Biking with my husband on a beautiful August day, I stopped short when I noticed something new and picturesque on 5th Street. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but I had been holding out until I discovered the perfect place to grab a bite to eat, and I certainly landed in an ideal spot. The rustic charm indoors, with replicas of the farm equipment used in Italy hanging from the ceiling, captured our hearts immediately, but it was the food – the outstanding rice dishes – that solidified Risotteria Melotti indefinitely on my list of top restaurants to recommend. Since the restaurant was quiet at this odd hour, we were able to chat casually with the staff throughout our meal, and we learned not only about the history of the restaurant, but also about the world of rice. Back in 1986, a couple began producing rice on one acre of land in Verona, Italy. Almost three decades later, together with their three sons, Rosetta and Giuseppe now farm 544 acres of land, all devoted to growing award-winning rice that is sold the world over.
There are basically two different textures of the grain that they produce. Vialone, the more traditional rice, is rich in proteins and vitamins and, because it absorbs liquid better, is used for their delicious risottos. Carnaroli rice, “considered one of the best in the world,” is more readily used in salads because it remains al dente when cooked, adding a chewiness to the superb insalata di riso that we shared. We both marveled at the combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red and yellow peppers, capers, fresh mozzarella and, of course, brown rice. When we first sat down, a bread basket was placed on the table. Their take on focaccia was very good, but I could not stop sampling their rice cakes throughout our meal – the basic recipe is made in Italy and then flown here to be tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary and then baked for fourteen minutes. I cannot say enough about how amazing the second dish that we tried tasted. We never knew that you could make polenta from anything but cornmeal, but we had our eyes opened to something new and wondrous when we had our first taste of polenta fritta con caciottina – a fried rice polenta with mushrooms and cheese that was perfectly moist in the middle with an added crunch on the outside. Every mouthful was rich and heavenly.
This brand new restaurant – the first outside of Italy – serves about thirty people, making for an intimate setting, especially when evening falls, the lights are dimmed and the candles are lit. Up front there is a little “shop” that sells many of their rice products. The staff explained that the family has made an across-the-board decision to only offer Melotti’s gluten-free rice merchandise in the States. Thus, anyone eating gluten-free can come to their restaurant and be served a carefree, excellent meal. Anyone fortunate enough to live in the area can either have their food delivered to them in their home or office, or stop by, browse the menu, and take it to go. I have no doubt that we would be eating a lot more rice if we lived in the East Village, but we will visit as often as we can.
"The Two Faces of Italian Food" is the tagline at this restaurant and wine bar. The perfect blend they are referring to is tradition and innovation. The menu boasts homemade and traditional options - the wine list is not limited to Italian varieties, though the beer is. We stopped in briefly and relaxed with a glass of wine in their quiet back garden and spoke with one of the restaurant's partners as waiters set up for that evening's meal. When we asked him to describe the food that Giano served in a short sentence he told us humbly: "Italian food. No big deal. " Can't wait to try it!
Around the corner from the well-regarded traditional restaurant, Il Buco, is Alimentari & Vineria, the market and wine bar that sells imported Italian foods. Up front, there is counter seating for a quick bite as well as more leisurely, contemporary dining down a few steps in the back. The food not only looks enticing, but it tastes amazing, and the people who work here are helpful and knowledgeable. Shortly after they had opened in the fall of 2011, we sampled some sandwiches on their house-baked breads - Tuscan Kale Panini with Stracchino cheese spread and a Soppressata panini with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Simple and delicious. Garnering instant popularity and acclaim from The New York Times to Zagat, we are confident in adding our enthusiastic support and highest recommendation to this authentic hotspot.
Upon entering this simple but warm restaurant, you cannot miss the heavenly smell of baked bread. When we met the owner and chef, Esberanza, on a recent visit, she and her niece were eager to tell us their family story. Apparently, Esbranza and her sister, who is a co-owner, married two brothers, who they met decades ago at Roseland Ballroom. Originally, they had taken this space for Esberanza to work on her custom-made lingerie for Victoria Secret, Baby Phat and her own line called Epy, but she tired of this after many years in the business, and decided to pursue her other passion - food. Fortunate for us, she is now sharing her talents in this quaint restaurant.
Il Buco is like stepping into another universe tucked away from the already tranquil Bond Street. The copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, antique plates on the shelves, and wooden tables and chairs complement this rustic Italian restaurant. On the day that we were here, artist Chuck Close was as well... supposedly this is his "favorite haunt, " as he lives just a few doors away. Always a fan of his artwork, it was great fun to see him sitting at a table nearby. The hostess was kind enough to suggest that we take a peak downstairs at their impressive wine cellar. We descended the stone stairway where we encountered bottles upon bottles of wines lining the walls.
