AFTER A DISTINGUISHED 33-YEAR CAREER IN MANHATTAN’S HIGH-PROFILE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY, THIS LOCAL SPORTS BAR OWNER IS KEEN ON BUILDING A BETTER TOMORROW FOR HIS STATEN ISLAND NEIGHBORS THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS WITH LOCAL NONPROFITS, INCLUDING THE SIUH FOUNDATION
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Many might have viewed the timing as calamitous, but when Ralph Tafuri opened Ralph’s Sports Bar in the thick of an unprecedented global pandemic, he was awestruck by his community’s support. The Bronx-born Italian-American had envisioned a community-centric saloon, a place where family and friends could come together to share laughs over his mother’s famous homemade rice balls and feel as if they were dining at home. “Like no other sports bar,” he called it, and even though the pandemic put a veritable strain on his first two years in business (according to the Brookings Institution, leisure and hospitality were, unsurprisingly, the most COVID-vulnerable industries), Tafuri never faltered on one of his core missions: to give back to his Staten Island home.
“COVID was a hiccup in the road,” noted Tafuri, who moved to Staten Island with his wife in 1999. “It’s been painful at times, yes, but we never lost sight of the prize. My goal was always to exceed customers’ expectations while keeping the community in mind.”
Located on Richmond Road, down the block from where his sisters reside, Ralph’s Sports Bar has the local neighborhood ingrained in its DNA. A collage of jerseys, ballcaps, and cleats hangs from the walls, provided entirely by patrons, kids, and his own collection. Tafuri’s son, daughter, sisters, and mother are all involved, prepping rice balls, assisting with brunch, or planning fundraising events for local nonprofits. The owner is on site daily, stopping by tables to greet old friends and new, donning a gregarious smile and sneakers a far cry from the designer tuxedos he wore for 30 years.
Prior to opening the hometown pub, Tafuri built an illustrious 33-year career in Manhattan’s ultra-high-end hospitality scene, spearheading celebrity galas, world-class sporting events, and corporate ceremonies with the Metropolitan Opera, American Express, Pfizer, and other prominent names. He rubbed elbows with Tony winners, professional athletes, and Fortune 500 CEOs before trading red carpet events to be closer to home.
“I drove into the city every day for more than 30 years,” said Tafuri, who landed his first position with the Met Opera in college, working his way up from closing bar manager all the way to regional director of performing arts and cultural centers. “I was there at 5 a.m. for breakfast and managing events until 10 p.m. Come to think of it, those actually sound like my hours now [laughs], but I’m a three-minute drive from my mom’s house. I often take naps at her place on my lunch break.”
Growing up in an Italian-American household, family dinners were always full-blown affairs, and Tafuri remembers helping his uncle grate cheese and prep meatballs at only four years old. Today, his sports bar serves all the staples of his childhood: his nonna’s rice balls with house-made marinara sauce, fresh panko-crusted ravioli, and rigatoni carbonara with marinara and mozzarella. The kitchen staff also whips up juicy Baseball Burgers, hearty sandwiches, steaks, chops, seafood, pizzas, and a fan-favorite Tomahawk Experience served with scratchmade mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes, and roasted Brussels sprouts. Even amid a pandemic, the homegrown food and atmosphere attracted an immediate cult following, so the business owner began brainstorming how he could reinvest the money earned back into the community sometimes to his accountant’s alarm.
“My accountant would ask me, ‘You think this is the right time [to donate money to local causes]?’” he said with a laugh. “For me, it was a no-brainer. Money is not the most important thing in life. I want to feel proud and happy with what I do.”
Tafuri began sponsoring youth sports teams and got involved with several organizations, including the fire and police departments, public schools, the Holy Name Society, and even local supermarkets, but there was one organization in particular he was eager to partner with: Staten Island University Hospital.
“I was talking with one of my neighbors about how I can reach out to someone within the hospital to get involved,” reminisced Tafuri. “He connected me with someone on the board, who introduced me to the hospital’s community health team that’s dedicated to giving.”
Tafuri’s philanthropic proposal to the Staten Island University Hospital Foundation spanned three tiers. “One was a financial gift, to aid whatever cause SIUH deemed the most necessary,” continued Tafuri. “They suggested a program that supplied kids with winter gear like coats and hats, and I immediately jumped at that. Secondly, it was important for me to support the people doing the work, so we gave 60 restaurant gift cards to people who worked in the hospital.”
Lastly, the Ralph’s Sports Bar team made a donation of $4,000 to the hospital.
“It’s not a crazy amount of money, but for us it was substantial because we were concerned about paying rent,” said Tafuri, adding he also has plans in the works to host a food and beverage fundraising event for the hospital this spring.
“Catering is really my forte,” he said. “I love seeing a raw space turn into something special.”
Tafuri attributes his passion for bettering the community to his upbringing. “I grew up in an extremely loving household,” he said. “So I always saw the bigger picture.” He’s instilled that desire in his kids, who regularly join their father to plan fundraising events, attend ceremonies, or even stand outside of supermarkets to collect donations for local food banks.
Ralph’s Sports Bar Restaurant
ralphssportsbarsi.com / 718.285.4783
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