“TONY’S NUT HOUSE
Tucked between a partly vacant Roman Catholic church and a Vietnamese herbal store, the Beard Cafe, on Elizabeth Street, near Broome, could be mistaken for another downtown bar, priced out of SoHo or the East Village. At night, young urbanites and European tourists mingle to enjoy techno music and imported beer. Leftist literature competes for attention with a video art installation.
But during the day, the place mellows to resemble a European coffee shop with fresh muffins and stale cigarettes. When four elderly Italian men arrive, they create a bit of old Little Italy: the private social club, in the midst of a now-fashionable neighborhood. The men go to the rear of the club and descend into a hideout in the basement, where they spend several hours.
”It is the last traditional social club,” said Lillian Tozzi, a founder of the Little Italy Neighbors Association, whose family has lived on Mulberry Street for over a century.
The members of the club declined to be interviewed, but visitors say the basement is sparsely furnished with little more than a television set, a refrigerator and fading photographs of neighborhood friends. Not much happens, they add, besides watching television, playing a friendly game of hearts and chatting. Fans of ”The Sopranos” would be disappointed.
”You go to hang out with the boys,” said Tony Tenneriello, 80, the bartender at Mare Chiaro, an oak-paneled bar on Mulberry Street that evokes the area’s bygone charm. ”The bars were different back then. You could play a game of cards for a bottle of wine.”
Tony Tenneriello & Family
At His ITALIAN BAR
aka “TONY’S NUT HOUSE”
SINATRA with TONY
I first started going to Tony’s somewhere around 1984. Being myself (Danny) I always love the offbeat kind of place, whether we’re talking about restaurants, stores, Barber Shops, or in this cas bars. Don’t want anything shiney and knew, and most likely quite contrived. Give me a cool old well worn place like McSorley’s Ale House on East 7th Street (Since 1854) John’s of 12th Street, a few blocks from McSorley’s, Pete’s Tavern (Gramercy Park), or the good old Italian Bar, Mare Chiare on Mulberry Street in New York’s so-called Little Italy. Well, Mare Chiare (aka Tony’s Nut House) no longer exist. Not as that cool old Italian Bar, run by the unflappable Tony Tennerielo himself. Tony was just “Too Cool.” And he wasn’t even trying to be, he was just being Tony.
His Bar was absolutely awesome. It was low key, and had a cool old ambiance. It’s original 1908 deccor was kept pretty much intact. Tony’s was usually pretty quiet and you could go in there and get a drink, sit down at the bar or a table, throw a few quarters in the Juke Box, and play some “Dino,” Tony Bennett, and of course songs by Mr. Frank Sinatra. Sit down and relax, listening to great Italian-American music as you sipped your drink and chit-chatted with your friends. I here the place used to be busier back in the day, when the Old Police Head Quarters was still open, prior to 1973 when it was shut down and moved to it new facilities near City Hall. Before that, Mare Chiaro had a bit of a livelier crowd filled with lots of Policemen and Detectives of NYPD before the closing of Police HQs on Broome and Layfayette Streets nearby. The time-span when I went from 1984 until Tony Tenneriello sold his family’s old Italian Bar in 2003. Yes, most of the times I went to Tony’s wan’t crowded, usually, less than 12 people in the place. Regulars like me, simply called it Tony’s.
Besides going there any old time, especially on Sunday afternoons to watch a Giant’s or Yankees game, my favorite thing to do was to get an awesome Italian Sub Sandwich (to Go) at Parsisi’s Sanwich Shop, bring it to Tony’s, get a glass of Wine, put on some Sinatra and eat our tasty Sandwiches .
Yes, I had a lot of great times at Tony’s, but the best of all, was being at Tony’s one time when it was Tony’s Birthday. His family brought a Birthday Cake, we all sang “Happy Birthday Dear Tony,” Tony blew out the candles and we all had a piecce of cake, as one of his friends sang a couple Opera Songs. “Now what’s better than that I ask you?” Getting to sing Happy Birthdday to Mr. Anthony Tenneriello and sharing the good times and Tony’s Birthday Cake with the man himself.
Daniel Bellino Zwicke
I have a few old pictures I took at Tony’s back in the day. One day I’ll dig them up and post them here, for you can never get enough of Tony, or his awesome old bar, Mare Chiaro, aka Tony’s Nut House.
The NEW YORK OBSERVER … March 4, 2003
TONY SELLS MARE CHIARO
“Arrivederci , Tony”
Already, the regulars are suspicious.
