Astoria Characters by Nruhling
Nancy A. Ruhling
Aug 30, 2016 | 14843 views | 0 0 comments | 90 90 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

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Astoria Characters: The Woman Whose Life Is in Limbo
by Nruhling
Dec 11, 2018 | 130 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saneun is from South Korea.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saneun Hwang rummages through her tote bag until she finds a thick white book.

She places it on the coffee table and begins flipping through its image-heavy pages, which she likens to birds’ wings flying freely through the sky.

There is a story – her story – behind the tome she has titled Zip; in fact, it will tell you pretty much everything you want and need to know about who she is.

Saneun, who is from Seoul, South Korea, made the so-called artist book while she was a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

She graduated in 2017 and since then has been trying to figure out the next chapter in her life.

Her progress has been stymied through no fault of her own: She can’t really make any decisions until she finds out whether the U.S. government will extend her visa and allow her to stay here.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saneun’s artist book, Zip.

The waiting, which led to her giving up her apartment and taking up temporary quarters, is frightening and stressful.

So it is to art that she turns to make the time pass quicker and calmer.

Zip, an artful arrangement of archival photos from the files of the New York Public Library, MoMA and the Cooper Hewitt, is about Saneun’s personal past in Seoul.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saneun came to New York to go to the School of Visual Arts.

It also is about a universal present that critiques the kind of urban development that Saneun, who was raised in a 32-story building, is a product of.

“Zip can mean many things,” she says. “It can be a U.S. ZIP Code or a zip file that signifies the compression of data, or in the case of a big city, people. It’s also the Korean word for house or home, and in Chinese it means a collection of things.”

Saneun’s a patient person – it took her a year to create Zip and nearly all her life to finally admit to herself that she wanted to become an artist.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zip‘s introduction hits personal and universal themes.

“I was always drawing and painting,” she says. “My mother told me that when I was in grade school I declared that I wanted to be an artist.”

Although she took after-school art classes in elementary school, she didn’t pursue them.

“My parents and older brother were not into art,” she says. “And there’s a conservative culture in South Korea. When I was in middle school, I told the teacher, ‘I don’t want to make art; I want to make money.’”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

College in Korea didn’t work out for her.

Her focus declared, she studied English and math, subjects that she figured would get her jobs.

“I went for mediocrity like my friends,” she says, a touch of disappointment in her voice.

Even so, when it came time to choose SAT subjects, Saneun went with world geography, world history and Korean history.

“Nobody else in my school was studying those subjects,” she says. “I just couldn’t do the popular ones like finance. If there’s something I don’t like, I can’t do it. I have to follow my heart.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Zip‘s pages are like birds’ wings.

Saneun aced the tests, a feat that won her admission to the type of colleges she had no interest in attending.

Enroll she did, and with good intentions. But after two years, she decided to take a break.

“I took all my savings — $6,000 – and went to Europe for two months,” she says. “I came back with zero money.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She’s waiting to find out whether her visa will be extended.

And, she adds, a new outlook on her career.

“It was the first time I had been exposed to real art,” she says. “I was mesmerized by the rich culture of the museum and art gallery worlds. And it was the first time that I realized that everyday objects – even ones as simple as London’s maps of the Tube – could be beautiful.”

So she set her sights on art school.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She’d like to stay in New York, her city of inspiration.

“I really wanted to study in New York City,” she says, “because it’s the mecca of the art world.”

At the School of Visual Arts, she started out as a graphic design/advertising major, which she considered a practical choice.

“I knew it would get me a job,” she says.

But after a year, she indulged herself and switched to fine art, which is where she was introduced to the concept of the artist book.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saneun’s working on volume two of Zip.

She found the genre appealing because “it’s not designed to hang on a wall where only select people can see it. It’s tactile and tangible and connects with the viewer, who can see and feel its beauty. It is art that can be widely spread around.”

Saneun recently had Zip published and is working on a second volume that will incorporate street photography and is designed to encourage the viewer to interact with it.

