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Borough president stands by his man - Calls embattled restaurateur Joe Chirico ‘a prince among men’

Carroll Gardens restaurateur Joseph Chirico didn’t have to be connected with the Gambino crime family to get respect in the neighborhood. That’s what area residents and elected officials are saying about the owner of the popular Marco Polo Ristorante at the corner of Court and Union streets now that his name has been added to a list of mob associates and soldiers charged with a slew of crimes. While some of those contacted would comment on little more than the shock they faced when they learned about the extortion charges filed against the 63-year-old businessman, others like Borough President Marty Markowitz said that they are sticking by someone he freely calls “a prince among men.” “I know there are many people who live two lives, but I’d be shocked if this winds up being true. He is such a caring man,” Markowitz said in a statement. “I obviously am unaware if Joe is involved in any of the allegations being leveled against him, but I do know he has been a great friend and a partner for many Brooklyn events.” “He has done too much good for Brooklyn for me to be wishy-washy when it comes to speaking about his character,” he added. “I always stand by my friends and I pray he is ultimately proven innocent.” But the well-heeled businessman has done just as much, or even more so, for the borough’s elected officials as has for borough diners. According to campaign finance disclosures, Chirico has been a big donor to a number of Brooklyn politicians, especially Markowitz. Filings show that Chirico has donated nearly $5,000 to Markowitz’s mayoral campaign. Other smaller contributions were made to Assemblymember Peter Abbate, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo – who is currently prosecuting him — Bay Ridge State Senator Marty Golden and borough City Councilmembers Bill de Blasio and Vincent Gentile. Most recently, Chirico donated $250 to the congressional campaign of Coney Island city councilmember Domenic Recchia, federal campaign records show. As this paper was going to press, Chirico pled not guilty to extortion charges and was released on $1 million bond. He reportedly put up his mansion in Staten Island as collateral. “I’m feeling very good,” Chirico told reporters as he trudged through wisps of snow after his appearance at Brooklyn’s Federal Court Tuesday. His wife and daughter were at his side. He was reportedly on vacation in Aruba when FBI investigators cast their net on 62 alleged mobsters throughout the tri-state area, which included each member of the Gambino family administration “currently at liberty,” according to officials. His attorney managed to arrange his surrender, FBI officials said. “The only thing I’ve ever seen Joe do is help people,” Chirico’s attorney Joe Benefante – a known mob lawyer — told reporters this week. “I’ve never seen him do bad.” The 80-count indictment filed last week covers a wide variety of crimes dating back over three decades, explained FBI officials who said that those in the indictment have been accused of extortion, racketeering, theft of union benefits, loan sharking, embezzlement, money laundering, illegal gambling and eight acts of murder. Chirico, who moved to Carroll Gardens from San Martino, Italy in 1964, has not been implicated in any of the murders. In fact, his name does not even appear until three quarters of the way through the thick indictment, where it mentions that he, who in mob circles is known by the alias “Joe Marco Polo,” and co-defendants Jerome “Jerry” Brancato, Nicholas “The Doctor” Corozzo, Leonard “The Conductor” Dimaria and Vincent “Marbles” Dragonetti, “did knowingly and intentionally conspire to obstruct, delay and affect commerce and the movement of articles and commodities in commerce by extortion induced by wrongful use of actual and threatened force, violence and fear.” In essence Chirico, identified in published reports as a low-level associate of the Gambino crime family, is accused of passing on extortion payments to Brancato, who is described as a Gambino soldier. It was unclear if Chirico had been involved in any of the threats of violence. Benefante explained that he was caught up in the net because he decided to “help someone.” Calls to Chirico at his restaurant were not returned Tuesday. “He’s not here,” said one restaurant employee, who refused to give his name or comment on his boss’s arrest. “I’m just a waiter who works here, that’s all.” Within five years after landing in the United States, Chirico had opened up his first restaurant known in the neighborhood as Joe’s Luncheonette. As the years drew on, Chirico opened Café Del Sud in the 1970s and Marco Polo Ristorante in 1983. He also took control of the historic Gage and Tollner restaurant on Fulton Street in Brooklyn Heights, which was closed in 2004 after serving hungry Brooklynites for 125 years. According to published reports, members of the Gambino crime family allegedly “shook down” action-star Steven Seagal for over $350,000 during a meeting inside Gage and Tollner in 2001. This is not the first time that Chirico has been involved in a criminal investigation. A few years earlier, Marco Polo was allegedly among a list of city restaurants accused of failing to charge applicable state sales tax to large groups dining at his eatery. Just last year, Chirico expanded Marco Polo Ristorante to include a section for take-out orders. Borough President Markowitz was one of the first to sample the restaurateur’s take-out menu when it opened. When asked if he was planning to return the thousands in campaign contributions he received, Markowitz said that he would “do the honorable thing” if Chirico is convicted of the charges. “One of the great aspects of our judicial system is that we are innocent unless proven guilty,” Markowitz added.

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