31 March 2014

Recipes of the Lost City: Spaghetti a la Grotto Azzurra

I haven't done one of these columns—in which I make a dish based on the recipe in a cookbook put out by a long-gone New York restaurant—in a long time. Nearly four years. Mainly I stopped because it's a lot of work and takes up a great deal of time. And, to be honest, the payoff usually isn't that great. Perhaps my cooking skills aren't what they could be; or the cookbook authors left some secret ingredient out of every recipe; or I don't have the required restaurant-level equipment. Or maybe the food of yesteryear just wasn't that good to begin with. Whatever it is, the result is usually underwhelming. 

That said, I have had successes. I can say that since making Luchow's Wiener Schnitzel back in 2009, I make it about one a month. And the Grotta Azzurra's meatball recipe is a winner. 

Lost City: Chicago Edition: Milshire Hotel

The Milshire Hotel is grand old edifice on N. Milwaukee Street in the now fashionable Logan Square section of Chicago. It is little changed, inside and out. The vertical neon sign is original as is the traditional wooden booth the hotel manager sits in just inside the door.

The Milshire is today what it always was, that kind of shady urban hotel where people of no fixed address stay for short (sometimes very short) or long periods of time. As you can see from the faded ad on its side, it was a "weekly transient" hotel, even back in the day. Today, shifty character pass in and out of the front door. Nonetheless, there's a cheap coffee shop inside that advertises its wares ("Cappuccino!") to all and sundry.

I thought of taking a cup of coffee in this establishment, except when I entered the Milshire all eyes suddenly fell on me, and one lean, scruffy individual began to make a beeline toward me, as if he knew me or I owed him money. I beat it. The episode lasted a total of five seconds, but there something genuinely frightening about it.

Good thing, too. Further investigation led me to understand that this is a favored lodging of prostitutes, pimps, drunks, druggies, rats, mice and bedbugs. A shame. Such a handsome facade. (With it's burnt-out letters, the hotel's sign seems to be sending a message to passsersby as to its true line of business.)

28 March 2014

Only Three People Know the Recipe for Joe's Superette's Prosciutto Balls

A couple years ago, I rejoiced at finding the storied prosciutto balls, once made at the Carroll Gardens institution Joe's Superette, at a Soho pizzeria called Prince Street Pizza. Louie, who used to make the balls at Joe's (which closed in 2011 and is still sorely missed), was behind the counter.

However, in December 2013, I got a message from Louis' brother saying that Louis had left the pizzeria in late 2012 and the prosciutto balls were not longer to be found there. 

Now, a couple days ago, I received this comment from "Frankie," the nephew of Leo Coldonato, the owner of Joe's and the inventor of the taste treat. He wrote, with a detectable sadness between the lines:

Hopefully one day I can bring my uncles prosciutto balls back to Brooklyn where they belong. You can count the number of people who know us real recipe on one hand, and have fingers left over. Besides myself and Louie, I only know one other person who knows his real recipe. Like I said, hopefully one day I can bring them back to where they belong.

27 March 2014

Who the Heck Is Wallace?

Rico Wholesale calls home a rusticated, four-story, sandstone-like building at 1149 Broadway, between 26th and 27th Street. It one bothers to look up, one see that it was once home to "Wallace & Co.," which now reads "Walla ce & Co.," since someone, at some point, erased the keystone that once separated the "A" from the "C."

The building dates from 1886. William L. Wallace was a confectioner and this was his store. Or his last store, anyway. Wallace, who lived in Tarrytown, died in 1890. Wallace was very good at selling candy. When he passed away, he was a millionaire. Wallace was a modest man. In his will, he called for a "plain and inexpensive monument" over his grave. He was also a vengeful man. He left nothing to his daughter Kate, to whom he "had never become reconciled since her elopement with a Mr. Wood of Sing Sing some years ago," or his son Carolyn (Carolyn?), who was given only $50, "which the testator thinks, together with advances that were made during his lifetime, will be sufficient." Unsurprisingly, the will was contested. Eventually, the two aggrieved parties were given $15,000 each.

Hats and Beheadings

The shuttering of Classic Impressions, a gift and card store on Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn—as well as the recent closure of Gloria Flower Shoppe just down the street—got me to thinking of the past history of 296 Court Street. It's only been Classic Expressions, after all, for about a decade or so.

