Shining a Spotlight on Local Wantagh Businesses: Phil’s Pizzeria & Restaurant

Jennifer Rosen, Reporter

One of the industries hit hardest due to the COVID-19 pandemic was restaurant businesses. According to a December 2020 report by the National Restaurant Association, 17% of U.S. restaurants closed as a result of the financial strain of the pandemic. In order to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted local Wantagh restaurant owners, I interviewed Antonino Petralia, co-owner of Phil’s Pizza and Restaurant, about his experiences doing business amidst a global pandemic. 

About Phil’s Pizzeria & Restaurant:

QUI SI MANGIA BENE are the words that first greet you in big red letters when you enter Phil’s Pizzeria and Restaurant. This Italian phrase meaning “Here we eat good,” perfectly encapsulates why this restaurant has been a staple of Italian cuisine for the Wantagh community since 2014 when owners Antonino Petralia (Nino) and Salvatore Pagnotta (Sal) first opened its doors. 

Phil’s Pizzeria and Restaurant is a family-owned and operated business that has been around for over 30 years with additional locations in Massapequa (original location), Syosset, and Glen Cove. After having taken nonfamilial ownership in the early 2010s and wanting to expand the business, Petralia describes why Wantagh was the perfect location for the restaurant. Petralia says, “We searched over 80 different pizzerias for the right area to do business, and we found that this area was very strong where people are concentrated on family, school, and success, and that they are all hard-working families. It perfectly complemented what we are all about.”

Despite its popularity, when first opening the business, it was very difficult to bring people in. Petralia says,“This location had surpassed many different owners so what that does to the public is that it gives them this feeling where there’s not so much stability in the place. It was a struggle trying to gain the community’s confidence in trying our product. We didn’t do much advertising initially; we wanted people to try the product by word of mouth. Eventually, the parking lot began to become full with people wanting to try our food and from there, we began to move up in the ranks.”

Before the Pandemic:

Phil’s Pizzeria and Restaurant was always a part of the Wantagh Middle and High School experience with high school students eating out during their free lunch periods and middle school students rushing over from the 3:02 bell to hang out with friends. Come in at 3:10 on a Friday afternoon, and you were sure to find the place bustling with students trying to grab a table or eating a slice outside. Petralia says, “We have definitely benefited from being so close to the schools. It was a quick little rush, but our bigger rush would be at dinner around 5 on a Friday and also during the holidays like on Ash Wednesday, Christmas Eve, Valentine’s Day, and the Super Bowl. We have always had our struggles in dealing with the everyday issues with workers, distributors, and things like that at holidays, but when the pandemic hit, everything changed very quickly.”

During the Pandemic:

When businesses started shutting down in mid-March, many restaurant owners were devastated by the losses. According to a March 2020 study done by the National Restaurant Association, 3% of restaurants closed permanently and predicted 11% more closing within the remainder of the month. Petralia says, “There was such an accumulation of worry with guidelines and people coming in with fear. It had taken a toll on everyday work, and we had to change up our game and strategy to make ends meet.” Fortunately, Phil’s was still operational during the shut-down from March-June. Petralia says, “We were fortunate in the sense of being healthy so that we could continue, but we had to limit the amount of staff in the building to move forward. Instead of firing, we kept everybody the same. The owners did take a hit in payroll just so we could keep everyone going cause we feel as though we are all a family, and we don’t want anyone losing.” 

With new health guidelines being put in place to prevent the spread of the virus, changes were necessary in order to continue conducting business. Not only were staff instructed regularly to sanitize their stations, wash their hands, and wear masks at all times, but a new delivery system was put in place in order to ensure less contact between employees and consumers. Petralia says, “The contact-free delivery service is when the driver contacts the customer either ‘we’re here’ or ‘we have dropped off the food’ in order to prevent at-the-door interaction. Everything is paid for on a card, we drop off the food at the doorstep and that’s that. There have been a lot more deliveries and take-out, which is not only beneficial to us, but also to the delivery team.”

Seeing how devastating and straining the pandemic was on the community, Petralia and Pagnotta organized donations in which they delivered pies to front-line workers at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Good Samaritan Hospital, Nassau Medical Center, Saint Frances, and Mount Sinai South Nassau. Petralia says, “We noticed that there was an influx of fear, and we wanted to be there for the community. We know lots of people who have daughters and sons in the front line type of work, and we donated over 150 pies to accommodate their situations. What I believed helped us out surviving the pandemic was them coming in to support and keep us afloat.”

The World Opening Up Again:

When Governor Andrew Cuomo’s phased plan to reopen businesses in May-June began to be carried out, there was a noticeable difference in people’s willingness to leave their homes. Petralia notes, “We noticed a big change around the June-July area with people now more confident in leaving their homes because they now can just wear a mask and shop instead of not being able to leave the house at all.”

In observing how things have stayed the same from before and during the pandemic, Petralia notes that Phil’s has always been consistent in its strives to maintain good relationships with the community through good food. Petralia says, “Our work ethic and push for customer service stays the same. We hope that after the vaccinations come out, another level of confidence will result and more people will come out in the next few weeks.” 

Despite this newfound confidence, there were still many people struggling with mental health as a result of the isolation from quarantine. Petralia notes that, “A lot more people are coming in sad, depressed, and worried, It’s a simple pizza transaction but at the end of the day, a little conversation from the owner goes a long way with many people. I have reached out to many who are dealing with different issues just to give my advice and make them feel right in a wrong moment. You do not really get to see that in many pizzerias. Perhaps there’s a little angry Italian guy yelling at everyone or one of those big monster places where no one really knows your name as the staff should. It goes a long way here and we pride ourselves as we continue to strive to do so.”