Staten Island Godfather
There are certain pop culture phenomenons you only have to whisper in a crowded room to elicit passionate reactions from complete strangers. Right now, America has two. But while the aristocratic romances of Downton Abbey remain in the fictionalized past, the in-fighting and gaudy lifestyles of a group of Mob-associated women on Staten Island are so close we can almost touch them. And so it is that America has fallen in love with Mob Wives and the cast’s defacto godmother, Angela Raiola.
The cigarillo-smoking owner of Staten Island’s Drunken Monkey Bar, Raiola was added in Season Two of the VH1 reality drama to act as a peacekeeper amongst Mob Wives’ unruly, often violent instigators. But it is obvious now, with the season half over, that Raiola has become the show’s new over-tan face, a breakout reality icon on the level of Snooki, who has captured the hearts of America with her loud rasp, her straight talk and, of course, her huge breasts.
The more you learn about Raiola, the more apparent it seems that she was born to become a local folk hero. After all, this is the mob we are talking about, perhaps America’s most beloved subject of film and television. But with The Godfather and The Sopranos in the past and Scorsese bent on family fare, it has fallen on Mob Wives to pick up where our obsession left off. At 52, Raiola has all the credentials needed to fill our lust for powerful, family-oriented seekers of the Italian-America dream. Her uncle Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi was a leader of the Genovese family, one of the “five families” that has controlled organized crime in New York, and Raiola has spent her whole life chasing after wiseguys. The Smoking Gun recently dug up 2001 reports that she was involved in a mob-tied drug ring and escaped jail time on a $100,000 bond. She claims to have waited on John Gotti at an undercover Mafia bar. Raiola even has a fitting mob name: Big Ang.
But this history only seems to make her more authentic—and therefore more loveable—and popular. Since her debut on Season Two’s January 1 premiere, she has exploded inside the pop-culture lexicon. Diddy and Nicki Minaj tweet about her. She has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. And, most importantly perhaps, she has helped make Mob Wives one of the highest-rated cable reality programs—especially in the “wives” subcategory.
Yet, when meeting Raiola it is hardly clear she is aware of her newfound fame. She can still be found every night at the Drunken Monkey, where fans have packed the place so relentlessly they have to expand. “I am totally in shock [over] what’s happening,” she explains in a barley audible husk on a recent Sunday morning at our Soho office. Her fresh excitement is even evidenced by her companion for the day—her nine-year-old niece Sunny. “I’m liking it. It’s good. It’s a good thing—not a bad thing!”
Like any mother (Raiola has two children and one grandson, though only her son, AJ, appears on the show) she would rather talk about family: her kids, her business and her friends. “Everybody does [think of me as a mother],” she admits. “I’ve been in the bar business for like 35 years and it was always like that with all the customers. They always came and told me their problems and were asking me my advice. Like, what do I know?” she asks with a laugh. “All the kids, since they were babies, always loved me. I must have that thing.”
And that thing she has? She also has with the gays. The Drunken Monkey hosts a gay night the first Friday of every month and on February 23 she will even make a highly anticipated appearance at Splash with her cast mate Renee. (“I like Splash,” she admits. “There are very handsome guys in there! All those bartenders are gorgeous.”)
“I love [gays]. We have the best time,” she says, noting that her best friend KerryAnn, who passed away some years ago, was a lesbian. “She was my really good friend, actually. I have a couple of tattoos for her, too.”
Oh, tattoos? Raiola has 12 of them. Her most recent addition was just last week when she and AJ went on a mother-son bonding trip to the tattoo parlor. (She also got her nosed pierced). But one tattoo holds special significance to her. “Omertà: code of silence,” she points out during a conversation about her mobster past. “Nobody keeps it. My family? We keep it.” She explains that the reason why she and the rest of the country are so enamored with the Mafia, is that it is simply exciting. “Listen, I say the mob for years and years was really strong. It was such a big word: the mob. Now the biggest word in the mob is informer. It’s terrible what happen[ed]. Everyone is a rat. Out of five people, one is a rat. So they’re really taking down the mob pretty fast. But I think it used to be really powerful back in the day and it was exciting to know it, you know, look at it, live it.”
That Raiola, despite her growing image, stays true to her roots and her past is why she is somehow rising to the top fast despite a market saturated with television housewives. She doesn’t lie about her plastic surgery (she admitted to RadarOnline a tummy tuck, liposuction, lip injections and three breast augmentations) or her love life, saying about the latter that she is trying to work things out with her off-screen husband, though a reunion is not likely. Even when I ask Sunny if there is a part of Raiola we don’t see on TV, the brassy youngster pauses before saying: “Yeah, it’s all on there.” “If it continues that’d be the best,” Raiola admits. “I’m just going with the flow right now. Not gonna make no plans. Day by day. That’s the way I live, anyway, day by day.”
What the future holds for Raiola is unclear. She can’t even confirm whether she will appear in Season Three. But regardless of cameras, she’ll keep trying to keep the peace amongst the girls, she’ll keep running her bar and she’ll keep being a mother.
As for all that fighting? Even Raiola admits that her attempts to calm tensions between the show’s six opinionated females backfired this season. But that’s not all a bad thing. After all, this is the mob, and in the business of reality television it appears Mob Wives isn’t afraid to strong-arm the Housewives competition. “Oh with Drita and Karen? Yes. They could [even] take down guys!”
Meet Big Ang at Splash (50 W 17th St) on February 23. Visit SplashBar.com for more info.