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Capone at Tropical Garden, Cuba 2

Veradero: Al Capone was here – or was he?

By Paul Chartier / Posted February 26, 2013

I was recently in Varadero for a little down time. Wishing for peace, quiet, and a little taste of the old Varadero, I chose to stay in one of the grand old beach houses of Punta Blanca. My second neighbor to the left turned out to be an apparently well-known restaurant called ‘La Casa de Al’. During my many walks on the beach and by the canal, I kept passing by, and  I must say I felt a strong attraction towards the place because of its both imposing and airy design. Entirely built of coral stone, it kept reminding me of Fortress Geronimo, a coral stone fort on the Caribbean side of Panama. Coral stone is quite striking, and is said to be as tough as granite, as light as pumice, and can be cut with a saw. The concept of using coral as building material somehow resonates profoundly in me.

Dating from the 1920’s, La Casa De Al sticks out like a rough-hewn jewel among the long row of weather-beaten and timeworn grand old beach houses that line the sea on the Western edge of Varadero. With its French windows and wide stone arches, its design and character make it well worth the visit, either for a cool drink on the beach terrace or a full surf & turf meal, and getting there is no hardship as it is an official stop of the Double-decker tourist bus that does the Varadero circuit.

As if these qualities were not enough in themselves to attract and enchant the wandering tourist out for more of than usual Cuban same old, the people behind this restaurant  felt the need to theme it in a most peculiar way by tying it up to a most infamous name. Chicago’s own Al Capone. The loudest and most notorious of the Prohibition-era gangsters.

La Casa de Al. Al Capone’s home… or make-believe home? Of course it makes for a good story, and good copy. But was this actually Al Capone’s home in Varadero?

A purported Cuban, signing as Saratoga 1934 on TripAdvisor, had this to say about that: “It is not true that this house or any other house in Cuba belonged to Al Capone, he never owned a house there, pure lies.” And on the Paronamio Website, a commentator describing himself as Cuban exile Sergio Sr. says he actually lived in that neighborhood way back when: “This House belonged to Dr Jiquel, a well to do Cuban Dentist, I know. My family owned the House four houses to the left. (…) When I was in Cuba in 2000 I questioned the maitre d’ and he said it looked like Al Capone’s House in Miami.”

Not quite.

Al Capone at the Tropical garden, 1930, between Mayor of Havana Julio Morales and lawyer, J. Fritz Gordon Photo credit to State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

A sign at the restaurant’s door actually states that the Chicago mobster never actually lived here. Thus all pretenses are lifted, and we can enjoy the fantasy of dining with Senor Capone looking over us reassuringly from his framed picture above the mantelpiece.

That clarification hasn’t stopped the story of Capone’s Varadero residence from being spinned into truth for years and years. So much so that we can now find in most tourist brochures, guidebooks and articles on Varadero some variation of the spin:  “Varadero today is a small, sleepy resort town, but it has a rather glamorous past. Before the Cuban Revolution, Hollywood starlets and casino high-rollers used to vacation here. Al Capone even owned a home here, which is now a seafood restaurant.” The spin has been going on for at least 20 years, as far as I can see.

So Al Capone’s Varadero cottage became a restaurant. Who was it that said that a lie told often enough becomes the truth? Ah yes, Vladimir Lenin. How true. Just Google up ‘Capone Varadero’ and you’ll find that ‘truth’ plastered all over the Web.

Meanwhile, I cannot find an iota of historical fact in all the Capone biographies I went through pointing to Capone having passed by Varadero, much less having owned a home there. Now if any one of you knows otherwise, please come forward to set this record straight.

I, for my part, believe that La Casa de Al is but yet another take on the Al Capone tourism cottage industry, which spans from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan – Canadian hub of Capone’ bootleg operation – to Couderay, Wis., where one can do a 40 minute tour of his Wisconsin Woods Hideout, to San Francisco’s famed Alcatraz Island where Capone was imprisoned, and of course, to Orlando, which offers family fun at Al Capone’s infamous Underworld Cabaret and Speakeasy…

Now here are some historical facts about Cuba and “Scarface” Al, identified as No. 1 gangster of the US by none other than President Hoover. During the Prohibition-era, “Big Al” Capone was the first gangster to set up shop in Cuba, with both Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky making trips to Havana to oversee their own bootlegging operations. The original wise guy had established a nationwide organization that smuggled authentic liquor brands from Canada, Atlantic ports, and Cuba. In those days Al Capone was practically considered a hero by many wealthy American customers for his ability to provide them withtheir choice of imported liquors.

Al Capone did favour Cuba with his repeated presence; he famously booked the entire sixth floor of the Sevilla Biltmore, an elegant hotel located in Old Havana, close to Cuba’s presidential palace. Capone’s home away from home has, to this day, a suite named after him tucked away at the end of the sixth floor labyrinth, with a plaque citing Capone as an “Italian American famous gangster”.

In his book Havana Nocturne (HarperCollins, 2009), T.J English describes Big Al opening a pool hall In 1928 in the Havana suburb of Marianao, near Oriental Park Racetrack. He closed it shortly thereafter, telling a reporter from the Havana Post that Cuba offered no field for ‘this particular class of business’. It was no great loss: Capone’s pool hall was most likely a front for his bootlegging operations.

Westbrook Pegler of St-Petersburg’s Evening Independent wrote in March of 1947 that Capone went to Havana by private plane in the winter of 1931 to get 2000 cases of whiskey in storage at El Caney, a small village near Santiago. But that he did not, on that occasion, manage to move his 2,000 cases of booze out of Cuba. The Associated Press tipped off its Havana correspondent of the mobster’s arrival, who went to call on Capone at the Sevilla accompanied by an American employee of the Cuban national tourist commission. This news soon reached the assistant chief of the Cuban secret police, who also happened to be a United States secret service agent. So, Capone and his gang were quickly escorted to police headquarters, where half a dozen Cuban policemen proceeded to rough him up. After half-an-hour of this, his dignity in shambles, Capone and his mob were thrown aboard his plane and sent back to Miami. News of his misadventure had by then been wired to all the press syndicates and newspapers. He complained to the press against the inhospitality of the Cuban police to a distinguished American such as himself.

So much for Al Capone reminiscences in Cuba, and back to the restaurant I now call ‘ Not La Casa de Al’. What about the food, the service? Is that authentic? Well, for sure, the ambiance is unique, the views fantastic and the food and service are well worth the visit. Just leave the facts at the door, enjoy the mob scene!

Paul Chartier

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