Paul Floess grew up in the northern part of Italy, on the Austrian border. "I only knew about heavy foods - food that kept us warm in the wintertime," he recalled. But then he began to travel, and he educated himself on the different ingredients and the recipes in the various regions throughout Italy. To this day, in 2017, Paul continues to look forward to spending a few weeks in Italy every summer, discovering something new and refreshing to bring back to his charming Upper East Side restaurant.
Opened in 2011, Paul was able to make his dream come true after spending some twenty years cooking in other restaurants nearby. After all this time, Paul was ready to venture out on his own. "I knew exactly what people liked to eat and what they expected from a good restaurant." He was proud to tell me that everyone leaves happy, and they continue to return. It is primarily neighborhood denizens who come in - always bringing new friends or family members. Grateful, he commented, "We are doing well, we always have a full house on the weekends," but Paul is constantly amused by those who step inside and tell him that they never noticed his space. Luna Rossa is what we at Manhattan Sideways like to refer to as a true hidden gem – intimate, with fantastic food and a welcoming staff.
I never tire of hearing the stories of chefs who grew up watching their mom in the kitchen and were inspired from a young age to want to learn to cook. For Paul, it was slightly different in that his mom was the chef at his aunt's nearby hotel. As a young boy, he would go there after school and wash dishes, and for seven years he worked there in the summers. He learned all of the recipes, and to this day, still prepares many of them in his own restaurant. Paul emphasized, however, that he will continue to return to his homeland where he will find inspiration and eagerly come back to Manhattan so that he can share it with his loyal customers.
Some businesses fascinate me because of their history, while others inspire me because of the unique work that they do or the niche they fill in society. Nica Trattoria captured my immediate attention due to the infectious spirit and big personality of Giuseppe Nicolosi. He wears many hats at Nica Trattoria as he is the owner, chef, waiter, and host extraordinaire. Though the restaurant is named after his partner, Dominique "Nica" Liana Russo, whom he met while she was studying at Columbia University and he was working on the Upper West Side, it is Giuseppe who greets every guest who walks through the restaurant's door. Along with referencing his partner, "Nica" means "small" in the Sicilian dialect, a perfect descriptor for a trattoria that seats about thirty guests. Giuseppe says that the name has allowed them to "with one stone, kill two pigeons. "Though Giuseppe is Sicilian, he designed the menu to be a "big hug to all of Italy. " This was not difficult, since Sicilian cuisine combines many different flavors, thanks to its diverse past. Giuseppe explained that before "Sicily annexed Italy" in 1896, it was home to a variety of cultures, causing there to be eleven distinct styles of cooking on the small island, including French, Moroccan, and Spanish. Giuseppe is proud of the number of Sicilian dishes on the menu, calling the culturally diverse taste combinations "an explosion on your palate. "Our conversation was interrupted when two families walked in to be seated for dinner. Giuseppe sprang into action, hugging the family that he knew well, clapping his hands, and addressing the entire room as "belli, " "bella, " and "bello. " One diner, who had clearly eaten at Nica Trattoria many times before, took out pictures of her children to show Giuseppe. He then proceeded to lower the lights for them and put on some light Italian classical music. He addressed both families at the same time by clinking a glass with a knife and opening the menu with a flourish and a whistle. It was like watching a thespian at work: Giuseppe creatively described the specials that included cauliflower tortino, French mussels, and fresh fava beans sauteed with sausage, while draping himself on people's shoulders and engaging in amusing conversation. The specialty of the house is the "Clouds from the sky. " When Giuseppe asked his audience if anyone knew what "Clouds from the sky" were, a well-seasoned young boy yelled out, "Gnocchi! " Giuseppe beamed and nodded, adding, "We need to put a seatbelt on you; they are so white and fluffy! " Giuseppe continued describing other dishes (like his grandma's style lasagna and buchetini with pine nuts and raisins) while waltzing around his personal stage. He then took everyone's order, his energy remaining at 100% through the entire interaction. He treated people like family, jokingly scolding them for changing their minds and declaring, "I'm coming for your order in one minute! Start to count! 