Everyone on West 28th between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue has a story to tell about life on the garden block, but I found one of the workers at Foliage Garden's story to be the most inspiring. "I was raised in the Flower District. My entire life is wrapped up in this street," she told me. "I invested my life here." After 9/11, however, she made the decision to move upstate, where she felt safer raising her daughter.
Not long after, she came running back to the city at the call of her dear childhood friend. Maryann Finnegan had recently lost her husband and needed help running Foliage Garden, a retail and wholesale market that sells magnificent orchids and a multitude of other plants. The part-time worker at Foliage proudly told me that the shop has been in the same location for over thirty-five years, having opened in 1981. Maryann added, "We are now the oldest plant store on the street." She then said that what differentiates her from everyone else is, "we have our own greenhouses under glass on Long Island."
Maryann and her team have befriended many of the people who created the Flower District a long time ago. Sadly, her co-worker related that "so many of the old men have passed away." There are still, however, a few remaining who have wonderful stories to share. "There is so much history on this block," she continued. "We were once called the Times Square of Flowers." She described a time when every single storefront was filled with flowers. Today, she is pleased that she came back to Manhattan. "I can put up with anything here because I still love it - it's my passion."
Nic Faitos was not always in the flower business – in fact, he started out working on Wall Street. But the financial world just was not right for him. “I fell out of love with what I was doing, ” Nic told me. “I was having my midlife crisis a bit early – I went from being a broker to being a florist! ” Standing in Starbright, it is not hard to see why Nic was drawn to this sector. The space is filled with bright light, and the scent from all the flowers is enough to make anyone fall in love with their job again. Nic started Starbright in 1993, and for the first twenty years, Starbright operated out of a second-floor industrial space on 28th Street, focusing on corporate clients and large contracts. They provided flowers for clients like Ernst & Young and Columbia University, along with several other large corporations and a number of major hotels. In 2015, Starbright moved to its current 26th Street home. Although it was not far geographically, Nic explained “this was a big move for us. ” The new space is twice as large as the old, and, being on ground level, offers an opportunity for Starbright to draw customers from the street in addition to their existing corporate clientele. Nic has been embracing that opportunity by having a floral “happy hour” every Thursday throughout the summer when everything in the store is half price. “There are all these pubs and bars on the block, ” Nic exclaimed, “Everybody’s having happy hour, why can’t we? ”Starbright is by far and away the largest florist that I have come across on a Manhattan side street thus far, and so I asked Nic to tell me a bit more about how his business operates on this scale. I learned that they receive shipments of flowers three times a week, from places as far away as New Zealand, South America, Singapore, Holland, Israel, and Italy. In a given week, Starbright handles twenty-five to thirty thousand stems. I could not imagine what so many flowers would look like, and so Nic said, “I’ll show you! ” and led me to the walk-in refrigerator that keeps their blooms fresh during the hot New York summers. The fridge was fully stocked with flowers in boxes and buckets, each a different color, and all waiting to be arranged by the designers who work at large tables in the main area of the shop. I was content to stay for some time and watch them – each employee was a true artist, combining the flowers as a painter might mix different colors on a canvas. Starbright’s size allows them to bring in many flowers that are not often found at other florists in the city. Nic showed me a few of the more rare blooms, including the deep purple vanda orchid and the trumpet-shaped calla lily. “We donate a lot of flowers too, ” he told me. Starbright often sends its arrangements to charitable organizations like Gilda’s Club and the Ronald McDonald House, believing that sharing beauty is an important way of helping others.
