I can attest to the immediate success of Carmine's on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the early nineties as my family and friends stood on the lines to get in on a number of occasions. Owner Artie Cutler's concept of serving large, family-style portions to guests, in a warm, friendly atmosphere connected with diners immediately. It did not take Mr. Cutler long to realize that he had a success on his hands and that it was time for expansion. In 1992, the theater district had another hit in Times Square, in the form of a grand, traditional Italian restaurant.
Not only does Barbetta profess to be the oldest restaurant on Restaurant Row, it is also one of the oldest Italian restaurants in New York. Opening its doors in 1906, in four adjoining townhouses built in the late 1800s by the Astor family, Sebastiano Maioglio began his long restaurant career. The emphasis has always been on Italian dishes and wine from the Piemontese region, where he was from. Sebastiano’s daughter, Laura, took over in 1962, and immediately began to remodel the restaurant in the style of 18th C. E. Piemonte. With her passion for collecting art, great sense of personal style, frequent visits in Piemonte, and an art history degree from Bryn Mawr College, it is no wonder that Barbetta’s exquisite interior has become as highly regarded as its food. The dining room demonstrates its old-world opulence, with ornate chandeliers, chairs, and tables meant to evoke a palazzo of the eighteenth century, during Piemonte’s cultural height. The baroque interior serves as more than just a reference to its heritage; it is a part of it. The great chandelier in the main dining room initially came from a palazzo in Torino, where it belonged to the royal family. Laura negotiated to obtain this 18th C. E. chandelier for two years. Other highlights of Barbetta’s extensive collection include the harpsichord in the foyer - crafted in 1631, as well as hanging wall prints from Piemonte - part of a distinguished set crafted in 1682. Items that could not be authentic, such as the numerous chairs and barstools, are reproductions of museum pieces that were specifically chosen by Laura to be reproduced in Italy. The garden, available for dining in the summer, holds trees dating back over a century ago, and, in line with the interior, holds the atmosphere of refined European aristocracy. Barbetta, while serving as a cultural landmark, remains focused on the excellence of its ever-changing list of dishes while serving classics such as risotto and polenta since its founding. Every dish on its menu since 1962 has been approved by Laura, and celebrating its long history and heritage, each menu item is marked with the year it began to be served, while dishes from Piemonte are in red print. Although esteemed for its dishes, Barbetta is also famed for its 72-page wine list, which has won numerous awards. Barbetta has also transformed the Italian dining scene through its numerous examples of “being the first”- from its conception to the present day. A few highlights include its beginning as the first Piemontese restaurant in New York, its status as New York’s first elegant Italian restaurant after its 1962 transformation, as well as its usage of numerous ingredients that at the time, were not commercially available in America and which had to be specifically imported by them from Italy. A particular example of one of these imported ingredients is white truffles. Years ago, Barbetta’s own truffle-hunting dogs became so well known that they were asked to perform a demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1992. Barbetta is also unique in its emphasis on low sugar and low salt dishes - Laura even decided that Barbetta would smoke its own salmon to ensure it would not be too salty. Laura described Barbetta as “an institution, much more than a restaurant, ” due to the extensive culture that has been built around it and that it has created. The description as “much more than a restaurant” struck us as particularly apt, due to Barbetta’s long list of famous regulars - from The Rolling Stones to Jacklyn Kennedy - its exceptionally elegant and unusually spacious interior, variety of phenomenal food, and historical significance.
Husband-and-wife duo Roberto and Tanya Passon's symbiotic relationship is evident at their Hell's Kitchen wine bar, Briciola, where Roberto runs the kitchen and Tanya is responsible for the wine. The evolution of their professional and personal relationships has always been a parallel journey. Both long-time restaurateurs, the couple met while Roberto was running his now-defunct eponymous restaurant and Tanya was managing wine bar Xai Xai, just across the street from Briciola. They married several years later, and Briciola opened just as the couple was expecting their first child in 2011. Three years on, the Italian wine bar has gained a following throughout Hell's Kitchen and beyond on the strength of its intimate atmosphere, excellent cuisine, and top-notch imported wine. Even after expanding into the storefront next door, which doubled Briciola's square footage, the restaurant is tiny, but the close quarters only add to the ambience. This is not the place to go if one does not want to interact with fellow diners: the seating is communal, with high counters made of subway tile for a clean, polished look. The design is simple, befitting the restaurant's tight quarters. Low-hanging light fixtures and candles on each of the tables give the restaurant a cozy feeling, and the walls function as an aesthetically fitting storage space, with hundreds of wine bottles set side by side in wine racks. Rather than competing for attention, Briciola's food and wine complement each other perfectly, thanks to Roberto and Tanya's ability to work together. Marina, a server, explained to us that Tanya is largely responsible for the elegant layout of the restaurant; she added her "feminine touch" with everything from the candles at each setting to miniature chalkboards detailing the day's wine specials. The kitchen, Roberto's domain, is miniscule, folded into the back of one half of the restaurant; because there is absolutely no storage space, all of the ingredients arrive fresh daily. Briciola serves mainly ciccheti (small plates) of charcuterie, salads, oysters, and every type of pasta imaginable. There is also a dessert menu; a gentleman sitting at the bar told us that the tiramisu is especially incredible. Particularly clever is the menu where the prices are all the same in each category. Roberto explained that he did not want the dollar amount to influence someone's choices. After having enjoyed a pleasant conversation with Roberto one afternoon when riding by on my bike, as I was leaving, he called out to me, "Finally someone appreciates the side streets. " I rode off smiling.
