By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Gramercy business owner Anthony Macagnone died on Wednesday, January 23, from esophageal cancer. He was 79.
Macagnone was most well-known throughout the Gramercy neighborhood as the owner of two very different businesses both operating under the name Sal Anthony’s: a restaurant and a fitness studio.
Although Macagnone’s career in the restaurant business started more than 50 years ago, his most constant presence in the neighborhood in the last 20 years has actually been through Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon, which he opened in 1999 after leasing an old beer hall and former restaurant on Third Avenue.
The original restaurant, which Macagnone opened when he bought a spot on Irving Place in 1966 after working at the nearby Pete’s Tavern, was open until about 10 years ago when he was forced to close over a dispute with the landlord about rent, but he was able to reopen the restaurant on Third Avenue and East 19th Street under the same name two years ago.
Cynthia Graham, Macagnone’s wife of more than 30 years and the mother of his three daughters, said that he was originally diagnosed with esophageal cancer in May 2016 and after chemo and radiation, had surgery that October that appeared successful but the cancer returned around the same time his restaurant reopened in May 2017.
Despite the illness, Macagnone remained active and involved for as long as he could, helping out at the salon even when he felt worn out.
“He really fought this like crazy and it wasn’t until the end of last summer that he really started to get very exhausted and not be able to do everything he was able to do before,” Graham said. “Even when he was not physically able, whenever he had just a little energy he would try to help people with alignment and show them how to breathe.”
“Fitness studio” and “Italian restaurant” might seem like diametrically opposed businesses (although in some ways complementary), but Graham said that the pairing made sense for Macagnone.
“The fascinating thing about him was the move from food to fitness,” she said. “He was a restaurateur at a very young age, but he was also a very spiritual seeker kind of person. He always believed that movement in convention with the mind was the key to the understanding of yourself.”
Rather than focus on conventional modes of exercise, Macagnone founded the salon with the goal of focusing on different kinds of movement that he connected with and found interesting. He was inspired to start the business while doing gymnastics in an exercise studio and spotted dancers off to the side working on a style of dance called contact improvisation.
“He was so taken with these dancers and what they were doing that he went over after and got himself accepted into this group and was so enthralled with the way they were moving,” Graham said.
One of the dancers was Daniel Giel, who co-founded the movement salon with Macagnone when he found a space for the business. Giel, who ultimately became a close friend, admitted that he was surprised at first when Macagnone approached him and asked about his dancing.
“I had this stereotype of a rough Italian-American but he just wanted to learn about what we were doing,” Giel said. “He saw me and my dance partner and was like, ‘You and your partner roll around on the floor like a cream puff and you explode in the air as powerful as a tiger but land as light as a feather.’ It wasn’t something I thought about how to teach someone, but Anthony was really taken by it.”
Giel said that the style focuses on interactions between partners and is both dance and martial arts-related. Macagnone wasn’t used to seeing the style outside the context of martial arts, but as someone with a black belt in karate as well as a background in judo, his interest in the style made sense.
Giel said that he and Macagnone had a “co-vision” for the business and it ultimately became a home for people to explore movement. Yoga was gaining popularity at the time but both Giel and Graham said that Macagnone’s idea for the business was still unusual in the neighborhood.
“It was one of the insane ventures at the time,” Graham admitted. “The first week it was open, I went to meet him for something and we were running an African dance class at the time. These two elderly neighborhood women were walking by and they said the place would be gone in no time.”
Giel said that people walking by didn’t know what to expect, especially because a former beer hall with an elaborate exterior that was eventually landmarked was an unusual venue for a fitness studio, but they attracted clients by offering such a wide range of styles.
“People really liked the vibe here,” he said. “We had yoga or salsa or meditation, and people walked in and could try it all. It had this beautiful building and the people who ended up here were open to something different. They were more mindful in their bodies.”
Peg Donohue, a Stuyvesant Town resident, was a devotee of the studio as well as the restaurant, often dining al fresco after her sessions at the movement salon.
She told Town & Village Macagnone was “a lovely man.
“My left side, which calcified while I was comatose in 2001, was restored by his MTs at the Sal Anthony Movement Studio,” she said. “I will miss him as much as I miss the outdoor café.”
Macagnone is survived by Graham and their three daughters, Francesca, Gloriana and Micaela, and his three sons from a previous relationship, Anthony Jr., Vincent and Billy.
A celebration of Macagnone’s life was held at the movement salon last Saturday. Gramercy Park Block Association President Arlene Harrison said that hundreds of people shared memories at the event throughout the afternoon.
“Anthony was always passionate about creating a community family in his businesses in his more than 50 years here,” Harrison said. “He was the heart and soul of this community, which was evidenced by the hundreds of people who poured in from around the city throughout the day, to honor him and pay tribute to his memory. We will miss him.”