When Size Really Matters

A view from the 75th floor of 432 Park Ave.ENLARGE
A view from the 75th floor of 432 Park Ave. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

My friend Aris, who has a way of expressing things succinctly, describes Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise as “wrestling for women.”

He was similarly profound this summer as we sat in Central Park partaking of certain liquid refreshments from an athletic squirt bottle. Discussing the megalith luxury condominiums that are rising along the south end of the park, he nailed their effect. “They’re turning the park into a courtyard,” he said.

Central Park has always served as a leafy oasis, a refuge from city life. But these skyscrapers are so tall—One57 is over 1,000 feet, and 432 Park Ave. recently topped off at 1,396 feet, overtaking the World Trade Center (minus its antenna) and leaving the Empire State Building in the dust. You can almost feel the breath of the billionaires they’re being marketed to on the back of your neck.

Here’s how out-sized 432 Park is: It makes One57, which previously appeared as if it was giving Central Park the finger, appear modest, even demure, by comparison. If I were a plutocrat who had already plunked down $50 million or $100 million, or whatever penthouses in the building are going for these days, I might be suffering buyer’s remorse.

And there are apparently larger condos still to come. At least one of them, topping 1,400 feet, is certain to give 432 Park erectile dysfunction.

Before you know it, Manhattan is going to resemble San Gimignano, the medieval hill town famous for its dozen tower houses, absent the Tuscan charm.

Nonetheless, I’ve decided to love 432 Park—though entirely for selfish reasons.

The condominium tower at 432 Park Ave. looms over neighboring buildings.ENLARGE
The condominium tower at 432 Park Ave. looms over neighboring buildings. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A couple of years ago, an apartment building rose a few blocks south of mine, partially blocking my view. This was cause for despair because there’s nothing that taps Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” that lends a touch of magic to mundane reality, like the New York City skyline when the lights blink on after dark.

So I’ve been anticipating 432’s contribution to my view shed for a while. Even when it was still a hole in the ground, I calculated where it might rise relative to my apartment, and kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be blocked by some closer tall building.

Several months ago I rejoiced—I don’t think that’s too strong a word; then again I’ve always been a geek for tall buildings—when the crane at its summit peeked out from behind a building that I could see from my living-room window. Though it required binoculars to confirm the sighting.

Binoculars were no longer necessary as the luxury condo rose higher and higher. I know I annoyed my wife, though probably no more than normal, when I daily dragged her over to the window proudly to note the skyscraper’s progress.

I even started to get greedy. A view from my living room wasn’t enough. I wanted to see it from every room in the apartment. I almost succeeded. The thing is so exceedingly tall that, while the building itself never made it that high, I could spot its crane from my East 80s bedroom window, above the apartment house directly across the street that blocks everything else.

The only problem is that I sometimes must leave the apartment. And from just about anywhere else in the city, Park Avenue in particular, 432 Park is out of all proportion. It feels ridiculous in a way the Empire State Building, which looms over Fifth Avenue in the 30s never did.

Perhaps because the Empire State—on a pedestal (or maybe that’s just the model on my mantelpiece) and with setbacks on the upper floors, and a tapered point—seems to acknowledge poetry’s contribution to architecture.

I’ve heard 432 Park, designed by Rafael Viñoly, described as elegant. But how elegant can an edifice be when it so totally overwhelms, when it seems to belittle, its surroundings?

I always fancied the idea that New York’s skyline reflected, literally, America’s rise and greatness through the 20th century.

“Every epoch has another response,” the architect Santiago Calatrava observed when we discussed 432 Park last week. “What is interesting,” Mr. Calatrava added, “is that New York keeps alive the idea of rising up. It’s important to the identity of the city.”

I agree, but I dread to think what these behemoths say about our age, though I suppose that’s preferable to the alternative—a building bust rather than a boom. So I’ll enjoy the view from my window, perhaps purchase a 432 Park model for my mantelpiece if one becomes available, and focus on the refreshments, rather than the encroaching skyline, next time I meet Aris in Central Park.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Punk and the Ruby Connection

Randy Cohen at his Upper West Side home.ENLARGE
Randy Cohen at his Upper West Side home. RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Randy Cohen’s career has taken some novel turns. From 1984 to 1990, he was a writer for “Late Night With David Letterman. ” Then he wrote “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times for a dozen years, from 1999 to 2011. Today, he’s the host of “Person Place Thing” on public radio.

But Mr. Cohen, 66 years old, also used to be a punk rock star. Or is. Or may well become one in the near future.

Perhaps a little explication is in order. During the early ’70s, Mr. Cohen belonged to a band called Jack Ruby. The members skirted success when Epic Records considered signing them, however briefly.

“ ‘You can only have the studio from midnight to 5 a.m.,’ ” he remembered being told. “But we could do anything we wanted.”

Perhaps the invitation should have been less open-ended, though Mr. Cohen rejected that notion.

“We were pretty happy with the results,” he said. “They thought it was just awful. That was the end of everything. They weren’t going to sign us.”

A less principled person—me, for instance—might have spent the following several decades haunted by what might have been if, say, instead of recording the band’s “Bad Teeth,” which has been described “as violent as a root canal without the anesthetic,” it had performed a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game.”

Not Mr. Cohen.

“We did the best we could,” he said. “To get Epic to put us in the studio—we’d already gone further than 95% of bands.”

