In the last year and a half, the pandemic dealt a severe blow to restaurants in New York City, many of them closing, possibly never opening again. For Regina Migliucci-Delfino, Covid-19 not only forced the closure of her restaurant, Mario’s, on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, but claimed the life of her father, Joseph, who died on April 6 at age 81, after spending six days in the hospital. “He was my rock,” Regina said during a phone interview. “It was not easy going back to the restaurant.”
Mario’s Restaurant opened in 1919, and for five generations has been family owned and operated. Often touted as the best place in New York City to find traditional Neapolitan fare, Mario’s attracts locals as well as tourists from all over the world. Regina grew up watching her grandfather and her father run the restaurant, first just spending time there, but soon doing anything she could to help out – answering the phone, taking reservations, seating customers, even washing glasses and setting tables. In 1989, Regina left an outside job to work full-time alongside her father, and for the last five years was essentially running the restaurant.
When her father fell ill, Regina realized that she would soon be on her own. “I already knew that he had left me the restaurant,” Regina said, but told him, “I can’t go back without you.” He reminded her that she had been managing the restaurant all along. “He told me,`Regina, everybody listens to you,’” she said, with a laugh. “I said `you’re the big boss, I’m the little boss.’ And he said, `well now, you’ll be the big boss.’”
At Mario’s, as it was with so many other restaurants, the seriousness of Covid-19 took time to sink in. On March 16, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered restaurants to cease indoor dining, although they could continue to fill take-out orders. A month before that happened, Regina saw the first warning signs. Customers, including many regulars, were cancelling their reservations, saying they were fearful of the virus. “Isn’t it just like the flu? That’s what we thought,” she said. After listening to news reports, they began wiping down menus and sanitizing the seats, although no one was wearing masks or gloves. “We didn’t think [the virus] was a big deal,” she said. “But it was a big deal, obviously.”
After Mario’s was forced to close, Regina was still coming in, but didn’t feel well. Someone suggested she might have the virus. She called about being tested, but because she didn’t have a fever and was not having trouble breathing, she was told she didn’t qualify for testing. “Then I lost my taste and smell, and my dad said, `you’ve got covid,’” she said. “We shut everything down and I stayed home.”
Two weeks went by and Mario’s remained closed, not even doing take-out. “I started donating everything I could, all the vegetables, the milk, and the cream,” she said. “We would pack things before they went bad and we would donate them. I think every friend in the neighborhood ate mushrooms and lettuce until it came out of their ears!”
In the Hospital
While Regina was feeling better, her father got sick, a lung condition increasing the severity of his illness. When he was having trouble breathing and his oxygen level fell, Regina took him to the hospital. She was unprepared for what she would encounter when she pulled up in her car. “I was crying like crazy and I felt like I was living in one of those horror movies where the virus comes and they come at you with hazmat suits and they take the people away,” she said. “That’s kind of what they did.” While a doctor and nurse spoke to Regina on her side of the car, someone in a hazmat suit took her father inside. “That was the last time I saw him’” she said. “I wasn’t able to touch him and he was gone.”
Although Regina and other relatives weren’t allowed to visit Joseph in the hospital, they were able to speak with him by phone, but could barely hear him because he was receiving oxygen. Regina’s niece, Lauren, who is studying to be a nurse, was working in the hospital and managed to be let into her grandfather’s room. Lauren would arrange FaceTime calls so that Regina and her sister, Michelle, Lauren’s mother, could speak with him. Regina, like so many others managing a loved one’s health care from a distance during Covid, soon encountered a dilemma – whether her father should be placed on a ventilator. A doctor at the hospital bluntly told Regina that doing so might not help, something she was not prepared to hear. “How could you say that to me? I was so angry,” she said.
Joseph was transferred to another department where the doctors were more encouraging. “They said we’ll do what you want to do. There’s always a chance,” Regina said. “But the prognosis was not good. His lungs were not functioning properly to begin with. The stuff from Covid took over his lungs. It’s like a sponge, you can’t get rid of it.” Joseph consented to the ventilator until he realized that he would need to be anesthetized. “I wanted to see his face,” Regina said. “I wanted to make sure he was the one telling me he didn’t want this and not the doctors that were there.” So the hospital arranged for Regina to speak with her father using an iPad and he repeated his decision.
On April 5, Lauren used the iPad to set up a call so members of the family could speak with Joseph. “We were all on FaceTime,” Regina said. “As many as we could add. We haven’t all been in one place, in one house for a long time.” Joseph made a few jokes, but soon was having trouble breathing and said he was tired. He died the next day.
