Mark Smith, the current owner of Nick and Toni's Cafe, as well as the original Nick and Toni's out in East Hampton, proudly told me, "The farm to table thing is not new to us." Ever since the Hampton's restaurant opened in 1988, the management has done their best to work with local farmers and fisherman in order to procure ingredients for their Mediterranean fare. The original owners, Jeff Salaway (known as "Nick" to his friends) and his wife Toni Ross, chose to expand to New York City in 1998.
Originally, the Cafe was known as Honest Foods and specialized in prepared dishes, served on cafe high tables or packaged for customers to take out. The food was Mediterranean, with a specifically North African feel. "There was something from each of the countries along the Mediterranean Sea," Mark explained. The owners quickly realized, however, that many of their customers in the city were the same people who dined with them on Long Island, and that they were searching for a similar concept in Manhattan. In 1999, Honest Foods became Nick and Toni's Cafe, a fraternal twin to the East Hampton restaurant.
Mark, who joined the company in 1995 - and has been in charge of much of the company since Nick's death in 2001 - says that the different eco-systems available to both restaurants have created a symbiotic relationship. The city markets draw on resources from Connecticut and New Jersey that often do not reach East Hampton, while the Hampton's have maritime markets that benefit both eateries. He is proud of the high quality dishes that they are able to create, thanks to this fresh produce: "We wouldn't serve anything in our restaurants that we wouldn't serve to our own family," he said. "We serve good product cooked properly in a relaxing atmosphere."
Juan Juarez, the chef behind both restaurants, loves the relationships he has been able to form with farmers, fishermen, and other providers through Nick and Toni's. I was able to see the master at work both in the kitchen downstairs and at the upstairs wood-burning oven. Juan shared his stories about his frequent trips to Union Square market as he effortlessly juggled clams, handmade pasta, and salmon, all on oblong metal platters. The kitchen is the same warm yellow color as the dining room upstairs, but without the frescoes depicting fruit trees. Between the color and the staff, it was evidently a very happy place to work: one employee, seeing us with our camera, joked, "Make sure you get lots of action shots! Juan loves action shots." The bartender, Christian, continued the air of joviality upstairs by taking a tiny plastic baby hand out of his pocket and using it to model with a freshly-made Manhattan.
I witnessed Juan expertly throw together a collection of dishes, including a tricolor salad with arugula, endive, and trevisano, a beet dish with English pea puree, and a chicken dish decorated with heirloom tomatoes. The cherry on the sundae, however, was watching him make pizzas. In less than two minutes, Juan decorated one disk of dough with salsiccia and tomatoes and another with pesto, shrimp, and goat cheese before popping them in the wood-burning oven. While waiting for them to bake, Juan told me that he used to watch his mother cook while growing up in Mexico. Shortly after moving to the United States at the age of fourteen, he told his mother "One day I want to be a cook like you." He got a job as a dishwasher at Saloon Restaurant, but knew that he did not want to wash dishes for a living. On a fateful day in 1988, someone at the restaurant went out on a limb and asked him to work in the kitchen. The rest is history. As the smell of cheese wafted out of the oven, Juan looked around at his brightly colored culinary home and said, "This is my life, and I would never want to change it: I love to cook."
Raised by parents from Sicily and Naples, Nick Mormando grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, exposed to authentic Italian food in a comfortable setting. "We were the house on the block that was always cooking something, " Nick explained. And he still is, having stayed true to his family recipes since opening the neighborhood-centric Polpette 71 restaurant in November of 1994. The front room is set up with white tablecloths, bottles of Pellegrino and photographs of "The Gates" by Christo and Jean-Claude, which decorated Central Park in 2005. On my first visit to Polpette 71, when it was still operating under its original name, Bello Giardino, Nick asked if I would like to sit outside in the garden. I looked up in surprise and eagerly replied, "Yes please. " Truly a hidden gem on West 71st, this quiet respite has become a favorite of mine over the last several years. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, small bottles of olive oil, and a massive mural by Hans de Castellane - depicting an Italian landscape with ocean views and coastal dwellings - brings a smile to my face every time I stroll in. Overhead, a weaving grape vine, grown out of a tiny root planted years ago from Nick's childhood garden, opens to pockets of natural light. The star of the culinary show has been the "Nicky" meatball. Voted the best in the boroughs by Dish du Jour Magazine in 2009, it has since made guest appearances on television shows, and inspired Nick's latest restaurant, Polpette, on Amsterdam Avenue. Other favorites include the penne alla vodka, the linguini and clams, which Nick fondly remembers his mother serving twice a month as he was growing up, and my personal favorite, the eggplant parmigiana. In addition to the food and décor, the ambiance is set by the strong relationships the restaurant has established. Without a doubt, this is a neighborhood haunt. Special occasions are commonly celebrated, guests are unafraid to dine alone, often engaging in comfortable conversations with the servers, and diners are referenced by names. "We are that kind of place, " Nick smiled, recalling a couple who had met in his restaurant, moved outside of New York, but returned to Polpette 71 for their son's first birthday.
