A specialty jalapeno sauce graces every table in this white subway tile-walled eatery, completed by the festive image of a joyous woman. In the background plays light Cuban music, and on the hot plates sit appetizing eats fresh from the stove. The homemade empanadas, stuffed cornhusks, and crunchy croquettes bring strong fumes to the air, recalling their Cuban roots.
Since opening the first Sophie's Cuban Cuisine in June of 1997, the Luna family has adhered to high quality standards, largely imparted by Master Cuban Chef Eduardo Morgado, stepfather to Sophie. "Made today, gone today - we do not reheat things here," explained manager Mike Mendoza, who is also husband to Sophie. He told me that he recently left his job on Wall Street to join the family business and opened this restaurant on 68th in 2015. It was nice to learn that though growing in size throughout the city, Sophie's retains its intimacy by being largely family-run.
As our readers know, we love the term "hidden gem" at Manhattan Sideways, but it is rare that we find a place that fits the term as well as David Segal Violins. Some members of the Manhattan Sideways team and I were walking along 68th Street when one of the summer interns pointed out that a musician was playing a violin behind a semi-subterranean window. Glancing further, we noticed a man crafting a violin in the adjoining window. Always the inquisitive one, I attempted to find something to indicate what was happening inside this building, but it was not until we went to our cell phones and Googled "violin shop on West 68th, " that we discovered the history of the half-hidden musical grotto. I then called the phone number that came up and introduced myself to David Segal, a violinmaker and dealer who has been servicing the musicians of Lincoln Center and the greater New York area since 1975. He kindly buzzed us in, and it was then that we were able to truly appreciate his magical workshop and showroom. While showing us around, David explained that he had been on 54th and 62nd Street before moving to his present location. "This is the last time: the next time they will move me, " he said with a wry grin. He had an excellent sense of humor, as well as a clear sense of wonder and joy that came through in our time spent together. As I gazed in wonder at a young apprentice who was busy at his desk working with both wood and strings, I commented to the others that this was reminiscent of Geppetto's puppet shop. David laughed, and began to share his story. Originally from Israel, he left for Italy in 1969 to study the art of violin-making. The art is in his blood: his father also made violins, and David showed me the wall of photographs of musicians who use violins crafted either by himself or his dad. After completing his degree in 1972, David moved to New York. Since then, he has become firmly entrenched on the Upper West Side. "I don't have a visa to go to the East Side, " he joked. Through his work, he met his wife, who played with the New York Philharmonic for forty years. She came in to buy a "bow, " and left with a "beau. "Turning to his studio door, I saw a picture of his adorable young grandson, and learned that he has a very artistic family, with his son working as a conductor and his daughter as a visual artist. David himself also dabbles in visual arts: He pointed out a mobile hanging above the front room, crafted from violin bows and bridges. He makes them for his grandchildren, he told us. When I asked David about the charming small violins, he explained that each size is for a different age group. Beaming, he held up the tiniest one in the room, and declared "I am taking this one home with me tonight. My two year old grandson will be arriving in New York shortly. "Right before we left, David opened a vault in the front room and pulled out a true Stradivarius, crafted in 1737, which must have been worth a fortune. He says, however, that all that matters with a violin is the sound. Musicians, including his wife, have often traded antique, beautifully made violins for newer, cheaper ones with better sound. "We want to make a violin that sounds good, " he stated simply. "If it sounds great, it doesn't matter if it is not so beautiful. " As he spoke to us, a customer was testing violins in the front room. He said that clients can take an hour or two to test out the instruments, and may even take them home for a week's trial period. As I heard the strains of tunes come from the customer's test subject, I asked David if he still loves hearing the musicians play, or if it has become background noise to him after so many years. He smiled and said, "I listen to music with great pleasure all the time... but I only listen to classical! "
In a neighborhood full of hospitals and health centers, St. Catherine looms large as a bastion of faith. Founded in 1897, the church is run by the Dominican Friars and specifically aims to give spiritual support to the medical community. Outside, the church is outfitted in red brick, and inside, Gothic brick arches cut into the walls and line the ceiling, creating pockets for the many impressive shrines. The stained glass windows, modern in appearance, pick up luminescent colors, and above the high alter, a magnificent design is made up of blues, yellows, and reds. In August of 2015, the Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena was established, forming a connection between the two churches.
