Some businesses fascinate me because of their history, while others inspire me because of the unique work that they do or the niche they fill in society. Nica Trattoria captured my immediate attention due to the infectious spirit and big personality of Giuseppe Nicolosi. He wears many hats at Nica Trattoria as he is the owner, chef, waiter, and host extraordinaire. Though the restaurant is named after his partner, Dominique "Nica" Liana Russo, whom he met while she was studying at Columbia University and he was working on the Upper West Side, it is Giuseppe who greets every guest who walks through the restaurant's door. Along with referencing his partner, "Nica" means "small" in the Sicilian dialect, a perfect descriptor for a trattoria that seats about thirty guests. Giuseppe says that the name has allowed them to "with one stone, kill two pigeons."
Though Giuseppe is Sicilian, he designed the menu to be a "big hug to all of Italy." This was not difficult, since Sicilian cuisine combines many different flavors, thanks to its diverse past. Giuseppe explained that before "Sicily annexed Italy" in 1896, it was home to a variety of cultures, causing there to be eleven distinct styles of cooking on the small island, including French, Moroccan, and Spanish. Giuseppe is proud of the number of Sicilian dishes on the menu, calling the culturally diverse taste combinations "an explosion on your palate."
Our conversation was interrupted when two families walked in to be seated for dinner. Giuseppe sprang into action, hugging the family that he knew well, clapping his hands, and addressing the entire room as "belli," "bella," and "bello." One diner, who had clearly eaten at Nica Trattoria many times before, took out pictures of her children to show Giuseppe. He then proceeded to lower the lights for them and put on some light Italian classical music. He addressed both families at the same time by clinking a glass with a knife and opening the menu with a flourish and a whistle. It was like watching a thespian at work: Giuseppe creatively described the specials that included cauliflower tortino, French mussels, and fresh fava beans sauteed with sausage, while draping himself on people's shoulders and engaging in amusing conversation. The specialty of the house is the "Clouds from the sky." When Giuseppe asked his audience if anyone knew what "Clouds from the sky" were, a well-seasoned young boy yelled out, "Gnocchi!" Giuseppe beamed and nodded, adding, "We need to put a seatbelt on you; they are so white and fluffy!" Giuseppe continued describing other dishes (like his grandma's style lasagna and buchetini with pine nuts and raisins) while waltzing around his personal stage. He then took everyone's order, his energy remaining at 100% through the entire interaction. He treated people like family, jokingly scolding them for changing their minds and declaring, "I'm coming for your order in one minute! Start to count! 60...59...58..."
When Giuseppe returned from the kitchen, we spoke about his history. He would not reveal to Olivia, one of the Manhattan Sideways writers, exactly when he moved to New York, saying, "You wasn't born!" He preferred to focus on his mother (who taught him to cook) and the fact that he managed many restaurants in New York before opening Nica Trattoria in 2006. Giuseppe has refused to ever stop learning. He has taken countless online courses, and the wall next to the bar is riddled with his graduation certificates. He is now certified in nutrition, wine, molecular engineering, and other varied subjects. He admitted that when I walked into the restaurant, he had been taking a practice test for his newest endeavor. He confessed that he is always thinking, "How can I improve myself?"
Giuseppe is extremely pleased with the reception that Nica Trattoria has received. He has many regular customers that consistently come from places outside of the city, as well as from around the world. He joked, "When an airplane lands, at least one person is thinking of Nica." At this point, Angelo DiGangi, founder of the Community Advocacy Center and a regular at Nica, walked in and sat at his usual table. He turned to Giuseppe, not knowing I was there, and said, "This is the best spot in New York." After I introduced myself, he said, "It's really a little bit of Sicily." Giuseppe beamed at the compliment and moved behind the bar, agreeing that he likes to promote the Sicilian way of life, especially when it comes to the wine. He stocks a lot of Sicilian wine and is very interested in food pairings. He then pointed out that since Italy has 4,000 years of history and the United States only 400, America has not quite had the time to figure out wine pairings. Italy is different: "Food and wine. That is Sicily."
