Johnny Ivanac hopped on board a vessel from Croatia to the U. S. in 1968, with a background in hospitality and a dream of opening his own restaurant. When the ship stopped in New York, he decided to settle here and, thanks to the advice and generosity of the congregants at the local Croatian church, has never looked back. Johnny’s restaurant career kicked off when he was offered a job at a pizzeria, which he accepted with enthusiasm despite one small snag — he had never before tasted pizza. This did not deter him or the owner of the pizzeria, who assured him, “In a week you’ll be the best guy here. ” Sure enough, he was. When a restaurant owner learned of him from a fellow Croatian, Johnny joined his team and amassed a following of loyal customers who encouraged him to open his own place. Hesitant at first because of lacking funds, Johnny reached out to folks back home who pitched in to help him put a downpayment on a business that was about to close. He soon sent for his sister, Maria, and fellow Croatian, Chef Mili. The close-knit team was able to open their dream restaurant in 1981 and pay it off four years later. “With hard work, honest work, good work — you’re gonna make it. ” Villa Berulia has since become a neighborhood staple, uniquely melding elements of Johnny’s Croatian heritage with popular Italian fare. Customers call in advance to reserve a serving of cannelloni or decadent flourless chocolate cake (both recipes remain a closely-guarded secret). Johnny and Maria continue to spend time in the restaurant, but Johnny’s beloved daughter, Alex, and her husband, Steve, now run the everyday operations while carrying on that same “small family that extends to the customers. ”
Originally opened in 1932 only a few blocks away, Pietro’s has changed owners and locations but continues to thrive. Serving well-aged steaks and Italian classics, the restaurant remains a favorite with locals and those who continue to travel from Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey to savor the incredible meals that are consistently delectable. As Bill Bruckman, the present owner, described it to me, ninety-five percent of the clientele are regulars and have been coming to Pietro's for generations. "People drive in from all over on a regular basis, " he said. He laughed and added, "You would think that there aren't any good Italian restaurants anywhere else. " To honor the regulars, there is a "wall of fame" that allows people to add their family tree, and there are gold plaques scattered throughout the space recognizing Pietro's most loyal customers. Having had some marvelous meals at Pietro's over the years, I was eager to sit down with Bill and learn more about the restaurant's history. I found it fascinating that there was no explanation as to how two Italian brothers, the original owners, decided on its name. They arrived in New York from Italy in the early 1930s and opened their restaurant on 45th Street and Third Avenue - Natala was the chef, while Pietro handled the front of the room, yet only Pietro had his name inscribed on the door. According to Bill, by 1970 the two brothers decided to retire, and it was their head waiter who took over for a number of years, followed by his son. Beginning in the 1960s, Bill's father-in-law worked at Pietro's, and when they needed a busboy in 1984 (when they moved to their present address) he recommended his son-in-law. Bill worked himself up to being a waiter and in 1994, together with three partners, had the opportunity to acquire this Manhattan staple. In addition to the fantastic food, I am certain that it is the old fashioned waitstaff that drive people to return. Bill believes that one must have excellent service to back up the food. There are many men who have been with Pietro's for decades. For instance, Bruno, who I have met on several occasions, is a wonderful example of a loyal and genuine Italian waiter. If one insists, he will give them a menu, but he prefers to recite the list of specials and then continue on with the rest of the menu, without missing a beat. At some point during the recitation, he is certain to announce, "You don't eat better than this! "In 2016, on the day that we returned to update our feature article on Pietro's Bruno ready to greet us. Prior to Pietro's, he had been a waiter at the original Palm for some forty years. He told me that he began his career in 1968, and then quickly added, "But this is the best restaurant to work for. " Bruno told me that his father had worked at Pietro's in the 1960s and he was pleased to say he believes that he has the "closest relationship to the restaurant's past. " There is a warm camaraderie among the men who serve the guests. They take their job very seriously, but also know how to joke with the customers and each other. I found myself laughing the entire time I was there. Stepping inside the kitchen, we met Chef Luis who has been cooking at Pietro's for five years. Bill said that the kitchen staff is an amazing team with five guys on the line working cohesively with the chef as they turn out dish after dish. Witnessing this amazing team at work was a treat. When I commented to Bill on how everyone cooked in perfect harmony, he smiled from ear to ear and said, "These guys can turn out 125 dinners at a time on any busy night. They are so in tune with one another. "Everything is cooked to order and Tom, our photographer, was in classic Italian heaven as he sat down with a plate of meatballs and spaghetti and Pietro's chopped salad. The Chicken Parmesan, considered one of the best in the city, was the show stopper, pounded as thin as can be with an equally thin layer of their secret tomato sauce recipe and then perfectly crusted Parmesan melted across the top. Bill is proud of the fact that the restaurant remains "old school, " and stated, "we refuse to change. " He went on to say that "the decor is not exciting, " but he believes that this "isn't why people come here. " They come for the food, and they return time and again for the people who make their meals memorable.
