28 February 2007

Chumley's in the Light

All the recent news about Chumley's buidling being for sale and the old speakeasy being smothered in scaffolding made me skittish, so I headed for Bedford Street late one night just to make sure the trusted trough was there. It was. Smallish crowd, though all at least two sheets to the wind.

Soon after I arrived and ordered my Irish Red, the barkeep yelled "Time!" and soon after that the lights were switched on to encourage a general exodus. I've been to Chumley's countless times, but I don't think I've ever seen the place under anything but the dimmest illumination. I took a good gander at some of the framed photos of writers and book jackets that have always been somewhat obscured by the shadows. And I knocked off a few photos for the general enjoyment, figuring I wouldn't see the decor so clearly again anytime soon.

Get That Ugly Thing Off Chumley's

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Gino's

This booth can be seen snug up against the street-side window in Gino's, the old red-sauce Italian joint on Lexington near 60th. It works, has a seat inside and the light flicks on when you fold the door closed. It also, like the two booths at Sardi's, has a working fan that can be switched on (see below). Note the vent up top.

Bad Feng Shui for mobsters, though. Anyone on the street can see you when you're in the booth and nail you easy.

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Sardi's

Go Chase Yourself

They say that like it's a good thing.

Edifice Wrecks

I like this. It's about time the architects and owners of New York City's ugliest buildings were held up to open ridicule. Special points to John Beckman for naming each and every one of Donald Trump's buildings. And, YEAH!, the always-been-ugly Freedom Tower. And some daring mentions I don't quite agree with, like Norman Foster's new Hearst Tower (like it from the inside, hate it from the outside) and the Whitney Museum.

27 February 2007

Sordid Doings at Ferdinando's

New York City sure was an interesting place a century ago. Or so newspapers at the time lead you to believe.

I was biding my time waiting for a couple Potato Specials to go at Brooklyn Sicilian eatery Ferdinando's Focacceria when my eyes alighted on a framed front page from the New York World from Dec. 16, 1898. Woo! Such doings in the city! Now I know how Joseph Pulitzer made his millions. He found (or made up) the most sensational yarns in the big town and laid them out right there at eye level.

Among the headline: A boy and his dog Yip took part in a shinbone graft, an operation conducted under strictest secrecy! ("Boy and Dog Are Cut Apart"); a society lawyer named Mulhall felled in a mysterious suicide ("His Nemesis a Creditor"); and, somewhere lower down, the Pope took ill.

But my favorite read was the account of the sordid personal life of biscuit baker Brinckerhoff ("Must Stop Following Her"). The old, corpulent baker had sent detectives after his child bride of one year to see what the unhappy girl was up to. The girl found them out and filed for "complete divorce" and a judge told the man to call off the bloodhounds. Brinckerhoff appears to have been a famous titan in his day and quite humiliated by the events.

The World wears its biases on its sleeve and clearly sides with the young missus, mainly, it seems, because she is "pretty" and is a "plump, petite, roseate blonde" ( a popular type at the time, I guess). In fact, the paper didn't shy from piercing physical descriptions of people anywhere on the page.

It all got me pretty excited. The New York Post could learn a few things.

Dog and Katz's

According to a story in the New York Post today, the redoubtable Lower East Side deli Katz's is being threatened with bad press and possible legal action by a (ahem) 35-year-old male model.

Said mannequin, Darren Gough, claims he was beaten up by Katz's roughnecks (whoever they might be—what? the ticket taker?) after he tried to leave without showing his payment ticket. According to him, "I resisted. One of them slammed my head against the door frame. We tussled out on the sidewalk. We fell over by the parking meter. [Then] someone came after me with a billy club [yelling], 'Nobody touches our security guards!'" He showed off his black eye for the Post photogs and filed a police report and is now considering his "legal options."

A little background for the uninitiated: Katz's has one of the most arcane payment systems in the Western World. Upon entering, you're handed a ticket—like the ones at old-style movie theatres, but somewhat longer. You go up to the long counter and every time you order an item, you hand the ticket to the counter person and he or she marks it in pencil with a price. Each subsequent helper adds a new amount to the total. When you're done eating, you proceed to the cashier, hand them your ticket, they ring you up and you pay. Then, and only then, you're allowed to leave.

