The owner of Little Italy standby Bella Ciao has come under fire for allegedly underpaying his staff and overlooking city and state coronavirus guidelines for restaurants during the height of the pandemic.
Three former employees claim that Marcello Assante — the restaurateur behind Manhattan restaurants Bella Ciao and Local 92 in the East Village — refused to pay his employees overtime; ignored coronavirus health requirements issued by city and state officials; and referred to former employees as “princesses” after they raised concerns about the alleged incidents. The employees also allege that Shai Zvibak, the former chef and co-owner of Local 92, characterized Mexican staffers as thieves and referred to them as members of the “mafia.”
“People should know what is happening in the back [of the restaurant],” says one former employee of Bella Ciao and Local 92, who requested anonymity due to the status of her citizenship. “In the front, everything is pretty. You smile and you serve food and you serve drinks. Customers have no idea what is going on.”
Assante denies the former employees’ allegations, claiming that they were fabricated by three friends working at the restaurant. “It’s completely a lie,” he says. “It never happened.”
The former worker held various roles at Bella Ciao and Local 92, including jobs as a server, bartender, and manager. Her issues at her former workplace began shortly after she was hired in September 2020. She alleges she interviewed for and was hired to fill a bar manager position, but when she started working at the restaurant, she says she was paid the same hourly rate as its servers and bartenders.
When the employee confronted Assante about the discrepancy, he claimed his accountant had made a clerical error, she says, but more than a month later she had not received back pay, and her hourly rate had not increased, despite her continuing to perform managerial responsibilities, including creating employee schedules.
Assante denies the worker’s account of what happened. He says the former worker was hired as a bartender and server, with the possibility of growing into a manager role following a trial period.
Multiple other Bella Ciao employees approached the former worker, whose job responsibilities reportedly included those of a manager, to ask about errors in their paychecks, she says. In a series of text message conversations obtained by Eater, several employees appear to be reaching out about being paid fewer hours than they worked.
The former worker claims that employee time cards were rounded down to 40 hours per week, even as staffers worked 50-to-60-hour weeks to keep the restaurant afloat during the pandemic. The employees have yet to be compensated for the missing hours.
“They were not paying overtime,” according to María, another former employee at Bella Ciao and Local 92 who asked to have her last name omitted from this article because she still works in the hospitality industry. “When someone worked 55 hours, paychecks came in for 40.”
Assante claims it would not have been possible for employees to work 40 hours at that time, as Bella Ciao was only open four days a week, from Thursday to Sunday, for dinner service.
The three former employees dispute Assante’s characterization. They say the restaurant was open five days each week — from Wednesday to Sunday — and that they regularly worked 50 to 60 hours per week, in part because they say they were tasked with cleaning the restaurant on days when it was closed for service.
In November, after roughly two months of working at Bella Ciao, the anonymous worker began splitting her time between the Little Italy restaurant and Local 92, another of Assante’s businesses, where she was reportedly brought on as a bartender. Continuing to work under Assante was not ideal, the employee says, but she was hopeful about working in a role with the same hourly pay and fewer responsibilities.
Yet shortly after she started at Local 92, chef and co-owner Shai Zvibak reportedly fired most of the restaurant’s front-of-house staff. The worker says she was once again tasked with performing managerial duties — including designing menus and creating a cocktail list from scratch — for $10 an hour before tips. “Suddenly I was doing it all again,” the former worker says.
She and María allege that Zvibak later justified the layoffs by saying that his Mexican staff were members of the “mafia” who were stealing from the restaurant. Zvibak has not returned multiple requests for comment.
Local 92 temporarily closed in December following the citywide ban on indoor dining, at which point none of its employees were working at the restaurant. A month later, Assante reportedly asked the anonymous former worker to come back to the restaurant to prepare for the return of indoor dining.
Yet when she returned to Local 92, the worker claims, things were “even worse” than before. She says the restaurant had partially flooded due to plumbing issues, and rats had nested in the building. The kitchen floor was littered with cigarette butts, and the restaurant’s heater had broken. The former employee was cleaning the space while wearing a winter coat, she says. In January, the former worker says she convinced Assante to bring on two additional workers to help clean the restaurant, but it wasn’t enough.
“We were doing everything,” the former worker says. “We were being dishwashers, we were being bartenders, we were carrying all of the furniture, we were killing rats.” Once, after the three employees attempted to voice concerns about the work conditions, Assante reportedly referred to them as “princesses” who were “not strong enough” to work in the hospitality industry, according to the former worker. Assante denies the conversation occurred.
The former workers’ concerns about health and safety worsened once the restaurant reopened for indoor dining in February, they say. Multiple staff members say that Assante’s restaurants did not comply with city- and state-mandated guidelines for restaurants operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
The three workers allege that they were cleaning tables at Local 92 using spray bottles filled with water because Assante did not buy sanitizing solution; that the restaurant’s indoor tables were not spaced six feet apart, as was required in New York City at the time; and that its outdoor gas heaters, which are only allowed for use on the sidewalk, were moved inside of the restaurant to heat its dining room.
Assante denies the allegations. He claims his East Village restaurant complied with city- and state-mandated coronavirus requirements; that employees had adequate access to sanitizing solution; and that gas heaters were never used indoors.
The former workers’ concerns reached a boiling point on Valentine’s Day, the first holiday after the city’s return to indoor dining. The former workers say the restaurant was operating at roughly 100 percent indoor capacity that evening, despite dining rooms being limited to 25 percent capacity at that time.
Assante claims the restaurant operated at 25 percent capacity on Valentine’s Day, citing the restaurant’s revenue that day. “We made $4,000,” he says. Before the pandemic, he claims Local 92 might have brought in roughly $12,000 to $15,000 during the holiday.
Two days after the February holiday, the anonymous former employee claims she was let go. She alleges she was fired for excluding Assante’s son — David Assante, who worked at Local 92 as a general manager — from a tip pool among front-of-house staff. María resigned after the former employee was terminated, and the third worker continued on at the restaurant, citing financial concerns, but later quit.
The employee allegations come amid a larger reckoning in the hospitality industry, and current and former restaurant workers have cited working conditions during the pandemic as one reason for finally speaking up. “The industry was deeply flawed before COVID-19, and the pandemic only made things worse,” as one career waiter explained to Grub Street.
Even as New York City inches toward recovery, restaurants and bars are facing an ongoing staffing shortage. Business owners have attributed the hiring squeeze to lucrative unemployment benefits, but some former industry workers say that taxing workplace conditions — like those alleged above — are the real reason they have not returned to their former jobs more than a year after the first pandemic shutdown.
Bella Ciao and Local 92 have since reopened seven days a week. Marcellino, another Assante-owned restaurant in Nolita, which was not included in any of the allegations employees shared with Eater, has reopened full time as well.
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