The story of Vino Levantino began in 2008 when Haim Amit’s friend decided to open a wine importing and distributing business. Haim was working in the printing industry at the time, but it did not take much convincing to have him try something new. He was looking for something to do and was passionate about wine, so he joined his friend and began organizing tastings on commission.
Living on the Upper West Side, Haim was eager to find a space in his neighborhood so that he could expand into a restaurant. The place that Vino Levantino currently occupies used to be a simple to-go eatery with 1970s tiling, fluorescent bulbs, and a deli counter, but when he saw it, he was smitten. He found himself a partner who helped him completely renovate the old restaurant and lay down the foundations of Vino Levantino. Five months after opening in 2013, however, his partner left and he was on his own, with very little knowledge of the restaurant business. Haim considers himself quite fortunate that he had friends in the industry who helped him out, supported him, and gave him advice.
Vino Levantino originally opened as a wine bar with a small food menu. Very few people walked along 94th Street as it was, but of those who did, even fewer sat down at Haim’s restaurant. When Haim started listing specials outside, however, it attracted more people. He told me that he had an epiphany – “Oh, they want food!” He redesigned the menu to include many more choices, mostly recipes originating in Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel, a Middle Eastern region described by the word “Levant,” a French term referring to the rising of the sun in the East. Haim’s whole family is from the region of the Levantine. He is originally from Israel, but his grandparents were born in Turkey. While indicating the photographs of his family that decorate the restaurant’s walls, he told me that many of his original recipes came from his grandmother, though he has since expanded the menu with dishes that he has discovered on his frequent trips to Israel.
Perhaps Haim opened his restaurant with very little knowledge of the food industry, but he has more than compensated a few years later. He considers himself blessed with an amazing cook who “sometimes does things better than Grandmother!” Sitting down with Haim, as he opened a bottle of wine for the Manhattan Sideways team, his staff brought out amazing dish after dish. We indulged in smoked eggplant mousse, pickled beets, crispy leek patties, Haim’s grandmother’s recipe for Turkish meatballs, and a refreshing traditional sabich (an eggplant sandwich). When Haim brought out another eggplant dish, this time topped with ricotta and pomegranate, he told me that in Hebrew, eggplant is sometimes given a nickname that means “lifesaver.” Apparently, this is Haim's favorite, and something that that his mother always prepares for him when he returns to Israel. Just when we thought our feast had ended, a plate of falafel - that was honestly unlike anything that our team had ever tasted - was set down before us.
As for the wine, Haim used his connections from when he worked in the wine business, as well as his friend’s small company. Because of this, Vino Levantino’s wine selection is far from mainstream and includes some interesting vintages. The restaurant stocks wine from many countries, including bottles from the top wineries in his Israeli homeland such as Clos de Gat. Thanks to a customer’s request, Haim started a wine club. Once a month, the group meets to do a tasting with three whites and three reds. The next meeting after my visit was going to focus on how region affects taste – the group would be sampling three examples of the same grape, grown and processed in three different countries.
As if the food and drink were not enough, Haim also offers entertainment. In the spring and summer, Vino Levantino hosts live music featuring Mediterranean jazz and flamenco. Haim is visibly proud of what he has built from the ground up. “As an immigrant, you do a lot of things. You don’t have a choice. You have to make a living,” Haim shared. Vino Levantino, however, is something that Haim chose to do, and he calls it “the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I love it.”
The first Pio Pio location opened in 1994 in Queens, and since then, the restaurant has expanded to nine locations throughout the boroughs. Pio Pio is the place to go for chicken, as they have gained a strong reputation for their numerous Peruvian poultry dishes: the menu pairs the juicy meat with a variety of different sauces. The staff assured me that Juanita’s Chicken is especially popular, as are the combos that come with fries or salad, but it is Pio Pio's special green sauce that is the shining star.