Massimo Bollini loves to share stories of his historic Italian restaurant where mayors, governors, actors, gangsters, and even Oprah have dined. "But my favorite was always Ed Koch! " he exclaimed. Spread over two charming levels, with about ten tables on each, the walls are filled with changing artwork, old family photos, and pictures of Italy. Massimo arrived in the U. S. in 1978, working first as a bar boy in a hotel, then as a waiter, until joining his Uncle Sam on East 39th Street, where he has been a cheerful fixture ever since. Visitors to Sam’s Place go for the warm greetings and pleasant conversation and stay for the fettuccine alfredo — always a crowd-pleaser, despite the hefty calories. This delectable dish is just one reason customers have been returning for over thirty years, regulars for whom Massimo is “happy to change the menu according to their pleasures. ”
Keeping it in the family has been what has made Rossini's so successful for over thirty-five years. Begun by Romano Bernaz in 1978, his two sons and their cousin continue with the traditions of fine Italian dining. The restaurant is quite impressive, with a bar up front and then many white-clothed tables in the rear surrounded by murals and paintings on each of the walls. Every detail for a fine dining experience is met, including soft live piano music, well-dressed, attentive waiters and, of course, excellent food.
It’s not every day you’re greeted at the gym by a man wearing teeny tiny swim trunks and plastic lei. And it’s not a regular gym where the boss arrives for a meeting resplendent in chicken hat. Which stays on for the duration, despite the rising temperatures. But then, Mark Fisher Fitness is not any old gym. In fact, it doesn’t even call itself a gym; it’s an “enchanted ninja clubhouse of glory and dreams”. It’s a place where clients are called ninjas and trainers are called unicorns and where mirrored balls, graffiti and disco lights take the place of the usual utilitarian gym furniture. “We like to keep things colorful, ” said Mark in understatement. “So there are lights. There’s a closet with costumes, so if the trainer feels like dressing up in Victorian era garb or an S& M unicorn, there’s a leash they can wear – whatever feels good. “But one thing that’s also important to us is just taking people where they’re at, so a lot of the ninjas who come here AREN’T insane, ” Mark added. “We say if someone wants to come to a dance party and someone wants to take off their pants and someone wants to cry quietly in a corner because they’re having a really bad day, everything’s perfect, you’re OK wherever you are. ”Mark describes himself as once that “classic skinny, awkward, Martian man, afraid-of-girls guy” who only properly found his place in this world when he started to work out in high school. “I was also a professional actor – which is partly how we’ve become such a fixture in the Broadway community – and throughout my twenties I fell more and more in love with the training. It was like the mistress I slowly left my wife for. ”A few years ago he quit acting completely and committed himself to training fellow New York misfits. “My own experience in the gym, starting as someone who didn’t feel very good about his body and didn’t feel like an athlete, it was very difficult for me, ” Mark said. “We like to say, in the most affectionate way, that the ninjas are like an isle of misfit toys – all manner of humanity, all ages and colors and backgrounds that are generally united in that we all have a feeling of being an outsider at times. I just wanted to celebrate that, and also to provide really good fitness information. I’m a huge fitness nerd, so it’s very important we provide a really good service with results. ”So if you want clear, no-nonsense weight loss and are willing to put in the hours, the intensive six-week Snatched program might be your bag. Alternatively, there are group classes, and semi-private training packages, Mark’s cheaper but just as effective version of a personal training program, where you train with two other ninjas and a dedicated unicorn. Unsurprisingly, many of the gym goers are from the Broadway community. Mark has worked with plenty of performers to get them ready for a specific role (such as a ninja playing a boxer in Kinky Boots) as well as backstage workers. “We train a lot of composers and directors and casting directors – and from their friends it’s trickled out to other professions; people who maybe work in white collar jobs but are a little bit weird, ” Mark shared. “The nature of their life means they perhaps don’t get to be