A photo of Mr. Cohen from his days in the 1970s punk band Jack Ruby.ENLARGE
A photo of Mr. Cohen from his days in the 1970s punk band Jack Ruby. RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I think they were really wrong,” Mr. Cohen added, when I pressed him. “We were never going to have hit records. But the people who liked it would really like it.”

Fast forward, give or take 40 years, to something called the Internet. It’s a place where you can exact the best deals on diapers and laundry detergent but also indulge your taste in music, no matter how esoteric or overlooked.

Even so, I’m still not sure how Jack Ruby was rediscovered; I’m not sure Mr. Cohen is either. It’s actually just slightly beyond the realm of human comprehension, sort of like the big bang: How could the universe go from nothing to everything in a million-billionth of a second?

“Maybe 2010,” Mr. Cohen said, “some of the tracks showed up online. You can have an instant following on the Internet”—“two guys in Denmark” and maybe one each in Croatia and Belarus.

Jack Ruby also had a fan in Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

“He thinks Jack Ruby was a very influential band,’” Mr. Cohen said as he sipped a beer in his West End Avenue apartment.

Producer Chris Campion got in touch with Mr. Cohen and asked if the original tapes from that Epic session still existed.

“I vaguely remembered they were in my mother’s home in her basement in Kutztown, Pennsylvania,” he said.

The dust and cobwebs removed, and the tapes salvaged and restored—“This was like archaeology more than music,” Mr. Cohen explained—all the effort turned out a handsome two-disc set titled “Hit and Run” that includes a small poster and a booklet that serves as both an oral history of the band and of New York City’s ’70s punk rock scene.

“It starts getting these incredibly great reviews,” in far-flung hipster music magazines, Mr. Cohen said. “I can’t walk down the street in Barcelona, if I ever went to Barcelona. So passionate is the following for Jack Ruby.”

In July, Rolling Stone magazine included Jack Ruby on its list of best reissues of 2014.

“Issue is closer,” to the truth Mr. Cohen pointed out, since the band hadn’t produced an album or CD.

Inevitably, Mr. Cohen began to wonder what might have been had the band been discovered when it existed. Of the four original members, two are still alive—Mr. Cohen and vocalist Robin Hall.

“If we’d gotten these reviews in 1974, I’d be dead now from heroin addiction and sexual excess,” he said.

The rediscovery isn’t limited to punk rock fans and critics. HBO is considering a drama series about the music scene in ’70s New York, produced by Terence Winter of “Boardwalk Empire” fame and directed by Martin Scorsese.

“They want to license a bunch of these songs,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mick Jagger is an executive producer—“Perhaps you’ve heard of him”—and the lead singer of the fictional band that might play Jack Ruby’s music is James Jagger, Mick’s son.

“All this is increasingly moving away from reality,” said Mr. Cohen, who claimed that no matter the demand from fans or even in his moments of “deranged vanity” will he ever grow out his hair again and hit the road with his synthesizer.

“A friend started referring to it as my ‘posthumous success,’ ” he said.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Ahhh…the Comfy Outdoors

The tent came with a king-size bed, a writing desk and deck.
The tent came with a king-size bed, a writing desk and deck.

The route from New York City to central Ohio is distinguished neither by superior hotels nor fine dining. Or if it is, I have yet to discover them in seven years of traveling back and forth to the college that both my daughters attended.

So when the opportunity arose to spend a night “glamping” on the way to this year’s parents weekend, it sounded like an appealing alternative to a chain motel.

If you’re unfamiliar with glamping, as I was, it stands for glamorous camping. It’s a way to enjoy the great outdoors for those who consider high-thread-count sheets important.

Think of a luxury safari camp, except the encampment we visited was in Ithaca, N.Y., not on the Serengeti. And the wildest beast we encountered was our own dog.

Apparently, my wife and I are glamping’s target demographic.

“The most demand is from 40-plus,” explained Robert Frisch, who founded Firelight Camps with his wife, Emma Frisch, and Kyle Reardon, a consultant.

“Baby boomers,” Emma added, as we sat in the campground’s “lobby tent,” chasing Finger Lakes bourbon with Finger Lakes beer.

“A lot of these people used to go camping,” Robert went on. “They have a nostalgia for it, but they don’t want to sleep on the ground. They have some extra money to spend. But they don’t own a tent or camping equipment.”

I took mild exception to that generalization. Yes, my tent is long gone. But I still know where to find my twin-burner Coleman stove in the basement. In a pinch, I bet I could even get it to fire up.

The Frisches, both 30 years old, met at the University of Pennsylvania and opened their first hotel in Nicaragua, where Robert served in the Peace Corps. He recently graduated with an M.B.A. from Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Firelight Camps is on the grounds of La Tourelle, a hotel and spa that has connecting trails to Buttermilk Falls State Park. The lobby tent stands on a former tennis court.

“This was a space looking for a new idea,” said Scott Wiggins, whose family bought the hotel in the ’60s. “It made a whole lot of sense. We share build-out expenses. We share revenues.”

Explained Robert: “The vision for the company is we create luxury camping experiences for an existing operation. We have tons of interest from property owners.”

When people are outside they meet each other.

I started to entertain the idea of having the Frisches set up a few tents in the backyard of our weekend home upstate to generate a little extra income.

