“With this finger I tasted the world.” Massimiliano Nanni raises his right pointer finger while recounting his childhood in Rimini, Italy, where his mother, Lella Alimentari’s namesake, ran a popular restaurant. “I would sit at the counter of the kitchen and I taste the papaya, I taste the kiwi—nobody have a kiwi in Italy, I come from a place with the truffle—I eat the frog, I eat the eel, I eat the snake. We want to try everything. This was my childhood.”
Nanni, known to friends as Chicco, met his wife, Paola Cittero while working on an Italian aquatic TV show. He was a diving assistant, she was the production designer. This is a funny detail given the strong Life Aquatic vibe in the café they’ve created. Between Nanni’s normally red cap (today it is pink) and quirky demeanor, Cittero’s blue jump suit and the vintage toys and uneven hand stamped signage, I can practically hear Seau Jorge strumming Bowie tunes.
Nanni’s been in the restaurant biz since 1995 when he opened Piadina in the West Village. In the intervening years he’s opened many other restaurants, including the popular wood fired pizza superstar Saraghina in Bed Stuy, which Cittero designed and which feels like a big brother to the more intimate Lella (325 Manhattan Ave.). Nanni left Saraghina in 2011 and opened a now shuttered seafood restaurant before hopping over to Williamsburg. The location was intentional, just across the street from PS 132 where Nanni and Cittero’s children go to school. After school the kids hang out among the locals, many of whom are on laptops. “We don’t like to say we are chefs,” says Cittero, “we just cook. We’re cooking. We are both food lovers. I’m a production designer, an artist, we consider this our cafeteria. We are making food we usually make at home, that we give out to our kids.”
Lella’s specialty is the piadina, a sort of Italian quesadilla that’s popular in Nanni’s home town. Every day he makes the piadina bread, then stuffs it with ingredients like roasted seasonal veggies and stracchino, a luscious unripened Italian cheese. Nothing is fussy, just fresh ingredients prepared beautifully; a poached egg over cauliflower, bacon and chickpeas. Potato leek soup with speck. Burrata with roasted beets and carrots. They also have homemade pastries, quiche and salads, most often topped with a poached egg.
Lella’s vibe is laid back cool and playful. It is European-feeling and whimsical without a hint of pretension. Toy trucks huddle near a vase of yellow tulips. A battered metal crock overflows with potatoes. The tin ceilings are whitewashed, walls are lined with Italian goods, books, an old scale. Art magazines and vintage action figures are scattered about. Lella is warm and chummy, just four sun-drenched booths and a communal table.
One of my favorite design elements is the handy take-away window. “We sell the coffee by the window and we get all the people with dogs.” Says, Cittero. “Bike. Stroller. For me it was like decoration, but we get the dog community.”
Nanni is already dreaming of his next venture: to host a program training former convicts as pizzaiolos. He’s eyeing a location in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. “The Pizzaiolo was teaching to the penitentiary in my town. These men, what they went through, most of the time it’s really traumatic. They need to be working, working, working. They will learn fast. It will help them.”
“Art, food and a lot of love.” Cittero says as she glances at Nanni who is in the kitchen dancing to The Human League. “We keep busy.” She smiles and looks out the window. “And just look at this beautiful light.”
No frills. Old school. Neighborhood staple. Hole in the wall. That’s how devotees of this remnant of the old Williamsburg refer to Savino’s Quality Pasta. If you’ve been there you go back. Fresh pasta, super cheap.
You won’t find any reclaimed wood or floor to ceiling subway tile in Savino’s storefront, no Edison bulbs or communal tables. Just earnest, camera shy Cono Savino, his mom and dad: Josephine and Frank, a half dozen varieties of freshly made pasta and ravioli, a few cheeses, some homemade sauces, and an assortment of Italian pantry items.
