Volume 76, Number 47 | April 18 - 24, 2007

Villager photo by Esther Martin

Anthony Macagnone at the City Gardener, his E. 17th St. plant shop.

Empire loses one, but SPQR and salon still standing

By Mary Reinholz

At Sal Anthony’s Third Avenue Movement Salon, a fountain gushes in the window. Artwork and lush plants are everywhere in the ground-floor space — even where patrons stretch on Pilates machines. Known as Scheffel Hall, the German Renaissance-style building was once home to Fat Tuesday’s jazz club.

The Gramercy Park salon is also a sanctuary these days for its 67-year-old proprietor, Anthony Macagnone, a former longshoreman turned restaurateur who promotes his passion for fitness here in leased quarters at the late 19th-century building. It’s been his focus since he closed the crown jewel of his Downtown food chain last year in the wake of a rent war with the heirs of his late landlady, Rita DeLorenzo.

Sal Anthony’s Italian restaurant on nearby Irving Place had been Macagnone’s flagship, a moderately priced eatery and neighborhood institution for 40 years. He said he moved out February 2006 after ending a court battle with DeLorenzo’s relatives, noting they wanted to raise his below-market rent from $12,000 to about $60,000 a month. The relatives, he said, contested a 1996 letter DeLorenzo had signed extending his lease for another 20 years, claiming she was “senile,” then accusing him of “taking advantage of her.” By the time the case went to trial, Macagnone said, he had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself — “and in the middle of the trial I just quit,” he went on during an interview. “What was I going to do? Spend $10 million dollars to win, and what am I going to win? We made a deal and the settlement was that I had to get out.”

Soon after, the seemingly buff Macagnone, who has a black belt in karate and teaches martial arts, was stricken with a disorder called myositis, which affected his muscle tissue, bones and lungs. He has been in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices ever since.

“But I’m back full time now,” he said, claiming the loss of his first restaurant enables him to spend more time managing two other Italian eateries he runs: Sal Anthony’s SPQR in Little Italy and Lanza’s in the East Village. The latter supplies his movement salon with free loaves of bread, washed apples and ricotta cheesecake for patrons and for people who wander in from the streets, intrigued by the soothing atmosphere.

“I think people are tired of gyms,” he observed. “There’s something quaint about this place. There’s an ambience about time and space that gives people a chance not to be so high-tech.”

A similar cozy feeling prevailed at Macagnone’s now-defunct family-style restaurant in the Gramercy Park/Union Square area. Some regulars there seemed to think its demise signaled the end of an era in the onetime working-class neighborhood.

“In the early ’70s, it was Anthony’s only restaurant and he would always greet you and you felt you were in someplace special, a real New York Italian restaurant,” recalled photographer Todd Weinstein. Weinstein said he had to leave his apartment on Irving Place three years ago because of a loophole in the rent-stabilization laws that allowed his landlord to hike his rent dramatically.

“I celebrated many of my birthdays there and would take friends there,” Weinstein said of Macagnone’s Irving Place eatery. “Whenever you walked through the door, you were treated like you were walking into someone’s home. That was the way it was in New York. His kids worked there and they would greet you. It was always a family business.”

The 6,000-square-foot commercial property still has the Sal Anthony’s sign above the second-floor entrance and Macagnone admits being somewhat “amused” by the fact that his former court adversaries have been unable to rent the space after muscling him out.
“They had witnesses saying it was worth so much and now they can’t rent it,” he said. “It’s really not the first-class space they claimed it was.” He believes that the staircase leading up to the entrance and the few steps down to a basement level space can be a “bane” to prospective retail tenants.

But he regrets having to let go 50 employees and feels sorry for the people who relied on the restaurant.

“It was a mainstay for people in the people in their 70s and 80s,” he said. “They knew the waiters’ names, the managers’ names, and they knew it was a price they could afford. It had some soul, and some of them now feel lost because it grounded a lot of old and single people in the neighborhood.”

The self-styled “soft capitalist” said he may have to close Sal Anthony’s SPQR because of rising rents in coming years: His lease was renewed starting Jan. 1 for $48,000 a month. But he intends to continue operating Lanza’s. Two of his three sons, Vincent and Billy, own their own fitness studios near that First Ave. restaurant. He has three teenage daughters. Francesca, 18, works at the movement salon and his plant store on E. 17th St. His second wife, Cynthia Graham, a horticulturist, “runs everything,” he said with a laugh.

A colorful figure often garbed in black trousers and beret, Macagnone buzzes around between his businesses on a motorcycle. It’s often parked outside his plant store, The City Gardener, which is managed by son Anthony, Jr., who also sells exotic jewelry, crystals and his own paintings there. It’s the only property that his father owns outright in Manhattan.

The elder Macagnone laughs when asked about his so-called “empire” in New York. Beyond the fact he may have to give up SPQR, he’s worried that New York neighborhoods are losing their identities to the construction boom under Mayor Bloomberg, becoming sterile and overpriced urban jungles echoing the old Wall St. mantra “greed is good.”

“The middle class has gone,” he said. “What made this city was the poor, the middle class and the rich. It was like a nice soup. Now it’s just who can pay $3,000 a month for a studio [apartment].” He believes Bloomberg has “sold out” to the city’s real estate interests and feels that Fernando Ferrer, his Democratic opponent whom he defeated overwhelmingly in the last election, is more “connected to the average citizen. He would have been more in touch with the grassroots than Bloomberg. I don’t know anything about politics,” he added. “I just go by my gut feelings and I see during the last three years a [deterioration] in the quality of life in this city — the dust, the smoke, the noise, the mass confusion and the forbidden rents and neighborhoods like the Bowery that are being transformed into these anonymous places that are only for the upper middle class or the rich. It used to take years to change a neighborhood. Now it takes 10 months.”

Macagnone dropped out of vocational school. He learned the food business working first as a busboy, then as a supervisor in the dining room of the old Copacabana club on E. 60th St., where stars like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., performed. There, he also met Sal Locasio, who briefly became his business partner. Their first names became the moniker of the Sal Anthony enterprises.

Macagnone, who sometimes calls himself “Sal Anthony,” also worked six years as a bartender at Pete’s Tavern, an old O’Henry haunt in Gramercy Park where more than a dozen of his relatives have labored. He noted that the now-chic neighborhood was filled with furnished rooms and single-room-occupancy hotels when he arrived. He recalls a more cooperative spirit in that slice of old New York. But these days, he contends, the mood is “raw capitalism. I’m a soft capitalist,” he said, “meaning that if four of us sit down, hopefully when we get up, we’ll all do O.K., instead of three people getting the short end of the stick.”

So how does Macagnone make up for his losses?

“I keep reinventing myself,” he said with a smile, noting that the fitness salon he established in 1998 is his “passion” these days. He said he got interested in movement and learning about his own anatomy in the late 1990s as a result of injuries sustained from working on the docks in his youth and later moving kitchens around and putting out cooking fires.

“I’m trying to learn kinesthetic literacy, the language of the body,” said Macagnone, who feels that the poetry of movement can be found in both ballet and in loading trucks. “You can become literate about your body and you can develop dexterity from it. That’s my mission now.” 

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