For thirty-nine years, this family-owned shop has been hand-rolling Dominican and Nicaraguan tobacco into Ecuadorian and Brazilian wraps. The Nicaraguan tobacco, the clerk assured us, is arguably the best in the world. “People fall in love with Cuban cigars because we want what we can’t have.” This could be true – psychology 101 in a tobacco leaf.
For our crew, the cigars themselves, while fit for one’s greatest victories, are not the most amazing part of the shop. Rather, it is the experience of being there. In a small space at the back of the store, the rollers pull tubes of tobacco from stacks of wooden blocks and expertly shape dried leaves from giant bundles into just-so shapes to do their enveloping duty. When we asked the clerk if he could roll, he replied, “No, man, it’s like a language. You have to start when you’re little.” The sentiment is borne out in the mesmerizing motions of the rollers.
Up front, a group of regulars gather around blowing puffs of smoke from their cigars while chatting. The air reeks of yet-to-be-smoked cigars mingling with smoking ones of all sizes. Everyone gets along. Long-time friends mingle with new ones, brought together by a shared languorous pastime. And then there is the added treat of stopping by on a Saturday afternoon when people gather to play a serious game of dominoes.
When I walked into Biricchino alongside Fouad Alsharif, it was like stepping inside his home. Fouad, one of the owning partners of the restaurant, greeted each person inside with hugs, kisses, and warm conversation. I remembered a comment that I had heard from a different restaurateur not long ago: He was reacting to the lack of loyalty from customers in his neighborhood. In his opinion, there are too many restaurants to choose from, nowadays. People are eager to try them all rather than give consistent business to two or three. I understood his concern, however, I must say that Biricchino has proven him wrong - at least in this particular spot in Manhattan. "I know everyone, generation after generation, " Fouad said. It helps that the family behind Biricchino (which means “naughty boy”) as been in the food business for over ninety years. “Today we are a new generation of men, but we all came from Curino, a small town in Italy in the province of Biella, " Fouad explained. “In 1925 Salumeria Biellese opened on 28th and Eighth Avenue. This is where the men got their start. ” Today, Salumeria Biellese is known as "the" salami and sausage maker in the industry. “Some of the biggest people in New York purchase their meat from us, " says Fouad. Sure enough, one corner of the restaurant has cured meats hanging with a high-end slicer waiting nearby. Biricchino opened in 1986 not only to showcase their handmade meats, but also homemade pasta, mozzarella, and more. Fouad stressed that good food starts with good ingredients. “We are second to none for quality. All our meat is natural and local to the Berkshires or New Jersey, from our hogs and grass-fed beef to our chickens raised on an Amish farm. Everything is done according to our specifications. We also feature seasonal vegetables from New Jersey and fresh breads from Sullivan Street Bakery. ” As proof that Biricchino is the real deal when it comes to high quality and healthy practice, the restaurant was the first in the industry to receive the “Snail of Approval” from the Slow Food movement (in honor of commitment to authenticity and sustainability of the food supply in NYC). “This is a big deal to those in the know, ” Fouad added proudly. The chef is proud of his pasta, fresh fish, chicken, and, of course, pork chop. Each day he tries to mix up the menu a bit so that he is certain to appeal to the different crowds stopping by for lunch or dinner. As far as crowd favorites, Fouad had a ready answer: “Rigatoni with homemade sausage has been our signature dish for years. That and the cured salami has kept customers coming back for a generation and counting. ”
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.
“My grandfather came here in the early 1950s, ” shared David Ettinger, owner of Truemart Fabrics. A Holocaust survivor, Irving Ledereich first found work in a velvet company, but when the businesses decided to move out of New York, he remained here with his family. Soon after, Irving came across an advertisement about a fabric store for sale and decided to purchase it. According to David, “His lawyer gave him a new name to call it, and it’s the name we still have here today: Truemart. ” Irving was in his mid-fifties when he took over the shop. He ran it alongside his wife, Anna, until her death in 2004. That is when David and his mom, Freida, entered the picture, until Irving passed away in 2010. Initially, Truemart was in a perfect location, in the heart of the Garment District and steps away from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). These days, not many people sew anymore, so the business has changed to keep up with the times. But they continue to have customers coming in to purchase materials for Broadway, movies, back-drops, and commercials. And, of course, the FIT students are still learning to sew, frequenting the shop that is filled with rolls of cotton, wool, satin, and linen fabrics. “People come in for small projects, but once they step inside, their imaginations keep growing. ”
Approaching almost fifty years, the American Bartender's School has been teaching mixologists the ‘ology of mixing. Having moved in the ‘80s from their original location on Madison Avenue, the school offers forty-hour courses, with students leaving as certified bartenders with a license issued by the New York State Board of Education. Combining lectures and a “lab” portion, we witnessed students attentively toiling over drinks for phantom customers in a room designed to look like one giant bar. The difference, however, is that unlike a culinary school where one might sample their own creations, students do not imbibe here. In fact, there is no alcohol to be found at this bar. Everything is in the correct bottles and the colors all match their potent potable equivalent. What was explained to us is that everything is about measurements. Students are given a recipe to follow, and provided they do it correctly, they can rest assured that it will taste exactly right in the real world. We left wondering whether phantom customers are good tippers.
There is a lot of space to have fun and be funny at Pioneer's, formerly named Comedy Bar. Well that makes sense, as it is owned by Ali Farahnakian, the man behind the PIT (People's Improv Theater) on 24th Street, which opened a new location just down the street in 2015. We found this place to have a little bit of everything. A fan of pinball? There are several machines; Love playing Jenga with giant size blocks? They have them; Want to dance? The music is playing and there are others who will join in; Like comedy? There are open mic nights; Want to simply drink? The selection is fine, with a variety of beers on tap... and the bartenders are ready to chat; Hungry? There is a menu to choose from and lots of popcorn to go around.
This tiny shop tucked away in Kips Bay has been the go-to spot for any and all of one’s footwear-related troubles since it opened in 2014. Manuel Muicela, the owner, came to New York from Nicaragua in 1987 and quickly joined the trade of shoe repair, enduring grueling six-day workweeks. After gaining thirty years of experience in the field, he was finally able to open his own business. “I learned how to repair shoes, and now I work for me, ” he remarked proudly. In this residential area, most of his regulars live in the neighborhood. On the loyalty of his customers, Manuel noted, “If you do a good job, people come back. ” A few things about Manuel’s shop set him apart from the rest. One of the first things that grabs the eye upon entering is the set of old-fashioned shoeshine chairs, where one can get a shoeshine for $5, cash only. He also has a unique machine in the back of the shop that stitches both the inside and the outside of the shoe. With a chuckle, Manuel warned our team, “You can stitch your finger if you’re not careful. ” This machine is so rare that many other shoe repair shop owners throughout the city come to Manuel to use it.
An oasis in a concrete cityscape, this little church doubles as a place of worship and a serene garden in which to rest. The Episcopalian church was founded in 1848 by George Houghton to welcome any and all of the tired masses, in the spirit of inclusivity. Today, the church maintains that inclusive spirit by keeping its gates open all day to parishioners and non-parishioners alike. On any given day, one can find anyone from actors to businessmen seated among the bushes and fountains, chatting, eating or simply sitting in peace. “A lot of people just come in and meditate or chill, ” parish administrator Bill Nave shared with us. “It is one of the most welcoming churches I have ever been to. ” What a charming discovery in the midst of bustling Manhattan.