SECONDO IS PRIMO! I TRE MERLI & BAROLO: THE BEGINNINGS...

While you read this article and I tell you of the beginnings of New York’s first authentic northern Italian eateries, I hope you hear the iconic Nino Rota waltz from the Godfather floating in the background.

“Lets start from the beginning,” said owner Paolo Secondo.  So I will.
 
Secondo came from Genoa, a small city and seaport on the coast of Northern Italy.  It’s a region with rolling hills and wild horses, accented by the blue of the Ligurian Sea.   In Genoa he opened the original I Tre Merli, an “osteria” with a fine selection of wine that he got from a town an hour inland from the city— called Barolo.
 
“It was a place where people could drink wine and just hang out, a classical working-class hangout,” said Secundo.  “You know people would go there after work and the retired people would just stay there playing cards drinking wine though the afternoon.  The working people, you know carpenters and masonries, they would have a glass of wine or espresso… At the time it was about having a great glass of wine.”
 
Secondo has a thick accent but speaks well with an avid vocabulary. He dresses smart and is, and probably forever will be, boyishly handsome.  I picture him being a playboy in his heyday, but I have no real evidence of this.
 
When he first established I Tre Merli in the ‘70s he used to open doors at 6am to accommodate the night workers. It was a tradition in Italy to drink white wine in the morning with a slice of foccacia, something Secondo still does when he visits.
 
In the 80’s the entrepreneur sensed a real opportunity in the States.  At the time, everything Italian was in fashion.  The late 70’s were the dawn of the love affair with big Italian fashion houses like Valentino and directors like Scorsese and Coppola were gaining steam.  At the time Italian restaurants were plentiful, like those still on Mulberry Street, but none with a real sense of authenticity.  Of the establishments, most felt sterile.  Patrons tasted wine but didn’t really enjoy it.
 
“Still, to a certain extent tasting wine is something that is supposed to be specialized.  But in reality I like the concept of drinking wine to have fun.  I don’t mean to get drunk, but you know, getting a little inebriated— that’s the whole idea. Otherwise, why?”
 
 
 
In 1982 he traveled to New York.  He knew he wanted an aesthetic that felt like a mix between a church and a wine cellar, and traveled the city to find it.  Secondo also knew that for his concept to be successful there was little to compromise.  At the time SoHo still had its original industrial presence, though in the process of being gentrified.  West Broadway was ridden with cracks.  The artists had attracted galleries, and the emergence of bars and restaurants was of notice.
 
Secondo knew the space where he eventually opened the New York I Tre Merli was perfect.  “What drew you to it,” I asked.
 
“Well, I’m European and I like beautiful things and beautiful architecture.  Soho, with all the cast-iron architecture, was something unique.  I knew it was going to come up.  It was too beautiful to be abandoned for long.”
 
I Tre Merli, on West Broadway and Prince Street was formerly a one-story warehouse, and in the 1960’s the space was converted to an underground jazz club.  Before Secondo took it over it was a boutique of Indonesian art and dresses.
 
 
 
This is when Secondo gets interrupted.  Into Barolo struts an ornately clad patron, very thin with a fur coat.  “How are you?” she asks Paolo.  “Very Good.”
 
From the dining room I can here Richard Emolo (Secondo’s maître d' and trusted associate, whom I will get to shortly).  “Elizabeth,” he exclaims.  Later I hear her order a martini.
 
Back, to I Tre Merli… When it opened in 1985 it was the first Italian restaurant to be opened by native Italians, not Italian Americans, says Secondo. 
 
“I’m talking about the fact that when I first opened I Tre Merli not many people weren’t even familiar with mozzarella.  Basically you couldn’t even find mozzarella in supermarkets and big stores... parmesan cheese was cheep and bad.... olive oil was cheap, there was none of the fancy kind.”
 
I Tre Merli became very popular very quickly with Europeans living in New York, whom today would be referred to as  “euro-trash”— people with money who could, and often would, spend it on drinking wine.  To them I Tre Merli filled the great nostalgic longing that they felt for home, and it quickly became a gathering point.  With the Europeans came the artists and the avante garde crowd, and like magic it was a success.
 
And its success spread.   SoHo was not a commercial attraction like it is today.  In 1985 it was very much a destination spot and Secondo has no problem attributing the growth of SoHo with the arrival of his clientele. “I happen to believe that the success of I Tre Merli at the time contributed to the success of SoHo.”
 
