As our readers know, we love the term "hidden gem" at Manhattan Sideways, but it is rare that we find a place that fits the term as well as David Segal Violins. Some members of the Manhattan Sideways team and I were walking along 68th Street when one of the summer interns pointed out that a musician was playing a violin behind a semi-subterranean window. Glancing further, we noticed a man crafting a violin in the adjoining window. Always the inquisitive one, I attempted to find something to indicate what was happening inside this building, but it was not until we went to our cell phones and Googled "violin shop on West 68th," that we discovered the history of the half-hidden musical grotto. I then called the phone number that came up and introduced myself to David Segal, a violinmaker and dealer who has been servicing the musicians of Lincoln Center and the greater New York area since 1975. He kindly buzzed us in, and it was then that we were able to truly appreciate his magical workshop and showroom.
While showing us around, David explained that he had been on 54th and 62nd Street before moving to his present location. "This is the last time: the next time they will move me," he said with a wry grin. He had an excellent sense of humor, as well as a clear sense of wonder and joy that came through in our time spent together.
As I gazed in wonder at a young apprentice who was busy at his desk working with both wood and strings, I commented to the others that this was reminiscent of Geppetto's puppet shop. David laughed, and began to share his story. Originally from Israel, he left for Italy in 1969 to study the art of violin-making. The art is in his blood: his father also made violins, and David showed me the wall of photographs of musicians who use violins crafted either by himself or his dad. After completing his degree in 1972, David moved to New York. Since then, he has become firmly entrenched on the Upper West Side. "I don't have a visa to go to the East Side," he joked. Through his work, he met his wife, who played with the New York Philharmonic for forty years. She came in to buy a "bow," and left with a "beau."
Turning to his studio door, I saw a picture of his adorable young grandson, and learned that he has a very artistic family, with his son working as a conductor and his daughter as a visual artist. David himself also dabbles in visual arts: He pointed out a mobile hanging above the front room, crafted from violin bows and bridges. He makes them for his grandchildren, he told us. When I asked David about the charming small violins, he explained that each size is for a different age group. Beaming, he held up the tiniest one in the room, and declared "I am taking this one home with me tonight. My two year old grandson will be arriving in New York shortly."
Right before we left, David opened a vault in the front room and pulled out a true Stradivarius, crafted in 1737, which must have been worth a fortune. He says, however, that all that matters with a violin is the sound. Musicians, including his wife, have often traded antique, beautifully made violins for newer, cheaper ones with better sound. "We want to make a violin that sounds good," he stated simply. "If it sounds great, it doesn't matter if it is not so beautiful." As he spoke to us, a customer was testing violins in the front room. He said that clients can take an hour or two to test out the instruments, and may even take them home for a week's trial period. As I heard the strains of tunes come from the customer's test subject, I asked David if he still loves hearing the musicians play, or if it has become background noise to him after so many years. He smiled and said, "I listen to music with great pleasure all the time...but I only listen to classical!"
In a neighborhood full of hospitals and health centers, St. Catherine looms large as a bastion of faith. Founded in 1897, the church is run by the Dominican Friars and specifically aims to give spiritual support to the medical community. Outside, the church is outfitted in red brick, and inside, Gothic brick arches cut into the walls and line the ceiling, creating pockets for the many impressive shrines. The stained glass windows, modern in appearance, pick up luminescent colors, and above the high alter, a magnificent design is made up of blues, yellows, and reds. In August of 2015, the Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena was established, forming a connection between the two churches.
Bel Ami perfectly combines the best parts of New York and Paris. The food is authentically French: shelves are lined with glistening pastries and tiny French bread sandwiches. Macarons behind glass are mirrored by fun macaron key chains at the register. The walls are decorated with bookshelves filled with antique books and expressionist art. Springtime flower arrangements live between the windowpane and the grate. The spirit of New York creeps in, however, through the exposed brick walls and the service; though I arrived during lunchtime, the small cafe was cranking through orders at record speed to match the pace of the busy Manhattanites coming in for coffee and sandwiches. I admired the assortment of cookies, iced to look like bumble bees and smiling piglets, but decided to try one of their small zucchini and goat cheese French bread rolls. The ingredients were fresh and ingeniously simple, and it was exactly the right serving size for lunch, another aspect of French culture that Bel Ami has cleverly brought to the Upper East Side.
