By Thomas Hauser
When Paulie Malignaggi steps into the ring to face Ricky Hatton
on November 22nd, two fans with unique perspectives will be at ringside. Anthony Catanzaro and Chris Santos are part owners of restaurants that are as different as the styles of the fighters they’ll be watching in Las Vegas. But they share a passion for the sweet science and for Paulie.
Catanzaro was born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn in 1968, one year after his parents emigrated from Sicily to the United States. “My father’s side of the family was all fisherman,” he says. “My father decided to stay on land and repair the boats.” Anthony is fluent in English, Italian, and Spanish, but notes, “When I was growing up, the first language in our neighborhood was a Sicilian dialect of Italian. That’s what I heard at home and on the streets.”
“Soccer was my first passion,” Catanzaro continues. “At New Utrecht High School, I was co-captain of the soccer team. When I was sixteen, I started playing semi-pro and got paid fifty dollars a game. I thought I was rich. Eventually, I made it to $150 a game, but that came with a lot injuries so I retired.”
In 1993, Catanzaro began work as a sales assistant for Georgio Armani. “People like Robert DeNiro, Pat Riley, and Eric Clapton came in from time to time,” he remembers. “Once, Sigourney Weaver undressed in front of me. That was a treat.”
But there was a lot he didn’t like about the job, including the fact that he was bored stiff. So he started working as a bartender in an Italian restaurant (“I’m a people person, so I got along well with everyone at the bar; I was a good bartender”). Then he managed a restaurant in Brooklyn.
In 2001, Anthony was offered a partnership in a pizzeria in Manhattan. He’s still part-owner of Portobello’s at 83 Murray Street. He and his wife (a substance-abuse therapist) live in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn with their six-year-old son, Joseph.
Catanzaro and Malignaggi first crossed paths in 1997, when Anthony was sparring with a soccer teammate named Filippo Giuffre at Gleason’s Gym. “We sparred three times,” Anthony remembers. “We wore headgear and used 16-ounce gloves. Each time, Filippo beat the shit out of me. There were no knockdowns, but I didn’t enjoy it. Three minutes can be an eternity.”
“After one of our sparring sessions,” Anthony continues, “Filippo and I were speaking Sicilian, and this skinny malnourished-looking kid who was skipping rope overheard us and joined the conversation. He was sixteen years old, hadn’t had an amateur fight yet. He told us that someday he was going to be a champion. I said to Filippo, ‘Yeah; champion of the neighborhood.’ But we liked him. We gave him a ride home. And the whole way home, he didn’t shut up. That was Paulie.”
Malignaggi, for his part, looks back on that day and says, “I remember it well. I didn’t get many rides home in those days.”
A decade later, Paulie and Anthony are like family to one another. Catanzaro advises Malignaggi on business matters, helps schedule many of his media appearances, and watches his back in general. He has been to all but four of Paulie’s twenty-six fights. And if a fight is anywhere in the New York metropolitan area, Anthony is there after the weigh-in with replenishment from Portobello’s.
“It’s hard to put into words how I feel about Paulie,” Catanzaro says. “To see him progress over the past ten years from being a kid in the neighborhood to a mature world-class fighter means so much to me. The Cotto fight [which Malignaggi lost] was one of the most difficult times in my life, but I was very proud of Paulie that night. He got cut by a head butt in the first round and was dropped in the second. Then bones in his face started getting broken. A lot of guys would have said, ‘I’m getting paid anyway’ and called it a night. But Paulie stayed in there and won four or five rounds depending on how you scored it. And to come back from that, to beat Lovemore N’dou and become a world champion just one year later; that was a magical night for me. It was the culmination of every step run, every punch taken, every injury overcome, every word spouted. I know how much winning the championship meant to Paulie. It was a great moment in my life.”
“I love fighters,” Catanzaro continues. “The courage and discipline they show when their body tells them they can’t survive the pain and their mind overrides that and forces them to fight on; that’s amazing to me. I go to work and the worst thing that can happen to me is I get burned making a pizza. A fighter gets in the ring, and anyone who understands boxing knows what can happen to him. There are no bums in a boxing ring. There are unskilled fighters who shouldn’t be there. But any man who steps into a boxing ring is a better man than I am.”
Chris Santos was born in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1971. His father was an electrician. His mother was a registered nurse, who earned a masters degree and advised hospitals on risk management.
