A Restaurant’s Plea: Yes, We’re Open

Cucina Di PesceSuzanne Rozdeba Nick Alija, manager of Cucina Di Pesce, says that the perception by some neighborhood residents that the restaurant shut down after a fire earlier this month has cut business by about 40 percent. Below: Mr. Alija with a few patrons at the half-empty restaurant Tuesday night.
Cucina Di Pesce

It was 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, and Nick Alija looked out at the half-empty dining room at Cucina Di Pesce and shook his head. Five tables were occupied, surrounded by space heaters pumping out warmth into the restaurant, which was damaged by a Jan. 4 fire that roared through the building next door.

Mr. Alija, a manager at the restaurant, knows that the damage could have been far worse. The East Village Farm & Grocery, where the fire started, was gutted. While Cucina was spared that fate – and has been able to remain open despite needing thousands of dollars in repairs – it has found itself stuck in a kind of commercial limbo: it is open for business but many people think it has shut down.

“I’ve heard people standing outside the restaurant saying we’re closed down, and have seen people online writing the same – and it’s not true,” Mr. Alija, 31, told The Local. “I’ve been telling people we are definitely open. It’s been a nightmare.”

Mr. Alija, who has worked at the seafood restaurant on East Fourth Street near Second Avenue for six years, acknowledged that the damage that the restaurant sustained in the fire was serious: Cucina lost heat and water in the front dining room and there is significant water damage to the ceiling, hand-painted walls and wood floors.

In all, Mr. Alija said, the pricetag for the repairs is expected to fall somewhere in the “low six figures;” business has gone down by about 40 percent since the fire.

Mr. Alija said that the perception that the restaurant has closed might have been at least partly driven by the brief closure of the front dining room during weeknights; it re-opened full-time Sunday.

Cucina Di PesceSuzanne Rozdeba A manager estimated that repairing the damage to Cucina Di Pesce would cost something in the “low six figures.”

“People walked by the front of the restaurant, and they saw the dining room was dim, so they assumed the restaurant was closed down,” he said. “We couldn’t run heaters all day long, and we didn’t have water, so we couldn’t open up the place as much as we wanted. We lost a lot of customers.”

Then there was the clean-up. It took a week alone to get out the smell of smoke. “We tried everything and anything,” Mr. Alija said. “We had boxes of baking soda left out all night long. We had the windows open, we were spraying bathroom sprays. We even had big pots of onion and garlic out to get rid of the smell. Finally, it went away.”

It will take two to three months to renovate the restaurant, he estimated, but the owners – Schlomi Mishkit and Mehenni Zebentout – do not want to begin work in earnest until the heat is turned back on in the damaged portion of the restaurant. “We don’t want to jump into fixing other parts before we get the heat back on,” Mr. Alija said. “The landlord is working hard, but it’s a big job.”

For longtime customers, the decline in business has been troubling to watch. Norma Scheck, director of individual giving at the New York Theater Workshop, a few doors down from the restaurant, was relieved when she heard they were still up and running after the fire.

“We’re great fans of them, love the cozy atmosphere and food, and we’re very happy that they’re fine,” said Ms. Scheck, who’s been a customer for five years.

Meanwhile, standing by the bar of the restaurant, Mr. Alija looked around at empty table after empty table and considered the restaurant’s situation.

“The firemen, they’re great guys, and I’m happy nobody got hurt,” Mr. Alija said. “They did an incredible job. And people in the East Village are great. They come by because they heard what happened, and they make sure we’re OK. That’s why I love this neighborhood. But it’s been tough on us. This is my family, and it kills me.”