Osso Bucco, Pronto! The Legendary Gino May Face a Strike

“Who wants to close the Gino restaurant?” asked Salvatore Doria, co-owner of the legendary Italian eatery at Lexington Avenue and 60th Street. “There are very few places [like it] left in New York.”

But, he said, he may have to do just that, as early as next month.

The current contract for Gino’s 27-member all-unionized staff is set to expire at the end of October. The owners are saying they won’t sign; the staff is saying they’ll walk out; the owners are saying that Gino will then go out of business.

“They told me they’re gonna close because they cannot pay the union,” said longtime Gino waiter Marco Dell’Aguzzo, who also serves as the staff’s union liaison.

“We don’t want to close the place—that’s for sure,” Mr. Doria said. “We don’t want to.”

Unique in its décor and its adherence to the ancient practice of cash-only transactions, among other old-timey eccentricities, Gino (commonly called “Gino’s”) has cultivated a devout clientele and, after first opening on Lexington Avenue back in 1945, became the favorite trough for Manhattan’s business, artistic and entertainment power elites. Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra were regulars back in the day.

“I have been going to Gino’s for 50 years,” the writer Gay Talese wrote in a letter to The Observer. He has written about the restaurant for The New Yorker and in his recent book, A Writer’s Life. “[It] would be an unhappy occasion for me (and hundreds of other longtime customers of the place) if it should go out of business.”

The historic Italian restaurant’s renowned ripe-tomato-red walls, adorned with hundreds of Valentino Crescenzi–designed arrow-dodging zebras, provided an iconic Manhattan backdrop for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. An oblique homage to the Upper East Side eatery, in the form of imitation zebra wallpaper, also appeared in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

Mr. Dell’Aguzzo, 42, has spent 21 years working in Gino’s old-school black-bow-tie tuxedo uniform, he said. He’d prefer to keep taking ravioli and osso bucco orders as usual. But he also wants health care. He’s prepared to put the burgundy blazer and black slacks away if an agreement isn’t reached before the Oct. 31 deadline.

“If that night, the contract is not signed, then the next day at 6 o’clock in the morning, we’re gonna be out on the picket line,” he said.

Ownership is adopting a similarly tough stance.

“We don’t want to see this place go, but things are not what they used to be,” said Mr. Doria, who noted that the restaurant is “already up to the neck with the rent.” The business remains in its original, modestly sized location, with the same 27 tables it started with back in the 40’s, when the lease on the place reportedly ran around $400 a month. It has since increased more than 70 times, closing in on $29,000 per month.

“Everything goes up and goes up and goes up,” Mr. Doria said. “And for not much more can you sell a dish of pasta, you know? This is it! This is it!”

The pasta price point, while certainly not as contentious as the benefits issue, is a subject of debate. Mr. Dell’Aguzzo, for one, would gladly support a modest mark-up on Gino’s spaghetti and meatballs ($18.95) or broiled lamb chop ($29.95) if it meant he could keep his pension. “If they’re smart,” he said, “they can increase a little bit the price.”

The continuing standoff is something of a reversal from the last round of contract negotiations three years ago. Gino is among a group of New York restaurants whose servers, cooks, bussers and bartenders are affiliated with the hotel and restaurant employees’ union Local 100. Back in 2003, a number of venues, including the “21” Club and the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, failed to reach an agreement on deadline, prompting massive strikes and demonstrations. But not at Gino. This time around, other eateries have already settled, while the union is still wrangling with Mr. Doria & Co.

“We are getting very alarmed about Gino’s,” said Local 100 president Bill Granfield. “Gino’s contacted us a couple of weeks ago. We gave them copies of all the paperwork, and now they haven’t wanted to talk at all. So we’re viewing that as a very negative sign—especially when compared with a lot of the other restaurants that seem to be eager to talk and work things out.”

Union reps were scheduled to meet with Gino’s accountant on Oct. 11 in an attempt to help broker some sort of financially feasible agreement for both parties. Gino’s owners, however, declined to participate.

“They put the blame on us,” said Mr. Dell’Aguzzo. “It’s not our fault they don’t want to pay.”

If any proprietors should understand where their workers are coming from, it’s Gino’s. For years, Mr. Doria and his business partner, Michael Miele, both 66, had worked as employees there themselves before they and another employee, the late Mario Laviano, bought the business from its since-deceased founder, Gino Circiello, back in 1985. “I’ve been here 33 years,” said Mr. Doria. “Mike has been here almost 40 years …. Mario was here over 40 years.”

As far as he’s concerned, however, that former worker’s sympathy only goes so far: “They want this, they want that. You know, we wish! We wish! No problem! We wish to give everything in the contract to them, like we did for so many years. But at this moment, this is it!”

“It’s not that we don’t want to sign. We just can’t afford it,” said Mr. Miele, also the bistro’s head chef. “It’s not just the union. It’s everything.” Even the cost of beef, he said. “They think we are super-millionaires—we are not.”

“As it is now, we’re putting money into it,” he said. “And what am I going to do to keep this place going? Lose money out of my pocket? No!”

Mr. Doria said he hopes the history of the secret-red-sauce-serving venue can continue: “We want the place to go another 100 years.”

“I love to go in there,” said Phil Scotti, owner of another historic Upper East Side former Sinatra haunt, P.J. Clarke’s. “I love everything about it. I love the old attitude. I love the bartender. I love the tuxes. I love the lady who’s always there no matter when I go. I would hate to see them all go. But who steps up to the plate for [ownership]? I don’t know.”

Mr. Scotti has been feeling the employee-benefits crunch himself, noting that his own monthly health-care costs are nearing the $1,000-per-family mark. “Benefits are what’s killing everyone,” he said.

Some more than others.

“Gino’s is a very tough deal,” said Mr. Scotti. “The rent is going up. The space is limited in size. The numbers don’t work after a while. You’d have to charge $30 for spaghetti and meatballs to survive.”