Checking In on Totonno's: Chef Daniel Patterson of Coi to Donate $5,000 to Brooklyn Pizza

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[Photograph: Chris Crowley]

Back in early December, chef Daniel Patterson organized a fundraising dinner at Coi, one of his San Francisco restaurants, to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy. A portion of the proceeds were to be reserved for the acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant Governor. Last week, Governor's owners announced that it will not be reopening. Now Patterson will be rerouting the $5,000 raised for Governor to another New York food business in need: Brooklyn institution Totonno's.

The reallocation of funds was made possible by Totonno's lifer and post-Sandy hero Allison Robicelli, who also owns a gourmet bakery with her husband Matt and appears to be everywhere at once.

After reading about Governor's demise in the New York Times, Robicelli reached out to the owners of various restaurants that hosted fundraisers for Governor to see if they would be willing to reroute the results of those Herculean efforts to her beloved Totonno's. Anchoring her argument with an offer for "bowling and egg creams at Maple Lanes," Robicelli keyed them in on the pizzeria's history and explained the owner's post-Sandy situation, detailed in a Slice post from December. Although she has been going to Totonno's for her entire life, Robicelli has no personal relationship with the family.

"My grandmother would take me on the bus down to Coney for pizza when I was a kid, like her dad took her back in the 20s (he used to eat there regularly as an employee of the original Luna Park)," Robicelli wrote. "To be blunt, Coney SUCKED when I was a kid in the '80s. Did any of us have an issue with getting mugged or worse for pizza? No. That's how important Totonno's is."

The Totonno's family was alerted to the offer by Ed Levine, who spoke with owner Antoinette Balzano—the primary force behind the pizzeria's rebuilding effort—yesterday afternoon. The money, she told him, could be used to pay for replacing the floors. As Ed related to me in an email, "while it looks like the necessary loans will come through so that Totonno's will be able to reopen, any money that can alleviate their debt obligations [which include those left over from the 2009 fire that caused extensive damage] would be desperately needed."

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[Photographs: Christine Tsai]

As a restaurateur from another corner of the country helping to save an irreplaceable New York institution, chef Patterson's will be following in the footsteps of Chicago's Geja Cafe. The restaurant, a long-standing and family-run operation, donated $6,726 out of their November and December sales to Totonno's after reading about its plight in The New York Times. A plaque will commemorate Geja Cafe's contribution. Patterson is thus far resisting getting the same treatment from the Totonno's family.

Chef Patterson was humble, in the way that all of those from the food industry who have gone to extra lengths to help victims of Sandy have been.

"Knowing that the money will be of use is thanks enough. It's true I organized the dinner, but it was also Corey Lee, Christopher Kostow, Evan Rich, Chris L'Hommedieu, Bill Corbett, and Matt Tinder who lent their time and talents," he wrote in a recent email.

"My staff came and worked on their day off—I should not be getting credit! Seriously, no big deal. We're all happy to help. That's what people do for each other, right? Totonno's is amazing. I just wish I could do more. Relying on fine dining restaurants to fill in the gaps left by the government in times of crisis is kind of a joke, but we did our best."

The process of rebuilding has been long and tenuous, but moments of kindness have helped the family endure. Yesterday, after showing up at Totonno's to see her contractor, Balzano opened up the mail to find an envelope marked with a California address. Inside, she found a card with a $20 bill.

"This morning I listened to your story on the radio and was stunned," Antoinette said over the phone, quoting the card's author, Carol Lee. "We wish you the best, and here is a little something to help you along the way."

One can hope that these examples inspire others.

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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