“We’re looking at the Hudson Valley for our next site,” said Emma, who appeared this summer as a contestant on the Food Network’s “Food Network Star” program. She makes her own rosemary-and-honey s’mores with orange flavored marshmallows, and the granola we enjoyed at breakfast the next morning.

While the Frisches have only six tents—plans are to double that number by next summer—they already seem to have the branding thing down. Firelight’s logo appears on notecards, T-shirts, even axes, though I’m not sure when the need would arise to chop wood.

Prices range from $155 to $230 a night, depending on the size and location of the tent and whether it’s a midweek or a weekend getaway. The season ends Nov. 2 and starts again in May.

“We’re looking to build it into a big national brand,” Robert said.

Our 16-by-20-foot tent came with an extremely comfortable king-size bed, an attractive “Out of Africa” writing desk and a deck. The only thing missing was a bathroom—we had to schlep a distance to a communal bathroom, or go in the woods—a missing modern convenience that might constitute a deal breaker for baby boomers.

“This is a prototype year for us,” Emma said, when I raised the hardship. “We’ve talked about doing en suite bathrooms. That will probably come. It’s much more capital intensive.”

A view from the outside. ENLARGE

I suppose that for the experience to have been truly authentic, while still qualifying as glamping, we would have had a personal chef to cook our franks and beans. Instead, we drove a couple of miles into Ithaca where we had dinner at a cozy Italian restaurant.

When we returned, we hung out with other glampers by the lobby tent’s fire pit. Our socializing, on the edge of the woods, is exactly what the Frishes, both rock climbers, had intended.

“We wanted to bring people into the outdoors and preserve existing landscape,” Emma explained.

“When people are outside they meet each other,” Robert added. “They’re not on their phones.”

Sleeping under a couple of down quilts was pleasant, even if the outside temperature was in the 50s.

And Firelight’s surest sign of success is that as we undertook the remainder of the journey to Ohio—fully refreshed—we mused about the idea of building a tent platform in our woods, even if only for our use. And perhaps with indoor plumbing.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Church Near Ground Zero Re-Imagined

Renderings of the new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church designed by Santiago Calatrava, which will overlook the 9/11 Memorial, in a video provided by his architecture firm. Photo: Santiago Calatrava

It took two hours of talking with architect Santiago Calatrava —we touched on rock climbing, the Swiss cheese dish raclette, Rembrandt’s self-portraits and New York City’s tradition of great civic architecture—before I realized how appropriate the placement is of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which will overlook the 9/11 Memorial.

And not just because it’s the rebirth of the church, a fixture in the neighborhood since the 19th century until it was destroyed by the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Calatrava designed the church and will attend its groundbreaking on Saturday. If everything goes according to schedule, the building should be finished in 2016 or early 2017.

While the 9/11 Memorial, with its twin reflecting pools and alleys of trees, masterfully creates an opportunity for quiet reflection, there’s also something to be said for a sanctuary with four walls—and perhaps for lighting a memorial candle, no matter what religion you practice, or even if you practice no religion at all.

Santiago Calatrava with one of his sculptures in his Manhattan studio.ENLARGE
Santiago Calatrava with one of his sculptures in his Manhattan studio.KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“All the circumstances around 9/11, the memorial embodies that very well,” Mr. Calatrava said as he sat in the stately Park Avenue townhouse that does double duty as his home and his office.

Then, the architect pulled out the sketches that won him the competition to rebuild St. Nicholas, describing the church with words such as “full” and “introverted” to illustrate how different the experience will be from the voids of the reflecting pools.

Unlike what you might expect, the renderings aren’t architecturally rigorous. They are relatively simple, rather impressionistic drawings—of a mosaic of the Madonna and Child Enthroned at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that morph into a church with a cupola, of flowers and domes produced during a visit to Mount Athos in Greece.

My hunch is that many architects don’t operate that way.

“In Europe, I dedicate the morning until noon,” to drawing, said Mr. Calatrava, who divides his time between New York and another home and office in Zurich. “And in America I do it mostly in the afternoon to the evening.”

Born in Spain, the 63-year-old Mr. Calatrava isn’t only an architect. He also paints, sculpts and designs furniture.

The new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, in this rendering, will overlook the 9/11 Memorial.ENLARGE
The new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, in this rendering, will overlook the 9/11 Memorial. SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

“I started in an art school,” he added. “I have always been working in art. I do that mostly alone with very little assistance.”

While acknowledging that architecture is among the most collaborative of professions, he said, “It’s also a very meditative job. It’s important to travel into yourself.”

That might explain why he’s producing some of the most innovative and controversial architecture today—controversial as much for cost overruns and feasibility as for design.

Among his creations is the bird-winged PATH station at the World Trade Center, scheduled to be completed next year at almost $4 billion—double the projected cost.

We didn’t much delve into the controversy. The architect did mention that train stations are challenging—because the trains have to keep running—but that he has completed seven of them.

Mr. Calatrava, his wife, Robertina, and their four children moved to the U.S. only a couple of months after 9/11. But his relationship with the city started well before that.

His first visit occurred in the mid-70s when he traveled the country on a Greyhound bus and remembers his first encounter with Grand Central Terminal—and with the law.

“I stay there watching the whole experience,” he recalled. “I was in ecstasy. After 15 minutes a policeman came and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I was the only one not moving.”

He noted New York’s tradition of great architecture, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the Seagram Building.

