Before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Nino's was just another Italian restaurant/bar on bustling, immigrant-filled Canal Street, a working man's hangout that owner Nino Vendome describes as serving "wholesome food at a fair price in a clean environment. That's all."
Now Nino's is this tragedy's own kind of ground zero. It is both an antidote to the misery nearby, and a microcosm of New Yorkers dealing with the attack's aftershocks.
Situated a dozen blocks from the Trade Center rubble, it's been closed to the public and converted into a 24-hour outpost for rescue workers. They can come in anytime, sit down be served free meals cooked by volunteer chefs and unload whatever it is they need to unload to make it through another overtime shift. Hardened cops shout out "Mama!" as they hug Nino Vendome's 78-year-old mother, Josephine, an Italian immigrant who seems to be inside the restaurant any hour of the day.
Its renown has now spread so widely that on Saturday afternoon, flamboyant-haired boxing promoter Don King dropped in for an hour with welterweight champion Felix Trinidad, scheduled to fight next Saturday, to serve food.
"You come here at night and it's magical," says general manager Nick Pasculli. "It's warm, quiet, there's a sense of family. We're providing a comfortable, safe home for these people. They walk in here and they can smile for the first time all day."
Wives of cops and firefighters and other rescue workers who fill the place at all hours often call Nino's, crying in gratitude, saying how their husbands "brag how sweet we are [with] them," says Eva Piccon, 26, who quit her marketing job a week ago to volunteer at Nino's full time. She adds that volunteers have come off the street from Ohio, Oklahoma and California.
"It's just the spirit of the place -- it's small and comfortable, not large and dramatic," says Armando Urbina, a New York police officer who stops by often. "And the chairs are comfortable. Our main concern is our feet."
Vendome says the decision to turn the restaurant over to relief workers was "no decision. There was no thought process. It was just, `What can we do?' We can provide comfort and food. It's taken on its own life now."
Many of the restaurant's workers and volunteers have family and friends who are among the thousands still missing. Pasculli had 10 good friends who worked at the Trade Center. Chefs from Windows on the World, the Center's 107th-floor restaurant, have been cooking food "until they fall down," says Vendome.
Pat Brenna, serving salad and penne pasta and sausage and peppers and "some kind of veal thing" to what looks like a whole precinct of cops, said her nephew is missing.
"I need to do something -- keeping busy helps you cope," says Brenna, who works for a Wall Street law firm. "I haven't been thinking of disasters, I've been thinking about these people." Her eyes tear up as she continues to serve. "I know one of them is going to find my nephew."
Vendrone, 49, now makes his living as a successful real estate developer. He's kept the restaurant on Canal Street -- opened 30 years ago and always a favorite of beat cops -- for his mother. When he arrived from Italy, his first job was selling coffee from a booth nearby.
He doesn't know how much keeping the restaurant closed is costing him. He says it doesn't matter.
"I'm making millions because of these people," he says, nodding toward a roomful of cops and firefighters who are eating, laughing, staring, sleeping in their chairs. "If it's US$200,000, US$300,000, that's what it is. I'm not Donald Trump. I do what I do.
"But this is what this country is about, and I'm a product of this country," he adds, outraged that people "posing as immigrants" were behind the attacks. "I came here with a nickel and a hope and a dream, and I couldn't have done it if all these people hadn't risked their lives every day to keep civility.
"As long as they are in the rubble," he says, "we are here."