It was an out-of-the-way gem, tucked around the back of a historic brick building in Oyster Bay and where you could land fresh house pasta, local greens, shellfish harvested nearby and wines and ciders made on Long Island. In the open kitchen, chef-owner Peter Van Der Mije would often have his head down in concentration as he plated grilled Montauk calamari or bucatini cacio e pepe.
Was is the operative word. In a familiar refrain during a COVID-battered season, Osteria Leana has closed, said Van Der Mije; its last service was Dec. 26. "There were some tears," he said, among the 10 staff who remained after the vagaries of 2020 had cut their ranks in half.
Though the nearly five-year-old Osteria Leana is no longer, Van Der Mije said he plans to hold pop-up dinners in 2021 at places such as Rexer Family Farm in Huntington, and will continue to operate his other Oyster Bay eatery, Taco Bay, once it reopens after a winter hiatus. There, he’ll package and sell Osteria Leana standards such as cucumber gazpacho, watermelon panzanella and fresh pastas — pici, fazzoletti, bucatini, ravioli — rolled by cook Marisol Zaldvar. "It’s a way for her to keep making her beautiful pasta," said Van Der Mije of Zaldvar, who rolled all of pasta for Osteria Leana and also makes pupusas for Taco Bay.
Van Der Mije opened Osteria Leana in spring 2016 after cutting his chops in London and New York with chefs such as Phil Howard, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Marcus Samuelsson and Dan Kluger. Named for his grandmother, the restaurant was a cozy, modern 40-seat spot where seasonality was paramount as Van Der Mije, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, fused Italian and new American traditions with locally grown, foraged and harvested ingredients.
As COVID-19 took a partcularly hard hit on fine-dining restaurants, Van Der Mije undetook a now-familiar waltz among owners and chefs: After initially closing for a few months, he reopened for takeout only, adding tented seating outside and offering rolling discounts. Van Der Mije said the restaurant’s profits had grown yearly since it opened, but come 2020, "we were working twice as hard for the same amount of money." Then that hit a wall in November. "We went from a slow season into COVID season and then back to winter season, and that was extremely difficult," he said.
Rolling data collected by OpenTable shows that for its restaurant partners, seated covers in the U.S. — basically, those who dined at a table inside a restaurant — were down between 60 and 70 percent for the last two weeks of December compared with the same period in 2019, a snapshot of what the restaurant industry is facing heading into winter and as COVID rates remain high.
Before coronavirus, Van Der Mije said about 5 percent of his business was takeout, but that grew to 40 percent as restrictions took hold in 2020; delivery services such as DoorDash took a commission of that takeout when it was delivered. Osteria Leana's staff, who numbered 20 before COVID, erected and took down a tent every weekend, and while outdoor dining made up some of the loss from losing 20 seats inside, said Van Der Mije, enthusiasm for eating outside dwindled as cold weather arrived. The chef felt that continuing to cover the restaurant’s costs, including the $3,000-per-month lease, was no longer a reality.
"It’s hard to look at fine dining right now and see much growth, and that really changed my perspective on Osteria," he said. Between the hard pivot to takeout and frequent reservation cancellations, restaurants like Osteria Leana suffered. "I never thought of my food as to-go food, so takeout was an adjustment for me. It was like asking a baseball team to start playing basketball."
Still, he doesn’t want to lose the sense of community that comes from cooking for the public, said Van Der Mije, who once spent an isolated four years as a private chef. He looks forward to reopening Taco Bay (at 80 South St.) in the spring and seeing his customers again, and is a realist about keeping Osteria Leana alive via packaged foods and popups. "It's not what I want to do, but it is what I will do."