“New York is a good school of these kinds of spaces. I say many times I came to learn from New York.”

He hopes the World Trade Center PATH station will be uttered in the same breath as those other architectural wonders.

“I like when a building tells you a story,” he said.

However, the architect pointed out that his contribution to the narrative of the Church of St. Nicholas is circumscribed by a thousand years of tradition.

“It’s like climbing a rock,” he said of a sport he gave up, though he remains an enthusiastic hiker in the Alps. “You don’t have a grip. You only have some millimeters.”

Still, a video of the yet-to-be-built church, made of white Vermont marble and with spaces that filter light inside during the day and make the structure glow at night, makes it clear his contribution is far from negligible.

“This is what I want; this is what the church wants: a very ecumenical place; they would like to have 24 hours the church open.”

But Mr. Calatrava conceded the public has the last word.

“When it’s finished,” he said, “we’ll go there and ask what the building is telling us.”

Dog Days of Autumn


Oct. 14, 2014 9:26 p.m. ET

Rob Shepperson

We’d never had a “working” dog before we got Wallie, our Bracco Italiano.

I think it’s safe to say we didn’t even realize we were purchasing a working dog, with all its implications.

Our previous pets had been playing dogs. Or more precisely eating, sleeping and playing, with the occasional walk thrown in.

But what working translates to—especially when there’s no work to be done because you live in a modest two-bedroom apartment and there’s no sheep to herd or waterfowl to flush—is that you must find other ways to occupy and amuse your pet.

This is a particular challenge in our household, though I realize I should speak only for myself, because we’re not in the entertainment business. Our goal, whether with pets or children, has been to integrate them into our relaxed lifestyle, rather than vice versa.

What that means is a happy, low-stress environment where we don’t go out of our way to create problems that don’t already exist. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually a subtle art, one my wife is better at than me, and that many of our friends and acquaintances, even at this late date, have yet to master.

Our concept of the ideal pet would have been one that’s pleasant, well-behaved and goes to the bathroom every other day.

At all other times, she’d be basically catatonic, as animated as the living room rug.

That, however, isn’t the case. She’s more likely to be systematically gnawing her way through the couch or stealing shoes and articles of clothing that haven’t been locked away.

Her rambunctiousness apparently is the result of the fact that she’s both a puppy and a working dog.

Two things have allowed us to survive Wallie’s initiation into family life over the past few months—three, if you include that she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.

The first is the Central Park off-leash, pre-9 a.m. free-for-all, where over 45 manic minutes she gets to expend the strength and energy engineered into her breed.

If we had any questions about a Bracco’s capabilities and requirements, they were answered by online videos starring Braccos that look just like Wallie, and that my wife consumes like popcorn.

Unfortunately, most are in Italian so we can’t understand what they’re saying, but they’re all pretty similar: A hunter extols the breed’s virtues over B-roll, accompanied by overly dramatic Star Wars-style music, of the canine stalking prey through alpine meadows. When he locates it and helps land dinner, his owner erupts with a rapturous “Bravissimo!”

So obviously, we had, and still have, a lot of work to do to help our Bracco achieve her potential. And running circles around other puppies in Central Park alone won’t suffice.

To that fact add that we’ve never trained a dog in our lives.

Frankly, it’s too exhausting and we have better things to do. Even getting Wallie to come when you call her would constitute a significant achievement.

We have recruited a couple of trainers. The first spent our inaugural—and final—session psychoanalyzing us, taking notes and selling us an overpriced leash. Until I politely demanded she teach the dog a trick.

Our new trainer preaches tough love and seems quickly to have earned Wallie’s respect.

But he also gave us some disturbing news: As dogs go, he described our pooch as “aloof.”

In other words, she only comes when she feels like it. Which wouldn’t make her any different than anybody else in the family, except that they’ve learned not to run in traffic or wet the carpet.

Fortunately, something remarkable happened recently. It is called autumn and it’s the second thing that has allowed us to maintain our equilibrium.

When she’s not terrorizing the squirrels formerly hogging the bird feeders, or rushing through the woods upstate with her nose glued to the ground, the leaves falling off the trees have been providing literally millions of opportunities for Wallie to exercise her hunting, and pointing, instincts without us having to lift a finger.

Their motion, floating to Earth, seems to trigger some sort of Pavlovian response in the dog. I don’t think she realizes they’re not alive. Or that if she looked up they wouldn’t take her by surprise and prevent her from having yet caught one.

Which raises questions about her intelligence, especially after having watched a recent “60 Minutes” segment starring a border collie who can recognize 1,000 words.

Wallie, on the other hand, appears functionally illiterate.

We’re also worried that the leaves might be starting to drive her crazy. She can spend hours chasing them.

As that “60 Minutes” segment showed, dogs have emotions, too, their brains lighting up with something resembling love as they look into our eyes.

Does that means they’re also capable of nervous breakdowns?

If so, Wallie may be a candidate unless she catches a leaf soon.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Where Moguls Meet and Greet

Oct. 13, 2014 10:05 p.m. ET

‘Any customer tells me anything, I give it top priority,’ says Sergio Vacca, longtime maître d’ at Harry Cipriani in the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

At Harry Cipriani, the mogul watering hole at the Sherry-Netherland hotel, the reception is more elaborate than at some other popular restaurants: Guests expect to be recognized, effusively greeted by name and seated instantly after a hearty handclasp from Sergio Vacca, the maître d’ who’s been conducting the show since 1991.

