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Spring in NYC

My mom’s the kind of person who feels like she’s receiving a gift when she gives one, so all she wanted for her birthday was for our family to be there for her present to her mom, a New Yorker inspired weekend of opera and fine dining in New York City. They both celebrate important birthdays this spring, the kind that end on a “0” or “5” and deserve great parties, so we were thrilled to oblige. She — some might say wisely — turned over a lot of the planning to an event planner who already lives in the city and does pro bono work. (I was thrilled just to be asked.) Here’s my story of the experience.

Thursday, April 15

1:00pm After a hair appointment went long, I picked up raspberry red velvet, peanut butter and chocolate ganache, lemon cream, carrot cake, dark chocolate, and Mexican vanilla cupcakes from my favorite NYC bakery, the West Village’s Sweet Revenge, and hurried home to shower.

1:53pm Home!

2:05pm Then I undid all of the good the shower just did to sprint cross-town to Penn Station. In sandals, no less.

2:20pm I made it to Penn Station! I met my parents and helped them find my grandmother, heretoforth Nonny, in Amtrak’s terminal. This was perilous, as I’d just read a series on Slate.com about signs that specifically called out Penn Station as having some of the worst signage for any public transportation portal. In the world.

5:00pm My brother Ben and his wife Kelley had arrived by this point, so we all met for hors d’oeuvres and wine at the Library Hotel, where everyone was staying. My sister Liz would go straight from the airport to our first restaurant of the weekend. There was so much catching up to do.

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Dad and me at Malatesta

8:30pm For dinner our first night, I wanted to find something quintessentially New York for my out-of-town guests, but perhaps not as expensive or claustrophobic as restaurants I generally consider quintessential. My grandmother mentioned she liked Italian. I looked into several neighborhood Italian restaurants I’d been to and enjoyed, and I found that parties of 7 were the size at which their event planners took over for hosts and inflicted restrictive and expensive fixed-price menus on the group. No thank you. I meandered through my go-to guides, MenuPages, NYT Dining, Yelp, OpenTable, and New York Magazine, until I found Malatesta Trattoria (Christopher and Washington). I had heard of this West Village restaurant by word of mouth, but it was when I came across New York Magazine’s write-up and 10/10 reader rating, and found equal enthusiasm in Yelp reviews, that I decided to commit, sight unseen. My own Yelp review adds to the accolades:

I made a reservation for my party of 7 at 8:30 on a gorgeous Thursday evening. We launched right into orders of shareable appetizers and loved our bruschetta sampling and grilled calamari. The squid pieces were enormous, not even remotely fishy. For my first course, I ordered a special of balsamic marinated mushrooms with a young white cheese. It was quite generous and impeccably fresh, as were my fellow diners’ Caprese salads and a fresh artichoke salad, dressed with lemon juice and fresh herbs.

For my main, I ordered the spinach gnocchi in gorgonzola cream sauce on the recommendations of my server and fellow Yelpers. My brother ordered a ravioli special involving artichokes. We quietly agreed each others’ were our favorites. Others ordered Penne All Arrabbiata, the Polpette (veal meatballs), or repeats of appetizers, and I enjoyed my tastes all around. Portions were perfect, neither modest nor gluttonous. With wines by the glass for only $6 and no entree setting us back more than about $14, the value was spectacular.

Malatesta is still quintessential in that it is quite loud when it’s packing a full house, and maneuvering can be a bit difficult. But my out-of-town visitors learned a lesson about what real New Yorkers do when they eat: nevermind the garlic breath, just lean in and talk louder!

Friday, April 16

10:30am: I can’t imagine an 85 year-old more spritely than Nonny. As I watch her age more gracefully than a fine Bordeaux or a distant quasar, I revel in sharing in her genetic composition. But whether you’re 85 or 25, walking for more than an hour isn’t fun. I do it all the time because I live in New York, and I need interesting music or podcasts to listen to, eccentric people and sights around me to make pretend I’m not looking at, and sensible shoes I don’t mind destroying. In a couple of decades it’ll be the same thing, except I’ll be taking Advil for my hip joints and gawking less discreetly. And at 85, heck, I’ll use a scooter.

Nonny expressed interest in going to the Museum of Modern Art, and it seemed a shame for her to be limited to a little over a half-hour of walking. As it turns out, the museum welcomes scooters, so I sent my mom contact information for a few rental companies that delivered and picked up their scooters from hotels. This would allow Nonny to see Central Park, too, if the weather decided to be agreeable. Of course, going into the trip at the height of spring, the weather might do no such thing.

As it turned out, Friday morning was a bit brisk and gray, but dry, so we risked fitting our jaunt in before predicted afternoon showers. We rented Nonny’s scooter from Big Apple Mobility, which claims to be the best rental company in New York City, and we have no reason to argue with that. The scooter arrived in plastic wrap, like it had never been ridden before (but had probably just been given a thorough cleaning), and by day’s end, the battery would show no sign of use either. After a few test-runs of the scooter in the hotel’s petite lobby, for an amused audience of bellmen and guests checking out, Nonny was ready to embark on a motored journey up 5th Ave, and we were completely unprepared to keep up with her.

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Scooter-sitting while Nonny got some exercise

We maneuvered around shopping traffic and finally arrived at 59th Street for a rest, and to let a few stragglers catch up. An older woman, Elaine, approached us and asked if we needed any directions or recommendations for things to see and do, and she revealed that she had lived in the New York area for more than 60 years, in the city for the last 20 years, and was coming up on 50 years of marriage to her husband. We all told her about ourselves, and when I said I was moving away to LA soon, she responded, “Oh, do you have to?” I assured her the guy was worth it and told her I didn’t think I’d come to love New York the way she does. Who could?! Elaine and Nonny found common ground in family life in New England, and they chatted until the group was united again.

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Central Park

We disappeared into Central Park and saw the Zoo and Delacorte Music Clock. We curved around to the Mall and Literary Walk, the majestic American Elms in full bloom looming over us, and arrived at the inactive Bethesda Fountain. I wished it was warmer so everyone could see a slew of paddleboats on the ponds. From there, we turned back toward MoMA. But first, lunch.

1:00pm We needed a place to eat that was used to accommodating groups of all ages that might bring scooters, strollers, even skateboards to their tables. We needed a large menu with a lot of options. And we needed it right around 7th Ave and 55th Street. And there it was, the Carnegie Deli.

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A pound of liverwurst!

With 6:00pm dinner reservations at a 3-star restaurant, I was leery of ordering too much food but still managed to do so, adding an order of fries with Russian dressing to my matzoh ball soup. I haven’t had matzoh in years and thought it was the right dish to order from the Carnegie Deli (as I’ve already had cheesecake after a Broadway show). My two baseball sized matzohs were utterly put to shame by Nonny’s liverwurst sandwich with, she specified, mayonnaise, white onion, and white bread. She received two gorgeous stacks of thick, bright pink slices of liverwurst held precariously between diagonal-cut slices of bread with long toothpicks. It was as good as liverwurst will ever be. I think Nonny’s sandwich even outdid my brother’s pastrami sandwich. The Carnegie guarantees a full pound of meat on all of its sandwiches, and the pastrami — brined, smoked, and steamed on the premise — was a sight to behold. Other lunches included borscht, noodle soup, a footlong hot dog, and a BLT. It was a great meal. And no one lost a toe as we maneuvered the scooter out of there.

2:00pm MoMA! Nonny, my mom, and I stayed together. We saw Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marina Abramovic’s special exhibits first, then worked our way down to see the permanent collection. We three had read a New Yorker review of the Cartier-Bresson photography collection and a profile of Abramovic that detailed how her past works would be re-performed, so we were an equally informed, if not also like-minded, threesome. By the time we got to the Abramovic exhibit, the scooter was proving itself to be a bit cumbersome, and Nonny felt compelled to do a bit of walking.

Several of the re-performances could as accurately be described as installations, to me. In one, “Imponderabilia,” two nude performers, who might be both male, both female, or male and female, stood opposite each other within the frame of a doorway. The entrance was already narrow, and the nudes stood away from the wall. They were quite close together — but not so close that you couldn’t turn your body sideways and slide through if you’re a reasonably fit person. It was interesting because, well, it was stressful. They weren’t wearing anything and we were, it was undesirable but inevitable that I or my clothes would touch one or both bodies, and a choice had to be made regarding who to face. I’ve talked to a lot of people about the exhibit, and men who said they would not face a man seemed surprised that I had been to the exhibit a few times and had chosen not to face women. (Simply put, no interest.) Since the exhibit opened in March, there have been reported misunderstandings about the decorum involved in passing through. But in the same NYT piece, the performers said most visitors are perfectly respectful, if not kind. And so Nonny went, kindly, respectfully, and fearlessly, between two muscular men, while my mom watched the scooter.

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A portion of the mural at Colicchio & Sons

6:00pm Nonny’s 85th birthday dinner at Colicchio & Sons! My mom visited me in New York in March, a month before the trip, and we spent a lot of time on my computer looking at menus and scanning dining reviews in the New York Times to determine the right restaurant for Nonny’s birthday dinner. We were concerned with the “special occasion” factor, volume, space, price, reputation, and uniqueness to New York. We were also up against certain other obstacles. Our first choice — at first — was the Minetta Tavern and my mom and I both had the date to make a reservation on our calendars. But as it turns out, they do not take reservations larger than 6, even if our guest of honor ate there thirty years ago and still remembers its matchstick cut fried zucchini. Gramercy Tavern seemed to have one table that could accommodate us, and it was booked for the duration of that night. If it’s a generally well-respected restaurant in New York, we considered it; but menus were underwhelming, spaces were uninviting, reviews were sour.

Colicchio & Sons, however, had just received 3 stars from Sam Sifton. My parents and I had been to chef Tom Colicchio’s flagship restaurant Craft this time last year and loved it. His decision to convert his Craftsteak concept in the Meatpacking District, at 15th Street and 10th Ave, into Colicchio & Sons reflected both the economy and a desire to do composed plates, a contrast to the simple (but perfect) preparations of meats, starches, and vegetables at Craft. My mom paid a visit to the restaurant during her stay with me, and it quickly became our first choice. Colicchio & Sons is an impressive space for any city but particularly New York, with high ceilings, ample windows, generous corridors between tables, and keen interior design. The dining room enjoys a backdrop of a mural painted from the point of view of the restaurant in mid-winter, though high over it, looking uptown toward the Empire State Building and Central Park. Quintessentially New York.

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Nonny receives her dessert, with a candle and song

I left a shining review on Yelp for this one, too.

We celebrated my grandmother’s 85th birthday at Colicchio & Sons this past Friday, and the entire staff could not have done more to make the occasion so special for our party of 7.

Several in my party ordered the spice roasted lobster with bordelaise for their first course, which was an excellent value and expertly cooked. I order sweetbreads as often as they appear on menus, and I was as thrilled with these as I’ve been with Craft’s — several delicately fried glands were placed together and garnished with cooked sweet onions. They were firm and perfectly savory.

For my entree, I had the spice-roasted Lola duck, which arrives with a breast cooked to order (medium rare for myself) and a confit leg, garnished with cabbage, chanterelles, and kumquat chutney, served over farro. It was very moist, very tender. The confit was quite thorough, on the softer side. I loved my mom’s veal breast with crispy tripe, a beautiful presentation. I’ve never enjoyed tripe more, in fact–though the dish focuses on the veal breast. My sister’s roasted cod was buttery and bright, balanced by the rich smokiness of porcini mushrooms wrapped in bacon. My brother passed out tastes of the crispy skin that came with his farm chicken “pot au feu,” with spring vegetables in ramp broth. The skin had been removed from the chicken before its slow braise and cooked separately, and its crisp bite gave way to a slow melt past my lips. I barely got to taste other dishes, as everyone so relished them!

