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The frustration is compounded by the fact that the new fire exit will run from Da Nico's backyard under the length of 168 Mulberry to the front door, slicing a vacant one-bedroom apartment into a studio. Worse, tenants worry that a recent HPD move could ultimately make Da Nico the owner of the backyard. In August, HPD filed a plan to transfer about half of each of the three yards to the city's Economic Development Corporation, which in turn can lease or sell the property to Da Nico. Sources say the move allows HPD to turn the land over without the usually required competitive bids or an auction.
Freed said it is odd for the city to assemble the parcels "and cut them in half for the benefit of one owner. I'm not even so interested in one person getting a sweetheart deal, but if it bothers everyone else around them, it's a problem. If the city were making money off it, that would be one thing. But it's not."
Indeed, Freed is not the only public official put off by the Da Nico deal. In June, Community Board 2 voted unanimously against the fire egress plans, calling HPD's information "insufficient" and adding that "the proposed plan appeared to invite loitering, garbage and rodents. . . ." Board district manager Arthur W. Strickler said that HPD's decision to go ahead despite those concerns and the fact that the city follows "85 percent of the votes we take here" is "highly unusual."
Without comment from City Hall, it's hard to explain the aberration. Da Nico is run by the Luizza-Criscitelli family, which also runs Pellegrino's and Il Pallazo on Mulberry Street and Settanta Sette on St. Marks, but the owners are not financial contributors to the mayor's campaigns. Perhaps the way to City Hall is through the mayor's stomach, since it seems the mayor enjoys Da Nico's fare well enough to have hosted more than one political event there (despite a January 1998 health department inspection that found "fresh and old mouse droppings" near the dough-making area).
On September 11, Giuliani hosted McCain at a highly publicized lunch at Da Nico, relishing not only antipasto and seafood marinara but also McCain's enthusiastic endorsement of his proposed Senate candidacy. A current Friends of Giuliani employee recalls a summer 1997 campaign-related function at Da Nico in the company of the mayor. And on June 11, 1998, Da Nico was the lunch stop during a red-carpet city tour hosted by the mayor for the Republican National Convention 2000 site-selection team.
Da Nico even boasts on a Web site that it is "a favorite among movie stars, New York Yankees and Mayor Giuliani himself!" The mayor's mug, beaming alongside the Luizza-Criscitelli family, graces a wall packed with photos of restaurant staff and celebrities. In fact, Da Nico has twice catered Yankee World Series victory parties.
But the restaurant and the mayor are not saying much about the backyard deal. "The city has a nasty habit of hiding things like this," says Freed. "They have consistently refused to give money to groups even when it would make sense, and that's why it's particularly offensive if we have the taxpayers pick up the cost of a public egress for a restaurant that happens to be one of the mayor's favorites. The whole thing is bizarre. Does it rise to impropriety? Favoritism? I still don't know."