Piccolo's 'Famous for Cheesesteaks' Makes a Hoboken Comeback
'You have an obligation to your customers. They expect you to be there.'
When you are "famous for cheesesteaks" since 1955 -- as the sign outside unabashedly announces -- a Superstorm can't knock you down for the count. But Sandy certainly tried her best. "It was numbing. I didn't know what to do," Patleo 'Patty Boy' Spaccavento recalls about first surveying the damage to Piccolo's. The popular Hoboken, N.J., restaurant is known perhaps as much for its collection of hometown-hero Frank Sinatra memorabilia as for its rib-eye steak sandwiches. Spaccavento, 52, runs the eatery that was started and is still owned by his father, Joseph (a.k.a. Sparky).
Tables, chairs, and freezers were upended; a refrigerator and the main electrical panel were completely shot. And forget about perishables -- cases of beef, fish, potatoes, wheels of Pecorino cheese, and more -- all gone. Floodwaters had receded from the restaurant's interior, but water lines indicated they'd reached 3.5 to 4 feet. "Water never came into the building before -- from the time my mother and father built the place," Spaccavento says.
With his crew, Spaccavento immediately began the painstaking process of repairing, replacing, and meticulous cleaning, getting the establishment back up to code. The money for it all came out of the family's pocket. Their insurance company had denied Piccolo's claim, which was not an uncommon fate in post-Sandy Hoboken. Spaccavento also contacted FEMA, who referred him to the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA). "What did we get from the SBA? Absolutely nothing," he asserts. "They wanted to give you a loan to pay back in 30 years at 4 percent. Sometimes you can get the money cheaper on the street."
Spaccavento does credit Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's office with looking after the city's businesses in the aftermath of Sandy and alerting them to other possible sources of aid. "There's a grant program through the state (the Stronger NJ Business Grant Program)," he says. "I'm seeing if I can recoup some of the money we laid out. They've been very helpful."
It was more than a month before Piccolo's finally reopened. "When you're self-employed, it's kind of a long time to hold off and not have an income," Spaccavento says. Beyond being able to once again provide for his wife and daughter, Spaccavento was extremely pleased to have his doors open. "You have an obligation to your customers," he states. "People were concerned, people I see every week. They expect you to be there. And if you're not, it's a shock to their system, too."
Reminders of Sandy are never too far away. "Even to this day, I reach back for a utensil or something, and it's not there," Spaccavento says. "To say a storm like that is never going to happen again -- you can't say it. So you think about that."
Still, come what may, nothing will shake Patty Spaccavento's faith in his beloved Mile Square City. "For some reason, thank God, Hoboken always winds up on its feet," he proudly says. "We get hit sometimes, but we always end up on our feet."
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Jack Silbert is a humor writer, journalist, children's author, editor, movie reviewer, weekly internet-radio DJ, and frequent master of ceremonies. His writing has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, New York Press, Weird New Jersey, New Jersey Monthly, Nickelodeon, Glamour, Parent and Child and a wide variety of websites including Gawker and Media Darlings. During his lengthy tenure as editor with Scholastic Classroom Magazines, he proudly accepted the AEP's Golden Lamp Award for best periodical, 2009. Jack lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and is rather fond of independent music, baseball, and sandwiches.