60... 59... 58... "When Giuseppe returned from the kitchen, we spoke about his history. He would not reveal to Olivia, one of the Manhattan Sideways writers, exactly when he moved to New York, saying, "You wasn't born! " He preferred to focus on his mother (who taught him to cook) and the fact that he managed many restaurants in New York before opening Nica Trattoria in 2006. Giuseppe has refused to ever stop learning. He has taken countless online courses, and the wall next to the bar is riddled with his graduation certificates. He is now certified in nutrition, wine, molecular engineering, and other varied subjects. He admitted that when I walked into the restaurant, he had been taking a practice test for his newest endeavor. He confessed that he is always thinking, "How can I improve myself? "Giuseppe is extremely pleased with the reception that Nica Trattoria has received. He has many regular customers that consistently come from places outside of the city, as well as from around the world. He joked, "When an airplane lands, at least one person is thinking of Nica. " At this point, Angelo DiGangi, founder of the Community Advocacy Center and a regular at Nica, walked in and sat at his usual table. He turned to Giuseppe, not knowing I was there, and said, "This is the best spot in New York. " After I introduced myself, he said, "It's really a little bit of Sicily. " Giuseppe beamed at the compliment and moved behind the bar, agreeing that he likes to promote the Sicilian way of life, especially when it comes to the wine. He stocks a lot of Sicilian wine and is very interested in food pairings. He then pointed out that since Italy has 4, 000 years of history and the United States only 400, America has not quite had the time to figure out wine pairings. Italy is different: "Food and wine. That is Sicily. "I continued speaking with Angelo, who gushed about Giuseppe. "He does it with love, " he said, referring to both the food and the service. We had already witnessed the service, but it was clear that Giuseppe also gives his all when it comes to the food. Everything is purchased fresh each day. Angelo said that he started coming to Nica Trattoria after work for an espresso. "I fell in love with the man, " he smiled. And as Manhattan Sideways witnessed, it was hard not to fall in love with Giuseppe. Everyone gets the personal attention of a family member. As Tom, our photographer, put it dreamily, "I feel like I'm at home. "
There are twenty-four taps in use every night of the week at Bondurants, and when the bar hooks up a cask to the final, larger tap, there are twenty-five beverages available. Bondurants has become known for its rotating draft list that features both local brews as well as lesser-known international brands. The bar also prides itself on its small batch of bourbons made at local distilleries and its quirky cocktails with names that include "Fizzy Lifting Drink" and "Fernet Me Not. " There is also a full dinner menu, offering everything from traditional southern pulled pork to a fresh kale and collard salad, as well as a brunch menu that is beloved in the neighborhood. Specials rotate with the seasons and everything is sourced locally whenever possible. Caity Prunka, one of the owners of Bondurants, told me, "We make nearly every food item in-house, from grinding meat daily for burgers to smoking our own cheeses. "The bar is decorated to look like an upscale moonshiner's haven. Many customers link the name to the famous moonshiner family, though Jess, the bartender, smiled and suggested that the name comes from elsewhere. The walls are lined with shelves holding barrels, glasses and funnels with lettering that is reminiscent of Appalachia or the Wild West. It is a true urban saloon. Many of the decorations have stories behind them. For example, when I pointed out the manatee statue on the central bar column guzzling whiskey, Jess told me that one of the owners is from Florida, where manatees are considered the state marine mammal. "It's his piece of home, " she said with a smile.
