Out of the Ashes: Ferraro’s in Westfield

Four decades of work went up in flames overnight. To rebuild their flagship Westfield restaurant, the Ferraro family had to pull together as never before.

La Famiglia: On the balcony of their rebuilt restaurant, from left: Giuseppe DiPietro, Lina Ferraro DiPietro, Vincent, Anna and Palmiro Ferraro, Maria Ferraro Murray and Charles Murray.
Photo by Eric Levin

Anna and Palmiro Ferraro’s three children grew up in their parents’ restaurant, Ferraro’s in Westfield. They had no choice. Their parents, who came to this country as newlyweds in 1966, worked in the restaurant seven days a week. Palmiro made the pizzas, and Anna prepared the lasagna and veal and peppers she had mastered in their mountain village of Tocco Caudio, near Naples, where she and Palmiro had grown up across the street from each other.

Fortunately, their children—Maria, Vincent, and the youngest, Lina—loved hanging out in the restaurant, and as they got big enough, each happily pitched in. When Lina was eight, she began ringing up customers, standing on a soda crate to reach the cash register.

“They would try to tip me,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘Go buy an ice cream.’ But I refused. Sometimes they’d test me. They’d hand me a ten, then say, ‘Hey, I gave you a twenty.’ But I never put the bill in the drawer until the transaction was over. It was all good-natured joking. But it was my job, and I loved it.”

Ferraro’s started in 1969 in a single Elm Street storefront. As Westfield grew, Ferraro’s grew, becoming the largest, most popular restaurant in town. In increments, it expanded into four adjoining storefronts, converting them into a fine-dining restaurant with its own menu to the right of the original space, and two dining rooms and a lounge to the left. Palmiro didn’t hire cooks until 1980, the same year he bought a liquor license. The storefronts connected, and people could enter or exit from any of three far-flung entrances. You practically needed a cop to direct traffic.

In 2006, when Anna and Palmiro decided to retire, the next generation—Maria and her husband, Charles Murray; Vincent (whose wife, Lauren, is not involved); and Lina and her husband, Giuseppe DiPietro, the executive chef—formed an equal partnership and bought the business.

Not much changed. Palmiro came in to greet guests a little less often. Anna continued to make her specialties, including biscotti bread pudding and a light, lemony ricotta cheesecake.

Then everything changed. On Wednesday, May 4, 2011, Giuseppe left the restaurant at 11:30 pm. He got home in time to be with Lina at midnight, the start of their third wedding anniversary.

A few minutes after midnight, Giuseppe recalls, “we were about to celebrate and hang out” when Lina’s cell phone rang. Who would be calling with congratulations at that hour? She picked up warily. It was Joseph Polizzi, the restaurant’s general manager.

“Come quickly!” he said. “Ferraro’s is burning.”

“I said, ‘It can’t be that serious—Giuseppe was just there,’” Lina recalls. “Joe said, ‘No, you don’t understand. The place is gone.’”

At that time, Lina, Giuseppe and their two young children were living with her parents in Westfield while a new home of their own was being built. “I told my mom to stay home with the kids,” she says, “because I was scared for her to see it.”

When they arrived a few minutes later, Ferraro’s block of Elm Street had been cordoned off. Fire engines and police cars were everywhere. The original storefront was engulfed in flames, and the fire was spreading. Above the fine-dining restaurant, on the second and third floors, were four apartments and the family’s offices. All the tenants had been safely evacuated, but 42 years of business records, family photos, plaques and other mementos were burning or being ruined by smoke and water. Across the street, the family huddled in disbelief.

“The arson squad was there,” Giuseppe relates. “The first question they asked me was, ‘How was business?’ I said, ‘What kind of question is that? What does that have to do with what’s going on?’ They said, ‘It’s protocol. In New Jersey, 5 out of 10 restaurants that burn down are arson.’ I said, ‘Guess what? We’re the other five.’ We were very busy. It was just before Mother’s Day weekend, the busiest weekend of the year. That carries us for months.”

May is particularly meaningful to Lina and Giuseppe. In addition to their anniversary, both have May birthdays. Normally they take a May vacation, but in 2011, with business “maxed out,” says Lina, “it was such a crazy time that we didn’t go away. I’m so thankful I was here when the fire happened. Our world was gone overnight. We had to make a lot of decisions right away, under the gun and in despair.”

The first decision concerned the tenants. The family put them up at the Westfield Motor Inn. The second concerned the Elm Street restaurant’s 50-plus employees. By 2011, Ferraro’s had become a mini-empire that included Ferraro’s South, a private-party venue in Westfield; Anna’s Ristorante in Summit; and Primavera Regency, a large catering facility in Stirling that Vincent oversees. The family shifted almost all the employees to the other locations. In 36 hours, they converted Ferraro’s South to replace Ferraro’s as the take-out hub, a large part of the burned-out flagship’s business.

“We were moving and grooving, let me tell you,” says Maria, 48. “We didn’t have much choice.”

