Only three weeks after COVID-19 cases were confirmed in New York City, the metropolis became the epicenter of the virus in the United States. Restaurants and bars completely shut down for dine-in service on March 16, but the virus has had a dramatic and tragic impact on the dining community beyond finances and the loss of small businesses.
Top chefs and restaurateurs like Floyd Cardoz, neighborhood stalwarts like butcher Moe Albanese, and lesser-known, behind-the-scene chefs like Jesus Roman Melendez from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nougatine have all died due to the virus. As of Tuesday, May 5, 171,723 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 13,724 people have died in NYC.
Below, Eater NY is remembering people in the restaurant industry who have died as a result of complications due to the novel coronavirus. Whether they ran legendary restaurants in the Bronx or fried up chicken in busy Williamsburg bar backyards, these people left an indelible mark in their communities.
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Domingo Vega, 45, restaurateur and chef
Domingo Vega — the chef responsible for bringing step-above bar food to Brooklyn watering holes the Woods and the Breakers — died of COVID-19 complications on April 16. The 45-year-old chef worked for years as a line cook at popular Williamsburg restaurants like Pies ’n’ Thighs, the Commodore, and Diner, before eventually opening up his own business. The Bear, located in the back of popular Williamsburg bar the Woods, served tacos and fried chicken sandwiches to the area’s revelers.
As a chef, Vega was able to turn food served at bars into more than just bar food, eldest daughter Beatriz Vega says, but his best dishes may have been those that patrons never got to taste. “He was always more creative when cooking at home. We’re a Mexican family, and he would test his taco recipes on us before taking them to the restaurants,” Beatriz says. Vega is survived by two daughters, two restaurants, and a generations-old recipe for tacos al pastor passed down from his grandmother.
His daughter Yazmin is raising funds through GoFundMe to assist with his burial.
Joseph Migliucci, 81, restaurateur
The owner of iconic Bronx red-sauce joint Mario’s restaurant died due to the novel coronavirus on April 5. Migliucci had lung disease and was admitted to the hospital on March 31. He died six days later. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, their children, and their grandchildren.
Migliucci was a stalwart in Bronx’s Belmont neighborhood and the Italian-American community there. Five generations of his family have operated the 100-year-old restaurant, which was known for serving classics like chicken Parmigiana. Migliucci, who worked at the restaurant for nearly 50 years, was considered the patriarch by the local Italian-American community; a statement put out by Bronx’s Little Italy group remembers him as a “big, burly lovable man” and “an individual with a big heart and soul” — one who contributed both to the neighborhood and the fabric of the city as a whole.
Vincent Mesa, 76, chef
Vincent Mesa spent more than half of his life working in the kitchens of Upper East Side restaurant Mansion Diner. In early April, owner John Philips closed the restaurant temporarily and gave employees the option of being furloughed or continuing to work limited hours. Despite being the restaurant’s head chef and longtime leader in the kitchen, “Mesa was one of the first employees to furlough,” Philips says. As the owner later learned, it was because Mesa had started to experience symptoms of COVID-19. He diedied a little more than week later on April 15. He was 76.
Mesa began working at the Mansion Diner close to 40 years ago, in 1981, back when Philips was just 3 years old. The Upper East Side restaurant has changed considerably in its 75-year history, but through all of the renovations, expansions, and changes in ownership, Mesa has been a consistent presence in the Mansion’s kitchen. “He taught me how to make my first egg,” Philips says. The veteran chef is survived by family and beloved dishes like Mesa’s chili con carne, which will stay on Mansion Diner’s menu.
Jose Torres, 73, chef and restaurateur
The owner and chef at popular Parkchester, Bronx, Latin American restaurant Joe’s Place died from the virus on April 12. He was in relatively good health before he contracted the virus, a friend of the restaurateur told the Bronx Times. Prior to his death, he had plans to revamp his spacious restaurant, which he opened on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx in 1999.
Torres was a large presence in his community, and is remembered for his generosity and for doling out advice to neighbors. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams was one of his many customers and wrote that Torres was one of the city’s “great Puerto Rican legends,” and that “the impact of this virus is beyond words, it is claiming our living icons.”
Joe Joyce, 74, bar owner
Joyce ran Bay Ridge staple JJ Bubbles for 42 years before his death on April 9 due to complications related to COVID-19. Joyce, who had recently returned from a cruise to Spain with his wife Jane, was admitted to the hospital on March 27 with low oxygen levels and died nearly two weeks later.
Over the years, his Brooklyn bar became a de facto gay bar in an otherwise conservative neighborhood. Joyce’s personal politics leaned conservative too, but neighbors say everyone always felt welcomed in the tavern, and that he opened up his bar for community fundraisers and events. Prior to opening the bar in 1978, Joyce worked as a physical education teacher for disabled students at a Staten Island school while also bartending at a nearby spot called the Tankard Inn. Joyce also served in the Vietnam War and was stationed in the seaside town Chu Lai.