Any decent New Yorker knows this drill. To flout it shows you're either not a New Yorker, are a stupid New Yorker, or possibly a drunk New Yorker.

It may be the Gough was the latter of the three. This is the key sentence of the Post account: "he went to the famed deli on East Houston Street early on Sunday to order a hot dog with onions after drinking with a buddy at the nearby Spring Lounge." AFTER DRINKING WITH A BUDDY. He claimed he waited for 15 minutes without getting his desired hot dog—a wait I have never endured in all my visits to Katz's. Perhaps he was too stewed to find the counter.

The Katz's worker claimed Gough was drunk, and anyone who's gotten a late night meal at the place knows it's more that possible to find plastered East Village and Lower East Side partiers noshing there on the weekend. And only a souse would lose his payment ticket. "I didn't have it. I didn't eat," he explained. Sorry. No one gets in Katz's without being handed a ticket. He lost it, dropped it, something.

Sorry, but no sympathy for "chisel-jawed" Mr. Gough. Katz's must be protected from any legal threat that might imperil its existence. There's only one Katz's. There are plenty of louts, even good-looking ones.

26 February 2007

Schrafft's in Name Alone

Outlets of Schrafft's, the New York restaurant chain that belongs in the same humble everyman chowhouse category as Child's and Horn and Hardart, used to blanket the five boroughs (one was in the Chrysler Building), but the only evidence I've ever seen today that the legendary diners ever existed is on Smith Street near Fulton mall, across the street from the bus stop.

There, at the top of some dark iron shopfronts are two sets of fancifully curved, raised metal letters spelling out "Schrafft's." The building, which dates from 1925, as far as I can gather, was once home to ice cream sundaes and cheese bread and cocktails and such. (Schrafft's often had both a soda fountain and a bar, so that both kiddes and their parents could get a buzz on.) The words don't stand out, since the gothic limestone building is rather dingy. Don't know when this one shut down.

The chain was found in the early 1900s by one Frank Shattuck, who, for some reason, chose to double up on the "F"s rather than the "T"s when he named his restaurant.

Not Yet Developed in Brooklyn

GE telvisions were serviced and/or sold at 382 Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. Once.

This storefront has been frozen in time as long as I can remember. The old unlit neon sign is not the only interesting feature in the display windows. Others: an old potbelly stove, a wooden sled, and Eiffel Tower lamp and various other dusty antiquities. Nothing stirs here, though the Christmas wreaths are at least somewhat fresh.

Get That Ugly Thing Off Chumley's

The building that houses the grandest of New York's grand old former speakeasies, Chumley's (your favorite writer, whoever they might be, drank there—trust me), is up for sale and has been belted with some uggo scaffolding. (See the picture here.)

Now we know from our friends at Curbed.com that Chumley's is safe, that it will continue doing business and has a lease until 2086, which means it will be there until I die and can stop worrying about whether it will always be there. Still, we here at Lost City don't even like the APPEARANCE that number 86 Bedford is in danger. On our list of beloved city landmarks, Chumley's has always been safely ensconced in the top five. Nothing can replace it. So get that sickly green girdle off the old gal!

25 February 2007

Memories of New York's Only Chinese-Norwegian Fusion Restaurant

Being partly of Norwegian descent, their was a time when I would treck down to Bay Ridge from time to time whenever I got in the mood for some lefse, lignonberries or fishballs. (Not often, I admit.) On Third Avenue there is a shop that I believe is the only Norwegian food store in Manhattan. It's called Nordic Delicacies and it will sometimes have signs in the window proclaiming "The New Krumkaker Irons Are In Stock!"

