By Caitlin Kelly
You know how you sometimes, spontaneously, have a perfect evening?
Last night was one of them.
We ate at a new-to-us restaurant on West 13th. Gradisca, that sits in the basement of a historic brownstone.
The 16-year-old restaurant, named for a character in Fellini’s film Amarcord, has deep red walls, dark wooden tables and the kind of atmosphere that signals you’re going to have a good time — attentive and professional staff, delicious food, reasonable (for Manhattan) prices, funky posters and filament bulbs on the walls.
The kind of place they let you have a taste of your wine and still (reasonable for this city) charged $11 a glass for it; ($15-20/glass is fairly standard now.)
I had vitello tonnato, an item still hard to find in many Italian restaurants, then tiny, perfect tortellini — handmade by a woman standing at a table near the front door, her worktable fronted by a black velvet rope. The tortellini were the size of a fingernail. Amazing!
Outside the restaurant, grips and make-up people and technicians ran up and down the stairs of the brownstone next door — filming an episode of “Younger” a television show (how fitting!) about a 40 year old woman trying to pass as 26 to get and keep a magazine job.
It was so utterly New York!
On many streets here, especially the gorgeous older ones in the West Village which are lined with elegant old houses, tree-shaded and cobblestoned, you’ll very often see the enormous white trucks (grrrr, no free street parking!) for the stars, and director and make-up and wardrobe, lining entire blocks while a film, TV show or commercial is being made. If you’re nice, maybe you can snag a cookie from the “craft table”, the tented area where the crew finds food and drinks during hours of shooting.
It was a very humid 90-degree evening last night, so it must have been exhausting to work for long hours.
We walked a block east to the Tenri Cultural Institute — 43A — with a doggie day care and spa next door and another Italian restaurant, completely blocked from view by one of the enormous white trailers, in front of it.
I’ve lived in New York since 1989 and keep finding new-to-me things to enjoy.
The Institute, an astonishingly cool, modern white space with 20-foot+ ceilings you’d never suspect was in there, was hosting a concert of contemporary shamisen, shakuhachi and flute music, played by a 2012 MacArthur genius grant-winner, Claire Chase.
It was astounding. The room held about 75 people, an intriguing mix of Asian and Caucasian, an age range from 20s to 60s. Everyone was artistically stylish, many sporting wrinkled cotton mufflers (worn by men and woman alike; mine was silk), lots of little black dresses and a great pair of platform lace-ups on the 60-something-year-old woman sitting in front of me.
The shamisen player was a young man visiting New York on a fellowship, heading back to Japan 2 days later. I’m no expert in the instrument, but he played with terrific attack and speed. The three-stringed instrument sounds mostly, to Western ears, like a banjo, but also adds percussion when the soundbox is hit with a large wooden pick.
My favorite piece was The Universal Flute, written in 1946, by Henry Cowell, an American composer who died in 1965.
I had never heard of him and his biography is extraordinary; the piece is a duet between shakuhachi, a Japanese wooden flute, and a traditional metal flute, the one we know from orchestras worldwide.
As we listened, I kept thinking about Pearl Harbor — 1941 — and how that attack, and the resulting attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wondered how it might have affected his composition.
The evening was everything I love, at its best, about multi-cultural New York: a great meal, an intriguing and affordable ($20 tickets) concert; discovering a wholly new set of experiences with Jose, my husband; a night in cozy, historic Greenwich village.