Three decades ago, Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) swaggered up to the window at Lenny’s Pizza, ordered two slices, and strutted away under the elevated train tracks to the strains of “Stayin’ Alive.”
Bensonhurst’s 86th Street hasn’t been the same since.
Now Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins stand where old hangouts like Hy Tulip and Famous Cafeteria used to be, on the strip under the D/M subway tracks immortalized in “Saturday Night Fever.”
But Lenny’s is still there.
“We’re like the last of the Mohicans,” said Josephine Giordano.
Giordano’s father Frank has owned Lenny’s for more than 20 years. At 27, Josephine wasn’t born when Travolta strode up to the window where she now serves pizza. But she’s seen plenty of customers come and go.
“I’ve had customers leave and come back. They’re like, ‘What happened?’” she said, sitting in a booth on a late afternoon break. “It’s like, ‘What’d you expect?’” she throws up her hands. “Everything changes.”
Giordano’s customers may be referring to the Starbucks next door, or to changing immigration patterns in what was once Brooklyn’s quintessential Italian neighborhood. Bensonhurst’s Italian-American population is still its largest ethnic group, hovering around 25%. But today other groups are visible as well. The block of 86th Street that Lenny’s window watches over is home not just to Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, but also to a Russian furrier, a Chinese restaurant and a Korean market.
“I see a lot of faces, different cultures,” Giordano said. “You know, Russians, Chinese, Albanians, different people. Years ago it was just one.”
Raymond Rodriguez, a 47-year-old resident of Puerto Rican ancestry, noted the neighborhood was a lot tougher 20 years ago.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said between bites of a large cheese pie he is sharing with a gaggle of granddaughters and goddaughters on their way home from a doctor’s appointment. “All the Sicilians thought I was Italian, and the Sicilians thought I was Italian.” With such confusion he said he had to be careful to avoid fights.
But Rodriguez always liked the neighborhood. He pauses and remembers fireworks in the streets for Independence Day, lamenting that such a celebration would be illegal now.
“I guess they [Italians] controlled the neighborhood more then,” he shrugged.
In spite of all the changes, 86th Street is still a popular destination for errands, and lots of shoppers rest their bags at Lenny’s.
Ted Seltzer, a 65-year old retired NYPD employee, enjoys a Diet Coke and a cheese slice after picking up some new earrings for his girlfriend. Behind him, the Riggio family is fueling up for a day of shopping, including a new T-shirt for two-year old Gianna, whose turquoise top is covered in tomato sauce.
Throughout the day, schoolgirls stop in on their way home from St. Mary’s, a Russian storekeeper watches soccer on TV from a booth and a tattooed twenty-something drives over from Coney Island to get the same slice she used to get in high school.
The crowd might change, stores may turn over, but the slice remains the same.
“It’s always warm,” said Giordano. Her break now over, she gets up from the booth to prepare for the dinnertime rush.