Pepi Di Giacomo and Luca Di Pietry, veterans of the hospitality industry and wine and espresso intenditori, have taken a slice of the Abruzzo province and established it across Manhattan in their cafes. 18th Street, however, is where their Italian cuisine is most pronounced. It is as much about local produce and a dynamic menu as it is about traditional dishes. Depending on the time of day, there is espresso, a selection of pastries, an extensive wine list and a full Italian menu. An added surprise in the warmer months is their gelato booth, stationed right outside the restaurant. Perfect for us on the first day the temperature reached 80 degrees.
There is nothing contemporary about this white tablecloth Italian restaurant where a simple rose sits in a vase on each table. How refreshing to make a reservation and be able to dine in a relatively quiet room, enjoying classic Continental cuisine. Brothers David and Danny Ramirez have worked diligently to preserve the old-world feeling that began back in 1919 just a few doors down, where Gene opened the original restaurant. In 1923, he moved to No. 73 where, for a few years, he operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Through wars, recessions and more, Gene's has thrived.... and since 1979, when the brothers' father took it over, they have strived to maintain the same character and quality of food and decor - the original wood bar stands proudly right up front. It is obvious that people in the neighborhood appreciate their efforts, as David told me that some patrons have been dining here steadily for over thirty years. And why not, for the food has remained consistent all this time. The same chef now for thirty-two years has been cooking Clams Casino, their signature dish, a variety of pastas, veal parmesan, chicken piccata and many other classic entrees. Chatting with David one afternoon when the restaurant was quiet, he shared some childhood memories with me. Growing up in the family business served him well. He began as a bus boy, and was groomed to take over a few years ago when his father retired. One of the best stories, for me, though, was about a gentleman who has been eating lunch here for years, each week dining with a different guest, but always ordering the same thing - three bowls of their vichyssoise soup - a favorite of mine too.
Ribalta is all about bringing the customer a complete and genuine pizza experience. From the three separate ovens that produce slightly different crusts, to the flour that is milled in Italy, to their "master instructor" (who comes to us straight from Scuola Italiana Pizzaloll, a pizza school in Italy that was begun in 1988), the people behind this restaurant take their pizza very seriously. When three of us ate here, we shared a thin crust mushroom pizza with truffle oil splashed on top, their soup of the day - carrot and potato - and a rather large salad. We wished that we could have ordered several more pies to sample, but they were large and there was no way any of us could have finished one. What we did have, though, was terrific. And in my spare time, some day, wouldn't it be nice to enroll in their pizza training program? In the fall of 2014, Ribalta made the brilliant decision to bring mixologist Franklin “Stilo” Pimentel on board, and some of us from the Manhattan Sideways team were invited to the unveiling of his new cocktail menu. Ribalta was abuzz when we entered, and we were immediately enticed by what was going on behind the bar. Mixed at lightning speed and served with wide smiles and a laid back attitude, the colorful drinks looked both intriguing and imaginative. A perfect complement to Ribalta's pizzas, the inaugural selection was inspired by classic Italian cinema, with names such as “Il Postino, ” “It Started In Naples, ” and “La Dolce Vita. ” The entire evening evolved around this theme, with black and white Italian movies projected on the walls and a live band to set the mood. The combination of sweet tunes and strong cocktails soon gave way to a full dance floor, and we were thrilled to be there to celebrate the exciting kick-off of Ribalta’s new cocktail program.