Bel Ami perfectly combines the best parts of New York and Paris. The food is authentically French: shelves are lined with glistening pastries and tiny French bread sandwiches. Macarons behind glass are mirrored by fun macaron key chains at the register. The walls are decorated with bookshelves filled with antique books and expressionist art. Springtime flower arrangements live between the windowpane and the grate. The spirit of New York creeps in, however, through the exposed brick walls and the service; though I arrived during lunchtime, the small cafe was cranking through orders at record speed to match the pace of the busy Manhattanites coming in for coffee and sandwiches. I admired the assortment of cookies, iced to look like bumble bees and smiling piglets, but decided to try one of their small zucchini and goat cheese French bread rolls. The ingredients were fresh and ingeniously simple, and it was exactly the right serving size for lunch, another aspect of French culture that Bel Ami has cleverly brought to the Upper East Side.
It may come as a shock to discover that behind the scenes of this classic French restaurant is a born and bred Italian. To Gino Barbuti, however, the neighboring country’s cuisine comes naturally to him after years of working in high-end French settings. After he and his family left their small hometown of Bardi in Parma, Italy, and migrated to the UK, his first exposure to the food industry was an apprenticeship at Le Coq d’Or in London. His brother, meanwhile, followed his heritage and worked at Italian restaurants. When Gino made his way to New York, he jumped from one prestigious French eatery to the next, until the brothers opened their own Italian place on Long Island. As Gino likes to say, “Back in the 1960s, there was only French and Italian places here, ” so it is little wonder that he went on to create establishments of both kinds. It was not until 2004 that a former colleague of his informed him that La Boite en Bois was looking for a new owner. Gino, who had just sold his restaurants on Long Island and was looking for his next venture, accepted the offer immediately. “It was the cutest, quaintest place. Exactly the kind of farmhouse style my dad is drawn to, ” explained Angela, one of Gino’s four daughters. Though he tweaked the menu to integrate his personal flair, Gino left many of the favorites unchanged. He understood that La Boite en Bois already had an established following –largely consisting of theater-goers, ballet, and opera patrons who stopped by for an elegant, pre-show meal begore heading to Lincoln Center. To this day, he offers the same pâté made in-house, steak au poivre, and an unforgettable, honey mustard-glazed salmon. Nevertheless, Gino did incorporate select dishes such as a house made ravioli “to pay homage to his Italian roots” and added French fries and a burger to the menu to appeal to his American audience. On occasion, Gino cannot help but be bemused that for all of his training in haute cuisine, the burger is among his top sellers. “People want comfort food, now more than ever” – and La Boite en Bois is happy to provide, regardless of the dish’s country of origin.
Since 1907, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has continued to build upon progressive Jewish thought in adherence to the values of its founder, Rabbi Stephen Wise, who stressed the importance of offering a free pulpit. In addition to today's Senior Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch’s sermons on matters concerning the State of Israel, amongst other topics, and the traditional services held Friday nights and Saturday mornings, the congregation is a “singing community” in line with the aspirations of Cantor Daniel Singer. A professional five piece band livens up Shabbat services. Since 1988, the temple has performed nationally renowned Purim Spiels written and directed by Norman Roth, including Megillah Musicals playing on Mamma Mia, Grease, and Glee. The Spiels have gained an international reputation and are now performed in synagogues around the globe. For members outside its community, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has been performing mitzvahs for decades. Every Saturday morning volunteers offer food packages to those in need. Most inspiring to me, the synagogue voluntarily began running the Next Step Men’s Shelter in 1984 (after Mayor Ed Koch spoke at the synagogue), housing ten selected men for the majority of the year, providing them warm meals and a safe place to sleep at night. In accordance with the play-based learning philosophy, children of the Balfour Brickner Early Childhood Center even decided to tie-dye some bed sheets in an effort to make the space homier. According to director of communications, Samantha Kessler, while other synagogues in the city are struggling to survive, Stephen Wise continues to grow. She was quite proud to expand on the appeal of the Rabbi's stimulating sermons, the emphasis on music, strong engagement in public outreach, and a continued focus on education and religion. It is no wonder that the congregation supports the synagogue's efforts.