Stirring the ghosts of the Cal Neva

It was closing time at Vesuvio when owner Joe Pignatello stopped to tell me the story of the first time he visited the Cal Neva at Lake Tahoe.

Pignatello’s Las Vegas restaurant attracted characters from throughout the spectrum, and Joe had been a driver for Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana and the personal chef of Frank Sinatra.

In the early 1960s, Pignatello’s man Sam was making an off-the-books investment in the Cal Neva. But since guys in Giancana’s business deal mostly in cash, someone had to be entrusted to deliver the suitcase. Against his wishes, Joe drew the assignment.

When Giancana’s bodyguard, Butch Blasi, handed over the suitcase, he gave Pignatello some unfriendly advice.

“If you lose this,” Blasi said, tapping his index finger to his forehead, “make sure you come back with a bullet in your head.”

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