The (Caffe) Vivaldi Requiem

“Nothing lasts forever,” the Buddha tells us, and that’s true of people, life, and certainly cities. I know that impermanence is the only thing we can be sure of, but when I spend time in Greenwich Village my heart beats out little prayers of gratitude for all the cafés and coffeehouses and jazz clubs that have held on through the years, keeping the flame of the Village’s bohemian character alight, however faintly.

True, lemmings are lined up outside [insert trendy dessert establishment du jour] for the chance to eat a cup of $10 fucking cookie dough or some other such nonsense, but in Washington Square Park one can still find bluegrass musicians, performance artists, protesters, families, and sentimental flaneurs and flaneuses like me who are contented simply to stroll slowly, taking everything in (preferably while eating a good old-fashioned ice cream cone, thankyouverymuch).

My favorite Village locales, from 55 bar to Corner Bistro to Mezzrow to Caffe Reggio, all share a certain timeless quality: if you squint a little, it’s easy to imagine you’re in Greenwich Village circa just about any decade from the 1930s to the present day. Caffe Vivaldi, a soft-spoken little haunt tucked away on Jones Street, is no exception.

A grand piano takes up most of the front of the room at Vivaldi. Portraits of various classical composers hang on the walls, watching over the patrons, who are a microcosm of Greenwich Village itself: an elderly couple in the far corner shares a bottle of wine and quietly discusses the play they’ve just seen at the Lucille Lortel Theater while a few NYU students rowdily talk politics over beers at their communal table; a lone tourist sits near the door nursing a cup of coffee and, brow furrowed, studies a subway map as (ahem) a jazz singer gets her music in order before her set. The café’s ember-glow light and the music being played inside—folk or jazz or classical or singer-songwriter—spill onto the sidewalk, causing passersby to stop and peer inside. “Let’s go in and have a drink,” they say, delighted to have (accidentally) “discovered” the place.

Proprietor Ishrat Ansari has presided over Caffe Vivaldi for thirty-five years. With the time-tested tools of food and wine, music, and hospitality, Ishrat has created much more than a café. He’s provided a haven for all of us who love Old New York and the culture of Greenwich Village.

Over the course of the past several years, Caffe Vivaldi has staved off a 400% rent increase and a heartbreaking litany of legal and financial attacks by a convicted felon whom the attorney general once called “the Bernie Madoff of landlords.” Ishrat suffered a stroke smack dab in the middle of this long and contentious battle and his recovery has impeded his ability to keep fighting. Enough was, eventually, enough. In a tale that has grown all too familiar, a(nother) beloved and vibrant institution is being shuttered thanks to greed and corruption.

As both patron and performer, I will miss Caffe Vivaldi and the Greenwich Village spirit it embodies. Before Caffe Vivaldi closes its doors on June 23, I plan to stop by, listen to some music, and raise a glass to Ishrat Ansari’s vision and steadfastness. I invite—nay, urge—you to do the same.

Advertisements

April and May: looking back, looking ahead

April and May, despite their flying past with blinding speed, were lovely. I sang a number of diverse gigs with dear friends, which is always good medicine for the soul. The performances ranged from being the “canary” in a Benny Goodman tribute to channeling my inner Patsy Cline for some western swing at Mezzrow to harmonizing background vocals with Duchess to singing socialist anthems in three different languages in commemoration of the Spanish Civil War…and that’s not even the complete list!

When not singing for my supper in recent weeks, I was delighted to partake in some quintessentially New York City cultural experiences:

  • at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the scent of lilacs hung heavy in the air and a rainbow array of tulips stood at attention;
  • Passover Seder included our traditional boisterous rendering of Dayenu;
  • we feasted on a rustic seafood stew in a Brooklyn brownstone for a dear friend’s 75th birthday;
  • at Yankee Stadium we leapt from our seats, elated, when Gary Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer;
  • an entire evening’s program was dedicated to the key of C minor at the Chamber Music Society; and
  • beloved friends hosted an evening of intimate theatre in their home, where their friend (an accomplished stage and film actor) presented excerpts of a thought-provoking one-man show about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Kicking off summer: lakeside in CT; a busy bee at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens; Yankee Stadium; my annual nose-in-the-lilacs photo.

