I unexpectedly garnered a reservation on the first Friday evening of the eagerly anticipated opening of this 18th Street hotspot. Trattoria Il Mulino is a more casual offshoot of the highly regarded, Il Mulino, an old-world powerhouse that focuses on the cuisine of the Abruzzi region. We were seated in the back of a cavernous room where the tables were spaciously arranged around two focal points - the large, dimly lit, stainless steel bar, and a mural that could have been painted during the days of the New Deal - both set the stage for a colorful meal.
Immediately, when we sat down, a scrumptious basket of bread was presented to us along with an eggplant capanata and a plate of Italian charcuterie. My friend started with the cocktail special of the evening, which was reminiscent of a Bellini, conjuring up thoughts of Harry’s Bar in Venice. In fact, Trattoria Il Mulino’s cocktail menu specializes in typical Italian drinks, and sure enough at the end of the evening, we had the opportunity to sample their delicious, freshly made Fig Grappas and Limoncellos. Throughout our meal, a bevy of staff hovered around us, but it was our primary server, Desi, a champion jujitsu athlete and all around great guy who made several menu recommendations. We ordered the Bufala Fritta to start - a simple slice of fried heaven, in which the sauce complemented, rather than overtook, the taste and texture of the cheese. We also shared a perfect margherita pizza. Two of our main courses included a capellini dish with Pecorino Romano and pistachio, differentiating it from a more typical pesto, and a spaghettini with spicy crab and meyer lemon, a refreshing summer dish that hopefully will stay on the menu beyond the season.
Yes, I have saved the best for last – the desserts. We devoured several, but the overall consensus was that the Bianco e Nero was superb - Italian ice cream with walnuts, vanilla crunch and espresso zabaglione, which was supremely delicate in texture with just the right amount of diverse flavors. We also enjoyed a warm Brioche Budino – baked bread with grappa soaked raisins (there goes the grappa again) and topped with fresh figs, the perfect alternative to the lighter than air Bianco e Nero. Trattoria Il Mulino in Manhattan follows in the footsteps of two other successful ventures, one in Orlando and the other in Atlantic City, and I believe that they have a third hit on what is one of the city's most vibrant side streets that I have documented, thus far.
Pepi Di Giacomo and Luca Di Pietry, veterans of the hospitality industry and wine and espresso intenditori, have taken a slice of the Abruzzo province and established it across Manhattan in their cafes. 18th Street, however, is where their Italian cuisine is most pronounced. It is as much about local produce and a dynamic menu as it is about traditional dishes. Depending on the time of day, there is espresso, a selection of pastries, an extensive wine list and a full Italian menu. An added surprise in the warmer months is their gelato booth, stationed right outside the restaurant. Perfect for us on the first day the temperature reached 80 degrees.
The Azzollini family has been at the heart of Paul & Jimmy’s since Cosmo Azzollini waited tables at its 1950 incarnation on Irving Place. Back in 1968, when Cosmo purchased the restaurant, the Azzollini’s made it their own slice of southern Italy. Even today, Louis and his son, Greg, keep the focus on home: homemade cuisine, a home-style atmosphere, and the homey touches of Italian hospitality. Paul & Jimmy’s is truly a family-run, neighborhood business. Louise and Greg emphasized that “one of us is always here - we are the only ones with the keys. We open and close every night. ” Greg has worked in the restaurant since 2005, and - after culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education, working at Mario Batali’s Lupa Osteria in Manhattan, and furthering his culinary studies in Italy - is currently the head chef. Linda, Louis’s wife, is in charge of the accounting. Together, the whole Azzollini family works hard to ensure that everyone who walks through their doors feels like part of the family. They are proud that the majority of their customers are local, and are particularly pleased that they have “a lot of customers who have been coming forty, fifty, sixty years, and also a lot that come three, four, five times a week. ” As for Paul & Jimmy’s younger clientele, they are often surprised when Louise is able to tell them what their parents or grandparents used to eat. Their secret is that their “food is phenomenal… we have great waitstaff, we have reasonable prices, a cozy atmosphere, and are extremely accommodating. ” They try their best to fulfill non-menu food requests or change the dish to suit their customers’ needs, which is generally “very easy” since “everything is cooked to order. ” Louise told us it does not surprise him that many of their customers come so often, since they have “fifty or sixty different dishes on their menu - not including specials. ” With an emphasis on freshness, they are proud that they source their fish, produce, and meat from well-established New York businesses. Gregg makes their own mozzarella fresh every day, as well as many of their pastas, and Paul & Jimmy's offers their own line of sauces, both in the restaurant and at a few local shops in the city.
Although Eataly is right down the street, Mangia has been upholding its fine reputation for terrific Italian antipasto, pasta salads and sandwiches for over thirty years. For a quick and savory lunch without the crowd, Mangia becomes the perfect dining spot. Since opening their first sandwich shop on 56th street in 1981, Mangia has grown into a catering business that services much of the New York area.
