1/250th at F9, ISO 1600 (35mm).
Happy holidays everyone. I'll be posting next week, but the weekend before Christmas is always a special time in New York.
Hectic, but special.
1/60th at F2.2, ISO 3200 (35mm).
This is probably my favorite from the East Village interview series. Nick talks about the history of John's of 12th street, the restaurant started by an Italian immigrant in 1908 that he's owned for the last 40 years. Nick talks about mobsters and anarchists, prohibition and John's serving as a speakeasy, and even about the 1898 Belgian floor tiles. Here are the highlights but to check out the interview in full, read part 1 and part 2.
"It was almost ethnic by block. You’d have an Italian block, an Irish block, a Puerto Rican block, a Ukrainian block, a Polish block. First Avenue was all Italian stores — it was Italian or it was Kosher. There would be Kosher stores that only sold butter and eggs. There would be Italian butchers and Italian produce stores, fish stores, little butchers on the side streets, Kosher butchers and Italian butchers
There weren’t many restaurants around then. It was either the Chinese restaurant or John’s. There was Sonny’s pizzeria around the corner where the kids would go, where Cacio e Pepeis now. Sonny was married to John’s daughter. So when I finished grammar school, my family came to John’s for dinner. In 1962, I had my graduation party from high school at John’s. Then I went to St. John’s and graduated with an economics degree in 1966, and where did I have my graduation dinner, in John’s restaurant. I got my masters at Adelphi in ’68 and we had our dinner at John’s.
John’s is an institution. John Pucciatti came from the province of Umbria, from the little medieval village of Bevagna, between Spoleto and Assisi. My wife and I actually went there. He opened this restaurant 105 years ago, in 1908. The restaurant was just the front room and he was the chef and his wife, known as ‘Momma John,’ helped him.
When prohibition came 10 years later, this became a speakeasy. The whole second floor of the building was the speakeasy. People would sit and eat and then the people who knew would ask for ‘dessert upstairs.’ They’d go through from the restaurant. You can see the outline of a door that they sealed. Our back room was the backyard and Momma John was the brewmaster. She actually made her own hooch. There was a little shack and in there was a still and in the basement she made her wine. Then she had a pulley system to get the liquor up to the second floor because they never wanted a drop of liquor in the restaurant, so whenever they got raided there was never a violation.
Remember, this was the time of "Boardwalk Empire." Joe the Boss Masseria was a real guy and a real friend of John’s. And Lucky Luciano was down here also in the neighborhood, so they would always be around here. And then there was the other side. I’d guess you’d call John a progressive because he was a very, very socialist-minded individual. There were a lot of meetings here. There were guys like Carlo Tresca, who was a real firebrand. And one day they gunned him down [on 13th Street and 5th Avenue]. So you had two sides, the anarchists and the Mafia, that hated each other. But they were all here in John’s.
So 1972 comes around. I was a little young, 27, and I had just gotten married. One of my best friends, whose family owned Angelo’s on Mulberry Street, goes, ‘Nicky you want to buy a restaurant?’ So I go, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he tells me it’s John’s. Danny, who was John’s son, was retiring. I had also met my partner Mike, or Big Mike as they called him, Mikey two names, a few years before in ’69. So in ’72, I go to him, ‘Mike you want to buy a restaurant with me?’
Big Mike was a big guy from the South Bronx and I was a skinnier guy from the Lower East Side. I still call it the Lower East Side. When we started off in the restaurant we didn’t have any experience. Danny helped us and stayed on for a couple of months.
This whole staff, this whole organization has tenure. We have tenure here. Our chef is almost here for 40 years now. Our waiters will be here 10 years, 20 years. Pedro’s been with me 25 years. You want to hear about an American dream story? Pedro came here as a migrant worker picking blueberries when he was 15. He was from Mexico city. He became so proficient and was such a good guy that the farmers got him a green card. He stayed there and then came to New York. We sucked him in here when he was 18 and he’s been with us ever since. Now he’s married and has two children, both in charter school. He’s an American Citizen. Talk about living the American dream.
We pursued preservation, just as Danny did. He went over all of the things from the linen to the candles. It’s a real, historic art gallery. This [below me] is 1890s, tile-by-tile hand-laid Belgian mosaic tiles. I get a little ridiculous sometimes. These walls were brought in from Ferrara, Italy, three-by-five foot slabs of one inch thick marble inlaid in terrazzo. The paintings are painted on canvas. There are city-states of Italy, there are various coats of arms, there are scenes. We preserved and maintained them. We’re like curators. We figure we’re the third generation.
This is John’s. John’s is what is disappearing in New York, not only in this area. John’s is part of New York City, so we’re very careful to keep things the same. These traditions are very important. There’s a history; there’s a legacy."