How nice to see birch trees, weeping willows and turtles sunning themselves in the pond in this garden of paradise. In El Jardin del Paraiso, a great big willow tree shades this space. While this tree is magnificent on its own, it is highlighted by an octagonal tree house that encircles its trunk. The wooden structure's design was donated by tree house architect Roderick Romero, who resides in the East Village. His work for this 4th street garden, in 2003, was his first community project and we were delighted to see him featured in a July 15, 2012 segment of the CBS Morning Show. We learned that he is known for his tree houses both in the US and abroad including those that he designed for Julianne Moore, Val Klimer, Donna Karan and Sting. Climb a few rungs of the ladder and you will be several feet above the ground, taking in the lush greenery and appreciating the talents of this esteemed architect.
Strolling along 5th Street, I was immediately drawn to a row of old-fashioned light bulbs hanging in the window of a small hair salon. Alexandra, the owner, invited me in while announcing that today, June 3, 2015, was Filament’s first day open! As I admired the salon’s hardwood floors and simple, appealing interior design, Alexandra told me that she and her co-owner, Seiji, had recently decided to leave the nearby hair salon where they both worked. A native Puerto Rican, Alexandra specializes in curly hair, while Seiji, originally from Japan, mostly works with straight hair and extensions. The pairing is perfect, Alexandra explained, because “there’s something for everyone here. ” And while she and Seiji have different styles, they both believe in a natural approach to hairdressing: instead of trying to change their clients’ hair, they embrace and enhance its natural beauty. The salon’s name reflects this philosophy. Alexandra and Seiji spent hours trying to decide what to call their new endeavor, but it did not click until they bought their signature light bulbs. When they saw the glowing filaments inside the shop, Filament Hair Salon was born - a place where "the light inside you shines through the strands of your hair. ”
By the time I arrived at Fish Bar on a Friday afternoon, a few regulars had already settled in. They chatted quietly as I explored the bar, which - true to its name - is decorated with fish and undersea creatures of all kinds. As I checked out Fish Bar’s reasonably priced drinks, which attract a diverse group of young people and locals, I wondered why the owner had decided on a nautical theme… and why there were so many dollar bills stuck to the ceiling. Fortunately, John, the owner, was happy to answer my questions. In the mid-nineties, he said, he frequented a bar called the Castro Lounge, which was unofficially known as “Fish Bar. ” When the owner put the bar on the market, John bought it and made the unofficial name official. Fish Bar opened on January 1st, 2000, and regulars immediately began bringing fish back from vacations to decorate the ocean-blue walls. “It escalated quickly, ” John said with a sigh. That explained Fish Bar’s origins, but not the money on the ceiling. According to John, it is a game invented by the regulars, who have a special technique to get the dollar bills to stick. But he refused to tell me anything else. “I guess you’ll just have to come by and check it out, ” he said, and I assured him that I would visit Fish Bar soon - with a wallet full of dollar bills.
When I first walked into Doggie Dearest, I had no idea that it was one of the oldest businesses on 5th Street. The reception area was decorated with leafy green plants and painted a cheerful shade of “dog’s ear pink, ” and the owner, Evelyn, took a break from grooming to share her story. Now a fixture on 5th, Doggie Dearest started out as a hobby. “I was bartending and working as a personal assistant, ” Evelyn said, “and I decided to take a grooming class. ” She discovered that she had a talent for the work and in 1993, Doggie Dearest was born. Though the business has grown over the years, Evelyn has not hired a large staff. She and her assistant do all of the grooming work, and she prides herself on the individualized care she gives to each pet. While other groomers often keep cats and dogs waiting for hours, Doggie Dearest is structured like a human hair salon, so that each animal gets a personal appointment. Evelyn also describes herself as the “first line of defense” against diseases: she has often alerted pet owners to symptoms they would never have noticed themselves. Between rising rents and her own battle with cancer, it has been difficult for Evelyn to keep the business afloat, but she keeps going, because she loves the work. “I even love the crazy dog people, ” she added, laughing.
The warmly painted walls inside Veselka envelop the room in folky florals and traditional Ukrainian symbols. Hanging from the ceiling are glowing milk glass globes that seem to replace the sun or moon depending on the time of day — and it could be any time at all, as Veselka is open for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, serving a smorgasbord of pierogis, bowls of borscht, and other expertly prepared comfort foods — Ukrainian and otherwise. Wlodymyr Darmochwal planted roots for Veselka when, as one of the founders of the neighborhood Plast organization (akin to the Ukrainian boy scouts, teaching survival skills and Ukrainian language), he was asked to create a weekend study program for the boys. In response, he opened a five-and-dime style counter at the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue where the boys could buy paper clips, cigarettes, lighters, and, notably, bowls of borscht and other basic Ukrainian foods. The business expanded into another storefront on East 9th Street a decade later. After Wlodymyr’s passing in 1972, it was taken over by his stepson, Tom Birchard, who was later joined by his son, Jason. Today, having worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, Jason has “done every single job possible here except cook the borscht. ”When Jason joined the team, one of his first projects was to find out, “How late can we stay open? ” It turns out the answer was “all night. ” As Tom and Jason once again prepare to expand the restaurant into an adjoining storefront on 9th Street, they are eager to continue serving the next generation the kind of traditional Ukrainian food that Wlodymyr would have had at his counter more than sixty years ago.