I continued speaking with Angelo, who gushed about Giuseppe. "He does it with love," he said, referring to both the food and the service. We had already witnessed the service, but it was clear that Giuseppe also gives his all when it comes to the food. Everything is purchased fresh each day. Angelo said that he started coming to Nica Trattoria after work for an espresso. "I fell in love with the man," he smiled. And as Manhattan Sideways witnessed, it was hard not to fall in love with Giuseppe. Everyone gets the personal attention of a family member. As Tom, our photographer, put it dreamily, "I feel like I'm at home."
Paul Floess grew up in the northern part of Italy, on the Austrian border. "I only knew about heavy foods - food that kept us warm in the wintertime," he recalled. But then he began to travel, and he educated himself on the different ingredients and the recipes in the various regions throughout Italy. To this day, in 2017, Paul continues to look forward to spending a few weeks in Italy every summer, discovering something new and refreshing to bring back to his charming Upper East Side restaurant.Opened in 2011, Paul was able to make his dream come true after spending some twenty years cooking in other restaurants nearby. After all this time, Paul was ready to venture out on his own. "I knew exactly what people liked to eat and what they expected from a good restaurant." He was proud to tell me that everyone leaves happy, and they continue to return. It is primarily neighborhood denizens who come in - always bringing new friends or family members. Grateful, he commented, "We are doing well, we always have a full house on the weekends," but Paul is constantly amused by those who step inside and tell him that they never noticed his space. Luna Rossa is what we at Manhattan Sideways like to refer to as a true hidden gem – intimate, with fantastic food and a welcoming staff.I never tire of hearing the stories of chefs who grew up watching their mom in the kitchen and were inspired from a young age to want to learn to cook. For Paul, it was slightly different in that his mom was the chef at his aunt's nearby hotel. As a young boy, he would go there after school and wash dishes, and for seven years he worked there in the summers. He learned all of the recipes, and to this day, still prepares many of them in his own restaurant. Paul emphasized, however, that he will continue to return to his homeland where he will find inspiration and eagerly come back to Manhattan so that he can share it with his loyal customers.
I walked into Trinity Pub just a few moments after it opened at 5pm, and was soon followed by a stream of customers. "It's a neighborhood bar," Barry, the bartender, told me. "The kind that's quickly disappearing in Manhattan." He pointed out a man and a woman who had just taken a seat at the bar, explaining that they used to live in the area, but had recently moved to Westchester. Though they had a few other errands to run, they essentially decided to visit the city in order to have a drink in their old pub. "It's the best bar in NYC, or at least the friendliest," the man exclaimed. The woman nodded, saying that she had met her husband in medical school, "And he remembers every exam we've taken," she said, pointing to Barry.Barry is clearly a big reason why people become regulars. With his genuine nature, big smile, and quick wit, he is everything one might want in a bartender. But he was quick to heap praise on the owners of the bar (Gene, Billy, and Timmy) for their management. He told me that they used to work around the corner at a bar called Fitzpatrick's. After it closed in 1996, they opened Trinity Pub, and the entire Fitzpatrick's crowd showed up to help get it ready for opening night. I then learned that the space had been a bar since the 1930s, mostly run by German and Hungarian immigrants. In the 1940s and 1950s, the bar was known as "Schubert Hall" and then was a firefighter's bar called "Sidestreets" in the 1970s and 80s - much to the delight of those of us from Manhattan Sideways. Barry showed us an old photograph of the bar from the 1940s as well as an online list that named Trinity Pub as one of the oldest bars in the neighborhood. He also shared a story of how he had once met an eighty-year-old woman who remembered coming by and pulling her German father out of what was then Schubert Hall. In addition to Trinity Pub, the owners run two other bars in the neighborhood (Banshee and The Gael), and Barry was proud to tell me that they have been able to pay for their children's education thanks to the three bars.Barry pointed out some of the signature traits of Trinity. He pulled out the plaque that listed the pub as pouring one of the greatest pints according Guinness consumers in 2008. In addition to trivia every Monday and a well-attended happy hour from 5pm-8pm, Barry informed us that the bar offers the chance for charity guest bartending, where the proceeds from a group of thirty or more go towards a charity of the guest bartender's choice.On the back wall, there is a mural of three Irishmen sitting at a bar. Barry told me that they call it the "three wise men." And how fortunate were we to actually witness a meeting of three modern day Irish men as they sat down next to each other. They all appeared to know Barry, an Irishmen himself, but did not know each other. They quickly began asking about their hometowns, inquiring how often they go back, and offering one another candy. What better way to be given a clear glimpse of the friendships that are born and grown in this welcoming pub.