That, it probably did.  However the opposite was true of I Tre Merli’s relationship with SoHo and its beloved artists.  In the early 80’s artists were still the prominent residents and didn’t like anyone coming into their area.  The uniqueness of SoHo was their hidden secret and they resented any business that would intrude on their privileged playground.  
 
It took time for feelings to change.  And perhaps they never really did.  Some bread was broken as visitors came to dine after evenings at the galleries.  However, mostly what appeased the situation was the exodus of artists themselves. SoHo became commercialized and the neighborhood changed.
 
The recession of the early 90’s also caused another clientele shift.  Many galleries had to close and with it I Tre Merli lost much of its avante garde regulars.  In 1992, provisions to the Maastricht Treaty began the free exchange of money in Europe that eventually resulted in the euro.  This also impacted Secondo’s business, prompting many Europeans to move back.
 
Despite the shifts Secondo still managed to expand.  In 1989 he opened the very sucla foccacia open in the west village, which also was very successful. 
 
In 1990, Secondo opened his second spot in SoHo just blocks away from I Tre Merli.  Barolo is similar in concept to I Tre Merli but with a real focus on wines.  Barolo is a region in Piedmont, less than 100 kilometers away from Genoa, renown for being Italy’s best wine.  And with it came the best classic Northern Italian dishes, classically prepared and delicious.  
 
“We’ve been educated by our grandmothers [so] we know how food should be prepared and how it should be done.”  Secondo wanted Barolo to be the best of the best— the most elegant place in the most elegant area in New York.
 
The years have been kind to the two establishments and they have received tremendous acclaim and prosperity.  And with this success came lots of stories.
 
This is where Richard Emolo comes in.  Emolo, now the general manager of Barolo has been with Secondo since the beginning at I Tre Merli and procures some of the best stories.  Emolo has a rhythm to him, a jazz.  He’s a native New Yorker but there is something distinctly Italian about him, and something I want to keep watching.  It didn’t surprise me when I found out he was married to Gina Davis.
 
“It took about a year but after that it exploded it became kind of a boys club,” said Emolo.  “It became a riotous scene little by little, and it became extremely popular with Northern Italians, mostly men.”
 
Emolo joined Secondo and I at the bar of Barolo. Stories were traded of times when men used to make pyramids of glasses and fill them with vodka, breaking bottles and making a ruckus.
 
“It really made our reputation... the scene was so wild.” said Emolo.
 
There was the time in the beginning when Secondo forgot to buy a cash register and Emolo had to manage the money with a box.
 
When they first opened and had a movable bar (with its own plumbing and hoses) in the center of the space.  Eventually the concept was put to rest by the health inspector, but not without a few goodbye celebrations.
 
Emolo recalls the time they moved the bar out of the way and replaced it with a pool and barrels of sand.  Bikini clad girls mixed drinks while patrons engaged in poolplay.
 
“Some of the most beautiful girls in the world working for us because at the time the fashion industry was just growing.  Models didn’t have enough work as models and so they worked as waiters.”
 
That would explain the presence of a fashion-house legend at the party to tear down the bar. “We had a party for [its] destruction and at about 1 o’clock we gave out sledgehammers and started knocking it down.  There is a great picture of me cutting it with a chain saw in front of Carl Lagerfeld,” said Secondo.  “We got a lot of great publicity.”
 
And over the years there also have been a plethora of celebrities— Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, John Gotti, Madonna, just to name a few of literally hundreds.   I asked Emolo to spill the goods on them.  He gave me a sly smile and asked me to come back after the article was published.
 
For Secondo, he gets more excited when he sees politicians.  “Celebrities are bullshit.”   The Clinton’s have been in; Barbara Bush too.  All of the mayors of the past 20 years have dined at I Tre Merli or Barolo. 
 
His favorite story is when Ed Koch- known to be a man who loves food and wine- was asked what his favorite Italian restaurant is.  He replied, “I Tre Merli.”
 
After all these years, I Tre Merli and Barolo have become staples in SoHo.  They will survive this recession just like they will survive the next.  Two years ago Secondo opened Revel in the meatpacking district, an area that gave him the same feeling as SoHo did in the 80’s.
 
When I asked him what gave these places staying power, he replied, “I trust my instincts.  Stay away from the trends.  No matter what the ny tiems says is good we know what is good.  We believe in classical italian food and we stay connected to the food that people like.”  

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