At Caffe Reggio, a Rich History is Poured into Every Cup

Owner of Caffe Reggio, Fabrizio Cavallacci, on the storied coffee house that has been a New York haven for close to a century

| 17 Jan 2022 | 09:24

The café that made the first cappuccino in the United States is — like its coffee — still going strong thanks to second-generation owner Fabrizio Cavallacci. Born in Italy and brought to the United States as an infant, he grew up in the family business, as his mother bought Caffe Reggio in 1955, the year before his birth. For the last 30 years, he has been living upstairs from the famed coffee shop, and said, “I still have the books someplace in my apartment with espresso at 10 cents a cup.”

The iconic Village hangout for an eclectic mix of New Yorkers from famous actors and writers to tourists and college students, first opened at 119 MacDougal Street as a barber shop. Its original proprietor, Italian-born Domenico Parisi — whose hometown was Reggio Calabria, hence the name — was giving shaves to his all-male clientele for 10 cents. Being that the customers were primarily Italian, naturally, they asked for some espresso while they waited. Pretty soon, Parisi realized that he could bring in the same money in less time by solely serving coffee. He ordered an espresso machine for $1,000 from Italy, which still stands inside the café, and the rest goes down in Manhattan history.

In operation since 1927, Caffe Reggio has truly withstood the test of time. And although at the height of the pandemic, Cavallacci was taking in $50 and $100 a day, he was eventually able to double their capacity with street dining, which he said, “really helped us out a lot.” When asked about his future plans for the legendary establishment, which has expanded its offerings — until the late ‘50s it only served espresso and cookies — to now include Italian dishes like ravioli, one of his favorites, and a full bar, Cavallacci said, “You don’t fix it if it’s working.”

Tell us how your mother came to own Caffe Reggio.

My father was born in 1912 in Pescia, which is in Tuscany, Italy. He was in the marble business, so he migrated to the States with my mother. My mother was from Germany. He worked nine to five at the marble factory and my mother did not want to stay home the entire time. My father did not speak a word of English. My mother ... after a couple of months in the States, she knew how to speak English, she also knew how to speak Spanish and French. One day, from College Point, where the marble factory was, my father said, “I want to go see a friend of mine in the Village.” And they went to the Village and saw this very small café; it had only five tables. The counter was almost in the middle of the floor. It used to look like a gay bar because there were only men, no women — all the women stayed home. My mother said, “I like this place.”

So my father used to work in the marble factory and my mother used to take the train from Queens about an hour, and she used to come to the Village and open up around 11 o’clock in the morning and close around five o’clock in the afternoon. And then, in 1956, I was born. I was born in Italy and after a couple of months, I was brought to the States. Obviously, with me around, living in Queens was no longer suitable, so my parents got an apartment in the building, upstairs from the café at a mere $6 a month. The café was paying $20 a month. The landlady was a Jewish-German woman, so she used to get along with my mother very, very well. And in 1958, right next door to the café where there’s the second door, there was a shoemaker there. And the landlady said, “Why don’t you take it over?” because the shoemaker was old and he was closing the shop. And it was very hard to re-rent places in those days. The café used to take in $100 dollars a day in very few hours. So the landlady said, “You take over next door and I’ll charge you $50 a month of rent.” My mother and father said, “Okay.” Honestly, they are, I’m saying “are,” because now I’m the landlord, I bought the building in 1982. They are railroad apartments, so there are four rooms plus the bathroom.

You kept all the original artwork that was already there.

The original artwork is from the school of Caravaggio. And then there’s a bench that’s right on your righthand side when you enter the place, and that’s from the Medici family. There are a lot of original pieces that were there in 1955 when my mother bought the place.

When did you take it over?

I took it over when my mother passed away, and that was 1970. My mother passed away when she was 44 ... In those days, Caffe Reggio was very, very busy. I was making money like hell.

Who are some memorable people you’ve met there over the years?

Well, a lot of actors, a lot of writers. Even now, personnel tell me, “That actor is so-and-so,” which I don’t know myself. “That’s the writer so-and-so.” I don’t know these people.

Were you there when they filmed “The Godfather [Part II]?”

Yes, I was there when they filmed “The Godfather [Part II].” I was there when they filmed “Shaft.” “Shaft” was the first shooting with a black actor [as the action hero]. In those days, Caffe Borgia refused to have a black actor as a protagonist in the film. Cafe Rienzi, same thing. You know, it was 1971, so ... I mean now, between waiters and waitresses, I have four black [employees]. In those days, you could not have a black person making publicity for your place. Maybe because I’m of European descent and everything, I didn’t see it this way. I said, “So what? The guy’s black.” And honestly, it was in Caffe Reggio’s fortune, because “Shaft” was a great success and we got a lot of publicity and we got a lot of business.

What do you order there?

Anything that’s on my menu. I like ravioli very much. I like the FPC’s Club Sandwich, the one I made up. It’s a club sandwich with smoked salmon, egg and arugula salad.

Why do you think Caffe Reggio has such staying power?

I think the staying power is [due to the fact that] dining in Caffe Reggio is like being in a museum. I, myself, bought a lot of really precious artwork that people don’t know are precious. But the fact that the customers are surrounded by them makes them feel good. All those prints that you see, those are all originals from the 16th and 17th century. I had to go to places in Rome to pick them up and pay them thousands of dollars. Good thing people don’t know that they’re precious. If they would be in Italy, people would know. I always bought originals at auctions and everything.