Visitors to Lincoln Center will probably note the glorious emerald sloping lawn just to the north of the shady grove of trees. Many may not realize, however, that there is a high class Italian restaurant hidden underneath. Lincoln Ristorante, which opened in 2011, was designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, the same team that created the High Line park. One can discern many of the elements of the High Line in the restaurant: it blends into its surroundings by using the same sandy color scheme as the neighborhing buildings, and uses seasonal plant life, such as springtime cherry blossoms and dogwoods, to liven up the atmosphere. The entire building is eco-friendly. While speaking with Yale Frederiksen, the private dining manager, I learned that the same emphasis on ecological practices is used in the menu. “It’s all about respecting the environment, ” she told us. For example, Chef Jonathan Benno, who is a James Beard nominee and opened Per Se in Columbus Circle, tries to use every part of an animal when crafting his entrees. He also visits many farmers’ markets around the city, such as the ones at Tucker Square and Union Square. “He really respects the integrity of the product, ” Yale explained. In addition to looking out for the environment, Jonathan highlights the respected culinary traditions of Italy. Though he comes from a French cooking background and brings some of that discipline to his practices, Jonathan runs Lincoln as an Italian restaurant, with a different region of Italy honored every couple months. Yale also informed us that most of the staff are serious chefs, themselves. Ninety percent of the employees graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. The pastry chefs come from Bouchon and make most of the bread in-house, including the excellent focaccia. Yale listed different training programs available for the staff, such as workshops on how to shave truffles. Diners are given glimpses into each staff member's expertise: The kitchen is completely open, and so guests can see the staff at work each night. We were lucky enough to be invited down to the prep kitchen, which is where the cooks work until an hour before serving time. We witnessed pasta being rolled out in yellow ribbons, which were then sliced up and hand-piped with ricotta for the ricotta and pea ravioli. We also saw the big, round balls of dough that would become focaccia and a sheet of chocolate bing prepared for the Torrone Semifreddo, a partially frozen ice cream cake with honey meringue and a drizzled chocolate shell. Watching the staff at work was like watching a well-oiled machine. Returning upstairs, Yale showed us the seven-seat Negroni bar on the far side of the kitchen, another example of a quintessentially Italian touch. Guests can choose their own spirit, bitters, and vermouth in order to create their own concoction. There are even two barrel-aged Negronis available. For those who would prefer to pass on Negronis, there is a whole list of Italian takes on classic cocktails, called “Cocktail Creazioni”, as well as a large central column filled with Italian wines in a specially fitted cooler. “Our wine director is phenomenal, ” Yale told us, after listing Aaron von Rock’s credentials. As we were getting ready to leave, Yale gazed out the window and described to us how the space looked at night: twinkling lights on the sloped ceiling above, the glamorously lit plaza outside, and a warm, festive atmosphere. For both foodies and theatre lovers alike, Lincoln provides an unforgettable environment.
