Of Mice and Mangia in Midtown

040207 article counter Of Mice and Mangia in MidtownA mustachioed man in a tan trench coat milled anxiously outside the newly reopened Cafe Fonduta at 1:35 p.m. on Monday, admittedly wondering whether it was actually safe to go inside.

Just 24 hours earlier, a state lawmaker had grandstanded upon the same spot on East 57th Street, condemning the Upper East Side eatery as one of the filthiest, most rodent-infested dives citywide and citing its horrendous health-inspection record as a reason for tougher restaurant regulations.

Yet, the very next afternoon, a new inspection report posted in the window indicated that the place was, to the contrary, quite immaculate.

The perplexed prospective diner, Don, a nearby office worker who declined to give his last name, noted that government and management had been putting out starkly different messages about the longstanding pizza, pasta and panini joint for several weeks now.

The striking yellow signage that appeared in the eatery’s windows in early March, “CLOSED BY ORDER OF THE COMMISSIONER OF HEALTH AND MENTAL HYGIENE,” had been tempered by the management’s own posting, which downplayed the shuttering as a minor building-code issue.

“Who knows what the truth is?” Don said.

It probably depends on your arrival time. Now, actually, might be the best time to safely sample Cafe Fonduta’s grilled lime chicken pizza—as opposed to, say, four weeks ago, when the rodent traps were out.

At the moment, Manhattan’s top-ranked “worst restaurant” could be in the most satisfactory condition of its 25-year history, after pulling off a remarkable 160-point comeback in regulation terms.

As far as health inspections go, restaurateurs are like golfers: Low scoring is the key to success. Limiting one’s total violations to 27 points or less keeps the regulators happy; higher tallies can translate into fines or even a government-ordered shutdown.

According to the Health Department’s cleanliness scoreboard, Cafe Fonduta (a.k.a. “Cafe La Fonduta,” as it is listed with the city agency, although no “La” appears on its signage nor on its menus) had landed in one of the largest regulatory sand traps in recent years, racking up a whopping 160 violation points during a surprise inspection on March 5.

That’s the highest score for any Manhattan restaurant according to the Health Department’s Web site now—a full 68 points more than the infamously rat-infested KFC–Taco Bell in Greenwich Village that recently cast the issue of restaurant cleanliness, or lack thereof, into the spotlight.

As was the case with the notorious fried-chicken-and-gordita joint, inspectors penalized Cafe Fonduta for “[e]vidence of rats.” They also found similar traces of mice, and spotted a rodent “bait station.” Inspectors additionally took issue with the eatery’s use of pesticide, according to the Health Department.

But “conditions conducive to vermin” wasn’t the only problem. The restaurant also suffered from a malfunctioning sewage-disposal system and an inadequate garbage-storage area. Food-preparation surfaces were dirty, and the preparers lacked nearby sinks to wash their hands. Despite offering customer seating upstairs, the two-level eatery provided no restroom for patrons.

Inspectors promptly shuttered the place. Its embarrassingly exorbitant score, posted in detail on the Health Department’s searchable Web site, immediately vaulted Cafe Fonduta to the top of New York State Senator Jeff Klein’s semi-annual “10 Worst Restaurants in New York City” list.

The cafe’s exceptionally poor performance was, in fact, the lousiest tally the food-safety hawk had come across since he first started compiling his culinary shit list back in 2005. “Last year, we had some that broke 120—but never 160,” Mr. Klein, a Bronx Democrat, said.

Yet, while the politician was preparing for the March 25 release of his regular unsanitary-restaurant report—with Cafe Fonduta serving as a seemingly timely backdrop—management of the embattled eatery was working to erase at least enough of those 160 violation points to reopen the place.

Staffers put the pesticide and mousetraps away and installed two hand-washing sinks in the downstairs food-prep area. Upstairs, they converted a closet into a restroom, complete with a new toilet, a new sink and a full bottle of liquid soap.

“The law is the law—I don’t argue. I follow the rules to the best of my capabilities,” said restaurant manager Louis Levrero.

Fifteen days after failing its initial inspection so egregiously, the Italian-themed lunchroom earned a perfect score of zero on its follow-up appointment with inspectors. “ALL VIOLATIONS HAVE SINCE BEEN CORRECTED,” noted the March 20 report, which the staff later posted in the front window. “NO VERMIN ACTIVITY OBSERVED.”

Armed with a clean bill of health, Mr. Levrero & Co. were back in business—though, apparently, somebody forgot to notify Mr. Klein.

The press conference in front of Cafe Fonduta went forward as scheduled this past Sunday, the restaurant’s redemption score unmentioned.

The discrepancy wasn’t lost on the restaurant’s manager, Mr. Levrero. “He has his own agenda,” the manager said of the Senator.

Mr. Klein himself blamed the information gap on the Health Department, which had yet to add the more recent inspection results to its Internet database.

“All the more reason why their Web site stinks,” said the Senator, who’s presently pushing legislation to make the agency’s inspection-reporting system more user-friendly.