Alle-Kiski's 'best' bartender pours last drink
Vinny Mercurio's post behind the bars of area nightspots has been his window to the world and the people in it.
“I'm a fortunate guy,” said Mercurio, 72, a bartender at J.G.'s Tarentum Station Grille. “People have treated me very well, and I've treated people very well.”
Saturday night, however, Mercurio closed that window for good. He worked his last shift behind the bar and called it quits on a 52-year career.
“No more tending bar for me,” he said. “I realize I just can't do it anymore.
“It's a stressful job when you get busy, and I just don't handle stress very well anymore,” Mercurio said. “Plus, my legs and knees aren't what they used to be.”
But he and the restaurant's owner, John Greco, agreed that he will continue on as a host at the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights.
“I think it's a good move for him,“ said Jeff Norris, the restaurant manager. “I was not only happy for him, I'm a little jealous.
“He's personable, he‘s attentive, he is just great with the customers,” Norris said. “They love him.”
Those are reasons why he was named the Alle-Kiski Valley's best bartender six times by Valley News Dispatch readers.
Much of Mercurio's early years as a bartender were spent in the after-hours clubs of New Kensington: the Colony Club, the Bachelors' Club and his father's place, St. Anthony's. Only ethnic or fraternal organizations with club licenses can operate past 2 a.m. when state law requires bars to stop serving alcohol.
Mercurio said those bars, which were clubs in name only, came to life about 2 a.m. and they rocked on until at least 6, 7 or 8 a.m.
A different New Ken
He said most were owned and operated by people with reputed ties to organized crime, including his father, Pete Mercurio.
He said his father grew up in New Kensington with the late Sam and Gabriel “Kelly” Mannarino, considered by law enforcement officials to be the leaders of a Mafia crime family.
“He wasn't with Kelly and Sammy,” Mercurio said of his father. “He was an independent, he was his own man. But they never asked him for a dime (of protection money). They respected him, and he respected them.”
Many of the club's customers had some of that same affiliation, Mercurio said.
“There used to be people coming to the clubs from all over — New York, Chicago,” Mercurio recalled. “You knew wherever these guys were from, they were somebody.”
Mercurio said he started bartending in 1960 at the age of 19 in the Colony Club on 10th Street. It was managed by Joe “Smokey” Arabia.
He said when he started, Arabia told him, “Vince, whenever you're tending bar, I want you to wear an apron. This way, if the cops raid us, you can tell them you're a dishwasher.”
“I said ‘Smoke: we don't even have any dishes,' ” Mercurio said. “He said, ‘Hey kid, don't make things complicated.' ”
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, he worked the clubs but not exclusively.
During the dinner hour and until the normal 2 a.m. closing time for bars, Mercurio said he worked at some of the nicest restaurants in the region, including the Crow's Nest in Sharpsburg, Casale's River's Edge and the Eastwood Inn, both in Penn Hills.
When they closed for the night, he headed for the clubs in New Kensington.
He said those were exciting times in New Kensington, when the city still had a bustling downtown and the clubs were always busy. It was a different kind of lifestyle, he said, but one that earned him a good living.
“I was clearing about $800 a week in 1975,” Mercurio said.
In 1983, he opened Mercurio's Restaurant and Lounge at 10th Street and Fourth Avenue, which he sold in 1989.
He eventually went to work at what was then called the Tarentum Station Restaurant in 1996. In about 2008, he left for Killian's restaurant in East Deer, then returned to J.G.'s Tarentum Station Grille in 2010.
A barkeep's education
During all those years, Mercurio has heard and told countless stories, made plenty of friends and learned much about people and life in general.
“You can get smart behind the bar,” he said. “You can get an education.”
He also has played a role in customers' affairs of the heart.
One time he said a beautiful young woman with red hair sitting at the bar asked, “Vinnie, why don't you find me a nice guy?”
After offering himself up in jest, he spotted a friend who happened to be passing by. He called out to him and motioned for him to sit down next to the redhead.
“He sat down and they wound up getting married,” Mercurio said. “They were married for 30 years.”
But he also accidentally ran into the other end of the romantic spectrum.
Mercurio said there was a married man he knew who came into the bar with a girlfriend. He talked with the couple, had a few drinks and just enjoyed their company. The man returned the next night, again accompanied by the same attractive woman.
Or so Mercurio thought.
“I didn't know his girlfriend looked just like his wife,” he said. “I called his wife by (the girlfriend's) name and said, ‘I really had a good time with you guys last night.'
“His eyes got real big and his mouth dropped open,” Mercurio recalled. “They were fighting the rest of the night. They got divorced.
“Now I always study them to know who I'm talking to,” he said.
Looking back, he said it's been a great ride that provided a lot of fun.
Being the bartender that he is, Mercurio was asked what single piece of advice he would offer anyone.
“I'd have to say: ‘Don't be quick to judge other people,'” he replied. “There's a word in the dictionary called ‘understanding.' Try to understand others.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.