There is no question that 'Cesca is a fixture in the neighborhood. I have eaten here many times over the last few years, as I live in the area. Dining as a guest, however, is very different from witnessing what goes on behind the scenes in the late afternoon as the show is getting ready to begin. We watched in amazement as the staff arrived one by one, each taking their place, be it in the kitchen doing prep work, setting up the tables, lighting candles, getting the bar in order, or standing at the hostess desk, checking on the evening's reservations. It all came together seamlessly as if it were a staged production. Before we knew it, diners were being greeted and shown to their tables.
When it first began, 'Cesca was celebrity-driven. Tom Valenti, the well-known New York chef and co-owner of the former Ouest Restaurant started as the executive chef with Amanda Freitag, the current Food Network judge, as Chef de Cuisine. Both have since left the restaurant to focus on other projects. In their absence, the menu continues to evolve. I learned, for example, that Chef Kevin Garcia was responsible for creating my favorite crispy cauliflower dish, served in a silver bucket.
I was pleased that we were able to sample some of the other amazing items on the menu. The Manhattan Sideways team's Tom tasted the spinach tagliatelle Bolognese with a dollop of ricotta, a massive double-cut pork chop served with greens and lemon, and half a grilled chicken served simply and tastefully. According to Tom, “Chicken is chicken wherever you go, but this is exceptional.” I was perfectly content savoring the delicate potato gnocchi in a mushroom cream sauce - another favorite of mine at 'Cesca. While sitting and indulging in the incredible spread of food that was presented to us, Tom casually stated that, "This is the kind of place where, after you have eaten here, you immediately want to share the experience with someone else." I could not agree more, and I do introduce as many people as I can to this Upper West Side gem.
As we ate, we admired the simple but exquisite hand-painted murals at the back of the restaurant. We met Matt Zepf, the Director of PR and Marketing, who informed us that Wendy Hollander, whose work has been featured in many periodicals, including the New York Times, is the artist. She lives locally and painted the walls back in 2003 when the restaurant first opened. They are certainly worth taking note of when visiting 'Cesca, or if one is planning a private party, as this area can be closed off by drawing the curtains.
While chatting with Todd Whiteman, the General Manager at the time, about the clientele, he was pleased to tell us that “People used to come in with their little kids and now those kids are in college.” He then added, “Some people have been coming in two or three times a week for twelve solid years.” He went on to share the restaurant's connection to the Beacon Theatre nearby. I was most impressed with his clever marketing idea. Many years ago, he began building a relationship with the staff and musicians at the performance space. On any given night over the last decade or so, one could spot Patti Smith, Metallica, Greg Allman, Peter Frampton or a host of others stopping in for dinner either prior to their performance or afterwards. To this day, whenever a musician is performing at the Beacon, one can be sure that their music is quietly playing in the background at Cesca during the dinner hours.
Matt went on to tell me about the ways in which 'Cesca has tried to make a difference in the world. The restaurant is part of the Dine Green! Green Restaurant association, meaning they aim to be environmentally responsible. The restaurant is also very supportive of community groups and neighborhood organizations. 'Cesca helps the West Side Little League with fundraisers and holds congratulatory family dinners with French fries and chicken nuggets. The restaurant has also contributed to the Children’s Cancer and Blood Foundation. On one occasion, an offer to have 'Cesca’s chef come to a private home and cook for twenty people was auctioned off for ten thousand dollars, with every dollar going to the foundation. On a more personal scale, 'Cesca assists the community by helping individual neighbors feel at home. Todd shared that one frequent customer came to eat at the restaurant immediately after her husband passed away, just so she could feel something familiar. There is a tremendous sense of community within the walls of 'Cesca. Over the years, 'Cesca has become an integral part of the neighborhood.