“I’m not a chef. I am a scholar of nutrition and an idealist who loves health and happiness, ” proclaimed Angel Moreno, who left his home in Spain in the 1980s to embark on a voyage of self-discovery and to set up a chiringuito — the Spanish term for a cafe or juice kiosk — in the U. S. Before finding what he calls his “true purpose, ” Angel was a pilot. “But this was killing my heart, ” Angel said. He reevaluated his life and chose to pursue his aptitude for music. Though untrained, Angel had a good ear, a passion for playing the drums, and a desire to share music, poetry readings, and photography exhibits with the public. He came to open a handful of cafes and bars throughout Spain that were akin to laidback performance venues. Just as Angel planned to start a new venture in London, he met a master of Sufi (a form of Islamic mysticism). “This man was doing everything I wanted to do: yoga, traveling, and music. He was a fun guy. ” The guru made such a powerful impression that Angel followed him to the States, where he spent the next decade doing odd jobs, learning to practice Sufism, and waiting for the right time to start his chiringuito. As Angel puts it, the universe eventually led him to the ideal place. It had two rooms — one that would serve as the dining area and a second space that was used to educate others about nutrition, health, and assorted important subjects. At first, “I didn’t even know what kind of cuisine I was going to offer. ” But the teachings of Sufi, which focus on purity and wellness, inspired him to avoid anchoring himself to any specific type of cuisine. “Instead, I did international dishes and used my knowledge to adjust any recipe to incorporate organic ingredients and to be vegan or vegetarian. "Caravan of Dreams retains some of the elements of Angel’s first Spanish cafes, with daily live music and bright colors on the walls to spark joy in its guests. Yet the key component is the wholesome meals it serves. “Without health, we cannot be happy. ”
The chef and owner, Frank Prisinazo, had it right when he opened Supper, the restaurant and wine bar, whose decor was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper". Italian food paired with Italian wine can make you feel like you have died and gone to heaven. Supper is an osteria where Northern Italian cuisine is the specialty, and for us, the dishes served are worth savoring. Seven of us were able to gather around our table where we each inhaled the grilled polenta appetizer, the limone pasta, the pappardelle wild mushroom entree and several other outstanding dishes. The rustic, yet warm and cozy ambience allowed us to have a perfect evening.
The folks at Spot Dessert Bar are mavericks of dessert. With desserts specially created by the Iron Chef of Thailand, Ian Kittichai, and Mark Lee, the managing partner, the eatery offers each of its customers an astounding tour of taste. The dessert tapas themselves are a blend of eastern and western flavors inspired by Chef Kittichai’s travels around the world. While speaking with Mark, we learned that the little desserts are called “tapas, ” not because of the size, but because the idea is to order a few and share. Along with dessert tapas, Spot serves cupcakes, macarons, cookies, and bubble tea. They truly have something for everyone especially with the addition of new dairy-free and gluten-free options. The desserts change based on the seasons and we were lucky to be able to try the new fall menu as well as their signature dishes, and each one was a delightful surprise. Their two best sellers are the Golden Toast, with honey butter, condensed milk ice cream, and strawberries, and the Chocolate Green Tea Lava Cake, a soft dark chocolate cake with green tea ganache and green tea ice cream. The Golden Toast was warm with a flaky, soft interior, while the Chocolate Lava Cake was one of the best the Manhattan Sideways team had ever tasted, perfectly heated and well paired with the strong matcha flavor. Mark told us that it is also one of the top 10 most Instagrammed foods in NYC, which we did not find surprising, since each dish is a piece of art. The fall desserts were all equally tasty and creative—The gluten-free matcha cremeux with its toasted rice ice cream was unexpected and simply delicious. The vegan Coconut Monkey bread was light, fluffy, and topped with coconut ice cream with basil seeds. The real stand out was the Black Truffle savory dessert. None of the Manhattan Sideways team had ever had anything like it. It consists of black truffle, hazelnut dacquoise, and apricot sauce, and was the clear winner, especially for those without a strong sweet tooth. We drifted between different desserts as Mark told us more about Spot’s future plans and his experience with the company. Mark started as a server at Spot, which opened five years ago, and now is part-owner. He originally worked in magazine design and now puts his aesthetic eye to good use on the culinary design of Spot. He is inspired by everything—restaurant uniforms, menus, interior décor, and other aspects. Mark informed us that Spot is planning on expanding a few stores down. At first, the company used the space as a take-out café, but wanted to stay true to the dine-in nature of the original. Mark wants “customers to feel cozy when they come to Spot, ” and so will decorate the addition in a very similar way. We agreed that the wood-panelling and warm interior is very homey, creating a perfect atmosphere in which to fill up on dessert.