89-year-old Rocco Ristorante at 181 Thompson is about to vanish from Greenwich Village. "Rocco's lease is up at the end of 2011," reported Eater, "and to renew, the landlord is demanding $18,000 in rent, a hefty jump from the $8,000" they currently pay.
Many landlords are doubling and tripling rents these days. If no one takes them up on it, the existing businesses might stay, or else the spaces lie vacant. But someone is saying yes to Rocco's landlord.
Taking over the lease is a duo of young restaurateurs, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, known collectively as "Torrisi." The group (there's a third partner) has a mini-chain of restaurants with two popular spots in Little Italy and a stand at Yankee Stadium. Formerly of high-end Cafe Boulud, they started small and have become quite powerful. Frank Bruni dubbed them "the newest darlings of the New York culinary set." Time Out called them the "savior" of "good old-fashioned Italian-American food."
By taking over Rocco's, are they saving good old-fashioned Italian-American food--or helping to kill it off?
According to Eater, they've made the deal with Rocco's landlord and quietly advertised the takeover on their website with a photo of the antique neon sign as if it were their own, all while Rocco's proprietor Antonio DaSilva was still trying to negotiate his lease. He told Eater, "We're fighting it." But the deal is done. Said one of the Torrisi partners to Grub Street, "We have a signed lease and we're going to be taking over next year."
A new business calling itself "181 Thompson Restaurant LLC" was formed back in June. Assuming that's Torrisi, it looks like the plan to move in to Rocco's has been in the works for some time.
Why, when they can presumably afford any one of the many empty locations in the Village, did Torrisi choose Rocco's spot?
It's been here for almost 90 years, opened in 1922 by Rocco Stanziano. Mr. DaSilva is the great-nephew of Mr. Stanziano, making this a third-generation business. And the place still receives Village crowds.
I can't help but think if Torrisi didn't take the landlord's sky-high offer, maybe Rocco could have made it to 100. As one Eater commenter said, "This is very sad, almost Oedipal."
I wrote to Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi to get their side of it. I asked them the above question and also inquired if they are planning to maintain any of Rocco's history, including the neon sign. They have not responded. If they do, I will post their answers in an update.
Update: I never did hear from these guys, but in 2013, the Torrisi team had this to say to Eater:
How did you end up getting the space? Jeff, you've told me before that it's a misconception that you took this from the Rocco people. Why would you argue that's not what happened?
JZ: Yes, it is a total misconception. Basically, we were brought to this space by a landlord. We never had anything to do with the Rocco people. What happened was that we were in negotiations for the Parm space, and that went on for a really long time. It went on forever, so we had brokers start looking for other places in the neighborhood while that was going on. The landlord for this space was also the landlord for what is now Taim, on Mulberry, and he showed us that space. He mentioned in passing that he also had another space on Thompson Street. He said he had banks and pharmacies and other big tenants interested, but that he wanted to keep it a restaurant.
MC: Jeff told me he was coming to look at a space on Bleecker and Thompson. I opened Lupa when I was 19, so I immediately said, "Oh, shit, is it Rocco?"
JZ: This space stood for everything we wanted to do. We knew it was right. The idea of bringing that space back to life was perfect. The misconception is that we came in and said, "We're going to pay you more money, get out."
MC: And I'm gonna slap my name on the sign!
JZ: What happened was, in all honesty, that unfortunately, this restaurant was closing one way or another. What shocks me is that, given all the other things this could have become, you would think that someone that pays tribute to its history is the best use of it. It's not a Duane Reade. That's something that I think is a big misconception. We didn't kick them out. The landlord and Rocco had their own thing, and we never, never got involved with it. It's those details that some people forget.