Raised by parents from Sicily and Naples, Nick Mormando grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, exposed to authentic Italian food in a comfortable setting. "We were the house on the block that was always cooking something, " Nick explained. And he still is, having stayed true to his family recipes since opening the neighborhood-centric Polpette 71 restaurant in November of 1994. The front room is set up with white tablecloths, bottles of Pellegrino and photographs of "The Gates" by Christo and Jean-Claude, which decorated Central Park in 2005. On my first visit to Polpette 71, when it was still operating under its original name, Bello Giardino, Nick asked if I would like to sit outside in the garden. I looked up in surprise and eagerly replied, "Yes please. " Truly a hidden gem on West 71st, this quiet respite has become a favorite of mine over the last several years. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, small bottles of olive oil, and a massive mural by Hans de Castellane - depicting an Italian landscape with ocean views and coastal dwellings - brings a smile to my face every time I stroll in. Overhead, a weaving grape vine, grown out of a tiny root planted years ago from Nick's childhood garden, opens to pockets of natural light. The star of the culinary show has been the "Nicky" meatball. Voted the best in the boroughs by Dish du Jour Magazine in 2009, it has since made guest appearances on television shows, and inspired Nick's latest restaurant, Polpette, on Amsterdam Avenue. Other favorites include the penne alla vodka, the linguini and clams, which Nick fondly remembers his mother serving twice a month as he was growing up, and my personal favorite, the eggplant parmigiana. In addition to the food and décor, the ambiance is set by the strong relationships the restaurant has established. Without a doubt, this is a neighborhood haunt. Special occasions are commonly celebrated, guests are unafraid to dine alone, often engaging in comfortable conversations with the servers, and diners are referenced by names. "We are that kind of place, " Nick smiled, recalling a couple who had met in his restaurant, moved outside of New York, but returned to Polpette 71 for their son's first birthday.
The first Patsy's Pizzeria was founded in East Harlem in 1933 by two newlyweds, Carmella and Pasquale "Patsy" Lancieri. Patsy had dreamt of opening his own restaurant from the moment he set foot in New York after emigrating from Italy. He worked in salumerias in Little Italy and then for Gennaro Lombardi, who is often called "The Father of American pizza. " With this training and experience, he opened Patsy's on First Avenue and 117th Street. It attracted all sorts of New Yorkers, from Italian immigrants who wanted a taste of home to locals who wanted to try true Italian cuisine. A few well-known names were also drawn in, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and members of the Yankees. It has also been the backdrop for various movies, most notably The Godfather. Patsy's is a culinary leader in many respects: It is said to be one of the first family-style restaurants in the city, as well as one of the first places customers could get a slice of pizza, rather than a pie. What is certain is that Patsy's was instrumental in developing the New York style thin crust pizza for which the city is now known. Using its historic coal-oven, the pizzeria churns out pies with a slightly smoky flavor and a golden, crispy crust. After Patsy Lancieri's death, offshoots of the famous pizzeria sprung up across the city. Carmella sold the original restaurant to its longstanding employees and soon new locations of the pizzeria were appearing in Murray Hill, the East Village and here, on the Upper West Side. Patsy Lancieri's nephew, Patsy Grimaldi, also opened up an unaffiliated Patsy's in Brooklyn. Living nearby this particular location, I have had their pizza on numerous occasions, but was eager to have the Manhattan Sideways team try the much-lauded pies. We ordered a pizza that was half plain, with basil leaf adornments, while the other half was sprinkled with crumbly Italian sausage. Olivia and Tom bit into their slices and said that they crunched in all the right places and were doughy and cheesy elsewhere. I was content on that day to have Patsy's "Insalata Siciliana, " a colorful salad topped with mozzarella, capers, olives, artichokes, and carrots. The verdict, after over eighty years, is that the old family pizzeria continues to deliver.
On a sunny afternoon, Arte Cafe's front patio is completely filled with diners enjoying the sidewalk space, but the inside is just as beautiful and airy. With Tuscan decorations and arches leading into different dining areas, the cafe is a little pocket of Italy in the big city. The menu includes Italian classics, complete with fresh artisanal pasta.
