NYC REOPENING

The History of COVID in NYC, One Meal at a Time

Instead of selling gourmet Italian food, Luca Di Pietro started giving it away

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Tarallucci e Vino is the type of Italian restaurant whose owner you might imagine as lounging in the back during the dinner rush, drinking a boulevardier, chewing out wayward suppliers in a smoke-filled room. The place has an authentic feel, that most coveted of culinary descriptions, but it’s true here, where a gilded plaque by the door advertises membership in the Italian American Chamber of Commerce and old men with Mediterranean tans sport driving caps, chiding fellow diners for ordering cappuccino after noon. Boulevardiers don’t appear on the drink menu, only the classic negroni. It’s a two-dollar-sign restaurant, sophisticated but not gaudy, befitting its location in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. 

Luca Di Pietro, the owner of Tarallucci e Vino, isn’t just nice, he’s convivial. He uses the word, despite his occasionally hesitant English, to describe the atmosphere he hopes to cultivate at his restaurant — cheerful and friendly, lively and jovial. Luca, as everyone calls him, is at home in such an atmosphere. On working nights he can be found at one end of a large table of men in blazers and shirts with second buttons undone, sipping chilled Pecorino, gesticulating with utensil-filled hands, mixing business and pleasure in the Italian tradition. Until recently, you could be forgiven for mistaking Di Pietro for a charming striver, a shrewd operator who plays the professional European card with glee. But not anymore, since COVID-19 devastated his home country before making landfall in New York City and destroying his industry, along with our way of life. In a matter of weeks, and almost unwittingly, Luca would go from running a restaurant to cofounding one of the nation’s foremost pandemic charities. All due to a simple tweak in his business model: instead of selling gourmet Italian food, he started giving it away.

 

 •• The street is bustling with dog-walkers and delivery trucks and the brunch crowd ••

 

I meet Luca on a windy Sunday morning in late January, with indoor dining in its 10th month of city-mandated hibernation, outside Tarallucci e Vino’s location on the southeast corner of 83rd and Columbus. Competitors line either side of the Avenue, from neighborhood staples like Lenwich (sandwiches) and Matsu (sushi) to newcomers such as Thyme & Tonic (garden-to-glass elixirs). Tarallucci e Vino has occupied the same corner for 10 years, though its chocolate awning and bright-orange weatherproof chairs are Instagrammable enough to suggest recent remodeling.

The street is bustling with dog-walkers and delivery trucks and the brunch crowd. The Center School (M.S. 243), a beige brick behemoth of a school with rusting pastel-blue accents, sits catty-corner. Continuing west on 83rd you find a post office and a fire station, completing the ecosystem. If it weren’t for ubiquitous mask compliance and the caution-taped playground of M.S. 243, one could almost forget about the extraordinary times. Almost. 

“Its, uh, 28, 29 degrees,” Luca says, when I ask him how things are different from a pre-pandemic Sunday morning. “We’re sitting outdoors and it’s freezing, even though we have this little, whatever, cabin.” It’s more like a cabana, and it doesn’t offer much protection from the elements; a few minutes into our chat, one of the ineffectual standing heaters blows over with an industrial crash, sending our server sprinting over to appraise the damage.

Still, people brave the cold for Tarallucci’s espresso and pastries. Several customers wave affectionately to Luca as they pick up their breakfast-to-go. A young guy in a smart leather jacket calls over, “Ciao! Come stai, tutto bene?” A few shivering clients dine with us in the cabin. A millennial woman in a Yankees hat pulls down her mask for each sip of coffee, nodding as her friend recaps a bad Zoom date. A young boy in a Spiderman hat eats a cream cornetto roughly the size of his face while his mother stands ready with a wet wipe. Last night, Luca tells me, was one of their best of the winter, meaning sales were down only 30% from last year. “So there are lots of positives about a restaurant business. And there are lots of negatives too! One of them is the fact that they shut you down during a pandemic.”

Luca Di Pietro has tan Adriatic skin, an easy, crooked smile, and a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. His hair is curly and flowing on top but restrained on the sides; he dresses handsomely, as trendy as fathers can, but without apparent effort. His limbs are strong and wiry and he moves and gestures in quick bursts, like a slingshot, an everyday athlete. His accented English can ramble and return to familiar phrases, but in moments of inspiration, which come often, his veins and Adam’s apple protrude and his low, gravelly tone rises in pitch and urgency. Our espressos arrive, piping hot and silky smooth, and as our digits begin to thaw, Luca talks about his childhood.

