New York Institution Café Reggio Clings To Life
On my first trip back to Manhattan in two months, my favorite place in New York City was waiting for me.
I believe I first set foot in Caffe Reggio in the early fall of 1993. As an NYU freshman with a love of theater, books, and art it simultaneously felt exotic and just like home. I’d never been anywhere that made me feel so much like the bohemians I idolized; a world that only existed in my imagination was made real. Jackamino was the regular waiter and we became friends, for hours I’d nibble prosciutto sandwiches, sip espresso, and marvel the large “School of Caravaggio” canvas on the back wall.
So today when I ventured back to Manhattan for the first time in over 2 months I found myself, without a plan really, drawn to my favorite place in New York. I took a circuitous route, first an N train out of Brooklyn. The cars were empty save a few masked souls and also almost disturbingly clean. And ad for a Broadway show now dark for months mocked me, every set of sights now reveals something forbidden.
Union Square was dead beat. No chess hustlers, no Hare Krishnas. It was very strange. In the decades that I have lived in Gotham I had never seen it so empty. Typically the overwhelming sensation of Manhattan is the crush of humanity, without that it felt like a simulation, maybe a video game version that wasn’t quite real.
One thing I found surprising was just how little pedestrian traffic there was. Honestly my little residential neighborhood of Bay Ridge is far more bustling along its commercial thoroughfares. I knew Manhattan would be empty but I wasn’t quite prepared for it to be that empty. I crossed Washington Square Park from the North East to South West corner, a handful peopled it.
Pushing down MacDougal Street, the familiar green awning of Reggio came in sight. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but a sandwich board told of the lunch specials just outside the open the door and I made my way in. I ordered a Doppio Romano and saw just one person sitting in the café. I recognized him as the owner, I didn’t really know him but had met him, and frankly, he couldn’t look more like the owner of Caffe Reggio, perfect tan suit, slicked back hair and handsome, sturdy Italian features. I told him who I was and asked if I could interview him.
Fabrizio Cavallacci has owned Caffe Reggio for 50 years. He told me that Jackamino now lives in Australia and has two kids, which was nice to hear. I asked him how the café was doing. “I plan on staying open” he told me, “even though I’m losing money.” In a story common across the country, he said he was mostly open for his employees, “There’s no work to do, but I give them $100 a day, they can work a couple days a week.” “It’s something,” I offered with less enthusiasm than I was attempting.
On a table just inside the door the alcoholic offerings stood in lieu of a menu, another held pastries. Chairs were piled on tables. I asked how long he thought this would go on. “You can’t snap your fingers,” he quipped, “You have to wear it out. Hey, I’m fortunate, I’m my own landlord.”
As I interviewed him from several feet away and both of us masked, a young woman poked her head in the door, could she use the bathroom? Fabrizio almost seemed insulted, of course this lovely lady, also masked, was welcome. We talked about the block, it is storied, Mahmoun’s, the Comedy Cellar, Monte’s, Minetta Tavern. “A lot of stuff is gonna close for good, but not the institutions,” he told me. His plan is to wait it out until the tourists and students return.
I gotta be honest, the 20 minutes or so I spent there, felt like a new lease on life. After 60 days mostly in my apartment, never out of my neighborhood, just being surrounded by the confines of Caffe Reggio felt like an exhalation. I was back in the world.
I made my way to Broadway and then south, so empty again. Not just the streets but also the subway station, usually it’s not just packed, but being in Chinatown it tends to involve a bunch of elbows and shoving, not today.
Entering the empty car I sat and looked up. The same Broadway show poster, the same ads lining the edge of the ceiling, I’m pretty sure I went home in the exact same subway seat I arrived in.
Back home again I’m not quite sure what to make of journey, but I am glad that something told me to go to Caffe Reggio. What could have been a depressing wander through a wasteland of the place I love most on Earth instead held a grain of hope, or maybe a coffee bean of hope. My most special place in the city survives, and all of a sudden I felt that everything might turn out all right.
David Marcus is the Federalist’s New York Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter, @BlueBoxDave.