The most immediately striking aspect of the Leopard at des Artistes are the murals that covers its walls. Though beautiful in and of itself, its history is even more fascinating. The murals hearken back to the early twentieth century, when the now-residential building that houses the Leopard was predominantly an artists' residence, with an atelier in each apartment. The building, whose tenants included dancer Isadora Duncan and artists as stylistically diverse as Marcel DuChamp and Norman Rockwell, came to be known as the Hotel des Artistes. In 1920, when its cafeteria (none of the artists' apartments had kitchens) was renovated and made into a restaurant, resident artist Howard Chandler Christy was called on to paint the walls. His decision to paint scenes of nude women reclining caused a considerable stir when the newly christened Cafe des Artistes opened its doors shortly thereafter; waiters were forced to hang tablecloths over the restaurant's walls in order to placate more conservative customers. In 1975, Cafe des Artistes reopened under the management of violinist George Lang, and quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in New York. Today, the building houses residential condominiums, but the restaurant is still running, albeit under different management. The original Cafe des Artistes closed in 2009, and Gianfranco and Paula Sorrentino opened The Leopard in that space a little under three years later. The restaurant's new name references both its history and the Sorrentinos' other restaurant Il Gattopardo (Italian for 'leopard'). With the murals restored to their former glory, it continues to attract a diverse clientele with a long list of artists, tourists and celebrities, including - Gianfranco proudly mentioned - Bill Clinton, who held his sixty-fifth birthday party at the restaurant. Gianfranco was raised in Italy and his wife, Paula, in Brazil, though her parents originated in Veneto, Italy. The Sorrentino couple are well established in the restaurant world having together managed Sette restaurant at the MoMa for a number of years. They then opened the well-esteemed Il Gattopardo in 2001, followed by The Leopard, and, most recently, Mozzarella & Vino. Gianfranco's strong Italian heritage and experience in this business since childhood are complemented by Paula's background in design and modeling. In addition to her role as Creative Director, Paula also handles all of the company's design and IT work. An addition to the team in 2015, Executive Chef Michele Brogioni always aspired to be a chef growing up in Italy, having learned to cook in his father's restaurant from age eleven. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Europe, and then ventured to New York in pursuit of the challenge of making it in the big city. "The more I live in New York, the more I fall in love with New York, " he admitted. With his passion comes a refined set of traditional Italian cooking skills, allowing him to reconnect to recipes that date back thousands of years. Chef Michele was pleased to tell me that as he cooks, "smells trigger memories of my grandmother's kitchen, a tie that learned chefs of other origins cannot replicate. "Chef Michele and Gianfranco are constantly reworking the menu to reflect only the freshest, most seasonally appropriate cuisine. "If there is more fresh fish in the market, we will serve more fish, " stated Gianfranco. Chef Michele chimed in, "It is all about having a good ingredient. " Both nodding their heads in agreement, Chef Michele went on to say that "less is more, a masterpiece can be made out of pasta and olive oil. " But equally important to them is professionalism; management meetings occur weekly and an open dialogue is ongoing between the kitchen and the rest of the team. Downstairs in the kitchen, I watched the integration of both ideals - Chef Michele worked with the purest ingredients as his staff mindfully passed around orders interspersed with Italian dialect. The potato pancake with garlic, herbs, and white fennel glistened in a reduced black broth and the arancini balls sat perfectly spherical with their hardened breadcrumb exteriors and concealed gooey risotto. Then, speaking directly to my inner cravings, the Chef matched fresh Buratta with a dollop of fava bean puree, a drizzle of olive oil, and a generous sprinkle of truffle shavings. I was in heaven as I slowly savored each glorious bite. When it was show time, the waiters headed to their posts, being attentive but non-intrusive to the diners. Glasses of water seemed to replenish themselves, napkins were replaced before anyone realized they had fallen, and the wine continued to flow. Several of us sat down to dinner beginning with a selection of refreshing salads, followed by extraordinary pasta dishes including rigatoni with sauteed eggplant and aged ricotta. Seasonality was highlighted in our plate of grilled vegetables with an herbal-infused olive oil. Our scrumptious meal ended with the "Leopard Temptations" - a Nutella chocolate mousse served on hazelnut crunch and banana gelato, and the Rum Babba with cream and fresh berries. Having dined at Cafe Des Artistes over the years with family and friends, and saddened when it closed, I was thrilled when it was reopened by Gianfranco and Paula in 2011. I was one of their first guests, and have been back several times, but it was a very special treat being able to visit with the Manhattan Sideways team in 2015. Experiencing the kitchen with Chef Michele and his staff proved how efficiently run this operation is, and sitting down with the family, including the couple's charming little girl, Sophia, was the icing on the cake. With each visit, it is an absolute pleasure to rekindle old memories of days and people gone by.
