A New York restaurant serves up gratitude

How's this for a deal? You can eat for free at Nino's Italian restaurant in pricey New York City. There's just one catch: Make sure you're wearing a uniform - or at least a badge.

Since Sept. 11, owner Nino Vendome has closed his 70-seat lower-Manhattan eatery to paying customers, transforming it into a 24-hour-a-day free dining hall for police officers, firefighters, and other public servants.

The Canal Street restaurant, which usually prepared a couple of hundred lunches and dinners a day, has served more than 400,000 free meals during the past three months.

And Mr. Vendome says he's just getting started. He pledges to keep serving free food to workers until the rebuilding effort is complete.

"We should give the people who provide the lifestyle we enjoy the due respect they deserve," says Vendome.

On a midweek afternoon, firefighters wearing hard hats and overalls covered in soot eat quietly in the corner near the window. They just finished a shift sifting through debris at ground zero.

State troopers sit in a row near the door, eating ribs and salad. Sanitation workers and Coast Guard sailors watch television at the bar, and thickets of city policemen dine on pasta and chicken, or sausage with peppers and onions.

Utility employees, FBI agents, Red Cross volunteers, and ground-zero demolition workers are welcome, too.

Vendome's mother, Josephine, who usually works as the restaurant's cashier, stops by every table, checking to see if anyone needs more food or drink.

A couple of police officers try thanking Mrs. Vendome, whom everybody calls Momma. She waves them off, saying, "No, thank you, boys."

Vendome says opening for rescue workers was his mother's idea. A day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center shuttered the nearby family-run restaurant, she decided to help the community by opening up again - but with a difference.

"I figured, we'd be here, we'd see what we can do," says Mrs. Vendome, in an accent still thick from her native Naples, Italy, where the family emigrated from in 1955 with a couple of suitcases and $40 in cash.

Vendome first opened the restaurant more than a decade ago, catering to factory workers, businesspeople, and nearby residents.

On Sept. 13, they fed their first rescue workers, and haven't stopped since.

But after spending $150,000 of his own money on free meals, Vendome has had to reach out for help.

He established a nonprofit organization to fund the restaurant until paying customers return.

No one knows, though, when that may be. With debris still being cleared from ground zero 24 hours a day, and police throughout the city working extended shifts, seats are almost always filled.

About 8,000 volunteers - including players in the Women's National Basketball Association and actor Leonardo DiCaprio - have shown up to serve meals.

Food has also been donated to the effort. Four refrigerated trailers full of food sit outside. The city's top chefs donate dishes. A cook from Texas hauled up a truck-sized barbecue.

Maxine Graham drove 14 hours through the night in a caravan from her church in Holland, Mich., to bring hams and turkeys in time for Thanksgiving. Nino's handed out hundreds of free turkeys to police officers and firefighters on Thanksgiving Day.

On a typical day, the customer count tops 1,900, even before the evening police shift has its dinner break.

The volunteer "busboy" clearing dishes and washing tables lost his brother in the twin towers' collapse. His wife and teenage children serve slices of cake and pie.

"These [officers'] brothers and sisters went in and tried to help people like my brother," he says. "The least I can do is wait on them a little bit and give them four hours of my time."

Flowers and American flags adorn every table. Hand-painted signs and cards to rescue workers from children in 17 states cover the walls. "You will always remain in our prayers, minds and hearts," reads a banner that stretches over the bar.

Officers say they appreciate the kindness of Vendome and his volunteers as much as the free food.

"It's phenomenal what he's doing for us," says Police Officer Berry of the NYPD's first precinct, as she checks diners for proper identification at the door.

On either side of the entrance stands a life-size Statute of Liberty, painted red, white, and blue, and a bronze peace angel made out of melted handguns.

Inside, Steve DiTamasso, a Port Authority police officer, sips a cappucino at the bar.

"I'm kind of tired," says Mr. DiTamasso, who descends each day beneath the World Trade Center's rubble. At one time or another, he worked with each of the 37 Port Authority police officers who died in the collapse.

Nino's friendly atmosphere is a particularly welcome refuge for New York National Guard soldiers and state police troopers, who have been assigned to duty in a city they may never have visited before.

Gregg, who declined to give his last name, is a state trooper down from Rochester on his fourth one-week tour in Manhattan since September. He says he enjoys the manicotti, but misses his wife and two young children.

"Everyone's got a story. Everyone's got a hurt," says Fred Baye, director of the New York Billy Graham Prayer Center, who now eats most of his meals at Nino's, talking to rescue workers. The center bought large-screen televisions for the restaurant. Its volunteers serve food and lend rescue workers an ear, or say a prayer on their behalf.

Eventually, Vendome thinks Nino's will go back to being a public restaurant.

But he says the city should never go back to treating police and firefighters as it did before Sept. 11.

"[These] people risk their lives on a daily basis. We did not give them the respect and appreciation they deserved," he says.

For more information on volunteering and donations, or to view the Nino's message board, visit the website www.ninos911.org, or contact Nino's Restaurant 9/11 Fund, 145 East 57th Street, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10022.

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