The Norwegian population used to be subtantial down here (about 60,000), so much so the local Lutheran churches gave services in Norwegian and a large section of Eighth Avenue was called "Lapskaus Boulevard," named after a popular Norwegian stew. (Fascinating block-by-block map of Lapskaus Boulevard here.) There are still Danish, Swedish and Norwegian social clubs down here, but, by the time I first visited (early '90s), there was not enough of a population to support many businesses. Lapskaus Boulevard was already pretty much taken over by Sunset Park's Chinatown, aside from a Norwegian import gift show (Signy's Imports, a dusty enclave which closed in 2004) and The Atlantic Restaurant.

Even in New York City, where incongruous businesses lurk around every corner, the Atlantic at 8th and 54th was a wonder. It had been one of the major Norwegian eateries. So when the space was bought by Chinese restauranteurs and renamed the Wee Kee, the wail of Scandinavian sorrow was such that the new owner bowed to pleas that he keep a Norwegian menu alongside the new Chinese one. And so came into being, for about ten years, the only Chinese-Norwegian restaurant in, perhaps, the world.

I adored this place. The Chinese menu was just what you would have expected. It may have been good eating; I don't know—I never tried it. I made my choice from the six of seven Norwegian entrees listed on a board hanging above the counter and ate them silently among the few other elderly, stoic Norwegian men. The meals were all made by the Chinese cook, but from recipes carefully taught to him by the former owner of the Atlantic. It was fish pudding, boiled potatoes, and various stews, all truly delicious. I went down especially for lunch about once a year until the Wee Kee was replaced by another Chinese restaurant. There is not a trace the place ever existed now, and nobody around the neighborhood seems to remember anything about it. Sad.

Finding the picture above, dated from the 1970s, counts as something of a miracle. Thanks to the Scandanavian East Coast Museum.

24 February 2007

P & G Cafe Survives, for Now

Few corner bars are so well-known to New Yorkers at the P & G Cafe. Sitting at the northeast corner of 73rd and Amsterdam, it's too-good-to-be-true, old-school neon sign ("Cafe. Steaks. Bar. Chops. Cafe.") is easily viewable to anyone who climbs out of the 72nd Street subway stop and takes a glance around. And if it doesn't bring a smile to your face when you see, I don't really want to talk to you.

This last hangout for the proletariat on the Upper West Side has been in danger for the past couple months. Last year, their landlord told the owner, Steve Chahalas, that the bar wouldn't be getting a new lease once their present one was up in Dec. 31, 2008. There were protests, of course, and a petition, but probably the squeaky wheel that really got the landlord's grease was the Landmarks Preservation Commission ruling that the old neon sign couldn't be touched. (A good decision from the Landmarks people. Whaddaya know?)

Recently, P & G, which was founded in 1942, was offered a new lease, albeit at a 40 percent hike. There are still rumors that a bank will go in that corner space, but, for the time being, please, I beg of you—when you pass by P & G, stop in and buy several beers.

23 February 2007

Not Yet (Completely) Developed in Brooklyn

This shell of a tenement has been doing a balancing act at 37 Carroll Street between Columbia and Van Brunt for well over five years with no further renovation in sight. The front of the building is squeaky clean. It obviously was given a thorough washing a few years back, showing off the unique brown-and-cream-brick pattern. The rest is air, though you can peer through a gate and see all the way to a back room and peruse the rubble lying on the dirt floor. One expects the thing to fall down like a pancake at the next high wind.

The mysterious property has become something of a local landmark. It would almost be a shame if new walls and a roof were finally erected.

A Good Sign: Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery

An obvious choice among classic Gotham signage, no doubt. But that doesn't mean it should be taken for granted. Anybody know the purpose of the ellipses after the Shimmel and before the Knish? Did they think we'd stop reading after the first line if we didn't know there were more words?

A Beaver Flows in Brooklyn, er, The Bronx

I love it when the dailies go nuts over some animal sighting. It makes the hardbitten editors and news reporters seem so sweetly naive. Remember a few years back when someone saw a crab in the Gowanus Canal. Front page news!

The New York Times enthused today over the appearance of a North American beaver in the Bronx River. According to the article, it's the first time the big-toothed mammal has been seen herabouts in—wait for it—200 years. That's right, not since the early days of the republic. Scientists say this means the Bronx River (can't remember the last time I actively thought about the Bronx River) is pretty darn healthy again, after years of being everyone's favorite car and tire depository.

