On East 46th, in close proximity to the Helmsley Building, I stepped into Nanni's, a restaurant that has been serving traditional Italian food to some of the same customers for almost fifty years. My initial idea was simply to stop by, introduce myself and try to make an appointment with the owner to come back for an interview....but we were immediately ushered into the dining room and seated by the mątre d' and current co-owner, Vittorio Miriel. He could not have been more hospitable as he told the waiters to take good care of us. Later, in conversation, I learned that he and head chef, Silvo Silano, have been running Nanni's since the early 2000s. Previously, Mr. Miriel had served as a waiter in this same restaurant for thirty years, after arriving in Manhattan from Capri. The chef, hailing from Tuscany, has had similar longevity, as have most of the staff that we engaged in conversation.
As the local, businessmen crowd began to take their seats, Vittorio pointed out his regulars - some of whom have been coming for as long as he has worked there, and in this small, intimate setting, I smiled as I realized that I was the only female having lunch that day.
It is easy to understand why Nanni's continues to have a filled dining room every afternoon; using only the freshest ingredients with homemade pastas, Nanni's food serves as a testament to the merits of old world Italian cooking: rich, filling, and delicious. We tried the capellini alla primavera, tortellini alla Nanni, and eggplant parmesan.
Other than the Venetian murals, the decor at Nanni's is sparse, creating a typical Italian ambiance of simplicity, where the food takes precedence over the space. As we ate, however, we were waited upon by up to five men at a time, all devoted to making sure we had the best dining experience. When we complimented one of the waiters on his attention to detail he explained, in a thick Italian accent, that "this is the only thing we know how to do, so we do it the best we can."
If the sight of a regular lunch rush doesn’t convince you to try La Bellezza Pizzeria, then their pitch-perfect, classic New York slices will. After a trip in to try their signature pepperoni and tomato slices (a well-seasoned combination of cheesy, crunchy and savory, the Bellezza team has mastered the elusive sauce-to-cheese ratio), we got a chance to check in with the Dedvukaj family who have operated the East Midtown pizza joint for the past 23 years. Founded by Bronx-based Marko Dedvukaj, son Frank Dedvukaj — who started slinging slices in the shop at just 20 years old — took over the business so that, as Marko put it, “I can focus on the most important job of all — spoiling my grandkids, ” he told us, surrounded by visiting family members, some of whom also used to work at La Bellezza. As groups of grateful office workers filed in and out of the intimate storefront for a slice of pizza or La Bellezza’s famous chicken parmigiano hero — “at one point we were voted the #1 Chicken Parm on Yelp” Frank told us, he added that the biggest change he’s seen in business is a post-COVID slowdown of daytime visitors to the block. “The area is quieter, ” said Frank, noting that they still maintain a set of loyal regulars. “We’re still here! ”
Fabio Hakill, the eponymous chef and owner of Fabio Cucina, moved from Rome to New York in the mid 1990s where he quickly made a name for himself as an accomplished chef. After eighteen years as a co-owner at Piccolo Fiore on East 44th Street, Fabio decided to go it alone early in 2014. At his new Italian restaurant, Fabio is enjoying experimenting with a varied menu. His specialties include the Fettuccini al Fabio - made with veal, mushrooms and truffles, and an array of risottos. He told me, however, that he is willing to prepare virtually any dish that a customer requests. After stopping by during their busy lunch hour one day, Fabio invited us back in the evening to sample some of his signature dishes. As we walked across 52nd Street to the west side, we were dreaming about the Italian food that awaited us when we would circle back to the east side later in the evening. Weary from our long day, we eagerly took a seat near the wide windows to observe others walking by, while we indulged in the fresh bread basket, chilled white wine, some outstanding appetizers, a seafood risotto and a pasta dish. It was an ideal end to a very long day on 52nd.
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.
