“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 jumpsuit 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 Avenue). 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 hometown. 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 takeaway 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.”
As 2016 came to an end, Michelin-starred Luksus shut its doors in the back room of Tørst (615 Manhattan Ave), adding to the pile of restaurant closings in our area. For a moment it seemed that Tørst would revert entirely to a Nordic beer bar with a few bites. But all hope is not lost, Chef Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes, who worked at Cosme before spending two years under Chef Burns at Luksus, was ready to over the food program at Tørst and bring it to the next level. A recent lunch—yes, Tørst is open for lunch—showed there are still many Nordic influences on the expanded menu along with some quite delectable bread, but now they also have excellent takes on regular bar food.Continue reading →
It was just about noon on October 6, 1950—a day seemingly like any other day in Greenpoint—but five minutes later all hell would break loose. America was at the height of the Red Scare and news that the Soviets had the bomb was in everyone’s mind. Constant air raid drilling and the creation of local fallout shelters in the case of nuclear war only heightened anxiety even higher.
Suddenly a massive ear splitting explosion at Huron and Manhattan Avenue occurred causing terror. The power of the blast was so great that it blew manhole covers fifty feet in the air like champagne corks and a ten foot section of the street was vaporized. A reinforced concrete sewer was blown to pieces. Five hundred windows were shattered by the powerful explosion as blue flame belched from the manholes. Continue reading →
Donna Siafakas, the owner of Peter Pan Donuts & Pastry Shop (727 Manhattan Ave.) and Nick Giannios, owner of The Greenpoint Floral Company (703 Manhattan Ave.) are two long-time local residents and successful Manhattan Avenue merchants who are trying to give back the community at holiday time, but they’re learning that things ain’t the way they used to be.
Siafakas loved the holiday lights that used to signal the start of every holiday season on Manhattan Avenue. She related to me how local merchants used to all chip in and collect money for the lights as a thank you to customers who supported local businesses. In those days, Manhattan Avenue business owners were locals with families and had deep ties to the community. Years ago a civic minded local Jewish merchant used to organize the lighting drive and collected the money, which most local store owners were only to happy to contribute.
Giannos and Siafakos have tried to keep the tradition alive, but times have changed and so has the willingness of merchants to fund the holiday lights. Siafakas said that she was shocked by the resistance to contributing for the avenue lights. She does not want local shoppers to chip in, and feels that it’s a way for store owners to show their love for the community; but fewer than half the businesses have contributed so far, and some shop owners told her outright that they would not contribute because they did not celebrate the holiday season. Continue reading →
Behind the unassuming street front of Tørst bar, is Greenpoint’s most famous culinary secret, Luksus. This is one of North Brooklyn’s highest acclaimed eateries, yet humbly tucked away behind the beer bar, you may not know it is there. For two years running, it has held the only Michelin star status in the neighborhood, an honor it hopes to continue into 2017 after the New York City recipients are announced on November 17th. Even those who have ordered from the Tørst menu may not know that the dishes were created by world-renowned chef Daniel Burns, previously of Momofuku, The Fat Duck in the UK, and Noma in Copenhagen. The understated presence of Luksus in Brooklyn is void of pretension and reflects the persona of Burns and the cuisine. Continue reading →
Yesterday, residents at the north end of Greenpoint had their unbelievable patience greatly rewarded. Last August, the neighborhood lost one of its most beloved establishments, Champion Coffee, when the 1108 Manhattan Avenue shop closed its doors due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Luckily, the paperwork had already been signed on the space directly across the street in a former artists’ studio at 1107, and at their smaller café at 142 Nassau Avenue. The Nassau Avenue spot opened last November and now the new Manhattan Avenue flagship spot has opened its doors. And it is without a doubt one of the best additions to our coffee shop scene.Continue reading →
During the spring, 664 Manhattan Avenue changed hands again. Once the Polish-American restaurant CinaMoon, it transformed into “664 Wine & Dine” for a few months last year, and is now Cherry Point. The restaurant, which opened in May and named after the first published name for Greenpoint, is owned by The Spotted Pig alum Julian Calcott, artist Vincent Mazeau, and beverage director Garret Smith, each one contributing to Cherry Point’s distinct vibe. Wainscotting, exposed brick and an open kitchen create a warm and inviting space for dinner, brunch or after-work drinks. Continue reading →
About eight years ago, Greenpointers began seeing the butter-yellow Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream trucks popping up on our streets, often with one of the owners, Laura O’Neill and brothers Pete & Ben Van Leeuwen, inside. It didn’t take long—they were approached by a Whole Foods rep literally on their first day of business back in June 2008—for the Greenpoint locals to become the next big thing in ice cream. But of course, every “next big thing” in food needs a brick-and-mortar shop, and with their hearts already in the neighborhood, the team opened up their very first ice cream shop on Manhattan & Bedford in early spring 2010. Continue reading →
A few weeks ago, the former Champs Junior spot on Manhattan Avenue (between Nassau and Driggs) turned into Screamers Pizzeria, a vegan pizzeria. Screamers is owned by Brad Baker, the man behind Champs Diner and Haymaker’s Corner Store, in a joint venture with chefs Mark Mebus and Ryan Moylan of Philly’s Blackbird Pizzeria. Blackbird is apparently some of the best vegan pizza available in the country, so this is a pretty big deal in the vegan world. I stopped by to see what it’s all about and get my first taste of a true vegan-with-cheese pizza. Continue reading →
Get excited, Greenpointers— your walk to some seriously delicious Asian fusion just got shorter. Baoburg has moved to our very own stretch of Manhattan Avenue (between Nassau and Driggs). Chef Suchanan Aksornnan (aka Chef Bao Bao) had been delighting patrons in Williamsburg since 2013, but was forced to move her restaurant as a result of Thor Equities’ new mixed-use building. The menu is inspired by a variety of Asian cuisines with some nods to Spanish and French cooking as well. The interior of the new location at is still quite small, but Baoburg gained a beautiful back courtyard in its new home. I recommend walking straight to this oasis to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and brick facades of the outdoor space you wish was your own. Continue reading →