It may come as a shock to discover that behind the scenes of this classic French restaurant is a born and bred Italian. To Gino Barbuti, however, the neighboring country’s cuisine comes naturally to him after years of working in high-end French settings. After he and his family left their small hometown of Bardi in Parma, Italy, and migrated to the UK, his first exposure to the food industry was an apprenticeship at Le Coq d’Or in London. His brother, meanwhile, followed his heritage and worked at Italian restaurants. When Gino made his way to New York, he jumped from one prestigious French eatery to the next, until the brothers opened their own Italian place on Long Island. As Gino likes to say, “Back in the 1960s, there was only French and Italian places here, ” so it is little wonder that he went on to create establishments of both kinds. It was not until 2004 that a former colleague of his informed him that La Boite en Bois was looking for a new owner. Gino, who had just sold his restaurants on Long Island and was looking for his next venture, accepted the offer immediately. “It was the cutest, quaintest place. Exactly the kind of farmhouse style my dad is drawn to, ” explained Angela, one of Gino’s four daughters. Though he tweaked the menu to integrate his personal flair, Gino left many of the favorites unchanged. He understood that La Boite en Bois already had an established following –largely consisting of theater-goers, ballet, and opera patrons who stopped by for an elegant, pre-show meal begore heading to Lincoln Center. To this day, he offers the same pâté made in-house, steak au poivre, and an unforgettable, honey mustard-glazed salmon. Nevertheless, Gino did incorporate select dishes such as a house made ravioli “to pay homage to his Italian roots” and added French fries and a burger to the menu to appeal to his American audience. On occasion, Gino cannot help but be bemused that for all of his training in haute cuisine, the burger is among his top sellers. “People want comfort food, now more than ever” – and La Boite en Bois is happy to provide, regardless of the dish’s country of origin.
Since 1907, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has continued to build upon progressive Jewish thought in adherence to the values of its founder, Rabbi Stephen Wise, who stressed the importance of offering a free pulpit. In addition to today's Senior Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch’s sermons on matters concerning the State of Israel, amongst other topics, and the traditional services held Friday nights and Saturday mornings, the congregation is a “singing community” in line with the aspirations of Cantor Daniel Singer. A professional five piece band livens up Shabbat services. Since 1988, the temple has performed nationally renowned Purim Spiels written and directed by Norman Roth, including Megillah Musicals playing on Mamma Mia, Grease, and Glee. The Spiels have gained an international reputation and are now performed in synagogues around the globe. For members outside its community, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has been performing mitzvahs for decades. Every Saturday morning volunteers offer food packages to those in need. Most inspiring to me, the synagogue voluntarily began running the Next Step Men’s Shelter in 1984 (after Mayor Ed Koch spoke at the synagogue), housing ten selected men for the majority of the year, providing them warm meals and a safe place to sleep at night. In accordance with the play-based learning philosophy, children of the Balfour Brickner Early Childhood Center even decided to tie-dye some bed sheets in an effort to make the space homier. According to director of communications, Samantha Kessler, while other synagogues in the city are struggling to survive, Stephen Wise continues to grow. She was quite proud to expand on the appeal of the Rabbi's stimulating sermons, the emphasis on music, strong engagement in public outreach, and a continued focus on education and religion. It is no wonder that the congregation supports the synagogue's efforts.