Bamonte’s Restaurant is not only the oldest restaurant in North Brooklyn; founded in 1900 by Italian immigrant Pasquale Bamonte, the restaurant claims to be the oldest Italian eatery in all of New York city. It was founded at a time when southern Greenpoint was a mecca for Italian immigrants. The restaurant has been run by the Bamonte family for four generations. It’s off the main drag, so you may have a hard time finding where the restaurant’s located—at 32 Withers Street—but it’s definitely worth the trip. Continue reading →
If you have lived in North Brooklyn for any amount of time and have never seen the Giglio—you don’t know what you are missing. This celebration of Italian culture is one of the most awesome pieces of street theater you will ever witness.Continue reading →
One of the things I did while researching my local history book Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past was talking to as many Greenpoint seniors as I could. They have repeatedly told me a story I cannot document, but must be true—Greenpoint hosted an Italian prisoner of war camp during the second World War.
Other Greenpoint amateur historians doubt the existence of the camp and say simply, “Prove it.” I can’t, although I have searched extensively. If, on the one hand I cannot document the existence of the camp, then, on the other hand we cannot dismiss the memories of a dozen older Greenpointers either.
The camp was at Dupont Street and Franklin where the Greenpoint Playground is today. Old timers recall guards, a wire fence and barges where the hundreds of Italians lived. One of the seniors commented to me, “They may have been prisoners, but they had a million dollar view of the New York skyline.” Continue reading →
“Sotto casa” is an Italian idiom that translates roughly to something like, “below the house” or “on your doorstep”; in English the closest phrase we have might be something like “just around the corner.” Italians Laura and Luca Arrigoni opened their first Sottocasa pizza restaurant in Boerum Hill quite literally “below the house”—it’s situated on the ground floor of an old residential building. But the pair were in love with more than the literal meaning of the name. They wanted Sottocasa to become a neighborhood joint just around the corner: an inclusive, homey space where everyone feels welcome. Continue reading →
Puffer jackets at the ready…this week’s gonna be a chill one with temperatures rumored to be dropping down to the 30’s by midweek. Brrrrrr. Fortunately our favorite neighborhood Italian Adelina’s has added some excellent new dishes recently and they are exactly the kind of thing we want to be eating on a cold winter night, washed down with a nice glass of red from one of the many wine casks that line the walls of the restaurant.
In a neighborhood largely under occupation by the Haslegrave brothers, we walked into new bar and restaurant Le Fanfare to the pleasant surprise that it wasn’t another one of theirs. The design of the space is comfortable and coherent, from the sharply-painted facade to the sequin-lined stage. Attention to detail pervades everything; the printing on each page of the menu lines up perfectly with the stenciled text on the board holding it, for example. This careful attention to detail appears throughout the restaurant: ingredients, furnishing, music, and even the staff have been chosen and integrated carefully by people who realize that it only takes one cut corner to cheapen the whole experience.
Our night at Le Fanfare (1103 Manhattan Ave) began at the small round bar up front, where we were warmly welcomed by an easygoing and friendly staff. The cocktail list is short and classic, with drinks around $11, and the bar is comfortable and pleasantly backlit by a clouded mirror studded with star-like lights. I sometimes find that I mentally rank spaces like these by how badly they make me wish I could still spend long nights smoking inside at them, and this bar gets pretty high marks there. Continue reading →
It’s January, the long weekend is almost over, and the vortexcold-spell is returning. Sometimes the only thing that will bring light to these dark days is the promise of a warm plate of glossy pasta and a glass of good red wine.
Lucky for us, there’s a new neighborhood Italian opened to offer up all kinds of comforting dishes, and it’s just far enough from Adelina’s not to serve as competition. Continue reading →
Food lovers of Greenpoint! Only three weeks in and 2014 is already looking to be the year of the eatery. A whole host of new cafes and restaurants are popping up on our fine, frosty streets and whilst some are still hanging their awnings and smoothing down the plasterwork, others have already flung open their doors to beckon us in. Continue reading →