From Hell’s Kitchen to His Own Kitchen

Tony Del Gatto’s life is as flavorful as the tomato sauce he still makes at age 72.

Grissini owner Tony Del Gatto stirs his Sunday Sauce.
Photo by Eric Levin.

It’s a wonder that Tony Del Gatto ever went into the restaurant business, considering that he started by tossing an armful of freshly printed menus into a trash can instead of delivering them to the Bronx restaurant that desperately needed them in time for lunch. This is one of his many growing-up-in-Hell’s Kitchen stories. From the vantage point of a table at Grissini, his tony Italian restaurant in Englewood Cliffs, with its phalanx of luxury cars valet-parked out front, these tales are as entertaining as old Bowery Boys episodes.

Del Gatto’s father, Salvatore, was a linotype operator for a printing company in Manhattan. In the summer of 1951, when Del Gatto was 13, his father got him a job at the company delivering menus to restaurants all over New York. This was a time when many of the tenements in Hell’s Kitchen (considered then, he says, to be 34th Street to 42nd Street, west of Eighth Avenue) lacked hot water, to say nothing of air conditioning.
“In the summertime, we slept on the fire escape,” Del Gatto recalls. For daytime cooling, he and his friends would jump off a pier into the murky Hudson. “At that time they had slaughterhouses on the West Side, and they used to dump all the blood and guts in the river. So we had to wait for the tide to go out so it was clean enough for us to go swimming.” He laughs, shaking his head in wonder. “That’s how bad it was.”

Delivering menus involved lugging bundles all over the city for meager moolah. By the end of the summer, Del Gatto had heard about a better way to bring in bucks. After tossing the menus, he says, “I borrowed $15 from my mother and got my own pushcart and sold fruit and vegetables with a friend of mine. Now I’m making $30 to $40 a day at a time when my father is making $18 a week.”

Every day he would go to the wholesale produce market on West 14th Street and buy bushels of what looked good. One day it might be freestone peaches, another day, beefsteak tomatoes. One day he bought fresh corn—or, to be precise, corn that looked to be fresh when he bought it. “They were always trying to screw us,” he says. After paying cash for the load, he and his friend, Frankie (“I called him Twinnie, because he was a twin”), walked back up to 39th Street to wait for the truck to drop off the corn on the sidewalk where they had their pushcart. The drop-off came, and when the boys opened the bags, it was their jaws that dropped.

“The corn was all rotten,” Del Gatto says. “I said to Twinnie, ‘What the hell are we going to do now?’” They rummaged through the bags and found a couple dozen ears that looked decent. They made a display of these on the pushcart and stuffed the rotten ears in small bags underneath. “It was, like, five corn for fifteen, twenty cents,” Del Gatto relates. “So we put the good corn in a bag, put the bag down, took the money, and gave them the other bag with the rotten corn in it.” By this sleight of hand, they sold the whole load.

“The next day,” Del Gatto says, “we had eggplants. The customers, especially the Italian women, they chased us, shouting, ‘You son of a bitch!’ They grabbed the eggplants and started throwing them at us.” He pauses. “But I sold out my corn.”

I had come to Grissini because I had heard that Del Gatto, at 72, spends the better part of a day each week in the kitchen making hundreds of meatballs and gallons of what he calls Sunday sauce from recipes he learned at his mother’s side when he was a boy. I watched Del Gatto stir his vat of steaming sauce with a paddle and listened to him passionately describe all the steps he goes through to make the sauce come out right. “I work with it, I watch it, I babysit for it,” he says. “You don’t realize how many hours go by when you’re doing something like that.”

Then I sat down with him to a lunch of his chef’s excellent ravioli and salad accompanied by the product of his own loving labor—those moist, delicious orbs in a pool of one of the heartiest, most satisfying tomato sauces I ever tasted. Along the way, he regaled me with his charmingly appalling Hell’s Kitchen stories and the enterprising arc of his street-smart life.

As a boy, Del Gatto had little patience for his father’s constant harping on the importance of education. In retrospect, he understands why “all my father believed in was school, school, school. He always wanted to go to college. But he was one of seven, and there was only one child that was able to go, the oldest—he became a doctor. My father did graduate high school. But I said, ‘Ah, school. You can’t make any money in school.’”

To make matters worse, the curriculum Del Gatto was force-fed as a high school freshman seemed to rehash material he had had his fill of by sixth grade in Catholic school. Meanwhile, having survived the corn caper, his pushcart business was thriving.

“So I decided I’m playing hooky. Now my parents are getting phone calls from the school. I got a beating one day, I got yelled at another time. So now, when I went out in the morning, I took the magnet out of the receiver.” The phone, the first the family ever had, mystified Del Gatto’s mother, Carmela, known as Millie. “When I come home, my mother says, ‘These new inventions are terrible. The phone rings all day and when I answer, nobody’s there.’ So I put the magnet back in. I say, ‘It works, Ma, what are you talking about?’”