As a rule, I am not as big a fan of dessert as I am of the pasta entrees in most Italian restaurants. That said, I could not stop myself from eating the "Nutellasagna" at Joanne Trattoria. However, even better than this warm oozing dessert with homemade flaky pastry dough, was listening to the fascinating story of Travis Jones, the executive chef and bakeshop master. Upon entering Joanne's, Travis greeted members of the Manhattan Sideways team and sat down with us in the outdoor courtyard, where trees twisted along the brick walls. We learned that Cynthia Germanotta, co-owner with her husband Joe, had done all of the decorating herself. If the name "Germanotta" sounds familiar, it is because the restaurant is owned by the parents of Stefani Germanotta, who is more commonly known as Lady Gaga. Travis explained that though some of Lady Gaga's fans, affectionately named "Little Monsters, " come and make lasting connections with other like-minded diners, many parties do not even realize where they are eating. Except for a "Lady Gaga" license plate tucked away in a corner, a few photos on the wall and some Gaga-themed drinks (including Gaga wine, only available at Joanne's), her stage persona does not play a large part in the restaurant. Rather, the main goal of the trattoria is to create a comfortable and warm environment. Joe named the restaurant after his sister, who died of Lupus at the age of nineteen, and so rather than focusing on Lady Gaga's celebrity, the restaurant emphasizes the closeness and strength of an Italian family. Travis's story of how he became Joanne's executive chef is unlike any story I have heard in the culinary world. Instead of working his way up the restaurant ladder, from busboy to chef, as the story often goes, Travis' adult life started in the U. S. Navy. He spent nine-and-a-half years as a weapons technician, during which time he traveled around the world and formed a lasting brotherhood with his fellow sailors. Travis told us that he has always loved preparing food, and would often cook for his Navy buddies. His affection for the culinary world began earlier still, in his childhood, when he would spend every summer with his grandparents on their farm in the Midwest, learning how to gather fresh eggs, make bread, go fishing, and hunt raccoons. His grandparents taught him that everything he hunted, fished, or harvested, he had to eat, which instilled in him the value of sustainability. His grandmother also taught him the love of baking, which has become his greatest passion. "Desserts are my thing, " he said, and added with a twinkle in his eye, "I also love to eat them. "After leaving the Navy, Travis went to Johnson and Wales culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island. "It was a culture shock, " Travis said, to go straight from the Navy to the restaurant world. His first summer internship he spent working under Chef Art Smith in Chicago. Later, when Travis was back at culinary school, he received a call from Chef Smith, who asked him to come and help out at a recently opened restaurant on 68th - Travis got permission to leave school, temporarily, and began working at Joanne's. He has never left since joining the team in 2012. Travis only interned at the front of the house for four weeks before the general manager left, and he took over. Travis continued his story by explaining that the main turning point in his career came during Hurricane Sandy, when very few of the staff was able to come in. Travis cooked in the kitchen with Joe while Cynthia hosted. They only had hamburgers in stock, and, thus, that was all they could make. Travis proved his talent and resourcefulness, and took over as executive chef not long after, which he said was surreal: "I was still a student, theoretically, interning, but running a restaurant that had been on the front page of the New York Times. " Travis still has a trimester left in order to receive his degree, which he is finishing online. "Just because I'm already an executive chef doesn't mean I don't want my Bachelor's Degree, " he assured us, adding that he would be one of only two people in his family to have completed a college education. He is working towards degrees in Food Service Management and Event and Entertainment Management. Travis immediately got to work improving the menu at Joanne's. He added fresh, handmade pasta, "which is part of the reason for my arthritis, " he joked, and made the "ginormous" Germanotta family meatballs a little smaller and more manageable. He also added a short rib ragout, which some of us had the pleasure of sampling. Travis whipped it up in the open kitchen, dipping into the huge vat of red sauce, made using a secret Germanotta family recipe. He explained that the ragout sits for a couple of hours in a red wine sauce with garlic, carrots, oregano, and other fresh ingredients. Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, ate it with gusto and described it as being "like a warm hug from an Italian grandmother. "Travis then brought out a tray of desserts, and explained that once he got the savory food in order, he started "Joanne's Bakeshop. " Along with the Nutellasagna, we tasted a homemade tiramisu and a delectable almond cake with fresh raspberries. I then asked if Travis's grandmother, the woman who is credited for his love for cooking, had a chance to visit the restaurant before she passed away. Though the answer was sadly no, he noted, "I shipped her cakes and pies whenever I could. "