By Anna Merlan
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By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
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By Tessa Stuart
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."
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."