Firenze Ristorante, a rustic Italian bistro and longtime presence along Second Avenue, has survived thirty years in business and now, a four-alarm fire. Luckily, patrons only need to walk south two blocks to see the newly refurbished restaurant.
A neighborhood favorite since 1981, Firenze exudes a blend of old and new Italian on the East side, an intimate space with mahogany accents and small tables adorned with silver candelabras. Restaurateur Manolo Caisaguano, Firenze’s owner, built a loyal following despite the hardships of doing business on Second Avenue.
According to a recent survey by one of Mayor DeBlasio’s mayoral challengers, Sal Albanese, there are nearly 150 empty storefronts on the Upper East Side from First to Third Avenues. And until a few months ago, the street was shuttered by construction fencing that obscured restaurants like Firenze. Caisaguano’s response? Decorating the chain-link fence by his outdoor seating with flower pots and string-lights.
Manolo is the champion of the Upper East Side for how he dealt with the subway construction,”
says Pete Vasconcellos, bar manager at the Penrose on 82nd, and Caisaguano’s longtime neighbor. “There was blasting from construction every day,” Caisaguano says, “but if you can survive the Second Avenue subway, you will survive anywhere in Manhattan.”
On an early February morning, Caisaguano was at the grocery store with an armful of vegetables when his phone rang. “Do you have a glass of water?” his employee asked. “It’s not good news.” Caisaguano dropped everything and ran to his car. A fire had sparked in the basement, and by the time he arrived Firenze was destroyed.
The fire department had to break into the restaurant. “Tables were overturned, the wine was shattered, and the storefront was ruined,” he said. For four nights after, Caisaguano couldn’t sleep.
A Good Neighbor
He actually considered moving on from the restaurant business to pursue his passion for wine. Firenze’s hours were demanding, the cost of reopening was huge, and the lure of time and family was there. But his customers wouldn’t have it. In a way, Caisaguano didn’t realize just how much of an impact he’s had over the years.
One patron encouraged him to pick up the phone and ask for help, and within days donations were pouring in from the neighborhood — even all the way from Chicago and Boston. A few weeks after the fire, the Penrose hosted its third semi-annual bartending competition, the Yorkville Cup, to raise money for Caisaguano.
I needed a new location yesterday,”
he says, and he got one. Four weeks after the fire, he’d signed the lease for the new Firenze and will stay in the neighborhood for another fifteen years. With the old location boarded up and the new one yet to open, Caisaguano was taking down reservations from his cell phone.
After so many years on the East Side, Caisaguano is grateful for finding a new home for his restaurant. His patrons love the new place, but that was never the only draw. “One woman came in she and hugged me for five minutes,” he says. “”I thought I was never going to see you again,” she said.”
The restaurant is a fresh reminder of why he’s loved the business since the days when he was washing dishes and taking notes.
“I miss the old Firenze,” he says. “But my customers said, “We love you and we’re here to keep you open.”
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