I would not have guessed, walking through the room hung with sparkly princess dresses and pink china, that Judy Famigletti used to be a hockey mom. The owner of Let's Dress Up, an event center for little girls, told me that she has two sons who both played ice hockey through college. She would go with them to their different games and formed her own business while traveling: she designed sports-themed Christmas ornaments, which developed into a broader home accessories business. While she greatly enjoyed painting, sewing, and decorating, most of Judy's creative power was directed towards sports and practicality. She had no use for frills and sparkles. Once her sons were grown, Judy moved to the city and set off on a new path. She knew that she wanted to have her own business that involved home decorating and that she wanted to work with little girls, since she was already very familiar with the world of boys. She reminisced about how she used to walk around her neighborhood when she was little, asking people for old jewelry and wearing her big sister's dresses. Judy began designing the concept for Let's Dress Up, meanwhile getting in touch with her feminine side. Needing to be resourceful in her first few years, as she no longer had a house in which to hold Let's Dress Up, she decided to barter with a restaurant. They allowed her to use their private room in return for decorating the eatery for the holidays. In 2005, she began holding events in the restaurant's back room, decking it out with her old hats and dolls. Shortly thereafter, Judy was able to move into her own space on 85th Street, followed by another location in Connecticut in 2010 - in an effort to be closer to her son and three of her grandchildren. "My granddaughter practically lived in the store until Kindergarten, " she said with a smile. Her sons also helped her with the business. In 2015, tragedy struck. Because the traveling was starting to become a hassle, Judy decided to close the Connecticut location and focus on the 85th Street spot. Shortly after making that decision, however, a fire broke out, ruining all of her old hats and dolls, and causing the space to require a complete overhaul. When I had the pleasure of meeting Judy at the end of 2015, her feathers did not appear to be ruffled. She had just finished renovating and moving her Connecticut dress-up things into the store. "After the fire, I decorated it based on the new girl, " Judy shared, showing me a wall hung with Disney princess outfits. Instead of her classic, vintage items, she had bright, shiny new things, with an emphasis on Disney's Frozen. "Elsa has replaced Ariel as the favorite princess. "Judy was inspired by the number of little girls who stopped by when she was renovating to ask, "When are you going to open? " She began thinking of new ways to expand Let's Dress Up, beyond the tried-and-true birthday parties. When I visited, she had just started offering special "Classes in the Castle" that little girls could come to with a play date. During these classes, the girls do craft projects, play with the dress-up items and learn the rules of princess etiquette from "Lady Judith" - Judy's persona in her shop. Judy showed me an example of one craft, in which little girls dressed a Pinkalicious dress-up doll after listening to one of the stories in the series by Victoria and Elizabeth Kann. Judy has now expanded into a summer camp and occasionally holds seasonal workshops; however, she assured me that her main passion will always be the parties. Each of the parties is all-inclusive, beginning with a special tea party invitation that is sent to the guests. On the day of the event, the hosting family arrives fifteen minutes early so that the birthday girl can select her favorite dress and be ready to greet her guests. Once all of the girls are dressed in the various gowns, purses, tiaras, wands, and jewelry, they get glitter nail polish and sparkly, clear lip gloss. Judy then puts a pink screen up so that the girls can take group and individual photos. The various parts of the party last only fifteen minutes, which Judy feels is the perfect amount of time for short attention spans. When I inquired about the age range, Judy told me, "The most common age is five. I can tell when they outgrow it because they start asking why there's no prince. "Once the pictures are taken, all the little princesses sit down to their tea party, set with proper china. I asked if any of the china ever breaks and Judy shook her head vehemently, saying, "When they dress like princesses, they act like princesses. " Judy took all the tea party equipment out of pretty striped hatboxes, laying everything out on a doily. "The piece de resistance is the glass slipper, " she said, putting a tiny slipper at the top of the place setting. She also showed me the little party favors, composed of sparkly bracelets in a mesh bag. Judy has used the same party favor throughout the years "because it's the right one. "Each tea party is comprised of the same ingredients: a bagel with cream cheese or butter, strawberries, cheese sandwiches cut in the shape of a heart, and