STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — To stay on the positive and finish the year on a “hoorah” note, we celebrate chefs and owners who pivoted during the pandemic with continued optimism and constant innovation.
One can see the fiber of a person, especially kitchen people, when faced with adversity. In some, difficult times bring out the best a mind can muster. Indeed, the darkest days of the pandemic, arguably, might have been between March 16 (when indoor dining became illegal) and about May 1. That latter date is when the business carnage became even more pronounced with the realization of how customers’ seasonal and daily routines had so dramatically changed.
Like in war times, pure American ingenuity has been illustrated with Scott Weisberg of Everything Entertainment in Mariners Harbor. With catering halls closed indefinitely, elaborate parties stopped on Staten Island. Weisberg used his expertise in set designs to outfit delis and service counters with custom plexiglass barriers. The tenting formerly used for weddings and picnics served the medical community and eateries with outdoor dining.
No dining rooms have meant no dishes to wash. So Anthony Morangelli of Bioclean Chemicals in Tottenville recalibrated his dish machine and chemical company to produce hand sanitizer. And Mark Loffredo of Post Exterminating expanded his business into sanitizing and disinfecting.
With that here are 16 businesses highlighted for their novel ideas in these novel Coronavirus times.
EGGER’S ICE CREAM PARLOR, WEST BRIGHTON AND HISTORIC RICHMOND TOWN (EggersIceCream.com) — So as not to miss out on the ice cream season, owner Danielle Raleigh jumped into the home delivery service, tough stuff with such perishable product.
“You can get a pizza delivered cold and heat it up but what can you do with melted ice cream?” Raleigh told the Advance in March.
Winter also proved a boon despite the ice cream off-season. Raleigh added igloos to the Historic Richmond Town format. She continues to book them by reservation. Readers have asked how can that proceed considering the recent kibosh on enclosed structures. Note that rule applies only to State Liquor Licensed establishments.
BELLI BACI BAKERY, TOTTENVILLE (BelliBaciBakeryCafe.com)
At Belli Baci Bakery starting in April, a walk-up window popped up. The feature was offered to customers until 6 p.m. for pre-orders. Chef Kristin Guzzo and her husband, Ernie, presented Mother’s Day brunch packages in two sizes for families of three to six and six to 10 guests. Goodies include over-stuffed doughnuts, hand-rolled cragels (croissant and bagel blend) and choice of hot breakfast item.
JAC MAO, DONGAN HILLS (JacMao.com)
The Asian-American community was hit quite hard in the pandemic as the virus was associated with China. Customers abandoned sushi and Chinese eateries from about mid-February until March 22. Faced with a kitchen devoid of fearful staff, Jac personally cooked and delivered food. Exhausted, he closed for two weeks in late March to feed first responders on his own time, a more manageable task to do solo.
ORIENTAL PLAZA, Willowbrook, (OrientalPlazaStatenIsland.com)
As the Advance noted on Feb. 27, several borough Chinese restaurant owners admitted a slump in business — “likely the result of an overreaction to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19,” restaurant employees told the Advance.
John Butt from Oriental Plaza stuck it out. He stayed open with abbreviated hours mainly as a service to the community. The proprietor also faced limited staff and relied on his brother to help him keep up with the cooking.
MAX’S ESCA, DONGAN HILLS, (Maxsesca.com)
The Italian restaurant served as the epitome of flexibility in formats. For Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant sold its notable sangria and quarts of margaritas along with its own brand of Mexi-Cali fare, delivered Island-wide. It was an overwhelming night for Mexican food delivery and pickup that May 5, 2020 as borough residents wanted to support their local eateries and just wanted to get out out of the house.
Yet the restaurant also shone in the pandemic for its tented parking lot which has grown into an elaborate, inviting and heated alternative to the illegal indoors. Owners Max Calicchio and Alison Marchese struggled to maintain a busy workload to keep all the staff employed since March. At the same time, they were vocal supporters in IROAR, a brotherhood of restaurants who are after the mayor and governor in a class action suit for arbitrary closures.
JOYCE’S TAVERN, ELTINGVILLE
The O’Toole family had been at the fore of a lawsuit against the city and state to allow indoor dining to reboot. That action came in early September in protest of politicians who showed little empathy for the industry and its workers.
The lawsuit was tossed out down the road. Yet just after the lawsuit announcement and a rally behind a 9/11 fundraiser, Joyce’s faced what has been commonly believed to be retribution from the State Liquor Authority. It was targeted by an inspector for illegal indoor service, according to Advance reports.
