With colder weather coming in and a 25% capacity indoor dining set to start on September 30th, the streets of Bushwick are lined with restaurants anxious about their survival and confused over implementing the ever-changing restrictions on their operations.
We checked in with two pizza places in Bushwick – Tony’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, a slice joint that’s been in business for almost half a century, and Santa Panza, a 20 – seat sit down upscale pizza restaurant that has switched to mostly delivery these days.
Tony’s Pizzeria & Restaurant has been at the same spot at 443 Knickerbocker Avenue for over 45 years. The family has owned the building since 1974, and are their own landlords. Most of their business has historically been pick-up and delivery, allowing Tony’s to remain open throughout the pandemic, as well as give back to the community.
Salvatore Polizzi, one of three brothers who own Tony’s, said they have been working closely with organizations like Breaking Ground to help the homeless near the shop find shelter, and lending a hand at community events to raise money and provide winter coat kits to the homeless.
While insistent on the importance of giving back, Polizzi worries about the transition to indoor dining. They have set up three tables for outdoor dining now, but Polizzi said that when inspectors come to the shop there is inevitably a misunderstanding about how to implement the guidelines. Despite doing his best to comply with the changes, he has still received warnings about compliance – the fine for a severe violation could cost up to $10,000.
Tony’s, like every restaurant in New York City, has had to adjust their service drastically to ensure the safety of their customers and workers. With indoor dining, things are looking to get even more complicated – temperature checks of patrons at the door, gathering contact information to be shared with the city’s health department should anyone be exposed to COVID-19, and trying to figure out how to comply at a shop that relies on quick counter service. Without a sit-down service, Polizzi is not sure if these new regulations will be easy to implement.
“We’re gonna feel that punch a little more cause the clientele isn’t gonna be as understanding,” he said.
Tony’s also has a second location, Tony’s Garden Eats at 1410 Myrtle Ave, that is ready to open, but the pandemic has kept the doors closed for months longer than expected. Polizzi hopes he can open the shop soon to create jobs for the community at a time when many people are struggling.
Whether customers sit inside, outside, or order delivery, Polizi wants to make sure that everyone can feel safe and at home when they buy a slice at Tony’s.
“We’re a bridge between both worlds, the old and the new. Food always helps because it brings people together,” he said.
Santa Panza closed for three months at the start of the pandemic but have since opened their garden offering five tables for dining. Unlike Tony’s, Santa Panza had mostly relied on their sit-down dining service but made the switch over to take-out and delivery using services like GrubHub, Seamless, and Caviar to survive. Even with that, Santa Panza has been barely able to break even.
The city’s new health guidelines require updating HVAC systems to have the proper airflow to combat the virus. This has been especially expensive to implement at Santa Panza because there is a large wood fire oven in the middle of the dining room. Unlike at Tony’s, a large chunk of their business already goes to paying their rent, and the restaurant’s serpentine layout means just five tables indoors at 25% capacity.
While everyone is looking forward to indoor dining returning, Evro Schwebel, manager at Santa Panza, said it may not be enough.
The graphic above shows what Santa Panza would have looked like before the pandemic compared to now.
If the city does not increase the capacity limits, the restaurant will have to rely on those five tables and delivery to continue breaking even through the colder months. But if the city shuts down indoor dining, Santa Panza will face far more difficult choices.
“If we have zero indoor dining, and it’s too cold for any outdoor seating, we would probably last a few months, but it would be miserable,” Schwebel said.
Despite the restaurant’s uncertain future, Santa Panza has also been giving back to support the community around them.
The space next door to Santa Panza on Broadway is empty, and Bushwick locals have been gathering informally there in the past few months to feed and provide those in need with clothing and living supplies. Schwebel said Santa Panza has been donating food to help whenever they can, and have loaned their extra chairs and tables for use.
They have also been assisting their workers. Those who were not eligible for government aid throughout the quarantine were offered financial help from Giovanni Gelfini, Santa Panza’s owner, that Shwebel described as “very generous.” Gelfini was on a vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Local Assemblywoman Maritza Davila wants to see restaurants, like Tony’s and Santa Panza, succeed. She said the city has been doing its best, but she understands restaurants have been put in a difficult position.
“This is their livelihood, this is their dream being crushed by something we have no control over,” she said, “We have to work together.”