Restoring Our Church of Pizza: The Rebuilding and Repairing of Totonno's After Hurricane Sandy
In his article for the New York Times, "Fighting to Save the Flavor of New York", Jeff Gordinier roused our memories to remind us why places like Totonno's matter in the wake of an event like Hurricane Sandy. This was certainly not the first misfortune suffered by the Coney Island pizzeria, founded by Antonio "Totonno" Pero and known around here as "our church of pizza". When Sandy struck, flooding the pizzeria, the business was still recovering from the debt created by the 2009 oven fire that put them out out of business for 11 months. Now we are asking, what will it take for Totonno's to rebuild?
To begin, plenty of waiting.
For so many of New York's food businesses that were the worst hit by the hurricane, the initial losses have been amplified by a prolonged struggle to move forward. The song remains the same at Totonno's.
"It's been 5 weeks because we had to wait and wait for people to show up," 3rd-generation owner Antoinette Balzano said on December 5th. She has been at Totonno's constantly, working without heat or electricity until recently. "These days, people would probably tell me, 'Antoinette, give up.' But I can't. All I do is go home to do my work and prepare for tomorrow." But Antoinette is taking the lead for her sister and the pizzeria's rock since 1991, Louise "Cookie" Cimineri, and Lawrence Cimineri, her nephew.
How they will pay for the rebuilding is still being sorted out. Until they can secure the$150,000 loan they are seeking, they will have to make do with money loaned from a local bank. Like many businesses, they have interruption of business insurance, but do not have flood insurance.The insurance company had sent a 20 year old kid from Texas to "determine their destiny", Antoinette told me, followed by a pair of engineers. They, in turn, produced an 85-page report to determine where the water came from. Last week, Antoinette found out that they would be getting nothing—an all too common story, as Eater reported last week.
Four feet of water swelled into the dining room the night of the hurricane, causing extensive damage. But before the repairs could even begin, the walls had to be opened and checked for mold. When Antoinette finally found a company to do the work, they proved unreliable. They took down the walls and took off, asking for $6,000. The mold was finally removed by a different company during the last week of November, but the lack of heating meant the walls would dry at a sluggish pace.
Reopening will require the completion of a litany of repairs, including replacing both the air conditioning and heating units ($8,000 each), each purchased after the 2009 fire; retiling the oven ($5,000); plumbing and electrical work; replacing the Hobart mixer ($20,000), range, walk-in, and all other kitchen equipment, and repairing damaged portions of the walls. Antoinette has estimated total repairs will cost upwards of $100,000.
The effort has been complicated by the fact that the pizzeria is stocked with so many irreplaceable possessions, family artifacts that date back to Mr. Pero: the original door to the furnace room, its window covered with baby photos; the radio, purchased by Antoinette's grandmother and used by her mother to listen to her uncle sing; beloved Christmas decorations, some of which were their grandfather's. In the kitchen, Antoinette showed me a cabinet and told me how she and Cookie would pretend the doors were stage curtains. It cannot be salvaged.
When I asked Antoinette if I could take photos, she established the bare walls as off limits. She did not want her sister to see the place like that. It means too much to her.
"Think about what it took to keep that place going through those rough years in Coney," Pete Wells said to me over the phone. "Those were some tough times that they have survived. Cookie and everyone else are incredibly protective of the place. She went through years of trying to keep the chaos outside. Imagine what's it like when it finally gets inside?"
A self-described history buff, Rocco Ranaudo, the current contractor, shares the Totonno's family's rigorous perfectionism. He tells me he is just happy to "be part of bringing something back". Walking around the restaurant, he showed me how only one side of the wall had been removed and even then not even up to the height required*. So they're pulling down the walls again, to let them dry out, and have been checking up on the moisture levels daily since Monday. A third set of tests for mold will be conducted at the end of the week and if all goes well the sheetrock will be put up shortly after.
Now, it seems, the rebuilding is finally moving forward. By the 14th, the heating, plumbing, and oven had all been repaired. Electric work had been largely finished. The next step? Cosmetics.
*1 foot above the waterline.
"We can't compromise the sentimental value. We want to make sure everything seen by the public remains the same," Rocco promised. "All of the exposed walls in the dining room will be put back up. But behind the fridge, we'll have to replace the tin with vinyl. Even if we have to replace the supports, we're not going to alter the waves in the floor."
Rocco has not been alone in extending a helping hand. When I arrived for our second interview last Friday, Jimmy Kruger, the electrician and a customer of over 20 years, was in the process of removing the main breaker. He showed me where it had been corroded by the water, pointing out the waterline on the adjacent meter. He was the 10th electrician Antoinette contacted. Another wanted to bill Totonno's $10,000 for the same job, Jimmy did it for less than $2,000. There is the carpenter who offered to fix their desk for $1,000 under his asking price, because he wants it be known that he helped fixed Totonno's. He told Antoinette he'd "make it like a museum piece."
The message has not been lost on the family. These are all people sacrificing their own thin margins to ensure Antonio Pero's legacy endures, a feat that has required a great deal of sacrifice.
"My sister, she's given up the life of a multimillionaire to preserve the dream of our grandfather," Antoinette said.
As for when Totonno's will reopen? The family had initially hoped to be slinging pies again by Christmas week, but are now promising a mid January return. Until then we'll be keeping you updated as the news comes in. The hurricane hit Totonno's hard. But Sandy has nothing on their stubborn resilience. These are people who, in Pete's words, carried the torch of New York pizza culture when no one was paying attention. They will endure, as they always have. A steady and singular phenomenon.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column on Serious Eats New York. Follow him on Twitter, or contact him directly at chris.e.crowley [at] gmail.com. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.