Monday, May 25, 2020

The Lost Gonfarone's Restaurant - 181 MacDougal Street

By 1916 when this photograph was taken, the business engulfed 179 MacDougal and 38 and 40 West 8th Street.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

In 1839 Dr. Robert Hogan and his family lived at No. 3 St. Clement's Place just south of 8th Street.  He owned No. 5 on the corner as well, which he leased as an investment.   The identical homes were three stories tall and faced in brick.  The Greek Revival style entrances sat above relatively short stoops and featured engaged Doric columns which upheld substantial stone entablatures.  Three bays wide, they rose to a simple fascia board and cornice.

Dr. Hogan and his wife, Eliza Helen, had three daughters, Clara, Sarah, and Ellen Louise.  He had been educated in Dublin's Trinity College and would be a leader in New York's Irish community.   The New York Times later pointed out "It was mainly through Dr. Hogan's exertion that the Irish Emigrant Society and the St. Patrick's Society were instituted."

Hogan's tenant in No. 5 in the 1840's was William W. Groesbeck, a well-to-do importer.  When the street's name was changed in 1860 his address became No. 181 MacDougal Street.

Dr. Robert Hogan died on November 29, 1861, The New York Times saying he "had achieved eminence in his profession as a physician."  Following Eliza's death on February 18, 1867 the real estate was inherited jointly by the three daughters.

Between 1870 and 1874 Mme. Marie Griffou leased both houses, combining them it into a hotel and restaurant.  She later opened the Griffou Hotel on West 11th Street at which point Caterina Gonfarone, a widow, took over the MacDougal Street business, renaming it Gonfarone's.

The restaurant, which was in the basement, could seat 50 or 60 customers.  Although only a block from fashionable Washington Square, the neighborhood around the hotel was quickly filling with Italian immigrants.  Caterina changed the cuisine from French to Italian.  Her business might never have been remarkable had it not been for a chance encounter with a delivery man in 1892.

Anacleto Sermolino was 24-years old and had eloped with a girl, Vittoria, and fled to America from his village, Vigevano, Italy.  After struggling to find work for three months, he got a job as a delivery man for a wine merchant.  One day, after delivering wine to Caterina Gonfarone, they talked.  Learning that he was good with figures, she offered him a job as cashier.

As it turned out, Sermolino was not only good at figures, but at marketing.  He convinced Caterina to move the restaurant to the first floor and to obtain an excise license.  Within a year the success of the business prompted Caterina to make him a partner.  The New York Times remarked "In a short time he popularized the enormous dinner for which he charged 50 cents, with 15 cents added on week-ends when a lobster course was included."  Sermolino added a trio of musicians to provide music.  His daughter, Maria, later recalled "They were short on Beethoven and Bach, but long on Bellini, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini."

Decades later The Times remarked "Under his guidance the place acquired wide popularity and the late General Daniel E. Sickles, who lived close by on Fifth Avenue, was a frequent patron.  Another eminent patron was Mark Twain."  

As the 20th century dawned, another group was changing the face of Greenwich Village--the artists, poets, writers and musicians who transformed the district into New York's Bohemia.  The list of writers and artists who haunted Gonfarone's was impressive, including O. Henry, Arnold Daly, Jo Davison, and Enrico Caruso.  

In his 1910 novel Predestined Stephen French Whitman slightly veiled Gonfarone's as Benedetto's, "a Bohemian resort":

It was there, through the tobacco smoke, Felix watched the patrons, their feet twisted behind chair legs, their elbows on the table, all arguing with gesticulations.  Sometimes, there floated to him such phrases as: "Bad colour scheme! Bad colour scheme!" "Sophomoric treatment!" "Miserable drawing!" "No atmosphere!"  

In January 1905, under the business name of Gonfarone & Sermelino, the partners purchased No. 43 West 8th Street then hired architect R. H. Hatch to enlarge the hotel into that property.

