A Successful Sicilian Returns to Share His Success In Sicily
Someone somewhere once said, written or maybe even sang, “There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway.” Here’s my version: “There’s hundreds of Castellammare del golfo natives that moved to Brooklyn for every light in Castellammare del golfo.” Ok, a little clumsy, but true. And many of them come back to summer in Castellammare and they love to tell tales of how great America is. It’s true! For the three or four summer months here every other sentence begins with “In America,…..!!!” Then, come autumn they are all back…in America.
But I know at least one Castellammarese that made a success of himself in America and then brought his business acumen back to his native town to help it develop into the tourist mecca City Hall says it wants to become. I stopped by this person’s place of business to check out the Palermo game being played away at Siena last Monday night. (Yes, Monday night! Serie B is a league that is scheduled to play on Saturday afternoons and yet Wednesday and Thursday are the only two nights of the week Palermo has not played on in the first ten weeks.)
Palermo has yet to lose since the latest coaching change, (see my post: “The Palermo Zoo”), picking up 10 points in the standings via 3 wins and a tie, although even in winning Palermo has its fans scratching their heads. Winning for Palermo, it don’t come easy:
After beating last-place Juve Stabia at home, Palermo managed a tie in Bresica on a very late goal by the youngster coming off-the-bench, Andrea Belotti. At home, against Pescara, Ezequiel Munoz scored off a corner-kick goal in the opening minute and then the team held on for dear life the entire rest of the way. At Siena, Palermo got their first goal when a Siena defender broke the golden rule of soccer: never pass the ball back to your goaltender if there’s an opponent in between. An alert and hustling Abel Hernandez ran into the ball and then calmly pushed it past an out of place goalie. Ok, lucky goal, but Palermo ended up winning against Siena in notable fashion: they won a) on the road, b) with a late goal with more off-the-bench heroics by the youngster Belotti, and c) while down a man. That’s about as positive a win as you’re going to get and it sailed the rosaneri into 5th place. To be sure, much of Palermo’s saving grace this whole season has come from goaltender, Stefano Sorrentino, who was an iron curtain again on Monday.
I was actually looking forward to attending the game in Siena, which would have been my first time in that Tuscan town, but when the 3pm Saturday afternoon game turned into an 8.30pm Monday night kickoff, my plans were scrapped. And, so I ended up at Soho Lounge.
Pino DiBartolo opened Soho Lounge in Castellammare in the summer of 2010 offering “American food with a Sicilian accent.” He had this idea that the locals might be looking for an American meal option, but instead discovered a) they weren’t, but b) tourists were looking to order Italian food while speaking English and by someone happy to see them. The menu evolved to half-american/half-sicilian plates and Soho Lounge immediately became the go-to point for English-speaking tourists whether they be American, English or from other countries. While English tends to be the official language of Soho Lounge, the clientele freely interacts with one another, often intermingling phrases in their native tongues making Soho Lounge seem a Berlitz school.
But here’s the deal: the food, be it an American burger sandwich or a real Sicilian fish plate, is excellent, but Pino himself (2nd from right in photo with his international clientele at Soho Lounge in Castellammare del golfo) is the draw as, instead of looking at tourists as a one-time quick hit, he takes a personal interest in every customer and gets to know them, which is why his return-rate of customers is remarkably high for a place specializing in tourists.
The Pino Factor began when he emigrated from Castellammare to New York like so many of his own before him, including Mafiosi Joe Bonanno and Salvatore Maranzano who literally exported the Sicilian Mafia to America. I prefer to talk about oranges and olive oil and wine as examples of Sicilian exports, but there’s no denying the American mafia’s Castellammarese origins that led to the famous Castellammare Mafia War in New York in the early 1930s.
For Pino, he arrived in 1978 in the Castellammare bastion in Brooklyn. I won’t go into his American history very much because if you don’t know Pino then knowing he, at 18, danced with Madonna at Studio 54— before she was Madonna— just won’t mean the same to you.
