Person of the Year: Venesinas Put Community First at Conca D’Oro
By Stephen J. Kotz
Sag Harbor residents have seen their community transformed over the past four decades from a struggling factory town into a world-class resort. But one constant remained over that time: Conca D’Oro, the Italian restaurant and pizzeria on Main Street, where you could get anything from a slice of piping hot cheese pizza straight out of the oven to an affordable full sit-down dinner with the family in the dining room out back.
In July, when word spread that Tony and Lena Venesina, who opened Conca D’Oro in 1975 shortly after arriving from Sicily and continued to run the business with their son, Frankie, had sold the restaurant, it hurt.
That’s because in a small town like Sag Harbor, family means everything. And the Venesinas were family.
Their former employees say the Venesinas were great to work for and were always there to quietly lend a hand to anyone in need. Community members said the family was warm and welcoming and always generous whenever asked to contribute to a local cause.
“It wasn’t going out to a restaurant, it was going home to get pizza,” is how Rebecca Burnside, the president of the Pierson High School PTA, described a visit to Conca D’Oro.
Ms. Burnside moved to Sag Harbor in 2001 and worked for a time as manager of Phao, a short-lived Thai restaurant in the space now occupied by LT Burger — whose owners coincidentally have purchased Conca D’Oro. She first met Frankie, she said, when he would bring complimentary pizzas over for her staff at lunchtime.
Rachel Cardone, who now lives in Washington State, went to St. Andrew’s School with Frankie and his older brother, John, who runs the Edgewater restaurant in Hampton Bays. The Venesina family “provided this warm nest in the heart of the village,” she recalled. “It was a safe place you were allowed to go as a kid when you were maybe as young as fourth or fifth grade. Your parents could drop you off and you could have a slice of pizza and a root beer or coke and feel as though you were a grownup.”
Terri Federico, who is now a reading teacher at Pierson Middle-High School, grew up in Sag Harbor and remembers when kids could leave the school grounds as early as fourth grade for lunch. The destination, she said, was always Conca D’Oro.
Like many other Sag Harbor locals, Ms. Federico was soon working there, busing dishes, waiting tables, and stayed on right through graduate school. “Conca D’Oro paid for my master’s degree,” she said. In the early days, Ms. Federico said on weeknights, Lena Venesina cooked and she waited tables by herself. “She treated us all as though we were family,” she said. “It was just a great environment to work in.”
“Obviously everyone knows how wonderful that family was to the entire community,” said Rebecca Guyer, yet another former employee. “It was just a good family restaurant,” she added. “People would go on and on about the food.” When Sag Harbor started to become a destination, with celebrities beginning to show up on Fridays and Saturday nights, the family stayed the same, she said.
“It was a piece of the local community,” added Ms. Cardone, who joined her four siblings and her mother, Jeanne, in working at the restaurant. “That kind of warmth doesn’t drive revenues or fit on a spread sheet, but it is part of the local fabric.”
Susan Thompson Peterson is yet another local, who attended St. Andrew’s School and Mercy High School with Frankie Venesina and who worked at Conca D’Oro on and off over the years. Ms. Thompson Peterson, who went on to obtain her master’s degree in social work, said under Frankie’s direction, the restaurant remained a comfortable place for kids of all ages.
“I worked at Pierson for a year counseling kids who were really struggling,” she said. “Without fail, I’d find out one of their safe places was Conca D’Oro — and Frankie. He just had that ability to relate to kids.”
Ms. Thompson Peterson said she remembered kids’ favorite sports teams and would hand out packs of baseball cards that he kept behind the counter. If a kid liked to dance, he might ask him to show off a few moves in exchange for a slice. “He knew how to make it a really warm and welcoming environment, and everyone felt accepted and at home,” she said.
When the restaurant closed on Halloween, hundreds of customers poured in to thank the family and order one last pizza — or, in many cases, five or 10 pies. Pat Malloy, who served as hostess and waitress and said she “did a little of everything” over the past 27 years, was the longest serving employee.
While the Venesinas were warm and friendly to their customers and treated their staff like family, Ms. Malloy said not everyone in town knew just how good they were to people who were down on their luck or sick.
“There was a lady Lena met when her kids were at St. Andrew’s School,” said Ms. Malloy, referring to Rosemarie Komyathy, who taught Lena’s sons and tutored her in English. Ms. Komyathy suffered from cancer for many years and had to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for chemotherapy. “She’d come back on that bus and be so sick, but Lena was always there to meet her and make sure she had food and ginger ale,” Ms. Malloy said.
Lena also made sure that Dot Wiley, another Sag Harbor local, who was growing old and lived alone, had regular meals. “When she died, there were maybe six people at her funeral and Lena was one of them,” Ms. Malloy said.
The family also helped out a number of homeless men, including Pedro Moreno, who said he sometimes slept in the restaurant or stayed in a small wooden hut the Venesinas built for him in the parking lot out back. If it was really cold, he said, Frankie would let him stay at his house. In exchange for food, he would sweep floors or wash dishes.
Paul Federico, yet another Sag Harbor local and former employee, said Tony Venesina also had a soft heart.
“When he found out someone in the community wasn’t feeling well, he made it a point to help out,” he said. “I remember when Paul Sidney of WLNG got sick. Tony made it his personal mission to keep an eye on Paul. He was always bringing him soup, bringing him food.”
Michael Dee, the head of the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Little League, also has nothing but good things to say about Conca D’Oro.
Last year, the league was short on money, and Frankie offered to host a fundraiser, in which he agreed to donate $4 for each pie sold on a Friday night. “We brought in about $500 and Frankie added another $250,” Mr. Dee said. “He donated to Little League because, well, just because. He knew it was important to Sag Harbor.”
And Conca D’Oro was important to Little League. “I remember walking in there on a Friday night and the restaurant, front and back, was filled with parents and their kids in their uniforms,” he said. “As each kid was walking up to get their pizza or slice, Frankie or John [counterman John D’Amato] would ask them how the game was. There was a sense that the fun of Little League extended into Conca D’Oro.”
Ms. Burnside, who first met Frankie when she worked at a competing restaurant, said her more recent experience with Conca D’Oro has revolved around the PTA-sponsored Pizza Days at the Sag Harbor Elementary School. She said Frankie made it a point to personally deliver the pizzas, which he provided at or near cost. “He knew if a staff member was a vegetarian, so he’d bring them a special lunch,” she said. “He’d bring pizza for the janitors. Every week he would surprise us with something special,” she said.
“What I loved about Conca D’Oro and Frankie was if our teachers were doing math lessons with certain kids, and were looking for a real-world experience, Frankie would team up with them. Say they were learning fractions, he’d teach them by dividing up a pizza or measuring the ingredients,” said Matt Malone, the principal of Sag Harbor Elementary School.
Mr. Federico, who worked at the restaurant in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, said the work was hard. “The nights would go by in a flash. It was so busy we couldn’t make the pizzas fast enough,” he said. “At the end of the night, we’d just all look at each other.”
But the hard work helped forge strong bonds, he said. “One of the things I’ve always remembered about Conca D’Oro is when you worked there, you really were family,” he said. “They fed you, they took care of you like you were one of their own.”
Tim Gilmartin of Southampton, another former employee, agreed. Mr. Gilmartin met John Venesina on the first day of school at Mercy High School and they became good friends. He worked at the restaurant through college and even when he went to Hofstra Law School. “Lena would always make sure I went back to my apartment in Massapequa on Sunday nights with a full tray of food,” he said. “I was definitely a beneficiary of that.”