Pinpoint Bridal is a family business. As I entered the small, yet intimate boutique, I met Erol, the main designer's son, and Fatima, his cousin. "If you're going to be in any kind of business, a family business is the best kind," Erol said, matter-of-factly. Erol, who has worked in his mother's business since 2009, calls himself the "general manager," but clarified that his duties are many: "I take care of everything."Remziye Perkin, Erol's mother, has an impressive resume. Originally from Turkey, she trained in design at the Fashion Institute of Technology before joining Vera Wang as one of her first seamstresses and tailors. After working with Vera for five years, she decided to utilize her knowledge of bridal couture by opening her own shop. Pinpoint Bridal was born in 1995.Pinpoint Bridal does alterations in-house. The business actually began solely as a tailor, but branched out over the years into custom gowns, mother-of-the-bride outfits, and even delightful flower girl dresses. (Though Pinpoint does not specialize in bridesmaids dresses, they do provide alterations.) Though what makes Pinpoint Bridal special, Erol pointed out, is that they do custom gowns.Fatima and Erol told me that appointments usually last for an hour, and women are asked to visit three separate times before the wedding, so adjustments can be made up until the final fitting. During a first appointment, brides often bring in a drawing or cutting from a magazine depicting what they envision. I asked what design fads Fatima and Erol have noticed in their years working at the store and they replied that it varies depending on where people are from, since Pinpoint receives visitors from New York to Dubai and everywhere in between. Fatima mentioned that French and Irish customers often ask for pure white, whereas Italian brides lean towards ivory, but Fatima and Erol both agreed that "Off-white can never fail." In 2015, Fatima continued, many women wanted V-back dresses inspired by Oscar de la Renta. Erol smiled as he remembered a dress commissioned that same year featuring feathered sleeves in the style of a dress Kim Kardashian wore.Whereas Pinpoint Bridal designs many traditional wedding dresses, they also receive requests for some more modern, atypical dresses. One woman, for example, said in her first appointment that her dream since she was eight years old was to wear a blue wedding gown. The two cousins agreed that more and more women are wearing dark grey, red, or powder blue down the aisle. When I mentioned the glamorous ballerina-style dress in their window, Fatima explained that this was a "second outfit" that a bride could wear during her reception. On the other end of the spectrum, however, many women are choosing to turn to family heirlooms. Pinpoint Bridal has been asked to alter many mothers' and grandmothers' dresses over the years.When I inquired about their passion for what they do, Fatima's immediate response was, "I love it," and then Erol chimed in, "It's happy." He told me that thirty to forty percent of Pinpoint's clients are referred from people who have had good experiences in their shop. "There's a lot of word of mouth," he said. "We're proud of everything we do."
Brandy's Piano Bar, located on a quiet Yorktown street, has been a piano bar since 1979 but has been a straight-up bar for even longer. When the current owner took over in 1985, he renovated the space and discovered the original panels that decorate the short dividing wall between the bar and the seating area. They feature the bar as it once was, and the two men portrayed in front of the building are thought to be the original owners.I spoke to Peter, who has been working at Brandy's Piano Bar since St. Patrick's Day in 2014. Although Brandy's features a singing wait staff, Peter works the earlier hours, noting that he only sings "in the shower." The bar offers a happy hour from 4pm to 8pm with live music beginning every night at 9:30pm. The piano player rotates each night; therefore, one can expect to be able to listen to anything from Broadway hits to classic piano tunes to the top forty. Requests are welcome and according to Peter, "There's no song they won't try...though they might be crap at it."While customers sing along, it is the waitstaff that steal the show, with many of them moving on to roles on and off-Broadway. Peter pointed out the signed posters from New York professional productions that decorate the back wall. They represent the shows that feature ex-Brandy's employees. Some even return to Brandy's after a run on Broadway, including Lauren Mufson, who played Donna in Mamma Mia.Peter explained that Brandy's is a great place for people who do not want to visit a "touristy" location. Though the after-9:30pm crowd is different every night and comes from all over the city and the world, Peter's early evening crowd is familiar to him, full of locals and regulars. Despite the amazing musicians and voices that pass through, Brandy's is still a neighborhood joint, complete with a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.
