BOCA RATON, Fla. - A woman took Joseph Merlino's hand and towed him across the marble floor to her friends, who fussed over him, cooing.
"The veal parmiagana! Fabulous!" somebody else told the maitre d' of the hot new Italian restaurant in South Florida that bears the family name. He had stopped to ask how they liked everything. "Loved the cheesecake," a woman said. "Is that your mother's recipe?"
And so it went on a drizzly Friday night in the land of perpetual valet parking as the reputed former boss of the Philadelphia mob darted around the room, greeting diners. Merlino hugged. He kissed. He shook hands, laying his hand on a shoulder, leaning in close to talk. It went on hour after hour.
The restaurant opened this month, built around recipes his mother, Rita, cooked when the man known as "Skinny Joey," now 52, was growing up in Point Breeze.
Would Merlino be willing to share one of them, perhaps for his favorite, crab gravy?
"I went to jail for not telling," he quipped. "I'm not giving up a recipe. I'm not telling."
Merlino may soon be heading back. U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick last week ordered him to report to federal prison Jan. 5 to begin serving a four-month sentence for violating terms of his supervised release after serving time on a 2001 racketeering conviction.
In October, the judge ruled Merlino had violated those terms in June when he hung out with a member of the Philadelphia crime family, John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini, at Havana Nights, a Boca Raton cigar bar and lounge. An FBI surveillance team saw Merlino, Ciancaglini, and two other felons in the glass-enclosed VIP section filled with leather recliners and a wall-size TV, according to testimony in the case.
Merlino's lawyers say it was a chance encounter, not a planned meeting, and they have appealed Surrick's ruling.
But Friday night in Boca, jail time seemed far away,
"You want a table? I'm the right guy, then; I'm the maitre d," Merlino said Friday. "Hey, get these two a table."
The white-tablecloth restaurant was jammed, and a steady stream of Mercedeses, BMWs, and Audis pulled up to Merlino's valet station on SE 1st Avenue. The valets parked a white Ferrari right in front. As the evening wore on and the nearby nightclubs started cranking up, the crowd got younger, and the sound track changed from Sinatra standards to "Dancing Queen" by ABBA and the Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" and "Stayin' Alive."
Merlino has survived about a dozen attempts on his life. And in the same 2001 case that sent him to prison, Merlino also stood charged with more than half a dozen shootings, including those of a video-poker operator who refused to pay street tax, a rival mob leader, and the brother of a witness in an earlier mob trial.
But the mobster denied the allegations, and jurors acquitted him of those counts.
Merlino publicly swore off the thug life and moved to a gated housing development off Broken Sound Road here three years ago after he was released from federal custody.
"Boca's beautiful," he said Friday. "I love the warm weather."
The menu is from back home, however. Patrons were enjoying entrees like veal South Philly ($32), sauteed in brown gravy with sausage, mushrooms, hot and sweet peppers, and garlic. The aforementioned linguine crab gravy ($24) - blue crab, sauteed onions, basil, parsley, and fresh tomato sauce.
And then there were the drinks, such as the $14 "South Philly Beet Down," a mixture of London Dry No. 3 gin, beet juice, ginger, and lemon; and the $14 "Spring Garden," with Tito's, St. Germain, meyer lemon, lychee puree, and micro flowers. Patrons also quaffed "Passyunk Avenue Nitros," various concoctions infused with a cryogenic liquid that is minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit.
"I was looking for a little taste of home," said Janice Rubenstein, a native of Gladwyne who has lived in South Florida for two decades and who had heard the buzz about Merlino's. "I love South Philly. Everybody loves Italian, right?" She said the food reminded her of Ralph's and the Villa d' Roma.
Merlino is not an owner of the restaurant, said John Wyner, general manager and a partner in the venture. Most recently, Wyner ran the top Boca steak house, Abe & Louie's, and he has experience in Atlantic City hospitality.
Multimillionaire Florida businessman Stanley Stein is the major investor in Merlino's. A South Philly native, Stein also paid for a private jet to ferry Merlino to and from federal court and put him up at the Four Seasons in Center City.
"My friend Stan Stein ate at my mom's house many times and he said he wanted to do a restaurant with her recipes and me as maitre d'," Merlino said.
Rita Merlino until recently was in Boca, coaching the kitchen staff on the intricacies of her dishes. "She loves the kitchen," he said. "She's always cooking for people. The holidays would come and we always had people eating over. Neighbors, people who didn't have any place to go, everybody. It was a full house."
Famous for his sense of fashion, Merlino was wearing a Prada leather jacket the color of cured tobacco over a Versace V-neck black cashmere sweater, black Armani pants (skinny jeans, actually) and a Louis Vuitton belt. He also wore shoes by French designer Christian Louboutin, the popular black ones with the red soles.
In front of the restaurant, Merlino posed for a photographer in the mist, as wind rustled the palm trees.
"C'mon, I'm . . . freezing," he said.