Regina was able to arrange a two-hour viewing for her father at a funeral home in Westchester County. Sitting was not allowed and everyone had to wear masks. Later at the cemetery where he was buried, people stood outside by their cars and listened to a priest who said a few prayers. “If it hadn’t been for Covid, we wouldn’t have had a big enough place to have his funeral,” Regina said, noting that services for her grandparents had to be held on Arthur Avenue because of the crowds who wanted to come. Eventually, when the pandemic is under control, Regina will arrange a memorial mass. In the days following the funeral, not being able to sleep, she spent countless hours writing to people who had sent condolences, either notes or posts on Facebook. “He touched so many people’s lives,” she said. “I hope I can carry on that same legacy. That’s what’s so hard.”
Her first week back, the restaurant still closed, she focused on cleaning and making repairs, looking forward to when an opening would happen. “My father loved to save things,” she said. In the basement she found old typewriters, calculators, as well as pictures and articles from the 50s and 60s. “We went though all of the pictures, put them in separate frames and put them all up,” she said. “It’s a little like memorabilia. People come in and look at them.” A print showing a scene on Ellis Island, passed through by so many Italian immigrants, was a gift and now hangs in the dining room.
What makes Mario’s special, according to Regina, is the way her grandparents and then her father ran the restaurant. “It was not just going out to eat – hello, goodbye, we give you a check,” she explained. “My grandparents and my father always walked around the dining room, and they tried to speak with as many people as possible. It’s the feeling of family, you’re not just a customer. I’m treating you just like I would treat a family member who would come into my home for dinner. That’s the kind of tradition. And I do the same thing. My father used to laugh at me. `You’re doing what I used to do. ‘“
Mario’s location, on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx also helps. “We still have so many of the same shops and so many of the same restaurants, where Little Italy in Manhattan has gotten smaller and smaller,” said Regina. In the Bronx, the restaurants buy their supplies from local vendors, and those suppliers, in turn, support the restaurants by dining there. “That’s what makes the food chain.”
People come from all over New York City, as well as from Westchester, Connecticut, and Long Island, to shop on Arthur Avenue, where products like sausage, pasta, bread, and mozzarella are still made in-house. “You’re not going to find that anywhere or you’re going to pay an exorbitant amount, because they are getting it from us to get it to you,” explained Regina.
Arthur Avenue’s fame has spread far beyond New York to other countries. “When people come from abroad – tourists which we don’t have right now – they would show us these books from Europe, wherever they came from, and we’re listed in the book as a place to visit,” Regina said. “After you go to Broadway, you have to go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.” Italians, as well as those from other Mediterranean countries, thrill seeing some of their culture reflected in the products sold and the food served on Arthur Avenue.
Red Sauce Joint?
Restaurant reviewers often refer to Mario’s as “a top red sauce joint.” (An article on eater.com listed Mario’s first among 12 such Italian restaurants in New York.) “Yes, we’re traditional Italian,” said Regina. “I would say we have great tomato sauce. It’s the same recipe that was with my great grandmother so I think it’s delicious. Do I think it’s a red sauce joint and that’s all your’e going to get? No. We have so many other items on the menu. We make a delicious marsala sauce, we make a delicious Francese sauce. My chef makes an amazing pesto sauce. Our white clam sauce is impeccable. Red sauce? If that’s what you’re looking for, if you want to feel like you went to grandma’s house and had breaded veal with a meat ball and tomato sauce, this is where you’re going to get that. Red sauce joint! I hate when they say that. But I don’t think they mean it in a bad way.”
What’s the most popular item on the menu? While Regina finds it difficult to choose, she does say that Mario’s lasagna is “amazing,” and ordered so frequently, they often run out. Rather than bake a large pan of lasagna, Regina said that each piece is individually baked when ordered. “It’s not a reheated lasagna and it takes a little bit of time,” she said, although because Mario’s ovens are hotter than normal ovens, no one has to wait too long to be served. Another favorite dish is beef braciole, thin sliced steak that is stuffed, rolled and cooked in tomato sauce. “That’s a dish you don’t get everywhere and people come in for it.” There are many fish dishes on the menu and Regina said some diners will order a hearty appetizer and then a light fish dish or, a light appetizer, then lasagna or a pasta dish. “It depends on what you’re in the mood for,” she said.
In addition to Mario’s regular menu, each week Regina adds specials, one during the week and one on the weekend. Mario’s longtime chef, Massimo Celso, went back to Italy for seven years and returned, bringing with him many new dishes that found their way onto the menu, usually as specials. “He makes fried meatballs with cherry peppers and red onion, burrata with arugula and prosciutto, and vongole (small clams) with cherry tomatoes over linguine,” she said. A big hit is branzino al cartoccio, the white fish wrapped in foil and baked with fennel, cherry tomatoes, spices, and olive oil.