Of course, the creature has a cute nickname, making for better copy. It's named José, after United States Representative José E. Serrano of the Bronx, who funneled $15 million in federal funds into a river clean-up. ($15 million for one beaver. Not much of a return.)

The beaver, you know, is the official state animal of New York State. I think this is mainly because we once made a lot of money off them. Astor got rich on pelts, I believe. So it's good we've got at least one in the city.

22 February 2007

Phone Booth Sighting: Belasco Theatre

It's not wooden, but it sure is weird.

This old metal phone booth sits in the basement of Broadway's Belasco Theatre, just to the left of the men's "lounge." It's been their for ages, looking lost and out of place.

Since critics stopped rushing up the aisles at curtain to file their reviews with the drama desk decades ago, I can't imagine—in the age of the cell phone—who uses this booth or why the management hasn't yanked it up by the roots and placed it on the sidewalk for collection. I've never seen anyone employ it, though the phone is in perfect working order. But it's a wonderously surreal sight to Belasco theatregoers. Men lined up for the bathroom stare at it with a look of sweet-natured confusion.

There is also an ice machine nearby, as if the Belasco were some roadside motel.

Save the Coney Signs!

I'm all for preserving New York City signage as part of the burg's inherent cultural fabric, so I found nothing to argue with in this item at The Gowanus Lounge. And I liked the pics of the old signs mighty fine. (Take a look. It'll brighten your day.) Anyone who'd call these mere adverisements doesn't know shit from Shinola.

21 February 2007

Music Island to Rise Again?

I know its a Robert Moses creation and replaced the by-all-accounts sublime Music Island, but I have a kind of soft spot for Kate Wollman ice rink in Prospect Park. This, I admit, is mainly because I taught my young son how to skate there.

But I am willing to put personal feeling aside and cheer the news revealed today in The Daily News that the 46-year-old rink will be replaced by two new rinks, one recreational, one for hockey. This is pleasant news. But the topper is that the site where the rink now sits will be restored "as part of the original lakefront as envisioned by famed park designer Frederick Law Olmsted,"
which could mean The Return of Music Island, funding permitting. (More here.) The whole thing will be completed by 2010.

Music Island was a small islet with a stage facing the audiences in the Concert Grove. Apparently the accoustics weren't so hot, but it must have been idyllic to sit in the Grove and watch the musicians across the water. Moses—whose career I, for one, refuse to reevaluate, in spite of recent trends—in one of his more stupid, bullheaded moves, filled it in. The Concert Grove is little frequented these days. The unvisited busts of Grieg and Weber et al stare out dumbly at the weekend skaters and stop their stone ears from the sounds of Coldplay and Joe Cocker playing over the rink speakers.

The Gangster Next Door

You can learn a lot from your neighbors. Take Eli Wallach. The actor was born at 166 Union Street (above) between Hicks and Henry in 1915, and grew up in the days when that area was mob heaven.

Years later, he was called upon to play Albert Anastasia, the whack job gangster who founded Murder Inc. When he complained that he didn't know how to play a cold-blooded killer, he was given a tape of Anthony "Tough Tony" Anastasio, Albert's brother, talking to the Kefauver committee. One of the first things Tony said was "I live at 167 Union Street." After that, Wallach knew how to play the Lord High Executioner, who, one would assume, would have visited his brother from time to time.

Both buildings still stand. Wallach's is on the south side of the street. Anastasia's is on the north side at the corner, a four-story brownstone, a much grander affair (below). It currently has cheery St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day decorations in the windows.

20 February 2007

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Sardi's

As the Colin Farrell film "Phone Booth" illustrated a few years back, it has become mighty hard to find an outdoor phone booth in New York City anymore, much to the city's lasting poverty.
Even harder to find is a wooden phone booth. These, as a rule, were always to be found indoors and the precious few that still exist remain housed inside the recesses of old restaurants, bars and goverment offices. I, as a rule, keep and eye out for these rare beauties and have been known to get a little too excited when I see them. I can't help it. The folding doors, the shelf-like seat (a wooden stool, if you're lucky), the light that snaps on when the door clicks shut—these details set my head swimming with dreamy nostalgia for a time when it was thought that a phone call demanded and deserved privacy, and the phone you used to make the call on merited a handsome, thoughtfully constructed home.

