Toby Buggiani describes his 4-year-old wine bar and restaurant as “a tiny, quirky space” where he gets elbow-deep in pizza dough and fresh vegetables on the daily. It’s a quiet little nook in Greenpoint (159 Greenpoint Avenue) where the things he loves can thrive: inventive art, plant-based cuisine, natural wine, and an ethos rooted in simplicity.
Adelina’s is a fairly young restaurant, but its story began back in the 1980s between the street art scene in Greenwich village and a humble kitchen outside of Tuscany.
“Most of what we do here is rooted in my history and what I believe in. Art has a lot to do with that, actually,” Buggiani explains. “I was born in Italy, but we moved to New York City in the late 1970s for my father’s work as a painter, sculptor, and performance artist. I pretty much grew up in Greenwich village during the late 80s and early 90s surrounded by a lot of artists and musicians, friends of my parents and so on.”His connection to the arts has attracted a waitstaff of musicians and artists, and the restaurant space hosts everything from stand-up comedy and DJ parties to movie nights and pop-up brunches.
He points to a handful of art pieces on the wall in Adelina’s warm, understated dining room that mimics his family home in Italy, with rustic wooden tables and chairs, slim low-hanging light fixtures, and blue glass vases filled with fresh flowers provided by his wife’s florist business.
Hanging in between two exposed brick columns is a stone sculpture by Japanese artist Ken Hiratsuka, known for his 1980s guerrilla-style stone carvings that you’ve likely walked over on NYC sidewalks. A metal sculpture by Linus Coraggio, another Lower East Side street artist, looks down from its perch above the bar that Buggiani and his father, Paolo, hand-laid with blue and white tiles from Italy.
Paolo’s art can be seen throughout the restaurant; the walls showcase his Roman-style murals based on the bathhouses in Italy, and in a dimly-lit corner of the dining room, pieces from his private collection of salvaged 1980s street art from the Lower East Side are on display. Paolo’s motif of Icarus, rollerskating with a sail on fire, vaguely reminds me of Keith Haring‘s outlined figures, an observation that brings a chuckle from Buggiani.
“That’s actually a funny story. My dad was friends with Keith Haring,” he recounts. “They were all artists around the same time and knew each other.” But they weren’t just friends. Keith Haring, Paolo Buggiani, and Ken Hiratsuka are considered founding members of the Street Art Movement for their pioneering, often illegal, public artwork.
“Before my dad knew Keith, he saw his drawings in the subway and started collecting them because the MTA was just throwing them out. Keith was so happy my dad had saved them, he made a caricature of Icarus in his honor. I was actually able to open Adelina’s because my dad sold two Keith Haring pieces to help me fund the place.”
Buggiani credits his family for his desire to recreate the simple, incidentally vegetarian food that he was raised eating. “I always grew up loving vegetables a hell of a lot more than meat. It’s so easy to do with Italian food because it’s so vegetable-centric.” This approach is evident in Adelina’s menu, speckled with more vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options than your average Italian fare.
“I wasn’t a vegetarian when I was a kid,” Buggiani, a now 20+ year vegetarian, discloses. “But my dad always talked about the vegetables, like, ‘Oh, look at these tomatoes, they’re perfect right now!’ Or, ‘Look at this zucchini—this is the best time to be cooking this.’ And the more I learned about the whole process of meat and what goes into it, the less excited I got about it. So, it was a natural progression for me.”
As a kid growing up in the New York 80s hardcore movement, Buggiani and his twin brother Light (yes, Light) were immersed in the punk rock scene, which was politically-charged and often overlapped with the vegetarian and vegan crowd. “I was friends with a lot of people who were involved in that scene and it stuck for me. I was fully on board with vegetarianism and stayed with it. A lot of people have pushed me forward, like my brother who is vegan, and those ethics really stayed with me.”
Buggiani’s ethos of care and simplicity has manifested itself in his life and business model. The restaurant’s name and many of the recipes come from the matriarch of the family whose kitchen in Tuscany served as a culinary training ground during his trips back home. “I learned most of these recipes in the kitchen with my Grandmother, Adelina, my Aunt Rosanna, and my father, Paolo.”
Learning to cook was less of a technique and more like a relationship, heavy on taste, touch, sight, and smell. “It was like, ‘just a pinch of this’, and ‘when it looks right that’s when you know,’” he explains. But what makes for a great oral tradition adds a sharp learning curve moving from a personal kitchen into a professional one. After a crash course from a friendly chef, Buggiani was able to refine his style and invest in a well-trained staff, most of whom have been at Adelina’s from the beginning.
“That’s the beauty of small restaurants. Those relationships are very intimate. It’s not like a business that’s just churning things out. We make things on a very small scale, and the plus side is that we can really take care in what we’re doing—and not charge an arm or a leg for it!” he exclaims.
Ten barrels of wine line the back of the bar, and they’re probably the most tangible example of Buggiani’s passion. He began drinking wine (diluted with water) at the age of six, “which is totally legal in Italy,” he laughs. His love and understanding of wine developed within the Italian mindset that wine should be unfiltered, unfined, and enjoyed in the company of very good food and friends. “It has the added benefit of making you a little bit loopy, but that should never be its main function.”
The curated wine list at Adelina’s serves as a marker not just of taste, but of inclusion and environmental responsibility. Buggiani’s array of tapped wines are natural, mostly organic, and some are certified vegan. In fact, most natural wines like his are vegan by default because they’re unfiltered and don’t have any preservatives or additives. “It’s one of the reasons why we do wine on tap: it’s super sustainable because you’re getting rid of glass and cork, and it preserves much better. It’s a fairly unknown thing. More and more restaurants are doing it, but not many are doing it at this scale.”
Owning a small restaurant gives Buggiani the freedom to take risks and experiment with new flavors and techniques, like those used in vegan cuisine. He makes his own vegan cashew cheese in-house (that tastes superb on the Green Piece pizza fritta), and has begun hosting monthly pop-up brunches and dinners featuring famous vegan chefs in a partnership with US Veg Corp.
“It was clear to me what I was inspired to cook—food that reflected my beliefs,” Buggiani says thoughtfully. “I believe in doing the least amount of harm and the most amount of good while you’re here on this planet, and I wanted people to come in and sit down and maybe end up eating vegan or vegetarian without having noticed that they had.”
“When I opened this place, I wasn’t trying to make a business, I was trying to make something that I loved and believed in. That’s the ethos behind what I did,” he smiles, “and I’m still figuring it out.”