When I paused outside Mozzarella & Vino one humid weekday morning, it was the enticing scent of garlic that led me immediately down a few steps and into Gianfranco Sorrentino's second Italian restaurant on West 54th.
A few weeks later, I returned to Mozzarella & Vino with other members of the Manhattan Sideways team to have a conversation with owner Mr. Sorrentino and his chef Vito Gnazzo while also photographing the attractive space and, of course, the food. The two men have been working together since 1991. Vito is from Salerno, only half an hour from Mr. Sorrentino's native Naples "if you drive Italian style." At Mozzarella & Vino, they are joined by manager George Coteanu, who spends "24 hours a day" at the restaurant making sure that everything runs smoothly.
The attention to detail has paid off - the restaurant is thriving and well established only three years after its inception. To be sure, Mozzarella & Vino has been helped along by the reputation of its predecessor. Mr. Sorrentino opened his first restaurant, Il Gattopardo, in this space on September 18, 2001, exactly one week after 9/11. In a city reeling from the devastating terrorist attack, "no car passed by for hours - no one was out walking," recalls Mr. Sorrentino; business was understandably slow. But the city, ever resilient, recovered its vitality. By 2011, business was booming, and Mr. Sorrentino decided to expand. When a larger space became available just a few doors down, Il Gattopardo moved to its new location, and he chose to open his latest enoteca concept Mozzarella & Vino.
Though Mozzarella & Vino and Il Gattopardo share Chef Vito Gnazzo, as well as a commitment to importing the vast majority of their ingredients directly from Italy, the new restaurant is less formal than its predecessor. Accordingly, the crowd is a younger one. The decor is simple, with white brick walls, warm lighting and a bar at the front of the house. Its specialty is small plates that include mozzarella and Italian meats as well as salads, pastas of the day and paninis. Everything is meant to be paired with wine from their list of over eighty different bottles and two dozen additional options by the glass - each highlighting independent Italian winemakers.
Standing at the back of Mozzarella & Vino, which features a glass-enclosed patio, we sampled six different types of mozzarella, in every shape and size imaginable - from tiny balls to a 2.5 kilo Treccione (braid) big enough to serve eight. The coup de gr̢ce was a cheese plate with cacciovalo, buffalo butter, smoked buffalo mozzarella, and an incredible ricotta. Receiving a quick education on the different kinds of cheese that Italy produces, we found the mozzarella to be tangy, with a salty, slightly sour taste, and the ricotta far smoother and creamier than to what any of us were accustomed. A small platter of grilled zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and basil, as well as a light citrus salad, served as delicious counterpoints to the different cheeses.
Yes, the food was remarkable; however, having a conversation with Mr. Sorrentino about tradition was equally appealing. "We have American chefs like Mario Batali to thank for making Italian food sexy - but they didn't grow up with it," he said. He and his chef, Vito, as native Italians, are able to bring a sense of heritage to the food they serve, which is clearly important to him. Along with his wife Paula, Mr. Sorrentino closely oversees all three of his restaurants bouncing from one to the next several times per day. In true Italian form, he owns a Vespa, so even The Leopard at Des Artistes on West 67th Street is only a short ride away.
With three popular restaurants all on the side streets of New York, Gianfranco is uniquely positioned to appreciate the city and its inhabitants. Despite his strong ties to Italy, its heritage and cuisine, he told me that he would not trade New York for any other city. "It's the center of the world," he said, "things happen here first."
It is always refreshing to find an oasis among midtown's concrete jungle. Enclosed within an atrium, with soaring glass ceilings and scattered seating throughout, the Sculpture Garden has allowed New Yorkers to feel separate from both the offices attached to it and the street outside. The roof of the atrium functions as a giant skylight, filtering sunbeams down onto the imposing bamboo trees planted at various intervals and the impressive artwork that rotates on a regular basis. A favorite stopping point for me, since they opened in 2010, has been Obikà, a small cafe that specializes in phenomenal fresh mozzarella flown in from Italy.
The sign above the entrance to PizzArte promises 'Cucina Napoletana', making it clear what is at the heart of the establishment: Naples. The enormous red pizza oven found inside is imported from Naples, and everyone working at the restaurant hails from there too, making for an especially authentic experience. The space is narrow and has a distinctly modern feel to it. As the name suggests, the restaurant doubles as a gallery for contemporary art by Neapolitan artists. The idea of using a meal as an opportunity to engage with art is refreshing, and the perfect pizza dough feels like an artwork in itself.
The building that houses Flute Bar & Lounge was once home to a speakeasy called Club Intime, run by the notorious chorus girl Texas Guinan. Today, Flute's owners pay homage to their predecessors with 1920's music and drinks served in mugs, as was the custom during Prohibition. The underground champagne bar has no windows and dim lighting, and its seating - plush sofas and ottomans clustered around low tables - give it a far more intimate feel than a traditional lounge.With countless brands from which to choose, champagne may be the focus, but Flute also serves a wide variety of cocktails - many of which feature champagne - and small accompanying food plates. Texas Guinan once called the speakeasy business an "essential and basic industry." Though her Club Intime was shut down after only six months in business, she would certainly be heartened that its spirit lives on in Flute today - especially on the last Saturday of each month when Wit's End celebrates jazz music and dancing with an assortment of talent.
The Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission.The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner.I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances." Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth.The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life." And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.