These twin booths are found on the second floor of Sardi's restaurant, just at the top of the stairs. Both phones are in working order, though the indoor lighting is on the blink. Each has a particularly interesting feature: a switch above the phone which activates a fan—I guess for folks who plan to spend a long time inside. The fan in the booth to the right actually works.

A Good Sign: Cafe Un Deux Trois

This hangs outside the Cafe Un Deax Trois, the old-style brasserie on W. 44th Street in the theatre district. Say the name of the restaurant with an French exagrerated accent. It's fun.

Who Builds New Dormer Windows Anymore?

Saw this sight on the lower Bowery the other day: an red-brick building, probably 150 years old, with NEW DORMER WINDOWS. What the hell? I mean, I love dormer windows. I think they make the world more beautiful and certainly more architecturally interesting. They're also kinda cool and spooky. But, honestly, who build new dormers in New York City anymore? It's too much fuss and detail for most developers. But lookee!: fresh wood, fresh window panes, the whole nine yards. Anybody know the deal here? Were they forced to do it by some civic organization? Or are the owners just preservation-minded?

While we're speaking of windows, I passed by the former home of the Tennessee Mountain restaurant in Soho recently and stopped to admire the old building's classy set of frames. Real, old-style wooden panes and all. One of the little-mentioned areas of architectural desecration in recent decades concerns the sad state of windows. New buidlings and restorations of old ones are outfitted the modern metal-framed windows equipped with two large panes of glass. The most boring, functional windows possible. The ornamentation and visual delight of wooden frames and divided panes is fast disappearing. One's hard-pressed to find even a brownstone with its original windows.

Anyway, Tennessee Mountain has some lovely glass, on the upper floors as well as a fine bay window below that you might have seen in Dickens' London. Give it a look.

19 February 2007

Avalon's Suicide Hall

This shiny box fill you with wonder? Make you contemplate what might be going on within? Cause you to thrill at the hidden history of New York City?

Didn't think so. But the building that used to occupy this bit of Bowery land near Houston sure did the trick for me every time I saw its shiver-inducing outline. It was McGurk's Suicide Hall. Now, isn't that a name straight outa pulp fiction? But it actually existed, a dive so seedy and desperate that the prostitutes that inhabited its upper floors used to guzzle carbolic acid rather than spend another night within its filthy wall. It was open from only 1895 to 1902, but developed a sufficiently grisly reputation during those years to become a tourist attraction. Luc Sante's great history "Low Life" renewed interest in the stark, four-story, red-brick building that once housed McGurk's. Amazingly, it hung around for a long time, sticking out like a jagged tooth on an otherwise desolate block well into the 21st century.

McGurk's met its end in 2005, torn down for this charmless building block of glass and metal that goes by the name of Avalon Bowery Place. (Avalon built the mountain of crap across Houston as well, by the way.) Well, it's still got something in common with the McGurk building. It makes you want to kill yourself, just for different reasons.

Monteleone Has Its Cher

A week or so after it finally opened, F. Monteleone & Cammareri Bros. Bakery has hit its stride. Judging from a recent visit, the full range of Monteleone miniature pastries and cookies is now on offer, the display cases and bread racks are full and service is speedy (even if a guy at the end of the counter with a roll of bills is dolling out change to the counter girls).

As previously reported here, the bakery does sport a large, flat-screen television at the back of the store, and, as predicted, is plays a non-stop loop of "Moonstruck" (the Cher movie that featured the old Cammareri bakery on Henry Street as a location). The soundtrack of the 1987 film is piped out onto the sidewalk outside.