As a rule, I am not as big a fan of dessert as I am of the pasta entrees in most Italian restaurants. That said, I could not stop myself from eating the "Nutellasagna" at Joanne Trattoria. However, even better than this warm oozing dessert with homemade flaky pastry dough, was listening to the fascinating story of Travis Jones, the executive chef and bakeshop master. Upon entering Joanne's, Travis greeted members of the Manhattan Sideways team and sat down with us in the outdoor courtyard, where trees twisted along the brick walls. We learned that Cynthia Germanotta, co-owner with her husband Joe, had done all of the decorating herself. If the name "Germanotta" sounds familiar, it is because the restaurant is owned by the parents of Stefani Germanotta, who is more commonly known as Lady Gaga. Travis explained that though some of Lady Gaga's fans, affectionately named "Little Monsters, " come and make lasting connections with other like-minded diners, many parties do not even realize where they are eating. Except for a "Lady Gaga" license plate tucked away in a corner, a few photos on the wall and some Gaga-themed drinks (including Gaga wine, only available at Joanne's), her stage persona does not play a large part in the restaurant. Rather, the main goal of the trattoria is to create a comfortable and warm environment. Joe named the restaurant after his sister, who died of Lupus at the age of nineteen, and so rather than focusing on Lady Gaga's celebrity, the restaurant emphasizes the closeness and strength of an Italian family. Travis's story of how he became Joanne's executive chef is unlike any story I have heard in the culinary world. Instead of working his way up the restaurant ladder, from busboy to chef, as the story often goes, Travis' adult life started in the U. S. Navy. He spent nine-and-a-half years as a weapons technician, during which time he traveled around the world and formed a lasting brotherhood with his fellow sailors. Travis told us that he has always loved preparing food, and would often cook for his Navy buddies. His affection for the culinary world began earlier still, in his childhood, when he would spend every summer with his grandparents on their farm in the Midwest, learning how to gather fresh eggs, make bread, go fishing, and hunt raccoons. His grandparents taught him that everything he hunted, fished, or harvested, he had to eat, which instilled in him the value of sustainability. His grandmother also taught him the love of baking, which has become his greatest passion. "Desserts are my thing, " he said, and added with a twinkle in his eye, "I also love to eat them. "After leaving the Navy, Travis went to Johnson and Wales culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island. "It was a culture shock, " Travis said, to go straight from the Navy to the restaurant world. His first summer internship he spent working under Chef Art Smith in Chicago. Later, when Travis was back at culinary school, he received a call from Chef Smith, who asked him to come and help out at a recently opened restaurant on 68th - Travis got permission to leave school, temporarily, and began working at Joanne's. He has never left since joining the team in 2012. Travis only interned at the front of the house for four weeks before the general manager left, and he took over. Travis continued his story by explaining that the main turning point in his career came during Hurricane Sandy, when very few of the staff was able to come in. Travis cooked in the kitchen with Joe while Cynthia hosted. They only had hamburgers in stock, and, thus, that was all they could make. Travis proved his talent and resourcefulness, and took over as executive chef not long after, which he said was surreal: "I was still a student, theoretically, interning, but running a restaurant that had been on the front page of the New York Times. " Travis still has a trimester left in order to receive his degree, which he is finishing online. "Just because I'm already an executive chef doesn't mean I don't want my Bachelor's Degree, " he assured us, adding that he would be one of only two people in his family to have completed a college education. He is working towards degrees in Food Service Management and Event and Entertainment Management. Travis immediately got to work improving the menu at Joanne's. He added fresh, handmade pasta, "which is part of the reason for my arthritis, " he joked, and made the "ginormous" Germanotta family meatballs a little smaller and more manageable. He also added a short rib ragout, which some of us had the pleasure of sampling. Travis whipped it up in the open kitchen, dipping into the huge vat of red sauce, made using a secret Germanotta family recipe. He explained that the ragout sits for a couple of hours in a red wine sauce with garlic, carrots, oregano, and other fresh ingredients. Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, ate it with gusto and described it as being "like a warm hug from an Italian grandmother. "Travis then brought out a tray of desserts, and explained that once he got the savory food in order, he started "Joanne's Bakeshop. " Along with the Nutellasagna, we tasted a homemade tiramisu and a delectable almond cake with fresh raspberries. I then asked if Travis's grandmother, the woman who is credited for his love for cooking, had a chance to visit the restaurant before she passed away. Though the answer was sadly no, he noted, "I shipped her cakes and pies whenever I could. "
On a sunny afternoon, Arte Cafe's front patio is completely filled with diners enjoying the sidewalk space, but the inside is just as beautiful and airy. With Tuscan decorations and arches leading into different dining areas, the cafe is a little pocket of Italy in the big city. The menu includes Italian classics, complete with fresh artisanal pasta.