He grew up in Nereto, a village of 5,000 roughly two hours east of Rome, in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Unlike other tourist havens on the Adriatic coastline, Nereto is relatively unknown; the town’s Wikipedia page is one sentence long, and it was once dubbed “the Arkansas of Europe” by the now-defunct International Herald Tribune. Luca is reluctant to dwell much on his provincial upbringing, and I get the sense that it’s not due to anything unsavory but rather his feeling that a happy, comfortable-but-not-rich childhood is a boring subject. The sole novelistic detail he offers is that, like many Italian households of unremarkable means, the Di Pietros had two kitchens — “one downstairs, where my grandmother would operate, where all the prep and heavy work was being done, then the sort of more refined finishing kitchen upstairs.” 

As Luca tells it, he was a fairly aimless, average kid, like all of his friends in the village, with one animating desire: “I wanted to get out of the small town, and just experience something different.” This curiosity, along with a head for numbers and an early-blooming affability that won him high school class president, led him to Bologna, home of the oldest continuously operating university in the world (and still one of the best in Italy). There he met Katherine Felsen, then a young woman from Philadelphia in the first year of a master’s program at the John Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, now his wife of 25 years.

Kate Di Pietro, with whom I spoke over the phone in February, has a meticulous memory and a gift for narrative, earning her no less than 11 news Emmys in 20 years as a producer for ABC. She met Luca on November 19, 1991, outside the lecture hall where she had a midterm exam in international trade theory. “He had this very open face, wide-eyed and friendly and, you know, energetic.” They went out with mutual friends that night, and one of them said to her, “This guy is a classico Italiano, some American girl’s gonna fall in love with him.” 

Their first real date was at La Capannina, a disco on a hilltop in the Apennines outside Bologna. Luca’s friend drove them up in a BMW station wagon; for Kate, working her way through grad school, the luxury was undeniable. “So we went to the fancy disco and got in and everything, and we were dancing around and somehow Luca’s friends all left us.” They were lucky to catch a taxi dropping somebody else off at the disco, but as they descended the hill, Luca realized he had forgotten to bring any cash, let alone enough to get him to the apartment he shared with friends outside of Bologna. “I remember the ride home, very self-conscious that he was coming back to my apartment,” Kate said. “What were his friends going to think? He slept on the couch and everything, but I was like, they’re going to think I’m some floozy American who invited him home after our first date. And then, I had to pay for the cab with my 10 American dollars.” 

After that, things went more smoothly. Kate finished her Master’s program and returned to America. Luca still had two years of school, but they made an effort to visit each other at any opportunity. Luca already harbored dreams of America, but before Kate, “it wasn’t something that was necessarily practical for him,” she says. Like even his most claustrophobic friends from Nereto, making it out meant Rome or Milan. But with Kate, he could now envision a life stateside, and to that end he wrote his senior thesis on the niche American strategy of Italian pasta company De Cecco, whose blue box you probably recognize from the pasta aisle (a recent viral Grub Street investigation explored how the pandemic caused nationwide shortages of De Cecco’s bucatini.) The thesis gave his resume an American flourish, along with increased exposure to English, which he was just beginning to learn. 

A commonly exploited loophole in Italy’s mandatory conscription law added one more reason to work in the United States: If Luca stayed in the U.S. until the age of 25 with proof of work, his service was waived. He got his degree in March 1994 and moved to New York City just three weeks later, where he lived with Kate at 253 West 72nd Street. They’ve never left the neighborhood. His first job was for Lavazza, the Italian espresso company. He was a door-to-door salesman to restaurants, “getting a lot of doors slammed in my face,” as he puts it. Kate remembers it differently: “One night he came to pick me up after work. ABC News is based on 66th Street, between Central Park West and Columbus. All of a sudden, I just started noticing that almost every block someone would be coming out of a restaurant going, ‘Hey, Luca, how are you, Luca? Luca, come stai?’ It was like, wait a minute, this is the city where I’ve been living for the last few years, and he knows more people here already than I do. And I don’t think he ever felt, even though he was a foreigner, that he didn’t belong here in some way.”

