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Tastes Like Family

Aaargh! Coffee slopped. Got a wobbly table. Again. Why? Four-legged tables! The curse of the drinking classes. When are coffee places gonna learn: only three-legged tables don't wobble. Mathematically impossible. Trust me.

I'm at It's a Grind, the coffee place on Cedar and India in Little Italy. There's a plaque on the wall. "Piazza Jacaranda," it says, which is great, except, no jacarandas on this actual suntrap terrace and no spare umbrellas. I'm getting baked alive. Think Lawrence of Arabia. Okay, make that Lawrence of Arabica. Hello! It's the coffee that's supposed to be roasted, not us.

So yeah. Feeling hot, tired, hungry. Hmm. Suddenly remember my friend Naomi t'other day. "Pierre's Place, my boy. Your kind of place. Run by Father Joe's people. Homeless teens at the Toussaint Center. Try the smoked Gouda-mozzarella pizza and Father Joe's 'Vanillages' gelato. Mixes vanilla with chunks of apple pie."

She got me on that one. So, I guess, today's the day. Ten minutes' walking up Cedar and down Fifth and I'm outside this modern green-and-white building. I duck in past a life-size sculpture of a man helping a boy to his feet and a chalkboard that says, "Open Mike Tonight." Inside's a big, modern, low-ceilinged space. Not cold-modern, though. Quarry stone floor, blond wood tables, sea-green chairs, end walls painted deep red, and, facing you as you come in, a section of brown leather chairs and couches, lined like old men's faces, grouped around bookshelves and a fireplace with a four-foot-wide plasma display above it. Julian Lennon's onscreen wailing "Too Late for Goodbye."

So hey, soft rock on the wall, hard rock on the floor. Father Joe hasn't skimped here. And the place is buzzing. Bunch of gals in black -- students from the Paul Mitchell hair school, for sure -- are getting their orders at their table. "I just love this Tuscan chicken," one says. She has a panini-type sandwich, toasted, cut in two triangles with mixed greens in the middle. And here's the thing. The "plate" under the paper liner is a series of upward-fanning chrome wire triangles. Really cool.

I join the line, with business people, a lot of students talking Italian, a few moms with babies. Kids in maroon aprons -- well, actually, they look more 18, or 20 -- scurry around the cooking area behind the counter. I see a couple of guys twirling pizza dough in the air in front of a huge rack of pizza ovens. They also have a warming cabinet with all kinds of pizza slices in it. But I don't want to lose my place in line.

I eye the menu. A slice of pizza with just cheese is $2, with toppings, $2.50. Ah. And there's that Gouda and mozzarella one. "BBQ Chicken: smoked Gouda & mozzarella, roast chicken, barbecue sauce, red onion, and fresh cilantro."

But at the top of the next page is that Tuscan chicken panini the Paul Mitchell gal was raving about. Roasted chicken breast, provolone, roasted red peppers, and pesto on a ciabatta roll, $5.95. And you get it with chips, or fruit, or mixed greens. They have a bunch of other panini and regular sandwiches, including beef, ham, turkey, vegetarian -- some under fancy names like "Caprese," all $5.95. And a chalkboard says, "Try our meatball sub, $5.95." But now I'm face to face with a nice-looking gal at the register. Maria. She needs to know what I want.

I go for the Tuscan chicken panini, with fruit, and get a cawfee ($1.50). And yes, the Paul Mitchell gal's right. The Tuscan's hot, crispy, with a really satisfying squelch of goodies inside. If you look at the cross section, it goes green pesto under the top ciabatta, roast chicken, provolone cheese, a big flattened-out red pepper, more of that green pesto, and the bottom ciabatta. The fruit includes grapes, melon, and a couple of half strawbs. Cool.

But it's not just that. Everything's smart. Stylish. The salt and pepper shakers, the Parmesan cheese shakers are all kept in a trendy metal holder, designed like the triangular wire "plates." Knives and forks are wrapped in napkins, tied with green string and held upright in a thick green divided Mexican glass.

I go up to Maria to try that gelato. "I ran away from home when I was 16," she says when I get nosy. "Family problems. They have really helped me here, given me shelter, a family, schooling. I graduated from the high school we have in the center. I'm 21 now. Here, they trained us to get a food handler's card, pizza training, everything. I want to train to become a pediatrician. But not till after the baby." She pats her stomach.

She tells me about "Pierre." Turns out Pierre Toussaint was an incredible guy. He was born in 1766, a plantation slave in Haiti, and he died in 1853, one of New York's most beloved philanthropists. "The statue at the door's him," says Maria. "So yeah. He's our inspiration."

Him and "the Bronx Hustler," as Father Joe's called. I notice a little plastic bobble-head model of him on the counter. "Got any Father Joe's Vanillages gelato?" I ask. She nods. And, though it's not the big crumbly bits of apple pie I'd hoped for in the gelato ($2.75), bits of apple are there, and it tastes fine.

As I leave, they're setting up a stage for tonight's open mike. Man. Can't help thinking. You hear what some of the homeless teens running this place have gone through. And I was getting riled up about wobbly coffee tables? Next time, I'll just stuff some newspaper under the damned legs and get on with my life.

