By Stephen J. Kotz
When the doors of Conca D’Oro swung open at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Frankie Venesina figured he was in good shape for the large crowds he expected to show up for his last day in business.
But within an hour, Mr. Venesina and his staff were being slammed. A line of customers stretched out the door, and orders were coming in for five to 10 pies at a clip. “I don’t even know if I can stay open much longer,” said Mr. Venesina, who had been flipping dough at a furious rate. “I’m running out of everything.”
By 12:30 p.m., he had already sent Pat Malloy, a long-time waitress, to hunt for more mozzarella. She came back with two cases from Espresso, which on any other day would be competing with Conca D’Oro for the lunch crowd. But this wasn’t just any other day in Sag Harbor.
When Mr. Venesina announced in July that Conca D’Oro, the restaurant his parents, Tony and Lena Venesina, had opened in 1975, would be closing, you could almost hear a collective gasp. People in the village had come to rely on it for everything from a quick bite to eat at lunch time, to a summer job for college students, or a generous donation to a local cause. When the news broke it would be closing two months sooner than expected, the gasp turned to a groan.
“It’s a big loss for the community,” said Marion Cassata, “not just for the food but for the family.” Like many others, she had a story about the Venesinas’ kindness. Her brother, who had suffered a serious stroke that left him debilitated, lived in an apartment down the street. “They gave him food. They invited him in to watch the ballgame with them,” she said. “They didn’t have to do that.”
Thomas Marr, a longtime customer, squeezed up to the counter to present Frankie with a gift. “It’s a pair of slippers,” he announced, spoiling the surprise. “So tomorrow you can put your feet up.”
It being Halloween, the streets of the village were growing crowded with trick-or-treaters when the Venesinas were called outside. Sag Harbor Elementary School students, who were parading in costume down Main Street, were accompanied by a float with a sign made out of pizza boxes that read “Thank You Conca D’Oro.” Tony Venesina wept, as the children serenaded the family, singing, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”
Tony Venesina, who spends half the year in his native Sicily, said when the family opened Conca D’Oro, Sag Harbor was down in the dumps. “We did our best,” he said. “We turned the lights on and brought some life to the village.” His only regret, he said, was that he didn’t buy the building back then, but money was tight. Over the years, as the rent continued to go up, it became harder and harder to get by, he said.
Although many customers lamented that Conca D’Oro would be replaced a fancier, more expensive restaurant, Frankie Venesina said Laurent Tourondel and Michael Cinque, the owners of LT Burger who bought the pizzeria last summer, were helping his family out. “They’re going to do a great job,” he said.
The consensus among the steady stream of well-wishers who continued to show up — even after word spread through the village like wildfire in mid-afternoon that there was no more pizza to be had after an estimated 500 pies had been churned out — was that nobody would do it as well as the Venesinas.
“This is another piece of Sag Harbor that will never be recaptured — food made with love,” said Cathy Santacroce.
“This is the best of what this community is about,” said Peter Solow, the Pierson High School boys soccer coach and art teacher, who brought his team in to present Frankie with a signed soccer ball and practice jersey. The team had planned to enjoy a post-practice pizza but there was none left. To make it up, Mr. Venesina invited the team back on Wednesday afternoon after practice for a post-closing pizza party.
“If this were a big hoax, we’d forgive you,” said Catherine Bromberg of the decision to close. Later, she added, “I have a 5-year-old who doesn’t realize pizza is part of God’s plan and now he’s going to have to grow up without Conca D’Oro.”
Employees also sang the Venesinas’ praises. “They are the most wonderful people,” said Ms. Malloy. “I’ve loved working here.”
“Best job I’ve ever had,” said Joe Sasala, a counterman, who drove in daily from Center Moriches.
With Frankie Venesina needing a break, Nick Wolny, a former employee, stepped behind the counter. Apparently, you don’t forget how to toss the pizza dough. “It’s like riding a bicycle,” he said. Mr. Wolny, who now works for Sag Harbor Village, said he had to be there to see the family off. “They’ve given so much,” he said.
Dave Locascio, another former employee who now works at Vetro, an Italian restaurant in Howard Beach, also returned for the day to lend a hand, offering a steady stream of banter behind the counter. “I wasn’t going to miss this,” he said. His older brother, Brian Locascio, also showed up with his wife, Deanna. The couple met when they worked at Conca D’Oro 16 years ago, have been married for four years and now have two sons.
“I grew up here,” said Susan Thompson Peterson, another teary-eyed former employee. “The most amazing thing about Frankie and his parents is they would take anyone in and lend them a hand. Often it was the kids who didn’t fit in. They’d give them a job or a place to hang out.”
“What an amazing day. It was unbelievable,” Mr. Venesina said after the last pie had been boxed and picked up. His mother, who has kept a watchful eye over the dining room for all these years, said she had really not thought about what she would do next. “Maybe relax a bit?” she said. Tony Venesina kept to himself in the kitchen that had been stripped bare of most of its equipment. “I’m ready to stop working,” he said. “I’m 75.”
But about 15 to 20 people who hung out were not ready to call it a day. They shared stories about the good old days. It was strange that the television above the door, where the guys working the counter and the occasional customer would watch a baseball game, was not on with game six of the World Series on tap.
There might have been one person who was happy to see Conca D’Oro close its doors. Chris Burris, who owns a pizzeria by the same name in Lenoka Harbor, New Jersey, said over the years he has prepared plenty of pizzas that are never picked up. Turns out summer visitors to Sag Harbor sometimes Google the number and call his place by mistake. When told that story, Frankie Venesina just laughed. “We got his calls too,” he said.