Renato DiBella. (Photo by Carrie Jones Ross)

The first time it happened, Renato DiBella says, it lasted almost three months and he almost lost everything. This time, it’s even worse.

Last March, when a gaping sinkhole mysteriously revealed itself onWashington Avenue, DiBella got no notice, no communication, no heads-up from anyone in city government that his beloved neighborhood pizza business of 14 years, DiBella’s Pizza Shop, was about to be barricaded, blocked-in and closed off. Cut off from the rest of the city with glaring orange barrels.

“I was driving on my way to work and a DPW guy was like, ‘You can’t get there. It’s impossible,’” recalled DiBella. That’s the message all of DiBella’s prospective customers would hear for the next three months — lunchtime business shriveled for the formally high-traffic pizzeria. The daily work trucks containing four guys at a time no longer came in for their slices or subs.

The very same sinkhole reappeared several weeks ago, deeper and wider, and threatening to cost the city $1 million or more to fix. DiBella’s is once again surrounded by blockades and tiny arrows directing would-be customers through a foreboding, mind-boggling maze. That’s a lot of sleuth work for a pie.

This time, DiBella said that though the city did send him a warning shot, it hasn’t made it any easier. “The first year this happened it looked like a carnival out there,” said DiBella. “People ask me all of the time, ‘Does it upset you? Yes … But, I appreciate that I live in a community where people care, and care about supporting a small business, and so because of that I can still function. I’m lacking the ability to function well though.”

DiBella said many customers try to find him and cannot, so they go home and call for a delivery instead. But the lunchtime crowd has all but perished once again, but even emptier than before, despite the presence of some confusing signs with barely visible direction arrows.

A community effort

DiBella said that neighbors and friends are trying to keep him flush by making the effort to get through, but not enough. “Some customers have apologized to me for not stopping in anymore. They say it’s too much. They say it’s confusing, and they don’t know how to get to me anymore. One gentleman apologized to me and said that he’s sorry I am not seeing much of him anymore, but that we are not in his path right now. There’s no other businesses stuck like this.”

DiBella guesstimated that he is losing around $300 worth of business per day. “People feel my pain when they come through the door.”

DiBella is reluctantly contemplating pulling up the tent pegs, though he admits his heart’s not exactly in it. The building was once home to his uncle’s barbershop, a meat market and a candy shop. DiBella said he feels safe, secure and comfortable in the small space of his restaurant, festooned with red, white and green signs of Italian pride. He is also contemplating city business loans to help him limp along until the hole is fixed, whenever that may be. He said DPW has admitted that there’s no knowing when the hole will be repaired, or whether it will happen again.