In 2015, after working for years at the Southtown pizzeria then known as Nonno’s, Oscar Molina decided to take a chance. The Guatemala native accepted an offer to take over the restaurant at 455 Main Street, renaming it Piccolo Trattoria.
Earlier this month, Island teens Bryan Cusick, Nathaniel Gillespie, and Dylan Marfey sat down with Molina and his wife Sulema to discuss the couple’s plans for the restaurant, what they love about Islanders, and their new menu.
The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by 16-year-old Mark Strong Shinozaki in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). Throughout the year, the group will be interviewing Islanders about their experiences and their hopes for the next 25 years.
Left to right: Oscar Molina, Nathaniel Gillespie, Bryan Cusick, Dylan Marfey, Adib Mansour.
Dylan Marfey: Mrs. Molina, please tell us a little bit about your family, your previous education, and jobs.
Sulema Molina: I was born and raised in California, but my nationality is Mexican. Oscar and I have two kids, Santiago Molina ( five years old) and Tiffany Milan Molina (nine months old). I studied psychology in college but left because I got pregnant with Santiago and would like to get back to college one day. I work in the restaurant as a waitress, helping out here and there, making sure everything is OK.
Bryan Cusick: I would like to ask you, Mr. Molina, about your beautiful country of origin, Guatemala. When and why did you leave?
Oscar Molina: Yes, I was born in Guatemala where I got my education up to high school. After that, I worked in accounting. I moved here 19 years ago because all my family is here, except my mother and father, who live in Guatemala. But my mom spends most of her time here in New York because I am here with all my sisters and her grandchildren.
Guatemala is beautiful and I love it, but I love New York more, and I now call it home. I would like to visit Guatemala again – as soon as I am done transforming this place into a good classic Italian restaurant.
Cusick: Since you two came from different places, how did you meet?
Mrs. Molina: We met 18 years ago because my oldest sister is married to Oscar’s cousin. They used to live in New Jersey and I would come and visit. At the time, he worked at a pizzeria. When I came to visit the first time and I saw him, it was like: this is it! And, ever since, we’ve been together.
Nathaniel Gillespie: What made you come to Roosevelt Island and what are the things you two like the most about it?
Mr. Molina: I have been working on Roosevelt Island for 10 years, when the pizzeria was owned by somebody else and was known as Nonno’s. I loved it so much, I wanted to stay. So, when I was offered the opportunity, I started Piccolo Trattoria. I’m planning to stay for a long time.
Mrs. Molina: What we like about Roosevelt Island is the people, the community. Oscar loves the outdoors and especially the beautiful views from the Island.
Marfey: What is your favorite thing about the people on the Island?
Mrs. Molina: My favorite thing about the people is that they’re very friendly and they’re always there to help you no matter what. I have noticed, personally, that you do not need to ask for help. People here see you struggling, they run to you and offer to help. It is something that amazes me every time I see it. I really like that.
Mr. Molina: I like this friendly community and the feel of a small town.
Cusick: As you became the owner of the restaurant from the previous proprietor, Alfonso Di Cioccio, do you want it to still be known as the pizza place? What is your vision for the future of the restaurant?
Mr. Molina: My vision of the restaurant is slightly different than my wife’s. She likes the pizzeria part, but I want Piccolo Trattoria to become a classic Italian restaurant with table service and a host. I am not going anywhere, I love it here. I want to make the restaurant a true trattoria, which means an Italian restaurant serving simple food made well. I want to make all my ingredients here: the breads, the pasta, the sauces.
I am changing the interior to a more classic Italian trattoria. I have added a few New York and Roosevelt Island black-and-white pictures in nice frames. More changes will be coming. I come from a humble start, but I have a clear idea of what I want this restaurant to be.
Gillespie: We recently learned you are changing the menu a bit. What’s your favorite item on this new menu?
Mr. Molina: My son Santiago likes pizza and cereal. My personal favorite item on the menu is Shrimp Fra Diavolo, with pasta and spicy homemade sauce. Quality is what we are after.
Mrs. Molina: Yes, we are changing the menu to keep it to classic Italian menu. For me, I like the vodka rigatoni pasta. That’s definitely my favorite.
Marfey: You are constantly helping the community on the Island, donating free or discounted pizza to the Senior Center and PS/IS 217. Do you have any challenges or struggles with your business? And how can our community help you overcome these challenges?
Mrs. Molina: The community can help us by coming to our restaurant. We invite everyone to come and try our menu that we are always changing; we are always trying new things. We are always eager to learn more about what people like to have on the menu. We always listen to our customers when they come and say, “Oh, you should have this on the menu, you should have that.”
We would also like to be known for what Trattoria means... a place where family and friends come to eat and have fun.
Mr. Molina: There is one thing I would ask RIOC, and that is to move the Neapolitan pizza truck further from my business. I don’t see the need to have it so close to the only pizza restaurant on the Island – maybe by the Tram.
Cusick: Have you seen any changes since Cornell opened its campus?
Ms. Molina: We have noticed students come sit in our restaurant and have some dinner with us. We are thinking of opening a little earlier so the students can eat breakfast with us. Or we could close a little later, maybe midnight or later, so once they finished their studies or homework or whatever they’re working on, they have that opportunity to still come down to the restaurant and enjoy a late dinner.
Gillespie: How do you think technology would affect your business in the next several years?
Mr. Molina: Technology might change, but I still want to prepare my food the old-fashioned way with all fresh ingredients. We are also creating our own website where you can order from our menu and have your food delivered fast.
Ms. Molina: We currently use Grubhub, Seamless, Menuism, and now we are looking into doing Uber delivery as well so you could get your food faster.
Marfey: How do you see your restaurant when the Time Capsule reopens in 25 years?
Mr. Molina: New changes are coming to Piccolo Trattoria. We are creating more space, which will allow us to build a couple of comfortable booths. One thing is for sure, we will keep improving the menu and creating a happy atmosphere.
Cusick: How you think life on Roosevelt Island will be in 25 years?
Ms. Molina: I read in The WIRE the interview that your Time Capsule team did on Ms. Rosenthal, president of RIOC. She is doing a lot of changes, she’s fixing a lot of things. I think that in 25 years we will start to see the benefit of her hard work. Everything that she is fixing will pay off, and make it easier to visit the Island – a happier and more comfortable island.
Mr. Molina: I think we will see more young people on the Island with students from all over the world.
Gillespie: What would you say to your future self in 2043 regarding your restaurant, your community, and your family?
Mr. Molina: I’d love for my children to be next to me, working side-by-side and seeing the benefits of all the hard work I did for them and for Roosevelt Island. I have worked hard for this community that I love, and I will continue to work as hard as I can to give Roosevelt Island a beautiful restaurant that they can call their own.