As if all of the above weren’t enough, my husband and I celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary with a trip to Savannah. We had a few touristy to-do’s on our list (eat at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; take a tour of the Owens-Thomas mansion), but our days were largely free-form. We mostly ambled down shady tree-lined streets, taking in the architecture and thinking about Johnny Mercer. Lest I give the impression that things were too idyllic, I should disclose that I also caught a bitch of a chest cold. However, I found the bourbon cocktails to be extremely medicinal.

Scenes from Savannah: sniffly and sipping bourbon for its medicinal value; a plate of home cooking at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room; the Mercer-Williams house; a rendezvous with the Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia himself, Mr. Johnny Mercer.

Looking ahead, I’m feeling quite territorial about my time. Things are bound to get busy this summer, what with tour dates and assorted professional obligations, but I’m determined to set plenty of time aside for reading, seeing friends, picnicking, listening to music, watching baseball, daydreaming in the park…all the things that make summer, well, summer. Spending Memorial Day weekend lakeside in Connecticut felt like a good start.

The pas de deux between productivity and recreation can sometimes more closely resemble the French Danse Apache, but I firmly believe we sacrifice leisure for busy-ness at our peril. The very word “recreation” holds the key: when we take time to smell the roses, i.e. recreate, we re-create ourselves and emerge renewed, ready to meet our obligations with joy and optimism.

In April and May, I…
Blogged about: March. Close-harmony girl groups (for Duchess).

Watched: Baseball, natch. Via Dolorosa, live and in-person, acted by the wonderful Jonathan Tindle. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in preparation for Savannah.

Read: Her First American, by Lore Segal. Vivid, sad, and beautifully written. I loved this novel about a young Jewish woman in love with a Black intellectual in post-WWII New York City. Caroline: Little House, Revisited, by Sarah Miller. I re-read the Little House series a handful of years ago for the first time since my childhood, and the books were…different than I remembered. For one thing, I was stunned by the rampant racism against Native Americans that runs throughout the series. For another, whereas the character of Ma (Caroline) once struck me as a bit of a wet blanket, as an adult woman myself I realized how selfish (and occasionally reckless) Pa was. Reading Miller’s thoughtful re-imagining of the Ingalls’ story as told from Caroline’s perspective was satisfying. Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Brilliant, stunning prose…and also one of the most depressing books I’ve read in ages. The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer. Definitely a light read, but we all need a little fantasy and escapism from time to time. How to Eat a Peach, by Diana Henry. Part memoir, part cookbook, completely delicious. Diana Henry has long been one of my favorite food writers, and I think this may be her finest book yet.

Listened to: Connie Converse. The only thing more mysterious, heartbreaking, and unique than Converse’s story is her music. Janelle Monaé. I am always sooooo late to the party when it comes to contemporary music, but consider me obsessed. Kat Edmonson. Duchess sings backup vocals for Kat from time to time, and her new album, “Old Fashioned Gal,” accomplishes the nigh-impossible feat of being both a throwback and utterly of its own time. Les McCann. Les McCann. Les McCann.

March: looking back, looking ahead

Photo proofs of Tennessee Williams at the Morgan Library exhibit.

March is an in-between month, not quite winter and certainly not quite spring, either. Last month, restlessness and impatience nipped at my heels as I dreamed of lilacs and blue skies, only to be met with nor’easter after nor’easter. Snowfall notwithstanding, March brought lots of fun experiences: seeing the Tennessee Williams exhibit at the Morgan Library; listening to Jay Clayton, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings sing at an intimate Upper West Side soirée; and performing with Duchess at Dizzy’s (in the middle of a snowstorm, I might add). March also ushered in occasions to celebrate: my mother’s birthday, the first day of spring, Major League Baseball’s opening day (!), and my fifteen-year anniversary as a New Yorker on March 31.

Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan singing on the UWS. I am so grateful for their joyful and generous spirits!

I suppose at some point I may stop marking my move to New York City as a personal holiday, but the truth is, the anniversary of my arrival in New York feels as significant to me as my actual birthday (August 22, if you’re keeping track). One of the things I have always loved about New York City is its potential and permission for reinvention. A person can live many different lifetimes in this endlessly dynamic city, and the promise of spring reminds me anew that, as Dorothy Parker wrote, “New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”

This year, my New York-iversary coincided with Easter and Passover, leading to a very festive weekend and no small amount of rumination on the twin themes of spring and rebirth. On Good Friday, my friend R. and I headed deep into Brooklyn to attend an invite-only dress rehearsal of Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend and Sara Bareilles. We were there thanks to the largesse of a buddy of mine, who was playing lead trumpet in the show (thanks, S.!) and we were blown away by the energy and talent of the musicians and actors.

