New York City is famous for its steakhouses, and after opening its doors at 201 East 46th Street, Sparks became carnivore crowd favorite. The essential components of a steakhouse are as follows: tables covered nearly to the floor with spotless tablecloths, set in dark, wood-paneled rooms; middle-aged men serving as waiters, their flawless manners stopping short of obsequiousness and their Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens accents proudly on display; really good booze, like a Macallan single-malt whisky or a $100 bottle of Bordeaux; and of course the food itself: large, succulent meat portions, accompanied by baked potato heaped with butter, chives, and sour cream.
Since Gotham steakhouses haven’t changed much since their Mad Men heyday, you can assume that specific entrées found on a Sparks menu today — prime sirloin, filet mignon, and sliced steak with bordelaise sauce — were also on the menu in the 1980s.
It was the prospect of a dinner plate graced by the third cut of a prime rib of beef that drew a 70-year-old man named Paul Castellano to Sparks on the evening of December 16, 1985.
“Big Paul” Castellano was highly knowledgeable about meat, and not just because his father was a Brooklyn butcher. Since his friend, cousin, and brother-in-law Carlo “the Godfather” Gambino died of a heart attack in 1976, Castellano had been the boss of the Gambino family, considered the most powerful of the five families of the New York City mafia and worth an estimated $500 million a year. Aside from the usual racketeering, extortion, loansharking and control of certain unions, the Gambino group had a stranglehold on the concrete business and the supply of poultry and meat to much of the city.
Castellano was called the “Howard Hughes of the Mob,” both because of his business shrewdness and his reclusiveness. Castellano rarely left his 17-room Staten Island mansion built on Todt Hill, the highest point of the city, and known as “the White House.”
But that night, needing to meet with some Mob associates and wanting to combine it with top-notch food, Castellano was off Staten Island.