When we visited the new Bistango at the end of the summer of 2014, located in The Kimberly Hotel, Chef Blessings Strange and staff member William Turbert were testing out a dish to add to their menu - grilled watermelon with snippets of mint and deep fried fennel, topped with goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. They put out three additional small plates at the bar, encouraging us to taste and weigh in. It was a refreshing pick-me-up for each of us, but little did we realize that there would be several more dishes headed our way. While Chef Blessings began food prep, we had the pleasure of meeting both Anthony Avellino, the manager - part of the Bistango family for twenty-two years - and Marc Mirbod, one of the owners, who first chimed in describing Anthony as being "the real salt of the earth kind of guy. " and then went on to give us some insight into this recently established location. Fred Manocherian, owner of The Kimberly Hotel, was intrigued by the eleven-year-old gluten-free program at Bistango on 29th and Third Avenue and invited the team to open a restaurant on 50th. According to Marc and Anthony, the concept behind the Bistango restaurants is "very straightforward. " They want to offer a moderately priced seasonal Italian menu with uncomplicated, locally sourced food. When they joined forces with Mr. Manocherian, the goal was to "bring what was successful on 29th to their new location. " They have adopted a system where there is absolutely no cross-contamination between gluten and gluten-free meals. Chef Blessings told us that perhaps the most rewarding aspect of working in the restaurant is to watch the pleasure on people's faces when they are enjoying a bowl of pasta or a pizza for the first time in years, having never been anywhere before that can serve them a great Italian gluten-free meal. Once again Marc weighed in praising Chef Blessings, "He is the brains and heart behind the menu. "While chatting, Chef Blessings continued to dish out amazing food for us to sample: A simple salad with romaine lettuce was perfectly dressed and topped with marcona almonds; an adventurous Linguine Deniro - squid ink pasta mixed with swordfish, cherry tomatoes, herbs, and a light sauce of white wine and olive oil; and perhaps the best burrata I had tried all summer long. Blessings told us it is delivered fresh from Maplebrook Farm in Vermont. Served at room temperature, the cream oozed out from the center and onto a bed of heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, toasted pumpkin seeds, white pepper, and balsamic vinegar powder. Needless to say, we devoured everything. It was then that Mr. Personality, William Turbert, fired up the pizza oven, eager for us to taste the gluten-free pizza dough his teammate Jeff Walawski has spent years perfecting. William described himself as "an Italian boy from Brooklyn with the accent and personality to prove it. " As he entertained and utterly charmed us, he was simultaneously making two pizzas for tasting: a margarita with buffalo mozzarella and heirloom baby tomatoes, and another made with La Quercia prosciutto and their homemade ricotta. Until William reminded us, we forgot that we were eating a gluten-free dough. That's how good it was. The simple burgundy and dark wood decor, the dozens of antique model planes from Mr. Manocherian's personal collection hanging from the ceiling, the intimate size of the dining room, the open view into the kitchen and of course the impeccable food made for an outstanding experience. The Manhattan Sideways team had an unexpected and heavenly meal, but equal to the food was the attention that we received from all the players at Bistango.
"We are the oldest restaurant on our block. We try to keep a low profile while doing the best we can, and every day we appreciate that we are living in this country, ” said Guadalupe, who has been married to Rafael Rivas — affectionately known as Papa Bear — for over forty years. The restaurant was founded by three Cuban cousins, who took Rafael under their wing when he came to the U. S. from the Dominican Republic in his twenties. With their encouragement, he started out as a dishwasher, then a lineman, and eventually ran the show up front. When the cousins decided to retire in the mid-1980s but could not find a buyer, Rafael stepped up to the plate and asked if he could take over Margon. With years of hard work and small payments, Rafael has upheld the cousins' tradition of serving Cuban favorites, such as roasted pork, oxtail, fried sweet plantains, and rice and beans to the line of customers that stretches out the door on any given day. Little by little, each member of Rafael's family was brought from the DR to join the fold. Guadalupe — who met her husband while they were both on a tour of the Statue of Liberty — along with Rafael's brother, sister, sister-in-law, and many of their children — are all part of this warm and loving family affair. Papa Bear's smile lights up Margon — and his entire family smiles with him. They work like a well-oiled machine, serving a constant flow of customers ranging from construction workers on break, to ladies meeting for a leisurely lunch, to a gentleman in his eighties who never misses a day to sit down and enjoy his usual. According to Guadalupe, “We have the best customers. They come from all over the world. We have every accent. They visit once and then they tell their friends.