Regina said that she did reduce the number of menu items when the restaurant reopened for outdoor dining in June. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “When we came back it was very slow, then we were very busy during the summer. Very busy.”
Dining in Coats and Hats
Regina meticulously prepared Mario’s for outdoor dining. An initial step was sending the restaurant’s plans into the city, including how much footage outdoor dining would take up. There was also an application for a liquor license. There was no fee. “If they charged for it, it wouldn’t be worth it,” she said. The plan was to set up 12 tables, some on the sidewalk and some in the street. Mario’s was the only establishment on Arthur Avenue to set up barriers. “I had people say, `oh, they’re so ugly – how could you do it?’ But my insurance company told me if I didn’t put those barriers up, they weren’t going to cover me.” Regina placed flowerpots on the barriers to make them more attractive, but she soon began to hear from diners that they appreciated her focus on safety. And there have been instances where people dining outdoors have been seriously injured. On July 5, a man drove his car into a restaurant’s outdoor dining area in Jackson Heights, injuring five people.
Regina’s planning paid off. “One Saturday night I did more than 300 people out there,” she said. “We were so tired, but we were laughing. Do you believe we’re doing this outside? The amount of people we’re doing this for?” The weather, however, soon began to create problems. “The rain! And the wind! We had pop up tents and we had umbrellas. I went through I think five or six pop up tents,” she said. Needing structures that were sturdier, Regina bought car ports. “I actually had one in my backyard,” she said. “They’re not as nice as the pop up things that look cute, but they work and they don’t get blown away. And you can take the tops off.” Mario’s now has two car ports in the street along with the barriers. She also purchased some heaters.
Right before Valentine’s Day, Governor Cuomo announced that indoor dining in New York City restaurants could reopen at 25 percent capacity. Regina discovered that, for whatever reason, people still preferred to dine outside, perhaps feeling safer. “Mario’s is so big and so airy,” she said. “There are high ceilings and plenty of ventilation. But there are people who are still afraid.”
More than safety, Regina feels people have become accustomed to dining outside. “They bring blankets, wear hats and gloves, and they’re happy,” she said. “They do it in Europe all the time.”
What would her father think about people eating outside in the cold? “He would be saying these people are crazy!” she said, laughing. More seriously, she feels her father would have been very critical about how Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have treated the restaurants in New York City. “The restaurants and the bars have taken the worst beating of all. I understand about the pandemic, but you’re the governor of the whole state,” she said, zeroing in on Cuomo. “You’re allowing indoor dining in Westchester and it’s literally a five minute ride up the Bronx River Parkway, two exits. I can go up and dine at 50 percent and we had zero percent. And it’s freezing cold in the month of December. And you told us we couldn’t have indoor dining anymore. So it had to be fair across the board because the businesses in New York City and the Bronx and the other boroughs are starving because people can’t come to eat here.”
Even when indoor dining resumes at full capacity, Regina believes that outdoor dining will remain popular. “We’re preparing for more outdoor dining,” she said. The restaurant’s awnings, which were last replaced in 1991, will be made larger to provide more cover to tables on the sidewalk. “I thank God every day because of all the supporters who came to eat at Mario’s out in the cold,” she said. “That’s why I was out there with my winter coat on freezing because I wanted them to know how appreciative I am that they actually came out. And they’re there! They’re wearing long johns!”
Continuing the Legacy
Regina keeps the photo of her dad on her desk and talks to him every day. “On some days when it’s really bad and we have like no business, I say, what are they doing, Dad?’” she said. “In the picture he has a smile. I don’t know if he would have survived this. I think that’s why he’s not here now. The stress level – forget it.”
What has kept her going? “Confidence,” she said. “When I came back, I was very doubtful. Who is going to come eat outside? How are we going to do this?” Not having yet received any PPE funds from the federal government, she was forced to take money out of her personal account to stay open. There were fits and starts – opening, then closing. She heard rumors about what was being said on the block. “`Oh, she’s not going to do it without her father.’ I guess they didn’t know that I was doing it all along,” she said. “That made me angry. Now I was inspired even more. He said I could do it and he was right.”
What is the most important thing she learned from her father? She doesn’t pause: “Never give up. Continuously do what he was doing. Treat the customers in the manner that he treated them and the way my grandparents treated them. Make them want to come and see me as much as they wanted to come and see him.”
2342 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, NY 10458