BY DEAN MOSES
Every community has a longtime business that serves as the area’s heart, a staple that many look to for stability even as all else changes around it. When that heart stops beating, we all feel it — the neighborhood’s blood runs cold.
The hearts of countless communities in Queens have been stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such was the case for Italian restaurant Piccola Venezia, located on 42-01 28th Ave. Now, eight months into the pandemic, that heart is not only beating again, it is also looking to reopen and expand with the help of the district it has served for nearly half a century.
Piccola Venezia was founded in Astoria in 1973 on the corner of 28th Avenue and 42nd Street by Croatian/Italian immigrants Ezio Vlacich and his wife Giuliana.
This realization of the American dream not only spawned a family business that is still being run by the original owners and their two sons, it also provides jobs for community residents who have been working at the beloved eatery for over 40 years. As time went by, the reputation of the fine cuisine and warm hospitality gained the restaurant the loyal support of dedicated patrons who, like the owners, have become multi-generational.
Stories of first dates followed by wedding celebrations, followed by birthday parties for children are not uncommon in this storied establishment. The charm of Piccola Venezia has also not been lost on the more famous, serving countless well-renowned individuals throughout the years such as singer Tony Bennett, former Mayors Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Ed Koch and more.
It is this star-studded hospitality that has garnered so much love and loyalty from the community and beyond, and that it what their business is all about — hospitality. However, the city’s regulations have made the dining experience more rigorous for customers and businesses.
“The biggest struggle is first and foremost dealing with the reduced revenue. It was difficult enough for restaurants to make ends meet at 100 percent; the task of trying at 25 percent for an indefinite period is beyond daunting,” Chris Vlacich said, who also added that city regulations have “taken a hospitable experience and made it anything but. Of course, we understand why, but at the heart of it what we sell is hospitality.”
Piccola Venezia has been strategizing on ideas to make sure the business does not hemorrhage money. Over the last decade, the restaurant business, especially fine dining, has become increasingly more difficult.
With more competition, ever-increasing costs and continually-shrinking margins, the restaurant alone was not enough to support the families that founded this beloved institution.
Add a generational, financial, and social crisis like COVID-19 to those pre-existing challenges and it is clear that without change and a re-investment and commitment to the local community the Vlacich family will be unable to sustain this beloved restaurant.
Piccola Venezia, as much as a restaurant, has been a home to not only the Vlacich family but to legions loyal customers and “home” is certainly where the heart is.
In order to weather the coronavirus storm and to continue providing adored dishes to customers, Piccola Venezia hopes to renovate and rebuild its two-story location by expanding their parking lot and introducing a rooftop garden, as well as including 54 apartments in between. These proposed apartments will not only add additional living accommodations to the popular, ever-growing district, but 15 of these brand-new living spaces are also promised to be permanently affordable for those on a lower income.
In terms of the restaurant itself, the redesign looks to add a complete aesthetic makeover, appealing to Astoria’s unique character by adding an herbal garden to the rooftop and an outdoor dining space while modernizing the interior design to fit with a more contemporary consumer base.
It is this dichotomy between Piccola Venezia’s love of the neighborhood and desire to improve it — through their established culinary talents and new residential spaces — that they hope will not only help them flourish in the future, but Astoria along with them. Despite looking to the future, the restaurant intends to remain open throughout the construction, albeit from a nearby, yet-to-be-determined location.
“We are now the second generation. The restaurant industry is difficult even in good times, but multi-generational small businesses are hard to manage. This complete transformation of the property will allow us to continue to the next generation and the next 50 years,” said Vlacich.
In order for Piccola Venezia to continue serving their home as they have done for nearly five decades, they are in need of support from the community board and all those who live in the area. While Piccola Venezia may very well be the heart of Astoria, the residents are the lifeblood that keeps that heart pumping. With this support the enduring business can receive permission to begin their reconstruction when they go before the community board later this month.