Thankfully, "Moonstruck" is one of those films you don't mind seeing again and again, so catching a scene now and then that features Henry and Court Streets circa mid'80s as you buy some sandwich cookies can be a pleasure. This is not necessarily the case, however, for the Nick Cage-weary help. Last Sunday, I couldn't help but notice as I passed by that the television was playing the John Travolta movie musical "Grease." I went in to investigate. Had the all-"Moonstuck," all-the-time policy been abandoned?

"No," sighed a teenage counter-girl, rolling her eyes. "We're finally get a break just now."

Monteleone and Cammareri Off and Stumbling

McHale's Future Looking Not So Bright

When McHale's glorious tavern at Eight Avenue and 46th Street closed in January 2006 to make way for a vile condo tower dedicated to life in the Platinum lane, the owner Jimmy McHale said he was saving much of the interior and the classic neon sign in hopes of reopening some day, possibly in the ground floor space of the tavern.

Well, he may still do so, but it will apparently be without the sign. Through the SnugMug.com site, I am late in noticing an item on the New York magazine site saying the grand old green-and-red neon artwork had turned up in a Chelsea antique store. Don't know which which Chelsea antique shop or how Jimmy could part with that object above all others. In may ways, that sign WAS McHale's, a beacon which said everything about the place: traditional, old-style, classy, unpretentious, urban, vintage New York. These signs are irreplacable. Why aren't they being snatched up by MOMA or something?

Excuse me while I heave a big sigh.

18 February 2007

Pageant Prints Lives!—And So Does the Attitude

When the Pageant book and print shop closed its doors on W. Houston Street in 1999, I pretty much gave it up for dead. The book store, which was founded on Fourth Avenue's Bookseller Row in 1946 by Sidney B. Solomon and Henry Chafetz, had worked through a number of locations, including a building with robin's-egg-blue window panes on E. 9th Street. It was while there that it was used as a backdrop for Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." The interior on E. 9th was classic tumbledown, untended and dusty with a mangy cat running around. The second floor felt like somebody's cluttered attic. Very charming. Very eccentric.

The W. Houston place wasn't nearly as nice and much smaller. By then the book collection was nominal; the focus was old prints. But Pageant lasted only a few years there.

Well, I had a happy surprise the other day when I was passing down E. 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue. A small storefront with some prints displayed on the sidewalk bore a sign reading "Pageant," the letters painted a familiar shade of blue. Could it be? It was. After five years selling over the internet, the shop—now exclusively prints, no books—had reopened. I was delighted to see it again and skipped right in, even though I was late for an appointment.

Almost immediately upon entering, however, I remembered why I had never frequented Pageant as much as other used books stores. I addressed the woman with long, dark red, curly hair behind the counter—recognizable as the owner from the old days. Was this the same Pageant? She waited, unsmiling, for me to stumble through my question, which needn't have been as long and drawn out as it was if she had just nodded her head or something. She eventually grunted a "yes."

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

"I got here about 10:30 today," she answered. Comedienne.

"I mean, when did the store open here?"

"About a year and a half ago." Still no smile.

Trying to remain upbeat, I said, "Well, I'm glad I found you again."

"I didn't know I was lost," she drawled. Uh-huh.

This I remembered. At E. 9th Street, at W. Houston, Pageant always had the surliest, most sarcastic service in the New York book world. And that's saying something, given that, in my experience (and this comes from a died-in-the-wool book store lover) independent Gotham book stores owners rank among the world's most cantankerous misanthropes. There are exceptions, of course. The people at the late lamented Gotham Book Mart were always as sunny as the day is long. The ladies at Three Lives bookstore are always civil, if a bit cool. And a Skyline Books clerk will provide help if it's asked for. But at Pageant, it was always service with a sneer.

I wish them luck with the new space. Someone who keeps trying to sustain a worthy business deserves a chance. But maybe they also might wanna try a little tenderness.

The Great Snow Fort of Carroll Park

I walked by Carroll Park in Brooklyn to witness this formidable sight. A group of parents and their kids had constructing this kick-ass snow fort. Jesus, what with Global Warming and general worldwide ennui, I didn't think people took the time to build snow forts anymore.

