Da Umberto has never needed a sign outside its door. According to Vittorio Assante, the restaurant’s gregarious owner: “Either you knew about it or you didn’t.” Opened by his father, “the great restaurateur” Umberto Assante, Vittorio took over after his father passed away in 2004.
But Vittorio's immersion in the restaurant industry began far earlier. He vividly recalled being twelve years old and dressing in a proper suit and bow tie to help in the kitchen. Where some kids might have resented having to work, he thrived. “I loved it — I couldn’t get enough. I practically ran the place by the time I turned seventeen.”
Da Umberto is an elegant space that has remained largely unchanged since it opened its doors in the 1980s. With classic white tablecloths and dimmed lighting, the place oozes old-world charm, while a window at the back offers diners a peek into the bustling kitchen — a feature originated by Umberto, according to his son. Vittorio has preserved much of what endeared Da Umberto to the neighborhood in its heyday. The wine racks, the timeless Tuscan gold walls, and even some staff members have been fixtures in the restaurant for over thirty years.
Vittorio credits his dad with teaching him his recipes — many of which are still on the menu today, although these days the classics are mixed with his more modern creations. Regulars insist the main attraction is the table heaped full of antipasti, which dominates one side of the restaurant, along with the iconic dessert cart. The tiramisu remains a firm crowd pleaser amongst the distinguished clientele that has continued to visit through the decades. “Some things I don’t mess with.”
As he added his personal flair to the business, Vittorio continued to honor his father’s memory with a portrait that overlooks the dining room. “I have my father’s traditions mixed with my own evolving sensibility.” In fact, he attributes much of his continuing success to his father’s influence. “My dad taught me so much: those old school values of hard work and taking nothing for granted.”
Umberto chose to open on 17th Street for convenience, as his second wife’s parents owned the building, but the decision was a risky one. He was a pioneer in a neighborhood that was desolate. It was certainly not the kind of place that you would walk around, let alone have an elegant restaurant. Still, the restaurant prevailed “through dedication, grinding it out all the time, having the passion, and loving what you do even on the difficult days. We learned to just get back up and keep on fighting.”
It was the work ethic that his dad instilled in him that helped Vittorio ultimately achieve his dream of purchasing the building. Coming full circle, in 2015, Da Umberto cemented its place in the neighborhood. “My father would be happy. He would say, ‘Bravo Vittorio.’
Pepi Di Giacomo and Luca Di Pietry, veterans of the hospitality industry and wine and espresso intenditori, have taken a slice of the Abruzzo province and established it across Manhattan in their cafes. 18th Street, however, is where their Italian cuisine is most pronounced. It is as much about local produce and a dynamic menu as it is about traditional dishes. Depending on the time of day, there is espresso, a selection of pastries, an extensive wine list and a full Italian menu. An added surprise in the warmer months is their gelato booth, stationed right outside the restaurant. Perfect for us on the first day the temperature reached 80 degrees.
There is nothing contemporary about this white tablecloth Italian restaurant where a simple rose sits in a vase on each table. How refreshing to make a reservation and be able to dine in a relatively quiet room, enjoying classic Continental cuisine. Brothers David and Danny Ramirez have worked diligently to preserve the old-world feeling that began back in 1919 just a few doors down, where Gene opened the original restaurant. In 1923, he moved to No. 73 where, for a few years, he operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Through wars, recessions and more, Gene's has thrived.... and since 1979, when the brothers' father took it over, they have strived to maintain the same character and quality of food and decor - the original wood bar stands proudly right up front. It is obvious that people in the neighborhood appreciate their efforts, as David told me that some patrons have been dining here steadily for over thirty years. And why not, for the food has remained consistent all this time. The same chef now for thirty-two years has been cooking Clams Casino, their signature dish, a variety of pastas, veal parmesan, chicken piccata and many other classic entrees. Chatting with David one afternoon when the restaurant was quiet, he shared some childhood memories with me. Growing up in the family business served him well. He began as a bus boy, and was groomed to take over a few years ago when his father retired. One of the best stories, for me, though, was about a gentleman who has been eating lunch here for years, each week dining with a different guest, but always ordering the same thing - three bowls of their vichyssoise soup - a favorite of mine too.
Arthur Avenue in the Bronx had become a monthly excursion for me and friends while I lived in Westchester. We would shop for pasta, bread, mozzarella and olive oil and then wander over to Roberto Paciullo's' restaurant for lunch. In 2008, we changed our routine up a bit in order to try out his new restaurant, Zero Otto Nove. Needless to say, we were overjoyed with the atmosphere and, of course, the incredible food. Shortly after I moved back into the city, I read that Roberto had made the decision to open a restaurant in Manhattan. My husband and I were one of his first customers on 21st Street, and we have been coming back on a regular basis. In a simple statement, the food is excellent. The intensively hot brick oven cooks their thin crust pizzas to perfection. I adore the stacked eggplant and zucchini parmesan, the guileless arugula salad, any number of their pasta dishes, and I always order a side of the cauliflower with breadcrumbs. Combining the star attractions on each menu from his two successful restaurants in the Bronx, and designing an inviting space has made dining here a pleasure.
