Sam’s Restaurant has the only neon sign in East Hampton. “The Village tried to take it down, but thousands of people signed a petition to stop that idea,” said owner Graham Quinn. “Now it’s a historical landmark.”
You could say Sam’s Restaurant is a historical landmark, albeit an unofficial one. Certainly, it is the oldest restaurant in East Hampton and one of the longest running eateries on Long Island.
In 1920, Sam and Mary Nasca bought the two story mixed-use building at 36 Newtown Lane in East Hampton and raised their three children, Thomas, Samuel and Rose, there. Sam worked all over town as a handyman and Mary was a seamstress.
The Nascas also owned and operated ‘Tony Rose Quick Shoe Repairing’ shop on the first floor before they hung out Sam’s iconic sign in 1947. It was a rough and tumble tavern, more known for its boozy fights than its thin crust pizza.
“Back then, it was a drunk bar,” said Quinn, “The Army was in Montauk. Fishermen came in. Nights usually didn’t end well.”
School teachers were known to pop in at lunchtime, and occasionally on their way to work.
“It was totally different back then,” he said. “A penny wasn’t allowed to walk by.”
Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne are said to have been customers. There was even a photo floating around of John Wayne playing pinball. “It probably went in the dumpster,” said Quinn. “That’s all they are, stories.”
Story also has it that Jackson Pollock was at Sam’s the night he crashed his car in Springs, killing himself and a passenger. As was his way, Pollock tried to barter some paintings on an outstanding bill. “Sam told him to get that shit out of here and don’t come back until you pay your bill with cold hard cash,” said Quinn.
The Nascas lost both sons tragically. When Sam passed away, following his wife, in 1973, Rose and her husband Eric Johnson, whom she met when they both worked at the telephone company, headquartered down the block at One Main Street, took ownership.
By all accounts, she ran a tight ship.
“She was tough but fair,” said Susan Lawrence of Springs, a longtime customer.
On a Friday night in April, before the real rush of summer hits, Susan and her husband Dennis Lawrence drink red wine at the bar before being seated in one of the green pleather booths. When you sink into one of Sam’s booths, your worries wash away. It’s like a sigh of relief.
“My parents dated here,” said Susan, who grew up in Southampton. “And this was where my parents took me as a kid.”
“We either went here or to eat Chinese across the street at Lyons,” said Susan. “Kids walked across the street to both places in one night. We used to call it ‘The Newtown Shuffle.’”
Dennis started coming to Sam’s in 1970 when the pinball machine was still in the corner and the back room was part of the parking lot. “Sam was still here. He was great,” Dennis said, between bites of spaghetti and clam sauce. “He was from Buffalo.”
“When Rose took it over from Sam she kicked the rough and tumble customers out. She wanted to change it from a bar to a restaurant. She made it more of a family place,” said Susan. “She knew good food and how to serve it.”
Rose’s picture hangs on the back wall, so she’s still looking after the place.
Quinn was a young man in the midlands of Ireland when he decided to travel to East Hampton for a summer job in 1995. At the time, a lot of Irish kids did the same thing, hitch-hiking back and forth from Montauk to East Hampton Village to get to work.
He got bartending jobs at the Grill, across the street, and Sam’s, and returned every fall to Ireland. “In 2002, I took over managing the place after Rose passed away,” he said. “In 2008, I took ownership.”
Since then, he married Marta, whom he met when she came in for a job. The couple have two small children, Chloe and Liam, and live in Northwest Woods.
He remembers Rose as a generous boss who met everyone with a smile and a friendly manner. “She was a great lady who ran a tight ship,” said Quinn. “I still remember working for her like it was yesterday.”
Today, the front window booths are more likely to seat families of four as opposed to drunk patrons sailing through the front window.
Like the exterior, little has changed in the interior. The decor, and even the kitchen are pretty much exactly how they were in 1947, minus a pinball machine and a small back room that allowed for a few extra booths.
The pizza dough recipe is the same as when Mary made it in the 1940s. “Only me and one guy here knows the recipe. It’s a trade secret,” Quinn said. “Employees sign confidentiality paperwork.”
Although it’s bread, with few ingredients, Quinn said the way it’s made changes with the seasons. “There’s a couple of things in there you wouldn’t expect,” he said.
He’ll only say that making the dough is not as easy as it might seem. “A lot goes into it. You don’t throw it in the mixer and have a couple of beers and see how it looks.”
The Hobart machine is a huge 75 pound mixer which Sam picked up second hand in 1945 from the East Hampton High School on Newtown Lane. It’s been in the same spot for close to 80 years.
“It has three different speeds and does everything. It makes pizza dough and grates cheese that comes in 10 pound blocks,” said Quinn. “It runs like a Rolex when you turn it on, and only requires an oil change before and after the summer.”
Sam’s sells a whole wheat pizza dough, too, but that may not make it to 2024. It’s just not as popular as the old school recipe. “I’ve seen a lot of restaurants with more money come and go. This pizza dough has kept us alive for 75 years.”
For 35 of those years Jorge Rodriguez has been rolling out the pizza dough, making the red sauce, also a secret, and sliding it into two ancient pizza ovens. “They’re half the reason for my gray hair,” Quinn said. “It’s harder and harder to get parts.”
Chef Augusto Morales has been in the kitchen for the last 15 years and knows the dough recipe, but he ain’t giving nothing up.
