THE PROPRIETOR OF A LANDMARK PIZZERIA AND FORMER NEW YORK CITY FIREMAN HAS BEEN INVESTING IN THE HEALTH OF HIS COMMUNITY FOR DECADES, FROM RAISING MILLIONS FOR CHILDREN’S MEDICAL CARE TO PERSONALLY HANDING OUT PIZZAS AFTER SUPERSTORM SANDY
BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
As a kid growing up in Staten Island, Michael Burke spent countless afternoons inside the walls of his family’s Denino’s Pizzeria, a Port Richmond Avenue landmark famed for bubbling thin-crust pies and homemade Italian classics. The restaurant, which opened as a tavern in 1937, found its calling card when the founder’s son and second-genera- tion owner, Carlo Denino (Burke’s stepfather), made the fortuitous decision to introduce pizza in1951.
His crispy, thin-crust recipe would go on to rack up numerous awards over the next seven decades and nabbed shoutouts in top-tier publica- tions like the New York Times and Time Out (Denino’s has even been featured across the pond in British newspapers). In 2000, after nearly 50 years at the helm, Carlo passed away, but today, his legacy lives on- even beyond the slice.
“My stepfather was always a generous guy,” explained Burke, who, alongside his mother a siblings, immediately took over operations after Carlo’s passing. “If anyone needed something, he would give it and never expect it back.
Over the years, we started donating to local organiza- tions, and as we saw the families it directly impacted, we got even more involved. My stepfather taught me that if there’s anything extra leftover at the end of the day and you have the opportunity to help someone, why not do it.”
Following the example of his stepfather, Burke has always been galvanized to invest in his community. The Wagner College graduate served as a New York City fireman for 11 years and was active during the September 11 attacks. Then, when Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast in 2012, he immediately sprung to action, walking up and down Midland Avenue on the South Shore for the next several days to offer compli- mentary pizzas to anyone in need.
“We probably handed out 1,000 pizzas in different spots on the South Shore,” he recalled. “On the second or third day, I bumped into four friends, and we decided to start Staten Strong, and through it we raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community. We handed out food, Home Depot gift cards, and even generators to people who needed help. We were lucky to be able to help.”
Today, the born-and- raised Staten Islander is involved with several charitable organizations in the borough and regularly hosts fundrais- ing events at the pizzeria. He serves on the board of the Emergency Children’s Help Organization (ECHO), a local nonprofit that provides financial assistance to children experiencing medical or living emergencies. He’s an ardent supporter of the Kids for Kids Foundation, a community initiative that raises funds for different organizations that support children and families struggling with medical challenges. Last year, Kids for Kids raised $2 million for St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and just this month, Burke and his team hosted an indoor cornhole tournament for St. Jude, garnering more than $200,000 for the hospital.
“I recently got to visit St. Jude, and it was so incredible to get to see the faces we are helping,” said Burke. “Each and every kid was smiling, which was so inspiring because I thought the opposite would be true. They are smiling because their families were with them, and there’s no financial worries on the parents. They were running around playing, laughing, and having fun with other kids, and that’s what makes it worth it for me.” Burke’s work with Kids for Kids eventually connected him with Staten Island University Hospital, and he began hosting events at Denino’s to raise money and awareness for SIUH’s Children’s Cancer Center. After several successful events, he was asked to join the SIUH Board this year. “I’m thrilled to get more involved with SIUH,” said Burke. “Staten Island has a bit of a stigma that when people need something, say a big medical procedure, they have to leave the borough to go into the city, but there are so many services available here that people just don’t know exist. We have exceptional doctors right here in our backyard. We are working to build an even better system here, and to create awareness in our community so Staten Islanders know what’s available to them. These incredible programs would be lost if we can’t fund them, so that’s why I wanted to get involved and do my part.”
And like Carlo before him, Burke is passing his passion for philanthropy onto his children. They serve on the junior committee of Kids for Kids and are actively involved in local endeavors, from selling T-shirts to hosting tournaments, all to support St. Jude.
“A couple months ago, we started a monthly donation for ECHO,” added Burke. “It’s only $25 a month, but people don’t realize how much that adds up. If millions of people would give just $25 each month, imagine the difference we could make.”