Despite its limited size, one could spend an entire day in George Glazer Gallery and probably still not see everything that the space has to offer. There are fascinating items covering every nook and cranny, from the ceiling to the staircase to the bathroom. Though there are many pieces, as George says, it is “exciting clutter” rather than overwhelming clutter, and a true treasure hunt to look through. I kept finding surprises, such as a column made from the inside of a piano, a set of miniature fire tools, and strings of scorekeeping devices for games of pool dangling high above my head.After years as a corporate attorney, George embraced his love of collecting art and opened his gallery in 1993. He began on the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, on an upper floor, but recently moved north due to rising rents. As he pointed out, however, the internet has made it so that it is no longer as important to have a prestigious address. According to George, having a well-maintained website and good social media skills is far more crucial to running a successful antique business. He also assured me that he has a strong international client base that reaches out to him online.Even though he has moved away from Madison Avenue, George is very happy to have found his current side street location. He loves the ceilings, which remind him of the original definition of “gallery,” a room in an English country house with tall ceilings. There is a garden out back that George occasionally uses for storage and events. The biggest change he has encountered, however, is foot traffic. Now that he is on the ground floor, he has more people coming by to stare in the window and occasionally wander in.Though many pieces originate from outside the United States, such as a long Tibetan instrument mounted on the wall and the Venetian glass sconces made in the shape of clowns, most of the items in the gallery were purchased in the States. “There’s a remarkable amount of stuff here already,” George commented. He not only collects pieces: George is also somewhat of an artist in his own right in the way that he arranges things, along with his gallery manager, Jeffrey. For example, I saw an old employee time card grid covered in various antique ornaments. The result was a visually fascinating display. “We make our own little art,” George said with a smile, gesturing to a figure of Humpty Dumpty sitting on a bed of coral above the doorway.George’s passion is definitely globes. He has a vast collection, spanning from a rare celestial globe to an enormous thirty-six inch specimen. More generally, George’s taste leans towards items that have a practical or scientific purpose. He also collects judges’ gavels and has a fair number of door knockers. After observing as much as I could upfront, we proceeded to the back of the shop where George puts pieces that he is particularly fond of close to his desk so that he can appreciate them most of the day. My eye went right to a wooden satyr face and an odd madmen-esque desk sign that reads “MISS PARR.”After showing me the back room where he occasionally fixes things, and telling me about a few prop-rental projects he has taken part in, George became introspective. “This place is an alter ego,” he admitted. “It’s for sale, but it’s what I like.” He continued on to say that his very specific style is not for everyone, but at the same time, he is confident that his often minimalist, modern antiques can fit into a wide variety of design schemes. His gallery is purposefully set up so that customers can see how things might look in a lived-in space. “It’s more like a place where people live.” That is, if the people living there are slightly eccentric. “We have a lot of odd things,” George confessed laughing.
The old wall that now forms one side of the Hunter College High School used to be part of the Squadron A Armory, built in 1895. Though the armory was demolished in the 1960’s to make way for the school, the grand façade remains.Squadron A was an elite cavalry that was formed in 1884 when a social club, the New-York Hussars, decided to begin military drills. In 1889, the group joined the New York State National Guard. They raised money for the armory, which was built to imitate a Norman castle with square towers and turrets. In what is now the Hunter College High School playground, the armory contained a riding ring.Squadron A took part in many World War I and World War II battles during which, they were incorporated into the 101st Cavalry. After the world wars, the Squadron became a social organization, hosting polo games on Saturday nights, until New York State abandoned the armory and decided to build a school. In 1966, however, right before workers were about to demolish it, the Madison Avenue side of the armory was declared a landmark. The school complex, therefore, built around the wall.
My husband and I were constant visitors to Screme when they had a location near Lincoln Center. We were terribly disappointed when they had to close, but I was absolutely thrilled when I discovered them on 94th Street. We visited Screme in the middle of Passover, when the kosher ice scream shop had changed its flavors in honor of the holiday. There were two charoset flavors, maple matzo, and a special butter cookie ice cream that was made with potato flour instead of wheat. I stood there, with the Manhattan Sideways team, sampling flavor after flavor - including chocolate orange, coconut, figs and tequila, and almond cream - trying to decide which one to order in a cup. A very difficult decision, as each was outstanding.Zohan Sasson, the personable and enthusiastic owner, began making gelato in Israel, and then moved to New York in 2010. Everything at this tiny ice cream bar - that is only open in the warmer months - is homemade, with recipes carefully crafted by Screme. “It’s all natural ingredients, something you don’t find in America,” Zohan stated. There are no eggs in his recipes and it is made with whole milk rather than heavy cream. The only downside to Screme's gelato is that because it is made with only fresh ingredients, the ice cream expires quickly, but to Zohan this enables him to rotate the flavor selection frequently. “We usually have even more amazing flavors,” Zohan said proudly, but because of the holiday, he had a few less. I, however, can attest to the variety of choices, as my family always loved the cereal choices, the mojito, anything chocolate and the fresh fruit sorbets, that included strawberry, cantaloupe, blueberries and pineapple.“Our motto is quality,” Zohan insisted, and then declared, “We’re the Rolls Royce of gelato."