Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Manganaro Foods & Restaurant

I rounded the corner onto Ninth Avenue, and there it was - that familiar stack of red neon letters blinking the name MANGANARO out into the early evening light. It was summer, so to photograph the sign under the darkest possible sky, I came ten minutes before the Hell's Kitchen grosseria's 7pm closing time.  Down the sidewalk I marched, readying my camera as I went.  But when I looked up again, the sign had gone dark!  Was this perhaps just a longer than normal pause between blinks?  I waited, hoping against hope, but alas, the letters did not come on again.

The view down Ninth Ave. in January 2010.  (T. Rinaldi)

The owners were locking up as I approached.  I enquired about their normal closing time - not 7 o'clock sharp, but 7 o'clock more or less, it turned out.  The woman with the jingle-jangle key chain seemed especially chatty, and our brief conversation soon digressed to our mutual Italian heritage.  I asked what part of Italy the Manganaros had come from.  "Amalfi coast," she told me.  "We went back to visit a few years ago.  It's fuckin' beautiful."

The Amalfi Coast. (T. Rinaldi)

This, I learned later, was Seline Dell'Orto.  The legendary Seline Dell'Orto, whose family has run this business since the 1920s.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Manganaro's has been the subject of much intrigue, partly because its owners have been embroiled in a decades-long feud with their cousins who run a sandwich shop next door, and partly just because the business has been around long enough to become a curiosity in its own right.  A bit of a pistol, Seline doesn't suffer fools gladly, and she doesn't like questions.  The Internet is littered with woeful accounts from inquisitive visitors who got on her bad side.

A sampling of unsympathetic reviews from Yelp. (Yelp)

Innocent of all this, I managed to mind my Ps and Qs - I kept my questions to a minimum and got on Seline's good side.  "Come on back sometime and have dinner here.  If it gets late we won't kick you out.  Come back and have dinner next time before you go to a show."  I resolved to take her up on this.  And so, some months later, having picked up tickets for "In The Heights," I returned to Manganaro's with a friend in tow.

Some more upbeat reviews from Yelp. (Yelp)

We sat down to two styrofoam plates of spaghetti and meatballs.  Seline stood authoritatively behind the tall deli case, which seemed to come almost to her shoulders, and shared observations at length on subjects ranging from the day Lauren Bacall came into the shop to her thoughts on the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore".

Every so often, as she spoke, a little grey mouse darted back and forth across the tile floor, its movements visible to us but not to Seline because the high deli case partially obstructed her view of the room. Feeling my dinner companion's troubled eyes upon me, I turned to her and in one look communicated: "I also see the mouse. But we both know there are mice even in the kitchens of the finest restaurants.  And besides, as Steinbeck says, 'A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.'  We must not let Seline know about the mouse."  My friend looked back at me and I knew she understood, and we both turned back to Seline, who had continued speaking to us without interruption.  Seven o'clock came and went.  Outside, the sign blinked its cadence over the Ninth Avenue traffic.  Seline gave us Italian cookies as we left, well after closing time.

Manganaro had one of New York's last vintage flashing signs.  CLICK TO MAKE IT BLINK.  (T. Rinaldi) 

I eventually managed to get some halfway decent photos of Manganaro's sign lit up, but this past December I realized I had yet to get really good photos for the neon book.  Also, I had never asked Seline about the sign.  This latter task was a daunting one.  I knew how such a question was likely to be received.  I had once called up and asked her over the phone.  "Ya gotta come in person.  We don't give out free information anymore," she told me.  Well, now I needed to re-shoot the sign, and I was out of parmesan, so I decided the time had come.  I ordered generous chunks of pecorino and parmesan from the man up front, and then looked around for Seline.  She was in the back, by the tall deli cases.  Did she remember me?  I'm still not sure.  I mustered my courage, tried to act cool, and proceeded with my usual spiel: "Do you have any idea who made the sign or when it was installed?"

She returned with a question of her own.  "When was the first neon sign made?"  This, I had learned in my obsessive research, is something of a 64 thousand dollar question - there is no simple answer.  Realizing that Seline probably didn't share my enthusiasm for the subject, I boiled it down as best I could.  "1912," I said.  "Well then the sign's been there since about 1915" came the answer, very matter of fact.  I felt my face turn white.  This was impossible!  The first recorded neon sign in New York didn't arrive until the mid-1920s, and the oldest known sign in the city dates to 1929 (clearly she had not read by blog post).

Moon over Manganaro, December 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

What's more, the details of the Manganaro sign - its extended sans-serif lettering, simple rectangular shape, its porcelain enamel faces and stainless steel channel letters - seemed to correspond to a Buildings Department permit issued in 1955.  I now found myself in the unenviable position of having to challenge her assertion.  I made a feeble attempt.  "Tell ya what.  I'll ask my father, maybe he knows.  Call me next week."  I thanked her, took my hewn blocks of parmesan and pecorino, and got the hell out while the getting was good, grateful to be alive.  I called Seline the next week, but her father didn't know anything about the sign, she said.  I logged it as "c. 1955, maker unknown" in my handy database, and laid the matter to rest.

December 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

There have been rumors that Manganaro's might go the way of so many other neon-bejewled veteran neighborhood institutions, off into the sunset.  But last week, the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported that the end seems finally to have come for this place, which traces its opening to 1893 - "a hundred and twenty fucking years," Seline told the New York Observer last year. Out of fear and respect, I had decided not to write about my visits to Manganaro's, at least not until some statute of limitations had run out.  Seline must not know about the mouse.  But now, the song has ended, the old sign has likely blinked its last, so I thought I may as well yield to temptation and put it all down in pixels for posterity.  Here's to your passion, your mice, your germs, your styrofoam plates, your personality, your hundred and twenty fabulous years, Manganaro's.  I will think of you as I watch the little white bits of parmesan float gently down onto my marinara sauce.


• The "reviews" section of Yelp's Manganaro page makes good beach reading.
A New York Times story from 2011 parsing out the Manganaro family feud.
• Seline Dell'Orto talks to the New York Observer.

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