Interesting legends are told about many restaurants in the Hamptons. One is Il Capuccino on Madison Street in Sag Harbor. One time I accidentally came to own it for a while. Another time, a legal matter over Il Capuccino resulted in the throwing out of all zoning laws in Sag Harbor for a year. Still another time, when part of it was an antique shop, a whole school of bluefish came crashing down on the building’s roof during a rainstorm. And did you ever notice that the front entrance to the restaurant faces out on the alley rather than the street? What was that all about?
Let’s start with why the entrance to Il Capuccino is on the alley. As I remember, in 1969, a man named Anthony, who owned the building, decided to close up his antique shop and reopen it as an Italian restaurant. He told me at the time, for I was a young man trying to sell him advertising for my new Dan’s Papers, “I can make a plate of spaghetti and meatballs for 17 cents a serving.”
He had a grand opening with the main entrance facing out onto Madison Street. After the opening, many neighbors objected to the restaurant. There had never been a restaurant on Madison Street. The hustle-bustle of people coming and going was disturbing everyone’s peace and quiet. And the whole block smelled like garlic.
One neighbor discovered an unusual law on the Sag Harbor books. Just next door to Anthony’s was the big Episcopalian church. This law said you could not serve alcohol within 50 feet of the entrance to a church. The restaurant was within 50 feet.
The authorities shut him down. And Anthony measured the distance from the church entrance to his front door. It was 44 feet 6 inches.
But as he extended the measuring tape further — to the far corner of his building — the distance was 50 feet 11 inches. So he moved the front door to the alley.
The neighbors, considering this a bunch of baloney, then filed a lawsuit against Anthony. And the village joined as another plaintiff in the suit. Let a judge decide.
One day Anthony’s lawyer discovered something incredible. All the zoning laws in Sag Harbor, which had been voted into existence 13 years earlier, had never been sent to the state for their approval. Put simply, the village never filed the paperwork. As a result, all the zoning laws in the Village of Sag Harbor were illegal. Anthony asked that his case be thrown out.
Now the village might have just quickly filed that paperwork. That would have been that. But the village was stubborn. Instead, they filed a rebuttal saying the laws were legal without paperwork with the state. A month later, the judge threw out all the village’s zoning laws. As a result, in January 1970, a huge boom of construction began without regard for setbacks or height limits or anything else.
Homes were built right up against a neighbor’s property line. Among the other things built that year was the Bay Burger drive-thru on the Sag Harbor Turnpike. (Most recently Ed’s Lobster Bar.)
The building frenzy ended in December when the village came to its senses and filed the paperwork. So ended the great construction surge of 1970 in Sag Harbor.
Also, the judge ruled Anthony’s entrance on the alley legal. So that’s why you enter from the alley.
About five years later, Anthony sold his restaurant in Sag Harbor and moved Anthony’s to Main Street in East Hampton at The Hedges Inn by Town Pond. He retained ownership of his Sag Harbor building though. There, a new Italian chef reopened a smaller version of the old Anthony’s with a new name: Il Capuccino. And a part of it became an antique shop.
That year, 1975, this person — I will call him Tony — bought a $350 advertisement in Dan’s Papers for the summer. But when the end of summer came, he didn’t pay me. He said no problem, come back next month. But when I came back, he said he’d need another month. I politely tried again over and over. Still no money. This went on for a year. Each time he was very polite about it. He just didn’t have the money that month. But finally, I told him if the payment was not forthcoming in the next two weeks, I’d have to take him to small claims court in East Hampton. He said that wouldn’t be necessary. Well, it was.
On the court date, I showed up, but he didn’t. As a result, the judge awarded me a default judgement. The judge explained if Tony didn’t pay, the sheriff would auction off the place standing on his front door steps.
After that, I kind of forgot about the date of the auction. But then, one morning at 10 a.m., I got a call from the sheriff. He was at the restaurant, Tony wasn’t there and nobody else was there. But if I’d be willing to make a bid, he’d accept the entire restaurant for $350. I said yes.
And that’s how I got to own Il Capuccino.
What does an owner do? One day, I went down to my restaurant to inspect it. I observed the Chianti bottles hanging down from the ceiling, the checkered tablecloths, the candlelights. I went in the kitchen and inspected the ovens, the friers and other kitchen equipment, then went to the cash register.
Tony, who had been following me around, said, “I guess I owe you $350.” And I said that would be fine. He paid cash.
About the fish that came down from the sky in a rainstorm. The owner of the antique store called me early one morning and urged me to come see something unbelievably strange. I went. I have never seen anything like this before or since. Bluefish were in the street, on the sidewalk and, with then-owner Rocco taking me upstairs, several layers deep on the building’s roof. The police also were there, filling out a report. They were as puzzled about what happened as anybody else.
I took pictures and published an article. Men in yellow slickers were shoveling fish every which way. To this day, nobody’s ever been able to explain this.
And those are some of the legends told about Il Capuccino. Enjoy.