While she’s working on that, she’s doing shifts in an art gallery and a burger restaurant and creating graphic design projects for a small roster of clients.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

If not New York, Saneun will try London or even Amsterdam.

What’s she’s doing mostly, though, is nervously awaiting word on her visa.

Saneun doesn’t want to leave New York City, where she gets her ideas and inspiration.

“I don’t see myself living in Korea,” she says. “I could see myself in London.”

Or, she adds, in Amsterdam.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at,

@nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Chef Behind Chip Cookies
by Nruhling
Dec 04, 2018 | 315 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andrea created Chip NYC’s signature crunchy-gooey cookies.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Wearing silver mitts that stretch to her elbows, Andrea Prunella pulls a tray of peppermint chocolate cookies out of the oven and brings them to the front counter, where they warm themselves under heating lamps like newborn chicks.

“It’s the crushed candy canes in the dough that make them so special,” she says.

Their sweet scent fills the air, bringing a bit of home-for-the-holidays cheer to Chip NYC’s Ditmars shop — the bite-size place on 33rd Street near where The Souvlaki Lady parks her cart.

Andrea, a partner in Chip NYC, is the company’s pastry chef.

It was she who created the recipes for the delicious cookies (OGM, you must try the blueberry cheesecake and the s’mores and the pecan pie and the pumpkin spice latte) that have kept people lining up around the block since the first store opened in the summer of 2017.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chip NYC’s store on 33rd Street at Ditmars Boulevard.

“The owners asked me to create huge, five-ounce cookies that were crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside,” she says. “They also wanted flavors that evoke memories of childhood.”

Andrea’s 24; remembering her childhood, which is when she got the baking bug, was as simple as her oatmeal apple pie cookies.

Born and raised in Douglaston, Andrea, who has cascading curls and an infectious smile, started working in the food industry when she was 16.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andrea began working in the food industry when she was 16.

“My older brother’s best friend was the owner of M. Wells Diner in Long Island City,” she says. “I worked there after school for free for about a year doing food and pastry prep.”

She found the fast pace exciting.

“I fell in love with it,” she says. “The creativity was the draw. It allowed me to exercise that part of my brain, and it was a challenge to move to the fullest every day.”

She spent two years at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park earning an associate’s degree in baking. For about a year, she worked in a Manhattan specialty cake shop.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Freshly baked funfetti cookies.

“Cake decorating was my weakest skill coming out of school, so I wanted to perfect my technique,” she says.

Around the time she got it down butter-pat, she moved to San Diego, where she was an executive pastry chef at a bakery café.

“At the time, my boyfriend was in the Marines,” she says. “We came back to Astoria about a year and a half ago, around the same time Chip NYC opened.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andrea runs the company’s kitchen, which is where the cookie dough is prepared.

Andrea joined the company a month after the first shop, which is on 34th Street at 30th Avenue, opened.

“This is my dream job,” she says. “We’re all kind of like a family, and as we grow, we want to bring this model of happiness to the entire company.”

She devoted weeks to creating the recipe for success.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andrea has a degree in baking from the Culinary Institute of America.

“I did a lot of studying and baking and testing, and I spent thousands of dollars,” she says. “We even closed down for a couple of weeks while I was getting it right.”

So far, she’s created 25 kinds of cookies. Each shop sells four rotating flavors a day.

“All the flavors are purposeful creations that people love,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Frozen chocolate chip walnut cookies ready for baking.

Andrea, who also is the creator of the fun flavors for Chip NYC’s seasonal ice cream shop on 31st Avenue, spends most of her 10- to 12-hour shifts running the company’s wholesale kitchen, where she supervises 10 people.

The cookie dough is produced there and divided into balls that look like scoops of ice cream. The cookies are frozen to lock in the fresh flavor and transported by truck or car to each store for daily baking.

When Andrea isn’t mixing sugar and flour with nostalgia, she’s watching movies, crocheting and reading.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Between cookies, she reads, watches movies and crochets.

“I read way too much,” she says. “I go through three or four novels a week. I don’t sleep all that much – maybe five or six hours a night.”

