Two weeks ago, Ben Cirella pulled his silver Volvo up to the entrance of Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, N.Y.
Elmhurst has been at the epicenter of New York City’s disastrous COVID-19 outbreak. Queens has 56,719 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the most of any city borough, and has recorded nearly 6,000 deaths. After being overrun by a ballooning number of cases and facing ill-timed equipment shortages, the hospital was forced to expand its Intensive Care Unit capacity by 500 percent back in April.
Alongside his brother, Brad, and sister, Alex, the junior defenseman stepped out of the car, put on proper personal protective equipment and made his way over to the hospital’s doors. In their hands, the Cirella children held trays containing a smorgasbord of fine Italian cooking from their family’s restaurants’ kitchens — a gift of gratitude to the essential medical personnel who have worked tirelessly to care for COVID-19 patients.
The Cirella family owns three restaurants in the Long Island area, and like many restaurant owners, they have been offering takeout and delivery for customers ever since the pandemic forced them to close their restaurants’ doors to in-person dining.
But Dean Cirella, Ben’s father, has decided to take things a step further, enlisting his children and workers to cook and deliver catering platters to hospitals that have been overwhelmed by COVID-19. So far, Ben and his siblings have delivered food to seven hospitals in the New York-Long Island area. Dean even offers a joint-venture initiative to his regular customers; if they want to donate food to a local hospital, the Cirella’s will cover half of the bill and deliver it for free.
For Ben, his family’s effort is simply them doing their part — the only way they know how, with food and kindness — to help mitigate the stress of the pandemic.
“I don’t do enough,” Ben said. “I’m an essential worker and ‘hero’ because I’m delivering food but that’s nothing. It’s not hard compared to what these nurses and doctors are doing, so that’s why I love giving back to them and seeing their smiles. It makes my day and hopefully it makes their day.”
Community service has never been a chore for Ben. In fact, he has always thoroughly enjoyed it.
This past year, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team logged the most community service hours of any varsity sport. Every Monday night, the team went up to the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor and played bingo with veterans. Every Tuesday night, the team visited Mott’s Children’s Hospital and spent time with patients and their families.
And every time, Ben was there.
Like other Michigan student athletes, Ben spent the past month-and-a-half wrapping up his classes online, completing at-home workouts and searching for an internship. But when Ben returned home in March, despite an already hectic schedule, he made sure to find time to help out at the restaurants. Even if it meant listening to team Zoom meetings while simultaneously delivering orders, Ben knew he owed it to his dad to lend a hand.
Running and building a successful, multi-generational and multi-restaurant business did not come without long days and nights filled with hard work and sacrifice.
Summers were the busiest time of the year for the restaurants, particularly Surf’s Out, a restaurant in Fire Island, and Dean almost always had to be at one of the restaurants. Yet with Ben as a highly-touted recruit, his summers were jam-packed with lacrosse tournaments, so it was nearly impossible for Dean to find time to drive him to tournaments and watch his games. Ben’s mother, Caryn, also worked at the restaurants, but navigated her busy schedule to make sure her son could attend all of his games.
“It means a lot (to me to give back),” Ben said. “My dad is the hardest worker I know. There’s a lot of businesses struggling right now and my dad is doing everything he can to keep our restaurants afloat. To give back to him, it just means everything. He would do anything for anybody without asking for anything in return. … I’m willing to jump on it as quickly as I can and help out any way I can.
“I think it’s like an extra workout — (something like) working on Fire Island as a barback and carrying all that ice.”
Ever since Ben was six years old, he has helped out in some form at the Cirella’s restaurants. It was where we grew up. When he was little, Ben went from table to table and took pictures of customers on holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. On Christmas Eve, Dean dressed himself up as Santa Claus and the kids as Santa’s elves. When Ben was older, he spent his summers at Surf’s Out working as a barback or busboy.
“We didn’t have a beach house growing up and that was fine because (Surf’s Out) was our beach house,” Ben said. “We would go out there, hang out at the beach all day and then go work at night. (My friends) always beg me to this day to come to Fire Island and hang out at the restaurant and beach.”
And after a childhood of experiences in restaurants, Ben wants to enter the restaurant business, just like his father and grandfather.
“I just kept the restaurant in my blood,” Ben said. “(The business) has been around for 30-plus years and we still continue to make customers happy with every order…That’s what I want. I want to continue to spread and grow the family and happiness.”
“As has been the case for nearly 60 years,” reads Cirella’s website, “we’re sure that once you experience the authentic Italian flavor of Cirella’s — for lunch or dinner — you’ll become ‘alla familia’…one of the family.”
In a period of such fear and uncertainty, the Cirella’s have made a deliberate effort to take care of one another.
“It’s cool being with my family through this all,” Ben said. “Since we’re all together, it definitely takes a load off the shoulders a little bit. It’s nice when I’m doing these long deliveries that I can look over and see my brother in the car next to me helping out.”
But more importantly, to the Cirella’s, to be ‘alla familia’ extends beyond the immediate family. Frontline workers and loyal customers are also ‘one of the family’ and equally deserving of care in their eyes. And just as the Cirella’s have made the effort to help others, their customers have returned the favor by consistently ordering food.
“During this time, it proves what family we really have,” Ben said. “Just like we’re trying to support hospitals and our neighborhood, they’re supporting us by ordering dinner and giving us business. And they’re really helping us out by doing that. Some families order two or three times in a week. They’re really supportive.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of family and community in the face of dire circumstances. As a country, we are all ‘alla familia’ to one another. And the Cirella’s represent a marquis example of what it looks like to both offer and welcome kindness in a time when it is desperately needed.