I uncovered a few things about the address. In 1888, this was a hat store. It was owned by Caesar Simis, who had several haberdasheries. In the 1950s, there was a "store and bakery" here. Which is interesting, since its right next door to the iconic Court Pastry Shop. Must have been some rivalry.

On a more grisly side, on March 26, 1895, there was a horrible trolley accident at the nearby corner of Court and Congress Streets. Woman named Mary Ann Medinger was struck by a trolley car and dragged under it for fully sixty feet before the transport came to a halt. He body was "literally torn to pieces," the New York Times reported, with he head cut off and legs broken. Her death, it was noted, was the 105th caused by trolley system since its creation.

The unfortunate conductor of the trolley lived at 296 Court.

26 March 2014

Founder of Caputo Fine Foods Dies

When I went to Caputo Fine Foods on Court Street last Friday to buy some gnocchi and found it closed during business hours for no clear reason, I was alarmed and wondered if something was amiss. I discovered today that he closure was due to the death of the shop's founder, Guiseppe Caputo. He died on March 21. Guiseppe waited on me a number of times (though he spent more time in the back kitchen than at the counter). As with everyone at Caputo Fine Foods, he was attentive and friendly.

Caputo and his wife opened the store in 1973. Since then, it's become to be widely regarded as the best source of Italian foodstuffs in the neighborhood, particularly the homemade pasta, the mozzarella and the olives. The shop is now run by his sons.

The Everard Baths

New York was once littered with public bathhouses. The last of them closed in the 1970s. But one can still find many of the buildings they used to occupy in plain sight. The old bathhouse on E. 11th Street near Avenue B and what is now called the Brooklyn Lyceum on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn are two prominent examples.

This off-white, not so terribly grand looking structure was the Everard Baths. It was not a public bath, but a commercial bath. It operated from 1888 to 1985. It was founded by James Everard, a wealthy financier brewer. The building actually had a previous purpose, as a church. So I guess the building itself is actually older than 1888. At the time, 28th Street was a swell location. The theatre district was in nearby Herald Square and there were many swanky hotels in the area. Everard had private "steam cabinets" and several different styles of bathhouses.

The place had a rocky history. (All bath houses did. Get a bunch of naked strangers in one building and something untoward is bound to happen eventually.) A soldier was found dead here in 1898. A manager and nine patrons were arrested in 1919 for lewd behavior. Another raid came the next year.

In 1921, the baths were sold to one Abraham Harawitz, who promised $100,000 is improvement.

By the 1920s, it became a gathering place for the gay community. Some of its celebrated patrons included Emlyn Williams, Alfred Lunt, Gore Vidal, Rudolf Nureyev, Truman Capote, Larry Kramer, Ned Rorem and Lorenz Hart. As such, it is perhaps the most written-about gay bathhouse in New York history.

Tragedy struck on May 25, 1977, when a fire broke out. Nine people died. Amazing the two destroyed floors were rebuilt and the baths reopened, but Mayor Ed Koch closed Everard for good in April 1986.

In recent years, the space has been many things. I went to a play here in the late '90s.

25 March 2014

Gloria Flower Shoppe in Carroll Gardens Closes

Gloria Florist on Court Street, one of the oldest businesses in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, has closed. Sal, the elderly owner of the shop—which started in the 1940s—recently died. The family hopes to rent the space to another florist.

The business didn't look that old, but if you were eagle-eyed, you could discern its age from the lovely terrazzo rising-sun design on the stoop just in front of the entrance. Accounts of the store's history vary. Some say it has been in the same location since the 1940s. Some say 1938. Others have told me it began on Columbia or Henry Street and moved to Court Street in the 1970s after the BQE killed business on that side of the neighborhood.

The closing of Gloria brought to mind all the old Italian businesses that have been lost since I moved to Carroll Gardens in 1994. Helen's Italian Restaurant, Fratelli Ravioli, Rainbow Deli, Renaissance Pharmacy, Carroll Gardens Pharmacy, Cammerari Bakery, Rapid Valet Dry Cleaners, Joe's Restaurant, Joe's Superette (and its amazing prosciutto balls), Mastellone Grocery.

Carroll Gardens has held on to its old character more than many Brooklyn neighborhoods, but it's fading. These days, the few remaining Italian businesses—Esposito Pork Store, Caputo Bakery, Court Street Pastry—look pretty lonely.

