Neighborhood: 1. neighborly relationship 2. the quality or state of being neighbors. 3. a place or region near. 4. the people living near one another. (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)
Cono’s is old-school Italian, as is the family. The founder, Cono Natale, came to Williamsburg in the 1950s from a small town in Italy named Teggiano. He worked at various jobs before he opened his first pizzeria with his brothers. After that, he started Frost Restaurant, a clam bar on Frost Street, where you sat on stools and ate calamari, shrimp, and clams.
For most of this time, it was very “make or break,” said his daughter Anna Maria Darienzo. The whole family helped at the restaurants: children, uncles, and grandmothers.
Another restaurant followed in Masbeth and another in Bay Ridge. Then 16 years ago, in 1985, Cono returned to Williamsburg and bought the restaurant from the owner of Rosalee’s Bakery. “There’s nothing fancy about my father at all. It’s always dress-down with him,” Anna explained. “Our thing here is the style of cooking. It’s just like back in Italy. Like his mother used to cook, and his grandmother used to cook.”
Teggiano is located in the Solerno province near Naples in Italy. “It’s a wonderful little town,” Anna said. “If you go, you’ll never want to come back.” The patron saint of the village was St. Cono and tradition had families in town name one son after the saint. Cono continued the tradition here in American with one of his sons. If you meet someone named Cono in your travels, then you know they came from the same town as you did in Italy. It served as a means of connection, Anna told me.
Williamsburg also serves as a connection for many people to New York. Williamsburg is a neighborhood, roughly defined geographically, but specifically known as an idea. Right now, the name brings connotations of art galleries, a new Soho, a hip scene, an area next to Manhattan without all its pretensions yet. But for many years, Williamsburg was the home of generations of immigrants. Most businesses are still mom-and-pop, not Starbucks and McDonald’s and The Gap. What is important is this is a neighborhood area. People know others by their first names. The pizza joint down the block from me always welcomes me with a big smile and good food. But there is no doubt that Williamsburg has seen huge changes in a relatively short period of time.
Anna is cautiously optimistic about the evolution of the vicinity. She sees new restaurants and bars and stores opening and wants to see them keep the neighborhood in mind as they grow. They are becoming trendier, which feels out of place for the area, Anna said. She also fears a lot of new residents don’t appreciate the history of the neighborhood or the original residents.
Her family is involved in real estate in the area, and while it’s nice to have property values going up, she says a number of agents are only chasing after the money and not thinking about how the neighborhood will be affected. Some older residents have to move because they can’t afford the rents anymore in apartments they’ve lived in for decades.
On the other hand, there is money flowing into the area now and houses are being remodeled and fixed; services, like trash collection, are improving; the subway stations have been renovated; and it is much safer.
However, money does not a neighborhood make. The people who live there and their relations with each other are its definition.
It is a struggle as old as time, and Williamsburgis experiencing it right now. As new people move into an area (any area), older residents move out. Those remaining are faced with new ways of life that are sometimes hard to accept. Anna doesn’t want to see battle-lines drawn between people in the neighborhood: this is ours, that is yours. However, she grew up in the neighborhood and doesn’t appreciate that sometime she feels like an outsider now. “It’s hard to accept because I’ve always been here. I’d like to see a sense of community develop that includes everyone.”
However, Cono’s is trying to keep it real. “We have everyone from all walks of life come in to enjoy our food, and they keep coming back which must mean we’re doing something right,” Anna said. “I believe there is nothing that can be compared to this restaurant and the homestyle cooking we do here. The food is real. No preservatives. No frozen food. Just all heart.”
“We take the time to know the customer,” Anna said. The permanence of the restaurant speaks to the fact that Cono’s has become an integral part of the community—and for the family as well. All five of Cono’s children—two boys and three girls—work and help out at the restaurant. Even Cono, who is 65 now, still works there every day. “My father is such a wonderful man,” Anna told me. “He is the typical Italian man: robust and full of life.”
Just like the neighborhood.