Life for the Italian immigrant community was often hard and sometimes dangerous.  In August 1906 18-year old Rencari Gervaso, a waiter here, spent much of his money on an attractive woman, Maria Pecora, who lived nearby on Carmine Street.  Maria played the field, taking gifts and money from other Italian men, including Angelo Mazzocca and Luigi Giraldi.  Her mistake was to include "a big Sicilian" known only as Beppino in her ruse.

Gervaso found himself in serious trouble when Maria was found stabbed to death in her apartment on August 10 not long after he had left her.  He had passed Beppino coming up the stairway as he left; but was more afraid of the Sicilians than of the police, so withheld that information.  Luckily, he had told a female worker at Gonfarone's about Maria's fear of Beppino.  When investigators interrogated employees she supplied the information that cleared Gervaso.

The sometimes sketchy personality of the neighborhood was evidenced less than a month later, on September 3, 1906, when Louis Perasso was shot and killed in the hotel.

An advertisement in the New-York Tribune in 1915 touted "Lunch 45c.  Dinner 60c, with Wine, Music & Song."  The price of a dinner would equal just over $15.50 today.

Anacleto Sermolino bought out Caterina Confarone in 1910 and, according to the New York Hotel Review, "she set sail for Italy."  He wisely did not change the name of the establishment.  But after having been a Greenwich Village staple for decades, it suffered business troubles when Prohibition was enacted.  Sermolino sold the business and it went through a rapid turnover of owners until Annibale Maggi and his wife took it over.

The Maggis embarked on "a brave effort to restore something of its pre-prohibition republication," said The New York Times, later.  It continued to be a popular spot for dinners, like the testimonial dinner in honor of Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett in 1926 following their flight over the North Pole; the dinner of the Jenny Lind Memorial Association in 1921, and the one held for Giuseppe de Michelis, Royal Italian Commissioner of Immigration who visited New York in 1922.

But it was a losing battle.  On April 20, 1930 The New York Times entitled an article "Doors Are Closed At Old Gonfarone's."  While it said that "the Della Robbia room, on the main dining floor, continued to be a popular eating place and the scene of many entertaining dinner meetings of various societies," changing conditions and the "rapid incursion of business into the Eighth Street block," had led to the difficult decision of the Maggis to close.

The two original houses were still owned by the Hogan family.   The article reported "With the exception of the Eighth Street basement and parlor frontage rented for stores, the old building is now vacant, as the hotel section was closed some time ago."

It seemed that the old hotel had received a reprieve later that year when The Times reported that De Witt Nicholas had remodeled the building "at the expense of a few thousand dollars" into a "thoroughly modern" hotel for men only.  Nicholas preserved some of the history of the building.  "It was interesting to notice that many of the rooms still retain the white marble fireplace mantelpieces which were originally put into the two Macdougal Street houses when they were erected."

But then, on April 22, 1936, The New York Times reported "A taxpayer will replace the former Gonfarone Restaurant structures."  Taxpayers are most often low, relatively inexpensively built structures which provided enough income to the owners to pay the property taxes.  They were frequently seen as relatively temporary as well, paying for themselves while permanent development schemes were finalized.

In 1937 a cleaners operated from the former dining room and De Witt Nicholas's "hotel" advertised furnished rooms.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In April 1937 architects Leon & Lionel Levy filed plans for a "one-story and basement stores and office" building on the site.  The following month The Times reported "Within a block of Washington Square another landmark has just disappeared in the demolition of the old buildings celebrated as Gonfarone's for more than half a century prior to the prohibition period."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
The replacement building, altered, survives; although plans to replace it with a residential building were approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in April 2019.

rendering by Morris Adjmi Architects via Curbed New York


  1. this book may interest anyone who wants to read more about life in this restaurant, written by the daughter of Mr. Sermolino. it was a nice read:
    Papa's Table d'hote Hardcover – January 1, 1952
    by Maria Sermolino (Author)

  2. Thanks for this....very enjoyable....also as I owned a restaurant in GV for 20 years