John Cincotti, man in the background of big moments in Boston mob lore, dies

In the old days of the Boston Mafia, John Cincotti might have been described as middle management, a non-commissioned officer type.

Cincotti, who died peacefully Monday at the age of 81, was there for several of the more memorable moments in Boston organized-crime history, never at the center, always just … hanging around, on the fringe.

He was raised “In Town,” as the old-school cops always labeled the Mafia faction based in the North End. He was a protégé of Ralphie Chong and Ralphie’s boss, Larry Zannino, better known as Baione.

Larry had a “club” on North Margin Street. The FBI wired it in 1980 and recorded at least one very significant organized-crime conversation there. The G-men also taped him endlessly lecturing his crew, including Johnny Cincotti.

“This Thing comes first,” Larry used to tell him. “Johnny, This Thing we got here is beautiful. You understand? This Thing is so beautiful that if someone slapped Debbie in the mouth tonight, your girl, we would kill … Don’t underrate it.”

I think I first met Johnny at the old federal courthouse back when he was on trial in the mid-1980s. He must have still been running Bella Napoli, because outside the courtroom after his racketeering trial wrapped up for the day, he immediately invited me and the female Herald reporter I was with to dinner.

We respectfully declined — deadlines and all that.

The last time I spoke to him was about a month ago. He used to call and we’d just yap for a while. When my dog died last summer, he phoned to offer his condolences.

Last month, Cincotti invited me to dinner again — at his house in Wayland. That was his custom — in 2005 when another In Town wise guy was trying to get out of prison early, the feds played a tape of a call the imprisoned hood had made to Cincotti, who’d finished his own sentence in 1997.

The courtroom audience chuckled when Cincotti offered to cook his pal a meal as soon as he got out of prison.

“You’d do that for me, buddy?” asked the hood. “You’re such a good cook.”

“I spoiled the whole staff (in prison),” Cincotti responded.

He was also a bartender. Back in 1966, he was working at Ralphie Chong’s mob hangout on Commercial Street, the Nite Lite.

A couple of Joe Barboza’s hoods were going to come over to pick up some money for the bail of their boss. Or so they thought.

In Town was planning a special reception for Barboza’s guys, so they told the help (including Johnny) to get lost. When Barboza’s gunsels got there, the Mafia guys killed them and stole the $50,000-plus cash they had on them.

On those 1981 FBI tapes, Baione reminisced about sending Johnny home early, but mostly about how his boys had violated Rule No. 1 of Mob hangouts: Don’t kill nobody inside the joint, wait ‘til they’re out on the sidewalk before youse “crack” ‘em.

But if you do hit them inside, for God’s sake, just torch the goddamn place. But no, these thugs left a big mess. Ralphie Chong called Johnny and ordered him to come in and clean up the Nite Lite. Johnny was on his hands and knees scrubbing out the blood stains when the cops arrived at dawn.

In 1968, Johnny had Stevie Flemmi beaten up — it’s a long story, but Stevie couldn’t take revenge on Cincotti, who was a made guy.

So Flemmi talked Johnny Martorano into killing a Black guy who worked for Cincotti. The Black guy’s crime was holding Stevie down while he was pummeled.

Martorano believed Stevie’s lies, and tracked the guy down. When he found him, there were two Black teenagers with him, in a parked car in a blizzard in Roxbury. So Martorano killed all three of them.

It was horrible. Again, Cincotti had nothing to do with the actual murders, but he was … around.

His most significant footnote in Mob history came in April 1981, when the FBI was taping all of Larry Baione’s daily activities at 51 North Margin St.

Cincotti had a childhood hood buddy named Jerry Matricia, who’d stolen $50,000 from the Winter Hill Gang in Las Vegas. By 1981 Matricia had returned to Boston and was running around with Cincotti.

Baione was worried that if the Hill spotted Matricia, they’d whack him on the spot, and that if Johnny were with him …

Matricia was brought to the club for a sit-down with Larry, who was drunk as usual. With Johnny and Ralphie Chong listening, Baione began yelling at Matricia, explaining how he would have to pay back “the Hill,” the supposedly rival gang.

“Do you know that the Hill is us?” Baione told Matricia. “Did you know Howie (Winter) and Stevie (Flemmi), they’re us? We’re the bleepin’ Hill with Howie. You didn’t know that?”

Bingo! Now the feds had it, on tape, from the second-ranking In Town hood, that the two Boston crime families were one and the same. It was the drunken rant that launched a hundred superseding indictments.

And Johnny Cincotti was there, because he was the one who would collect the money owed to the Hill by Matricia. Baione pointed at Johnny.

“Your man,” he told Matricia. “Right here. Johnny Cincotti. That’s who you give it to. And he goes and sees Stevie … I love Johnny very much. So because I love Johnny very much I like you.

But one thing we do, Jerry. If you (expletive) someone’s who’s friendly with us …”

I wish now I’d taken Johnny Cincotti up on one of those dinner invitations. A missed opportunity.

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