Gail Grasso at her Cold Spring Harbor restaurant, Grasso's, in...

Gail Grasso at her Cold Spring Harbor restaurant, Grasso's, in 2019.  Credit: Daniel Brennan

Gail Grasso, who distinguished herself at two Long Island institutions — Cablevision and Grasso’s restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor — died Monday.

According to her longtime friend, Janet Pickering, the cause of death was leukemia. Grasso, of Madeira Beach, Florida, formerly of Plainview, was 70.

Last year, Grasso transferred most of her interest in the restaurant to her partner, chef Tony Canales. She moved to Florida, where she lived with Pickering.

Grasso was born Gail Reynolds to Gloria and Bob Reynolds in the Bronx in 1951, the family moved to Plainview in 1953 and she went on to graduate from Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.

Pickering said Grasso was diagnosed with lupus as a child, and that related medical procedures prevented her from attending college. “When she was diagnosed, the doctor said she had a year to live,” Pickering recalled. “She went on to outlive two husbands.” Her first marriage, at 20, ended in divorce.

In 1975, Grasso took a job as a receptionist and switchboard operator at Cablevision, founded two years earlier by Charles Dolan. Margaret Albergo, who came on board in 1976 and retired in 2003 as executive vice president of planning and operations, remembered that “it was a small startup, maybe 50 employees. And everyone did everything.”

Albergo said that, in the beginning, “Cablevision was just a local reception service; there was no content.” But, as programming became important, Grasso “started out typing programming logs. She learned quickly and soon she transitioned to selecting and scheduling movies for our two ‘movie nights,’ ‘Cable Classic’ and ‘When Movies Were Movies.’

''Eventually, those two programs were merged and became American Movie Classics [now AMC]. Gail was a big part of that and also of Bravo, which started out as an arts and entertainment service.” Grasso, she said, eventually rose to be the executive in charge of programming at American Movie Classics, but left Cablevision about 1990.

About that time, she met and married Jim Grasso, an accomplished Long Island chef. In 1993, they opened a tiny Italian restaurant, Trattoria Grasso, at 9 Union Pl. in Huntington, with Jim in the kitchen and Gail running the front of the house.

The following year they opened Trattoria Grasso Due on Main Street in Cold Spring Harbor. A Roslyn Trattoria Grasso and a larger Huntington location at the Huntington Yacht Club followed.

When the Grassos divorced in 2000, Cold Spring Harbor was their only restaurant and Gail took sole ownership. (Jim Grasso died in 2014.) In 2006, it was re-christened Grasso’s Fine Dining and Jazz. Reviewing that restaurant in 2007, Newsday’s Peter M. Gianotti wrote that “Restless Gail Grasso has overseen several transitions at this address. At each stage, whether fine-tuning or overhauling, she's kept her name on a comfortable and consistent restaurant. The new Grasso's expands on the jazz theme … with live music Wednesday to Sunday.”

Grasso “was always a passionate supporter of jazz,” said pianist Wayne Sabella. She had been a frequent patron at Sonny’s Place, a well-known jazz club in Seaford, where she met and befriended many local musicians, Sabella among them.

By the time Sonny’s Place closed in 1997, Grasso had established a music program at her restaurant in Cold Spring Harbor. Sabella started playing piano in the dining room in 1998 and is still there most Wednesday nights.

Since 2000, Grasso’s kitchen has been run by Tony Canales, who was hired just three days after Gail and Jim opened their first restaurant. “I was almost 19 when I met them,” he said. “I had come from El Salvador and had no family here. Gail was like my mother.''

Poor health forced her to scale back her role in the restaurant and, eventually, led to her move to Florida in 2021.

 

Even though she lived in Plainview, Grasso was an ardent supporter of her adopted town, Cold Spring Harbor. Judy Hogan, owner of Sweetie Pies on Main (just across the street from Grasso’s), said that the two women served together for years on the Cold Spring Harbor Main Street Association, of which Grasso was, for a time, president.

“She was so generous to the community,” Hogan said, “offering the restaurant as a venue for events, bringing in a jazz festival. She loved all the arts.” During the pandemic, Hogan said, Grasso provided hot meals to the members of the Huntington Community First Aid Squad.

Pickering said her friend’s “whole life was devoted to helping other people, and she never expected anything in return. She was an extraordinary person.”

Grasso was predeceased by her immediate family and former spouses. A celebration of her life is being planned for this summer at the restaurant.

Donations can be made in her name to the Lupus Foundation of America or the Long Island Humane Society.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story listed 1951 as the year Gail Grasso moved to Plainview. 

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