He's seven million bucks in the hole and his whole world is closing in, but does he look fabulous, or what?
In the next four years Stein went on to expand his empire--opening Rouge, Bleu, a new version of the Fish Market and the ill-fated Avenue B--partying like it was still 1994. "Joey wasn't around to ground him, and it just became fantasyland," says a former manager. And then the bottom fell out.
Rendell left office, replaced by John Street, who turned City Hall's attention away from Center City glad-handing and power-brokering, focusing instead on the resuscitation of the neighborhoods. Convention Center bookings thinned dramatically, the victim of rudderless leadership and union price-gouging.
"For the next four years, there's nothing but tumbleweeds blowing through the Convention Center," says Marnie Old. The economy went south; the stock market went from bull to bear, shitting out billions in the process; and then 9/11 happened. While Rouge became, in the words of one former employee, "a license to print money," all of Stein's other new restaurant ventures struggled to break even or hemorrhaged money outright.
As early as 2001, Striped Bass' checks to the state for liquor deliveries were bouncing. Likewise, the payroll checks often seemed to be printed on rubber.
"[At Striped Bass] we were serving 450 people a night at staggering prices, and we still couldn't pay fish vendors," says one former manager. "Neil's vacationing for a month in St. Bart's, and suddenly we can't pay for milk or lettuce."
None of Stein's former employees and associates will dare talk trash about him on the record for the same reasons that vendors continued to overlook delinquent accounts: out of fear or respect or loyalty or admiration or all of the above.
"He told me, 'I could have you killed for $75. I just want you to know that,'" says a former manager. "I was insulted when I found out later he told a dishwasher that he could have him killed for $100. Nobody says anything because nobody wants to kill Santa Claus. It's really a shame. I don't even dislike the guy. It's just that he's dangerous. Fortunately, nobody will listen to him--hit men don't take Visa."
Make no mistake: Beneath the effete, salon-buffed image, Neil Stein is still a scrapper from South Philly. You wanna kick Neil Stein's ass? Better pack a lunch, pal, 'cause it's an all-day job. "I'll give you the first shot all the time. You can hit me first--then I'll kill ya," he says with a rakish grin.
By his own estimate, by the time he hit 40 he had been in more than 30 punch-ups--and three since then. It's just the way the old man raised him. "I came home one day when I was 14, beat to shit, bleedin' all over," says Stein. "My father pushed me out the door and said, 'Go get the guy. [If] you don't get him, don't come home.' So I had to go out and get him and bring him home to my father all beat up."
At this point Stein shows PW the scars from various brawls. There are the ones on his knuckles from when he was 13. There's one on his arm from when he landed on a broken bottle in the Bahamas. There's the one on his chest where he was knifed--happened more than once, he adds. Then he shows off his thumb, which still clearly shows the teeth marks from the guy who tried to bite it off.
That happened a year ago, right here in Rittenhouse Square. He was with his best buddy Freddy Orsati. They were walking across the park when some big lug--probably 6-foot-2, 240 pounds--comes at them, shoulders Freddy and just keeps walking. No sorry, no nothing. "I turned around and said, 'Excuse me. Didn't your mother teach you better manners than that?'" says Stein.
"Now who am I to say that to some giant half my age? Guy turns around takes a poke at Freddy. I hit him right here [in the Adam's apple], and as he fell he bit my thumb off. He went runnin' into the Barnes and Noble. I follow him, screamin'. Blood is shootin' all over the books. I wanted to kill him." He pauses and considers how this is going to play in print, and then adds, "But those days are gone. I'll never do that again."
At this point PW mentions--harmlessly, it was thought, in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink I-watch-The Sopranos-too sort of way--that everybody who works for Stein says Freddy is his bookie. Bad idea.
Stein: "No, not at all! Not at all!"
PW: So that's not accurate?
Stein: "Not accurate at all. Not accurate at all. No such thing. Zero accurate. If you want to describe him as my very best friend you can. But you cannot describe him as a bookie."
PW: Okay, just wanted to clarify ...
Stein: "Just because you're Italian and you're from South Philadelphia, and he's Neil Stein's best friend and Richard Patitucci is Neil Stein's other best friend! [He bangs his fist on the table for emphasis.] And the Jew is in the middle of the two wops [he bangs the table again], immediately Neil Stein is getting money from downtown. That's [bangs table] absolutely [bangs table] fucking [bangs table] bullshit!" [He turns to his assistant, who is sitting with Stein and PW, and says] I'm gonna have to tell Freddy what he said about him."
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Dinner with Luke Palladino