RED HOOK — One of the FDNY's longest-serving firefighters still hasn't left the firehouse. Seven years after the department's mandatory retirement age forced Tony Catapano to hang up his helmet on his 65th birthday, the 42-year veteran of Red Hook's Engine 202 spends most days just one block from his old company, in a restored firehouse that is the headquarters of Friends of Firefighters.
Friends of Firefighters, founded as an independent nonprofit after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, offers free and low-cost health services to current and retired FDNY members, military service members and their families, including acupuncture, yoga, massage therapy and counseling.
This Wednesday — and the second Wednesday of every month, from 8 to 11 a.m.— it serves "'On the Arm' Breakfast," a free feast of freshly prepared pancakes, French toast, fruit, coffee, and eggs-made-to-order, all expertly made and served by Catapano — a man whose cooking brought him national TV appearances and department-wide acclaim.
"I made the mistake of calling Tony Cat a chef once. He corrected me and said he's a cook," Friends of Firefighters founder and executive director Nancy Carbone said. "The difference — it's the warmth. It's the personality. It's the cooking. It's the sense everything's going to be OK. Tony's got his apron on — to have him in the kitchen, it's a comfort."
Current and retired FDNY members call Catapano a "fireman's fireman."
"Tony is always there," said Pete Calascione, 69, a volunteer at Friends of Firefighters who worked more than 18 years at Engine 202. "You call him anytime day or night, he's right there. He's a tireless person — he gives you the shirt off his back."
And at the Red Hook Raiders, home to Engine 202 and Ladder 101, the kitchen was where Catapano ruled.
"Any of the brothers who wanted to cook in the kitchen used to come to me first," Catapano said. "I would advise guys on recipes before they cooked them for their wives or girlfriends."
The Raiders had a long culinary tradition, which was passed down from firefighter to firefighter. "You work your way up, like most restaurants,” Catapano said. “I started out, like most probies, cleaning dishes and shopping. Then I was making salad."
He was an attentive student. Not only was Catapano soon preparing whole meals for his firehouse, but he won FDNY cooking competitions, prepared breakfast for Dick Clark during a TV appearance in early 2002, twice promoted his recipes on the The Phil Donahue Show, and published a best-selling cookbook in 1987 with fellow firefighter John Sineno.
"I'm not the best cook, but I'm a good cook," Catapano said. "You have to use your imagination when you cook. But you have to cook what people like."
Catapano became involved with Friends of Firefighters during his final years at Engine 202, when he and Carbone crossed paths in 2001. In the days after the terrorist attacks, Carbone visited the Raiders to ask how she could help.
"We needed bunting to hang outside the firehouse," Catapano said. "The city didn't have anymore left." Ladder 101, alone, had lost all seven firefighters who were on duty Sept. 11.
In the weeks that followed, Catapano found himself going to the organization's offices on Columbia Street, helping refurbish the run-down storefront alongside other firefighters. He organized the first "'On the Arm' Breakfast" in 2004, cooking pancakes and eggs on two propane stoves and a miniature oven, propped atop a work bench and paint cans.
The name stemmed from, in part, a tongue-in-cheek reference to an old, illegal police practice of taking things for free (rather than paying for a cup of coffee, for example, an officer would simply pat the NYPD patch on his arm). But the phrase also bore special significance for firefighters.
“Firefighters come with arms loaded with things,” Carbone explained. Not just equipment, but “new guys are expected to bring food. And if you screw up, you show up with food."
Catapano began spending even more time at with Friends of Firefighters after he retired, at the organization’s new location on Van Brunt Street. The building was a firehouse from 1873 to 1960, and more than 300 volunteers have helped restore it, installing turn-of-the-century signboards, constructing staircases and more.
"Firemen feel at ease in the firehouse environment,” Catapano said. "I started fixing up the kitchen. In a firehouse, the kitchen is where all the problems are solved. Where all the questions are asked."
He and three other retired firefighters now spend at least three days a week in the firehouse, most often in the kitchen, where the tables are almost always loaded with Entenmann’s donuts, cookies and other treats. Catapano greets the firefighters and families who come in, talk and, when necessary, assess their needs.
"To have him here validates us. With the FDNY culture — it has to come from one of them. Word of mouth is very important,” Carbone said. “If Tony's involved, they know it's safe."
Firefighters at the Red Hook Raiders agreed. “He gives it a lot of credibility,” said Andy Singleton, 37, a 10-year member of Engine 202. "It's nice to know he's a stone's throw away, if you need him.”
The Raiders, he added, still haven’t found a firefighter who cooked with the same skill or relish as Catapano. “The position’s still open,” Singleton said. “It’s not filled. It might never be.”
For a full list of Friends of Firefighters events and services, visit the organization’s website.