Moe Albanese, 95, butcher
Legendary Little Italy butcher Moe Albanese died from the novel coronavirus on April 8. He was initially discharged from the hospital earlier that week, but his condition worsened. His granddaughter, Jennifer Prezioso, who ran their shop Albanese Meats & Poultry with him, made the announcement on his Instagram page.
As the face of his iconic butcher shop, which was started by his parents in 1923, Albanese was known for his warmth, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail. Eater critic Robert Sietsema called his porterhouse rib-eye steak one of the best in the city back in 2013. In recent years, his business was perhaps best known as the butcher shop on Amazon’s hit TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. His legacy lives on through his granddaughter, who plans to take over running the shop once the family is able to reopen.
Jesus Roman Melendez, 49, chef
Cooks who have passed through Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s casual offshoot Nougatine agree that Jesus Roman Melendez was a real force in the day-to-day affairs in the kitchen. Melendez began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on March 20, but was initially turned away from the hospital. As his condition worsened, he was finally admitted to Queens General on March 27. He died April 1.
Melendez served as a source of inspiration for the cooks who worked with him, and many of his former colleagues told Grub Street that he could often quickly diffuse tension in the kitchen between staff members. He was an integral part of what made the restaurant tick. “I don’t know a cook who went through JG who doesn’t have affection for this guy,” Amelia Rampe, a food editor who previously worked at Nougatine, told Grub Street.
Floyd Cardoz, 59, restaurateur and chef
The trailblazing chef behind acclaimed NYC restaurants like Paowalla and Tabla died from complications related to COVID-19 on March 25, making him one of the first major food-world figures to die due to the virus. He admitted himself into a hospital shortly after he returned from to India on March 8, and wrote on his Instagram page at the time that he was feeling feverish and had checked himself in as a precaution. His family confirmed his death on the morning of March 25.
Cardoz left an outsize mark on NYC’s dining community, from his start at celebrated French restaurant Lespinasse to opening the three-Michelin-starred Indian fine dining spot Tabla. Later on, he offered more contemporary takes on Indian food at Paowalla and Bombay Bread Bar. He mentored countless chefs and restaurateurs, including Will Guidara and Dwayne Motley, and is remembered by the dining world for his kindness and generosity.
“As relentless, stubborn, and unreasonable as he was on the surface, once you got just a little below the surface, he just had the most beautiful heart,” Guidara said of him at the time of his death.
Jonathan Adewumi, 57, restaurateur
The co-owner of popular Downtown Brooklyn restaurant Amarachi died from the virus on April 28. He remained in the hospital for two weeks on a ventilator prior to his death, with his condition worsening toward the end, his brother told NY1.
Amarachi is a gathering place for the local African community and serves a wide range of Afro-Caribbean cuisine, including jollof rice, goat pepper soup, and suya. Jonathan’s brother, Adebayo Adewumi, told NY1 that Jonathan was “a great ambassador for Africa in showing breadth and the wealth and the regalness of our culture and history to the American populous.” Besides the restaurant, Adewumi worked on NYC’s Nigerian film festival, a clothing company, and a travel group promoting tourism to various parts of the African continent.
The restaurateur’s family has set up a GoFundMe page to provide burial support and carry on his work.
Andreas Koutsoudakis, 59, restaurateur
The beloved chef and owner of neighborhood diner Tribeca’s Kitchen died on March 27 from complications related to COVID-19. Koutsoudakis, who ran restaurants in New York for more than 30 years, reportedly tested positive for the virus on March 12 and was admitted to the hospital more than a week later. He had closed his restaurant two weeks earlier for the duration of the pandemic “in order to support the city’s efforts and in order to keep our guests, team, and community safe and healthy,” he wrote on his restaurant’s Facebook page at the time.
The restaurateur moved from Greece to the United States when he was 14 and opened the Gee Whiz diner in Tribeca in 1989. He opened Tribeca’s Kitchen, a favorite among NYC politicians, in 2014. “He was a kind, warm, and cheerful New Yorker,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson wrote of him at the time on Twitter. “ He was always at the front door welcoming customers.”
Vincent Cirelli Sabatino, 68, food vendor
Sabatino operated the popular Little Italy food stand Vinny’s Nut House from the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets — he was known affectionately to his customers as Vinny Peanuts. Sabatino died from complications related to COVID-19 on April 13, as his family announced on Instagram.
Sabatino took over the business from his grandmother, who opened the cart nearly a century ago. Aside from selling roasted nuts, Sabatino’s cart also specialized in Torrone, an Italian nougat with nuts, and other Italian goods like anisette toasts and lemon cookies. He was a neighborhood fixture. His nephew Danny Fratta wrote of him on Instagram: “Your character and personality is what made everyone love you and you loved everyone with a heart so big.” Even as Little Italy shrank around him, Sabatino and his cart were a constant reminder of how vibrant the Italian-American stronghold once was.