Like many immigrant stories, this one involves a bit of luck. Since 1990, the United States has awarded green cards through a lottery known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. Each country gets a certain allotment per year, and the year after he moved to New York, Luca won the lottery. He made friends with other young Italians, and Kate had her circles from ABC and Harvard (where she played varsity lacrosse). “So our lives were pretty simple,” Kate says. “Going to work and going out with friends and playing sports and taking advantage of what the city had to offer.” In September 1996, Kate and Luca’s wedding announcement was the only time “Nereto” has appeared in print in the history of The New York Times.

Until March 2020, two things dominated Luca’s life in NYC: his family and his business. He and Kate had a daughter, Isabella, now a senior at Harvard, and a son, Ian, a sophomore at Williams. Meanwhile, Luca worked his way up at Lavazza and then at Danesi, another Italian coffee company, all the while learning the restaurant industry and making connections in the city. In 2001, he took over a space on 10th Street and First Avenue previously occupied by a French bakery, and started the first Tarallucci e Vino; the grand opening was six weeks before 9/11. They served coffee, aperitivo, pastries, gelato, and panini. “The idea behind Tarallucci e Vino was very simple. We wanted to bring the Italian coffee experience to New York City… in Italy, a bar is still open in the morning, but it sells pastries and coffee. So the idea was of replicating something that I grew up with that I felt was missing in New York.”

Today, Tarallucci has four freestanding restaurants, plus a bakery in the Flatiron, the café at the Cooper Hewitt museum, and a delivery-only pandemic pop-up. The espresso is premium Lavazza, the bolognese is rich and heavenly, and a regular who moved to Long Island told me he comes back to the city just for the caprese panini, “the best in the city.” Literally, tarallucci are round, savory cookies with a hole in the middle (Americans might call them crackers). Together, the restaurant’s name means cookies and wine, an expression with a deeper meaning. Luca explains: “In Italian you say ‘tutto finisce a tarallucci e vino’ — basically, any dispute is resolved by sitting down at the table and having cookies and wine. It’s a much ado about nothing. Let’s just get together and have some cookies and wine.” (The idiom can also be translated as “all’s well that ends well”). Luca pauses and looks off to the side, imagining a time when such person-to-person interactions were uncomplicated. 

At home, Kate does the cooking. “It’s not that I don’t improvise at all, but I tend to use some guidelines for what I’m going to make. And he is just totally by instinct and osmosis.” Luca’s outspoken honesty about other people’s cooking — including that of Tarallucci’s chefs — would be impolite in most American households. He inherits high standards from his grandmother’s insistence on traditional methods, canning her own tomatoes and artichokes from the garden. “We don’t have a garden,” Kate deadpans, but I can sense her smile through the phone. “Since Luca became the owner of five restaurants, he’s become much more fastidious about the kitchen. He comes home, and the very first thing that he does is go to the sink and see if everything is clean, and certain parts of our kitchen have to be in pristine order before he can do anything else.” This tracks with employees’ comments that he is a fair but demanding boss, annoyingly discerning. Staff at each location know that a visit from Luca heralds a litany of commentary, no stranded carafe or stale piece of bread left unnoticed. (Full disclosure: I was hired as a server-bartender at Tarallucci e Vino after all reporting and the vast majority of writing for this piece was completed. Luca was not directly involved in my hiring and was in fact surprised to see me at the bar the next week. This piece was not read by Luca or my manager before I was hired, just as I was not spared from Luca’s meticulous check-ins while on the job.) 

 

•• Luca, still in New York, was trying to find a way to keep his staff employed ••

 

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, Kate and Luca went to see the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team play Spain at Red Bull Stadium. “It never occurred to me that we shouldn’t be going,” said Kate. There were 119 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, 17 in the state of New York, and the Di Pietros, like everyone else, weren’t panicking. “I remember thinking, oh boy, this is out here. But it was a packed stadium. We had so much fun. And it was a week later that the mayor of New York City announced that all restaurants would have to be closed.” 

Luca was more prepared, at least mentally, than most, since his home country was the virus’s first Western host. He had been in frequent contact with his family, as well as with a friend who worked as an anesthesiologist in Bologna. “She was saying things are terrible. They’re terrible already, and this was February. It was natural that it would come here and wreak havoc.” There were other warning signs. “I have lots of friends that travel back and forth from Italy. I would ask my friends, this was in February, ‘Hey, when you come through JFK, are you getting any screenings? Are they asking you any questions?’” President Trump banned non-U.S. citizens traveling from Italy on March 13, five weeks after a similar ban on China. More than 139,000 travelers came to the U.S. from Italy in February 2020.

