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Hunters Point crab house claws its way back after fire

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Major residential developments are transforming the Long Island City waterfront, but it was not a wrecking ball that threatened the neighborhood staple Waterfront Crabhouse in Hunters Point.

A fire broke out in the kitchen of the 128-year-old building at 203 Borden Ave. Feb. 3 after a heating element malfunctioned, gutting the kitchen and damaging the upstairs catering area. Tony Mazzarella arrived and was able to salvage most of his restaurant.

“The most disturbing part is dealing with insurance,” he said, noting adjusters were already at the scene when he arrived. Insurance covered much of the damage, but Mazzarella said he still paid quite a bit out of his pocket to get the restaurant up and running again.

Mazzarella, 72, opened the Crabhouse in 1977, two years after another fire destroyed the building’s third floor. Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and raised in Maspeth, he bought the building from a friend after closing an Irish bar he ran in Manhattan.

The seafood menu seemed like a foregone conclusion to Mazzarella at the time.

“The only place you could get crabs beside Florida and Maryland was Chinatown,” he said.

When one walks into the restaurant, one of the first things that catches the eye is a 30-foot-long glass case containing commemorative gloves, belts and other memorabilia lining the wall opposite the bar. The items are befitting a former deputy commissioner for the New York State Athletic Commission and current treasurer of Ring 8, a charity that helps support aging boxers.

Mazzarella said he has no favorite souvenir from his days organizing matches.

“I can’t pinpoint one,” he said. “It’s hard when you meet such great names like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. They’re all in the same category.”

The Waterfront Crabhouse’s dining area is full of antique bicycles, a gas pump, old Flexible Flier sleds and other items Mazzarella has collected over the years. The only things replaced in the dining room were enlarged paper images of a news article from 1981, though Mazzarella said he and his staff spent many hours trying to dissipate the smell of smoke.

As the restaurant’s loyal customer base returns, Mazzarella said he has been surprised by all the concern for the antiques.

“Their comments don’t change. ‘Is it going to be the way it was? Are the things in the dining room still there?’ Things that you didn’t think people would recognize over the years or would be disturbing to them. You just don’t know.”

The old building sits right across Borden Avenue from the Long Island Rail Road’s Hunters Point yard and during the latter 19th century was Miller’s Hotel, a prime stop for people transferring from East River ferries to the trains.

It was the favored hangout of Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, the bellicose Long Island City mayor who earned the nickname in 1888 by attacking an LIRR workshop and fence the railroad decided to construct blocking what is now Second Street.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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