One weekend, my husband was kind enough to join me for some great eating, drinking, and walking. By the time we got to Sotto, we were already feeling quite stuffed, but what the heck, we indulged ourselves just a bit more. First, I must comment on the interior which began with a long marble topped bar upfront, and an open kitchen midway with a large brick oven. Farther back was the contemporary full dining area with a skylight. Quite an attractive place. Everything is meant to be shared at this "Social Italian" restaurant - so we did - Chickpea fries with sundried tomato pesto, crisp shoestring zucchini, and butternut squash cannelloni with melted parmesan across the top. All three were winners. I thought we were stopping there, but my husband was enticed by the pizzas so he ordered a small, thin crust pie with arugula and bresaola. The chef was very kind and surprised us by making the pie with one slice that had no meat on it for me. A lovely way to end our day together.
Yes, pasta takes center stage here, however, one cannot help but appreciate the setting as well. After the lovely staff greeted us as we walked in, we immediately noticed the sleek refrigerator/freezers right near the main entrance and the chairs gathered around the bar at the front. The kitchen is set up in the middle of the restaurant and the tables for dining are in the back. An interesting layout that seems to meld in perfectly with the menu, which is Italian, but has a definite Japanese slant with an emphasis on fresh fish and seafood.
Today, Shareen Mitchell is a bicoastal business owner, a sought-after entrepreneur with fourteen employees and a celebrity following. But no one would have guessed it eleven years ago, when Shareen was, in her own words, “broke, in debt, and selling at a flea market. ” That flea market booth soon grew into a 7, 000 square foot vintage warehouse in LA, and within a few years, Shareen had expanded to New York City. In spite of her success, Shareen’s location on West 17th Street is one of the best-kept secrets in Manhattan. Hidden away on the second floor of an old walk-up, the only sign of its existence is a red dress hanging from the fire escape, and sometimes—like the day I visited—not even that. Fortunately, a friendly employee from the salon next door pointed me in the right direction, but if I had not been in the know, I would have missed Shareen entirely. This secret location may seem like a bad business decision, but it is actually one of the keys to Shareen’s success. Her stores have always fostered a sense of exclusivity, and Shareen told me that her warehouse, especially in the early days, was not only the hottest vintage store in LA, but also a gathering place for a society of hip young women. “It was a crazy, fun secret, ” she told me. “No one knew where they were getting their vintage. ”Because there are no dressing rooms at Shareen—women change out in the open—both store locations have the same “no boys allowed” policy. But the resemblance between Shareen’s two stores ends there. While the LA warehouse is constantly buzzing with youthful energy, the New York location has a quiet, sophisticated feel that caters to a slightly older crowd. The reason for the difference, Shareen explained, is that by 2009, many of her original customers at the LA warehouse were now young professionals living in New York City. “They told me there was nothing like Shareen in the city, ” she said, “so I decided to test the waters. ” She opened a shop in a train station parking lot on Long Island, above an auto shop. “People like Ivanka Trump would get off the train, ” she told me, laughing, “and walk into this auto shop with their dogs and babies and everything. ” But after a while, the trip to Long Island became exhausting, and Shareen decided to open a location in the city. “It was kind of a secret, ” she said. “I had no money for a sign, so I put the red dress out on the fire escape. ”Though she did not put much effort into the store’s exterior, Shareen transformed the inside. The former apartment is now an elegant retail space, filled with ornate mirrors and old-fashioned couches, and yet it still manages to feel warm and welcoming. One large room is devoted entirely to wedding dresses, while another two rooms are filled with vintage clothing of all kinds, from evening gowns to 1950s prom dresses. When I asked Shareen about the bridal section, she told me that the store is in the process of transitioning. “A lot of my clients are starting to get married, ” she told me, “but they don’t want to look like traditional brides. ” These young women, many of whom get married in unorthodox venues—upstate farms, Brooklyn lofts, and Manhattan rooftops—are looking for unique dresses that will express their personalities. Over the past few years, the demand for these “indie wedding dresses” has grown so much that Shareen predicts that the store may soon be entirely bridal. “A year ago, we were half bridal and half vintage, and now it’s more like seventy-thirty, ” Shareen told me. “We’re double-booked on the weekends with brides. ”The New York location may be transitioning into bridal wear, but Shareen insisted that the store will not abandon its vintage roots. Along with her bridal collection, which is all under $2, 000, many of the wedding dresses for sale in the store are reworked vintage. Shareen added that her collection is designed to flatter all kinds of body types, to celebrate women rather than inhibit them. She always tells her brides, “I want to see you looking beautiful, not you in a beautiful dress. ”
The third time was the charm for Mohamed Jamal, who cycled through several business ventures before settling on the perfect one. He first opened a candy store on 17th Street in 1989, which he then transformed into a juice bar, before finally arriving at the space’s current iteration: Rainbow Falafel. Mohamed used the recipes he learned at his grandmother’s knee during his childhood in Syria to create a healthy, Middle Eastern menu. “We stick to all of the old-fashioned, classic foods and never change them, ” Mohamed affirmed, adding that the freshness and preservative-free nature of everything he serves is key to his philosophy. Offerings include the eponymous falafels served in veggie-filled sandwiches and platters, as well as stuffed vine leaves, spanakopita, hummus and other spreads. Impressively, most of the spices and special ingredients are imported, such as tahini from Lebanon, olives from Greece and mango juice from Egypt. To Mohamed, who runs Rainbow Falafel alongside his wife and son, the restaurant’s prosperity is easy to explain — “We are always here and we are always happy. ”
This little urban oasis provides families and individuals acupuncture treatment for a wide range of ailments – infertility, stress, and muscular and skeletal pain. Husband and wife founding team Jill Blakeway and Noah Rubinstein have been a functional medical and media presence in the world of acupuncture for years, publishing a number of books, appearing on Bravo, CBS, The Today Show, and lecturing on the benefits of Chinese medicine.