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 most immediately striking aspect of the Leopard at des Artistes are the murals that covers its walls. Though beautiful in and of itself, its history is even more fascinating. The murals hearken back to the early twentieth century, when the now-residential building that houses the Leopard was predominantly an artists' residence, with an atelier in each apartment. The building, whose tenants included dancer Isadora Duncan and artists as stylistically diverse as Marcel DuChamp and Norman Rockwell, came to be known as the Hotel des Artistes. In 1920, when its cafeteria (none of the artists' apartments had kitchens) was renovated and made into a restaurant, resident artist Howard Chandler Christy was called on to paint the walls. His decision to paint scenes of nude women reclining caused a considerable stir when the newly christened Cafe des Artistes opened its doors shortly thereafter; waiters were forced to hang tablecloths over the restaurant's walls in order to placate more conservative customers.In 1975, Cafe des Artistes reopened under the management of violinist George Lang, and quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in New York. Today, the building houses residential condominiums, but the restaurant is still running, albeit under different management. The original Cafe des Artistes closed in 2009, and Gianfranco and Paula Sorrentino opened The Leopard in that space a little under three years later. The restaurant's new name references both its history and the Sorrentinos' other restaurant Il Gattopardo (Italian for 'leopard'). With the murals restored to their former glory, it continues to attract a diverse clientele with a long list of artists, tourists and celebrities, including - Gianfranco proudly mentioned - Bill Clinton, who held his sixty-fifth birthday party at the restaurant.Gianfranco was raised in Italy and his wife, Paula, in Brazil, though her parents originated in Veneto, Italy. The Sorrentino couple are well established in the restaurant world having together managed Sette restaurant at the MoMa for a number of years. They then opened the well-esteemed Il Gattopardo in 2001, followed by The Leopard, and, most recently, Mozzarella & Vino. Gianfranco's strong Italian heritage and experience in this business since childhood are complemented by Paula's background in design and modeling. In addition to her role as Creative Director, Paula also handles all of the company's design and IT work.An addition to the team in 2015, Executive Chef Michele Brogioni always aspired to be a chef growing up in Italy, having learned to cook in his father's restaurant from age eleven. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Europe, and then ventured to New York in pursuit of the challenge of making it in the big city. "The more I live in New York, the more I fall in love with New York," he admitted. With his passion comes a refined set of traditional Italian cooking skills, allowing him to reconnect to recipes that date back thousands of years. Chef Michele was pleased to tell me that as he cooks, "smells trigger memories of my grandmother's kitchen, a tie that learned chefs of other origins cannot replicate."Chef Michele and Gianfranco are constantly reworking the menu to reflect only the freshest, most seasonally appropriate cuisine. "If there is more fresh fish in the market, we will serve more fish," stated Gianfranco. Chef Michele chimed in, "It is all about having a good ingredient." Both nodding their heads in agreement, Chef Michele went on to say that "less is more, a masterpiece can be made out of pasta and olive oil." But equally important to them is professionalism; management meetings occur weekly and an open dialogue is ongoing between the kitchen and the rest of the team.Downstairs in the kitchen, I watched the integration of both ideals - Chef Michele worked with the purest ingredients as his staff mindfully passed around orders interspersed with Italian dialect. The potato pancake with garlic, herbs, and white fennel glistened in a reduced black broth and the arancini balls sat perfectly spherical with their hardened breadcrumb exteriors and concealed gooey risotto. Then, speaking directly to my inner cravings, the Chef matched fresh Buratta with a dollop of fava bean puree, a drizzle of olive oil, and a generous sprinkle of truffle shavings. I was in heaven as I slowly savored each glorious bite.When it was show time, the waiters headed to their posts, being attentive but non-intrusive to the diners. Glasses of water seemed to replenish themselves, napkins were replaced before anyone realized they had fallen, and the wine continued to flow. Several of us sat down to dinner beginning with a selection of refreshing salads, followed by extraordinary pasta dishes including rigatoni with sauteed eggplant and aged ricotta. Seasonality was highlighted in our plate of grilled vegetables with an herbal-infused olive oil. Our scrumptious meal ended with the "Leopard Temptations" - a Nutella chocolate mousse served on hazelnut crunch and banana gelato, and the Rum Babba with cream and fresh berries.Having dined at Cafe Des Artistes over the years with family and friends, and saddened when it closed, I was thrilled when it was reopened by Gianfranco and Paula in 2011. I was one of their first guests, and have been back several times, but it was a very special treat being able to visit with the Manhattan Sideways team in 2015. Experiencing the kitchen with Chef Michele and his staff proved how efficiently run this operation is, and sitting down with the family, including the couple's charming little girl, Sophia, was the icing on the cake. With each visit, it is an absolute pleasure to rekindle old memories of days and people gone by.
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."
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.
