First Posted: 7/30/2013
Editor’s note: With all the new businesses jockying for position on Main Street in Pittston, we decided to turn our sites to the mainstays, the businesses that have weathered the storm for decades and remain an integral part of the thriving downtown. This is the first in an occasional series of stories profiling those businesses.
It’s a downtown original.
Seventy-five years after the Gramercy Ballroom & Restaurant opened for business, the eatery still thrives as a constant landmark against the backdrop of a swelling, sulking and, now, once again, surging Main Street, Pittston.
In those seven and a half decades, the restaurant has stood to serve four generations of guests. No small feat. But most importantly, according to current owner and operator Michael Augello Jr., it’s been the restaurant’s family dynamic that’s kept patrons hungry for more.
“The restaurant was always family-oriented,” Augello Jr. said. “A family is more committed to making it successful … and you can depend on them to make that possible.”
“Family is always there,” he said.
In 1938, with an investment of just $150, brothers Michael and Sam Augello opened a small bar and taproom with a handful of tables and chairs, a stove and a refrigerator. Sam, who passed away in 1985, came up with the moniker from the upscale Gramercy Park section of New York City where he worked as a youth.
“They took elements of that, and our grandmother’s recipes, and brought it to the restaurant,” Augello Jr. said.
“With the exception of some menu items that didn’t sell and a few renovations inside, not much changed all these years.”
The Gramercy specializes in homemade, Italian-American cuisine, freshly prepared and made to order. The stuffed artichokes, veal parmigiana and award-winning sauces keep people coming back year after year.
Just outside on Main Street, however, a bevy of changes took place that saw the downtown devolve from a thriving bed of commerce to a shadow of its former self — and then back again as a revitalized, eclectic mix of restaurants, bars and businesses.
“In 1938, there were over 20,000 people in Pittston,” Augello Jr. recalled. “And in the early 60s, if you started at Oak Street and went down toward the stone bridge, there were 260 businesses on Main Street.”
“Newsstands, fruit stands — there used to be a sidewalk sale every day.”
Greater Pittston Historical Society President Bill Hastie has 20 years on the Gramercy and he, too, recalled the bustling downtown Pittston of old.
“Pittston’s Main Street was one of the busiest main streets in the country,” the 95-year-old Pittston native said. “It was the envy of many other towns across the state.
“The surrounding towns didn’t have any busy main roads and just a couple restaurants and stores,” he said. “All the surrounding boroughs — they came to Pittston.”
Once outside companies began building plazas and malls, however, those crowds didn’t have a reason to come downtown anymore — and interest waned.
But the Gramercy was always a constant, despite challenges.
The original building was completely destroyed by fire in 1950, forcing a move to 28 Main St. while the brothers rebuilt. The current location was finished in 1956, with ballrooms being added in the lower basement to cater the boom of weddings following World War II.
The interior underwent another small face-lift in 2000, with upgrades to the bar and dining room areas.
With the help of $2.3 million in federal grants, Main Street has seen its share of improvements as well, as more and more businesses are sprouting up.
“Today, it’s more inviting than ever before,” Augello Jr. said of the city.
Money from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program will ensure those upgrades to the downtown continue, as new office and living spaces are nearing completion.
One additional goal is to extend the new brick crosswalks and period lighting to Columbus Avenue, redevelopment leader Mike Lombardo said, almost symbolically connecting the new with the old.
Lombardo said it’s those traditional city icons which have persevered throughout the years that make Pittston the city it is today.
“Those places, those are the establishments that are the first thing that come to mind when we think of this city,” Lombardo said.
The former mayor said he’s constantly overwhelmed with the positive response he’s received about the new downtown aesthetic, with more and more people talking about it — and just as many flocking to Main Street.
“I’ve traveled around town and everyone wants to not just talk about it but talk about it in a positive light,” he said. “Each place has its own niche.”
With none more recognizable than the one at 155 Main St.
“Gramercy does the old world, very traditional family-based dishes that strike a chord with a lot of people in the area,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find a better traditional Italian meal than you will there.”
“It’s like your grandmother is back there cooking for you,” he added. “It’s the best-kept secret in our area.”
Though he first picked up a broom at the restaurant at the age of 11, Augello Jr. still enjoys going to work every day — and the veteran cook knows his clientele.
“When my staff brings back an order, I know who’s out there. I know that when three people come in, one is going to order a special, the other is going to order something else and the third is going to get the same dish every time,” he said.
Dining at the restaurant for the first time last Saturday, Williamsport residents Ralph and Dawn Martin were unaware of the Gramercy’s storied history but after their meal, left as yet another pair of satisfied customers.
“We had no idea it was around for so long,” Dawn Martin said. “But you can certainly see why.”
With such a long-running tradition, a 100th anniversary seems likely to be the next item on the menu.