And quite a show it is.

On a recent routine Monday night, one could spot billionaire Ronald Perelman, who has been a regular since the restaurant opened in the mid-1980s; movie producer Harvey Weinstein; the Dolans of Madison Square Garden and Cablevision fame; and talk-show host Charlie Rose.

What makes their presence noteworthy, and distinguishes Cipriani from your average pricey Italian restaurant, is that the food is probably secondary. It has been receiving indifferent reviews, to put it politely, ever since the restaurant opened.

(Nonetheless, I’d place its baked tagliolini with ham among the top comfort foods of all time. And the wafer-thin carpaccio, drizzled in a mayonnaise, mustard and Worcestershire sauce, is as good as carpaccio gets.)

“To treat people like they’re coming to your house,” is the way Mr. Vacca described the enthusiasm he employs on customers, whether venerable or first-timers. He said he picked up the habit from Arrigo Cipriani, the 82-year-old patriarch of the international family-run restaurant empire, which includes 11 properties in Manhattan—among them restaurants, private clubs, residences and event spaces.

The company is best known for Harry’s Bar in Venice, where Mr. Cipriani spends most of his time these days.

The business hasn’t been without controversy. The Ciprianis have had bitter disputes with both unions and landlords, among them Tishman Speyer Properties, over the Rainbow Room, which they bought in 1999 and closed a decade later. Arrigo and his son Giuseppe also pleaded guilty in 2007 to tax evasion for defrauding New York state and city of $3.5 million in taxes, and agreed to pay $10 million in restitution and penalties.

But none of that seems to have dented the brand. And the reasons are probably a good deal subtler, hidden in the nooks and crannies of human aspiration, than simply treating customers like houseguests.

It starts with Arrigo Cipriani himself. A model of dark-suited dignity and restraint, he’s always conveyed the impression, despite sky-high prices, that you were as fortunate for having received a table at one of his restaurants as he was for having you as a guest, perhaps slightly more so.

“Many people would stand up to pay homage to Mr. Cipriani,” Mr. Vacca said.

What certain of-the-moment restaurants seem to have in common, besides celebrity spotting, is a kind of lively, orchestrated tumult that transmits the impression that you’re standing, or seated, at the center of the universe.

That is quite a feat to pull off, particularly with the competition for dining dollars in New York. Even more so, if you’ve managed to do it over a quarter-century, as the Ciprianis have.

“We do have these people; we know they’re important,” Mr. Vacca acknowledged, referring to the 1% of the 1%. “For me, every person who comes in here is very important.”

The restaurant’s success certainly owes something to the maître d’s energy level. No guest, no matter how entitled—or titled—is too difficult.

“Any customer tells me anything, I give it top priority,” said Mr. Vacca, who once clocked himself on a pedometer at 24,790 steps in a single day. “I never stop. It’s adrenaline.”

“They feel at home when they come here,” said Maggio Cipriani, Giuseppe’s son, Arrigo’s grandson, and a member of the fourth generation working in the family business.

There is something to be said for that. The moguls come to rub shoulders with other moguls, those slightly lower on the food chain hoping some of the magic rubs off, and everybody enjoys the occasional royal or head-of-state spotting.

“One night we had the King and Queen of Sweden—and the King of Norway,” Mr. Vacca recalled. “Netanyahu,” he added, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “every time he’s in here, when security permits. He’s been coming the last 25 years.”

Part of the allure is that the place and the menu hardly change. It’s the triumph of familiarity—all the way down to the tables and silverware, which tend to be on the compact side.

“Everything is small, nothing imposes itself,” Maggio Cipriani observed. He quoted his grandfather to the effect that it’s the guest who makes the table, not the other way around.

And it’s all a reasonable facsimile of Harry’s Bar in Venice. “This is a table for four?” Mr. Vacca said customers, undoubtedly first-timers, occasionally grouse. “I say, ‘In Harry’s Bar, this is a table for six.’ ”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Crash Course in Science

Oct. 12, 2014 10:35 p.m. ET

Physicist Angelika Drees gives a tour of the underground particle accelerator at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the Brookhaven National Lab in Upton, N.Y. Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

It took almost two hours Thursday morning in stop-and-go Long Island Expressway traffic to reach Brookhaven National Laboratory. Science has never been my strong suit, but I think a comparison can be made between the daily failures of suburban traffic engineering and some of what has been accomplished at Brookhaven.

While it was unusual for me to reach speeds above 30 miles an hour for much of the trip, Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider—essentially a 2.4-mile racetrack for atomic particles, and the only one in the nation—is capable of making the journey in one second. Not once, but 80,000 times traveling at 99.995% of the speed of light.

Imagine how fast you could get to the Hamptons.

And just to take the traffic analogy one step further, flawed though it may be, the purpose of the collider is to create a crash, where beams of ions traveling in opposite directions collide in the middle, creating a shower of subatomic particles that help raise our understanding of the universe’s fundamental forces.

“Right below the PHENIX logo,” is where the collision takes place, explained Edward O’Brien, an experimental physicist and the director of operations for PHENIX. One of two detectors operating at Brookhaven, it stands for Pioneering High-Energy Nuclear Interaction Experiment.

Dr. O’Brien was pointing at a thin, easily overlooked tube between magnets several stories high, whose job is to focus the beam, like the lens on a camera.