The following night, my husband, in-laws, and I had dinner at Gramercy Tavern, a longtime standard-bearer of the New York City restaurant scene. In all my years in New York—and the restaurant business, for that matter—I had never eaten at Gramercy Tavern, and the experience more than lived up to its reputation.  We were delighted by the profusion of tulips and forsythia at the restaurant’s entrance and the warm, golden light that suffused the room. The service was knowledgeable and unpretentious; the food was elegant, imaginative, and (most importantly) delicious. The entire evening was unforgettable.

Three cheers for the world’s greatest city!

Easter Sunday itself was spent with my husband and mother-in-law, walking through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Precious little was in bloom, but we were all heartened by seeing brave little buds on the trees and lilac bushes.

Looking ahead—well, at the moment, the truth is that I’m not looking too far ahead. Spring will arrive when she’s good and ready. In the meantime, there are daffodils from Trader Joe’s, early dinners in cozy locales with friends, piping hot cups of tea in the morning, and other small, quiet joys that make me happy to be right here, right now.

In March, I…
Blogged about: February. The joys of carbohydrates. Singer-friend Champian Fulton.

Watched: Woman of the Year. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are irresistible. Words and Music. Wildly inaccurate, but delightful to hear so many Rodgers and Hart tunes. Sneaky Pete. Giovanni Ribisi is ridiculously good in this fun show. Jesus Christ Superstar, live and in person!

Read: Playing with the Grown-ups, by Sophie Dahl. I love Sophie Dahl’s writing. This, her first novel, is a coming-of-age story, told with poeticism and compassion, about a young woman with a decidedly unconventional upbringing. At the Kitchen Table, Dahl’s new website with seasonal recipes and thoughtful musings, described by Sophie as “kind of virtual Sunday lunch table, with excellent guests.” Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub. An enormously engaging portrait of the life of a starlet in Hollywood’s golden age. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. God, I loved this book! On the surface, Mitford’s tale of the romantic mishaps and comic foibles of a beautiful British noblewoman could be construed as frivolous, but her prose is laced throughout with laugh-out-loud zingers and sharply intelligent social commentary.

Listened to: The Red Garland Trio, A Garland of Red. Elegant and swinging. The Boswell Sisters.

Foodie Tuesday: The Winter of My Discontent or, Carbohydrates: A Love Story

It’s been a long winter. I confess to feeling tired of being cold and wind-whipped. I’ve been impatient and foot-tappingly restless, frustrated by the storms that keep swooping in, uninvited, just when it seems as though spring might be coming into view. As I type, yet another nor’easter is swirling around outside. The calendar tells me spring officially starts in just one week, but looking out the window, I don’t quite believe it.

Last week, an antidote to the winter blues presented itself, as is often the case, in the forms of good company and Italian carbohydrates. An impromptu visit to Eataly with friends on a damp, chilly evening held a number of delights, all of which went a long way toward smoothing the frayed edges of my optimism, including an elegant white wine from Friuli and grilled escarole with pine nuts and currants, topped with shaved Parmigiano and a drizzle of syrupy balsamic vinegar.

The lasagna that followed, though, was nothing less than manna from heaven: silken housemade pasta layered with green beans, bechamel, and a green bean-basil pesto. Creamy and comforting, the dish was saved from heaviness by its vegetal brightness; my spirit was saved from heaviness by the conviviality at our table.

After dinner, soothed and sated (okay, and slightly abuzz from the aforementioned Friulian wine), I made my way to the fresh pasta counter to bring some weekend sustenance back to Brooklyn. By the time I sat down on the subway that evening, full of lasagna and newly-recovered good humor, I realized I had lunch plans the next day at a Veronese-style risotteria and I had just purchased two meals’ worth of fresh pasta. Oh, well. In for a penny, in for a pound; it would be a weekend of carbs.