Not only does Barbetta profess to be the oldest restaurant on Restaurant Row, it is also one of the oldest Italian restaurants in New York. Opening its doors in 1906, in four adjoining townhouses built in the late 1800s by the Astor family, Sebastiano Maioglio began his long restaurant career. The emphasis has always been on Italian dishes and wine from the Piemontese region, where he was from. Sebastiano’s daughter, Laura, took over in 1962, and immediately began to remodel the restaurant in the style of 18th C. E. Piemonte. With her passion for collecting art, great sense of personal style, frequent visits in Piemonte, and an art history degree from Bryn Mawr College, it is no wonder that Barbetta’s exquisite interior has become as highly regarded as its food. The dining room demonstrates its old-world opulence, with ornate chandeliers, chairs, and tables meant to evoke a palazzo of the eighteenth century, during Piemonte’s cultural height. The baroque interior serves as more than just a reference to its heritage; it is a part of it. The great chandelier in the main dining room initially came from a palazzo in Torino, where it belonged to the royal family. Laura negotiated to obtain this 18th C. E. chandelier for two years. Other highlights of Barbetta’s extensive collection include the harpsichord in the foyer - crafted in 1631, as well as hanging wall prints from Piemonte - part of a distinguished set crafted in 1682. Items that could not be authentic, such as the numerous chairs and barstools, are reproductions of museum pieces that were specifically chosen by Laura to be reproduced in Italy. The garden, available for dining in the summer, holds trees dating back over a century ago, and, in line with the interior, holds the atmosphere of refined European aristocracy. Barbetta, while serving as a cultural landmark, remains focused on the excellence of its ever-changing list of dishes while serving classics such as risotto and polenta since its founding. Every dish on its menu since 1962 has been approved by Laura, and celebrating its long history and heritage, each menu item is marked with the year it began to be served, while dishes from Piemonte are in red print. Although esteemed for its dishes, Barbetta is also famed for its 72-page wine list, which has won numerous awards. Barbetta has also transformed the Italian dining scene through its numerous examples of “being the first”- from its conception to the present day. A few highlights include its beginning as the first Piemontese restaurant in New York, its status as New York’s first elegant Italian restaurant after its 1962 transformation, as well as its usage of numerous ingredients that at the time, were not commercially available in America and which had to be specifically imported by them from Italy. A particular example of one of these imported ingredients is white truffles. Years ago, Barbetta’s own truffle-hunting dogs became so well known that they were asked to perform a demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1992. Barbetta is also unique in its emphasis on low sugar and low salt dishes - Laura even decided that Barbetta would smoke its own salmon to ensure it would not be too salty. Laura described Barbetta as “an institution, much more than a restaurant, ” due to the extensive culture that has been built around it and that it has created. The description as “much more than a restaurant” struck us as particularly apt, due to Barbetta’s long list of famous regulars - from The Rolling Stones to Jacklyn Kennedy - its exceptionally elegant and unusually spacious interior, variety of phenomenal food, and historical significance.
Joe Allen, founded in 1965, is the archetypal post-theater restaurant. With one of the longer histories on Restaurant Row, Joe Allen has been serving classic American cuisine in a brasserie setting since I was a little girl. I was always happy to come here with my parents and be able to order a hamburger rather than having to go out for a fancy meal. Mr. Allen - who also owns Orso, an Italian restaurant next door – had an initial concept to provide a comfortable, dynamic atmosphere with good food. And while the restaurant continues to serve some of the best comfort food around, spending time at night in the bar area, shows Joe Allen's real appeal. The high energy level from the post-theater crowd is contagious. The manager explained to us on one visit that they are the first phone call that people make after they have secured their seats for the next Broadway show. And, while he remained hesitant to divulge names, he shared how many actors and actresses have continued over the years to head immediately to Joe Allen after they perform - "here, " he elaborated "you're surrounded by theater, and we do all we can to promote that culture. " I can attest to the numerous actors who grace their tables, as I have had the pleasure of meeting a few over the years, as well as a highlight one evening when Barbara Walters sat right next to me. It is hard to say something new about Joe Allen, so long has it been a staple for theater goers. While the menu remains updated and contemporary, Joe Allen does not take any risks. Rather, it thrives on its reputation among patrons based on its long tradition of casual dining. Seeing the last of the pre-theater crowd during our visit, we were struck by how Joe Allen seemed appropriate equally for a quick burger and glass of wine in half an hour before a show, or a long, late into the night dinner where no one wants to head home.