On a beautiful, tree-lined strip of 9th Street sits this old-world, white tablecloth, Northern Italian restaurant. The ambiance is warm, the staff professional, the dining room elegant and the food delicious. There are a few tables that spill out onto the sidewalk when the weather cooperates, but a larger outdoor space is available in the back garden where we chose to dine.
We love Buon Italia in Chelsea Market for all their fresh ingredients imported directly from Italy, and what better way to enjoy those ingredients than prepared in a traditional Italian-style panini? La Panineria offers just that since it was opened by Mario Pesce, whose uncle is the owner of Buon Italia over in Chelsea Market. La Panineria is a quaint, authentic little Italian deli that offers sandwiches, pastries and desserts, soups, cheese plates, beer, wine, soda, and coffee, in addition to their small selection of Italian groceries. The shop is small, with just a couple of barstools in the window and one central table for people to eat around, but the food is absolutely delicious. We sampled the Parma Panini — a perfect combination of prosciutto and robiola cheese, along with the Cornetto — the Italian’s take on the croissant filled with Nutella and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Needless to say our taste buds were satisfied as we chatted with Mario about the subtle but notable differences between “American” Nutella and authentic Italian Nutella (Italian Nutella is apparently slightly healthier! ).
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.
For a culinary adventure in fine Italian dining, I must recommend Il Mulino. Scoring a reservation is not easy, but I have been fortunate enough to sample their incredible food and twice been rolled out the door after a massive, rich meal. Opened in 1981 by two brothers who had a passion for preparing simple food with fresh ingredients and a desire to introduce New Yorkers to their hometown of Abruzzo, Italy, Fernando and Gino Masci began a journey that has resulted in continued accolades all these years.
Ribalta is all about bringing the customer a complete and genuine pizza experience. From the three separate ovens that produce slightly different crusts, to the flour that is milled in Italy, to their "master instructor" (who comes to us straight from Scuola Italiana Pizzaloll, a pizza school in Italy that was begun in 1988), the people behind this restaurant take their pizza very seriously. When three of us ate here, we shared a thin crust mushroom pizza with truffle oil splashed on top, their soup of the day - carrot and potato - and a rather large salad. We wished that we could have ordered several more pies to sample, but they were large and there was no way any of us could have finished one. What we did have, though, was terrific. And in my spare time, some day, wouldn't it be nice to enroll in their pizza training program? In the fall of 2014, Ribalta made the brilliant decision to bring mixologist Franklin “Stilo” Pimentel on board, and some of us from the Manhattan Sideways team were invited to the unveiling of his new cocktail menu. Ribalta was abuzz when we entered, and we were immediately enticed by what was going on behind the bar. Mixed at lightning speed and served with wide smiles and a laid back attitude, the colorful drinks looked both intriguing and imaginative. A perfect complement to Ribalta's pizzas, the inaugural selection was inspired by classic Italian cinema, with names such as “Il Postino, ” “It Started In Naples, ” and “La Dolce Vita. ” The entire evening evolved around this theme, with black and white Italian movies projected on the walls and a live band to set the mood. The combination of sweet tunes and strong cocktails soon gave way to a full dance floor, and we were thrilled to be there to celebrate the exciting kick-off of Ribalta’s new cocktail program.
On any given beautiful day, this restaurant is set up early in the morning and looks incredibly inviting. The windows are swung open and there are roses on every white linen table. Shut down temporarily by a fire in October 2011, Il Cantinori seems to have quickly bounced back and the people in the neighborhood feel like they “haven’t skipped a beat since they served their first Italian meal in 1983. ” Part of that is because, aside from adding a few mirrors on the walls, Il Cantinori was restored to its exact pre-conflagration state. The staff saw no reason to change the décor that customers had come to adore. Upon our arrival to Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis’ Italian restaurant, we were greeted by a waiter who had been with them for over seventeen years. We learned that he works ten shifts a week, since his customers “love him so much. ” The general manager, told us that he had no idea what they would do when the beloved waiter decided to use his well-deserved vacation days. The general manager had also been with the restaurant almost since its inception, stating that he stayed because of its attention to “consistency, quality, ambience, and service. ” He went on to say that Il Cantinori “is like a ‘home’” both for the people who work and dine – “We have been open since 1983 and there is still a line out the door on some evenings. ” Continuing on, the manager was pleased to announce, “And everything tastes exactly like it did in the 1980s. ”He was a terrific storyteller, seemingly unsurprised when I told him that I could listen to him all day. “I have had people tell me I should be a stand-up comedian, ” he said matter-of-factly. “A reality show of this place would be amazing, ” he suggested, as he had countless fun tales about his quirky Manhattan regulars -“I am from Brooklyn, ” he explained, “so I grew up normal. ”Despite the fact that Il Cantinori receives many high-profile clients - Andy Warhol and Basquiat were known to be regulars - the manager insisted that “97. 8 percent of the people who come here are really wonderful people - really nice. ” When he told me how the “crème de la crème of New York” continue to come to Il Cantinori, he made it clear that he did not just mean celebrities, but the real New Yorkers - the wonderful people who make this city what it is. There is a unique relationship between the staff and the network of New Yorkers who visit Il Cantinori. Everyone knows everyone: customers bring their favorite waiters Christmas presents, and on occasion, the staff has been known to walk the dogs of some of their guests. Il Cantinori will do anything for the people who dine on 10th Street. “It is really small town in a small city, ” the manager explained. “People barely consider us personnel. I tell everyone they are my friends, except they pay for dinner. ’”So much to write, and I have yet to mention the food. The staff of Il Cantinori treated us to a veritable feast. While sitting in the back room flooded with afternoon light, under a whimsical black chandelier made to look like a seppie (the cuttlefish whose ink colors black risotto), members of the Manhattan Sideways team tasted a delicate squash and zucchini salad, scrumptious paella, crispy roast potatoes, green beans and asparagus, and something that the waiter rightfully called “the best pasta, ” filled with peas and sausage and a light creamy sauce. The atmosphere was perfect: we were surrounded by Nicola’s elaborate and illustrious bouquets of dogwood and cherry blossoms, that the manager told us would open into devastatingly gorgeous blooms within a few days. Of Nicola he said rather seriously, “I do not know what her parents fed her as a child, but the creative part of her brain is amazing. ” Ending our spectacular meal with classic flourless chocolate cake we turned to one another and acknowledged that we now understood what the manager had boasted earlier: “People don’t come here to dine, they come here to eat. ” There is no doubt that at the end of the day, the beauty of Il Cantinori is that the food and staff are always superb.