Fabio Camardi - the charming owner both of this restaurant and Mercato on West 39th Street - announced as we walked inside his brand new restaurant that it had taken two years to complete his renovation. He went on to say that he had chosen the location because he is fond of the architecture in the NoMad neighborhood – “architecture is my hobby, ” he told me. “I built this place myself, ” he went on to say, showing me how he had added the beams in the ceiling and created the new floor made of reclaimed red and white oak. When I commented on the furniture filling the restaurant, including tables from a library upstate and an old butcher’s block, Fabio informed me that he has been collecting antiques for years. While continuing to chat about the renovation, Fabio explained that it was slow going due to the fact that the building dates back to 1865 and has achieved landmark status. Therefore, he had to wait for official permits to do any work. When the restaurant opened in April 2016, Fabio was delighted by how friendly the neighborhood was. “They were immediately nice, ” he said. The highlight of visiting Ulivo, aside from Fabio, was seeing the “Pasta Lab. ” Unlike its sister restaurant, Ulivo focuses on pasta, with fifteen different dishes on the menu. Thirteen of those are made with help from an enormous machine that sits in the basement. “It’s the most advanced machine we have in Italy, ” Fabio proudly told me. He turned the machine on and I was able to watch as it created large tubes of rigatoni and then long strings of spaghetti, using a different setting. “The more pasta you make, the better it gets, ” Fabio informed me. Beyond the pasta lab, there was an event space that seats forty, complete with a full bar and a Faema espresso machine from 1949. At the end of the room, I spotted a special door with a porthole that opens onto the beer cooler, and, in the very back, built out of the old coal shaft, I discovered a cave where the liquor is kept. Upstairs, there is a wine cellar encased in glass with a wooden ladder next to the kitchen. I was intrigued by the row of twenty different olive oils sitting on the counter in easy reach of the chefs. Fabio makes sure that each brand is made and bottled in Italy. When I asked which olive oil was the best, he said he could not answer the question. “It’s based on your taste, like wine. ” In the kitchen itself, different meats were hanging across from a wood fire oven on the opposite wall. Along with pasta, Emanuel “Mano” Concas, partner and the chef (whom Fabio refers to as “The George Clooney of Sardinia), cooks “dal forno a legna” in the wood-fire oven. Each plate is created using a cast iron pan placed directly into the oven. Some of the more popular non-pasta dishes are the tail-in branzino and the dry-aged steak. Being familiar with the themes of good Italian cooking, I was not surprised when Fabio told me, “Everything is fresh. ” This is especially true for the restaurant’s “fritture, ” little dishes. These items include fresh octopus, cold cuts, burrata, and fried meatballs with sea salt, a dish that is particularly popular in Sardinia, where the chef is from. There are also two flatbreads on the menu, but Fabio was adamant that Ulivo is not a pizza restaurant. He simply chose the two that they do "best" at Mercato: The San Daniele with prosciutto and arugula and the Regina Margherita. Fabio shared the myth behind the latter: The story goes that Italian chefs decided to put something special before the Queen. Up until that time, pizzas just had sauce, and so they added buffalo mozzarella to make it royal, hence the “Regina. ”If there is a certain nonchalance about Fabio and his attitude toward owning two restaurants in New York, it is probably because he has a lot of experience in this world – he even went to culinary school, which is rare amongst Italians, who often just rest on the fact that they were born into a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on high-quality food. Fabio shared that he owns four restaurants in Italy, which his forty-four cousins help to run. He went on to tell me that he came to the United States in 2004 because he “didn’t like Berlusconi” (the unpopular former Prime Minister of Italy) and that he began his career in New York as a bartender (the cocktail list at Ulivo is his own creation). In addition, there are four local beers on tap, including Smart Beer, which Fabio says is the "first organic beer made in New York. " There is also a substantial bourbon list – “It’s what people want. ”I particularly loved the story of how he met his wife, who is originally from Korea: they were both attending English school. Several years later, they have two adorable children and “She’s my bookkeeper, ” he said with a smile. His wife is also responsible for the beautiful candles and dried flowers throughout the space. Fabio is playing with the idea of opening an Italian restaurant in Korea. He told me that there is no fresh olive oil available in eastern Asia, but that China had recently planted one million olive trees to try to remedy the situation. Olive oil is absolutely essential to Italian cooking, which is why Fabio named his restaurant “Ulivo. ” He stated, “There is no Italian cuisine without olive oil. ”Fabio’s vision for Ulivo is a perfect blend of traditional and modern. Though he uses traditional Italian culinary methods and pasta recipes, he embraces new technology - such as his pasta machine - and trends. When I asked what was next for Fabio, he responded, “I’m full of ideas – there’s a lot of stuff that I want to try and eat. I love to eat! ”