In the coming months, she’s likely to be spending a lot less time in bed: Chip NYC is opening a shop in Long Island City and one in the Village.

With her busy schedule, Andrea doesn’t have much time to think about what tomorrow will bring.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Andrea says everyone at Chip NYC is like family.

But between cookies, she has considered opening a bed and breakfast upstate. She hastens to add that this is her idea of a relaxing retirement plan.

Then again, it could just be a sweet dream – she has decades to decide.

“Chip is the only future I can see now,” she says as she packs up a box of cookies. “I want to see where it goes.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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Astoria Characters: The Warrior of the Waterways
by Nruhling
Nov 27, 2018 | 464 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Clare is the vice president of Green Shores NYC.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

Clare Doyle, candy-apple red hair flitting about in the breeze, is standing on Shore Road in Astoria Park watching the water wave to her.

It’s a gray day; it’s not supposed to rain, but the sky is spitting at the forecast, sending down spritzing mists like a perfume atomizer.

Clare, the vice president of Green Shores NYC, spends every Saturday and Sunday in Queens parks, sometimes visiting up to a half a dozen per weekend.

In fact, this has been her practice for more than a decade, since the nonprofit that focuses on the East River was founded and she became a volunteer officer.

An Astoria resident since she arrived from Dublin, Ireland in 1989, Clare’s particularly fond of the green spaces in her neighborhood, and given her role with Green Shores NYC, she’s partial to waterfront parks.

Clare, whose parents met when her mother visited relatives in Ireland, was born in Dublin.

They left when her father, a banker, got a job in New York City, which is where her two younger brothers and sister were born.

“We moved back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times,” she says, a light lilt betraying her origins. “I was 14 when we settled in Dublin.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She spends every weekend visiting Queens parks.

When Clare graduated with a degree in history and archaeology from University College Dublin and couldn’t find a job, she did a very sensible thing: She went back to school and earned a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Leicester in England.

“This took me a while,” she says, “because I would work for six months then study for six months.”

One of her jobs was with the Newgrange, a prehistoric monument also known as Ireland’s Stonehenge.

Upon graduation, she got a job with the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Clare was born in Dublin and spent part of her childhood in New York City.

“The funding for the position was cut,” she says. “So I thought, ‘I need another degree.’”

So she went back to the University College Dublin and studied library and information science.

She was all set to apply for steady employment in that city when a headhunter offered her a job with a library reference publisher called H.W. Wilson in, of all places, the South Bronx.

It was so unexpected that Clare didn’t know what to do.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It was a job that brought Clare to America in 1989.

“It was around the same time that Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was published,” she says, adding that she read the satirical novel while making her decision. “The South Bronx wasn’t the safest place.”

She asked her brother, who lived in Astoria, to check out the office, and when he gave a positive report (the building was secure, he assured her, and bus transportation was nearby), she decided to give it a go.

“Fate seemed to be calling me,” she says, “and I’ve been here ever since.”

Her first apartment was near Astoria Park, and since she didn’t know anybody but her brother, she spent a lot of free time walking through its green paths. Along the way, she wondered what she could do to give back to the community.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

She learned to give back while attending a Quaker elementary school.

“I had gone to a Quaker elementary school in Dublin,” she says. “It instilled in me the idea of service to justify the space you are taking up on the earth. When I came to New York, I was looking for a cause to get involved in. I wanted to do something that would help the environment.”

Clare, who speaks while sipping cold tea from a plastic water bottle she decided to put to re-use instead of discarding, didn’t have to look hard or long to find something to spark her interest: A newly formed recycling group, ARROW, was calling for volunteers.

“Recycling in New York City was a new concept then,” she says, adding that Queens and Brooklyn didn’t get curbside recycling until 1993, when the program became citywide. “We raised consciousness on the issue, and I worked at the recycling center, taking in the recyclables.”

After city’s curbside recycling program made it obsolete, the group reinvented itself as a grower of community gardens. It ended up establishing a community center, with, of course, a garden, on 35th Street at 35th Avenue before gradually disbanding around 2010.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Clare writes a blog for the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association.