Even before the 80 firefighters from 16 area departments left Elm Street, the family had resolved to rebuild. The question was how. “We were so traumatized about the tenants—someone could have died, God forbid,” says Lina, 37. “We did not want the responsibility. So we decided to change our layout.” Instead of spreading out horizontally and again renting from others, they kept to the footprint of the two buildings their parents owned and converted the second and third floors into dining rooms and Ferraro offices. “It was a huge decision financially and in every other way, because we had to start working on plans immediately.”
When the family watched video from the pizzeria’s security camera, they saw the ceiling begin to smolder. When the fire breaks through, the ceiling collapses, the flames stab down, hit the oxygen in the room and explode in a fireball.

“What we were told is that the fire probably began to smolder in old wiring above the ceiling,” says Maria. In its May 13, 2011 report, the Westfield fire department checked “none” opposite “human factors contributing to ignition.” Both the Westfield and Union County investigations listed the cause as “undetermined.”

“We’ll never know,” says Lina. “And that’s hard, because I want to know.”

As for the cost of rebuilding, while there was an insurance settlement, “we borrowed millions,” says Lina. “That’s all I’ll say. We’ll be paying for awhile.”

After 17 months of extraordinary stress, an entirely transformed Ferraro’s opened on September 26, 2012. It has just one entrance, with a burgundy canopy and mahogany double doors. It has just one dinner menu, which ranges from 12-inch pizzas ($8.95-$12.95)—large take-out pies are now the province of Ferraro’s South—and old favorites like eggplant rollatini ($16.95) to upscale new entrées like Chilean sea bass in seafood-tomato broth with shaved fennel ($29.95). It has a sunny, Tuscan-style exterior with a long balcony; a state-of-the-art, environmentally low-impact kitchen with a separate gluten-free area; and a grand, mahogany-and-glass-walled wine-storage room you see when you enter what used to be the bare-bones pizzeria.

Though the children shouldered the burden of rebuilding—dealing with a phalanx of adjusters, investigators, lawyers, town officials, contractors and subcontractors—the blaze took an incalculable toll on what had been Anna and Palmiro’s American dream. When they boarded the Leonardo da Vinci in 1966 to come to America, she was 19 and he was 28. The entire voyage, Anna, who was seven months pregnant with Maria, was morning sick and seasick. “I ate the first day, that’s it,” she says. “Then I spent 11 days between the bed and the bathroom.”

As hard as they would work in years to come, both felt they had it easy compared to the labors they had left behind. Palmiro had worked in construction with his five brothers. Across the street, Anna had toiled on the farm that sprawled behind her family’s home.

“We’d get up with the cows,” she says. “We’d tend the sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, have breakfast. Then I’d help my father bottle the cows’ milk, tend our garden and help with making our wine, olive oil and fresh cheese. The summer and fall were always hectic, but from December to March we had a little restaurant on our property. It was a gathering place for people in our town.”

In the new land, they stayed at first with relatives in Jersey City and opened a small pizzeria there. “But we wanted a place that was more country,” she relates. In 1969, they answered an ad for a pizzeria for sale in Westfield. A relative drove them to see it. “It was unbelievably beautiful,” she says. “All the stores were lit up like a dream.”

They bought the pizzeria, then discovered that the furniture and equipment were falling apart and that there were no customers—the owner had stacked the place with his friends when they came to see it.

At a lunch I shared with the family at the new restaurant, Anna, 68, and Palmiro, 76, recounted an episode from their courtship in Italy. As they walked through the steep streets of their village, her mother and brother would follow a few paces behind. At one point, Palmiro told his fiancée, “Ask your mother if she wants to come to the honeymoon now.”

Hearing that, Maria burst out laughing. “You did the same thing to me!” she told her mother. Turning to me, she added, “When I was 17, in high school, I went to the movies on a double date, and my mother shows up with my cousin and sits three rows behind us.”

History tends to repeat in the Ferraro family. Anna’s mother, Eleonora, who walked behind her courting daughter in Italy, later came to America and looked after Maria, Vincent and Lina while their parents worked. At 94, Eleonora still looks after the little ones; this time they are her nine great grandchildren, ages 18 months to 18 years. When the new sidewalk was poured in 2012, all nine pressed their palms into the wet concrete.

This May is the third anniversary of the fire. For all the hardship, the Ferraros feel lucky. “Why did it happen when no customers were there?” said Charles, 53, giving thanks no one was hurt.

“After the fire, there was no time to mourn,” said Maria. “We were so overwhelmed with everything we had to do to reopen. I’m more emotional now.” Everyone nodded in assent.

Palmiro is famously taciturn. At the end of the meal—at which they rolled out a staggering and delicious multi-course abbondanza—I asked him how he feels now.

“I’m happy,” he said quietly. Pausing, he gazed down the long table as everyone looked expectantly at him. “Beautiful family,” he said. “New business. All working together.” Then he shrugged, cocking his head with a smile that said, What more could you want?

Additional reporting by Millicent K. Brody.

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