We live in a special-effects age where daily reality often seems trumped by the virtual world. Thus, I’m happy to report that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) generates not only photons and muons but also awe.

In the same way that the flying buttresses of Chartres or Notre Dame defined the cutting-edge technology of its time, one’s reaction standing at the base of the RHIC, with 4-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls and labyrinth of tubes and wires connecting to a control room where scientists analyze the data, is something like reverence.

Its purpose is to mimic conditions “when the universe was one-millionth-of-a-second old after the big bang,” Dr. O’Brien explained—the collisions generating temperatures of 4 trillion degrees Celsius, 250,000 times hotter than the center of the Sun.

Though none was occurring on the day of my visit. If they had been we wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the collider, which has all sorts of safety features, such as trip wires and oversize red buttons labeled “Magnet Crash.”

“Your bank card would get wiped immediately,” he said.

Digital storage equipment at the lab’s PHENIX facility. Craig Warga for The Wall Street Journal

The RHIC runs roughly six months a year, January through June, and is shut down the other six months for maintenance, repairs and upgrades. During what’s known as “Summer Sundays” in August, Brookhaven—a 5,300-acre campus with almost 3,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff, operated by the Department of Energy—is open to the public. Group tours can also be arranged September through May.

Brookhaven also does research in nanotechnology and life sciences, and houses the National Synchrotron Light Source, beams of light that allow scientists to study everything from superconductivity to the chemical composition of human bones, which could help in the understanding of arthritis and osteoporosis.

The discoveries of the heavy ion collider have been even more fundamental. “We were shocked” when the collisions created what appeared to be a liquid rather than a gas, Dr. O’Brien explained, and what the universe may have been made of momentarily 13 billion years ago.

And not just any liquid, but one with the most “perfect” properties ever observed. “It had no viscosity, no drag,” the scientist said. “That was totally unexpected. We started to measure properties never seen before in nature.”

Being in the presence of such cutting-edge science, and really cool equipment, inevitably leads to discussions of existence and being.

“The universe is more elusive than we thought 20 or 30 years ago,” said Gene Van Buren, a physicist working on STAR, the other particle detector at Brookhaven. It stands for Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC. “It’s hiding things. It’s almost more frustrating than awe.”

Nonetheless, he said, the research may eventually lead to breakthroughs as profound as that of harnessing electricity.

The scientists don’t feel competitive, or that their thunder was stolen by CERN in Switzerland which operates a newer, bigger particle collider. Many of Brookhaven’s scientists, an international group, travel between Long Island and CERN.

“It’s a collegial approach,” Dr. O’Brien said.

Among them is Angelika Drees, a German physicist who worked at CERN before coming to Brookhaven where she runs the accelerator itself—two rings of supercold, superconducting magnets that guide the protons, or “heavy ions,” into collisions. She also conducts her own experiments.

“If there’s a problem the engineering people can’t fix they call me,” she said as we traveled the tunnel where the beams are housed, coming across the occasional cricket. The goal is to create a perfect vacuum. “We want the particles to interact only with each other.”

In her spare time Dr. Drees plays with car engines, shoes horses and lets her children think they understand computers and cellphones better than she does. “I hand it to them, but I can figure it out,” she said.

Write to Ralph Gardner at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Salty Search for the Good Life

The Wall Street Journal
By Ralph Gardner Jr.
Oct. 8, 2014 9:25 p.m. ET

Ralph Gardner Jr. lies on a salt bed in Breathe Easy’s dry salt therapy room in Manhattan. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

Salt has been used as a flavor enhancer for millennia. But did you know that the condiment can also improve breathing, provide relief from the common cold, rejuvenate your skin and perhaps even enhance your sex life? I didn’t either.

But since all of the above would seem desirable, I paid a visit Tuesday afternoon to Breathe Easy’s dry salt therapy room at the Oasis Day Spa on Park Avenue South.

“Four or five years ago there were only four or five salt rooms in the country,” explained Ülle Pukk, the founder of Salt Chamber, a company that provides salt therapy equipment and training to homes and health spas, such as the one we were sitting in at that moment. “We have over 100 customers and the list is growing.”

Ms. Pukk, who comes from Estonia but lives in Boca Raton, Fla., these days, tried to explain salt’s beneficial effects. She threw around terms such as “halotherapy” and “positive ions.”

I was simultaneously trying to pay attention, take notes and monitor my body functions to determine whether my breathing and skin were already on the mend.

We were seated in loungers in the spa’s salt room, where there was a carpet of coarse pink Himalayan salt several inches thick on the floor and walls made of artfully backlighted salt bricks.

However, that was just window dressing. My renewed health would be left to a device called a halogenerator, that was apparently pumping microscopic particles of salt into the room.

I wouldn’t call the experience to that point disappointing or anticlimactic.

A woman puts her feet up in the salt lounge. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

But it was foreign to my previous visits to health spas where you arrive; get offered a bottle of coconut water, or whatever; don a white robe and disposable slippers; and before you know it are being kneaded with aromatherapy oils while listening to New Age music.

At a minimum I had assumed I would be rubbed head to toe in sodium chloride, or immersed in the waters of a Jacuzzi boasting a higher salt content than the Dead Sea.

But all we did was sit around in our street clothes while Ms. Pukk explained that salt’s therapeutic benefits were first discovered in a Polish salt mine in the 19th century when workers didn’t come down with the respiratory ailments common to the time, foremost among them tuberculosis.

