Volume 16 • Issue 46 | April 9 - 15, 2004



100 years in Little Italy

By JERRY TALLMER

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Vincent Generosa, outside Vincent’s Restaurant (named for his cousin 100 years ago), near the spot on Hester St. where the original owners had a seafood pushcart.

And tell me what street
compares with Mott Street
in July?
Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by . . .
— Lorenz Hart

But Giuseppe and Carmela Siano decided to stay with their pushcart right there, at the corner of Mott and Hester, where Little Italy melts into Chinatown, and set up shop selling clams, mussels, scungilli in the shell, out of that pushcart. The year was 1894.

A block away is Elizabeth St. “All the Sicilians lived on Elizabeth St.,” says Vincent Generoso, whose grandfather, Jimmy Generoso, was a cousin of the Sianos. “They all came to this country together, as stowaways on ships. Then some moved to Brooklyn, to Westchester, some moved all over.”

Vincent Generoso — born 64 years ago in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — is co-owner with his brother Michael of Vincent’s Restaurant, which establishment is 100 years old this year at that very same corner of Mott and Hester.

“Come look out the window,” says Vincent Generoso — a window of the little room three steps up at one end of the restaurant. “That was where the pushcart was, right there. In 1904, Joseph [i.e., Giuseppi] and Carmela decided to move indoors. This room was where they moved. It was the whole restaurant. All the rest of this place was then the store next door.”

Next to the window is a faded oil painting of Giuseppi and Carmela Siano. “It was made from a photograph,” says Generoso. “When they moved indoors in 1904, they had a son. His name was Vincent, and they named the restaurant after him.” What is today The Original Vincent’s Restaurant was then Vincent’s Clam Bar.

It was also in 1904 that Carmela Siano brought forth her “Secret Old World” red sauce from a formula of her mother’s, back in Sicily — a tomato-based sauce “that comes sweet, medium, or hot, and,” says this latter-day Vincent, “goes on everything, chicken, veal, Parmesan dishes,” and, of course, on pasta of all sorts. The restaurant also sells it and ships it by the pint, quart, or gallon.

“Joseph died when son Vincent was somewhere between 14 and 16 years old. So the son and his mother and his sister, another Carmela who for some reason was nicknamed Jay, continued the business. Jay died in the late 1960s. I took over the building in 1976,” says Vincent Generoso, “but I didn’t then operate the restaurant.”

That happened in 1982, and two years later, in 1984, Vincent Generoso and his Uncle Frank (then 76) and others expanded and remodeled the entire premises, laying down black-and-white tile floor where there had been only sawdust, putting in beams, raising ceilings, painting, the works. “With these hands,” says Generoso.

“A next-door neighbor had a cousin, a Chinese man, fresh from China. He landed on a Monday and on Tuesday he came here to work with a hammer and saw. His name was Alan. He’s still around.”

As Vincent Generoso is telling this, the phone rings.

“Hello. Yes,” he says after listening a quarter minute to the caller. “Party of eight? Okay? What time? . . . The entrees go $6.95 to $25.95. Highest thing on the menu us $25.95 . . . “

There must be several hundred photographs all over the place. Mr. Generoso indicates one over his shoulder. “That’s Michael Raguso,” he says. “Firefighter. Killed 9/11.”

On another wall: “That’s Sinatra, making his own pasta in our kitchen.”

On another: “That’s the [Siano] sister, Jay, and a fellow everyone just called Red. Started at Vincent’s when he was 10 years old. Ducked out of school and slept in the basement here. Worked here 50 years. And for 50 years made the sauce for the restaurant.”

Nods toward an employee wielding a broom.

“That’s Santo. Been with us 35 years. Helps all around, has done everything in the restaurant, even made the sauce. Hey, Santo, how long you been here?”

“Thirty-six years.”

Nearby is a waiter straightening his bow tie — a good-looking young man named Navin. He’s from Trinidad, and he started at Vincent’s at age 16. “In my last life I was Sicilian,” he announces.

The restaurant is run by Vincent Generoso, Michael Generoso, and Michael Jr., age 30.

“One of us is always in the establishment,” says Vincent Generoso. “During the San Gennaro Festival and the smaller St. Anthony’s Festival on Mott St., we sleep here every night, my God. We close four days in the year: Christmas Eve, Christmas day, New Year’s Eve, and Thanksgiving.”

Vincent’s is open every day in the year with those four exceptions: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays to 3:30 a.m., the bar to 4 a.m.

The phone rings and Vincent answers. “No cannelloni kits!” he exclaims into it. “He didn’t give me the pasta or the cannelloni kits! Hey, Santo!” he yells to Santo. “Did you get the cannelloni kits?”

“Summertime the trade is maybe 60 percent tourists, 40 percent customers. Holidays it’s 60 percent customers, 40 percent tourists,” Generosa adds. “A lot of Jersey people, a lot of Westchester people.”

And actors, of course. Not just Sinatra. A jovial hundredth-anniversary party last month was attended by Tony Lo Bianco and Sonny Grosso, alumni of “The French Connection.”

“A lot of stars walk through those doors. You never know. Glenn Close, Tony Bennett. Dino [Martin] used to come here. Paul Sorvino. Renee Tayor and Joe Bologna. De Niro. And the greatest guy of all, WNEW’s William B. Williams.”

The restaurant has its own calamari boat out on Long Island. “We’re famous for our calamari and our shrimp and for the best meatballs in New York.”

Vincent Generoso is second vice-president of the Little Italy Chamber of Commerce. He and his wife Margaret have three daughters, two of whom are teachers.

It’s very fancy
on old Delancey
Street you know.
The subway charms us so . . .

I myself prefer the bus. Lexington/Third Avenue/Bowery southbound No. 103 to Hester Street, one block north of Canal. Get off at Hester, walk two short blocks west to Mott Street, and look for the pushcart which won’t be there. Nor will Lorenz Hart. But the big red sign VINCENT’S will be, at 119 Mott Street, and so will the heritage of Giuseppi and Carmela Siano and their clam bar on wheels. Happy hundredth birthday, you two.


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