The week of March 9 was a blur for the Di Pietros, as it was for the nation at large. Kate was at Williams College, in Massachusetts. It was Senior Day for Ian’s lacrosse team, ranked first in the country in Division III and expected to win a national championship. From there Kate drove to Harvard, where Isabella’s roommate had woken her up with the news that everyone had to evacuate the campus by Sunday. 

Luca, still in New York, was trying to find a way to keep his staff employed. Not only was his business model based on now-outlawed indoor gatherings, his customers were literally fleeing the city. The mood was apocalyptic. Almost immediately, Luca had to lay off more than 90 members of Tarallucci’s staff: bussers, bartenders, dishwashers, servers, and hostesses whose skills didn’t translate to remote work. He worried about his business, his employees’ livelihoods, the integrity of the neighborhood, the spirit of the city. The situation appeared hopeless, at the mercy of forces far too large and unpredictable to be managed. 

On March 17, Luca was helping to close his downtown locations when he received a Facebook message from a friend in Toronto named Adair Roberts, one of Kate’s old classmates from graduate school. As she told Kate on their subsequent phone call, Roberts was sitting at home, watching news stories of New York City healthcare workers run ragged and restaurants shuttering. “Can I order some food from you for people that are working in emergency rooms?” she asked, implying that she would pick up the bill. Kate suggested NYU Langone Hospital on First Avenue. “I remember the date [of the first delivery],” Luca told me excitedly, “the 19th of March, because it’s Isabella’s birthday. That evening we delivered 40 meals, lasagna and salad, to Langone. Of course, it was curbside. They were really, really thankful. Surprised but also very thankful … throughout this experience, everybody’s been very stoic, but you sense in their eyes that they were very, very concerned with what was happening. They saw things in there escalating very quickly, so that evening I thought, hey. It looks like these people are really, really getting hammered. They don’t even have time to go out and find food. And by the way, every restaurant, every deli, they are shut down.”

In hindsight, it seems like such a simple idea, a “no-brainer,” as Luca put it. Restaurants desperately needed business, and healthcare workers desperately needed nourishment. That very night, he sat down with Kate and Isabella, who had just arrived back from Harvard. In less than 18 hours, Isabella and her friend Edith built a website, and the ball was rolling. “We launched the 21st of March, it was a Saturday, 11:00 a.m. And within first 12 hours we got $25,000 in donations.”

The next donor to Feed the Frontlines, as the Di Pietros’ effort was named, was Con Egan, a financier in Manhattan. I spoke with Egan over the phone; he has a thick, lilting Irish baritone. “We’re part of the crazy bunch that gets up at daybreak and goes to the West Side Highway off 108th Street.” That bunch would be Geezers FC, a group of New Yorkers who are middle-aged but hardly geezers — “bricklayers, billionaires, and everybody in between” — who play soccer three times a week. “You think about the mentality of these people. I mean, it is a little bit unusual. I’m Irish and I play in the wet and I’m used to the cold weather. But these guys go out and they play in snow, in 10-degree weather.” Con and Luca met on the pitch and developed a kinship. “A decent footballer, good player,” Egan says when I ask him to describe his friend. “Of course, he’s got the Italian background, he can handle himself on a field. Very passionate.” When he heard about Luca’s fledgling nonprofit, he quickly pitched in, as did many of his teammates. “Some of the Geezers were actually going around with Luca in the car, helping to deliver the food. I mean, these people were quite literally putting their lives on the line in these hospitals. To give them a hot meal?” That second delivery, funded by Egan, went to NYU’s Sunset Park hospital, in Brooklyn, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city.

That’s how things started: a happy coincidence of generosity and necessity, funded by friends and conceived at the Di Pietro dinner table. But very quickly, and primarily due to Kate and Isabella, Feed the Frontlines took on a life of its own. “Some of it was because I was posting on my little Instagram account or my Facebook page,” Kate told me. “There’s a whole big ABC News diaspora. So, for example, I post something on Instagram, I get queries back from someone who works at NBC News, which is what led to the Hoda Kotb thing,” a primetime COVID-19 special with the Today Show co-host and Savannah Guthrie featuring a segment on Feed the Frontlines that raised $30,000 in one night. Interview requests for Luca, now running both the restaurants and the nonprofit, started piling up. I asked Kate if she gave him some training for the camera. “Honestly, we were so busy that it wasn’t like I sat down one-on-one with him, but I did give him some tips. And there were times when he did things that, you know, he was like looking all over the place. I said, don’t worry. Just tell your story. You’re going to be compelling the way you are.”