24 March 2014

Lost City: Chicago Edition: Ohio House Motel

I would never stay at the Ohio House Motel, but I am fascinated by its continued existence on a considerable chuck of real estate in downtown Chicago. It's like somebody dropped a 1950s roadside motel in the center of a crowded city block. The check-in building and (now closed) Coffee Shop, as well as the lodgings, are a mere two stories high and sport a recurring diamond pattern that must have been fabulous when the place opened in December 1960. And there is plenty of parking. It's a wonder, given the overall style, that there's not an outdoor pool.

21 March 2014

Home of Bawdy Times Past

This somewhat impressive-looking, somewhat anonymous building on W. 26th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway holds quite a culinary past. Until 1904, it was the home of Delmonico's, the most famous restaurant New York has produced or ever will produce. After 1904, it was Cafe Martin, a super-chic dining spot favored by the well-heeled and fabulous for a decade early in the 20th century.

20 March 2014

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Yale Club

In recent weeks, readers have been sending me photos of extant wooden phone booths like crazy. And I couldn't be happier. This one is in the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. The door has been taken off. Next to it is another booth with the phone missing. The reader said he saw someone sitting in this booth working on their iPad. See: they still have a use!

19 March 2014

Great Pizza Where You Least Expect It

Rose & Joe's Italian Bakery is a small hole-in-the-wall joint on 31st Street, at the end of the Q and N lines, in Astoria. It looks sweet from the outside, the way all Italian bakeries ought to. Inside there are several cases of the usual cookies and treats you find in such places, but that's not the hidden treasure that makes this place remarkable.

18 March 2014

A Good Sign: Hong Kong Tailor Jack

On Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. Jack's been there since 1987, which is odd, since the store and the sign look far older.

17 March 2014

The Weirdest Steak House in Town

On lower Stone Street (not the cool section lined with bars and favored by brokers), under some scaffolding, there is a narrow operation that I've always considered the weirdest steak house in New York. Most steak houses are huge and spacious. This one's a sliver, but fire-engine red. It's also pretty sad and decrepit looking, and bears what I consider an odd name: Nebraska Steakhouse. I guess there are a lot of cows in Nebraska. Or were, historically. But in a town where most steak houses proudly trumpet the names of their founders or owners (Peter Luger, Smith & Wollensky, Ruth's Chris, Keen's), it seems strange to crow about another state.

The menu's the usual array of large cuts of meat, with a chicken and lamb dish thrown in. (Though they do have something called "Mona's Health and Wellness Menu," which included tilapia and turkey meatballs and such.) The prices at—again, as usual—sky high. Judging by the largely positive Internet reviews, it seems the food is appreciated by the customers. Also appreciated, apparently, are the shapely, mainly Russian, female bartenders. At the annual Christmas party, they all dress up like sexy little Santa's helpers. I guess that's one way to keep your male clientele coming back.

The joint's curious personality may have something to do with its owner, one Mona Muresan, who is a Romanian-born body-building champ. She moved to the U.S. in 1992, when she was teenager. She began as a coat check girl and worked her way up the chain of command until she eventually bought the place from its previous owner in 2006. Real Horatio Alger story.

There has been an eating establishment at this address at least since 1930. In 1932, it was the Satin Coffee House, which sounds intriguing.

14 March 2014

Shades of Madison Square

I snapped this shot recently while walking on Essex Street along Seward Park in the Lower East Side. The building with the illuminated clock is the old Jewish Forward building, which was renovated a while back and converted into condos. Somehow the dusky image of a tall, striking building seen above the tops of bare winter trees reminded me of this classic Alfred Stieglitz image of the Flatiron Building and Madison Square from a century ago.

13 March 2014

A Visit to Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken

Some priceless New York dining institutions just don't get the press others do simply because they are in out-of-the-way, or less-desirable neighborhoods. And so the 100-year-old bar or 50-year-old deli will be covered exhaustively year in and year out simply because its in the East Village or Cobble Hill—that is, the areas all the bloggers and journalists either live or like to hang out.

12 March 2014

La Cross Pharmacy

I encountered La Cross Pharmacy while on a recent visit to the Mott Haven neighborhood in The Bronx. It's on the corner of Saint Anns Avenue and 138th Street. I was attracted—as I often am with such places—by the the old signage running down the edge of the building.

