New York, New York, September 11-18, 2013
Thirty-two years faded into the deepening shadows of Greenwich Village as we stood waiting for a table at Arturo's on Houston Street. When I first came to New York City to attend film school, my friend Peter had taken me to eat at Arturo's on my first night in town, and now I was back with my wife and two grown children on our first night in the city, hungrily watching steaming pizzas being delivered to the sidewalk tables.
Arturo's had evolved little in the three decades I'd been gone, the level of tidiness and the pictures on the walls seemingly unchanged from my first visit. The pizzas and pasta were hot and mouthwatering, just as I remembered. This was the first stop on a trip we had long promised our kids, a refueling enroute to visit the spots where Lindsay had found our grey tabby Catalina, our apartment in the West Village that had served as Al Pacino's home in the movie "Cruising," and the tiny SoHo bakery where we bought dense Italian bread as the owner's mother cooked red sauce in the back room.
The Village itself was a dichotomy, mixing buildings and businesses that had passed the time without so much as a new paint job or change of posters with blocks where I scarcely recognized a thing. We stayed in a chic new hotel just blocks from our old place on Renwick Street, the building now cradled in scaffolding with a sign proclaiming a new townhouse development by Phillip Johnson. In my time, I'd taken half of a loft space on the fourth floor of the dilapidated brick structure and laboriously carried sinks, a gas range, lumber and sheetrock up the stairway to reclaim a livable but primitive apartment from the urban landscape. Soon a multimillionaire investment banker will be living there, and I wish him or her a great life.
We found a joint called Third Rail Coffee for our morning latte and scone fix, and it was superb. The baristas seemed to be mostly Seattle and Portland transplants, and customers hung around wearing Seattle Sounders jerseys and sporting the customary tattoos and piercings, departing on stripped down fixie bikes to weave their way through the downtown traffic. For what it's worth, this hipster coffee culture seems to be the Northwest's most enduring export these days, verging on supplanting the time-worn Italian influence in Greenwich Village, which we found disconcerting.
Vesuvio Bakery, our mainstay for crusty Italian bread from a sourdough starter, had been lovingly restored to its original splendor and now houses a specialty cookie maker. A few years after we had moved to Los Angeles, we stopped by and the bread maker recognized us immediately, cheerfully asking "How ya doing? I haven't seen you in a long time, you move to another neighborhood or something?" Yeah, I replied, we'd moved to California. "Whoa, that's a long way away!"
Our second night found us at Carbone, reputedly the hardest reservation to get in New York City. Carbone occupies a quiet spot at 181 Thompson Street, once home to an old-school Mafia hangout called Rocco Restaurant. The Rocco sign is still in place, with a subtle "Carbone" in red neon across the front, and the windows are still shuttered with discreet wood screens just as before. The snappily dressed customers pulling up to the curb in expensive imported cars are the only outward signs of the restaurant's new clientele. Carbone was a treat, though not a bargain. The restaurant oozes Godfather-esque atmosphere, all dark wood and tiled floors that were copied from the movie - I half expected to find a gun taped to the backside of the toilet when I went in to relieve myself. The highly professional waiters wisecrack like veteran mob underlings but get the job done, making an immense platter of beef shortribs sound like an offer you can't refuse. We didn't. The Caprese of vine-ripened Heirloom tomatoes and house-made mozarella was to die for; the Tagliatelle Vongole the best I'd ever eaten by a wide margin. Whole braised Branzino was done perfectly, crispy outside and still moist inside. We finished it off with "free" berry-infused Grappa and Limoncello and some superior espresso. When my wife asked for a half caffeinated, half decaf coffee, the waiter thought for a moment and deadpanned, "Decaf? Espresso? My guy's not gonna know what to do with that!" Priceless.
In between Rocky-esque 12 round bouts with Italian cuisine, we went to museums, shopped at stores you only find in Manhattan, and saw the Broadway show "Kinky Boots." The show was a gem, easily the best piece of live theater any of us had witnessed. We spent the better part of a day each in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum (I'd never been to the latter) and were blown away by the scope and quality of both. Rooms and rooms of Egyptian and Asian artifacts and an over-the-top display of dinosaur remains were our favorites.
And then we ate some more. From piping hot slices of Sicilian pizza at some of the same spots I'd frequented as a student to a standout dinner at the hugely popular L'Artusi, this was not the time or place to scrimp on calories. L'Artusi was exceptional, with its welcoming atmosphere in warm shades of grey and a lively crowd comprising all nationalities and sexual persuasions. We started out by sharing a salad of roasted beets, watercress and orange, moved on to Bucatini with tomato and Pancetta, and I finished up with a Hanger Steak, all impeccably done. We walked back through the old neighborhood on a crisp fall evening, and marveled at how this once edgy corner of town was now full of young moms in yoga pants pushing strollers. In our day it was all black jeans and leather if you were straight, 501's and olive bomber coats if you were gay - no one would have dreamed of slowing a possible escape from danger by pushing a baby carriage.
We stopped in twice at the Cupping Room Cafe, where many years ago Lindsay had witnessed a guy killing another guy for hitting his Ferrari. Just up the street we looked around in the Bogner store, the luxury skiwear maker's only retail outlet in the US, looking ridiculously out of place plopped down in the middle of West Broadway.
Just because we could, and because it was on the way back to the airport, we had the cab stop at Katz's Deli as we headed home and loaded up on pastrami sandwiches and fresh sour pickles. It was that kind of trip.