“Open space is precious,” she says. “You have to fight for it.”

It was only natural that Clare would channel her energy toward the waterfront, and by 2005, she was working with The Astoria Long Island City Catalyst Project of Partnership for Parks, which after another name change established itself as Green Shores NYC.

“Everything I’ve done is related,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

When she retires, she wants to become a full-time volunteer.

The plastic bottles like the one she’s drinking from, for instance, don’t end up in the water if they are recycled.

“At Green Shores, we developed a comprehensive vision of the Queens waterfront for Astoria and Long Island City,” she says. “And we pioneered the idea of listening sessions to get opinions from members of the public.”

In 2011, when the South Bronx company that employed Clare was bought out, she turned to freelance writing and editing before landing a job in 2014 with the American Council of Learned Societies, a private nonprofit federation of 75 scholarly organizations in the humanities and related social sciences.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Watching tennis matches and reading mysteries are Clare’s main hobbies.

Clare is involved with its collection of e-books.

In addition to her work for Green Shores NYC, Clare is a volunteer blogger for the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association, which she joined in 2016.

Although Clare’s volunteer schedule is full, she wishes she could clone herself so she could do more.

“There are so many rewards to being a volunteer, and you meet so many people,” she says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Making parks more accessible is on Clare’s to-do list.

For the record, she loves to watch tennis matches  — she typically attends the U.S. Open — and read mysteries and biographies on her Kindle.

Clare, who is 58, doesn’t know whether she will spend her retirement in Astoria or Dublin.

But she does know that she’ll become a full-time volunteer. She already has a list of projects she wants to be involved with.

“I’m interested in studying accessibility for parks,” she says. “It goes far beyond wheelchair ramps. How do people with disabilities even get to the parks? And what do we offer for people who have lost their hearing or eyesight? You have to think about things like signage and activities for all kinds of people.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It is a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling


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Astoria Characters: The Thanks-Giving Guy
by Nruhling
Nov 20, 2018 | 847 views | 0 0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chick-N-Soup is at 30-12 Astoria Blvd.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When Lou Romano Trujillo looks out over the tables at Chick-N-Soup, all he can think of is his good fortune.

“I’m a lucky guy,” he says, “because of the people – family and friends – who helped me open it.”

He mentions his mother (“an extraordinary woman who raised me by herself”), his landlord (who encouraged him to take on the renovation and gave him a really good deal on the rent), his uncle the electrician and his uncle the carpenter (who plied their trades on the place) and the two noted chefs (who took him and the menu under their marinated wings).

“I’m just so grateful,” he says. “I get emotional just talking about it.”

Lou, a sometime boxer who owns Popeye arms and a shiny, shaved head, starts to choke up.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lou didn’t discover cooking until he was about 30.

“We just celebrated our first anniversary,” he says. “I put everything I have into it – nearly all my savings — and then borrowed money and borrowed on top of that.”

Lou, who is 46, has done a lot of different things in his life – he started working at 17, and like his mother, has held multiple jobs simultaneously — but Chick-N-Soup is his most ambitious and adventurous project.

Lou, who was born in Astoria, has spent most of his life in the neighborhood. His mother gave birth to him right after her 18th birthday and quit school to take care of him.

“My parents were high school sweethearts,” he says. “They met when they were 15.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chick-N-Soup’s official greeter.

His father, a native of Cuba, joined the army.

“He got in some kind of trouble – I think he was trying to sells guns to make money – and he was incarcerated,” Lou says. “He was a good dude, he just made a lot of mistakes trying to support us. When he got out, I was about 12, and he did come back into my life, but my parents never got back together.”

Lou and his mother moved to Connecticut, where she worked night and day while earning a college degree.

“My mother used to take me to her classes,” he says. “We were there for five or six years, but we always came back to Astoria for Sunday dinner and holidays at grandma’s.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

His first restaurant, The Lunch Box, was three blocks away from Chick-N-Soup.

While Lou was at St. John’s Prep, he started working for Anheuser-Busch, a job he kept when he enrolled at LIU Post on Long Island.