“My father was a very good athlete at the high school level,” Santos says. “That was a source of pride for him. He had a fighting spirit as an athlete, but he never applied it to other aspects of his life. He and my mother were separated and, as he grew older, he became kind of a hermit. He was estranged from his children. He lived alone and didn’t go out. Sometimes he wouldn’t even answer the phone. The last few years, I started to reconnect with him. He died two years ago, and I live my life as a direct result of the way he didn’t. His life and death made me realize that we don’t have a lot of time. It’s one of the reasons I’m driven in everything I do and get angry when I see people squander their opportunities and talents.”
Santos’s introduction to the culinary industry was washing pots in a French restaurant. He was thirteen years old. “I fell in love with the chaos of it all,” Chris recalls. “The chef was like a rock star to me. He flirted with the pretty waitresses. People were always telling him how good the food was. From that time on, I wanted to be either a professional fighter, a rock star [he played drums for twenty years], or a chef. My mother won that argument, so I went to Johnson and Wales [the largest culinary institute in the country].”
At culinary school, Santos completed a two-year associate-degree program and a two-year program in hospitality management. Prior to that, cooking had been a means to an end; to make money so he could buy clothes or a car. At Johnson and Wales, he got serious about it.
Santos graduated in 1993, came to New York, and took a job at Time Café. Ten months later, he was the executive chef. A series of positions at other restaurants followed. As part of that journey, he met Richard Wolf (a creator and co-owner of Tao) and Peter Kane (the owner of Happy Landing).
In due course, Wolf and Kane opened a bar called Double Happiness in Chinatown. “There was a retail space above the bar,” Chris recalls. “Peter and I opened a small restaurant there called Wyanoka. That was my purest food experience ever because it was so small. We served new American cuisine, and I could do everything in the kitchen myself because the restaurant had only twenty-seven seats.”
Then 9/11 devastated Wyanoka’s business. The restaurant closed four months later. Still, Santos had gotten enormous accolades as its chef and was a sought-after free agent. For a while, he worked as executive chef at Suba (modern Spanish cuisine). It was a successful “foodie” destination. But Chris had enjoyed being his own boss at Wyanoka and no longer had that freedom. For a while, he thought about “leaving food” altogether. Then, in 2003, he reconnected with Wolf and Kane, and the three of them asked each other, “Why haven’t we opened a restaurant together?”
The Stanton Social (at 99 Stanton Street in Manhattan) followed.
Meanwhile, Santos is a boxing junkie. “The three great passions in my life,” he says, “are cooking, music, and boxing. I go to every fight card in Manhattan and maybe six shows a year in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. I’m a sucker; I buy every pay-per-view fight. When I’m doing something boxing-related, even if it’s just watching a fight on television, it blocks everything else out for me.”
Santos also practices what he preaches. For the past ten years, he has worked out at Gleason’s. “It’s not boxerobics,” he explains. “I train two days a week with Martin Gonzalez [who trains Edgar Santana] and twice a week with Melissa Hernandez. I train like a fighter; I spar several times a month. The past few years, I’ve taken boxing very seriously. Probably, I should have been a fighter. I think I would have been a good one. It makes me crazy that I’m thirty-seven years old and found that talent in me and it’s too late. But I’m not about to turn pro at thirty-seven. That sort of thing doesn’t work out well.”
Santos and Malignaggi met five years ago at Gleason’s. “I used to see him all the time in the gym,” Paulie remembers. “One day, we started talking and I liked him. Chris is a big boxing fan; he knows his stuff.”
Santos, for his part, says, “Like everyone else, I like knockouts. But I love the nuances and subtleties of boxing. Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr, Floyd Mayweather Jr; those guys are magic. That’s one of the reasons I like watching Paulie. You better believe, I’ll be in Las Vegas when he fights Ricky Hatton
Meanwhile, Portobello’s and The Stanton Social are as different as a good club fight and a glitzy main event on HBO.
Portobello’s has a service counter up front, a linoleum tile floor, and formica-topped tables. It’s most distinctive decorating touch is “Paulie’s wall” – a montage of newspaper clippings and photos that honor Malignaggi.
The restaurant is open sixty-five hours a week (Monday through Saturday). Catanzaro works fifty to sixty of them. Sunday is his day of rest. “I would never dare to compare what I do with what a fighter does,” Anthony says. “But when I leave Portobello’s at night, there are times when I feel like I’ve been in a fight.” A second Portobello’s opened recently at 61 West Broadway.