On any given beautiful day, this restaurant is set up early in the morning and looks incredibly inviting. The windows are swung open and there are roses on every white linen table. Shut down temporarily by a fire in October 2011, Il Cantinori seems to have quickly bounced back and the people in the neighborhood feel like they “haven’t skipped a beat since they served their first Italian meal in 1983. ” Part of that is because, aside from adding a few mirrors on the walls, Il Cantinori was restored to its exact pre-conflagration state. The staff saw no reason to change the décor that customers had come to adore. Upon our arrival to Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis’ Italian restaurant, we were greeted by a waiter who had been with them for over seventeen years. We learned that he works ten shifts a week, since his customers “love him so much. ” The general manager, told us that he had no idea what they would do when the beloved waiter decided to use his well-deserved vacation days. The general manager had also been with the restaurant almost since its inception, stating that he stayed because of its attention to “consistency, quality, ambience, and service. ” He went on to say that Il Cantinori “is like a ‘home’” both for the people who work and dine – “We have been open since 1983 and there is still a line out the door on some evenings. ” Continuing on, the manager was pleased to announce, “And everything tastes exactly like it did in the 1980s. ”He was a terrific storyteller, seemingly unsurprised when I told him that I could listen to him all day. “I have had people tell me I should be a stand-up comedian, ” he said matter-of-factly. “A reality show of this place would be amazing, ” he suggested, as he had countless fun tales about his quirky Manhattan regulars -“I am from Brooklyn, ” he explained, “so I grew up normal. ”Despite the fact that Il Cantinori receives many high-profile clients - Andy Warhol and Basquiat were known to be regulars - the manager insisted that “97. 8 percent of the people who come here are really wonderful people - really nice. ” When he told me how the “crème de la crème of New York” continue to come to Il Cantinori, he made it clear that he did not just mean celebrities, but the real New Yorkers - the wonderful people who make this city what it is. There is a unique relationship between the staff and the network of New Yorkers who visit Il Cantinori. Everyone knows everyone: customers bring their favorite waiters Christmas presents, and on occasion, the staff has been known to walk the dogs of some of their guests. Il Cantinori will do anything for the people who dine on 10th Street. “It is really small town in a small city, ” the manager explained. “People barely consider us personnel. I tell everyone they are my friends, except they pay for dinner. ’”So much to write, and I have yet to mention the food. The staff of Il Cantinori treated us to a veritable feast. While sitting in the back room flooded with afternoon light, under a whimsical black chandelier made to look like a seppie (the cuttlefish whose ink colors black risotto), members of the Manhattan Sideways team tasted a delicate squash and zucchini salad, scrumptious paella, crispy roast potatoes, green beans and asparagus, and something that the waiter rightfully called “the best pasta, ” filled with peas and sausage and a light creamy sauce. The atmosphere was perfect: we were surrounded by Nicola’s elaborate and illustrious bouquets of dogwood and cherry blossoms, that the manager told us would open into devastatingly gorgeous blooms within a few days. Of Nicola he said rather seriously, “I do not know what her parents fed her as a child, but the creative part of her brain is amazing. ” Ending our spectacular meal with classic flourless chocolate cake we turned to one another and acknowledged that we now understood what the manager had boasted earlier: “People don’t come here to dine, they come here to eat. ” There is no doubt that at the end of the day, the beauty of Il Cantinori is that the food and staff are always superb.
One weekend, my husband was kind enough to join me for some great eating, drinking, and walking. By the time we got to Sotto, we were already feeling quite stuffed, but what the heck, we indulged ourselves just a bit more. First, I must comment on the interior which began with a long marble topped bar upfront, and an open kitchen midway with a large brick oven. Farther back was the contemporary full dining area with a skylight. Quite an attractive place. Everything is meant to be shared at this "Social Italian" restaurant - so we did - Chickpea fries with sundried tomato pesto, crisp shoestring zucchini, and butternut squash cannelloni with melted parmesan across the top. All three were winners. I thought we were stopping there, but my husband was enticed by the pizzas so he ordered a small, thin crust pie with arugula and bresaola. The chef was very kind and surprised us by making the pie with one slice that had no meat on it for me. A lovely way to end our day together.
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.
Every time I am walking with someone new, I find myself winding past Breads Bakery to have us try yet another delicious bite of their freshly baked goods. I cannot call this a hidden gem, by any means, as the lines are sometimes out the door. In a matter of a few weeks from when Uri Scheft and Gadi Peleg opened, they have managed to be written up everywhere. They have even been cited as having the best rugelach and babka in different periodicals, but I must encourage all who visit to sample Breads' take on focaccia - the multigrain version. If it is not still warm from the oven, then take it home, heat it up, add a bit more olive oil and savor every bite. Another that I cannot resist are the flaky cheese straws. Direct from the oven, they are impeccable. In fact, fresh is king here, and the baked goods are often fresher than the vegetables around the corner. While most bakeries have their employees come in during the night to pump out a days worth of starchy creations, Uri's staff at Breads Bakery has fresh bread coming out just in time for each of the mealtime rushes. Uri was raised in Israel, but went back to his parent's roots in Denmark for his training in baking. He then traveled and worked in Europe before returning to his homeland to open up his first bakery in Tel Aviv. Many years later, Gadi was traveling in Israel and discovered Uri's Lehamim Bakery. It took several more years of persistence, but ultimately the timing was right and Uri made the huge decision to move to New York and partner with Gadi to open up shop near Union Square. The store itself feels modern and spacious, with one counter for bread and baked goods just as you enter on the left, and another further back with sandwiches and drinks. Extending further back another 75 feet are the kitchens. Customers can watch bakers ease proofed dough off rolls of canvas onto an adjustable conveyer belt, which feeds into the carefully regulated ovens. Unlike Sheft's locations in Israel, he got to design this one from the ground up so the technology involved is sometimes just as amazing as what comes out of the ovens.