At one point, Quinn wanted to sell pizza to-go from the small retail space next door but the powers-that-be turned him down. Village residents may want to start another petition. The restaurant does take-out but between the customers waiting for tables and bar patrons, the entrance can become a cluster you-know-what.
In addition to pizzas, the menu consists of classic Italian dishes, from chicken parmesan and lasagna to veal milanese, seafood like baked clams and steamed mussels in white wine and garlic sauce and a range of salads.
As far as how many pizzas he sells in a week? “I can’t tell you that, they’d raise my rent.” He consents to selling “tons” of salads, with Caesar being an all-time favorite.
Quinn’s local vendors are the mainstay of his business. “I use Cromers for all our meats. Peter’s for produce. Brauns Seafood for fish,” he said. “I don’t deal with anybody unless they deliver 7 days a week. Christmas and Thanksgiving are the only days they don’t deliver.”
Although the focus may have switched to food in this century, the bar is from the last, and is still part of Sam’s charm. Not to mention the Old World mural painted in 1956.
“The bar is from the 1918 era. The Philadelphia bar it came from closed in 1929 because of prohibition,” said Quinn. “Sam somehow found out about it and went there and brought it back in 1946.”
There are only 10 bar stools and 18 tables, seating 86 people. The size of the restaurant is too small to take reservations. “Unless they have my phone number,” said Quinn. “Local hard working people who come here 52 weeks a year.”
Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen is one of those special customers who have Quinn on speed dial. Quinn has appeared on Cohen’s show “Watch What Happens Live” a few times in recent years, usually coinciding with guests from Bravo’s “Summer House,” which films in the Hamptons.
“I just do the bar for him,” he said of his role on the talk show. “It’s good exposure. Gets the city crowd in, and is always a fun day. They come in and pick me up. I have a driver for the day. My own dressing room. I bring pizza.”
On the show, Cohen introduces Quinn, “from my absolutely favorite pizza place in the country.”
“Andy does the mushroom and onion,” he said. Historically, sausage has been the bestseller but it changes.
Nick Brown and Scott Gerson are also Friday night regulars. On a recent Friday night they ate at the end of the bar, chatting with the wait staff as they stopped to pick up drinks.
“My parents came here before I was born,” said Brown. “My dad would eat the entire pizza. Not the small ones. The big ones. We came every Friday night. We love it.”
Brown’s father worked on Wall Street and bringing his family to Sam’s on a Friday night was a way for him to shed the city’s shabby vibe. “It’s very much the place for the people,” Brown said.
Brown remembers his excitement at seeing the actor Peter Boyle from the 1990s television show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’
“I followed him into the bathroom and got his autograph,” he said. “I still have it.”
“Tell her about the lobotomy,” said Gerson.
“Oh that’s a good story,” said Brown.
Perhaps there should be a trigger warning before proceeding. This story is just an illustration that proves, in the end, Everybody Loves Rosey.
“Rosey was really nasty, really tough. She was strict with kids and I was a kid. She wanted you to sit still,” said Brown. “There was a period when she went to Florida and when she came back, she was a completely different person. A sweet friend and super nice. My dad joked she had a lobotomy.”
“Her picture has made its way to the back of the restaurant,” Brown said.
On this particular evening he had the Caesar salad, no croutons, with anchovy. Mussels appetizer and sauteed broccoli. “I try to do low carbs. I am diabetic,” he said.
Brown noted his partner is very particular about the temperature of his food. His favorites are the clams and garlic, and the herbed roasted chicken. Burnt. “Or I have chicken parmesan. Burnt,” Gerson said. “Rosey’s chicken is half a chicken cooked in the pizza oven. It’s so good.”
“I get it often and I work here,” said a waitress, loading up her tray.
“Tartuffo for dessert and drinks are good too,” said Brown. “The energy is great. Friday night here is perfect.”
“My GPS is set from New York City to Sam’s,” said Gerson. “My car asks me, ‘Do you want to go to Sam’s?’”
“Sometimes we come on Saturday,” said Brown.
“I’ll say, ‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we go to Sam’s?’” said Gerson.
The couple sing the praises of Quinn and the staff. “He’s a great guy and everyone who works here we love.”
“I am not just a bus driver. I’m the bus driver,” said hostess and Springs School bus driver extraordinaire Betti Anne Mendez. Most of us work at Springs School. Jessica is a pre-K teacher, and my daughter. Jenn is a special needs teacher. Diana is a substitute teacher.”
While they may have a glass of wine to unwind after work, the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. these days, so don’t get any ideas. “They’re a great group of crazy women,” said Brown. “There isn’t a single guy.”
Quinn agrees. “I’ve got a great staff.”
Did he ever think growing up in the middle of Ireland, that he’d own a restaurant in the Hamptons? “It was the furthest thing from my mind,” Quinn said. “Ah, the twists and turns of life owning a restaurant in East Hampton. Dealing with the septic at 7 a.m.”
“That man can hear a mouse piss on cotton,” said Susan after dinner, nodding toward Quinn. “My father owned a refrigerator and air conditioner business and he was in most kitchens and he said this place was the cleanest of them all.”
“We’re creatures of habit,” Susan said. “It’s consistent. They’ve always had good pizza.”
Back in the day, Ma Bergman was their competition for pizza, in the space that is now Nick and Toni’s.
“You were loyal to one or the other,” said Susan. “You get to know your people.”