Bella Vita City Grill owner Anthony Cambria and Anthony Cambria...

Bella Vita City Grill owner Anthony Cambria and Anthony Cambria Jr., both seated, with a chef, Matt Accardi, in 2001. Credit: Newsday, 2001 / J. Michael Dombrowski

Driving to work recently has become an economic distress tour of now-dark businesses: the chain bookstore, the electronics retailer, the multiplex theater on the Long Island Expressway. They each have their own stories, but taken together, they are a stark daily tableau of our times.

But those closings didn't hit me nearly as hard as the "Store for Rent" sign in the window of Bella Vita City Grill, a restaurant in St. James that has meant a lot to me over the years.

It was high-end enough for business meals with sources or an anniversary celebration with my wife, Judy, but casual enough for a meal on no special occasion. The chef and owner, Anthony Cambria, liked to emerge from the kitchen to greet diners. And I recall his stopping by our table, chatting with Judy about his nephew and niece, Anthony and Giavanna Caratozzolo, both Judy's students, and their mother, Linda, the chef's sister.

Bella Vita was a family restaurant. It got its name from Cambria's grandmother, Vita Marie. "We buried her on a Tuesday, and I found the space on Wednesday," he said. "So the emotions and the attachment were very, very deep." The maitre d' was his father, Anthony Sr. The chef's mother, Regina, kept the books. And the breadwinner in its early years -- when Cambria did not pay himself a salary, so he could spend that money on the business -- was his wife, Stacy.

It also had a loyal staff that became like family and worked for Cambria for years. The waitress who most often served us, Danielle Azzato, started at Bella Vita at age 17. She was there to unpack the new silverware when it opened in 1996, and there to pack it all in a truck last month, when Bella Vita closed. The whole crew was there that sad day, plus former members of the staff.

What made Cambria close a restaurant that he and his father put together with their own hands? The recession.

"You saw the customers spending less," Cambria said. They weren't buying bottles of wine as often. They were ordering no appetizer at all -- or splitting one. And a reliable source of business, dinners that pharmaceutical firms hosted for doctors, declined as industry practices changed.

At the same time, his costs were going up. Food distributors were raising their prices, and adding a fuel surcharge on top. The distributors suggested that Cambria cope with the increased costs by cutting portion sizes. "They'll never know," they told him. But the chef couldn't bring himself to do that to his customers.

The other rising cost was rent. "The numbers weren't working anymore," he said. "My lease outgrew me." Rent should be 9 percent to 10 percent of sales. Between rising costs and declining sales, it stood at 20 percent.

Customers knew Bella Vita was having problems, but they urged Cambria to hang in there. "How many years can you hang in there, falling short?" he asked. So, finally, on a Thursday last month, he made the decision, and the following Sunday, after serving 90 dinners, they packed the place up.

Both of Cambria's children, Anthony Joseph, 10, and Gabrielle, 13, have been involved with Bella Vita, but loading the pots onto a truck that Sunday was especially tough on his son. "He has a passion for the restaurant business," Cambria said. "That was the hardest part of my decision, was to tell him."

Still, Cambria is surprisingly upbeat. "Fifteen years is a good run," he said. Now he's looking for new opportunities. "I'm 43. I'm young enough to go out there and do it again."

For now, every time I drive by those shuttered businesses -- especially Bella Vita -- the state of our economy, and the need to fix it, become all that much more real and painful. Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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