We all thought the list of wines by the glass was well-rounded. I never drink Pinot Noir, as I prefer reds that practically hit me in the gut, but theirs tasted of ripe red fruit–strawberries in the sun–and it paired beautifully with my duck. I also did well to pair a Willamette Chardonnay with my sweetbreads. Several ordered some amazing Madeira after dinner.

We were a boisterous group. We took photos, as it was such a unique occasion to bring our group together from all over the US, and as I said, we really enjoyed our wines. As a former server, I’m hyper-aware of when servers seem flustered with my tables, and if the team attending to us was feeling it, I never sensed it.

I hope they’re reading this–they deserve credit for a job really well done. My grandmother wrote of the occasion, “I can assure you there wasn’t one moment when I actually felt 85.”

9:30pm Everyone cabbed to my apartment for those Sweet Revenge cupcakes, and as I was cutting them into quarters so people could sample various kinds, my brother curiously pulled a bottle of wine from a box on my kitchen floor. “Oh that,” I said. “You know, we should drink that right now.” It was a 2004 Barbera that had been given to me by a colleague in 2006, and I had painstakingly stored it at moderate temperatures for the last 4 years. I would not be able to bring it to Los Angeles with me in my imminent move, so it seemed there was no better time than the present to uncork it. It had aged quite beautifully. But, of course, not as well as my Nonny. Cupcakes were followed by cocktails at the Ace Hotel, then Whiskey Rebel, a nouveau dive in my neighborhood.

Saturday

10:00am I was none too pleased to hear my alarm ring, but very excited about the day ahead. Over dinner, in the midst of stories about how my great grandmother met my great grandfather, and how my grandmother met my grandfather, Nonny mentioned that something she’d always wanted to see in New York was The Cloisters. I said I wasn’t familiar with that, at first, then realized I knew quite well what she was talking about. On a recent Saturday, needing to get away from the city, I had polled some friends on places I could go to find some peace and solitude. The Cloisters were recommended to me and I was intrigued, but in the interest of time I opted to explore DUMBO and Red Hook.

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One of many rooms in the Cloisters

The Cloisters comprise a Met-affiliated museum built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and features the European Middle Ages art of sculptor and collector George Grey Bernard. Completed in 1938, the compound is located at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. What was so spectacular about the Cloisters, for me, was the uniqueness of the subject and the incorporation of architectural structures to the building itself. Intact columns from Medieval cloisters were built into the cloisters with replications of them, so that all of the columns might match in style and material. Placards indicated which columns were originals, and it was fairly obvious to the discriminant eye. Though much of the art (almost all, in fact) is of a religious nature, I don’t think one has to be religious to appreciate the beauty and antiquity of the pieces on display. My favorite works were a small wooden statue of Mary with young Jesus on display in their special collection, flawless in its detail, and a series of tapestries depicting a story of an unruly unicorn. My sister and I observed that the colors worked beautifully together, and the detail was astonishing. But it was also anachronistic to see, in the last of these gorgeous tapestries, a very graphic image of a unicorn mauling a dog. Perhaps not my choice of interior design for my 13th century castle through the winter months, but I got quite a kick out of it.

5:00pm We reconvened at the Library Hotel once more for cheese and wine, and a good friend of Liz’s joined us with her fiancé. We were in our best attire, as we would soon be attending a performance of Puccini’s Tosca at Lincoln Center. The Met Opera. Everyone looked amazing.

