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Checking In On Our Church of Pizza: Is Totonno's In Danger of Closing?

Cookie Cimineri outside Totonno's. [Photographs: Michael Berman]

Since filing our first report on the recovery effort at Totonno's, we've been checking in with owners Cookie Cimineri and Antoinette Balzano on a regular basis. While the rebuilding should start moving along at a quicker pace once the results from the 3rd round of mold tests are in (sometime this week), some grim news has come our way. Three months after Sandy, the family is now struggling to acquire the loans necessary to reopen the pizzeria.

What does this mean for the pizzeria? That Totonno's, whose cultural importance can be measured not only in Brooklyn but anywhere in this country where someone is baking pizza, is now being endangered by disinterested institutions.

After the hurricane, Antoinette applied for loans from both the federal Small Business Administration (SBA), to the tune of $150,000, and New York City Business Development Corporation's emergency relief loans. Emergency would, typically, imply a sense of urgency. But not here. While they're still waiting on an answer from the SBA, Antoinette told me that the $25,000 loan they applied for was only recently turned down by the NYCBDC.

The reason? Because of the debt from the 2009 fire that Totonno's has been paying off, the NYCBDC did not believe the family would be able to repay the emergency loan. You might question why they think a family that has been so single-mindedly and stubbornly dedicated to preserving their business would suddenly become irresponsible and unreliable.

"They have to go by the last year," Antoinette explained, speaking of financial records and the loan application process. "For the last 2 years, we've been paying off the $200,000 loan from the fire. The last [contractor], he was a con artist. My sister didn't get 3 cents for 11 months. How do you live when you have bills to pay? A family to feed? Totonno's doesn't make a lot of money. It's about passion."

Borough president Marty Markowitz, who Antoinette has described as wonderfully helpful, is doing what he can to ensure that the Totonno's legacy endures. Only a few days after NYCBDC loan was turned down, he called to inform Antoinette that it was going to be re-reviewed. There is, then, still hope they could get the $25,000 they asked for. But officials from the NYCBDC have been, according to Antoinette, less than helpful.

"I called the office around Christmas because no one was calling me," she explained. "The secretary told me they're on vacation, so I said, 'you're telling me the office is being run by 2 secretaries when people lost their lives out here? And they have the nerve to be on vacation?' A half hour later, the president calls me ... They're being unreasonable; they don't want to budge. Let me tell you, there was something that a Mrs. Long, the supervisory loan officer, told me to do. She said, take someone off the business to get the loan and add them back on--that's fraud!"

Adding fuel to the fire is that the family is still dealing with companies that are scheming to make a quick buck. A mold company, one of five that Antoinette hired, is currently holding her money hostage after charging $5,300 for mold removal only for the lab tests to still come back positive. Antoinette wants her money back. They told her they won't give up a dime until she does another round of testing.

After the publication of our initial article, a number of readers reached out about the possibility of donating to the struggling pizzeria. When I inquired about a fundraising campaign, Antoinette was skeptical. In all likelihood, it does not look like a Kickstarter or Small Knot campaign is going to happen.

"We don't want anybody to suffer to have to give to us," Antoinette told me, explaining that they would rather have the money go to families whose lives were ruined by the hurricane. "We don't want anyone to have to give something up for us. But, if they're able..."

What is clear is that something must be done.

"Look, I don't care what it is," Antoinette told me. "We'll do whatever we have to do to reopen."*

*An earlier version of this post ended with a quotation that indicated Totonno's was precariously close to closing. The statement has since been retracted and Slice apologizes for this misunderstanding.

About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.

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