Anthony, who is older by a decade and shorter by a half foot, didn’t leave the Italian restaurant/bar they’ve owned for three decades until nearly 2 in the morning. It’s barely 10 a.m., which means that he’s only had a couple hours sleep.
But it doesn’t matter. He’s glad to be here.
Up until September, when Sac’s Place moved to its new location at Kaufman Astoria Studios, Domenico and Anthony pretty much had their routines down pat.
Which means that they are used to working hard. But during the months-long transition, they have been going non-stop, their 10- to 12-hour days tumbling one into the other like clothes in a dryer.
“We haven’t had a day off yet,” Anthony says, not a trace of weariness in his voice.
Domenico, a tall man whose bright blue eyes remain undimmed by exhaustion, adds that “it’s been rough.”
Sac’s Place is an old-school Italian restaurant. Its homemade, farm-to-table, cook-to-order dishes range from pasta and pizza to Veal Domenico and Veal Antonio (named, of course, for the brothers). Its fresh vegetables come from a farm in Pennsylvania that Domenico and Anthony visit once or twice a week.
Sac’s Place is famous for, among other things, its fried Italian artichokes and its annual outdoor pig roasts (2019’s final one is Nov. 21).
“In Abruzzo, the little-known region of Italy where our family is from, the pig roasts celebrate the bounty of the harvest,” Anthony says. “I do the roasting under a tent while people mingle and eat antipasto and mini-sausages. Then we move inside for the feast.”
Sac’s Place’s recipes are from Domenico’s and Anthony’s mother, Maddalena, who worked with them every day up until her death in April at age 94 and a half.
“She came here to make sure we didn’t screw up,” Anthony says.
To hear Anthony and Domenico tell it, Maddalena, who arrived in America in 1955 and gave birth to her three sons in Astoria, was one of the best cooks in the tiny town of Orsogna.
“I have a distinct memory of her teaching me to cook when I was 5 or 6,” Domenico says. “I had been playing outside and came in early. She was making meatballs and tomato sauce and a lamb shoulder. I watched her and picked up everything.”
She taught him to make pasta – the secret is in how the dough feels in your fingers – and told him to trust his tongue.
“Her cooking was not an exact science,” he says. “On tomato sauce, she told me to make it any way I wanted the first time and then figure out how it should be changed to taste perfect.”
Anthony, too, learned his way around the kitchen at an early age.
“I always wanted to open a restaurant, and I dragged this poor guy into it with me,” he says, pointing to Domenico. “Every time I ate at restaurants, the food was so-so, and I kept saying that I could do it better.”
He had, in fact, said it so many times that the woman who became his wife got so fed up with his boasts that she made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“She told me to quit my career in finance and open a restaurant and she would support me for six months,” he says.
So he and Domenico made the plunge, opening a pizzeria in a small space at 29th Street and Broadway in 1989.
“We spent a lot of time experimenting with the sauce recipe,” Domenico says. “And Anthony and I did everything – we were cooks, electricians, plumbers, handymen, pizza makers and bookkeepers.”
Their efforts won them a lot of customers, many of whom have been devoted diners for 30 years.
So it was quite a shock when Sac’s Place lost its lease and closed for three months to complete its move. (Just in case things didn’t work out, they opened a Sac’s Place pizzeria in Jackson Heights; it’s run by Anthony’s oldest son, Rocco.)
“We had one customer who was dying and came knocking on the door to buy one final slice of pizza,” Anthony says. “It was very sad – we were in the middle of moving; I had to tell him we couldn’t serve him.”
Sac’s Place has set up its new shop in the old Paramount Pictures commissary at Kaufman Astoria Studios.
In the olden golden days of the silver screen, stars like Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Bebe Daniels and the Marx Brothers dined there between takes.
Anthony points out a poster-size vintage black-and-white photo over one of the tables in the private dining room that shows them, frozen in time, at lunch.
He sets a hot-from-the-oven Mama’s Old Fashioned pizza on the table.
As the slices disappear, he notes that the true test of a great pie lies with the temperature.
“You should want to eat it cold the next morning,” he says.
Domenico and Anthony are looking forward to welcoming all of their old and new customers to Sac’s Place.
“It gives me great pleasure watching people eat dishes my mother taught us to make,” Anthony says.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling