You can still make out the letters PENTIMENTO above the restaurant’s front door, but the sign is gone. Lisa Cusumano took it down last week because, "Pentimento belongs to Dennis and me."
After a protracted dispute with its landlord — and attendant protests and petitions from devoted customers — the 27-year-old Stony Brook restaurant served its last meal on Sunday night.
"Sunday was a madhouse," Cusumano said. " People wanted that last burger, that last fettuccine with tuna. I had to shut down takeout because I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough food for the dining room. And everyone was crying, everyone wanted to hug us goodbye. "
On Monday morning all the supplies and equipment went up for sale; prices on provisions in the restaurant’s market were slashed. On Tuesday afternoon Cusumano and her partner, Dennis Young, the restaurant’s founder and chef, were there as their business was literally being dismantled: the deep fryer already had someone’s name on it and people were carting away the light fixtures from the garden and appraising stacks of hotel pans.
Meanwhile, the couple had their hands full quoting prices while dealing with a stream of customers who had come to pay their last respects.
"Everyone has a story," Cusumano said. At which point, as if on cue, longtime customer Peter Stephens offered up his.
"Pentimento catered my wedding, catered my wife’s 60th birthday," said the Stony Brook resident. "It’s been absolutely foundational to the community."
Stephens recalled how his son’s first job had been as a busser at Pentimento. "This is where he learned his work ethic," he said. "Now he works at Google."
As painful as the last few months have been, noted Cusumano, "we never realized how many people loved us and depended on us."
Young reflected on the restaurant’s history. On opening day, May 25, 1994, he was an experienced chef who had spent the previous six years at I Tre Merli in SoHo. "I’d been commuting into the city for all that time," he recalled, so when he found out the owner of Stony Brook restaurant Franzi & Nell was looking for a buyer, "I figured it was time to open my own place."
It took at least three years before Pentimento began to turn a profit: "That first year, it was hard to make payroll and there were many weeks I didn’t take any salary. I remember coming in early to scrub the bathroom because I didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it."
But gradually the restaurant began to catch on, becoming the area’s top destination for Italian fine dining. Cusumano first came aboard in 1998, working on and off until 2007 when she took on the role of general manager.
After the financial crash in 2008, the team shifted gears, making Pentimento less formal and more global, with a newly invigorated bar and an increasing number of dishes that appealed to diners looking for organic, vegetarian and gluten-free fare. In 2011, Newsday’s Peter Gianotti awarded the restaurant three stars, writing that Young "has refined and enhanced the cuisine at Pentimento, turning it into a many-layered affair, with reappearances, underlying surprises, new pleasures."
In 2014, Young started spending more time at his home in Florida, and he drafted Massimo Fedozzi, an old colleague from I Tre Merli, to take over the kitchen. Fedozzi’s successor, Chelsea Taylor, was the chef until the pandemic. After a brief closure, Young returned to the kitchen and, with a skeleton crew, he and Cusumano started focusing on takeout. When outdoor dining was permitted, they stretched the capacity of the garden to accommodate 28 diners and, when indoor dining returned, they got rid of the bar stools and spaced out the tables to accommodate 45 more. During the summer of 2020, they turned the main dining room into a marketplace. Eventually, they were able to hire back almost all the employees they’d had to let go.
Thursday evening, Young and Cusumano planned to throw a party for the staff — no one will have to cook, dinner will be catered by Aji 53 in Smithtown and FaxChix in Farmingville. Then, Young said, "we will lock the restaurant up and walk away with our heads held high."