Arthur Avenue in the Bronx had become a monthly excursion for me and friends while I lived in Westchester. We would shop for pasta, bread, mozzarella and olive oil and then wander over to Roberto Paciullo's' restaurant for lunch. In 2008, we changed our routine up a bit in order to try out his new restaurant, Zero Otto Nove. Needless to say, we were overjoyed with the atmosphere and, of course, the incredible food. Shortly after I moved back into the city, I read that Roberto had made the decision to open a restaurant in Manhattan. My husband and I were one of his first customers on 21st Street, and we have been coming back on a regular basis. In a simple statement, the food is excellent. The intensively hot brick oven cooks their thin crust pizzas to perfection. I adore the stacked eggplant and zucchini parmesan, the guileless arugula salad, any number of their pasta dishes, and I always order a side of the cauliflower with breadcrumbs. Combining the star attractions on each menu from his two successful restaurants in the Bronx, and designing an inviting space has made dining here a pleasure.
Renowned Alsatian Chef Antoine Westermann opened his first restaurant, Le Buerehiesel, at twenty-three years old. For several years, the self-taught chef continued to prepare memorable cuisine, earning the restaurant an illustrious three Michelin stars. In 2006, he had those stars recalled in order to escape the creative constriction that accompanied them, and in 2007, he ceded the restaurant to his son. Chef Westermann’s more recent restaurant endeavors offer sophisticated cuisine sans pomp. In Paris, he is the proud chef and owner of four such restaurants - Mon Vieil Ami, The Durant, La Dégustation, and Le Coq Rico. Translating to “Rico the Chicken, ” the first Le Coq Rico opened in 2011 as a restaurant entirely devoted to poultry. After all, the refined chef’s cuisine of choice is fried chicken and French fries. Before bringing Le Coq Rico to Manhattan in 2016, Westermann spent a couple of months sourcing poultry and establishing connections with farmers across the US that adhered to his standards of quality as part of his exploration of “American terroir. ” Unbeknownst to the chef at the time, the space he chose in Gramercy resides next to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace, which houses a collection of taxidermy birds. “This one just felt right, ” the staff joked. As to be expected from a chef of Westermann’s caliber, the menu at Le Coq Rico in New York is anything but ordinary. The minimum slaughtering age of the specialty whole birds served is ninety days, more than double the forty-day standard, and Catskill Gunea Fowl are given one-hundred and thirty days. “After that they become a rooster, ” I was informed. Another specialty dish, the “baeckeoffe, ” originates from an Alsatian laundry day tradition. When the women were busy with laundry and did not have the time to cook, they would drop off a marinade of potatoes, beef and sauces to a baker, who would seal the casserole dish with dough and let it cook slowly. Westermann’s version employs chicken, truffles, and white wine. Watching some of the other dishes come out, I would have never guessed that they were all the same species. The playful giblets platter veiled the bird’s offal with elegant skewers, spiced croquettes, glossy wings, and horseradish toast. A foamy butter bath with micro greens overlay the slow-cooked guinea fowl egg, and I was relieved to find out that the tomato and poultry tartare was not raw, but instead similar to an elevated chicken salad encircled by caper sauce. Birds play a role in other parts of the restaurant, too. In addition to French and American wines displayed in a pristine wine cave, the bar offers a bird-themed cocktail program. One of the most popular, The Elvis in the Sky, is an alcoholic take on the singer’s famed peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich. The “Duck Fitch, ” a mix of gin, turmeric, ginger, and mint, is named for the celebrated polymath artist, Doug Fitch. Having lived with a bird for a month after a live performance piece, Doug was deemed the perfect candidate to design the cheerful rooster that has become Le Coq Rico’s emblem. His backlit, blue-and-white painting is on view for guests seated in the main dining area or at the bar that faces the open kitchen. Serving simple food expertly prepared, Chef Westermann is not only a master in the kitchen, but an excellent mentor as well. Floor Manager and Sommelier Adrien Boulouque could not be more thankful for his fifteen years of experience working with the humble and soft spoken chef. “I met him in Washington D. C. and now I am here, ” he mused. “It is all about sharing and respect. ” This respect is geared towards the staff, the guests, and, of course, the birds.
