I THIS HOSPITALITY ENTREPRENEUR’S SUCCESS IS ANCHORED IN HUMBLE BEGINNINGS, HILARIOUS CHILDHOOD ANTICS, AND AN IRONCLAD WORK ETHIC
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
“It was tough every single time I left the house,” recalled Tony Del Gatto of the early days of his entrepreneurialism. “I didn’t have family money behind me. In the beginning, I took a beating.” Known throughout Bergen County as “Mr. D,” the Manhattan born hospitality pro is the co-proprietor of both the Westmount Country Club and Grissini Restaurant, an Englewood Cliffs staple revered for its scratch made meatballs and pastas. Del Gatto has, in fact, cultivated several enterprises in the greater New York area. His resume includes owning and operating catering halls, sheet metal contracting firms, and even a handful of nightclubs. But you won’t find any diplomas adorning office walls; he never took a class on finance, and did not learn how to craft Grissini’s coveted Sunday Sauce at a culinary institute.
“I did my schooling in the streets,” explained the Hells Kitchen native.
One of four kids, Del Gatto was raised on the corner of Manhattan’s 39th Street and 10th Avenue, where hot water and air conditioning were luxuries many families lived without. During summer months, when temperatures soared past 90 degrees, the kids slept outside on the fire escape and found relief in the waters of the Hudson River. Work wasn’t always easy to come by at the time, either, Del Gatto explained, particularly for Italian Americans.
“It was a pretty rough ride,” he recalled of formative years. “Italians weren’t really accepted in that area. In those days, we used to run around the streets and swim down the piers and try to get day work at the market. If you were Italian, you were the last one to be called.”
Del Gatto’s father was employed as a linotype operator at a printing company, and brought home a small but steady salary of less than $20 per week. He was an ardent proponent of education, however, and encouraged his children to focus on studies in the hope that one day they would pursue higher learning. His second oldest child, however, was more interested in putting coins in his pocket.
“My father wanted me to go to college, but I wanted so badly to make money. I was out all over the neighborhood doing anything I could; I would shine shoes…anything. I left home with no money, and wanted to come back later that day with at least a quarter or 50 cents.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the young businessman figured out how to bring in more sizeable earnings. In 1951, at only 13 years old, Del Gatto and a friend each borrowed $15 from their mothers to launch a pushcart business. The duo walked several blocks to the market at 4 a.m. every morning to buy bundles of the freshest produce they could find, then hauled them back to sell on 9th Avenue. On a good day, Del Gatto could expect to come home with $40, doubling his father’s weekly salary. The venture proved to be so successful that he stopped going to classes altogether. When the school authorities began calling his home, the clever kid devised a plan.
“She would say, ‘These new inventions, they’re terrible,’” he said with a laugh, recalling his mother staring confoundedly into the handset. “The phone rings all day, but when I answer there’s nobody on the line!” The young Del Gatto (or “Butchie,” as his family called him) would then helpfully investigate the issue, in the process secretly slipping the magnet back into the telephone.
“Ma, it works just fine,” he’d say. By the time he was 16, Del Gatto made the decision to officially quit school and enter the workforce as a sheet metal laborer. With many family members also in the trade, his cousin helped secure him a job on Long Island that generated a reliable paycheck.
“I took a bus to a train to a bus, and it took almost two hours to get to work. But I didn’t mind,” he said. “I just wanted to make money.”
Del Gatto continued working in the field for three years until he was drafted into the Army at 19. After two years of service, he returned to New York, where he would soon get married and start a family. Not long after the birth of their first child, Del Gatto and his wife decided to cross the Hudson and settle in a quiet corner of the Garden State.
The move turned out to be a bit of an adjustment. “When I moved to New Jersey, I thought I had moved to Mars,” he offered with a smile. “It was just so nice, quiet, and beautiful.”
At this point in his career, Del Gatto was making a comfortable salary that afforded many of the amenities his childhood home lacked, but for the ambitious father of four, it wasn’t enough. Tired of laboring to pad someone else’s pockets, he wanted to go into business for himself. In 1964, with the help of a loan from his father, he teamed up with three friends to buy a crane, then launched a rigging company called Astro Hi Lifts. From there, he opened a sheet metal company under the moniker Space Ventilation, followed by S N H Mechanical Corporation. He was also regularly hired to do contracting work for the World Trade Center. Business soared for more than a decade until, in the late ’70s, a fiscal crisis rippled across the area.
“The city went broke, and the jobs were shut down,” he said. “Luckily, I was still able to get work as a mechanic and construction worker, but then decided to buy a catering place called The Cameo. My wife asked what I knew about catering. I said that whatever it is, I would learn it.”
Inexperience notwithstanding, the business flourished. Just one year after opening, Del Gatto and his younger brother, Tom (who is still his business partner and right hand man today), acquired the Westmount Country Club. He subsequently bought and operated a string of nightclubs and disco haunts, and then in 1992, came across the crumbling site of a once iconic Chinese restaurant. On a whim, Del Gatto and four friends bought it.
That site would become Grissini Restaurant, a Bergen County landmark lauded for house made pastas, wood fired pizzas, and entrees like Scaloppine a Piacere and Dentice Mare Chiaro (filet of red snapper). To the co owner, Grissini is the consummation of a long and laborious road to success. And nostalgia is sprinkled on every corner; the Sunday Sauce recipe is a relic of his childhood, when the young Del Gatto stood alongside his mother’s apron and helped her prepare meals for the week. Outside the front door, a bushel of tomatoes is perched beside a sign that reads, “For sale, 15 cents.”
“My motto has always been to refuse to lose, and that seems to have worked out for me,” he added with a laugh.
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