The tavern hit the national spotlight as its liquor license was yanked in a virtual trial-by-SLA jury with no legal representation, as has become protocol in the pandemic. A GoFundMe for the tavern had amassed over $70,000 for its fines and legal bills. Suddenly, the SLA reversed its decision and reinstated the license. Out of over 200 suspensions by the SLA since March, it’s only the second time the board has reversed its original decision, according to an attorney for the Authority as per the public hearing.
IL SOGNO, ANNADALE (Ilsognonyc.com)
Pedro Canello owns Annadale’s fine dining restaurant Il Sogno, a word that translates from Italian to “dream.” The linen cloth eatery has been known for its steaks, wine list and, in pre-COVID-19 times, for its weekend entertainment. Sadly, these days, Canello says Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent mandate to shut indoor dining puts Il Sogno precariously close to going out of business. So Pedro wrote a letter to the governor, which remains unanswered. Instead, officials appear to be sending an alternative message to the Peru native as a Sheriff’s car and two officers have been stationed outside his business since broadcast of his gubernatorial grievance has gone viral.
These three eateries owned by Julian Gaxholli stayed open in the pandemic. Each offered sliced deli meats and prepared salads to go. The concept supplemented shoppers in their panic to stock larders and simultaneous fear of being among other people. Gaxholli’s aim was to keep the payroll going.
A magnanimous and community-minded Staten Islander who has been a mainstay in the borough’s restaurant world, Gaxholli has his supporters who wanted to give back. Grasmere resident Charles Stoffers summed up the sentiment among the trio of restaurants’ fans: “He has always been the kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back, generous to charities on Staten Island, as well as to people in need. Many of us have enjoyed a cocktail…sitting at Blue, Cajun-inspired food at Bayou or tapas at Beso.”
Stoffers added back in April, “The point is that once we come out the other side of this health crisis, if you ever want to eat at your favorite restaurant again you have to support them now. Otherwise they won’t be there. You can be safe, self-isolate and still have a good meal.”
Gaxholli continued his annual tradition feeding Staten Islanders a meal on Thanksgiving. He did so with meals packed to go.
DELUCA’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT, TOTTENVILLE, (DelucasItalianRestaurant.com)
These are strange and scary times for sit-down eateries with linen-cloth service. Even in a frustrating to go-only setting with dining outdoors in winter, DeLuca’s has adapted — and perhaps it’s owner, Rob DeLuca, touched a nerve in Albany with so much time on his hands to be a vocal advocate in the industry’s plight.
On New York’s City’s first snowy night, DeLuca produced a skit with an idle colleague, server and captain Javier Jimenez, illustrating the “absurd” outdoor dining allowance situation. Their well-shared social media performance ended with a snark directly addressing the governor and mayor.
In a Sunday, Dec. 20 press conference, the governor might have addressed such barbs from constituents when he said, “There is no politicizing the virus. Staten Island 5.3, why does it have the highest percentage in New York City? It’s not the most dense. It doesn’t have the most transportation. Why? COVID affects Democrats and it affects Republicans. Period. Don’t play politics with COVID. You lose.”
The governor’s office did not respond by deadline if that comment was directed at any particular Staten Island establishment.
However, DeLuca’s foray into politics as a primary face in IROAR, Independent Restaurant Owners Association Rescue, has him front-and-center on television and in news articles. In a recent Advance report on the city’s confusing bathroom interpretation, DeLuca said the regulations were “ridiculous.”
O’NEILL’S, PORT RICHMOND, (OneillsStatenIsland.com)
Thinking of the senior population in the neighborhood, O’Neill’s offered up its cleaning supply and food inventory to members of the surrounding community. It was a quiet gesture, although one that did not go unnoticed and readers expressed their appreciation to the Advance privately.
Owner Mike Regan and his family also donated countless meals to the elderly with a focus on Vets. The Irish pub donated over 1,000 meals to elderly Veteran’s throughout the borough with help from Rolling Thunder Staten Island Chapter 2. O’Neill’s has played host to successful fundraisers such as a “dine out” for the Widows and Orphans Fund of the PBA and recently served as a busy hub for Toys for Tots.
ANGELINA’S KITCHEN, STATEN ISLAND MALL (AngelinasKitchenNYC.com)
With the fine dining arm of the family operation shut for months, the West Shore outpost took to showing movies outdoors. Not only did Angelina’s Kitchen get to move its booze and food inventory but it brought human beings to other food stops open on the Mall’s outskirts when it was closed. At one point the family-friendly spot kept the parking lot dedicated to a dining public whereas the empty tract of asphalt for a time had become more like a recreational park.
