So I am visiting the Y in the small town in Massachusetts where my mother lives. The young woman at the desk sees that my ID card says Jersey City, and she asks, “Do you know Anthony Carrino?” The answer is yes, and I knew him way back when—before he became a big star on reality TV. Anthony, with his father Alfonso, is part of the family-owned Brunelleschi Construction Company, a Jersey City outfit that is well known for doing fine renovations in Hudson County.
I first met Anthony when he approached me about doing photography for Jersey City Magazine. He sent us some great shots, and we covered the opening of the company’s M650 Flats, a residential building on Montgomery Street.
Their office is in a former firehouse on Central Avenue, built in 1892, which we also covered when we were doing a story on renovated firehouses.
That’s where I met up with him and his cousin, John Colaneri, who partners with him on three HGTV shows—Kitchen Cousins, now in reruns; Cousins on Call; and Undercover Overhaul.
OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: These two guys are great looking, which is one reason why the woman at the Y loves the shows—aside from the fact that Alfonso, Anthony, John, and everybody associated with Brunelleschi Construction are noted for their high-quality renovations.
Anthony, age 34, said it all started when a friend filmed them at work and sent the video to HGTV. The network liked it, contacted them 10 months later, and the rest is history. “This was our biggest chance to showcase what we do,” Anthony said. “We forgot about the cameras and decided we were going to be us. We’re not actors. We don’t know how to act. We interacted with clients just like we would if the clients were across the table.” The cousins were given the advice, “Be yourselves,” and that seems to be working well for them.
The show can be difficult at times, John, 32, acknowledges. “People are telling you things,” he says. “Say this, talk this way, it gets a little much.”
But their chemistry is partly what makes the show work. “Overall, it’s the way Anthony and I interact, our relationship,” John says. Anthony adds, “We finish each other’s thoughts, we have the same design aesthetic, we’re friends.”
And that goes back a long way. When he was four years old, Anthony says, the two families would go camping together. “Our whole lives translate to the screen,” Anthony says. John adds, “It’s an effortless interaction. It’s natural. That’s what makes the show as fun and easy flowing as it is. It’s not contrived.”
“The biggest part,” Anthony says, “is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re passionate and proud, but we don’t have a problem laughing at ourselves or each other.”
This attitude, coupled with their competence, knowledge, and skills, gives them the confidence to air their mistakes. “If we don’t know how to solve a particular problem,” Anthony says, “we show the part we don’t know. We don’t have to have all the answers. Why not show the viewer part of the process? Problems are interesting. We’re never nervous about that aspect. Restoring old structures to their former glory is all about problem solving.”
The mainstay of their Hudson County business, they say, is “transforming and revitalizing buildings within the urban core of Jersey City—breathing new life into once-great structures.”
They obviously do way more than just kitchens, which is why Kitchen Cousins is now in reruns. In their second show, Cousins on Call, they demolish old homes and surprise the homeowners with huge renovations.
In Undercover Overhaul, debuting this fall, the cousins surprise neighborhood heroes with stunning renovations. A real neighborhood hero is whisked away, while Anthony and John engineer a fast-paced, budget-friendly makeover.
While I was meeting with Anthony and John at the firehouse, Alfonso—Anthony’s father and John’s uncle—walked in. He is a very fit and handsome 60-something. Currently, he is overseeing the renovation of the police department at 8 Erie St., which is slated to become a residential condo building. On the day we were there, former Mayor Jerramiah Healy and other dignitaries were getting a walkthrough of the raw space.
Reflecting on the success of his son and nephew, Alfonso says, “I know my son and John very well. Both worked hard to make it happen. To say I am extremely proud is an understatement. They worked night and day for three years to get it to the point that it is now and have national recognition. They do the work, which separates them from the crowd. Their passion and talent speak for themselves. They’re not a flash in the pan.”
Anthony and John share a love of the work itself. “You wake up every morning,” John says, “you’re not going to another job. It’s your life’s passion. It’s the same in any industry. If you feel that way, the best and brightest and most dynamic work comes out.” Adds Anthony, “Our projects and designs are not just good, OK, or mediocre. We always push the limits and boundaries. If you watch our show week to week, the designs are very different. Plenty of shows do the same show week after week.”