I didn’t doubt her. But I also desired some proof that the chamber in which we were seated was any different from any artfully lighted midtown employee break room.

I couldn’t see the salt. I couldn’t feel the salt. I couldn’t even taste the salt.

Gary Patrick, the founder of Breathe Easy, which also runs a second wellness center in Manhattan and a third in Dobbs Ferry, tried to allay my skepticism by holding the flashlight feature on his cellphone to the air.

I thought I could see something when I looked real hard, but who’s to say it wasn’t dust?

One of the participants claimed she was already feeling better.

Mr. Patrick said that he and his wife had also taken their Chihuahua Chi Chi into the salt room at their Westchester location and that the therapy had cured the dog’s cough.

It also alleviated Mr. Patrick’s snoring, hence contributing to his improved marriage. “We slept together more,” he said referring to his wife, Ellen, a yoga instructor, breathing expert, and Breathe Easy’s co-founder. “It eliminated the snoring and sleep apnea. Try having sex and not breathing.”

Salt covers the floor at the treatment room. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

I started to cough a little myself, felt I might sneeze and wondered whether this might be an early sign that the therapy was working. “Doing salt helps to break up the mucus,” Ms. Pukk testified.

Was there any scientific literature to back up salt’s medicinal claims? Ms. Pukk said there was, but that, “All the research is in Russian, which hasn’t been transcribed very well.”

I was informed the spa also had a salt bed. That’s not a bed made of salt, but rather something like a tanning bed, offering an individualized salt experience.

I suggested we proceed there immediately. Especially since our 45-minute session was up and I still wasn’t certain I was feeling healthier or more youthful.

The bed featured a carpet of Himalayan salt crystals and colorful lights. It certainly felt relaxing after I clambered aboard and the device’s transparent hood was lowered over my head and body.

It was only as I was leaving the spa that I noticed my shoes and clothing lightly dusted in a chalky substance. Yes, salt!

I’m not convinced that’s proof the therapy works. But it will have to suffice until I can document an improvement in my breathing, skin and sex life, or return for additional sessions.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Making the Most of Sausage

Oct. 7, 2014 9:15 p.m. ET

Chef-owner Philippe Roussel of Café D’Alsace preparing sausage. Jason Andrew for The Wall Street Journal

What’s that line about sausages? Laws are like sausages. Better not to see them being made.

I decided to ignore that advice—regarding sausages; I stopped following Congress months ago when nothing seemed to be happening—and paid a lunchtime visit last week to Café D’Alsace on the Upper East Side.

It was ahead of the annual sausage festival thrown by Tour de France, a restaurant group of which Café D’Alsace is a member. This year’s festival runs Oct. 17-23 and features the classic Alsatian dish: choucroute garnie.

I can’t say choucroute garnie makes my blood race. I come from a family of small eaters and lose my appetite whenever too much food is thrust in front of me. Café D’Alsace’s version would seem to fit that description: it includes pork sausage, smoked pork sausage and boudin blanc. As well as smoked pork knuckle, double smoked bacon and smoked pork chop. It’s served over sauerkraut simmered in Riesling, ham shank and juniper berries.

I’m not sure what I think of sauerkraut—I focus on the sour and after all these years remain unconvinced it adds much to a typical ballpark frank—but a succulent sausage deserves a place in any cook’s repertoire.

Part of the reason I was interested in visiting with Philippe Roussel, Café D’Alsace’s chef-owner and an alumnus of the French three-star restaurant Troisgros, was to learn how to make better sausages at home.

Philippe Roussel prepares sausage with the help of equipment at his restaurant. Jason Andrew for The Wall Street Journal

I wasn’t ambitious enough to believe I was going to start stuffing my own. But it would be nice if the sweet Italian sausage one buys at the supermarket, accompanied by spaghetti in a simple tomato sauce, could arrive at the dinner table feeling neither rubbery nor dehydrated.

In that regard, I’d like to give a shout-out to a tasty treat I don’t think receives enough respect, and that can more than hold its own against even the mighty Big Mac in a fast-food smackdown: Auntie Anne’s original pretzel dog.

It consists of pretzel dough wrapped around a Nathan’s Famous hot dog. And it will enliven any trip to the mall, where many Auntie Anne’s seem to be located, or even Penn Station where I usually pick up a couple to consume on the train upstate, washing it down with Coke and a Krispy Kreme chocolate iced doughnut.

Talk about healthy.

But back to haute cuisine. I joined Chef Roussel in the kitchen, where he fed chopped pork, fat back, sautéed shallots, salt, pepper and brandy into a buffalo chopper. It was actually less unappealing than I’d anticipated, though the next part—stuffing the sausage into casing—bordered on the improper.

While the other restaurants in the Tour de France group—among them Nice Matin on the Upper West Side and Marseille in Hell’s Kitchen—all participate in the sausage fest, they’re year-round staples on Café D’Alsace’s menu. The restaurant also serves seafood, duck, venison, chicken and lamb sausage, besides pork.

“People laugh because I’m cooking Alsatian food,” said Chef Roussel, who comes from Brittany.

Apropos cooking sausages properly, the chef said that he poaches them first in simmering, not boiling water, for about 10 minutes.

