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. ”
When I walked into Knitting 321, I learned that the owner, Valeria Kardos, had recently returned from a trip to Italy where she had taken a landscape painting class just outside the Pope’s Palace. The store was filled with her beautiful artwork. Valeria, who has a Masters in Art History, has been painting all her life, and I learned that her artistic abilities span a whole string (no pun intended) of media and styles. Valeria emigrated from Budapest with her mother in order to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology on a scholarship. Although her grandmother had taught her how to knit and crochet as a child, she only decided to take it up again while at school. She was surrounded by high fashion and wanted to buy much of the beautiful clothing that she saw, but had no money. Her mother encouraged her, saying, “You know how to make it, so just make it! ” Valeria started knitting and sewing her own clothes. She specifically remembers knitting a rose colored skirt and having her mother praise it, but say, “You absolutely cannot wear it on the street. The holes are too big. ” She went in search of a lining to match, but had trouble finding the right shade. “I’ve always been very particular about color, ” she admitted. The only thing she found that worked was a piece of bridal silk. She bought the expensive fabric, made the garment, and wore it to her first interview after graduating. She credits that outfit with getting her the job. When Valeria left the fashion industry, her husband, a pediatrician, asked how she would fill her time. He encouraged her to open Knitting 321 in 2000. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have this store, ” she commented. Because they lived nearby, her husband would pick her up at the shop at the end of the day and take her out to dinner every night. Though her husband has since passed away, Valeria looks on those times fondly, and feels that the happy memories are now wrapped up in her shop. As we were speaking, one of Valeria’s frequent customers, Linda, walked in. Linda told me that she had only just started knitting again after a decade-long hiatus - and she considered Valeria the perfect coach to guide her back into the art. “Everything she does fits perfectly, " the slight, small-statured woman said, adding, “If I followed traditional shirt patterns, I’d get a nightgown. ” Valeria credits her ability to create custom-made patterns with her experience in the fashion world. “I absorbed a lot about how things fit, ” she explained. Linda continued to gush about the store, saying, “She buys only really good yarn. ” Looking around and observing Valeria, I realized quite quickly that she provides everything that one could ask for in a small knitting shop: instruction, guidance, yarn, and excellent conversation. As Linda declared, “This store is a definite gem. ”
The inside of Nice Matin is like a bright carnival ground with three central pillars decorated with lights, wide spaces between tables, and colorful art on the walls. Above the doorway, there is an arrangement of baskets and fruit with handwritten signs and prices in euros, emulating European markets. At any hour of the day or evening, the restaurant is filled with people both from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the Lucerne, the connecting hotel. The chef and owner of Nice Matin is Andy D'Amico, who has since gone on to develop other restaurants around the city, including 5 Napkin Burger. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Andy worked at Parker House in Boston and at the Sign of the Dove on the Upper East Side, where he was promoted to head chef. In 2003, he partnered with Simon Oren to open Nice Matin, a venture that earned him the title of "Best Chef 2003" from New York Magazine. I met with Danny, the General Manager, who shared their elaborate cocktail list that had classics with a twist. He brought out a San Tropez, Nice Matin's take on the mojito. It had summery passion fruit foam that complemented the mint and dark rum. The restaurant has seasonal cocktails, such as hot toddies in the winter and Campari cocktails in the spring. My favorite time to dine at Nice Matin, however, is on a warm weekend morning when their elaborate brunch menu is offered, and I can sit outside.
Across the park and nine streets north from the 64th Street location, Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was still visibly excited to be sitting down to breakfast at Alice's Tea Cup. Though she loves each of the teahouse's three "chapters, " the 73rd Street cafe is the original - and the first one she visited as a young teen. She shared stories with me of coming here and marveling at the tiered Afternoon Teas that would arrive at her table, filled with scones, finger sandwiches and sweets. She questioned whether or not she might have been a bit too old at fifteen to celebrate her birthday here and then spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around New York blowing sparkle-filled bubbles, dressed in a pair of shimmering fairy wings acquired from the tea shop's front room, which is filled with whimsical retail items. On our visit to Alice's, Olivia, now a mature twenty-five, had her usual - a pumpkin scone with a personal pot of tea - while Tom, our photographer, ordered "the biggest coffee" they had. It arrived in a mug "the size of Tom's face. " Olivia pointed out all the Alice in Wonderland themed decorations that she remembered from previous visits, including a quote from the character of the Duchess written in fun purple font along the walls and an angry painting of the red queen in the bathroom, telling employees to wash their hands or "Off with your head! " Her favorite little decorative touch, however, was on the swinging door into the kitchen. There is a giant keyhole window, suggesting that maybe, like Alice, the diners had shrunk to the size of mice, and would be swept away into a magical land, scones and teacups in hand.