A sign of their professionalism is that they don’t try to foist their ideas on the client. “Our design aesthetic might not be the same as the client,” John says. “They might not like it as contemporary or rustic, but we stay within the box, and give the client what they want. At the end of the day it’s their home, and the client is always right.”
John, whose wedding was scheduled for last summer, and Anthony, who has a girlfriend, get their share of fan mail and Twitter mail. They’ve received cupcakes and even a pair of cargo pants, when Anthony split his pants on the air. “You get some fans who are a little over the top,” John says, “but we get super compliments. They love what we do on the show.”
One of the great perks of the job is doing renovations for families in need—people who are victims of storms or suffering from illnesses. “We have had episodes and stories that really hit the heart,” John says. “We get very emotionally involved, and fans love seeing those types of stories.”
They renovated three buildings for people in need, who had reached out to Ellen DeGeneres. And during Cancer Awareness Month, they renovated the home of a cancer survivor in Buffalo. They made a new kitchen and living room, and did some exterior work. When they ripped off the siding they realized that the whole house was rotting, there was termite damage to the insulation, which had been eaten by rats. “It was a nightmare,” John says. They built a brand new roof and reframed the outside of the house. It took 20 guys, and they had to do it in five days. “We have really talented workers and great subcontractors,” John says. “That’s the only way a project of this magnitude gets done.” Says Anthony, “It’s a level of exhaustion you’ve never experienced before. You need strength and teamwork to pull it off in the time frames we have.”
The guys also make it look easy. “People watch us joke around,” Anthony says, “but it’s a complicated process with a lot of moving parts. When you’re working in somebody’s home, they’re looking for an education, as far as the order of operations, how to go about it, and they’re looking for design ideas. We get questions every week, what color on the wall, what bathtub, where do I get this tile? Dialog is better than looking at a design magazine.”
And they’ve seen their share of household disasters, including an episode that featured an electrical fire, and one that featured a flood. “In one episode,” John says, “we walked in, and a couple was literally living in a kitchen that was flooded out. They tried shoving a coat hanger down a drain and cracked a pipe. The dog was in a swimming pool of water in the kitchen.”
They often encounter walls not supported by beams. “The roof could collapse,” John says. “We’ve re-supported everything and fixed house s for TV that should have been knocked down.”
But two things they nixed right off the bat are makeup artists and hair stylists. “We lost that immediately,” John says. “For a talk show, you have to put it on, but no one has makeup on the site.”
Anthony and John are proud of their local roots. “Hoboken is in the title screen,” Anthony says. “We’re proud to be from Jersey City. We’ve been around long enough to make substantial change in the city.” The Erie Street renovation will be called Erie Street Market with a purveyors market modeled after those in New York City.
In fact, the cousins’ three HGTV shows have put Jersey City on the map. John tells the story of folks from Georgia who took the family on a vacation up here, found their way to the Hoboken PATH and then to the firehouse in Jersey City. “Millions upon millions of people travel to Manhattan,” John says, “but how many people stop in Jersey City? It’s great for the city.”
The diversity of our town is something both cousins are also proud of. They frequent Indian and Thai restaurants and love Ibby’s Falafel, Satis, and Skinner’s Loft. “They’re developing Newark Avenue and Restaurant Row and starting to connect pockets of the city,” one of the cousins commented. Says John, “Newark is a prime street for restaurants and bars like Barcade, and Manhattan is coming to Jersey City for great restaurants.” Anthony says his good friend is the Texas native and owner of Hoboken’s Turtle Club. “His dream and vision is opening a Texas-style barbecue restaurant here,” Anthony says.
For now, the cousins are happy that their local business has gotten them national recognition. But the demands of construction and television can sometimes be at odds. “You have to be upbeat on camera,” John says. “It’s a different dynamic. Emotions and stress get high, and you have to handle both.”—JCM