But his café history really kicks in in 1991 when he opened Café Tina in the Soho quarter of Manhattan. Not only did Al Pacino enjoy its offerings, but by 1994 it was so much the in-place for Italians in New York that the Italian National Soccer team, yes, gli azzurri, stopped by during the US-hosted 1994 World Cup. That lead to Pino opening the bar that really made him famous, L’angolo Café, on the corner of Thompson and Houston—the northwest corner, meaning it was NOrth of HOuston, and thus not really in Soho (SOuth of HOuston), but Pino never was never one to let technicalities get in the way. That wouldn’t be very Sicilian of him. So he insisted, for imaging and marketing reasons, it was a Soho bar.
L’angolo Café became a two-tiered success. A soccer bar and euro-style lounge bar. As a dimly-lit euro bar it drew an eclectic and mostly romantic, or looking-for-romance, crowd in the evenings. In fact there are many stories of those who met at L’angolo who, for better or worse, went on to cement the deal in marriage. Nighttime crowds included luminaries as well. Said Pino: “I can’t remember all of them, but there was Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Jill Hennessey, Stephen Nash and several Black-Eyed Peas.”
But for all the luminaries, L’angolo may have just been another successful downtown Manhattan bar taking in money during the booming Clinton economy. It was the soccer that made the place special and historic.
The foundation for this success was a writer for the #1 Italian sportspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. (I say #1 because, yes, there are actually three national papers in Italy dedicated to soccer. This creates many days of non-news which they fill-in with player and coach trade rumors. On any given day, one paper headline could be something like, “Roma signs player X from Bologna”, while another paper’s headline the same day tells us, “Bologna’s player X not signing with Roma”).
The writer I mention is Massimo Lopes Pegna, the world’s greatest fan of the Florence team Fiorentina, il viola. He named L’angolo Café as the official headquarters of the NYC faction of Club Viola. Soon enough, Massimo was mentioning L’angolo in the Gazzetta with some regularity, officially dubbing it “the place to watch Italian soccer if you are in New York.”
One of his articles noted in amazement about a broadcast of the Palermo-Catania Derby—when both teams were in Serie C! Even the Corriere del Mezzogiorno devoted a full page to L’angolo, calling it, “the destination for Italians in the Grande Mela!”
With that came famous Italian soccer patrons such as then-Serie a coach Giovanni Trappatoni, and Massimo Moratti, the owner (then-owner?), of Inter Milan. Pino was thrilled to see Moratti as Pino, like half of Castellammare (for whatever reason), grew up an Inter Milan fan. However, his heart for the team started to wane in proportion to the decreasing number of Italian players on the team and Pino didn’t mind telling Moratti face-to-face he needed to sign more Italian players. Moratti took it in stride and promised he would, but by 2010 Inter Milan, of the Italian league Serie A, would win the European Championship without an Italian player in the starting line-up. (It should be noted the Inter in Inter Milan stands for Internazionale so I’m not sure why the team using mostly international players is surprising.)
L’angolo was now charging a $20 minimum of food and drink orders during Italian games. Of course, it doesn’t take much food and drink in NYC to get to $20, but more importantly this was still when getting Serie A games at home was nearly impossible. Now even someone in Hibbing, Minnesota can sit on his couch on bitterly-freezing winter afternoons and watch 20 soccer games from around the world on his home tv or computer, but back then L’angolo was the place to be.
George Vecsey, the esteemed author and New York Times sportsjournalist, loved L’angolo so much he’s writing upwards of 1,000 words about his experiences there in his new book, Eight World Cups: My Journey to the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer, to be published by Times Books/Holt in May of 2014.
Vecsey first went to L’angolo to see an Italy-Russia World Cup qualifier (the game where they used an orange ball so it could be seen on the snow-covered Russian field) and it became his next New York Times article. As Vecsey told me last week, “I wrote about the angst of the fans, and I was a L’Angolo fan forever. I wish I had gone more. I miss it now that I have more time. I wish I could take my grandchildren there. It was the only place I’ve ever wanted to be a regular.”
