HARLEM — The battered, corrugated security gates of the two storefronts at West 139th Street and Amsterdam Avenue were rolled down and the area was desolate when Sebastiano Cappitta first saw them.
The location, across the street from the neo-Gothic structures of the City College of New York, turned out to be just what the restaurateur was looking for.
"I saw there was nothing here — no choices," said Cappitta. "This is such a gorgeous view."
A beloved greasy spoon, The Greek's Collegiate Diner, which closed a few years ago, used to occupy one of the storefronts. Cappitta combined the two storefronts, stripping away the drywall to find exposed brick and ripping down the dropped ceiling to find one made of tin.
He added tile floors, a red banquet and a red wood-burning pizza oven that cooks at 845 degrees and Coccola — which means hug or cuddle in Italian — was born.
On a recent rainy afternoon, the restaurant, which opened a week ago, was filled with CCNY students who had just come from or were headed to class.
The floor-to-ceiling windows gave a view of City College. A sidewalk cafe is planned for the summer.
"There's not many places to eat around here and they have a good selection," said Milana Fine, 22, a psychology student at City College.
Most of the choices in the area are either deli sandwiches or halal food trucks.
"How many chicken over rice lunches can you eat before you get sick of it?" said Fine, who dined on a salmon dish with a glass of wine.
Cappitta, who owns Bettolona on Broadway between LaSalle Street and Tiemann Place just off of 125th Street, Buca, Bettola and Acqua on the Upper West Side, said the new location fits his profile perfectly.
When he opened Acqua at West 95th Street and Amsterdam Avenue there was an SRO next door.
"I like to be a pioneer in an area that's up and coming," he said.
Cappitta also likes warm neighborhood spots that serve comfort food in locations where the rents are low enough to pass off some savings in the price of food to customers.
At Coccola, they have $5 glasses of wine and a Marinara pizza that serves two people for $8. The most expensive dish is the $14 salmon served with sauteed spinach and potatoes. Some pricier wines are off menu for customers who are able to spend a little more.
The man behind the Napolitano style pizza in the wood burning oven is chef and managing partner Antonio Vallo. He grew up in Naples, Italy, and was making pizza in his family's pizzeria by the time he was 12 years old.
Every 15 minutes or so, Vallo tosses a block of wood into the brick oven. It took less than two minutes to cook a pizza for two.
Vallo also makes dishes such as Neapolitan meatballs and peppered mussels in white wine broth using the wood burning oven.
He said the dishes would be simple but tasty with more entree options added soon.
Mercedes Mendez, 21, a junior majoring in advertising and public relations, was eating at the restaurant with fellow students Miguel Camargo, 21, and Jumel Smith, 22. Mendez said they used to go to a restaurant farther away but always ended up being late for class.
"We don't go to fast food places," said Camargo.
"The food was great," added Smith.
Brian Vanthull, 48, a researcher at the college who lives on Hamilton Place, said he was happy to have a nice restaurant in the neighborhood. The former Greek diner at the site was always packed, he said.
"The choices around here are getting better," Vanthull said. "They are right across the street from the college, so they will do fine. I'll definitely be back."