It would start around 5 every Friday evening: The line of cars outside, the seats filling inside, the hugs between regulars and the initial wave of martinis and chardonnay, maybe followed by sushi and bowls of bucatini.
This was the scene at Cirella's in Melville, week after week, Friday after Friday, as dozens of regulars descended on the bar for a TGIF ritual of cocktails, apps, gossip and letting off steam. That came to a pause in mid-March after restaurants shuttered their on-premises operations, per the demands of social distancing. Giving up their favorite corner of Cirella's bar has been a comedown for some of its habitués.
"It's where I go on Friday night. I used it as stress relief," said Gary Dvoskin, a Melville attorney who often posts about Cirella's on social media. "Now, more than ever, I miss venting that stress. I'm definitely getting claustrophobic."
Long Island is a wellspring of Italian restaurants, and diners who become devoted to one or the other often do so with a fierce devotion that can go beyond food. That's not to say owner Dean Cirella, who has run this Route 110 restaurant since 1987 (for a long time with his dad, Sal), is not wise to the changing tastes of the public. His idea to bring Italian dishes and sushi together under one roof (which he also does at nearby Gastronomy Kitchen, another of his restaurants) struck a chord; over the years Cirella has also added poke bowls and at least three keto-friendly zucchini pasta dishes.
Yet it's also the crowd who are a lure for Dvoskin and others. Dawn Montelle of Dix Hills has been coming here for 15 years, sometimes on Friday nights, when she said a tight-knit crowd of regulars tended to gravitate to one corner of the bar. "Everybody knows everybody, and the bartenders there know who you are, and know your drink," said Montelle (who goes for dirty martinis or chardonnay). "Then Dean would come over and ask what's happening in your life. Even the busboys come over and greet you."
Dvoskin dines out often, at places like MoCA Asian Bistro in Woodbury and Vittorio's in Amityville, but has been returning to Cirella's for 30 years — in part because of the food, such as zucchini Bolognese, but also because of the people he runs into there. "I'll say 'hello,' to six customers, at minimum," he said, at the bar, where the crowd tends to skew 40-plus.
Stacey Erdheim, also of Melville, has clocked about seven years of weekly visits to Cirella's, by her count. "I started [going] with a small group, a few years ago," said Erdheim, but over time that group swelled to 20 or 30 people, especially after the addition of a Plainview contingent that Erdheim turned on to the place. "Now, no one makes a plan [for Friday], until they know if we're going, to make sure they are not going to miss it. I've made a lot of wonderful friends just by going there."
Erdheim said she'll give Dean Cirella a heads up if the group is going to be especially large, and she and her husband will arrive by 5:30 p.m. for happy hour, sometimes staying 'til 9:30 or so. "Pre-pandemic, [he] lets us take over the high-tops," she said.
Less than two weeks before the dine-in closure, Cirella's unveiled a renovation, and Montelle said "the place looks phenomenal." She, Erdheim and others got in a few visits before the dining room and bar closed down, Erdheim even made it there for the last service, the night before, for her birthday dinner. "I knew I had to do it. We limited the number of people and I'm glad that was my last dinner out."
On March 16, like many restaurants, Cirella's quickly pivoted to takeout and delivery, putting on an upbeat social-media face as they rolled out $59 family dinner packages and to-go alcohol. Montelle has already gotten takeout a few times. "I’ve ordered and picked up, and they still make you feel homey," she said. (Among her favorites, besides sushi, is the gamberoni of shrimp and roasted spaghetti squash in tomato sauce). She does miss the scene, though. "We always eat at the bar and yeah, you miss that, you miss talking to the people you socialize with."