“I didn’t get a degree in any subject,” he says, “but I got a degree in life. Some of the people I met there are still my friends.”

By the time he started taking courses at Hunter College – “I never worked toward a degree, I only took classes like psychology that interested me” — he was working not only for Anheuser-Busch but also selling real estate and DJing at a chic Manhattan club.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chick-N-Soup shows off its neighborhood vibe.

Given his varied and numerous pursuits and the fact that he didn’t know the difference between a spoon and a spatula, Lou seemed an unlikely candidate to open a restaurant.

But he was friends with Jason Bunin, who, at the time, was the Knickerbocker hotel’s executive chef.

“He took me into the kitchen,” Lou says. “It was intoxicating.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A detail of the mural, which features Astoria Park.

In his free time from his full schedule, Lou volunteered to “trail” Jason and started prepping food and whipping up batch recipes.

In 2009, he opened his first restaurant, The Lunch Box, an 18-seat spot that was on Astoria Boulevard at Crescent Street just west of Chick-N-Soup; he still lives upstairs.

“Jason helped me out two to three times a week,” he says. “I quit Anheuser-Busch, but I still did real estate.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Lou’s family and friends and two chefs helped him get the restaurant up and cooking.

By the time he sold it, in 2012, he had lightened his workload considerably – his “easy schedule” consisted of DJing four nights a week and playing professional poker.

“I got pretty good at poker,” he says, “and I won a couple of big tournaments. I used my knowledge of psychology to win.”

He was pretty happy with his life and probably wouldn’t have opened Chick-N-Soup if the landlord of his apartment hadn’t bought the building at 30-12 Astoria Blvd. and persuaded him to do so.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The menu — American and Latin comfort food.

Lou and the friends and family he’s so lucky to have spent 18 months renovating the former funeral parlor.

Jason created the comfort-food recipes for Chick-N-Soup, which sells burgers, wings, mac and cheese, milkshakes, and of course, soups.

“I’ve tweaked them since, so now they’re mostly my recipes,” Lou says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Soup’s on! It’s broccoli.

Celebrity chef Frank Maldonado, whom Lou recently befriended, created the Latin fare on the menu.

Lou says he’s thankful that he has the opportunity to own Chick-N-Soup, even though that means he’s on the premises from 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. every day.

“The time goes by quick,” he says, adding that he’s installed weights and a punching bag in the basement so he can keep in shape. “Besides, I like to stay busy.”

Lou says he owes his success not only to his friends and family but also to the best vendors, customers and employees on the planet.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Saying thanks, all the time.

“I can’t thank everybody enough,” he says.

A cook just called in sick; this means Lou will have to fill in.

“I’ll be doing every order,” he says.

It will be a lot of extra work. He smiles because he is, indeed, a very lucky guy.

“I count my blessings,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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Astoria Characters: The Print Promoter
by Nruhling
Nov 13, 2018 | 741 views | 0 0 comments | 71 71 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

K.Y. is from Hong Kong.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

The first thing you notice about K.Y. Chow is his apron. It’s green, the color of a forest in deep shade.

He points to the large red and white medallion in the center of its top.

“It’s Chinese calligraphy,” he says, standing in front of a wall of awards in the lobby at Grand Meridian Printing in Long Island City. “It means ‘best of the best.’”

K.Y., a tall, pen-thin man who is angular and animated, wears it when he’s in the office, and since he’s on site at least 16 hours a day seven days a week, he’s happy to note that that’s pretty much all of his waking time.

“This business is my baby,” he says, adding that he feels lucky to put in so many hours because “working for myself means liberty, freedom.”

K.Y.’s parents were Chinese, and his first name reflects their heritage. The K stands for Country and the Y stands for Royalty, or “royalty to the 3,000 years of Chinese culture.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Grand Meridian Printing is at 31-16 Hunters Point Ave.

“K.Y. also is the abbreviation for the State of Kentucky,” he notes.

Diligence is embedded in K.Y.’s DNA.

“We are from China’s Hakka tribe – we are a small race with our own language and by tradition are hard-working people because we always had nothing,” he says.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, which is where his parents fled after the Communists won China’s civil war in 1950, K.Y. grew up on a vegetable farm.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

K.Y. grew up on a vegetable farm and lived in a house without electricity and plumbing.

“My dad had made money, and the Communists took it away,” he says. “They left overnight with nothing.”

The family, which included K.Y.’s older brother and sister, lived in what K.Y. calls a wooden “hutch” that had no electricity or plumbing.

“When I was in high school, I studied by the light of a kerosene lamp,” he says. “The land was not ours. Our bathroom was a hole in the middle of the vegetable field; our vegetables were 100 percent organic, if you know what I mean.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Scraps from printing jobs.

K.Y. was the only person in his family to go to school. But getting an education was challenging.

“My father died after my graduation from high school,” K.Y. says. “I had to take care of my mother and work while I went to college.”

After graduating from Hong Kong Baptist University with a major in accounting and a minor in finance, subjects K.Y. considered practical enough to land him a steady job, he earned a master’s degree in finance with a minor in marketing from the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, the Philippines.

For several years, he lived at home with his mother while holding down a job in merchant banking and teaching college-level continuing-education classes.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Grand Meridian operates in an 18,000-square-foot space.

“I had a very good life,” he says.

In 1987, a job as a project manager for a private investment company brought him to New York City.

“Before I left Hong Kong, I knew so many people that I had farewell dinners every night for three months,” he says. “The company said they would help me get a green card. People were jealous because I was coming here.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The staffers set up an aquarium in the factory.

In the beginning, it was rough. The company that hired him had promised him a rent-free apartment.

“It turned out that that was a mattress on the floor,” he says. “I lived there three months.”

Four years later, K.Y. became the project manager for a wealthy Chinese woman from Hong Kong who was a major shareholder in a hotel-construction project in New York City.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

K.Y. is a detail guy and a man of action.

One of the minor investors in the hotel decided to liquidate assets, and there was a printing shop among the businesses. Although K.Y. spent a year negotiating to buy it, the deal fell through, and he ended up owning a different printing shop in Chinatown and renaming it Grand Meridian.

“It was $175,000, which was all of my savings and not a small amount of money in 1993,” he says.

His wife, Ivy Lung, who has an MBA and is the controller at Grand Meridian, thought the purchase was a good – although risky – idea.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Factory light makes a pretty pattern.

“With her job covering our mortgage, we could take the chance,” he says.

K.Y. didn’t know anything about the printing business so he became an unpaid apprentice in Chinatown for three months.

The original printing shop, which was in an 850-square-foot space, focused on Chinese takeout menus. In 1997, K.Y. moved Grand Meridian to a 9,400-square-foot location in Chinatown.

By 2004, he was certified as a minority- or women-owned business enterprise (MWBE) and was focusing on high-profile clientele that now include CUNY, SUNY, the New York Philharmonic, the MTA, Metro-North Railroad and the New York Mets.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

K.Y. works 16-hour shifts.

He moved the business to Long Island City in 2009, buying the 13,000-square-foot building on Hunters Point Avenue and immediately expanding it by 5,000 square feet.

“I had looked in some other areas, but they weren’t right,” he says. “This was the first property I saw here, and I fell in love with it.”

Although Ivy and K.Y. live in Rego Park, they spend nearly all of their time at Grand Meridian. Their offices are next to each other, and they cook quick meals in its kitchen and occasionally stay overnight.

“I didn’t leave during Hurricane Sandy,” he says. “I wanted to make sure nothing happened.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Onward and upward.

Although K.Y. and Ivy have no children, they do have two dozen employees and no thoughts of retiring.

K.Y., who is 66, concedes that the printing industry is facing challenging times in the digital age.

“The pie is getting smaller and smaller,” he says. “I’m in crisis management, but I don’t believe print will ever go away entirely.”

All the same, he’s keeping his options – and his eyes — open.

