Much like any other Sunday, the bright pink neon sign above the awning of Joe Abbracciamento Restaurant welcomed scores of hungry diners to a place etched in their memories for decades.
With a passing snow shower dusting the ground on a cold March evening, area residents laughed over glasses of wine and reminisced over helpings of eggplant parmesan for the final time.
This week, that inviting neon sign did not light up and diners did not flow into the restaurant looking for a plate of their favorite Italian meal.
Joe Abbracciamento’s at 62-96 Woodhaven Blvd. in Rego Park officially closed its doors after 66 years of loyal service.
“It’s like there’s been a death in the family,” Ellen O’Shaughnessy of Middle Village said as she waited with relatives for a table. “I’ve been coming here for many years. Everyone is really going to miss it.”
The feeling is mutual, according to John Abbracciamento, the longtime co-owner and chef whose restaurant is named after his father.
“I’m going to miss everything about the relationships we built with the community,” Abbracciamento said. “It was like I was leading a memorial. I couldn’t believe the outpouring of support. People were crying and giving letters and flowers. This was unbelievable.”
The restaurant, first owned and operated by Joe Abbracciamento, opened in 1948 and served dignitaries such as President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro through the years.
The junior Abbracciamento, who was born and raised in Middle Village, began working at the restaurant when he was 12 years old, was tasked with helping open and clean the place.
John Abbracciamento co-owned the eatery with his father until the elder’s death in 1999 and up until Sunday, John and his wife, Marie, have operated the popular spot with tremendous success.
Ever since the Abbracciamentos announced their decision to retire in January, business has boomed in ways not even they could have imagined.
“I expected that it would be a good turnout when we first announced it, but the turnout has been unbelievable over the last two months,” John Abbracciamento said. “We were getting, easy, 500 to 600 people a day. I’m not exaggerating. It was quite an amazing experience.”
While Abbracciamento stresses that he still is unsure of what the plans are for both himself and the building the restaurant sits in, he is intrigued by the idea of potentially opening up a small eatery featuring around a dozen tables in the future.
“I’m just physically and mentally exhausted. I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” he said. “I may come back with a boutique kind of restaurant with 10 tables. I could come in three or four days a week and do what I want to do each day. Who knows?”
Two patrons who came to soak up the atmosphere and their favorite entrees one final time on Sunday were Jack and Carol Veracoechea of Middle Village.
While the older couple was upset to see the landmark fade into the sunset, they couldn’t help but smile when talking about the years of memories they took away from Abbracciamento’s.
“It’s very sad to see it go,” Carol Veracoechea said. “Now we all have to cook!”
Her husband, a fan of the chicken piccata, says many important family events have occurred at Abbracciamento’s.
“I came here when I was 14 years old to get a slice of pizza,” Veracoechea added. “Our kids surprised us with our 60th birthday party here. We’ve had a lot of baby showers and funerals here.”
While a heavy dose of nostalgia accompanied the nonstop flow of customers, Abbracciamento didn’t have time to stop and reminisce on his own, but the number of patrons walking into the kitchen and personally thanking him for his service forced the issue.
“The fact that it was so busy, you really didn’t have that much time to think about it,” he said. “So many people came into the kitchen to say goodbye and I couldn’t concentrate.”
Despite the restaurant’s closing, Abbracciamento’s employees, many of whom have worked alongside the owner for many years, shouldn’t be out of a job for too long, as Abbracciamento recently arranged interviews with representatives from job placement agencies for all of his workers.
“I took care of them the best I could,” he said. “I worked with my people. I wasn’t the guy smoking the cigar in the $1,000 suit off to the side. We’re a family.”
Most people who worked six days a week for the better part of six decades would lean towards taking a long vacation after retiring, but not John and Marie Abbracciamento.
They still look forward to hanging the bright neon sign above their pool and being there for their community, a group of people that became extended family instead of just clientele.
“I’m just going to sit back and relax a bit, it’ll be nice to have a weekend off,” he said. “I’ll never say goodbye, it’s see you later.”