Merlino's Jailing Costs Him His Job At Steak Shop, Too

Posted: August 17, 1999

Imagine it's 1 a.m., and you happen to be driving up Stenton Avenue in Mount Airy when you get a hankering for a cheesesteak.

You pull into the gleaming new Eppy's Steaks and step up to the stainless-steel counter. And who do you see behind the thick plate-glass window, manning the spatula, elbow-deep in Cheez Whiz, but . . .

"Skinny Joey" Merlino, the Grillfather.

It might seem hard to believe that the Philadelphia mob chieftain had traveled from his comfortable home in South Philadelphia to the city limits in the Northwest to work the graveyard shift at a 24-hour steak stand, but Stephen Epstein swears it's true.

Working against Epstein, of course, is the idea that anyone who works at a steak joint could still be called "Skinny."

And now, working against Merlino is the fact that he is in jail, without bail for allegedly participating in a takeout cocaine business in Boston.

Suddenly, there may be an opening at Eppy's.

Merlino's claim to be employed at the new steak shop was one of the strangest issues hashed out in court during his unsuccessful bid to be released on bail three weeks ago.

Defense lawyers asked Epstein - the fiftysomething widower of Philly songwriting legend Linda Creed - to vouch for Joey's employment history as part of their case.

And Epstein showed up for the reputed mob boss, sitting near the family in a federal courtroom packed with prosecutors, law-enforcement investigators and media.

The only other character witness that day was a priest, the Rev. Joseph Kelley, who married Merlino, baptized his two children and just happens to be a distant cousin.

Epstein's appearance proved that Joey Merlino's social circle extends beyond guys with rap sheets and nicknames.

But it shed little light on Joey's new occupation or how the men became acquaintances in the first place.

For starters, it was never really disclosed exactly what job Joey did: Grill? Prep? Wrap-up? Pickup? Or just take the money?

"I know that they are friends," said Epstein's lawyer, Marc Neff. "I have no idea what history is between them, just that they've been friends for a while."

Eppy's employees, a recent visit discovered, were light on divulging any information about their notorious co-worker but heavy on just about everything else - tasty steak, creamy cheese and succulent onions.

"We don't really have any comments about that right now," a hard-working employee said the other day. "No comment," snapped another. Epstein and his family could not be reached for comment.

After he was arrested on cocaine conspiracy charges in July, Merlino told authorities he had worked at Eppy's for six months. Eppy's has only been open for four months.

Epstein, who showed up in court wearing Versace jeans, a tight-fitting light-blue knit sweater and assorted jewelry, told the court that Merlino worked with him at the shop for roughly two weeks during the end of May. He said he paid Merlino roughly $100 a shift.

He said the only records he kept were payroll records of having written Merlino a couple of checks that amounted to roughly $800 "after taxes."

There were no time sheets, employment applications or other paperwork during the time Merlino worked at Eppy's, Epstein said.

Epstein, a music publisher, admitted under questioning he knows very little about the steak business, which he started for his daughters Roni and Dana.

Epstein, who at times appeared befuddled in court, said Merlino had no other involvement in the business besides his stint as an employee.

Epstein was married to Creed for 15 years before her untimely death from cancer in 1986 at age 37.

The couple met in the '70s when he was a young, flamboyant music producer who wore leather outfits and outrageous hats. Creed was cutting her teeth as the queen of the "Philly Sound" songwriting genre.

Along with Thom Bell, Creed wrote hits for the Stylistics, Teddy Pendergrass and Whitney Houston, including "You Are Everything," "Rubber Band Man," and "The Greatest Love of All," from which Epstein still may be receiving royalites.

That doesn't keep him from working the overnight shift as a manager at Eppy's, behind the spotless white-and-blue fortress with thick-paned glass windows.

Like Merlino, his onetime employee, Epstein is lean for a guy who doesn't skimp on the meat, except when he's being grilled.

"It's the bread that kills you," points out his lawyer, Neff.

"If you lay off the bread, then you're fine."

Send e-mail to nolanj@phillynews.com

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