The warmly painted walls inside Veselka envelop the room in folky florals and traditional Ukrainian symbols. Hanging from the ceiling are glowing milk glass globes that seem to replace the sun or moon depending on the time of day — and it could be any time at all, as Veselka is open for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, serving a smorgasbord of pierogis, bowls of borscht, and other expertly prepared comfort foods — Ukrainian and otherwise. Wlodymyr Darmochwal planted roots for Veselka when, as one of the founders of the neighborhood Plast organization (akin to the Ukrainian boy scouts, teaching survival skills and Ukrainian language), he was asked to create a weekend study program for the boys. In response, he opened a five-and-dime style counter at the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue where the boys could buy paper clips, cigarettes, lighters, and, notably, bowls of borscht and other basic Ukrainian foods. The business expanded into another storefront on East 9th Street a decade later. After Wlodymyr’s passing in 1972, it was taken over by his stepson, Tom Birchard, who was later joined by his son, Jason. Today, having worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, Jason has “done every single job possible here except cook the borscht. ”When Jason joined the team, one of his first projects was to find out, “How late can we stay open? ” It turns out the answer was “all night. ” As Tom and Jason once again prepare to expand the restaurant into an adjoining storefront on 9th Street, they are eager to continue serving the next generation the kind of traditional Ukrainian food that Wlodymyr would have had at his counter more than sixty years ago.
Shahrzad Ghajar, founder of the gift shop Spooksvilla + friends, takes curation to another level. She meets with each of the artists represented in the store and personally chooses every piece showcased on the walls and shelves. Shahrzad, herself, is a talented artist, and many of her designs are featured in the shop. By focusing on the artists, Spooksvilla ensures that everything for sale - from apparel to wall art - is one-of-a-kind. “We like to be representative of original people doing original things— be it art, products, charms or any other kind of cool item, " said Ethan Velez, manager of Spooksvilla. Despite the fact that multiple artists contribute to Spooksvilla, the store is not a hodgepodge of styles. Rather, the art is united in its bold, whimsical designs. A favorite is the label on the bottle of the rose bath salts - a piece of art in itself. A woman with purple skin and purple hair rides a pink dragon, holding, of course, roses.
Serving an interesting but decadent assortment of coffees, hot cakes, desserts, Japanese tapas, sandwiches, pasta, and more, Hi-Collar functions as many things. In the morning the atmosphere is subdued and relaxed like a coffee shop, as customers come to enjoy “kissaten” – a term to describe Japanese-style coffee shops. The lady we spoke to at Hi-Collar told us their coffee selection is extensive and that there are a variety of beans to choose from. Not only is there the opportunity to select the bean varietal, but one can also choose how the coffee is made as well: pour over, aeropress, or siphon—each method drawing out a distinct flavor. For the non-coffee drinker, there are teas and even a fruit milkshake. As the afternoon wears on and evening approaches, Hi-Collar becomes a bar complete with wine, sake, and beer. Inquiring about the name, we found that Hi-Collar is in fact a term that came to be during the Japanese Jazz Age, when Western culture infiltrated Japan and many men were seen wearing Western style high collars. The only seating available is at the long bar, and the beautiful flowers and lamps that hang from the ceiling add to the allure of this multifaceted nook on 10th.
The essence of Duo is in its name; it is two things at once. It is dulled colors and clean lines, minimalist in feel but simultaneously filled with warmth and softness. Both young and old, vibrant and calm, it is modern and fresh but brings to mind memories of simpler times: of handwritten letters, cozy Sunday afternoons and soft breezes over the wide open fields of northern Minnesota, the owners’ home state. Conflicting and complementing all at once, Duo is the product of two minds at work. Sisters Wendy and LaRae Kangas have created a perfect little fashion oasis that fits right in with the small town vibes of Manhattan’s East Village. Growing up, Wendy and LaRae pestered each other and fought over clothes, as siblings will do, but in 2008 they decided to open up a shop together. Today, they work with dealers and emerging independent designers throughout the country and pick all their clothing, accessories and home goods by hand, combining masculine and feminine styles with modern silhouettes and vintage traces to curate a timeless collection of quality, classic pieces. “It’s a very personal process, ” they told me, “and we put a lot of love into our shop and our collections. ” Nothing at Duo is mass-produced, and most of their merchandise is recycled. The sisters pour their hearts into the shop and work hard to stay true to themselves while keeping an eye toward the future, expanding their business into the world of e-commerce and social media. “It’s important to stay current and give the customers what they want, ” they said. They love what they do, and working with family makes it even more fun, according to the sisters. “It makes work smooth when you don’t have to verbalize what you’re thinking, ” they told me, “We just know what each other is thinking and it makes choosing products and daily operations much easier. ”Duo is a celebration of creative spirit. It is clear that the sisters revel in the one-of-a-kind individuality of each and every one of their customers who come to them looking for pieces that will express their own unique style. When explaining what they love about their work, they said, “It’s great to make a customer feel better when they walk out the door. ”