BUILDING UPON THE SUCCESS OF THEIR FIRST SOCIAL ENTERPRISE EATERY, THIS STATEN ISLAND COUPLE AND PROLIFIC PHILANTHROPISTS CELEBRATE THE OPENING OF A VIBRANT PIZZERIA AND CAFÉ FULLY DEDICATED TO THE BETTERMENT OF THE BOROUGH THEY’RE PROUD TO CALL HOME
BY AMANDA MCCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
The Italian phrase “Mangia Bene, Fai Bene” translates to “Eat Good, Do Good,” and it served as the driving sentiment behind the latest community venture from prominent philanthropists Lois and Richard Nicotra, the husband-and-wife power team behind The Nicotra Group. Pienza Brick Oven Pizza Café, located in the couple’s Corporate Commons Three building in the booming Corporate Park of Staten Island mega-complex, is a lively, quick-service restaurant, a place for families to gather over a bubbling Grandma Pie, where office colleagues meet for an energizing midday break and regulars stop in to try the chef ’s daily specials.
On the surface, it appears a successful, profit-generating business for the Nicotras, whose experience in the food service industry dates back decades, but each plate that leaves Pienza’s kitchen serves a greater purpose: to benefit the Staten Island community. Every dollar of profit earned is given to local nonprofits and scholarship funds. “Our first social enterprise eatery, the COMMONS café, was built on our long history of food service, starting with our first successful worldwide franchise, Everything Yogurt,” explained Lois Nicotra of the quick service café and grill, which became NYC’s first social enterprise eatery when it opened in 2011.
“The COMMONS café combined our love of hospitality and our focus on helping our Staten Island community. We have gifted more than $1 million in grants to Staten Island nonprofits and college scholarships to our employees’ children and grandchildren. With Pienza, we hope to more than double our giving.” Opened this spring, the restaurant was inspired by one of the Nicotras’ favorite travel destinations, the small hilltop hamlet of Pienza in Italy’s Tuscan region. “It’s a beautiful, traditional, delicious environment that allows us to feel an escape, and we wanted to bring the flavors and that special feeling to our hometown,” added Richard Nicotra.Warm and bright (a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows blankets the space in natural light), the ground-level eatery is filled with sleek wooden dining tables and seating for indoorsand out. There is a life-size indoor Olive Tree, which extends across the ceiling and even “breaks through” the front window. It was designed and constructed in California.
The mold was made from a real tree in the forest. The menu, inspired by the vibrant flavors of Italy, is yet another testament to the Nicotras’ fervor for supporting local. Many of the ingredients that dress the pizzas, antipasti, and pastas were harvested just nine stories from the open-air Nicotra Grown Organic Rooftop Farm, located atop Corporate Commons Three. “The fresh flavors and atmosphere of Pienza is one that transports you without the need to get a stamp in your passport,” said Richard Nicotra. “The Grandma Pie is already a fan favorite. It incorporates fresh tomatoes, basil, arugula, and more from our rooftop farm, which is just an elevator ride away. When a guest bites into a Grandma slice and tastes the fresh basil (that is the size of their hand since it was grown in an organic setting),they often say there is nothing like it.
Once you taste a farm fresh tomato or the crisp, peppery arugula, you are spoiled.” Starters span a variety of house-made shareables, including house-blend meatball stopped with ricotta, Italian egg rolls stuffed with broccoli rabe and sausage and served with a pool of garlic aioli, and crispy golden Tuscan fries tossed with garlic, herb, and parmesan. A line-up of heroes featuring chicken cutlets or slowly braised roast beef on freshly baked bread or focaccia sandwiches featuring freshly picked garden veggies. Italian imported De Cecco pastas are served Bolognese, Primavera, Vodka, or Alfredo. The namesake pizza is a mainstay; diners can choose between a cheese, pepperoni, classic white, or Grandma base and customize their pie with a suite of toppings. There are also soups, calzones, rolls, and the house specialty: rice balls. Since opening day, the owners said Staten Island was there to show its support.
Referring to the community’s response as “overwhelmingly warm and enthusiastic,” Richard Nicotra said bookings quickly came pouring in, from groups of retirees, caraficionados, class trips, local businesses, and more, who enjoyed a tour of the Nicotras’ Farm before their taste of Pienza. Just like their COMMONS café, 100% of Pienza’s profits are donated to an array of local nonprofits that serve Staten Island and its residents, including scholarship funds, community building organizations, youth groups, faith-based groups, food banks, literacy programs, and more.
The Nicotra Group is a longstanding partner of Staten Island University Hospital as well, as both organizations are committed to the betterment of the borough. “We have supported Staten Island University Hospital throughout our career and at one time Richard sat on the board of the hospital,” said Lois Nicotra. “We have partnered on many successful fundraising efforts. Many people say health is wealth but like any good financial return you have to make small investments along the way, and we believe that by investing and supporting Northwell, we are ensuring that our community has access to the healthcare we all need. Northwell has made a commitment to us and our community that they will continue to bring world-class physicians and healthcare to our community, and in return we feel an obligation to support that vision.
We can’t expect the healthcare we need to be there when we need it if we do not plan to invest and support their efforts.” When asked about future plans, Lois and Richard Nicotra playfully called on a quote from their favorite song, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” famously performed by Barbra Streisand. “The lines, ‘How do you keep the music playing? How do you make it last? How do you keep the song from fading too fast?’ all speak to our plans for the future, which is to live each day together doing what we love with each other and surrounded by our team and community. We want everyone we interact with to know that we are devoted to the relationships we are building, the community we serve, and the bright, healthy future we know we can all enjoy together when we support each other.”