When we ate at his restaurant during the summer of 2014, Vice Versa co-owner Franco Lazzari offered his advice. "If you don't like competition, don't open a restaurant in Manhattan. " This attitude towards the New York restaurant scene, one shared by fellow owner and chef Stefano Terzi, is precisely what has allowed Vice Versa to survive, grow, and thrive in the fifteen years since its inception. When the Italian restaurant first opened in 1999, its out-of-the-way West Side block was entirely populated by old-world French restaurants, most of which the men told me had been in the neighborhood for forty years or more. With its sleek interior, full bar, and contemporary Italian cuisine, Vice Versa was something entirely new - and even seemingly, they felt, out of place in its side street location in the midst of Hell's Kitchen. In retrospect, it is clear that the restaurant was not an anomaly, but a herald of coming change. "We were pioneers, " Stefano told me. The neighborhood has grown to meet its forward-thinking denizens; today, only one of the French restaurants (Tout Va Bien) is still in business, and the block is dotted with restaurants serving everything from Japanese to South African cuisine. Ironically, Vice Versa is now one of the more established restaurants on the block, thanks almost entirely to word-of-mouth recommendations and a loyal customer base. In the 90-degree weather, it was a relief to sink into one of Vice Versa's tables and peruse the menu. I did wander outside to their lovely patio for a moment. Complete with ivy-covered stucco walls, tea lights, and white umbrellas, it felt like stepping into a small piece of Italy, but just for a moment on this rather warm afternoon. Rather than ordering off the menu, I asked Stefano to surprise us. The members of the Manhattan Sideways team were treated to an excellent meal of banzino (sea bass) with olives, cherry tomatoes, and oregano, and very large sea scallops, cooked to perfection and set alongside a roasted lemon over escarole. We were started off with three different types of pasta - casoncelli, stuffed with veal, amaretto cookies, raisins, sage, pancetta and parmesan; garganelli, red beet pasta coils with alfredo sauce, roast prosciutto, and green peas; and a simple seafood-stuffed ravioli. Blending a wide variety of ingredients and flavors for a subtle and delicious eating experience, the team was simply delighted. After lunch, I chatted with Franco and Stefano over coffee, biscotti, and a pistachio cake with raspberry sauce. Both men are transplants to New York: Stefano grew up in Bergamo, Italy, while Franco was born and raised in Bologna. He came to the United States in his twenties planning on staying no more than a year. Twenty-six years later, he says that not a day goes by that he regrets his decision. Other than their shared national origin, the two told me that they could not be more different. Stefano grew up loving to cook; Franco's grandmother made food for the family, and he admits that he never took an interest in her cooking. Franco is small, with short grey hair, glasses, and a perpetual white suit. Stefano is taller, with a Dali mustache; he speaks slower and with a heavier accent than his counterpart. From my perspective, the differences between the two men are precisely what has allowed them to succeed as partners. Despite Franco's lack of interest in cooking, he loves to eat, and "makes a great critic, " according to Stefano. Franco runs the business side of the restaurant, while Stefano's domain is the kitchen. The respective roles have evidently worked well for the pair - they met working at the well regarded San Domenico (now closed), where Franco ran the front of the house and Stefano was chef de cuisine. Vice Versa presents a modern take on traditional Italian ingredients, which are imported from Italy as often as possible, through many local suppliers. The pastas are made from semolina, "which is a good thing for pasta, and for people, " Stefano said wryly, referencing the current gluten-free trend. In the last fifteen years, Stefano, Franco and their restaurant have grown and changed along with the city. "We went through two major events in New York, 9/11 and 2008, " said Franco. "On September 11, emotionally the world changed, and the 2008 financial crisis certainly changed New Yorkers' way of spending. " The goal now, " Stefano explained, "is to spend well your money. " The survival and continued success of Vice Versa is testament to its customers' ability to do just that.
