NEW YORK — The pungent waft of buffalo wings is not usually associated with Ecco, a TriBeCa institution among the city’s Italian eateries. But the mama’s-style lasagna and calamari normally associated with the place have been replaced mainly with tubs of wings and curly fries — the sort of things a Hollywood movie crew likes to nibble on.

In this case, the on-set fried food is for longtime producer Martin Bregman and his son, Michael Bregman, who is directing “Carlito’s Way: The Beginning,” a prequel to the 1993 Al Pacino gangster flick to be released next fall.

The people actually eating off the restaurant’s menu are the actors — Jay Hernandez, Mario Van Peebles and Michael Kelly — who are shooting a dinner scene among mob friends. But the food’s only for show. Just as soon as the director yells “action,” and the three leads take a bite, he yells “cut.” Immediately, prop stylists swoop in to replenish the pasta on the plates.

On the set of a gangster movie, made-up Hollywood types mingle with real-life dons moonlighting as actors. Only the constant din of assistant directors screaming, “Please, people, quiet!” or wardrobe stylists snapping endless Polaroids remind the innocent bystander that, in fact, no shady deals are actually being brokered. To wit, Frankie Pellegrino plays a singer who croons a hammed-up version of Frank Sinatra’s standard “My Way” during this dinner scene. To the untrained eye, Pellegrino is a familiar bit-part player. To the insider, he’s the real-life co-owner of Rao’s, the infamous Italian restaurant on East 114th Street where John Gotti and Paulie Castellano had a regular table.

Even the hierarchy within the cast and crew parallels that of a mafia family. There’s the Godfather — in this case, Martin Bregman, who sits just to the right of the camera’s view in every scene — and then everybody else, including Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, who plays druglord Hollywood Nicky in the film. Martin Bregman, 73, has produced such street-tough movies as “Scarface,” “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” but he credits his son for bringing the Edwin Torres-penned books, on which the “Carlito’s Way” movies are based, to his attention.

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

This prequel marks the son’s first foray into directing, and he paces back and forth between takes like an expectant father. “When a director comes to a set, his power is extreme,” explains Martin Bregman. “He’s sort of like a dictator except that [as producer] I’m God.”

And with an almost omnipotent nod, he is anointing the 26-year-old actor Hernandez, who brings Pacino’s Carlito back to the screen, as a new acting superstar. “Jay sees the human being in the character,” Martin Bregman says. “He’s sensational.”

Hernandez, meanwhile, had little time to prepare for his role after wrapping his last film, “Friday Night Lights.” So when the L.A. native arrived in New York for the shoot, he received an underworld crash course from Torres, the New York Supreme Court Justice who started his law career defending the city’s street thugs before eventually prosecuting them as a district attorney, providing copious fodder for his crime novels.

“Eddie gave me a tour of Spanish Harlem and told me a lot of stories about the past,” says Hernandez. “You know, ‘This happened on this corner’ and ‘That went down on that corner.’” Awed by Torres’ power and standing in the community, however, Hernandez won’t dish the inside scoop. “He’s a judge, so I don’t want to be telling his business.”

But the young actor has reaped the benefits of having a connection to this rarefied world. “The first day I met Eddie, he took me to Rao’s,” remembers Hernandez. “I tell people I went there and they’re like, ‘It’s impossible to get a table.’ But I just walked in and had dinner.”

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