Helen Clay Frick, always an art enthusiast, founded the Frick Art Reference Gallery in 1920 as a public reserve and in loving memory of her father, Henry Clay Frick. Originally housed in the basement bowling alley of the Frick Collection, the library moved to its current location in 1935, transformed from its previously residential identity by Russell Pope. To date, the library offers access to comprehensive collections of photographs with complementing texts as well as other resources to better understand Western Art, adhering to the intentions of both Helen and Henry.
In 1887, Father Matthew A. Taylor founded the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, and in 1919, in an effort to accommodate an impressive following, the Roman Catholic Church was moved to its current residence just in front of the School of the Blessed Sacrament.Designed by architect Gustave E. Steinback, the building draws on Gothic Revival styles. The exterior stone facade stands proudly with arched stone ridges, detailed carvings, and heavy wooden doors, but it is the immaculate rose window that presents the most marvels. On the inside, the window is even more awe-inspiring, glowing in a spectrum of soft hues that fill the space with natural light complemented by more stain glass panels on the sidewalls and a beautifully designed tile floor.
“Restaurants are a funny thing — I think most of us fall in and then some of us never leave,” said Laura Bird, who spent decades working in and out of her uncle’s Southwestern eatery, Santa Fe, before taking over as the owner. Laura’s uncle, John Bird, initially set out to be a musician. However, “like most creatives in New York, he spent a lot of time working in restaurants in between gigs.” He was a busboy at the casual Mexican joint, Cantina, on 70th Street for many years. Putting his dreams of stardom aside, John and a crew of coworkers he had befriended at Cantina chose to open a new place mere blocks away that would “elevate Southwestern cuisine.” John later became the sole proprietor, and under his management, the business was able to straddle the line between attracting hotshot celebrities and serving as a warm, family restaurant. “So many people began bringing their kids to dinner and started a long-lasting tradition of dining at Santa Fe together,” Laura shared. She fondly recalls her own early visits to her uncle’s restaurant. “It seemed like a game then. I remember the excitement of being allowed to use the soda gun for the first time.” Little did she know that she would be a fixture at Santa Fe.Similar to her uncle before her, Laura graduated college with a theater major and the knowledge that she would need a side job to pay her rent. She went from working the coat check, to waitressing, to suddenly managing the entire restaurant. Though it may not be for everyone, Laura admitted that she loved the “vampire lifestyle — I could do what I loved during the day and then come here at night to do a different kind of show business.”The family ties at Santa Fe do not stop at Laura and John. The chef of over a decade, José Gonzalez, appointed his son, Danny, as his second-in-command. Together, they dish up traditional Mexican foods as well as American staples and do their best to abide by John’s cardinal rule: consistency. “It’s easy to make something once, but the real goal is to keep cooking it the same way every time. We try to ensure that when people order a dish, it is the same flavor that they fell in love with when they first tried it a week or even ten years ago.” Just as notable are Santa Fe’s margaritas, which have “a reputation of their own as our shining superstar.”As for John, after devoting decades of his life to Santa Fe, he “took a bow from his restaurant journey” during the COVID-19 pandemic and entrusted Laura and her husband, Alex Fresqued, to keep running the show. In a heartwarming twist of fate, Santa Fe’s landlord turned out to be equally as fond of this neighborhood gem as its patrons, and he came on as a partner to help keep it alive.
Originally designed by architect Stephen D. Hatch for a Methodist church in 1880, this building was taken over by the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church ten years later. In 1939, the German-founded congregation merged with that of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran to become Grace & St. Paul's Church. Today the church retains its beautiful brownstone facade, a mixture of Gothic and Victorian expression.
Founded in Prague by philosopher Dr. Miroslav Tyrs in 1862, Sokol (the Slavic word for “falcon”) has numerous international branches all devoted to physical, educational, and cultural growth. Sokol New York was begun by Czech and Slovak immigrants with a vision that still holds true today — “a sound mind in a sound body.”“When the building was being constructed, hundreds of people gathered to support this project. There is so much history involved in this building, and through it all, we have remained a community-centered organization,” said President Donna Sbriglia. Sokol New York maintains a perfect intersection of culture and recreation. Each year, local chapters convene to compete against one another, and every four years, an international competition known as the Slet (a gathering of falcons) is held in an alternating Sokol branch. There are also Czech and Slovak cultural activities such as wine tastings and holiday festivities to bring families together, and language classes are offered to youngsters eager to learn Czech.Housed in a stunning building, there is a “retired” bar in the front replete with old signage and dark wood. The main floor has a gym surrounded by a balcony lined with dozens of Czechoslovakian prints from 1923. Upstairs, the 1896 Meeting Room doubles as a ballet studio, and downstairs is a Tae Kwon Do room and a tots’ gym that was previously a space for billiards. “It is important to have a place like Sokol in the neighborhood. It brings everyone together to have a multicultural experience, which is excellent for kids.”