The school upped the ante, sending truancy letters to Del Gatto’s parents. “In our building,” the truant continues, “the only thing that wasn’t falling down was the mailbox, which was solid brass. I couldn’t get the mailbox open, so I used to take a stick, light it with a match, put it in the mailbox, and burn up all the mail. So now my mother’s telling me, ‘I don’t understand. Every time I open the mailbox there’s a bunch of ashes in there.’ I’d say, ‘Ma, the building’s falling down. Of course there’s ashes.’ She said, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t get my bill for this, I didn’t get my bill for that.’ So I couldn’t do that anymore.”

The seasons changed; Del Gatto’s mind-set didn’t. When he was 14, his friend John Zanotti, who was about 17 and had a deep voice, came up with the magic bullet. “He called the school, said he was my father, and told them that I died. They just took his word for it. They stopped looking for me. It was unbelievable. It would never happen today.”

But his luck ran out when he was 16. “In the wintertime, we used to sneak into the movies every day,” he says. “We’d meet, fifteen to twenty of us, at Bickfords on 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, and sneak into three or four movies a day. We used a butter knife to pry open the back door. One time I got caught by the detectives. By the time I had to go to court and all that stuff, I was 16 years old, so I was able to quit school.”

Del Gatto became a sheet-metal worker, managed to get into the union thanks to his uncles (who were members), and then at 19 went into the peacetime Army. He came out at 21, got married, and had four children. In 1966, when he was 28, he opened a rigging company in New York. “Rigging is hoisting,” he explains. “I used to do heavy equipment, water towers, air conditioning units on high-rise buildings. The company was called Astro Hi-Lifts, which is still in business. I used to have a motto, ‘You order it, we orbit it.’”

During those early years, he studied karate and became a black belt. “That was good schooling for me,” he says. “I was in great shape because I was a sheet-metal worker, but that put me in better shape. Not only that, it put my mind in good shape.”

In 1971, “I went back into sheet metal and opened a company called Space Ventilation. Then I became a prime contractor and did a lot of work down at the [World] Trade Center. In the ’70s the city went broke, all the work dried up, so in 1975 I bought a catering place out here in Garfield called the Cameo.

“My wife, Connie, said, ‘What do you know about catering?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth. Anything I ever did I never thought about knowing anything about it. I learn pretty quick.’ A year later I bought the Westmount Country Club. I still own that today, 34 years later. It’s a high-end banquet facility. We do about $30 million a year in banquets.”

The ‘we’ includes Del Gatto’s partners: his brother, Thomas, who is younger by seven years; Del Gatto’s son, Anthony Jr.; and Thomas’s son, Tommy. “My brother renovates every year,” Del Gatto says. “We pay a lot of money for the design, but on the building of it we save a lot of money because we have our own construction company.”

The Westmount is the source of Del Gatto’s wealth. It enables him to play golf at Montammy Golf Club in Alpine several times a week, but more importantly it allows him to run Grissini, which he opened in 1992 (click here to read our review), without having to pinch pennies. “Thank God I don’t have to run this restaurant for my livelihood,” he says.

The Westmount allows him and his second wife, Theresa, with whom he lives in Englewood Cliffs, to go into the city often to hobnob with friends in the restaurant business. “I still feel like a young guy,” Del Gatto says. “I still got energy.”

In addition to meatballs and Sunday sauce, he makes pans of stuffed artichokes, ravioli, manicotti, and more, testing the patience of his excellent Venetian chef, Alberto Leandri.

“Years ago,” he reflects, “I did what I had to do. Now I do what I like to do. I was building, freezing my ass off, swinging a hammer eight hours a day. I see these kids talk today about how hard they work—they have no idea what hard work is. But I don’t mind talking to the young people, because some of them are very bright.”

One of the young people he’s close with is the celebrity chef David Burke, 48, who owns several New York restaurants and the Fromagerie in Rumson. Burke lives in Fort Lee, just down the road from Englewood Cliffs, and he’s a Grissini regular. “I eat in Grissini more than any other restaurant in the country,” Burke says. “I’ve never had a bad meal there. Tony and his brother travel a lot and come back with ideas. Tony’s inquisitive; he’s not resting on laurels. Whether he’s working or hanging out, he’s the same guy.”

Del Gatto has many more stories to tell. Although he didn’t seem to listen to his parents much when he was young, he says he always revered them. “One thing I had was a great mother and a great father,” he says. When he was 16 and a sheet-metal worker, he brought home lengths of angle iron for the family’s apartment.

“Landlords in them days, they got away with murder,” he says. “If you had a leak or something like that, forget it—if you didn’t fix it yourself, it wasn’t fixed. So I used to bring home the metal, and my parents would put Brillo behind it and nail the angle-iron to the wall so roaches and mice wouldn’t come in. Otherwise, forget it, you’d hear them at night.

“In them days, in my neighborhood, everybody used to throw garbage out the window, right into the backyard. Terrible, when you think about it. How the hell did I survive all that? They’re pretty good stories now, but then it was…yeah, what memories….”

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