11 March 2014

The Other White Horse Tavern

Everyone knows the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, the century-old-plus haunt of writers, singers and anarchists, last drinking spot of poet Dylan Thomas, etc. Fewer know of the city's other White Horse Tavern, dive-ish hole in the wall on a nothing side street on the southern tip of Manhattan.

10 March 2014

From Hearty to Quaint

This is the Park Slope storefront on 9th Street that used to contain Catene, the Italian sandwich shop that specialized in calamari heros, and closed in 2012 after 46 years in business. Judging by the cute exterior, it looks like the next tenant will be a little less rough and ready. Cute storefront. But I miss the old, brazen, red sign.

A Perfect Storefront: Golden Pizza

Haven't done one of these in a while. But this pizzeria, encountered by accident during a trip to The Bronx, seemed to fit the bill, what with the corner space, the hand-painted signage on both sides of the storefront, and the upper signs with the illustration of the pizza man flipping dough.

Golden Pizza is in Mott Haven. It's at the corner of Brook Avenue and 138th Street. From the looks of the place, it was founded in the early 1970s, and no later. But who can tell? Places like this, there's very little recorded history about. But it has the feel of that kind of local pizzeria that neighborhood people have been depending on for decades. For the record, it's owned by two folks named Harjinger and Manginda Singh.

09 March 2014

The Mystery of Jade Fountain Liquor Corporation

The Lower East Side has lost a great many of its mercantile landmarks over the past 20 years of gentrification. And I'm not suggested that Jade Fountain Liquor Corporation—a grungy little booze shop on Delancey east of Essex—can replace the likes of Ratner's or Gertel's. But, hey, it is nearly a hundred years old!


According to the patchwork sign—which says, among many things, "As Old As Hills"—the store was was found in 1920-something. (I can't tell what the last number, now fallen off, was.) Which is, of course, absolute nonsense. No liquor store in the U.S. was founding in 1920-anything, because Prohibition was in effect from 1920 to 1933. Nor is it likely that the shop has existed all that time as Jade Fountain. Not in this location, which was solidly Jewish until the 1960s or so. Chinatown didn't start to encroach on Delancey and Essex until the late 1980s

07 March 2014

Sarge's Deli Reopens After 15-month Closure

This City is growing alarmingly short of classic New York delis. So it was painful to hear, in November 2012, that Sarge's Deli in Murray Hill—one of the lesser sung delis, but a dearly loved one nonetheless (witness the crazy number of comments on my "Who Goes There?" column in 2011)—was gutted by fire. I'm sure many suspected it would never rise from the ashes.

Happily, the skeptics were wrong. Sarge's reopened for business this week. Here are some shots of the interior. Strangely, the owners seemed to have strived to recreate the deli's unremarkable interior exactly. The place basically looks as it did before the fire. Only a little cleaner.

Famous Oyster Bar Sign Saved

Soon after I wrote about midtown's circa-1959 Famous Oyster Bar for a "Who Goes There?" column in 2013, the joint gave up the ghost. The restaurant closed in January 2014, pushed out by a greedy landlord.

The good news is the classic neon sign—always the best thing about the place—has been saved. Bowery Boogie reports that Grey Lady co-owner Ryan Chadwick purchased the twin signs, and will soon attach them to the facade of his establishment at Allen and Delancey Streets.

04 March 2014

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Harvard Club

The same eagle-eyed reader who sent me photos last week of the wooden phone booths at the Queens County Supreme Court, soon after sent me this image of wooden phone booths at the Harvard Club in midtown. Which makes me think this reader of mind travels in some well-heeled circles.

02 March 2014

The Rat-Squirrel House Was Always Weird and Creepy

I've always assumed that the Rat-Squirrel House—aka 149 Kane Street in Cobble Hill (seen today, above, and in olden times, below), Brooklyn, a structure whose creepy and bizarre decline and resurrection I've chronicled for five years—was once a normal, upstanding structure, occupied by normal, upstanding citizens—not the reclusive, Collyer-Brothers-like lady who let the landmarked building fall to wrack and ruin during the '90s and early 2000s.

I was wrong.

A few weeks ago, I received this message from a reader. It's the first time I've ever been contacted by anyone with intimate, direct known of 149 Kane Street. Read and wonder: