An unfamiliar new contraption has risen in the parking lot of Vespa Italian Chophouse in Northport: A giant wooden panel mounted about 10 feet off the ground and painted white. On Thursday night, after the sun goes down, the opening scene of the 1995 film "Jumanji" will start flickering on its face as carloads of people watch, eating pizza and popcorn and sipping milkshakes.
This week ushers in inaugural drive-in movie nights at Vespa Italian Chophouse in Northport, the Sayville Athletic Club in Sayville and at least one other New York-area spot, the Bel Aire Diner in Astoria, Queens. The events have been springing up across the country since late April, one of the more novel solutions restaurants have rolled out to weather the coronavirus-driven closures.
"With everything that's going on, everyone just wants to get out of the house, and wants a sense of normalcy," said Michael Lomanto, who co-owns Vespa. The restaurant, whose original location is in Farmingdale, opened three weeks before the COVID-19 restrictions kicked in, and has been open for takeout since. "We want to keep people engaged."
A few weeks ago, Vespa created a drive-through for wood-fired pizza, and Lomanto soon after began planning the logistics of "Drive-In Dinner and a Movie." The screen was built, capacity was sussed out (35 cars, for now) and a plan created for low-contact food service. "We'll have these order sheets that we hand out when [patrons] arrive, so there's little contact with servers, and we told everyone to bring their own pens so there's as little contact as possible," Lomanto said. He also picked up an FM modulator to broadcast the soundtrack via car radios.
Each of the $100 tickets for the inaugural event sold out quickly, Lomanto said, and that amount goes to the minimum food-and-drink spend for the night: Pizzas from the outdoor oven, movie-style popcorn, snacks, soft drinks, cocktails and shakes such as a churro RumChata milkshake. "We'll have cocktails for the first hour, then cut it off," Lomanto said. Cars can arrive after 7 p.m. but no later than 8, and the movie begins at 8:30 p.m. (Vespa has since added two more nights, on Tuesday, May 19 (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Wednesday, May 20 (E.T.).
In Sayville, the Sayville Athletic Club has kicked off drive-in movie nights as well. Each $20 reservation is applied toward food, which as of this week included specials such as "elote" fries with cotija, jalapeños, crema, cilantro and tajin, and a house onion dip with fries or chips. That event starts at 8 p.m. and runs Tuesday to Saturday, and launched with the 1991 Patrick Swayze-Keanu Reeves blockbuster "Point Break" earlier this week. As in Northport, the sound is broadcast via FM radio.
Vespa Italian Chophouse, 842 Fort Salonga Rd., Northport. 631-651-9889. vespaitalianchophouse.com
Sayville Athletic Club, 209 Railroad Ave., Sayville. 631-319-1700.