This one's a beauty. The parents in question carved icy bricks out of the three-inch layer of snow and ice that had accumulated on the blacktop of the part of Carroll Park that contains the basketball courts and baseball diamond. They must mave chipped out a few hundred bricks from the look of it. They then raised a circular wall, brick by brick, row by row, until it stood about five feet tall. The archway of the entrance was so expert and solid, one of the adults must have been an engineer.

The fort attracted the admiration of passersby like myself. A single orignating parent was still present in the late afternoon, and was bashfully proud of his creation, answering questions from the surrounding crowd. He talked of how he was trying to teach the kids how people in snowy climes protected themselves from the wind and cold. He decamped, however, when his son developed the unquenchable urge to tear the thing down. Let's hope it's there for a few days, to remind us that winter has its own magic.

17 February 2007

Puppets and Stilettos on Union Street

Some time ago, a local real estate broker handed me xeroxed article from the Dec. 3, 1899, edition of the Brooklyn Eagle. It concerned a property he handled on Union Street between Columbia and Van Brunt. The building in question is presently an auto body shop, but, according to the story, was once an Italian-language puppet theatre called the Star Theatre, fashioned out of a former stable by one Charlie Pulvidente.

The article contained several sketches, including one of the theatre's front. I checked out the address, 101 Union Street. Sure enough, it was recognizably the same building. And there's no doubt the neighborhood was once heavily Italian and that the nearby intersection of Union and Columbia was a hub of activity, lined with shops, restaurants and movie theatres.

According to the item, headlined "Local Italian Theater Crowded Every Night," a show was presented every p.m, enacted entirely by life-size marionettes made of wood and brass. These were manipulated by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Mrs. Costa (who first name is never mentioned). The evenings lasted four hours long and were actually enactments of epic poems by the 15th-century Italian poet Tasso. Each play was presented in serial format and would take months to complete, and if you wanted to catch it all you had to pay your five cents and attend the Star every friggin' night.

It's a fascinating article, not least of all because of the unbylined reporter's thinly disguised racism toward the working-class Italian audience members. They are "dark-faced, mean-visaged Italians" and there is "a very uncanny suggestion of keen bladed stilettos in the very atmosphere of the place." He also suspects Charlie has a "reputation as a stilettist" since the guys pay him such respect. None of the men "wear a collar" (Egad!) and they "surely never wash." The drawing below bore the caption "Types."

It's clear the stiletto-obsessed journalist means to be respectful, in his condescending way, particularly when he notes admiringly that the theatregoers sit quietly for hours on end—even if they do drink beer, smoke foul cigars and get into fights. The account is a reminder that Italians, like the Irish before them, once occupied the lowest rung in New York City society.

This is how 101 Union looks today:

Club Lazzara

Who's needs restaurants with no phone number or bars that don't identify themselves as such to the passerby when you've got Lazzara's. The midtown pizzeria feels more like a secret club than most Manhattan places that strive for that vibe. It doesn't advertise, as far as I can tell. Scaffolding currently obscures its sign on W. 38th Street. You have to enter through an enclosed, black-metal stairway that is none too attractive, leading to the second floor of the building. Once inside, you walk down a nondescript corridor with no indicating arrows or signs and enter an open doorway to the right. And there you are: someone's former living room now filled with row after row of functional wooden tables and chairs. The one window is fully curtained. No light gets in. And there's no one there who didn't arrive at the address expressly to eat at Lazzara's. You don't eat there by accident.

I stopped by for lunch the other day, as I always do when in the neighborhood. I ordered my usual half-pie with pepperoni, cut into narrow strips, and fresh mushrooms. A half-pie will get you a narrow rectangle of pizza consisting of three square slices. Sauce reigns supreme at this pizzeria, as opposed to cheese or crust. Mozzarella covers only about half the pie, allowing the tanginess of the sauce to come through.