as creative as they’d like so they can come in here and do whatever they want to do. ”The trainers, too, are a colorful bunch, counting among them one of the city’s best known drag queens, a gay porn star, a tattooed graphic artist who was a skate punk in a former life, and a professional clown who, at the last minute in med school, decided he wanted to be a clown not a doctor. “We need people to be really great coaches, but we also need them to be really authentic and comfortable with who they are. And a holistic approach means this crazy fitness family doesn’t just take care of your physical fitness; it offers life coaching workshops, classes on book keeping for financial fitness, advice on time management …“We hope to be a place where people come for general betterment, ” Mark explained. “Fitness is so transforming because you’re able to be more creative and stable and braver with your life. You’re feeling better about yourself, you’re eating well, you’re sleeping – we know your brain is going to work better. Additionally, it’s interesting to see how much of your life you can control. New York can be an isolating town – particularly for performers, who spend a lot of time getting rejected. So there’s a certain power one discovers when you know you can control what you eat and how you look. ”This story was adapted from the W42ST article, "Mark Fisher Fitness — The Gym Where New York’s Misfits Go to Work Out. "
Jonathan Boyarsky, fourth generation owner, has found himself a terrific niche on 39th by being one of the only menswear shops to remain on the ground floor. Over the years, he watched as companies moved upstairs into offices in the garment district, or even overseas, but he chose to remain where people could easily spot him. Although he feels that he has remained "under the radar, " at times, when people come in they are "ecstatic" with what he has to offer. His family began their men's clothing business on the Lower East side back in 1919. Over the years, members of the family spread out and opened related businesses offering either custom made shirts, suits or fabrics. At No. 257, Jonathan has combined it all. He describes it as "double dipping. " They used to sell only the fabric and then send people elsewhere to have their clothing made. Today, within the three floors of space at Fabric Czar, customers can select from some of the finest cloths, and then meet first class tailor, Steven Tabak, of Beckenstein Bespoke, where their clothing is designed... and, everything is constructed on the premises. "We are one stop shopping, whatever a customer needs, we can make it for them. " And for Jonathan, it is only about quality craftsmanship.
There are intriguing spaces sprinkled throughout the city that invite corporations to utilize their facilities, but stepping inside Offsite is a unique experience designed specifically for the business meeting clientele. The brainchild of Patrick Everett and Shawn Kessler, they have created a stunning turnkey facility where all day conferences can be held. Companies are invited to bring their employees together for a productive 9am-5pm meeting in the three levels of fully equipped space, which can then be flipped effortlessly into an appropriate venue for an evening event. The rooms are configured so that some forty people are able to sit around one gigantic table or be rearranged into smaller units. Attendees never have to feel confined to one space, as they can move around freely on each floor, dividing up into smaller breakout sessions, when necessary. The rooms are versatile and technology oriented, fully outfitted with AV equipment - as Patrick referred to it, "plug and play. " Endless pens and pads, drinks and snacks, including large jars of enticing candy, are provided throughout the day. The partners have paid attention to every detail, taking into consideration exactly what they believe their clients will require, including a small executive office that allows for a private phone conversation and a myriad of white walls that are actually whiteboards. Offsite works with some of the terrific catering facilities in the area to provide top lunches and dinners for groups, and everything is served on their attractive dishes. While being given a tour, Patrick told me that he had been an event planner. When he discovered that there was something important missing in the corporate world, he found his niche. As he began to imagine the possibilities, he worked diligently on his concept with Shawn. Basically all one has to do is book the space, and the rock star team at Offsite will handle the rest.