He parks his car – a white Maserati detailed with a green and red stripe in homage to his and its Italian heritage – and goes to the front door of the building, which remains forever closed to him.
Seeing it again is hard.
“How do I feel? Sad and happy,” he says. “I’m passionate about the children who came here; I miss them, but now I’ll have more time to spend with my own children and my grandchildren.”
Stefano, an ebullient and flashy guy who loves diamond jewelry and punctuates nearly every sentence with “you follow me?”, tries to sound convincing when he says this, but he’s not being entirely successful.
At one time, he had big plans for the complex, which included adding an ice rink, a full-size indoor soccer field and a restaurant to the roof, but a combination of things, including the pandemic, resistance by the city to alter zoning rules and his age – he’s 74 – made it more pragmatic for him finally to let it go.
He sold the building in August for $20 million and closed the complex, which will become a self-storage center. The equipment was auctioned off in July.
Man, did he have a good run: Stefano’s family bought the building on 38th Street at 34th Avenue nearly a half-century ago for less than $100,000.
Stefano has so many memories to share.
The story he tells is 10 lifetimes long. It’s impossible to capture it all in a single column.
At times, it gets big and messy just like life.
It begins in Bari, Italy, where Stefano’s family is from. Stefano, the youngest child, was 9 when his parents brought him, his brother and two sisters to New York City.
When they were on their way to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to take up residence, Stefano fell off a truck.
“Everyone thought I was OK, but I actually had a brain bleed,” he says. “It turned out that I have a pituitary brain tumor that has been dormant for more than 60 years.”
The tumor didn’t grow and neither did Stefano. By the time he graduated from high school, he was only 4 feet tall and weighed 90 pounds.
“I was 18, but I looked like I was 10,” he says, adding that everyone told him he should become a horse jockey because of his short stature. “I was told I would never see my 25th birthday. I never thought I would get married or have children. I was going to live with my parents and when they died, I had planned to live with one of my sisters.”
(Spoiler alert: He didn’t die. He got medical treatment. And he did, indeed, find a wife. He met Mimma, whose father was a shepherd, in Italy while he was on vacation, courted her for three weeks and married her a year later. Stefano and Mimma live in Little Neck. Their three children, who are in their 30s, worked with him at Astoria Sports Complex.)
He got a job at Leviton Manufacturing, which makes sophisticated lighting-control systems, and took courses at Queens College at night to become an accountant. The company paid for his education; when he left decades later, he was the director of cash management.
It was Stefano’s brother, Nicolo, who persuaded the family to buy the building, which was an ice plant.
“The building was being auctioned by the city for non-payment of taxes,” Stefano says. “Nicolo had a job there and wanted to keep it. It didn’t want to do it – I knew it was a disastrous business decision.”
Unfortunately, his assessment was correct. By 1977, the family was $93,000 in debt; it took a statewide blackout to save them.
When the power went out that July, everybody in Astoria lined up at their plant to get ice.
“Because we were selling a crucial product, Con Ed blocked off the street and put two tractor-trailers on the sidewalk so we would have power,” Stefano says. “We stayed in the building for the two days of the blackout and didn’t sleep. When it was over, we had made $93,000 – exactly what we had owed. It was my father’s money. We didn’t put it back into the business. I gave him a check for the full amount.”
Two weeks later, though, the plant did shut down.
It was then that the transformation began.
Stefano rented the building to a distributor who took over the business, but it didn’t work out, and the building remained empty for a couple of years.
In 1980, part of the space was rented to the Astoria Paddleboard Center, and Stefano added an innovative idea of his own – the Astoria Indoor Batting Center.
Later, he converted the building’s four-story tower, which was the original storage space for the ice, into an indoor parking garage, a soccer field, a gym and a miniature golf course.
The Olympic-style swimming pool, the catering operation and all the other kids-centric activity spaces came later.
“I blew this business sky-high,” he says.
Stefano’s a sentimental guy, which is why this parting was so painful.
He points to his diamond rings. There’s his Queens College ring – education helped him advance at Leviton, where he spent his entire career and still does consulting work; his lucky horseshoe ring – he never did become a jockey; his wedding ring, which is on the same finger as the circle of diamonds commemorating his 25th anniversary; and the pinky ring his children presented to him that spells out DAD in carat-capital letters.
“If Mimma had said no to me, none of this would be in place,” he says, choking up. “All of my success is because of her.”
A thick twisted-gold chain around his neck holds a gold, diamond-ringed St. Anthony medal. It’s from his mother.
“He’s one of the saints who has helped me in my life,” he says. “Until I was three, she used to dress me up like him.”
Stefano, whose sports jacket has an elegantly folded gold handkerchief in the front pocket, is used to dressing up for work and wearing a tie every day.
(His only concession to summer while he was on duty 24/7 at the Astoria Sports Complex was occasionally switching slacks to shorts, a sartorial substitution that he makes seem scandalous.)
There are still some details and paperwork to complete pertaining to the building’s sale, so Stefano hasn’t gone into full retirement mode yet or figured out how he’s going to dress down.
There are things he’s eager to do.
He likes to dance.
Travel is a priority.
He’s accustomed to going to Italy every year (it was called a vacation but, much to Mimma’s dismay, he always kept in constant contact with the complex), but that may not happen anytime soon because of the pandemic.
Stefano takes one last look at the complex.
He starts his Maserati.
As he drives slowly away, there’s a tear rolling down his cheek.
Copyright 2021 by Nancy A. Ruhling