cupcakes or cake. After listing the different courses of the princess feast, Judy informed me that she used to do her parties for the Museum of the City of New York. They requested that she hold high-end birthday parties in their Dollhouse Room. Though the parties were fun and the room was beautiful, it was a massive undertaking. Today, Judy sticks to her spot on 85th Street. Judy has also allowed others to take over her space, as there is enough room for a long table. She is looking forward to the day when someone chooses to have a baby shower in her space. Until then, Judy already has a lot on her beautiful pink china plate, with as many as four parties in one day. On my way out the door, I saw a wall full of knightly coats of armor, often used by little boys who are invited to the parties (although there are times when the boys are perfectly content to wear the dresses). I asked if the girls could be knights, instead of princesses. Judy answered with a benevolent smile, "They can be anything they want to be. "
Meet Amanda Gagnon. Actress turned Anthrozoologist turned dog (and people) trainer. Towards the end of 2018, we had the pleasure of spending time with her at the newly renovated doggy digs on West 85th Street where green stable-style doors open into a wide open puppy playing space. About a decade prior to our meeting, Amanda was side-gigging her actress career and took a day job at a doggy daycare center where, she stated passionately: “I loved working with the dogs SOOO much that I never went on another audition. ” At that daycare, she found that many of the dogs had behavioral problems, which is where Amanda’s curiosity in dog training began. After diving in extensively, and unfortunately learning the reality of all the bad care and training out there, Amanda decided to take it on herself. She became an expert trainer and Masters student of Anthrozoology, studying the relationship between dogs and humans across different cultures. Through sharing her unique expertise with fellow dog owners in local parks, buzz spread and eventually led to a large clientele – including many well-known celebrities. As a dog trainer, one of Amanda’s dirtiest secrets is that she spends far less time training dogs than she does training people. When it comes to learning, it turns out humans and dogs are not so different after all. “When you get down to the nitty gritty, we learn in much the same way, it’s just that the rewards are different. For a dog, the reward is a treat, a ball, something tangible. For a person it’s feeling fulfilled, successful, happy. "Yes, Amanda trains dogs to become “good dogs, ” but she is primarily training PEOPLE on how better to fix problematic doggy behaviors, how to communicate better, how to accept the behaviors they cannot fix, and, ultimately, how to have better relationships with their dogs. Amanda expanded on her philosophy: “Typical dog training tends to be so focused on stopping problem behaviors and making your dog perfect, but it doesn’t have to be entirely about that. You should have a good relationship with your dog! You didn’t get your dog so he could sit in a corner and behave all day. You got your dog to go out and meet people and do things and have fun! …The main goal is to help improve your life with your dog. ” From Puppy Socials to Paint-Your-Pet night at her training center, Amanda is as serious about fun as she is behavior training, offering pups and their parents more than just a place to learn new techniques, but also to play and socialize with other like-minded creatures. While puppies are her specialty, Amanda trains dogs of all ages and carries, in store, the best products for the job. One of which are “the perfect dog treat. ” Amanda partnered with Sherri Davis - who came from a successful corporate career managing events for almost twenty years - but found that her traveling precluded her from having her own dog. That all changed in 2016, when Sherri gave her notice and rescued a puppy on February 29. She named her Leap - as in the leap year. Sherri told us that she became a happier person. "Everyone around me was happier, strangers on the street became my neighbors and all because of this little ball of fluff. " She went on to say, "I quickly became a helicopter dog mom and realized the treats on the market were filled with crazy ingredients. After almost a year of testing, focus groups, interviews with nutritionists and vets, I believe we developed the perfect dog treat. " Amuse Pooch launched in 2017, selling their single ingredient, human grade all chicken breast Chicken Chips or 100% USDA Beef Chips, which Amanda keeps stocked in her storefront. According to Amanda, “The idea behind the store is to carry the products that I love and have been recommending to people for years which are usually hard to find, and to keep them at a price point where people can actually afford to train their dogs. ”A true expert in her field, Amanda is welcoming, full of patience, and always able to draw on her vast experience and continuing study of the relationships between dogs and humans, in order to meet the needs of her clients.