Forty-seven years ago, Michael Mazzella woke up from a dream in a cold sweat. It was the summer of 1975 — his one-bedroom place on the South Shore of Staten Island felt cramped, even though now it was just him and his three-year-old son. The mother of the boy had felt inadequate in parenthood and scampered back to Palestine — Michael and Michael Jr., known to most as Little Mikey, would never see her again.
Michael, wiping his brow, sat at a tiny desk on a sweltering Staten Island summer night at 3:30 a.m. (though neighborhood “biographers” claim it was closer to dawn) and wrote a simple word across a yellow legal pad. He ripped the page out and taped it to the wall like scripture: “Bagels!”
And so, a prophecy of sorts was born out of the unconscious. Legend has it that the note once taped to Mr. Mazzella’s wall had been framed in-house at his NY Jumbo Bagels — 1070 Second Avenue, between 56th and 57th Street — just above the coffeemaker, all the way from its opening in 1977 to as late as 1994. Little Mikey told me a pair of hooligans with switchblades once stole the framed note and nothing else. “The price you gotta pay when operating as a 24-hour joint,” he added.
It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that Little Mikey made what he called, “the toughest decision I ever had to do as owner”: the 24-hour joint was going to transition to regular business hours, closing at 7 p.m. “You see a lot of things over the years, over the long nights. You even get stuck up some times — a lot of bizarre scenes play out before you. Sorta like “After Hours,” that Scorsese flick.”
I asked how many times the store had been robbed in its near half-century run. Immediately he shot back, “Nine,” before pausing for a moment, adding, “so far.” He pointed a half-pound tub of homemade scallion cream cheese at me and said not to get any funny ideas about number ten.
Big Shoes to Fill
Michael Mazzella died on September 11, 2001. He was in the South Tower paying a visit to his friend and accountant. It goes without saying, Little Mikey said while fighting emotion, that they must’ve been going over how well Jumbo was doing, how bright the future seemed.
Michael Jr. knew he had big shoes to fill as the proprietor of a neighborhood staple, a shop deeply entrenched on Second Avenue, a place of stability with warm bagels and thinly-sliced lox, with freshly-brewed coffee concocted with such vigor and precision that should one ever enter Jumbo Bagels with a Starbucks cup already in hand, you might have to brace yourself for the flurry of quips from Little Mikey and his cronies behind the counter, most of whom have been there for years.
“Six bucks for that? Six dollas for that ole moonjuice, pal? You don’t know coffee, huh!” I never did get around to ask what exactly moonjuice meant.
During a lull after the morning rush, I sat down with 26-year-old Little, Little Mikey, who preferred to go by ‘MJ,’ his initials of Michael Joseph. “What kinda bialy you need?” he asked before sitting.
I told him I was O.K., I didn’t want one. He stood motionless, as if not registering. “They just came out. I didn’t ask if you want one, I asked which one you need because these suckers are magic.” Acquiescing, a complimentary poppy bialy was provided.
“The Best Bagels”
MJ has been working alongside his father for as long as he can remember. But with the exceptional turnover of various businesses — especially independently-owned-and-run restaurants — I wondered how Jumbo had been able to stay afloat for so long, with next month a celebration of its 45th anniversary.
He furrowed his brow as if asked something rhetorical — remarking how he’d noticed me coming in most mornings for the past seven or so years, that perhaps I, myself, knew the answer. I returned his mental gymnastics, remaining silent for a few excruciatingly long moments until his face grew grave.
“We have the best bagels in the city. Period. Print that. You know it, I know it, the Avenue knows it,” he said. “Why do you think we got the same customers coming to us for thirty years? For our charm? Our good looks?” He excused himself momentarily to open the heavy front door for a frail, elderly woman, who thanked him profusely by name. “Don’t write that part down,” he told me with a smile.
Before our interview was over, I said I’d be doing a disservice to the community if I didn’t probe directly about the bagel-making process. “It’s not the ‘New York’ water that makes them so good, it’s none of that crap you read online,” MJ said. “You wanna know the secret recipe? Go ahead and tell the world: water, yeast, flour — boom.” He thumped his pointer finger to his chest four times. “It’s the heart. That’s why our bagels are going to live forever. We are the community. We want to continue serving people forever.”
“You wanna know the secret recipe? Go ahead and tell the world: water, yeast, flour — boom.” MJ Mazzella