Mamaroneck’s Hole in the Wall brews its last

By Mark Lungariello

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Coffee served at Hole in the Wall came in flimsy short Styrofoam cups that usually had a basketweave pattern. There were no options for different roasts or flavors and Rose Sestito, the owner, had no secret formula or fancy blending technique. Her only rules were to use Colombian coffee and keep the machine clean.

And yet it was the best coffee there was.

At least according to the tastes of a legion of loyal cable repairmen, tow truck drivers, mechanics and industrial workers who stopped in for a cup daily.

“I don’t know why,” Sestito said on Sept. 10, the day that she retired. “Not because it’s my coffee, but everybody says it’s the best.”

Rose Sestito at the Hole in the Wall. Rose Sestito at the Hole in the Wall.

Ordering coffee “regular” wasn’t the opposite of “decaf”  but just meant the coffee would come with milk and sugar – which for the clientele was the “regular” way to drink it.

“Now they all want to know where they’re going to get their coffee,” she said. Sestito, who lives nearby, said she is looking to “devise a system” to make coffee for her old customers out of her home.

Hole in the Wall closed Sept. 10 after 36 years in business in Mamaroneck’s industrial area, colloquially called The Flats. It occupied a tiny storefront at 406 Center Ave. that was no wider than 15 feet. Its muddy-brown stucco façade had power lines sloppily threading out to utility poles on the street, with a rectangular sign, more 1930s than 1970s, that said “Hot N Cold Sandwiches,” the name of the deli and “Best Coffee in Town.” Its windows were made of glass panel blinds and its front door was a screen door affixed with a sign that advertised the breakfast special of egg on a roll with coffee for three bucks.

A new deli called Café La Fondita will open in its place. On the day Hole in the Wall closed, painters took to the facade with bright and vibrant colors in contrast to the gray concrete and bricks of most of the buildings in the area. Sestito convinced them to keep the coffee maker.

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Hole in the Wall’s closing is the latest sign of change in The Flats, as industrial businesses move out and village government plans to redefine the neighborhood – specifically the area between the Interstate 95 Fenimore Road exit and the Metro-North Railroad bridge. The area is one of the last industrial zones in Westchester County and to Republican Mayor Norman Rosenblum, it could be transformed with little impact on residents because there are only slightly more than a dozen homes sandwiched between the industrial businesses, auto shops and parking lots.

“We’ve got to get rid of the word industrial,” he said. “It’s not really an industrial area.”

Among the big companies that left is Suburban Carting Corp., which moved from Waverly Avenue to Briarcliff Manor. Happiness Laundry is gone. Rosenblum said he didn’t expect new large companies of that kind ever to return. The village established a committee to look at rezoning the area but for uses that would not be residential.

“The purpose is to look at it as much as possible as an empty canvas and see what type of businesses do you want there,” he said.

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Rose Sestito is short and wears rimless glasses and her hair cut short. She speaks in a crunchy rat-tat-tat tone you’d expect from someone who spent most of her life chatting up industrial workers. On any given day at Hole in the Wall, one might have found her sitting on a stool in the corner, wearing casual clothing covered with an apron and a gold necklace, watching a Panasonic hoisted on the far shelf that dated to a time when televisions came with a built-in VCR.

She opened Hole in the Wall with her sister Mary in the 1970s, but the family deli goes back another 40 years.

Her father, Fioramanti Sestito, called the deli “F. Sestito’s Italian-American Groceries” (his sign said “We Specialize in Wedges.”) Judging from the black and white photos that decorated Hole in the Wall, the place hadn’t changed much since the transition,  except the grocery sold sliced bread for 20 or 34 cents depending on the size of the loaf. A photo of Fioramanti, who was from Italy, hung by the entrance, all white hair and wearing a buttoned cardigan sweater.

Rose, the youngest, and her siblings worked at the deli after attending Holy Trinity School and Mamaroneck High School nearby. Cigarettes were 21 cents back then, she said.

“There was no such thing as playing after school,” she said. “You came home and went straight to work.”

Rose Sestito worked for a dozen years after high school in an office, until one sunny summer day she took a break and questioned her career path. “What the hell am I doing in an office?” she said. She spent a few years waitressing to have a more flexible schedule.

She and Mary took over the family business in 1978 and came up with their deli’s name when Mary explained to a friend what the place looked like. Since then, Rose Sestito’s hours were five days a week, from 5:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., although in recent years she closed at a quarter to four. Mary retired in 1998 and left Rose at it alone.

When the sisters opened, they brought in a steel grill, hung a sign that listed “breakfast suggestions” and introduced hot food to the menu. A microwave came later, but through the years, the store wasn’t upgraded – neon light overhead, wind chimes by the door and wooden shelves covered in checkered plastic contact paper. Until the day it closed, it had the same old Globe Standard scale her father owned (condemned, though it still worked), as well as the original refrigerator, microwave and grill.

For the workers that went there each day, there was a familiarity with the interior and also with the deli’s owner. “It’s not ‘hi how are you?’” Sestito said. “It’s ‘how did last night go?’ You know their whole history. You get to know them. You get to know their problems.”

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Mayor Rosenblum said he already had informal interest in developing in The Flats from a boutique hotel, a sports center that wanted to build an Olympic size swimming pool and a boutique hotel for dogs.

“They claim that is more profitable than a hotel for people,” he said.

He expects that the village’s board of trustees will seek to rezone The Flats within the next 12 months. Part of the proposal, he said, should limit parking lots because a large number of parcels are used to park vehicles from a nearby dealership or to park large trucks and autos from several stations nearby.

As for existing businesses, Rosenblum said the village wasn’t looking to “kick them out” and they would be legally grandfathered in as non-conforming properties. They wouldn’t be able to expand or significantly rebuild unless granted a special permit. Still, he expected businesses in the area would be receptive because a rezone would increase the value of their properties.

“You have a zoning where it’s conducive to those people to look for a different place, they could have enough value if they want to move somewhere else,” he said. “That’s a continuous thing that’s happening in Westchester.”

Tuckahoe rezoned its Marbledale Road corridor from industrial to allow other uses, and in recent years has seen a brewery open and will soon see a hotel break ground.

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On her last day before retirement, Rose Sestito sat on her stool and reminisced. She packed a small container of her signature meatballs to freeze and later heat up at home. The meatballs, usually served on a wedge, do have a secret unlike the coffee: Don’t pat the meat tightly together like you might a burger patty. “There’s no such thing as packing a meatball,” she said. “You just roll it.”

She also considered taking home with her a framed photo of the old phone booth that stands just outside the store. The old booth, with a red “Telephone” sign,  has long been without an actual phone in it but has become an attraction as one of the last of its kind in the area.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people stop to take photos,” she said. She had prevented the booth from ever being removed, despite its windows being broken. One local, an artist, decorated the booth’s interior with potted plants and photos. The photo of it that used to be on display in the deli was gifted by the local artist to Sestito.

The new owner will keep the phone booth. “If he wasn’t going to leave it up, I was going to take it,” she said. She shrugged off a question whether holding onto the outdated phone booth held some deeper meaning, saying she just thought her niece could put it as a decorative item in the garden.

What she will do in retirement, other than possibly make coffee for her old customers, is go back to work. “I’d love to find a job where I can have two, three days off a week,” she said. “So I can have long weekends on both ends. I’ll miss the customers. What I won’t miss are the hours.”

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About the author

Mark Lungariello
Mark Lungariello is a former contributing editor to the Westchester and Fairfield business journals. He also wrote features for WAG magazine. Lungariello graduated from Columbia Journalism School and has won New York Press Association awards as an editor, columnist and reporter.
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