At the Taste of Buffalo on Sunday, people lined up around the Carmine’s Restaurant booth.
Some were pointing out the award-winning cuisine, which garnered a top prize on Saturday, while others whispered, “Did you hear about the fire?”
Owner Michael Jacobbi said it was “surreal” Sunday, as he and employees dished up fan favorites from the popular Italian eatery, while back in Clarence the restaurant his father Vito started 45 years ago was gone.
“My father started it in 1970. It was a legendary supper club called the Charlesgate and he ran it through 1992,” said Jacobbi.
The 58-year-old Jacobbi said he has been with the business for 23 years and when he took it over, he changed it to an Italian restaurant. He said his 24-year-old son, Alex, hoped he would take over, as well.
In a bittersweet irony, judges Saturday had chosen Carmine’s bacon-wrapped casino stuffed shrimp as the best seafood item at the Taste. Jacobbi said his restaurant has won top awards six times.
“We’ve been coming here 20 years and yesterday we had the biggest one-day sale we’ve ever had, but the downside is ... we lost our restaurant,” he said. “It’s going to have be demolished.”
It was another record day for Carmine’s on Sunday. But Jacobbi had to close the booth early after running out of food – and with no restaurant to supply more.
Still, he said the support from patrons at the food festival was overwhelming, from people on the street to those at other booths who have praised his restaurant and offered words of encouragement.
Jacobbi was at the booth at about 1 p.m. Saturday when he got the phone call that there was smoke coming off the roof of his Transit Road restaurant.
“We have a wood fire brick oven, so I thought maybe it was just coming from the flue, but the guy (on the phone) said, ‘I think it is more than that,’ ” Jacobbi recalled.
It was, in fact, a grease fire, according to Amherst Fire Control. It quickly spread throughout the building and into the attic, Jacobbi said. Five employees who were in the restaurant getting orders ready for catering were evacuated.
Jacobbi said one of the employees called him and said, “You’d better get over here. It’s bad,” and he raced over to the restaurant.
“It seemed like every fire truck in Western New York was there,” said Jacobbi. “They did a wonderful job, but the whole roof caved in. It was a grease fire, on the grill, and it just caught – got into some duct work. It got into the attic, and once it spread to the old attic – it’s an old wood-frame building – that was it.”
He said the call came in at 1 p.m. and by 1:30 p.m. the fire was out, but the restaurant was “totally demolished.” He said water inside the building was up to his knees.
Damage to the building was estimated at $500,000 and $250,000 to the contents. Jacobbi said he was able to go inside and retrieve some of his catering records.
“I called the ones I could, but they will have to make other arrangements,” he said of clients who had ordered catering.
He said he is unsure what the future holds for his 32 employees, as well. Without a kitchen, he will have to rent a space if he wants to continue catering.
Does he want to restart the business after this?
“Of course. This is what I do. I don’t know how to do anything else,” Jacobbi said.
He added, “I love all the stuff that is happening in Buffalo and I want to be part of the resurgence.”