My lunch dates the next day had suggested Risotteria Melotti for our rendezvous, and I wasn’t about to quibble. These particular friends and I have eaten liverwurst and onions on rye at McSorley’s, enjoyed cocktails at the Waldorf, and sipped espresso at Caffé Reggio. They’ve lived all over the world, from Venice to the Congo, and they’re as well versed in the finer points of baseball as they are in jazz and Proust. They’re citizens of the world and real New Yorkers, and when it comes to food (or anything at all, really), I trust them implicitly. Both the risotto—mine was made with shrimp and lemon—and the conversation that day were soul-sustaining and brought cheer to the gray afternoon.

That weekend, my husband and I did indeed feast on that Eataly pasta. We prepared each pasta (pea, mint, and ricotta-stuffed ravioli and lemon-ricotta agnolotti) the same way: tossed in melted butter with a handful of peas and fresh mint, finished with a grating of Parmigiano. We watched Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy spar in “Woman of the Year” as we savored our cozy evening and the pasta, which, with its delicate flavors of lemon and mint, whispered to us of a not-too-distant spring.

The final stretch of winter can be a long haul. Take it from me: when the last, filthy remnants of snow are slow to melt and buds have yet to appear on the trees, the best medicine for sagging morale is sharing in the company of loved ones…and sharing in some pasta doesn’t hurt, either.

IMG_8618

A little over a year ago, in Rome, at Alfredo alla Scrofa, where the eponymous (and divine) fettucine was created.

I still love New York

Sometimes it seems like New York City is on its way to becoming (or, depending on whom you ask, is already) a tiny island filled with nothing but banks and Duane Reade stores. A number of my friends have recently moved west, having decided that New York is “over,” and L.A. is now the place to be.

I get it. I know that living in New York City is not for everyone. But if a hipster is somebody who loves something before it’s cool enough to capture the fancy of the general public, I suppose I, then, am the opposite. I love New York City as much today as ever, even though lots of people seem to have decided it’s not cool anymore.

By the time this post is published, I’ll be in Tuscany, on a long-anticipated vacation with my mother. When it comes time to depart Italy, I know I’ll be terribly sad to leave la dolce vita, but there will be solace in knowing that autumn in New York awaits.

Brooklyn Bridge will be filled with tourists and locals, strolling in the still-warm September sun. The greatest musicians in the world will be performing at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village every night. The leaves will be starting to turn in Central Park. And, as I walk briskly through Manhattan’s “canyons of steel,” with every footfall, my heart will beat, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.” 

I love New York, today and every day.

December: Looking back, looking ahead

Ah, December.  I know the holidays aren’t everybody’s favorite time of year, but this month has been fantastic all the way around, with lots of touring, singing, and holiday celebrations.  The month began with a trip to Israel with my DUCHESS cohorts, Amy and Melissa.  We had an extraordinary experience performing at the inaugural Jerusalem Jazz Festival and taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  (DUCHESS has had a pretty amazing 2015; you can check out our year-in-review here.)

12269831_1654875288101868_1216887761_n

A few sights in Jerusalem, including a panorama of the Old City, Mt. Oliva, and the Tower of David.

12298770_1521972971428474_587730460_n

The Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Overwhelming.

An abundance of wonderful food, family, and friends made for a relaxing and joyful holiday season.  I returned home from Israel on the first night of Hanukkah.  Ours being a multi-culti household, we had friends over for a pot roast dinner for Hanukkah; then, on Christmas Eve, E. and I made our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes at home.  Christmas Day found us at Bouley for an exquisite many-course dinner with family and friends.  On Boxing Day, we traveled to Bensonhurst for Sicilian-style pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens, then took in the dazzling Christmas lights in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights neighborhood, an excursion that I hope will become a new holiday ritual.

IMG_4919

Dyker Heights’ Christmas lights extravaganza; our Christmas table; Sicilian-style pizza in Bensonhurst.

I’m closing out this festive month with back-to-back nights at the Jazz Standard with DUCHESS, followed by a marathon New Year’s Eve gig at a swanky NYC restaurant.  I love these last days of the year, when we’re teetering on the edge of a brand new beginning; I love the proverbial clean slate.  Then again, New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, and with good reason: nothing sets us up for failure like deciding to make sweeping, life-altering changes literally overnight. Whether one’s goals involve greater self-care, self-improvement, or self-discipline, I agree with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: “The beginning is always today.”

