By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Ten years after Sal Anthony’s closed on Irving Place, the Italian restaurant has come back to the neighborhood, although owner Anthony Macagnone insists he hasn’t really been gone this whole time. Aside from living adjacent to the old restaurant on East 17th Street, Macagnone and his wife, Cynthia Graham, have been running a movement studio on Third Avenue for the last 18 years, but the new space on Third Avenue at East 19th Street marks the first Sal Anthony’s restaurant in the immediate Gramercy Park area in a decade.
The spot on Irving Place expanded over the 40 years the restaurant was open and although the new space on Third Avenue is only a fraction of the size, Macagnone said that he has a much better relationship with his current landlord than with the owner of the building on Irving Place.
Macagnone was forced to close the previous restaurant due to a long court battle over rent but he said that he has been drawn to this neighborhood because of a sense of community.
Macagnone grew up on Thompson Street between West Houston and Bleecker, and he said that at one point, he had about 65 blood relatives within a five-block radius.
“That kept everything together,” he said. “There was this wonderful feeling of safety, as dangerous as the streets were, so I’m trying to bring back that community spirit. I see it as a necessity. It’s oxygen.”
The first restaurant Macagnone owned was the location on Irving Place but over the years, he has run or invested in a handful of other restaurants in the city and said that he eventually spotted a pattern in his business habits.
“There might have been a subconscious drive for this need for community,” he said. “But it became conscious when I realized that I had six businesses on one block.”
The entrepreneur’s recent reopening of the restaurant, on Easter Sunday, came as music to the ears of Gramercy Park Block Association president Arlene Harrison, who noted Macagnone’s commitment to the neighborhood.
“There’s a drive in him to create this community feeling,” she said. “He’s going to be the heart and soul of this community. After 9/11, we had relationships with 60 restaurants in the neighborhood that donated food to the precinct for officers, but those are all gone now.”
Although the exercise studio down the avenue has been in business for almost two decades, Graham joked that Macagnone pursued the venture against her strong objections and initially framed the business as wanting to rent a small studio space to “experiment with movement” with friends.
Macagnone said that he could see that stereotypically heavy, coma-inducing Italian food and an exercise studio is an unusual juxtaposition, but he also thinks food and movement can be similarly light and complement each other.
“The food doesn’t have to feel so heavy,” he said, explaining that one strategy for keeping the menu light is a seafood-based red sauce instead of meat-based. “It can feel buoyant. You could kill yourself working out or you can stay buoyant. Food can be the same way.”