RUDDY & DEAN, ST. GEORGE, (RuddyandDean.com)
Restrictions on restaurants to halt the deadly coronavirus did not stop Danny Mills from fighting to keep his Ruddy and Dean’s North Shore Steakhouse alive. Effective March 17, he broadened his repertoire for pickup and delivery to Staten Islanders.
After Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that fateful time in March that New York City bars, restaurants and entertainment venues would be limited to takeout and delivery orders only, the proprietor took a single day of serious soul searching before he sprang into action.
“We’re not just a steakhouse anymore. Yes, you can have steaks. But I’m also doing some other creative things. When good times come back, I’ll resume all the stuff I normally do,” Mills told the Advance at that time. The corned beef produced for a normally lucrative St. Patrick’s Day dinner was blown out on Reubens, a sandwich that drew such raves that Staten Islanders broadcast its deliciousness.
For patrons who missed his craft beers, unique red wine collection and whiskey line up, Mills has been packing the goods to go. Add his signature aged steaks, house-made pasta dishes, raw seafood and daily specials to the lineup and Staten Island kept its very own seafood and steak chef continually on the road.
VINUM, STAPLETON, (VinumNYC.com)
The Stapleton restaurant was one of four borough eateries in 2020 to be awarded Michelin’s Bib Gourmand designation. It was also winner of the Advance’s “Best Italian Restaurant” contest in 2018, a feat considering over half of Staten Island’s restaurants at the time were Italian. Yet that did not stop owner Massimo Felici from selling toilet paper, industrial strength cleaning supplies and other convenience items. His aim was to sell the product at cost with the hopes that people would buy his prepared Italian food and/or his wine inventory.
His full inventor was available as well — Italian olive oils, pasta and gourmet ingredients like dried mushrooms. Felici figured out a way to mix up VINUM’s most popular drinks — Negronis, Manhattans and Old Fashions were shipped around the borough in sealed plastic bottles, as relaxed liquor laws allowed.
“Unfortunately we have to figure things out to give that same pricing to the customer as a traditional store,” said Felici, who added his suppliers to the restaurant business have plenty of stock. With no indoor dining, markets and the food chain were upended.
Felici still offers the service but in his entrepreneurial acumen he conjured up another revenue avenue — virtually. He recently presented a cooking class broadcast from Casa Belvedere’s instructional kitchen, Cucina Colavita, on Grymes Hill. This program built upon other remote classes from VINUM. And with sommelier Roberto Hernandez leading classes, the Stapleton spot has presented highly educational tastings that include delivery of product to the home and potential food pairings for an upgrade.
JUICY LUCY, OCEAN BREEZE, (JuicyLucy.com)
This is the ultimate pick of the pandemic as Juicy Lucy proved one of the first eateries to shut down dining and switch to a modified format of pickup and delivery only. Owner Richie Holmes was the bellwether of the restaurant world, pivoting quickly in the pandemic.
The now one-and-a-half-year-old eatery dropped its indoor dining format even before the March 15 announcement that put the official kibosh on large gatherings. In the spring, Richie Holmes introduced a drive-in movie concept to the East Shore. With generally wholesome family movies showing, the first modern borough food-and-a-flick format proved a success through the warmer months. Holmes said that program ends Monday and should reboot in the spring of 2021.
But wait…there’s more.
Holmes also owns an ice cream business. His Lickety Split trucks hit the roads in early spring piping its “Turkey in the Straw” throughout the Island. He told the Advance that Lickety Splits hit the roads on March 1, by tradition.
Now if you remember at that time of late March and early April: there was very little traffic on the roads and no sound of children or people outdoors. In that muffled environment sound not only travelled, it was not very welcome in the quarantine.
Holmes said at that time he hoped the trucks brought some joy to kids. He said then, “These truck drivers are seasonal drivers. They’re hurting, too, with no social gatherings. They’re selling a cone here and a cone there. There are no schools open or large groups of people in the parks.”
Indeed, reactions were mixed among Staten Islanders.
“Social distancing? Really? We are missing the boat!” an Advance reader, Grandpa Den, emailed from Titus Avenue in New Dorp on Monday afternoon.
Grandmother of four, Jeanne Brown, also of West Brighton, didn’t think the jingle bells were a good idea. She noted in March, “I don’t think it’s a good idea. The ice cream man/woman and his/her truck with giggle bells or happy calliope-style music conjures up all kinds of happy memories. But the situation we are currently in is not life as we know it.”
Well, Holmes gave it a try.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at [email protected]