New York is full of pizza shops, and its residents pride themselves on knowing their pies. Satisfying a New Yorker’s pizza craving can be a difficult task, but & Pizza does so in spades, serving a fabulous and delicious array of large, creative, sixteen-inch personal pies. When the Manhattan Sideways team visited & Pizza at their first location in New York, we spoke with Calvin, the Community Manager for the brand. “New York is a city that appreciates creativity and artistic angles, and our pizza does just that, ” Calvin said. Originally founded in Washington DC in 2012, & Pizza decided to expand their market and open their twenty-second spot here in Manhattan during the summer of 2017. The restaurant serves unique pizzas alongside classic menu items such as a Margherita. “Pizza in the industry is kind of stale, but we decided to shake it up, mix things up. ” Calvin noted. The American Honey, a pie with spicy tomato, mozzarella, pepperoni, arugula, red pepper flakes, goat cheese, and Mike’s Hot Honey, became a big hit on day one. The unique honey flavor combines well with the pizza’s other ingredients. Another favorite is the Farmer’s Daughter, a pizza with spicy tomato, spinach, mozzarella, Italian sausage, egg, red pepper chili oil, and parmesan. While many customers choose to stick to & Pizza’s pre-determined “Hits” menu, others love to build their own creation, adding unlimited toppings for a flat price. Patrons are also encouraged to add any toppings of their choosing to the “Hits” items, creating a virtually unlimited combination of flavors. Pizzas are cooked in under two minutes, a key to churning out customers during the busy lunch hours. Calvin told us that he loves to eat the restaurant’s pizza and to add his own twist to classic menu items. “I always wonder, what will this pizza taste like with pepperoni, or that one with hot honey? The possibilities are endless. ”Also on the menu are & Pizza's homemade sodas, with innovative flavors such as mango passionfruit and Ginger Berry Lemonade. As with their pizzas, the staff suggests pairings on the soda machine, allowing bold new flavors to arise. Every & Pizza location has a unique design that caters to the neighborhood, and the Flatiron store is no exception. This one is nicknamed “The Point” for its location at the tip of the Flatiron District. The entire store is specifically designed to fit around this pointed theme; the repurposed and recolored subway tiles on the wall are fitted to be pointed, the utensil holder is angled, even the mirrors in the bathroom are pointed. The store’s black and white interior, the color scheme of the & Pizza brand, creates a beautiful aesthetic that customers love, Calvin said. On the ceiling, the light structure mimics the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, the store’s location. In order to pump up customers and create a fun atmosphere, & Pizza blasts loud music throughout the store. “When we first opened up, " Calvin told us, "people kept on passing by and asking, ‘Is this a club? It looks so fun in here! ’ We have live DJs on Thursdays and Fridays, and people enjoy stopping in just for the music sometimes. ”One of the other wonderful aspects of & Pizza is their dedication to working with the local community, wherever they are located. At this location, they have partnered with David Chang’s Milk Bar to create a unique cream soda and cream soda-flavored cookie, both of which are only available in New York. The art on the walls was done by New York artists Rubin and Frisco Smith, both in black and white to fit in with the rest of the store. At the end of our conversation with Calvin, we asked him about the & Pizza name. “We believe in the power of ampersands, which binds and connects things, just like us. We combine creative ingredients, we combine local artists, we connect the community. Everything we do stays true to the ampersand. ”
My husband and I discovered a market called Kalustyan's when we first lived in the city, over thirty years ago, however, they have been a staple on Lexington Avenue since 1944. It is a terrific place to find all kinds of interesting Middle Eastern and Indian ingredients at very low prices, but it was not until recently that I learned that they are also the owners of Curry In a Hurry, just around the corner. Since the 1970s, the restaurant has been a lunchtime staple in Curry Hill, as this neighborhood is known. With a large buffet, complimentary unlimited salad bar, outdoor tables and chairs and upstairs seating that overlooks the street, local residents and workers have more than enough reason to return on a regular basis.
I was invited to Pergola on the night of one of their promotional events, which was meant to both celebrate the onset of summer and announce their launch of the Flora Club in 2016. The concept is a clever one that has become increasingly popular as of late - they have begun providing classes on arranging flower bouquets while serving cocktails and snacks, making for a fun and unique evening out with friends. As Tom, one of the instructors in floral arrangement at the event, said, “The forefront of pop culture is floral design. ” The restaurant’s décor certainly reflected their new endeavor, what with the colorful flower arrangements hanging from the ceiling, spread on the tables, and attached to ribbons that doubled as bracelets, necklaces, and hairbands for guests. To top it off, the complimentary mini champagne bottles being handed out were, when finished, turned into impromptu flower vases. Having had the pleasure of eating at Pergola in the past, I was not surprised that the passed hors d'oeuvres were superb. The Manhattan Sideways team sampled a variety of options from the trays - hummus and pita, meatballs, crab cakes, tzatziki, and other mouthwatering Mediterranean dishes. Pergola is definitely a hot spot in the NoMad neighborhood as it has a beautiful, welcoming ambiance - especially when the doors are swung open - and the food is consistently excellent.