morfogen his “nephew,” and Carbone entertained him with stories from the other side. One night, Carbone even told him the story of the first man he killed, Morfogen said. He went to a bar, on a debt collection gone wrong.
But Gotti Jr.’s team. it was different.
Gambino died on Long Island in 1976 and John Gotti was behind bars thanks to the testimony of Sammy “the Bull” Gravano. In his absence, his son Gotti Jr. ran the show – and bullied restaurant owners – in the 1990s.
“John Gotti Jr. and his team, that’s what they lived on. They would rock every restaurant from the Upper East Side to Midtown,” Morfogen said.
As the new kid on the block, it was Morfogen’s turn to let go. Or at least that’s what two of Gotti Jr’s “top honchos” do. thought.
“I said, ‘What do you want?’” Morfogen recalled. They told him, “’We want $5,000 a month or we’re going to break your windows every week.’
“I said, ‘Let me give you a quick answer: fuck you.’ That’s who I was, I wasn’t afraid at all.”
taking care of business
Soon after, someone started spraying black paint on the restaurant’s windows every night. Morfogen rubbed them every morning.
Coppola realized this was happening and told Morfogen to “sit tight”.
Two days later, Morfogen got a call from one of Coppola’s guys, telling him to stop by the now-defunct Ferrier Bistro at 10pm.
“When I got there Ralph was there with Bucky and all the Gambino capos were in the back, sitting… so I sat down with Ralph, Bobby and the five Gambino family bosses,” he said.
“Ralph basically says, ‘Look, this kid is with us and you say [Gotti] Jr. to back off and if he doesn’t back off, this thing will escalate.’
“And my head spun… so the guys turned around and said, ‘Hey, we like this kid, he’s a good kid. Don’t worry, let’s talk to Jr. and let’s get this over with. And behold, he was crushed.”
Thus, Morfogen was under the protection of the Genovese boys. Carbone even put an ice pick into the thigh of an employee he believed had stolen $30,000 from the restaurant. He said they never asked for anything in return: “It was true friendship,” Morfogen said.
A friend of ours – and a new enemy
After the continued success of Gotham City, Morfogen opened a club called Rouge with the silent support of Coppola.
Things were fantastic. The club quickly became famous when New York Rangers captain Mark Messier brought the Stanley Cup. One night, Morfogen accidentally brushed Madonna and Tupac away at the door because he didn’t recognize them.
But it also caught the attention of a West Coast mobster who wanted to “buy” his way into the nightlife.
A “Jewish Los Angeles gangster” once sat Morfogen inside his own club and tried to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He takes a pen, writes on a napkin ‘$10,000’ and then takes out a 9 millimeter, takes out a bullet and puts it on the table.” He told Morfogen, “It’s either this or that.”
But Morfogen wasn’t worried. “He didn’t get the memo,” he said. “He didn’t know that the most powerful people in the world were already protecting me.”
Morfogen immediately brought the issue to Coppola and Carbone. They couldn’t stop laughing.
“I walk into the club at 1 am on a Saturday night and [Coppola, Carbone and the LA gangster are] everyone sitting in the back in the VIP room having a great time, drinking champagne.”
Morfogen was not amused.
“By 4:30 in the morning they are still drinking. I went to the table and said, ‘Are you guys having fun?’ I was kind of upset. Ralph, I’ll never forget it, he says, ‘Nephew, we’re having a great time’, and looked at me to leave.
Morfogen got the message. “As I walked away, I heard Ralph say, ‘Let’s get down to business. I heard your offer and here’s my counter-offer,’ and he picked up a £60 chandelier and hit him over the head. So Bucky came running over to me to get me out of the club and put me in a cab while this fight was going on.
“When I arrived at the Rouge nightclub the next day, there was no blood on the floor, no blood on the walls. But I noticed that the carpet in the area was gone.”
This kind of unabashed loyalty was shown to Morfogen for years to come. He knew Coppola would always protect him – which is why he was shocked when he didn’t show up at her wedding in 1998.
“At my wedding I noticed two empty chairs. Ralph and his wife never showed up. I was blown away by this. Ralph really was like my uncle and I wouldn’t go a week without talking to him,” Morfogen said.
“Bucky came up to me that night and said, ‘Ralph is gone.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Ralph is gone. Ask no more.’”
Years later, Morfogen was told that Coppola “went to a meeting in Harlem and never left the house.” That’s all he knows, even now.
Coppola’s disappearance shook him. With his silent partner gone, he took that as a sign. “I really didn’t want to be a part of it anymore,” he said of mob life.
And, he felt as if the crowd wasn’t the friend to him it once was.
“In 2005 I was really struggling – divorced, lost my [old] business and I didn’t get any calls from any of these guys to see if I needed anything… [Ralph] would be calling me every day,” he said.
But a few years and business ventures later, the Mafia came crashing down again in 2006 through a Genovese associate.
The associate came on behalf of two capos who wanted “an envelope” of Morfogen, who had just gotten up.
The answer was the same one he gave Gotti’s team a few years ago when he was just starting out: “Tell them to go fuck themselves,” Morfogen said.
“I said, ‘Don’t turn me into a mouse… I’m sick of you guys’… they never came back or bothered me again.”