Nemo Tile’s beginnings date back to 1921 in Jamaica, Queens. Nemo Tile is responsible for lining and decorating many of New York’s most famed and frequently traveled spaces and landmarks: The Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the original World Trade Center, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the W Hotels, and “countless residences, ” according to their staff, all bear their unique tiles. The company specializes in usable, heavily trafficked tiles, of all colors, shapes, materials, and sizes, but Nemo also works on smaller, more decorative or intimate architectural and interior projects. I spoke to Charlotte Barnard, the head of marketing, who told me a bit about the the company’s history and the changes that Nemo has undergone since its inception. Jerry Karlin partnered with, and subsequently took over from, the original owner in the 1950s and since then, the company has been in the hands of three generations of this family run business. I think what struck me most, though, was when I put the pieces together and realized that I grew up in the same town as the Karlin's. One of their daughters was a childhood friend, and our parents were also very close. I even have fond memories of a trip that I took with the Karlins to Florida when I was about fifteen. All of a sudden, Nemo Tiles took on a whole new meaning for me. As I continued my conversation with Charlotte, she informed me that many things have not changed since 1921 - the original location is still operating in Queens and the Karlin family is still involved with MTA projects, including the new Fulton Street station, which features Nemo glass tiles. There have, however, been revolutionary inventions in the tile industry, especially thanks to advances in technology. 3D printing has made it possible to make porcelain look like stone, wood, and even metal. Charlotte proudly stated that Nemo Tile sees some of the most traffic of surrounding showrooms. She pointed out that they have a great location, and that similar companies have followed their lead in moving to the Gramercy area. The company finds most of their products at two major tile shows in Bologna and Florida, but they have wares from all over the world, from China to North America. They have an especially large Italian selection, and Charlotte told us that Nemo had been named “Distributor of the Year” by Confindustria Ceramica, the trade organization for Italian tile. I was deeply impressed with the showroom itself and the constant flow of people stopping by to browse and make purchases: the floor was a clever patchwork of different styles of tile, sliding pull-out displays were tucked into the walls, allowing the space to remain uncluttered, and props like shower heads and mirrors decorated the walls. Charlotte explained, “We are more than a typical tile store. We show tiles within the context of lifestyle. It is a new way to see space, and we are constantly updating the displays. ”
The massive, open interior, high ceilings, white columns, and rows of long, pillow-strewn banquettes at this corner Mediterranean restaurant pay extensive, dramatic homage to what is really a tiny, unremarkable fish found in Greece. Since the restaurant opened in 2005, the barbounia has been elevated to what is most likely unprecedented fame. The sardine, for example, has yet to be honored with a white-feathered chandelier and twenty-foot long, soft cream-colored curtains. The airy space, which also comprises a large, inviting bar, semi-outdoor seating on 20th Street, and an open kitchen, is consistently packed and filled with raucous, lively conversation. Barbounia is certainly a scene worth partaking in, both socially and with its mostly Greek cuisine, especially the fresh, simply prepared fish and seafood. They also offer amazing bread and small pizzas and pasta.
The Players, an organization founded in the late Nineteenth Century to further the careers of talented actors by linking them with established patrons of the arts, is a place of considerable national historic, artistic, and dramatic importance. Though founded by, and for, a small group of primarily American Shakespearean Actors, today The Players serves over 700 active theater and film actors, television hosts, arts patrons, and businessmen and women. Although a private club, non-members are given access to this simply remarkable townhouse that serves as its home - guests are invited to the occasional theater production and lectures that are held here. Edwin Booth, the most famous American Shakespearean actor of his time, purchased the mansion at 15 Gramercy Park South and had it redesigned by famed architect Stanford White to house a monumental club and theater for actors and a residence for himself on the upper floors. The ornate chandeliers, wooden parquet floors, gilded ceiling wreaths, Tiffany Glass windows, open circular staircase, indoor stage, library, and dining room are lined with portraits of Edwin by John Singer Sargent and paintings of the faces of every distinguished member of the club throughout its history. From founding member Mark Twain, to Frank Sinatra, to Carroll Burnett, to Uma Thurman, the breadth of actors and theatrical personalities covering the old, intricately carved walls was awe inspiring. A particularly memorable painting was a full-length portrait of the late, celebrated theater patron Helen Hayes wearing a brilliant, crimson velvet gown. Hayes was the first female to be admitted in 1989. The building is still filled with many of the original decorations, objects, and pieces of furniture used by the founding members of the club: the simple wood “club tables” by the bar in the dining room; humidors and personalized drinking mugs for the famously heavy smokers and alcoholics of the old Shakespearean crew; and mosaic tiles carved with words of wisdom for the actors themselves. “Dear actors, ” reads one – “eat not onions, nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath. ” And another, a particularly revealing line from Shakespeare, “you shall not budge, you go not till I set you up a glass. ”And for the real history buffs – Edwin Booth had an older brother, John, another famous Shakespearean actor. The brothers disagreed and competed over everything, from their individual claim to particular theater venues to politics (Edwin was a Unionist, John a Confederate). They settled on a compromise to divide the country into two theatrical spheres for each to work in – Edwin in the North, John in the South. And as for their political disagreements, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. When we visited in late 2012, The Players was about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. After asking our tour guide, the knowledgeable assistant executive director of the Club, John McCormick, how he felt about his job, he responded “I get goose bumps every time I think about this site that I work in. ”