The one drawback to the place is that, because of its location, Lazzara's tends to attract people from the fashion trade. You can always tell these specimens, because they talk loud, pull out their cell phones every other minute, drop the names of designers left and right and usually treat their dining companion thoughtlessly. I sat next to one such worthy the other day. He barked on his phone, while his female companion sat there with nothing to do. He was oblivious to the fact that, 15 minutes into the lunch, both she and the waitress loathed him.

The putz was also unhappy with the quality of the pizza.

16 February 2007

Not Such a Marvelous Night for a Moondance

The Moondance Diner—one of the better known diners in Manhattan owing to its presence near the Holland Tunnel (easy viewing from cars on Sixth Avenue) and its proximity to Soho (late night bites for trendoids trolling the restaurants and bars of the Cast Iron district)—will no longer light up the lonely New York nights by the end of the year.

The New York Sun reports the sad news that the diner and an adjacent two-story parking garage and a parking lot will be developed into—gee, do I even have to tell you?—"luxury residential condominiums." (Thanks to Konrad Fielder for the photo.)

Some may know the eatery best as the pace where Kirsten Dunst waited tables in "Spider-Man," but real New Yorkers know the joint's real claim to artistic fame is that it once employed "Rent" composer Jonathan Larson as a waiter. He even set a song in his lesser-known work "tick, tick...BOOM!" in a Moondance-like diner.

Though I've never been in love with the food (it actualy was diner food), I was always glad the Moondance was there. Its retro decor was only somewhat self-conscious and it was an easy place to rest your bones in the wee hours of a Saturday night or the early hours of a Sunday morning. The owner—ironically named "Sunny"—says he will hold on to the iconic sign.

Unique Shopping Opportunity on Atlantic Avenue

I hear money can't buy you love, either.

15 February 2007

Old Town Bar Strikes Again

We were heartily amused at the recent hand-lettered, impromptu sign taped in the window of the Old Town Bar lambasting Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter and his clubby celeb hangout Waverly. The note was reactionary, knee-jerk and borderline offensive, and we applauded it all, because it was all aimed at fatuous, flip-haired Carter, who wouldn't give his own mother a banquette.

But does the Old Town Bar harbor a serial crank? Strolling into the glorious old watering hole for a beer the other night, we noticed this message, attacking our city's young fatties, had supplanted the Carter character assassination.

The bruised feelings of our "little dumplings" aside, it's still pretty amusing, as is the sometimes sloppy grammar (just like mine, sometimes) and spelling ("Williamsburgh" with an "h" seems a distinctly less cool neighborhood.). But, all things considered, I'd rather he lay off the daily missives and pump some fresh neon through the only sign at the Old Town Bar that matters—the classic hanging over the outside sidewalk.

Marion the Contrarian

After seeing on Eater.com that Marion's Continental, the swanky old place on the Bowery, was on the block, I decided to swing by the joint, just in case it up and closed on me with no notice.

It was open and serving customers that cold night. A few brave patrons lent the environs some life. I surveyed the cocktail list—which leans much to heavily toward vodka for a place that first opened in 1950, when vodka was an obscure Russian spirit that nobody of culture drank—and ordered a Negroni, a cocktail that was invented in 1920 in Florence at the Bar Casoni. Gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth. (Though the option of vodka was offered by Marion's. The dame does like her vodka.)

Drink in hand, I surveyed the wall of framed momentos of Marion's founder Marion Nagy's glory days as a model and quasi-celebrity. Most intriguing was a shot of Nagy, Judy Garland and Lana Turner following some charity event or other at which $150,000 was raised. So Judy and Lana were there, once upon a time.

As for Marion's imminent closure, the bartender said "That's not true." I took it with a grain of salt. He was only the bartender, and it's not as if owners don't sometimes lie to their staff. If would be a shame to see it go, though. The Negroni was great.

A Good Sign: Jam's Stationery

In Greenpoint. Don't know anything about it. But, in these days of Staple's and Duane Reade, I like an variety goods store. "Paperbacks." That's what I used to go to my local variety store to buy when I was a kid.

The Canyon of Big Faces

They're watching you!

Advertising was living large the other day on 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. You can't see it in this picture, but there is yet another giant kisser painted on the building to the right.