As donations and publicity poured in, Luca reached out to fellow restaurant owners. When we spoke in late January of this year, Feed the Frontlines had partnerships with over 40 New York City restaurants, together delivering more than 150,000 meals. Today, those numbers are far higher. While Luca had the restaurant experience and Kate had the media-savvy, it was Isabella, wrenched from her final semester of college just as she was set to leave for spring break, who took on an executive role. “Isabella was by my side for the first three months. And really she was a driving force over the expansion. We had a lot of conversations because, you know, we live a couple blocks from [Tarallucci] and on walks over you see the lines at churches for people going hungry. That need in the hospitals slowly moved to the needs of the streets.” Indeed, even as shutdowns, social distancing, and improved knowledge of the virus flattened New York’s curve after a nightmarish March and April 2020, the summer presented unprecedented challenges of food insecurity. Led by Isabella, who extended her absence from Harvard through the fall, Feed the Frontlines began developing partnerships with community organizations around the city.

One such organization was close to home, the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH). Stephanie Green, WSFSSH’s chief strategy officer, took the time to speak with me about the unique challenges they faced during the pandemic. “We are a housing and service provider primarily to low-income, older adults. So we own and manage 31 buildings with 2,500 residents on the Upper West Side, in Harlem, and in the South Bronx. A lot of our folks are formerly homeless or have some history of mental illness. Possibly chemical addiction, or simply economically homeless. Our job is to provide stable housing for that group of people and to provide onsite services to help all of our residents live as independently as possible in the community.”

Green has worked at WSFSSH for more than 17 years. She knows that unemployment, homelessness, and food insecurity were not new problems of the pandemic, but deep-seated, cyclical effects present but neglected in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper West Side. For many, like Luca and Isabella passing bread lines on their morning walks, the pandemic was an expansion of consciousness, a heightened awareness of the fissures tearing through civic life. Pundits often used an X-ray analogy; one can choose to laugh or cry at early takes that the virus was an equal opportunity predator. Instead, like all American catastrophes, the price has been paid disproportionately by low-income people, people of color, and other marginalized groups at the perilous nexus of risk. Along with being senior citizens, Green’s residents “have a multiplicity of underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID … what comes with a history of homelessness is often a long period of time where one was not paying attention or didn’t have the resources to take care of your health.”

One of WSFSSH’s most successful housing models places residents in single-room occupancy (SRO) apartments with shared kitchens. In normal times, residents cook and eat together, providing built-in community and routine. But in the pandemic, communal meals became completely unsafe. Lacking the capacity to provide meals themselves, WSFSSH turned to Feed the Frontlines — since May of last year, it has donated over 4,000 meals. 

Ross Barkan, a New York City–based investigative reporter, recently coined the term “Alphabet Left” to describe the coalition of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations that serve the city. Nonprofit executive and failed mayoral candidate Dianne Morales is a symbol of the ascendent power of this coalition, as well as the awkwardness of their progressive positioning. While nobody can deny that these organizations (often known by their acronyms, hence “alphabet”) do important, thankless work, Barkan and other progressives have argued that in a perfect world it would be the city, not private, unaccountable organizations, providing necessary services to its most vulnerable residents. I asked Green whether, looking past the pandemic, there was a plan for City Hall to step up where nonprofits like hers were currently filling the gap. “I actually think that the nonprofits who have expertise and capacity in food delivery are the ones who should be doing the work,” she answered, and then qualified: “Because the alternative is for the government to contract with large distributors to produce bulk meals, which is basically what the government did in the beginning of COVID, unsuccessfully. Frankly, those meals were not tasty. They were not hot. They were not fresh.” Luca betrayed a similar perspective, comparing the city’s initial food insecurity strategy to “an elephant in a china shop.” At the same time that he realized the vital importance of government, he learned not to rely on the gears of bureaucracy. “We should not assume that people who are running things know what’s going on.” The worry, for all nonprofits, is that the surge in donations at the start of the pandemic will run dry, donors once stuck in lockdown and desperate to help succumbing to pandemic fatigue. So far, Stephanie says, this hasn’t been the case for Feed the Frontlines, which has continued providing meals for her residents even as many other organizations have petered out. “They’ve stuck with us longer than anyone else has.”