“I’m always looking ahead for opportunities,” he says.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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Astoria Characters: The Acting Cafe Owner
by Nruhling
Nov 06, 2018 | 854 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonbobs is at 34-15 28th Ave.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

After she takes a tray of pineapple coconut muffins out of the oven, Sonnie Brown concentrates on the frosting for her chocolate peanut butter layer cake.

She stands smiling over the small stainless steel mixing bowl at her coffee/cake/conversation café Sonbobs, swiftly stirring, stirring, stirring.

When the icing is creamy and thick, she paints it onto the cake with a spatula, crowning the confection with miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups.

The decorative design is not perfectly symmetrical, she concedes, adding that “it’s about how it tastes, not how it looks.”

It looks good enough to eat.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonnie with a fresh batch of pineapple coconut muffins.

So at home does Sonnie seem in Sonbobs’ kitchen, where she works 14-hour shifts seven days a week, that one would think she’s been baking ever since she was born.

But she didn’t start mixing flour and eggs with sugar and spice until about a decade ago.

“I’m in a karate club, and a couple of times a year, there’s a party,” she says. “I thought it was insane that they were spending $30 to $50 for cakes, so I started making them.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Seeing stars, fairy lights and lavender-lace curtains.

Even then, she was a back-burner baker: She had a full-time career as an actress.

In addition to dozens of commercials, she’s made appearances in TV’s Person of Interest, Blindspot, Blue Bloods and Law and Order: SVU and in the films Believe, The Bourne Legacy, The Nanny Diaries and Don Jon.

Baking is a precise art: Everything is measured and mixed in order.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Yes, you’ve seen her on TV and in movies.

Sonnie’s transition from roles to rolls wasn’t so straightforward.

Sonnie, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, lost her family before she even knew she had one.

“My parents, who were too young when they married, got a divorce when I was about one and a half,” she says. “My father told my mother that if she left him, he would put me and my older brother in an orphanage.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonbobs sells jewelry made by Sonnie.

She did and he did.

Sonnie was adopted by an older couple in Miami, Florida, who had grown children. She lived with her maternal grandmother for several years until the paperwork was completed.

“I was about 5 when I arrived in the United States,” she says. “Part of the deal was that they would sponsor my mother’s immigration, so she came, too, and lived close by.”

After high school, Sonnie enrolled at the University of Florida.

“My father died two days after Christmas during my freshman year,” she says. “And I went from being pampered to fending for myself financially.”

To support herself, she took up waitressing and bartending. In 1987, she came to New York City.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonnie is writing a children’s book featuring Sonbob, the shop mascot.

“I figured that I could bartend anywhere,” she says. “I didn’t like New York, and I was thinking of going to Hawaii. But before I left, I decided to do something that I could only do in New York – take acting classes.”

It turned out she was an on-screen natural, so she stayed, had a son, got married and after 9/11 finally finished her bachelor’s degree in broadcast production.

Then, at the end of 2017, when her acting career seemed to stall, Sonnie noticed the empty space on 28th Avenue around the corner from her apartment. She wondered what she could turn it into.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonnie, who was born in South Korea, grew up in Miami, Florida.

Sonbobs, which is next to a music store and a party shop, announces itself with shiny stars, lavender-lace curtains and purple fairy lights.

The size of a studio apartment, it has a living/dining room and a kitchen and sells everything from cookies and candles to china teacups and costume jewelry, much of it made by Sonnie.

“The name is short for ‘Sonnie’s bits and bobs,’” she says, adding that bits and bobs is the British version of odds and ends.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sparkles and scarves.

Some of those ends are indeed odd for a conventional coffeehouse.

There is, for instance, a Magic 8-Ball on the coffee table. Sonnie pulls out a magic wand and some quills and inks that are to be used for recording blessings.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonbobs has a homey atmosphere.

“I embrace celebrations of good energy,” she says. “I want people to hang out here and make friends.”

She’s made her own connections: One of her regular customers is a graphic designer, and they are collaborating on a children’s book that will feature the Sonbob character as its heroine.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The decor is quirky and comforting.

