The owners of Bocca Coal Fired Bistro spent close to $1.5 million and more than 10 months gutting a failed Margate restaurant, then rebuilding it and customizing it from the ground up. They spent so much time on all the details, they missed the busy beach season in 2012, and didn’t open their bar and restaurant until Oct. 10.
Less than three weeks later, Hurricane Sandy ripped through South Jersey and flooded the brand-new Bocca, which was already becoming a hot spot in its hometown.
“I was numb,” said Lou Freedman, a partner whose home — just a three-block walk from his business — suffered flooding of its own in the storm.
But the Bocca owners were also prepared for Sandy when it hit Oct. 29, sending 9 inches of water in the front of the restaurant and about 5 inches all the way to the back.
“We knew it was going to be bad,” said another partner, Ron Citta, also of Margate, and so they had a cleanup crew already lined up and in place before the storm started.
Plus they had built their restaurant knowing — from years of living in the area — that flooding was a potential problem in their neighborhood. Freedman said they got a fresh lesson in that last July, when a bad rainstorm hit Margate as they were working on Bocca, and water backed up in the street out front, busy Ventnor Avenue.
“A car went by — and a wave broke in the building,” he said, adding that at that point in the project, they had just a temporary wooden front on the restaurant, which is the site of the former Sailfish Cafe and Margate Pub, among other old incarnations.
That’s why there’s no wood in the floors. Everything is tile now, although a small, private room behind the bar was originally carpeted in October. But once Sandy flooded thing, the owners tore out the rugs and the walls of their former 7805 Room — the name came from the street address — and expanded their bar seating.
Plus after that July incident, they added a concrete wall in the kitchen to protect the heart of their operation — the coal-burning oven that runs at close to 900 degrees, and gave Bocca part of its name. (Bocca is Italian for “mouth,” the owners explain.)
So professional help, from a crew of about 20 from Statewide Commercial Cleaning, plus those flooding preparations they built in business, helped Bocca open its doors again to customers by Nov. 1, just three days after the storm. That made it one of the first businesses on Absecon Island to come back from Sandy — and one of the first buildings in a dark Margate to have its lights back on, thanks to a generator they also had in place before the storm, Citta adds.
But it took more than that to get the restaurant back in business, and for that, Freedman said he can only thank the people of his hometown.
“It was incredible, how many people knocked on the door and offered to help,” he said, adding that the volunteers ended up being “dozens of ... locals, friends, people I knew — and people I hardly knew, but knew their faces.”
The help also came from other restaurants in town, the owners added. Places that couldn’t open yet themselves let Bocca borrow nonperishable supplies so the restaurant could keep up with the demand of being one of the few places around selling food in those first few days.
Its first night back, Bocca was open for beer only. By the next day — although they had to throw out 5,000 or so pounds of refrigerated food — they were able to start again cooking pizzas, the restaurant’s signature specialty.
“And the heat from the coal oven helped dry things out,” adds Bill Walsh, of Galloway Township, another partner.
The selection was limited: A pizza menu that normally takes up two full pages of the restaurant’s booklet of food options was cut down to two basic choices — plain or pepperoni. But the place was jammed.
The owners also wanted to make sure they helped their town, too. They sent pizzas out to the police and city crews who were working long hours to recover from the storm. And Rob Pappas, the chef, said he and his crew made up “care packages” to deliver to local residents suffering from the storm.
“I threw together stuff they could make meals out of — chicken, beef, bread ... peanut butter,” said Pappas, a restaurant veteran who adds that when he handed over one box of food, “It was a to a guy bigger than me — and he starts crying.”
So the chef struggled not to follow suit.
Things are mostly back to normal now at Bocca, but the owners will obviously never forget everything they went through just to get their doors open again — so soon after they opened them in the first place.
“You really know who your friends are when something like that happens,” Freedman said. “It was just pretty cool.”
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