Vecsey was one of those who enjoyed the split-personality of L’angolo, telling me, “I loved the off hours, no game, when I would meet friends or people I was interviewing, and sit on a wicker chair and talk quietly for hours. The best thing was the arancini. Pino said he had them flown in from Palermo! After the arancini came the people, Pino and Paola (Beretti) and the other people who worked there. “
Game days, Vecsey was tuned into the passion of the fans’s. His highlight being “…the Bayern-Man U final when the German coach took out Matthaus and they blew a lead. Massimo Lopes Pegna and I had to talk some German fans out of jumping under the crosstown bus. The place was electric for big matches, even when the azzurri weren’t playing.”
“The capacity at the bar was 60,” Pino told me, “but often 300 people would show up. We needed a doorman to keep people out.”
Then came 9-11. Pino and staff provided free food and beverage to the fire fighters and others rescue staff working day and night searching for bodies under the World Trade Center rubble just a subway stop away. While 9-11 would have an economic impact on all of Lower Manhattan, for L’angolo the larger problem was the explosion of satellite and computer capabilities to watch the games at home.
Of course for some, watching at home misses the point of a sporting event, which was clearly proven at L’angolo during the amazing run of the Azzurri in the 2006 World Cup when L’angolo was packed with customers paying a $50 minimum to watch a game being broadcast for free on the ABC television network! Even Agnelli-heir Lapo Elkann spent at least the minimum to watch the USA-Italy dogfight of a match that finished in a tie thanks to a Palermo player scoring an own-goal. (However another Palermo player would soon electrify Italians worldwide with his game-winning goal against Germany in the semi-final!)
By the time the Italy-France final game came about on the 9th of July, 2006, Pino was about to enjoy not only one last hurrah for his business, but possibly the single-biggest payday of L’angolo’s history. The $50 minimum was all well and good, but while Italian fans were sweating with the game going into overtime, they also kept buying drinks. An extra 30-45 minutes of drinking in Manhattan is a real boost to the cash register. Then, when Italy won the World Cup on penalty kicks, it was bottles of champagne all around! Pino had a real cash heyday, but he knew the writing was on the wall for his business, especially in light of the combination of new technology and the now rebounding rents in Lower Manhattan. And knowing that, he decided to pocket most of the money he made on July 9th and not reinvest to fix the broken couches and lamps that resulted from the post-game celebration. The writing was also on the wall for Pino to return to his homeland.
Which is why I write this. I wouldn’t be writing if this were another story of a Sicilian succeeding in America of which, to their credit, there are many, but it’s about a Sicilian succeeding in America who wanted to return home to do the same. I wrote a screenplay awhile back about tough kids growing up in a tough neighborhood and the discussion at some point was the predictable one about their plans for getting out of the neighborhood. But the protagonist said he wasn’t looking to get out of the neighborhood, asking what good that would do for the neighborhood. He wanted to make something of himself in the neighborhood and for the neighborhood and to improve the neighborhood so kids wouldn’t sit around dreaming about getting out of it.
Pino had to leave Sicily when he did, I’m sure. But by 2010 he decided he had enough knowledge and wherewithal to make a success of himself in his town of birth. And so he did something sorely needed for Sicily to survive: he brought foreign money here to invest. He paid to restore a space across from the Villa Margherita in the historic center, he pays rent for the space, he buys food and drink locally and creates local jobs. Mitt Romney would call him a “maker.” Whether the locals fully appreciate what Pino is doing is another conversation, but certainly the tourists do, evidenced by Soho Lounge consistently ranking in the Top 5 on Trip Advisor.
“I’m so happy Soho Lounge became more of a tourist bar than a local hangout,” Pino was telling me, even getting a little emotional. “Some of these tourists, they stop by so often during their vacation that they become like family. And now I have places all over the world where I am invited to stay.”
At least one local appreciated the significance of a Sicilian returning to Sicily to open a business: The now former Mayor of Castellammare brought his staff to eat lunch at Soho Lounge several times a week during his entire term in office.
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