Losing a neighborhood favorite

Brothers Fred and Nic Santilli ran Nicola's on First Avenue with a personalized touch. Photo: Leida Snow

There was no indication that Nicola’s, the tiny food shop on First Avenue with the business card boast of “Serving Specialty Foods With Attitude Since 1976,” would be closing.

Word spread from longtime customer to longtime customer. “I can’t talk about it,” said one, her eyes filling with tears.

It wasn’t only that you could find otherwise hard-to-locate olive oils and pastas from Sicily, Tuscany and Abruzzo at Nicola’s. It was how the owners, brothers Nicola and Fred Santilli, would remember the cheeses you liked and also be quick to offer a new one to try.

The 280-square-foot space, just north of 55th Street, had coffees, olive oil, chocolate-covered orange slices, deli meats, Balthazar croissants and store-cooked delights for dinner.

Nic, who stands 5-feet, 5-inches tall and sports super-close cropped hair and a white goatee, started the business “because I love food and eating.” An interesting turn from his work as a banker. Nic and his parents immigrated to Montreal from Abruzzo, in southern Italy, when he was 3. After his brother was born, the family moved to New York when Nic was 13. He became a citizen at 18 and served in Vietnam.

The world was different 42 years ago, he explained: “I learned on the job. Even the distributors were family owned. They wanted my orders, so they answered every question. They were my training.”

Nic was lucky with his landlord, too. “In those days,” he said, “you’d meet personally with Stanley Stahl. He’d chat with you about your family and what you wanted to do, and then he’d figure out your rent accordingly.”

His ownership experience is in contrast to the landlord tales New Yorkers hear these days, with storefront after storefront displaying vacancy signs.

Nicola’s closing was different. The brothers have simply aged out, they said. Nic is 71; Fred, 66.

Fred (5-feet, 9-inches, with a full head of wavy gray hair and glasses) is quick with a quip. Asked how his wife feels about the closure, he smiled slyly, and spoke with his usual candor: “She’s glad I’m retiring, but she doesn’t want me around the house all the time.”

The brothers started easing up a few years ago, going from four employees to just the two of them. But the daily grind has finally caught up. Nic lives in Manhattan, but Fred, who joined his brother three years after the shop opened after selling his dry cleaning business, has been getting up at 6:30 a.m., six days a week, to make the commute from Oceanside, in Nassau County. And standing all day started to be a challenge.

The two are without pretense. Nic shared that being in business with his brother wasn’t always easy, even if the two would, by necessity, find compromise, even agreement. “It’s like any two people in a small space,” he said. “You work things out.”

Nic said he’s looking forward to spending part of every year in the family home in Abruzzo. Fred said he’ll be doing woodworking, a longtime hobby. And both have grandchildren to dote on.

Without hesitation, Nic said what they’ll miss most are “the customers. We have three generations shopping here.”

One distraught woman asked: “You mean I won’t see you anymore? I can’t believe it.”

My husband and I can’t believe Nicola’s closed either. There are other places, like the competition a few blocks south or Whole Foods, and someone may yet buy the Nicola name. But we won’t have the kind of personal, friendly, neighborly warmth we’ve experienced there for some three decades.

And the loss of Nicola’s will mean one less family owned shop, the kind that, for years, made New York different from all the places with the same chain stores.

High rents have pushed hundreds of small business owners out. That wasn’t Nicola’s story. But the neighborhood is still the loser.

One man put it concisely: “I’m happy for them,” he said. “They’ve worked hard their whole lives. But for us, it’s sad.”