30 years later, Giovannis still serving Downtown
By Dara Lehon
About thirty years ago, a bank on 100 Washington St. underwent a facelift. Files and lockboxes became wine racks and cash registers. Deposit slips became napkins and menus. Tellers became waiters. And on Feb. 24, 1974, Giovannis Atrium opened to customers, and officially converted from a place for clients to save for the future to a home away from home, where they could live for the present to enjoy good drinks, good friends, and good food.
Located just two blocks south of the World Trade Center site, Giovannis Atrium has traditionally welcomed its assorted cast of business people, law professionals, and bankers, many of whom joined to mark its 30th anniversary on Tuesday, at a celebration in the restaurant. The party hosted over 200 regulars, who enjoyed some live music, and reminisced about old times.
Notably missing was host and owner of Giovannis, Giovanni Natalucci, who was ill. Born in Rome, Giovanni initially considered his restaurant-family business to be a prison of sorts. Years later, Giovanni continued his incarceration by creating a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere for generations young and old.
Giovanni opened his first restaurant in a bustling Rego Park, Queens, in 1963 but soon after decided to seize part of the growing Manhattan business and spend more time with his family by moving into Lower Manhattans Financial District. In 1969, he opened La Borsa de Roma, (the Roman Exchange) with his business partner. While La Borsa still resides on Pearl St., Giovanni went on build the Atrium in 1974, a paradigm of Lower Manhattans resiliency and staying power, which he co-hosts with his wife of 26 years, Susan Natalucci.
Downtown has always been a close-knit group, said Giovanni in a telephone interview. While he had explored spaces in Midtown, where actors, businesspeople, and tourists tended to congregate, Giovanni decided to remain in Lower Manhattan, which he characterizes with a neighborhood, family-feel, where he could exude his, as he put it, typical Italian style of inviting his customers into his restaurant. So apparent is this notion, that despite his absence from the milestone event, a cell phone was passed around so Giovanni could greet his guests.
Giovanni said as the residential buildings of the 30s became businesses and banks, he almost immediately enjoyed the patronage of surrounding businesspeople. When we opened, the World Trade Center was hardly finished, and there was lots of construction, said Giovanni. Soon enough, members of the former Downtown Athletic Club, the Marriot, and Import/Export companies in the World Trade Center itself would join for after work drinks or a light dinner and these became the regulars.
Its no surprise, then, that after 30 years, Giovannis has meant a lot to so many people.
Bobby Gleason, a New York native, has been coming to Giovannis on a regular basis for 30 years, bringing his business, the International Longshoremens Association, for business lunches, dinners, and gatherings.
Camille Troisi has worked Downtown for years and has a special connection to the restaurant and its owner. As part of one of the many groups of young professionals who would fill the front bar throughout the week, Troisi has been a regular at Giovannis since its establishment.
Like many others who have always returned, Troisi used to know everyone at the bar. It was like a Cheers, she said.
Troisi, who sat with long-time friend, and fellow patron, Walter Carney, the restaurants first official customer, reminisced about they times in the restaurant together.
It was a happenstance, he said. Carney recounted his first night in the restaurant, where he wandered into the restaurant and was invited in by Giovanni. Though hes since moved from the city, hes been coming back to visit ever since.
Meanwhile, Troisi felt so close and comfortable in Giovannis, that one night she made the ultimate commitment.
When I get married, I want to have my wedding here, she said one night after work. Years later, her 1985 wedding pictures decorate the walls of the restaurant. Even more, her stepson was married in the restaurant in 1989.
Like any relationship and any business, Giovannis has worked through hard times over the past 30 years, experiencing the ups and downs directly reflected by its surroundings. Weve seen blackouts, markets going down, spent many nights together, and also had many celebrations, he said.
Sure enough, when the events of September 11th occurred, Giovannis suffered. Expense accounts were depleted, holiday parties ceased, and businesses simply went away.
We lost many friends, said Giovanni. To be expected, a high proportion of the restaurants clientele came from the neighboring towers, the World Financial Center, and One Liberty Plaza. He remembers many from Cantor Fitzgerald and other banks.
After September 11th, Giovanni said, people didnt have the heart to look at the hole. Business has yet to come back in full with limited street access south of the W.T.C. site.
Its the closest thing to a miracle, he said, about still managing to stay afloat amidst crisis and the Downtown experience. Giovanni had to let go some loyal staff but has been working with governmental grants and continues to try to generate business. More amazing though, is Giovannis sense of warmth, clearly reflected in the inviting atmosphere and clientele.
Neighboring buildings are bringing hope, once again becoming residential and filling with young men and women who have taken advantage of the rent deals over the past couple of years. Giovanni even remodeled the restaurant again a few years ago to appeal to a younger crowd. Now its only a matter of time before the younger generations see what the older ones know.
Giovannis has been the most stable thing in my life, said Troisi.
After all, in what can be an unstable environment, its nice to know that, like a good friend, theres Giovannis Atrium facelift, or not.