He doesn’t puncture them with a fork, as I’ve been doing to drain the fat; something I believe I learned from a James Beard cookbook.

Then he tosses them in ice water to stop them from cooking and briefly throws them on the grill.

“It’s just to give a little grill taste,” he said, and adds those grill lines, whose contribution seems as much psychological as physical.

From there, it’s another 10 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees.

Café D’Alsace’s choucroute garnie with servings for two. Jason Andrew for The Wall Street Journal

However, the sausages in his choucroute garnie aren’t grilled; they are simmered in homemade chicken stock.

On the way out of the kitchen, I spotted some excellent-looking french fries and asked whether they might be included with our choucroute. The dish comes with boiled Yukon Gold potatoes, which I realize is the right move, offsetting the saltiness of the sausage. But there’s something about boiled potatoes that doesn’t exactly broadcast excitement.

I only wish Café D’Alsace, at 88th and Second Avenue, was located a little closer to my apartment because they specialize in the sort of comfort food one could eat every night: French onion soup with an aged Gruyere topping, omelets, burgers, steak or poulet frites, Wiener schnitzel.

Traveling uptown, especially to Second Avenue, which remains something of a war zone as the new subway line inches toward completion, feels like fighting against Jupiter gravity.

The meal arrived. It’s supposed to be for two, but it looked sufficient to feed an entire firehouse.

As tasty as it was, if it were up to me I’d be more than satisfied with a couple of smoked sausages, french fries, mayo for dipping and mustard on the side. With perhaps coleslaw or a light green salad. Hold the sauerkraut.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Ah, the Poetry of Baseball

Oct. 6, 2014 9:23 p.m. ET

The Baseball Project plays Club Helsinki in Hudson, N.Y. Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

October marks the start of baseball season for fair- weather fans like me.

I normally also attend one regular season game, but a concert at Club Helsinki in Hudson, N.Y., was the closest I came to a ballpark this summer.

It wasn’t just any band, but a supergroup known as the Baseball Project—its members hail from R.E.M., Dream Syndicate, the Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows. And as you might suspect, all the music they played was about the national pastime.

For example, “Dock” is a piece about Dock Ellis, a Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 while he was high on LSD; and “Buckner’s Bolero,” which argues that the reputation of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner shouldn’t rest, as the liner notes for the band’s “High and Inside” album say, “on a squirrely nubber that got past him.”

The reference, of course, is to the ball that rolled between Mr. Buckner’s legs, allowing the Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

The band’s Steve Wynn, left, signs an autograph for Mets fan Mike Flannery of Clermont, N.Y.Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal

I don’t often attend rock concerts, let alone ones devoted to obscure baseball references. But I went with Bruce Shenker, my friend and a major sports fan and a minor poet.

Mr. Shenker composed a poem for my wedding—the scrap of paper has gone missing so I can’t remember most of the verses—that coupled baseball and romantic milestones.

Among the references was one to the evening in 1978 when I met my future wife while the Fall Classic was in full swing.

“Reggie Jackson’s hip made a Series changing play/and Ralph and Debbie met that day.”

(Mr. Jackson broke up a double play when the ball caromed off his right hip, allowing teammate Thurman Munson to score.)

Another allusion was to the day of our wedding—Oct. 18, 1986—which also marked the first game of the World Series between the Mets and the Red Sox.

“Now the Series has another Gotham nine/and we are at their wedding and doing fine,” or words to that effect.

It’s fair to say our nuptials and the postseason are bonded for posterity.

That’s probably fitting since I was raised in a Mets family.

My father had an emotional attachment to the team because, at least in their early—and more recent—years, they confirmed his jaundiced view of the world: Their sole talent seemed to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

However, all that turned around in 1986, as it had in 1969, when they won the World Series and flummoxed my dad.

I recall heading in a cab to my bachelor party at a friend’s Tribeca loft during the ’86 National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.

It must have been balmy night and the windows of apartments thrown open because you could hear the play-by-play ushering from TVs and radios in every building on every street, and the roar whenever the Mets scored a run.

Rarely has the city been so in sync.

Even though I didn’t partake in the pomp and circumstance surrounding Derek Jeter ’s retirement, a more recent unifying event, I’ll always be grateful to the Yankee shortshop for one small memory.

While waiting at the stadium on an afternoon in 2011 for radio announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, who I was interviewing for a column, a Yankees PR man told me to sit in the dugout.

What most impressed me as I watched Jeter and his teammates practice was how much fun they seemed to be having.

Despite the sky-high salaries, the scandals, the relentless media scrutiny, their joy for the game seemed uninhibited, as pure as a Little Leaguer’s.

Traditionally, my brother and I go to one Mets game in July—these days with my daughters and assorted young cousins and friends in tow.

For me to suggest we travel to Yankee Stadium instead—usually the Mets are already a dozen games out of first place by that point in the season; the Yankees less so—would verge on the sacrilegious.

We know the names of hardly any of the Mets players. But that doesn’t affect our enjoyment of the game.

The point is to consume hot dogs and Cracker Jack popcorn and revel in the spectacle; for some reason, the geometry of a baseball diamond evokes a sort of poetry, both heroic and intimate, that eludes a football field or basketball court.

I’m trying to repent for my sports sins by watching more baseball this postseason.

Though, obviously, it won’t be the same without the Yankees.

Or better yet the Mets, still in the mix, giving my friend Bruce an excuse for composing verse.