He was a chubby, gregarious man who acted like a cheerful restaurant maitre d'. But in his youth Frank Cotroni was in fact known in the Montreal underworld as a muscle man, a Mafia captain involved in ransacking bars and enforcing the protection racket.
Mr. Cotroni, who died yesterday of brain cancer at 72, was the last original member of Montreal's first great Mafia family. But despite his notoriety, he lived in the shadow of his late, older brother Vic (the Egg) Cotroni, the city's more powerful, more respected crime kingpin.
Frank, who spent a large part of his life behind bars, was a Velcro rather than a Teflon don. He often got in trouble with the law, and his influence shrank over the years as his Calabrian family was gradually supplanted by Sicilian mobsters.
He was also known as a boxing aficionado and a sponsor of the Hilton fighting family and of the light heavyweight turned enforcer Eddie Melo.
Mr. Cotroni was last in the news as a cookbook author, an ironic twist for someone whose family monopolized fast-food contracts at Expo 67 and whose brother's business was linked to a tainted-meat scandal.
Still, for all of the hapless setbacks, Frank Cotroni's life is part of Montreal's most storied crime lore.
The Cotroni brothers were the children of a carpenter who emigrated to Montreal from the Calabrian city of Mammola, in the boot of the Italian peninsula.
Vicenzo, the elder, would rise to become a top mobster under whose reign the Montreal Mafia affiliated itself with the Bonnano family of New York.
Santos (Frank), the baby, would try by the early 1980s to keep up the business after Vic withdrew because of cancer.
"He was feared, he was bold, had a flamboyant personality. But he didn't have Vic's talent," said former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, who wrote about the Montreal Mafia as a crime reporter and, for his trouble, got shot by a prospective mobster.
Unlike Vic, Frank was born in Montreal and was more at ease speaking French than Italian, people who had conversed with him said.
He had lots of friends in the francophone underworld and used them as associates. One unfortunate recruit, however, was Réal Simard, a hit man who considered Mr. Cotroni his uncle and killed five men in cold blood.
While in prison, Mr. Simard read a book by Shirley MacLaine, had a soul-searching moment and decided to turn informant.
As a result, in 1987, Mr. Cotroni, who was busy fighting an extradition order to the United States for conspiring to traffic in heroin, was sentenced in Montreal to eight years for manslaughter.
Already, from 1975 to 1979, he had served four years of a 15-year sentence in a U.S. penitentiary for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into New York through Mexico.
When he got out and tried to follow in the footsteps of the ailing Vic, other, more ruthless mobsters were on the ascent. Vic's successor, Paolo Violi, had been assassinated in 1978. In New York, the Cotronis' mentor, Carmine Galante, was also murdered.
"[Frank's]influence diminished. His networks were weakened. After each time he got rearrested, you could see he didn't have money to pay for his drug imports. It was hard for him to complete his transactions and keep up," veteran police reporter Michel Auger said.
"The Cotronis were once a great name. The family reputation gradually waned under him."
Those successive jail terms also meant that by the 1990s he no longer had much influence in the Montreal underworld. In his later years, he cultivated an avuncular image, a corpulent bon vivant who liked to eat and cook.
"He had the allure of a good grandfather. He was a really friendly guy. Like a cabaret manager, saying 'hi' to everyone, talking to everyone," Mr. Auger said.
One man who used to work in an Italian café said Mr. Cotroni often visited in the 1980s, affecting a chummy manner.
Once, when Mr. Cotroni was waiting for an associate to show up, the coffee shop employee went out to buy fresh ingredients to make him a sandwich, since one wouldn't dare offer Mr. Cotroni stale bread.
When he came back, the employee found Mr. Cotroni behind the counter, cigar in hand, making himself a coffee and chatting up the regulars. "He was that kind of a guy," the former café employee said.
He added that it was understood, however, that once Mr. Cotroni and his friends retired to a back room to talk business, they were not to be disturbed.
This paternal image stood in contrast to the young Mr. Cotroni who, in 1960, for example, was fined after he and a crew raided the Chez Parée club, throwing glasses, bottles and stools at the mirrors.
The Cotronis were running local nightclubs and gambling dens in the 1950s when they affiliated themselves with the Bonnano crime family, through an emissary, Mr. Galante, whom the New York mob sent to Montreal.
Thanks to the ties the Cotronis had cultivated with French and Corsican gangsters who visited their clubs, Mr. Galante would make Montreal a heroin-importing hub that would grow into the so-called French Connection.
"Frank was the more impulsive of the brothers, the guy handling the muscle work," Mr. Charbonneau said.
"Frank was more in the public eye, and he talked to reporters when he appeared in court so he was better known. Whereas Vic remained in the shadows like a good crime boss should."
Mr. Charbonneau recalled how, in 1972, he covered a court appearance by Mr. Cotroni. "He noticed me, got closer and asked, 'Are you Jean-Pierre Charbonneau?' I understood he was sending me a message, that he knew me and was keeping an eye on me.
"After I got shot, I wondered if he hadn't been behind that."
After the stint in the U.S. penitentiary from 1975 to 1979, after the 1987 sentence for the manslaughter, after pleading guilty in 1991 to smuggling heroin to New York, Mr. Cotroni said in an interview with Le Journal de Montreal that he was giving up the life of crime to enjoy his family and grandchildren.
Less than five years after that interview, in the spring of 1996, he was arrested again and got a seven-year sentence for conspiring to import 180 kilograms of cocaine.
Two years ago he got out, on statutory release, having served at least half of his sentence.
His last project, that time, was a cookbook presented as a legacy to his grandchildren, where he reminisced about his hard-working mother and where only one recipe alluded to his criminal past. "College spaghetti," the book explained fleetingly, referred to "the college," slang for prison.