J. D. Merget, the owner of Oslo Coffee Roasters, a company that began in Williamsburg in 2003, noticed a dearth of independent coffee shops on the Upper East Side and decided to fix the problem. Fortunately, J. D. had a friend who owned a garden store that he was looking to sell. Thus, Oslo Coffee Roasters moved into the cozy space in 2011 in order to provide high quality coffee to the neighborhood. After speaking with J. D., it became clear that he knows a lot about coffee. Originally from Seattle, he had his first introduction into the world of coffee at the age of twenty-one, while working for Starbucks. He explained that the company “got [him] very excited about coffee” and that it fueled his need to find out more about the product and introduce people to better brews. He has been in the coffee business ever since, working for different companies from Seattle to Dallas to New York. It was his wife, Kathy, whom he met while working in New York, who encouraged him to venture out on his own, saying, “You know so much about coffee – you’ve got to open your own store. ” And so he did. The name comes from the fact that Kathy's family is from Norway, where they are still known for drinking more coffee per capita than most other countries in the world. J. D. wanted to steer his customers away from the idea that Italian coffee is the only good coffee and highlighting the Northern European coffee tradition seemed to be the best way to do that. They do not specifically feature Scandinavian coffee, preferring to focus on farmers who use sustainable and fair practices, rather than a specific geographic location. The result is a high quality coffee that can be sipped guilt-free. When I asked if there were plans for more locations, JD says he is happy where he is and that he prefers to focus on connecting with customers and selling a better quality product, rather than expanding. He loves the Upper East Side and is so happy to have been embraced by the neighborhood. “The support from the community is outstanding. ” He is very proud of his staff, and is glad that they have received love and recognition from a community that has been waiting for an independent coffee shop. “You become a rockstar, ” he said, telling a story of how he was recognized by customers as far south as China Town. His general manager, Liz Pasqualo, echoed his sentiments. She even added that some people double-park in order to get their coffee. For many of the children that live in the area, they are often on autopilot as they enter Oslo, assuming that their parents will follow for one of their frequent visits. Liz told me, “I am really proud of the sense of community, ” and how comfortable the place has become. “Strangers sit down and chat together about current events. " I was able to witness this sense of camaraderie when a gentleman named Hugh Fremantle, who has been coming to Oslo for the last four years, sat next to Liz while sipping on his coffee to ask how she was doing. “I’m being interviewed! ” she said gleefully. Hugh turned his attention to me and said with a big smile, “In that case, you are talking to a very happy customer. ”
After visiting many century-old synagogues, it was a refreshing change of pace to tour the modern facilities of Temple Israel of the City of New York. Sun shone through the colorful stained glass throughout the 1960s building and a winding spiral staircase occupied the front hall. The Manhattan Sideways team and I were met by Michele Amaro, the Communications Manager, who took the time to guide us through the eight floors. She led us into the sanctuary, which, as she explained, has “that mod curvy look like the Metropolitan Opera. ” The space is enormous, seating 330 people on the first floor and 500 more in the balcony. The congregation was started in Harlem in 1870 and has since been providing a place of worship for many. Today, on East 75th, it is Rabbi David Gelfand - who joined in 2006 - who continues to keep the traditions alive. According to Michelle, it is he who has helped to revitalize the Temple. Cantor Irena Altshul, Rabbi Melissa Buyer, and Rabbi Jim Stoloff round out the clergy team. Michele mentioned some of the more modern programs that Temple Israel offers, including a “Rockin’ Shabbat” (an interactive worship using modern methodologies and technologies) with Sheldon Low, artist-in-residence, , and a Lunch & Learn talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist and clergy. on Fridays, which uses multimedia screens in worship, and a talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist. “This is an extremely, extremely active synagogue. We have things going on all the time. ”Michele continued showing us around, taking us by multiple display cases full of Judaica, including an exquisite menorah donated by Herbert G. Lane, who was one of the chairman of the board of directors for the temple. We also passed multiple pieces of art, photos of smiling congregants, and teaching tools. On one wall, there is a Visual Torah with cartoon-like drawings so that children can better understand the stories. Michele emphasized that education is deeply important to the Temple before taking us to see the religious school, run by Rabbi Melissa Buyer. I was most impressed by the amount of space dedicated to teaching children, including a lounge for the older ones, and “Mitzvah Gardens” where students can plant food that will later be donated to those in need. The preschool rooms, which are color coded, also sport two terraces with playgrounds. We were impressed by their use of the latest technology complete with Macs and smart boards. Though the school plays a significant role in preparing children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Michele stressed that the school is K-12 and covers every stage of religious instruction, creating a foundation of lifelong Jewish learning. Located underneath the sanctuary, we were amazed by the ballroom, an enormous space, that is in continuous use for various celebrations, including Hanukkah concerts, and Passover seders. When we visited, we observed an early childhood program, headed by director Lisa Samick. The space was filled with toys, and very young children were being rocked to sleep by mothers and nannies in an adjoining room. When I commented to Michele that there was no doubt this is a warm and welcoming community, she beamed, and let me know how proud she was to be a part of Temple Israel.