Opened in 1992 and originally located on the Upper East Side, Oceana moved to 49th Street in 2009. The Livanos family sowed the seeds for the glorious Oceana long ago when they ran a diner and realized their ambitions to develop it into something more. Having worked hard to make their dreams a reality, Oceana continues to pride itself on the freshness of its food and makes a point to have direct relationships with the fish mongers and farmers. Although some have called Oceana the Mecca of seafood, the restaurant's menu is notably diverse. The executive chef, Ben Pollinger, takes to the broad reaches of American cuisine and mixes elements of different dishes together, often in an unexpected way. The Manhattan Sideways team eagerly sampled a few of the marvelous dishes, including the Copper River Sockeye Salmon Crudo, featuring pickled ramps, parsley oil, and Amagansett sea salt, and the Sea Scallops Ceviche that is topped with peaches, ginger, and cinnamon basil. I was pleasantly surprised by the incredible vegetarian dish that the chef also prepared - Summer Squash & Cranberry Bean Salad, consisting of zucchini, gold bar and pattypan squash, pignoli, purslane and drizzled in lemon vinaigrette. Absolutely delicious. The last member of the Oceana team that we were introduced to was their wine director, Pedro Goncalves. Pedro, who began working at Oceana in 2001, makes a concerted effort to develop drink pairings to accompany the delectable food menu. Standing near the white marble bar, he proudly told us that Oceana has 1100 wine listings and 600 spirits. He went on to report that with forty-seven different gins, Oceana has one of the largest selections of in the city. "There is something to fit every personality, " Pedro said.
If the sight of a regular lunch rush doesn’t convince you to try La Bellezza Pizzeria, then their pitch-perfect, classic New York slices will. After a trip in to try their signature pepperoni and tomato slices (a well-seasoned combination of cheesy, crunchy and savory, the Bellezza team has mastered the elusive sauce-to-cheese ratio), we got a chance to check in with the Dedvukaj family who have operated the East Midtown pizza joint for the past 23 years. Founded by Bronx-based Marko Dedvukaj, son Frank Dedvukaj — who started slinging slices in the shop at just 20 years old — took over the business so that, as Marko put it, “I can focus on the most important job of all — spoiling my grandkids, ” he told us, surrounded by visiting family members, some of whom also used to work at La Bellezza. As groups of grateful office workers filed in and out of the intimate storefront for a slice of pizza or La Bellezza’s famous chicken parmigiano hero — “at one point we were voted the #1 Chicken Parm on Yelp” Frank told us, he added that the biggest change he’s seen in business is a post-COVID slowdown of daytime visitors to the block. “The area is quieter, ” said Frank, noting that they still maintain a set of loyal regulars. “We’re still here! ”
La Maison du Chocolat is a sophisticated example of a delectable chocolate shop. Everything sold inside its doors is made in Paris, with the exception of the ice cream that includes ingredients from France but is prepared on site. The day that Manhattan Sideways stopped by, we met Brigitte who has been working here since 2010. A knowledgeable chocolate connoisseur, Brigitte shared La Maison's history. We learned that Robert Linxe, the founder was originally from the French Basque Country, but acquired much of his craft while attending school in Switzerland. He went on to run a successful catering service in Paris for twenty years before deciding to pursue his true passion. At the time, chocolate was considered something to be saved strictly for special occasions; as Brigitte told us, people thought Linxe's enthusiasm for a shop devoted to chocolate was "crazy. " Nevertheless, Linxe was able to find an auspicious space in Paris with a wine cellar, which he used to make the delicacies and protect them from the damaging effects of the weather. In 1977, Linxe opened the doors and welcomed Paris to his specialty boutique. Within three weeks, all of the chocolate had been sold and Linxe was dubbed the master of ganache. And in 1996, over twenty years later, Nicolas Cloiseau, the highly acclaimed chocolatier and pastry chef joined the business continuing La Maison's coveted reputation. Brigitte stressed that the discussion of chocolate is akin to that of wine; expertise comes from reading on the subject, perhaps taking a course, and most importantly, much experience. Moreover, chocolate and wine may be enjoyed together when paired consciously. Chocolate always goes well with "a nice red wine, " Brigitte said. Quickly turning to the particulars, she added that milk chocolate is best paired with white wine and dark chocolate with port. Brigitte continued to enlighten us, saying with detectable fervor, "Good dark chocolate should not be bitter. " It takes approximately ten days to dry cocoa beans. Rushing this process, a common crime of many chocolate companies, results in this bitter taste. Brigitte made a point of showing us how to taste chocolate: smell it first and then let it melt in your mouth. After this incredible offering of chocolate wisdom, Brigitte presented us with a plate of small pieces of chocolate arranged deliberately in a circle. Beginning at forty percent, each successive piece around the circle had an increased concentration of pure chocolate. We continued to climb past eighty and concluded with a piece of one hundred percent pure chocolate. At this point, a natural thickness set in and the pieces lost all association with candy. Suddenly, each of us agreed, it felt as though we were appreciating chocolate, not as a beloved dessert or comforting treat, but as a wonder of the earth.