NYC pizza business creeps toward normal after attacks

Oct. 22, 2001

John Brescio was at home watching TV when American Airlines flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11.

But not for long.

Brescio rushed from his Long Island home and caught a train to Manhattan, where his restaurant, Lombardi's, stands just a quarter mile from Ground Zero. By the time he emerged from Penn Station, the full fury of the day's attacks had descended on the city.

"I just started walking, about two miles in all, because I didn't know what the hell was going on," said Lombardi, whose pizzeria is widely acknowledged as the first in the U.S.

Lombardi's would open that day, but only for an hour or so. With dust and soot covering the area, including the storefront of his restaurant at 32 Spring St., Brescio closed it down at 1 p.m.

Ever since, Brescio and other Manhattan pizzerias have struggled to keep their businesses going. But emerging from the struggle is a firm determination typical of what the nation has witnessed from New Yorkers.

"I was off 60 to 70 percent the first week and now I'm off about 40 percent," Brescio said in early October. "But I didn't fire nobody. I cut everybody's hours down a little so everybody can keep making a living here. And I do a little extra work myself to keep it going. That's the worst part. But I'm doing it. I'm answering the phones and doing this and that."

Brescio paused.

"This is the first pizzeria in the country," he said. "That's another reason I can't close. I just won't."

At Two Boots, a pizzeria located at the corner of Broadway and Bleeker (about 1½ miles from the World Trade Centers), manager Efrain Aquino said that things were nearly back to normal by the third week following the attack. Business was running at "almost 100 percent," he said.

"There weren't many people coming in the first couple of weeks, including not many coming to work," he said. "I guess people were kind of scared to be on the street. Things were very slow, so slow that the first couple of days, instead of closing at 1 in the morning, we were closed by 7 o'clock. The second week we kept regular hours and by the third week we were doing just fine."

Two Boots was far enough away to escape the blanket of soot and smoke, but the acrid smell from the collapsed structures was evident. "And it was pretty powerful," Aquino said. "But that's gone now. It's been getting better, especially as the weather gets colder."

Leonardo Playa, owner of Risa's at 47 East Houston, said his restaurant closed down completely for the first week. "By the second week we were down 50 percent," he said. "We're pretty close to Ground Zero, about 10 minutes from where the catastrophe happened. People who came from outside the city, along with tourists and people from uptown, just weren't coming down as much. So it affected us a lot. I've seen a lot of restaurants in the area closing down. So it's really kinda scary. We have to try to survive."

Playa, 10 years removed from his native Sicily, serves brick oven pizza. He relied on his neighborhood clientele to get by in the first few weeks. "They love our pizza," he said.

For all his concerns, Playa also remains optimistic.

"Recover?" he said. "Well, I'm still here. And I don't have a lot of expenses that some other restaurants that closed had because I'm one flight up. The rent's not as high. And I'm building up a lot of business with the neighborhood. So I think I'm going to be here for a little while."

September is usually his busiest time. "Then September 11 happened," he said, "and it turned out to be our lowest month of the year."

Like the others, Playa said he has begun to detect a return to something approaching normal.

"It's picking up. People are starting to go out again," he said. "I've started to book large parties, like 25 people."

Risa's, he said, was actually scheduled to close on October 18 to accommodate a private party of 100.

"Those first few weeks, everybody had long faces," Playa said. "But now I see people wanting to have fun, laughing again, enjoying the food and happy to be alive."

To the Rescue

On those first days following the attack, pizzerias offered food to rescue workers and police.

"I had police on the corner coming in for pizza and didn't make them pay," Playa said. "The nicest thing that happened was one young lady who came in and paid for pizza for five or six officers. She'd seen them on the street and told them that she wanted to buy them pizza. They'd come in one at a time. It was nice."

Two Boots sent pizzas to the neighborhood police station and fire department station. "And when they came in, we just gave them food," Aquino said.

At Lombardi's, Brescio said, "if a cop or fireman came in, I gave them a big discount. I just charged them a few dollars. And that's what I've been doing ever since."

The tragedy has affected Brescio and his restaurant in myriad ways. It was by reading the New York Times that he discovered that "a guy named Levin, about 29, brought his girlfriend to our restaurant a couple of years ago on their first date. And by coincidence, the Sunday before the WTC attack happened, he brought her here again. That Tuesday he died."

Because Lombardi's is located so close to the WTC site, a large number of people who worked in the towers were regulars-including employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost some 700 of its 1,000 employees.

"The first day we opened back up was that Friday, and it was very, very sad," Brescio said. "We always got a lot of business on Fridays, but we didn't hear from none of them people. It was an eerie feeling."

Not everything was tragic. About a week later, said Brescio, "three guys from Cantor Fitzgerald walked into the place. My manager, Rosemarie, yelled at them, 'You guys are all right! Why didn't you call me and let me know?' She thought they'd died. She ran up crying and hugged them. It turned out that they had gone to a football game the night before the attack, were drinking, and all three of them went to work late that Tuesday. When they got to work, the thing was falling down."

For the first two days after September 11, nobody could have visited Lombardi's even if they had wanted. Police closed off everything below 14th Street and Lombardi's was inside the blocked off area.

"We didn't open, but everything was dead anyway," Brescio said. "I stayed in the place, cleaning and fixing things to kill the time. And I slept here to make sure everything was all right."

It's not-at least not yet. But when Brescio was asked if he'd recover, the answer came quickly.

"Yeah," he said. "Even if I have to make the pizza myself, I'm not goin' anywhere."

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