I have had some outstanding Italian dinners at Spiga, and was eager to introduce the Manhattan Sideways Team to this cozy, wine-inspired neighborhood restaurant. The ambience is warm with dark wood wine racks, cork wreaths and painted sprigs of wheat above the bar – "Spiga," I learned on the evening that we visited, means "wheat" in Italian.
Stefano and Luigi, the owners of Spiga, shared the origins of the restaurant with me. Luigi's brother originally opened Spiga in 2005, as a slightly different restaurant, which focused on nouveau cuisine. When Luigi and Stefano, the head chef, took over the lease, they created a more traditional menu. The two men are from Italy, and have known each other since 1988 when they were working at the same restaurant. Both men have been in the culinary world their whole lives. "We came here to be in the restaurant business," Luigi explained. Both knew that they wanted to travel when they went to culinary school. Luigi, in addition to working in New York, has worked on cruise ships and in London. The men are happy, however, with the home that they have built for themselves in New York City. "We like the West Side," Stefano said, though he added that they try to return to Italy once or twice a year.
Stefano brought out a series of dishes for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph and taste. Each plate was artfully crafted and included a fresh mesclun salad decorated with grapefruit, dried cranberries, and shaved parmesan cheese; zucchini parmesan; a ravioli dish with asparagus; shrimp in a saffron sauce; and a plate of cannelloni with mozzarella and ricotta. We ended with a colorful flan, peppered with berries. Stefano treated us to a dazzling liquid rainbow of prosecco, rose, red and white wine, representing a fair survey of Spiga's impressive wine collection, which is entirely Italian.
Luigi informed me that ninety percent of the clientele are regulars. Some people even come twice a week. While some of the dishes are staples and remain on the menu all year round, other dishes rotate with the seasons. For example, in the winter, Spiga serves a wild board ragout and other heavier foods. Though the cuisine is essential in maintaining a core of devoted customers, Stefano also likes to think that the Spiga's atmosphere plays a role. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," he pointed out. Though they are busy most nights and often have to turn people away because of their small, "comfy and romantic" space, the two men assured me, "We don't let it go to our head. We don't brag." They feel badly each time they have to turn a loyal customer away and happy for every diner they are able to seat. As if on command, a regular came in to sit at the bar and Stefano greeted him warmly by name with a big smile.
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.
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."
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.