17354-Mary-Shelley-Quote-The-beginning-is-always-today

That said, I can’t help but be invigorated by the cosmic turn-of-the-page that comes with a new year.  Once the Christmas decorations are all put away and the holiday excesses have died down, I invariably find myself reflecting on the potential and possibilities contained in the year ahead.  True, I do have some big hopes and dreams for 2016, but my actual New Year’s resolutions are small, do-able actions that will, I hope, bring about larger shifts in my attention span and the scope of my imagination:

  1. Listen to podcasts at the gym instead of my same old workout music playlist.  As usual, I’m late to the party, but I am having the best time exploring the world of podcasts. My time on the StairMaster goes by a lot faster when I’m happily listening to an interview with a singer I admire or tales of Old Hollywood.
  2. Read on the subway; no more silly iPhone games.  It’s a well-known fact that I loathe the subway.  Overcrowded cars (which is to say, most of them, most of the time) make me claustrophobic; the long, unexplained stops between stations make me panicky, and the smells…oh, God, the smells!  BUT…all of the above notwithstanding, the subway is still the quickest, most affordable means of getting around NYC and I don’t anticipate getting a chauffeur any time soon, so why not make the most of my time on the train?

In December, I…
Blogged about: Autumn.  My Six Months with Sinatra. DUCHESS’ Year in Review.

Read: Invisible City, by Julia Dahl.  I’m not usually a big mystery-novel reader, but this one is set in Brooklyn, specifically in the Hasidic community.  It was a fast and engaging read, and I’m curious to check out more of Dahl’s work.  My Kitchen Year: 136 recipes that saved my life, by Ruth Reichl.  I’ve long been a fan of Reichl’s writing, and her cookbook/memoir is a beautifully photographed, thoughtful meditation on how what we cook and eat reflects the seasons of the year and of our lives.

Watched: A few movies I’ve been eager to see.  Joy boasted a great cast and a true rags-to-riches story; I’ll watch Jennifer Lawrence in just about anything.  Spotlight was somber and brilliantly acted.  Brooklyn was heartwarming and sweet.  There are still lots of movies I want to see (the final installment of the Hunger Games, Trumbo, and The Big Short, among others), but these were my top three.

Listened to: Podcasts!  Janis Siegel gave a wonderful interview on The Third Story with Leo Sidran; my culinary hero, Nigella Lawson, chatted with Bon Appétit; You Must Remember This took me back in time to the Hollywood of yore.

“New York is hopeful.”

It occurs to me that there are other towns. It occurs to me so violently that I say, at intervals, “Very well, if New York is going to be like this, I’m going to live somewhere else.” And I do—that’s the funny part of it. But then one day there comes to me the sharp picture of New York at its best, on a shiny blue-and-white Autumn day with its buildings cut diagonally in halves of light and shadow, with its straight neat avenues colored with quick throngs, like confetti in a breeze. Someone, and I wish it had been I, has said that “Autumn is the Springtime of big cities.” I see New York at holiday time, always in the late afternoon, under a Maxfield Parish sky, with the crowds even more quick and nervous but even more good-natured, the dark groups splashed with the white of Christmas packages, the lighted holly-strung shops urging them in to buy more and more. I see it on a Spring morning, with the clothes of the women as soft and as hopeful as the pretty new leaves on a few, brave trees. I see it at night, with the low skies red with the black-flung lights of Broadway, those lights of which Chesterton—or they told me it was Chesterton—said, “What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!” I see it in the rain, I smell the enchanting odor of wet asphalt, with the empty streets black and shining as ripe olives. I see it—by this time, I become maudlin with nostalgia—even with its gray mounds of crusted snow, its little Appalachians of ice along the pavements. So I go back. And it is always better than I thought it would be.

dorothy-parker-1411-t-600x600-rwI suppose that is the thing about New York. It is always a little more than you had hoped for. Each day, there, is so definitely a new day. “Now we’ll start over,” it seems to say every morning, “and come on, let’s hurry like anything.”

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it. There is excitement ever running its streets. Each day, as you go out, you feel the little nervous quiver that is yours when you sit in the theater just before the curtain rises. Other places may give you a sweet and soothing sense of level; but in New York there is always the feeling of “Something’s going to happen.” It isn’t peace. But, you know, you do get used to peace, and so quickly. And you never get used to New York.

-Dorothy Parker, “My Home Town”
1928

10407281_10204433857780120_2194610430233668104_n