When we were walking by the firehouse of the Fighting Forty Four, founded in 1881, we were thrilled to find the door wide open. Children on their way home from school were gaping wide-mouthed at the fire engines while smiling firefighters looked on. We joined the ogling children and met the men, Wayne, Kenny, and Bobby, who showed us around the house and spoke about the history of the New York Fire Fighters. Over the course of our conversation, an occasional call would come in to the men. Not knowing what it meant, I asked, “Do you need to run? ” “Oh no, ” Wayne replied, “We don’t need to run. If we’re running, it means you should be running, too. ”One of my first questions was about the number “44. ” I learned that it is essentially arbitrary. It refers to when the squad was formed, long before the Brooklyn and Metropolitan fire departments merged. 44, however, is a designated specialty unit, meaning that only men who have a certain level of experience are assigned. This is because they are a Hazmat division. The men showed us the Hazmat truck, which has a big sticker that says “Zombie Outbreak Response Team. ” It matches a sticker on the main truck that imitates the “Ebola Emergency Outbreak Response Team” symbol, only with zombies. Smiling they said that little children often ask, “Is that for real? Do you really fight zombies? ”Although full of good humor, the men became somber when I commented on a memorial for Michael Lyons, a firefighter who was killed while responding during 9/11. Wayne and Bobby began sharing stories about several of their friends who were present at the World Trade Center that day. One survived by diving under a truck, while The 9th Battalion lost all of its men. Many of the firefighters from 6 Truck in Chinatown also responded that day, but not everyone came back. Men who turned one way coming down the stairs lived, and the men who turned the other way did not. As Bobby said, “If they had yin-ed when they had yang-ed, they would've have made it. ”We continued our tour of the house: There is the old hose tower, painted red, as well as the cubbies where the men keep their uniform. I was like a child, gazing at the two traditional firemen’s poles stretching to the upper floor. When I asked if they still slide down them, the answer was a definitive "yes. " I appreciated the fact that they had photos of men who have retired. I never realized that even though there are about thirty men assigned to 44, they are frequently traded around to different houses. As a rule, this firehouse usually has six men present at any given time, and never fewer than five. Another interesting fact that I never stopped to think about, of which Bobby informed us as he showed us a map, is that on the East Side, there is a firehouse right by every subway stop. Irish history is still deeply woven into the culture of the fire department. I noticed that along with the Leprechaun in the logo for the “Fighting Forty Four, ” there were many other references to Irish heritage scattered around the firehouse, including little Irish flags on the fire engine. Historically, there is a huge Irish connection to many service jobs in the city, including police work. As Bobby explained, “No one else would take the shit jobs. So they’d send in the Irish. ” There are no longer any Irish accents in this firehouse - as Wayne stated, “We’re all Bronx guys. ” Coming from uptown, the men told us that they respect the fact that they can keep their firehouse open and wave to smiling children of the Upper East Side. As if to demonstrate this, Wayne’s daughter ran into the firehouse and skipped upstairs to do her homework before heading to a hockey game with her dad. “It’s a good neighborhood, ” Wayne continued, “So we can keep the door open. ”