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Aaargh! Coffee slopped. Got a wobbly table. Again. Why? Four-legged tables! The curse of the drinking classes. When are coffee places gonna learn: only three-legged tables don't wobble. Mathematically impossible. Trust me.

I'm at It's a Grind, the coffee place on Cedar and India in Little Italy. There's a plaque on the wall. "Piazza Jacaranda," it says, which is great, except, no jacarandas on this actual suntrap terrace and no spare umbrellas. I'm getting baked alive. Think Lawrence of Arabia. Okay, make that Lawrence of Arabica. Hello! It's the coffee that's supposed to be roasted, not us.

So yeah. Feeling hot, tired, hungry. Hmm. Suddenly remember my friend Naomi t'other day. "Pierre's Place, my boy. Your kind of place. Run by Father Joe's people. Homeless teens at the Toussaint Center. Try the smoked Gouda-mozzarella pizza and Father Joe's 'Vanillages' gelato. Mixes vanilla with chunks of apple pie."

She got me on that one. So, I guess, today's the day. Ten minutes' walking up Cedar and down Fifth and I'm outside this modern green-and-white building. I duck in past a life-size sculpture of a man helping a boy to his feet and a chalkboard that says, "Open Mike Tonight." Inside's a big, modern, low-ceilinged space. Not cold-modern, though. Quarry stone floor, blond wood tables, sea-green chairs, end walls painted deep red, and, facing you as you come in, a section of brown leather chairs and couches, lined like old men's faces, grouped around bookshelves and a fireplace with a four-foot-wide plasma display above it. Julian Lennon's onscreen wailing "Too Late for Goodbye."

So hey, soft rock on the wall, hard rock on the floor. Father Joe hasn't skimped here. And the place is buzzing. Bunch of gals in black -- students from the Paul Mitchell hair school, for sure -- are getting their orders at their table. "I just love this Tuscan chicken," one says. She has a panini-type sandwich, toasted, cut in two triangles with mixed greens in the middle. And here's the thing. The "plate" under the paper liner is a series of upward-fanning chrome wire triangles. Really cool.

I join the line, with business people, a lot of students talking Italian, a few moms with babies. Kids in maroon aprons -- well, actually, they look more 18, or 20 -- scurry around the cooking area behind the counter. I see a couple of guys twirling pizza dough in the air in front of a huge rack of pizza ovens. They also have a warming cabinet with all kinds of pizza slices in it. But I don't want to lose my place in line.

I eye the menu. A slice of pizza with just cheese is $2, with toppings, $2.50. Ah. And there's that Gouda and mozzarella one. "BBQ Chicken: smoked Gouda & mozzarella, roast chicken, barbecue sauce, red onion, and fresh cilantro."

But at the top of the next page is that Tuscan chicken panini the Paul Mitchell gal was raving about. Roasted chicken breast, provolone, roasted red peppers, and pesto on a ciabatta roll, $5.95. And you get it with chips, or fruit, or mixed greens. They have a bunch of other panini and regular sandwiches, including beef, ham, turkey, vegetarian -- some under fancy names like "Caprese," all $5.95. And a chalkboard says, "Try our meatball sub, $5.95." But now I'm face to face with a nice-looking gal at the register. Maria. She needs to know what I want.

I go for the Tuscan chicken panini, with fruit, and get a cawfee ($1.50). And yes, the Paul Mitchell gal's right. The Tuscan's hot, crispy, with a really satisfying squelch of goodies inside. If you look at the cross section, it goes green pesto under the top ciabatta, roast chicken, provolone cheese, a big flattened-out red pepper, more of that green pesto, and the bottom ciabatta. The fruit includes grapes, melon, and a couple of half strawbs. Cool.

But it's not just that. Everything's smart. Stylish. The salt and pepper shakers, the Parmesan cheese shakers are all kept in a trendy metal holder, designed like the triangular wire "plates." Knives and forks are wrapped in napkins, tied with green string and held upright in a thick green divided Mexican glass.

I go up to Maria to try that gelato. "I ran away from home when I was 16," she says when I get nosy. "Family problems. They have really helped me here, given me shelter, a family, schooling. I graduated from the high school we have in the center. I'm 21 now. Here, they trained us to get a food handler's card, pizza training, everything. I want to train to become a pediatrician. But not till after the baby." She pats her stomach.

She tells me about "Pierre." Turns out Pierre Toussaint was an incredible guy. He was born in 1766, a plantation slave in Haiti, and he died in 1853, one of New York's most beloved philanthropists. "The statue at the door's him," says Maria. "So yeah. He's our inspiration."

Him and "the Bronx Hustler," as Father Joe's called. I notice a little plastic bobble-head model of him on the counter. "Got any Father Joe's Vanillages gelato?" I ask. She nods. And, though it's not the big crumbly bits of apple pie I'd hoped for in the gelato ($2.75), bits of apple are there, and it tastes fine.

As I leave, they're setting up a stage for tonight's open mike. Man. Can't help thinking. You hear what some of the homeless teens running this place have gone through. And I was getting riled up about wobbly coffee tables? Next time, I'll just stuff some newspaper under the damned legs and get on with my life.

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