By Albert Samaha
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Just how much does Mayor Rudy Giuliani like Da Nico restaurant on Mulberry Street? Enough to have a very public lunch there with Arizona senator and presidential contender John McCain. Enough to dine there in 1996 on his first visit in two decades to the San Gennaro festival, boasting that he decriminalized the decades-old feast and turned it into a legitimate fair. And now, Da Nico's neighbors fear, enough to make a sweet deal with the restaurant by leasing and planning to sell it as many as 2000 square feet of backyard space that was once the garden of three adjacent city-owned tenements.
In fact, neighbors suspect the mayor's fondness for Da Nico explains why his housing agency is apparently paying for a fire egress for its private dining garden. The city's generosity has irked the tenants who live next to the pasta-and-pizza joint and whose backyards have been all but overtaken by it. In an October 1 letter to Giuliani, Lillian Tozzi, who still lives in the building where she grew up at 168 Mulberry, wrote on behalf of the tenant association: "We were told that the owners of Da Nico restaurant are being accommodated because of a directive order from people in your office."
While Giuliani has not answered Tozzi, her suspicion that the mayor may be rewarding one of Mulberry Street's more popular restaurants is bolstered by two internal city memos obtained by the Voice. In 1997 just as the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) awarded Da Nico a lease for the garden space an HPD employee wrote a memo to her boss describing a "disturbing visit" from a tenant in one of the three buildings where Da Nico occupies the garden. She wrote that she had explained "the history of the lease" to the tenant, but added parenthetically, "I did not mention a City Hall thing."
And just three months ago, in his monthly report to Giuliani's deputy mayor for operations Joseph Lhota, HPD commissioner Richard Roberts described the progress of plans for the Da Nico fire egress. In Roberts's seven-page memo, primarily devoted to major issues and citywide initiatives, the mention of the piddling Da Nico project stands out.
Neither Lhota nor Giuliani's press office returned repeated calls for this story. HPD spokesperson Carol Abrams refused to answer questions, saying, "I just don't have the authorization to release the information." Nicholas Criscitelli, president of the company that owns Da Nico, referred questions to his attorney, Arnold Kriss. Kriss declined to provide details, saying, "That's not in the best interest of my client," but added, "we're there legally." Kriss, also the attorney for the group that sponsors the San Gennaro feast, laughed away suggestions that the city was catering to Da Nico, saying, "I can't believe for pasta, pizza, or a veal chop that you get special favors in New York."
Perhaps not. Maybe it was the rigatoni and sausage the mayor ate at Da Nico in 1996, or his slimmed-down 1998 lunch of grilled salmon and salad that prompted the administration to apply for permits and, apparently, pay for the fire egress. Records at the city's Department of Buildings (DOB) show that a fire egress will be built "for outdoor table service" through 168 Mulberry Street, a tenement adjoining Da Nico. HPD would not say if it is footing the bill, but when asked if the restaurant was paying for it, Kriss said, "It's city-owned buildings. We have no obligation at all, or no right, to make changes in a building that we don't own." Sources estimate the project will cost at least $70,000. DOB says the egress is needed because Da Nico's outdoor seating will expand to more than 75 people, although the restaurant says it can seat 80 outdoors now.
HPD owns the tenements at 166, 168, and 170 Mulberry Street because private landlords abandoned them years ago. Da Nico, located at 164 Mulberry, owns its building, but has no backyard. In March 1997, HPD leased Da Nico a large portion of the backyards for a paltry $680.50 a month. "What a deal!" exclaimed City Council member Kathryn Freed, whose district includes Little Italy. At that rent, Freed calculates that the city will recoup the cost of the fire egress in just under nine years.
According to the 1997 lease, the restaurant was required to pay for all improvements. It was also responsible for keeping down noise, odor, and trash. But Tozzi's letter to Giuliani lists problems with all those issues, concluding that the restaurant "is not a good neighbor."
Tenants believe Da Nico occupies more outdoor space than the lease allows, and they complain of lost privacy for back-facing ground-floor apartments. Resident Margaret LaRocca described how her sister, whose ground-floor apartment overlooks the restaurant's garden, once received a friendly wave from Hizzoner through her window. And tenants say that cellar doors have been recently padlocked for the fire-exit construction, effectively locking them out of the yard.
"I grew up in that yard," Tozzi says. "We barbecued back there. Now we can't get our seniors to use the backyard anymore. Plus, we have a children's garden there, and Da Nico put all rat poisoning. The kids had vegetables that they were looking forward to picking and eating, and flowers. And we have a fig tree that's more than 35 years old, and has always bloomed. This year it's not blooming, and I'm sure it's because of the rat poisoning."