There were once free mussels in the East Village. Not $20 mussels or even $10 mussels. Free mussels, and they were free every night.
I know, because I ate them. I ate a lot of them. I felt sheepish about going back for thirds, but I did anyway. I needed those mussels. It was the late 1980s and I was a poor student newly moved to New York from Wisconsin. And then it was the early 1990s, and I was a poor editorial assistant, still living in New York.
I had never had a mussel when I first went to Cucina di Pesce, the low-key but dependable Italian restaurant that occupied a space on E. 4th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, until Sunday, when a rent hike forced it to close after 32 years of loyal service to underpaid slobs like me. But as I nursed my $5 glass of white wine at the bar, waiting for a friend to arrive, I couldn’t help but notice that people kept strolling up to a hooded silver chafing dish on a table against the wall. They scooped up a mess of black shells and red sauce and returned to their seats at the bar.
I ventured tentatively toward the chafing dish and lifted the lid. You didn’t see a lot of shellfish in Wisconsin. You saw lake perch and walleye, but I was pretty sure these were mussels. I spooned some onto one of the small white plates that were stacked to the side. No one stopped me. I went back to the bar and began eating them. No one stopped me. Through my many visits to Cucina di Pesce over the next several years, no one ever stopped me.
Cucina opened in a different East Village. You could live modestly — my apartment on Eldridge Street was $300 a month — and you could eat modestly and well. At the start, the pasta dishes were between $6 and $10, and each meal started with a complimentary appetizer of steamed artichokes.
Who was the owner at Cucina? Who was the chef? I never asked. Nobody cared about such things back then. You looked for a restaurant with good food, a welcoming atmosphere, decent prices, and a certain indefinable New Yorkiness. (The instant-classic, fish-shaped neon sign didn’t hurt.) Cucina had all of those qualities. It was as fancy as I got back then, and it was as fancy as my friends and I needed.
“I cannot count the number of birthdays, friendly get-togethers, reunion dinners, weird dates, et al. [I had] there,” recalled my friend David Greven, my most frequent Cucina companion. “Its social usefulness ran the gamut from casual to momentous, and the food was always satisfying and good.”
It was also ideally situated if you liked a bit of downtown culture. A meal at Cucina often preceded a walk down the block to La MaMa ETC, New York Theater Workshop, or the Jean Cocteau Repertory, or followed a double feature at Theatre 80 St. Marks, then one of the city’s best revival houses. With its charming, grab-bag décor of brick walls, cheesy oil paintings, and mirrors, Cucina also provided a right-feeling, quasi-bohemian backdrop for a vigorous discussion of whatever performance had been taken in that night. No one scrutinized the food, except to remark that it was always good. We had better things to talk about.
After I moved to Brooklyn, I frequented Cucina less. Occasionally, I walked down 4th Street and was always amazed to see that Cucina was still in business. The East Village was now home to upscale speakeasies and boutique hotels. There were fetishized, James Beard Award-winning destination restaurants, where not only could you not get free food, but you had to pay for the bread. It warmed my heart that Cucina had somehow survived. Perhaps the city wasn’t as unfair as all that.
But, of course, it is, and the bell finally tolled for the restaurant. I went back for one last meal on Saturday. It had been years, and it wasn’t the place I had known. It had lost two-thirds of its square footage to an earlier, 2016 rent hike at 89 E. 4th Street, a building that had a different landlord. The long bar to the left was now a small bar in the back. A lot of the homey eccentricity had evaporated, and there were no free mussels. I was told that, five years earlier, a city health inspector had walked in just as a patron was helping himself to the shellfish, and promptly fined the restaurant $2,000. The mussel gravy train ended right then and there.
I ordered a bowl of linguini with clams, which was as good as anything I’d had there years before, and a glass of Trebbiano, which was still an inexpensive $7 — not much inflation over three decades. There were mussels on the menu, but I didn’t order them. It seemed wrong that I should have to pay.