An inviting gourmet deli for both to-go bites and sit-down fare, Cafe Fresco offers a salad bar, an omelet station, sandwich fixings, "legendary bagels, " and many other options for all sorts of cravings. One of their featured dishes, the eggplant Milanese, is made with oven-roasted eggplants, pesto ricotta and fresh mozzarella. Open windows give each seat a full view of either First Avenue or St. Catherine's Park. When I stopped in with a fellow Sideways member on a brutally humid summer day, we watched the children swinging higher and higher outside at the park as we hid inside from the heat, refueled ourselves, and recharged our cell phones.
Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that opened in 1934, has not forgotten its origins as a home to the ewes and rams that grazed in Sheep Meadow. Images of sheep are everywhere - carved into the fireplace, decorating the menu, holding up the table in the lobby. In 2010, the building ceased to be a restaurant for a brief stint, serving instead as a visitor's center and gift shop. After being taken over by partners, Jim Caiola and David Salama, and a lengthy renovation, the Tavern made a culinary return with a rustic and seasonal menu. I have eaten here on a number of occasions since its debut in the spring of 2014, but strolling in and out of the various rooms with members of the Manhattan Sideways team was a whole different experience. None had ever been, and I was amused and pleased with their reactions to this iconic Central Park locale. The Tavern contains three main areas. In the front dining room, the vast space resembles a summer hunting lodge. A large, circular bar takes up the center with a rotating carousel of gilded horses above it, and mammoth roof beams run along the ceiling like an old mead hall. Separated from the outdoors by a large glass wall, the second dining area is far more modern with creams, ivories and a collection of glass chandeliers. And though it was a hot day, a few brave souls ate outside in the exterior dining space, under umbrellas and large, mid-century street-lamps. The other side of the building features a beer garden with its own menu of simple bar fare. Finally, for the thousands of people who jog, bike or are simply wandering in the park, there is now a delightful little take-away window called "Green-to-Go. " It offers both a breakfast and lunch menu, and tables to sit down, relax and enjoy either a cup of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal, or a variety of wraps and salads in the afternoon. If nothing else, it is a terrific spot to watch both tourists and New Yorkers passing by.
Delle Celle features many respected brands of Italian-fabricated women's clothing, as well as its own line of garments. The pieces are full of color and pattern, with an abundance of styles - there are very few repeats. Walking in, one is greeted by a friendly salesperson, happy to answer any questions. Face-to-face shopping is a vital component of this business, void of an online site. And the integrity and authenticity of the pieces certainly warrants this tactile form of transaction.
"You are now in Bedford Falls, " a sign read in this 67th Street bar, named after a location referenced in the classic movie, "It's a Wonderful Life. " With a bounty of liquor, an arcade golf game, and sports on all the televisions, this bar is the ultimate man cave. A food menu is also offered, including the ever-popular Bedford burger and a nice brunch assortment for the weekend. When I ventured in on a Wednesday night, men in good spirits, many of whom were regulars, occupied the main bar. A more private room featured cushy leather for quieter comfort, and the backroom was complete with high-legged seating and a wooden-booth. Tables appeared to be repurposed beer boxes, and the place was otherwise furnished with whiskey barrels, brick walls, and light alternative music. And through an intriguing walkway, I found myself in the splendid beer garden.