 

 •• Rivera told me, without pride, that we were standing in the second-poorest Congressional district in the United States ••

 

Another one of Feed the Frontlines’ largest recipients is the Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC), a missionary in the South Bronx. I visited LPAC in March during a meal distribution; people from the neighborhood were lined up around the block outside their headquarters, a grey, blocky community center on West 170th. As I waited in the corner of the entryway for Minister Esteban, who I was told to expect shortly, I observed LPAC’s team conferring in rapid Spanish, huddled around boxes and boxes of freshly delivered meals. Mine was the only white face in the building, as it had been for most of the 10-block walk from Yankee Stadium. With a collective clap, the huddle broke, and its members sprang into action: greeting people outside, carrying meals, and setting up the sound system. To signal that food was ready to be distributed, a staff member set up an industrial speaker on the front steps and started blaring catchy, aggressive Hispanic hip-hop. The line started moving, and the mood could only be described as jovial, despite the circumstances. Those handing out the food knew nearly every recipient personally, and one woman in line was smiling and exclaiming, “God Bless You!” to every passerby. Some took their meals to go, most dug in right there on the street corner. 

A tall, heavyset man with flecks of silver in his hair saw me looking on and introduced himself as Bishop Raymond Rivera. The Bishop possessed a commanding presence that had earned him the role, among others, of press liaison for the food line. Rivera wore black sneakers, black slacks, a matte black sweatshirt, and a red silky mask. He told me about LPAC’s mission with the practiced cadence of a politician: They are a faith-based, holistic ministry, one that took its religious duties far beyond the chapel. Along with the church and the community center, LPAC operates four charter schools in the neighborhood, after-school youth programs, food drives, and, in the pandemic, free testing and vaccination for the neighborhood. Rivera told me, without pride, that we were standing in the second-poorest Congressional district in the United States, which is nearly correct. Data from 2018 shows N.Y.’s District 15, 15 minutes on the C train from the Upper West Side, with the lowest median income of any Congressional district in the country — $26,096 per year, more than $5,000 less than the second-poorest. 

A woman came over and began speaking to Bishop Rivera in Spanish. He explained that this was Yolanda, Esteban’s wife, and while Esteban couldn’t make it, she’d be happy to answer my questions, with the Bishop translating. Her mask was a soft pink and read “Stay Safe ♥.” She explained that, since the beginning of the pandemic, LPAC had handed out meals three days a week, more than 35,000 since March 2020. If they had enough food to do so every day, she had no doubt the line would be there. The neighborhood is largely made up of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Continental Africa, along with a dwindling population of Puerto Ricans. Many of the people in line are homeless or elderly, living with chronic mental and physical health disorders, and these are their only hot meals of the week. That day it was chicken and rice from local Los Sazones restaurant, delivered by Feed the Frontlines, who had been LPAC’s most consistent partner nonprofit. I let Yolanda get back to manning the food table, and stayed for 20 or 30 more minutes, though she turned down my offer to help carry meals. Many people walking by stopped to chat with friends in line or on the staff. When I left, they were still handing out meals, and the line still stretched around the block.

 

••  There was initially a sort of selfish aspect to it, because it was our family business, but it was also all these people who work for us who are part of our family business, depending on us  ••

 

It’s tempting to fit the upheaval and triumph of Luca’s past year into a tidy narrative of personal awakening. Even before I met him, I was writing that version of the story in my head, the one where Luca is stirred from his apolitical slumber by the shocking realities of the pandemic. An individual putting aside his myopic concerns and turning his attention outward, toward the collective good, against the rank injustice that hides in plain sight. In this telling, Luca’s story is the story of many who were insulated from the worst material consequences of the pandemic, righteously saddled with guilt over their inability to help. 