Mare Chiaro’s was a Little Italy watering hole with oak-paneled walls, sawdust on the floor and the Old World atmosphere of an Italian social club. In the 1990’s, both the Paris Review crowd and the dot-com Wunderkinds embraced the bar as their own, despite the bright overhead lights and lack of fruit-flavored martinis. More recently, Nolita hipsters have held court-all under the watchful eye of Tony Tenneriello, who sold the bar last month. Until then, Mr. Tenneriello, 81, could be seen there every night, cigar in his mouth, working past 1 a.m., shuffling from table to table to clear glasses and staring defiantly at anyone who lingered too long or got too rowdy. Locals just called the place “Tony’s.”
Mr. Tenneriello said he sold the bar because of his age and the long hours the job required. “It looked like I was going to die in that bar,” he said. “But I sold it.”
The new owners haven’t decided yet whether to take down the black-and-white photographs of Tony posing with Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Madonna and others. “We have to retain the spirit of the bar,” said co-owner Eddy Welsh, 67, “but we also have to attract a new crowd. How much of a change do you make? Where do you draw the line?”
Indeed, Mr. Welsh and co-owner Richard Cestaro, 40, both local businessmen whose families grew up on Mulberry Street, have the unenviable task of “running Tony’s without Tony.” Their influence is already evident. In order to restore the exterior to what it looked like when the bar first opened in 1908, they’ve added copper outlay to the bar’s wooden doors and repainted the window frames, restoring them to their original white. Inside the bar, top-shelf liquor has been added, as has tap beer. The $3 Coronas now cost $5, and on the jukebox a buck buys two songs instead of three. The sawdust is gone. Soon the bar will serve lunch and late-night snacks: chicken wings, peel-your-own shrimp, eggs and peppers. Also under consideration is live Dixieland or country music. “Please God, NO !!!”
The bar had been in Mr. Tenneriello’s family since the turn of the century, when his father, Christopher Tenneriello, opened a small bar called C. Tenneriello’s at 1761¼2 Mulberry. Tony’s father worked the bar and Tony’s mother cooked Chicken Parmigiana and Spaghetti & Meatballs for a crowd of local Italians. After school, Tony would go to the bar and do his homework.
The police were the bar’s biggest crowd, coming in for lunch from their nearby headquarters on Centre Street. Members of the neighborhood’s crime families stayed away, according to Mr. Tenneriello.
“I’m not saying that no one ever came in,” he said. “But let me just say, thank God for the police.”
The police headquarters moved away in 1973, as did many of the neighborhood Italians, replaced by Chinese immigrants. By the late 80’s, the bulk of Mare Chiaro’s business were tourists who came to the city to visit the rash of new restaurants on Mulberry Street. Padding out the crowd was a mix of Artists and Writers . In the mid-1990’s, editors from the Paris Review met there every Friday night. The dot-commers would come by after long hours at their Broadway offices.
Nowadays, the crowd is thinner. A recent Thursday night found the bar sparsely populated with a mix of tourists, hipsters (White Stripes look-alikes) and stockbrokers. Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” played on the jukebox; an eager, short-haired female bartender was offering shots.
One of the stockbrokers, Mike, in his mid-30’s, had been coming to Mare Chiaro for the last six years.
“It was better when Tony ran the place,” he said, lowering his voice and looking around the bar. “The new owners want to get the yuppies in here. You can tell by the little things they’re doing-raising the prices of the drinks, the jukebox.”
Asked about this, Mr. Cestaro looked pained and said, “You can’t run a business selling $3 drinks.” He added that the bar’s prices are now on par with the other neighborhood bars.
If Mr. Cestaro and Mr. Welsh don’t have the full support of some of the regulars, they seem to have earned the respect of locally owned Italian businesses.
“To be honest, the bar needed an update,” shrugged one Mulberry Street restaurant owner. “The new owners are good guys. They realize they’re dealing with an institution; they’re not going to change it too much. Tony knew what he was doing when he sold it to them.”
Mr. Tenneriello said he has no interest in what the new owners may or may not change.
“What people want, and what people don’t want, it doesn’t matter,” he said, laughing hoarsely. “Things are going to change. It’s called progress, honey.”
READ about TONY in Italian-American New York Writer Daniel Bellino-Zwicke ‘s book La TAVOLA – ITALIAN-AMERICAN NEW YORKERS ADVENTURES of The TABLE La Tavola
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READ About TONY
An His MULBERRY STREET
aka “TONY’S NUT HOUSE”
In La TAVOLA
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