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Pre-opera, with my sister and brother at Ed’s

6:30pm Proximity to Lincoln Center dictated my restaurant choice on Saturday evening. I had had a good experience at Ed’s Chowder House on a quiet Saturday afternoon before, and it so happened to occupy the Empire Hotel, adjacent to Lincoln Center. I loved their fried calamari and basket of assorted fresh breads to start. Several of us ordered bloodies with grilled prawns so large that took up a third of the volume of the glass, while others enjoyed margaritas on the rocks. First courses ranged from chowder samplers to shellfish from the raw bar. A bit overwhelmed by the eating we’d done in three days, mains were modest — bowls of chowder, salads, or appetizers. My tuna tartare was excellent, and I owe my dad a thank you, as he unknowingly splurged on a glass of a really nice 2008 California Chardonnay with it. (I love young, oaky Chardonnays.) The table agreed the chef and his staff had conspired to elevate Manhattan seafood chowder over its New England rival, as the former was generous with lump crabmeat and full of flavor, and the latter tasted more of smokiness than of clams. If only James Beard could weigh in.

8:30pm Nonny adores opera, and she’s passed this down to my mother and on to me. When she and my grandfather were a young couple, trying to save money while he was in medical school, the only way they could afford opera was to volunteer as supernumeraries. They watched opera from the stage, dressed as soldiers. Every weekend for years, she’s listened to the Met Opera’s performances on Boston’s National Public Radio. Recently, she has arranged for transportation to bring her to Revere, a township near her home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to see live broadcasts of performances in a movie theater.

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Opera buffs in front of the Revson Fountain, also a recent New Yorker subject

My mom has tried really hard to introduce each of her children to experiences she can uniquely share with them, and for me, it was opera. From the end of middle school through most of high school, my mom had seasons tickets for us to Wednesday evening performances of the Virginia Opera at the Carpenter Center. We would eat dinner at the Strawberry Street Cafe in Richmond’s Fan District before seeing the likes of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Il barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville), and Der fliegende Holländer (the Flying Dutchman) from the first row at stage left. If I leaned forward in my seat, I could see the entire orchestra pit below me, playing by the light of small lamps clipped to their music stands. I watched actors perspire, and stage managers cue entrances, and I loved it. It’s one of the greatest memories of my childhood. Those were often tumultuous years, and I remember the majestic experiences being so therapeutic for me. After I went off to the University of Virginia, I occasionally joined my mom at the Virginia Opera, but my dad really took over my season’s ticket. I was preoccupied with college life. But several years later, I flew my mom out to Chicago for a Christmas present, and we saw my first opera all over again, Die Fledermaus. It remains my favorite.

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More opera buffs, in my brother and his wife

Tosca was amazing. The synopsis is a bit complicated, so rather than try to explain, I will direct interested parties to its plot, the New York Times’ very favorable review of our particular performance and its Arts Beat blog post reinforcing this, as well as the NYT’s pan of September’s short-lived run at the Met that elicited booing from the audience. We were so lucky to see this ensemble, which included opera’s hottest tenor, Jonas Kauffmann. Opera glasses helped.

During the half-hour intermissions, I spent half my time discussing the performance with my mom and Nonny, and the other half wandering through the Lincoln Center’s breathtaking lobby. (Between the Chicago Opera, the Boston Symphony, the Kennedy Center, and the Lincoln Center, I am most overwhelmed by the latter.) I didn’t have my iPhone on me, which I might have liked to use to take some snapshots of the chandeliers and costumes on display, but I was also glad not to have a distraction that might prevent me from people-watching and eavesdropping. I enjoyed older couples’ grumbling about staging and nervous young couples’ strained remarks, Wall Street types entertaining business clients, escorts entertaining Wall Street type clients. (Oh yes.) I also loved a wall of photographs of singers who had performed at the Met. The photographs seemed to date back nearly to the invention of the camera. (The Met was founded 130 years ago, after all.)

All said, it was a spectacular performance, but more than that, it was an intensely special privilege to experience the Met with my mom and Nonny, who continue to deepen my appreciation for opera. And a lot of things.

And that, friends, was it. But it will be none too soon when we plan the next one.

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