This is a tempting story, but fundamentally incorrect, at once too generous and too condescending to Luca’s motives. The truth, repeatedly emphasized by Luca and corroborated by friends and family, is that Feed the Frontlines emerged out of a man and his family’s resolve to take care of their own. “It was about the people that he had to let go,” Egan said, when I asked him to diagnose Luca’s pivot. “It was killing him.” Kate took it a step further: “There was initially a sort of selfish aspect to it, because it was our family business, but it was also all these people who work for us who are part of our family business, depending on us.” Luca was not out to save the world, just to save his business and the workers who relied on it. “The idea of shutting down completely was not possible,” he told me, with a matter-of-factness absent from our conversation about his own life and background. “I needed to do something. What was it going to be?” In this sense, Luca merely doubled down on the same pillars of his pre-pandemic life. “His whole character changed because of the pandemic? No, I don’t think so,” Egan mused. “He’s just the kind of guy who’s going to take stuff on. He’s going to take it on. He’s not going to sit back. Not going to lie down. Never lies down. Kick him on the football field, still won’t lay down. No, he’s just tenacious.” 

If Luca had an awakening, it came later, after months of hard work, as it became clear that the situation wasn’t temporary. Feed the Frontlines’ impact was enormous, but not nearly enough. The idea that anyone in his position would have done the same, a humble universality, was a recurring theme of my conversations with Luca as well as with everyone connected to the project. “I think it’s true for most human beings that once you see something you can’t unsee it,” Kate told me warily. And Egan: “To be honest, I would imagine that most people’s attitudes would change.” Luca’s story, in the end, was not about his transformation but the ways in which everyone was transformed by the pandemic — how it shifted our relationships to the people around us.

Above all else, Luca was loyal to his people. The altruistic twist was in his recognition that the interests of his family and friends were tied up with those of his workers, his customers, his neighbors. The pandemic wrought, among other tragedies, staggering isolation. But from that isolation, we may emerge with a greater sense that our fate is collective. That our “people” include a wider circle than we once thought. “You are alone, you are locked down, your food is terrible,” Luca said, relaying the situation of many of Feed the Frontlines’ beneficiaries. “What’s the point of living? I’d never thought about that. You know, I’m so busy, and I’m doing my own thing, and I think most people are doing their own thing.” 

As the cherry blossoms in Central Park have bloomed then wilted in the early summer heat, all New Yorkers age 12 and older are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Cases remain stubbornly present, but hospitalizations and deaths keep falling. Indoor dining is back close to full capacity, you can order a drink at the bar without having to pay for food, and tourists are starting to trickle back into the city. Normal, that elusive state of being, feels attainable, even imminent. Luca is back to running his restaurants, going in person to his small, Spartan office on 18th Street. He works from a chair the same shade of bright orange as Tarallucci’s accents, tucked into a short wooden desk next to the radiator. When I see him there, he is poring over spreadsheets with data from the restaurants, discerning and confident yet slightly out of his element. “One thing also that I’ve learned in this pandemic is people are very, very bad with numbers,” he told me in our first conversation. Here are some numbers he understands all too well: Even before COVID-19, almost 1.2 million New York City residents were food insecure. That number nearly doubled in size during the worst of the pandemic, and remains 25% above pre-pandemic levels. One-third of the city’s hungry are children. The Infatuation’s list of New York City restaurants closed because of the pandemic currently displays more than 350 names; the true tally is certainly far higher.

On the bulletin board above his computer are pictures of his family. Isabella, Feed the Frontlines’ executive director, is going back to Harvard in the fall to finish her final semester. She’ll spend the summer preparing to reorient the organization yet again, beyond the pandemic, continuing to seek out and serve communities in need. Kate will continue her work with education nonprofits, helping with the Feed the Frontlines and coaching youth lacrosse on the side. For the Di Pietros, things will be the same, but different. “More than anything else,” she says, “I think the definition of what Tarallucci e Vino and many of the other restaurants that we’re working with do, and what they are for their communities, is never gonna go back to what it was. I think that no matter what, restaurants can prepare meals for people who need them. And we can do that efficiently and safely and in a culturally responsive way and close by in our neighborhoods. And until we solve poverty, which this nation doesn’t seem like it really wants to do, we can be part of a small, small solution to help people who need sustenance and comfort.”

On December 31 of last year, Luca penned a letter to the staff of Tarallucci e Vino. “This is what I learned,” he wrote, followed by six numbered statements. “New Yorkers care about their city and they want to help. Immigrants are the backbone of this town. We must participate in public life. Foundations need to be more flexible. Young people are absolutely terrific. Family and friends are fundamental.” Like much of Luca’s life, these wholesome statements can sound too good to be true. New York, even after all these years, has not made him a cynic. But he’d be happy to convince you otherwise; perhaps over some cookies and wine? He knows just the place.    ❖

 

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