Though Ohav Sholom may not be as old as some of the surrounding synagogues that can trace their roots back to the nineteenth century, it has a rich history. German Jews founded the synagogue in 1940, in the very beginning stages of World War II, before the United States entered the fight. The founders of Ohav Sholom had managed to make an early escape, fleeing the Nazi regime and relocating to New York. The congregation grew out of a desire to celebrate the founders' pride in their Jewish identity.I spoke to Rabbi Aaron D. Mehlman, who has been Ohav Sholom's rabbi since 1995. He is a dynamic figure, quick to smile and quicker to crack a joke. He showed me around the synagogue, past the sounds of children playing in the preschool upstairs. The congregation moved to the current location in 1955 and the synagogue was renovated in the early 2000s, replacing fluorescent bulbs with warmer light sources, raising the front area, retiling the floor, and repainting the walls. Rabbi Mehlman informed me that the building used to be a one-family townhouse. He and his family now live in the Rabbi's quarters on the top floor, a space that used to be a children's nursery. He took me outside briefly to show me the windows of his home: they are noticeably smaller than the windows on the other floors, demonstrating an early version of child-proofing. Windows were designed with higher bottom sills so that children could not lift themselves up onto them. Rabbi Mehlman told me that he once had the pleasure of glancing at the original blueprints of the building, which were so old that they were written on velum.Whereas many synagogues are large and cavernous, Ohav Sholom is cozy and gives off a strong feeling of home. There are colorful stained glass windows along one side and a beautiful blue parokhet decorating the ark, behind a sliding panel. When I visited, Rabbi Mehlman was in talks with the board to renovate the screen that divides men from women during the orthodox service. Where there was a wire screen, Rabbi Mehlman was hoping to put a different material, such as an opaque or stained glass.Along with leading Ohav Sholom, Rabbi Mehlman has his own kosher certifying business called "Make it Kosher." The business began thanks to one of his congregants, who had invested in a Dunkin Donuts and wanted to make sure that each step of the doughnut process was kosher. Rabbi Mehlman visited the Dunkin Donut mix plant in Boston, checked it out, gave out a certificate, and "the rest is history." Along with many local eateries, Rabbi Mehlman continues his relationship with "tons" of Dunkin Donuts, his very first account.I asked Rabbi Mehlman about his congregation, and he mentioned that though many of the congregants are "very" local, some people come from as far as streets in the 50s and 60s, despite the fact that they walk to the synagogue on Shabbat and other holidays. The rabbi joked, "We try discouraging them, but they keep coming!" He then went on to say that he has a sixty to eighty percent turnover rate - "Every three-to-five years I have a new synagogue." He explained that young people come to the area for school and then have to leave because of the price of rent. There are, however, members of the congregation who have been attending services for generations – "the original crew," as the rabbi calls them. For example, the gabbai, who orchestrates the services, has been around for fifty years. There is also a ninety-eight year old Holocaust survivor who still tries to make most of the services, despite his age. Rabbi Mehlman then shared with me that this gentleman especially wanted to attend the upcoming service that was about Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people in the Bible. His reasoning for wanting to be there was that he "had seen Amalek," firsthand, referring to Hitler and the Nazis. The man, currently living on the Upper West Side, survived five different labor and concentration camps.Rabbi Mehlman is extremely proud of his congregation and that there are "no fights here." He has heard of many synagogues where there are issues with politics, back-stabbing and secessions, but insists that Ohav Sholom has never been plagued with those troubles. "No one's sought to overthrow me, yet," he joked. Instead, Ohav Sholom is "an oasis of peace in Manhattan." The rabbi informed me that "Ohav Sholom" means "lover of peace" in Hebrew: "It's like an inside joke. We really get along."