Just as in her bartending days, Sonnie likes to play mom. “People tell me their problems, and I give them advice,” she says, “whether it’s to quit a job or get out of a bad relationship.”

As for the food, the menu varies according to what Sonnie feels like making. She’s partial to fruit flavors, so there are mango, peach and plum cakes and key lime meringue pies. She serves sandwiches on toasted garlic bread; today’s special, she has decided, will be curry chicken salad.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sonnie presents her chocolate peanut butter cake.

In the past couple of months, Sonnie has been picking up acting parts again and has hired a substitute baker to cover for her during shoots.

She’s appearing in the new NBC drama Manifest and plays an art teacher in the AMC supernatural horror-drama series NOS4A2 that debuts next year.

“Sonbobs and acting – I never want to give up either,” she says as she turns a pineapple/coconut upside-down cake right-side up.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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Astoria Characters: The Yogi with 5 College Degrees
by Nruhling
Oct 30, 2018 | 788 views | 0 0 comments | 51 51 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jagadisa-devasri is a social worker, behavioral scientist and yogi.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

"Would you mind removing your shoes before coming in?”

Jagadisa-devasri Dacus, a tall, toned man with a shaved head and a bushy beard, is standing at the door of his apartment in black flip-flops, toenails painted the color of ripe cherries.

He went on a business trip to San Francisco, and he just got home a half hour ago on the red-eye flight. He hasn’t had any sleep.

He says he’s tired, but he looks wide awake. It’s probably because his body and mind are used to a supercharged schedule.

A social worker and behavioral scientist and yogi, Jagadisa-devasri (this, his re-birth name, taken when he was initiated into Sri Swami Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga lineage some 16 years ago, is Sanskrit for “lord of the universe-light of God”) has earned five college degrees (and three or four teacher training certifications in yoga – he can’t recall the precise number off the top of his heavy head) in the 46 years he has been on this planet.

It helps that he had a head start on work – he got his first job at 14.

“I’ve always had a rich life,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He has two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s and a doctorate.

Jagadisa-devasri, who is erudite and eloquent, was born in Colorado and grew up in what was then called South-Central Los Angeles. He and his younger brother were raised by their mother.

“We were very poor,” he says. “We didn’t always know where our next meal was coming from and used public benefits off and on. And we didn’t always have our own place to live in, but we were never in shelters. We stayed with friends and relatives when we were between places.”

By his own admission, he was an independent child. He didn’t see anything unusual about  becoming a customer-service representative at Target to help his mother pay the bills.

“I worked there after school, but I also did a lot of after-school activities,” he says. “And I was an excellent student.”

By the time he was 16, the family had settled in Denver, and Jagadisa-devasri had become a vegetarian. He also, on his own initiative, took up meditation and yoga.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He starts every day on the yoga mat.

“I stopped eating meat cold turkey,” he says. “At that time and in that place, nobody was into these things. All of this just seemed right even though it made me seem weird.”

Jagadisa-devasri’s good grades got him a significant scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley. He worked and took out loans to fill the financial gap.

“I wanted to study marine biology,” he says. “About a year in, though, I decided that I wanted to give back to the communities I belonged to.”

The best way to do that, he figured, was to become a social worker.

“I had had positive experiences with them as a child,” he says, adding that he considered them miracle workers. “At that time, there were not many social workers like me – black and male.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Jagadisa-devasri’s research focus is HIV prevention in high-risk groups.

After he got his bachelor’s degrees – one in social work, the other in Spanish – he took a job at Head Start in San Francisco.

“This was significant to me because I’m a graduate of that program,” he says.

Three years later, he moved to New York City to pursue a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University. Again, he worked his way through school by holding down three part-time jobs as well as doing what he calls “odds and ends” like tutoring and editing and serving as a research assistant to a professor.

As a social worker, he worked on issues affecting communities of color and LGBQT populations, focusing on HIV prevention.

After 11 years, Jagadisa-devasri enrolled in CUNY’s Graduate Center to pursue a doctorate in social welfare. While there, he picked up a master’s of philosophy in social welfare.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Sitting in lotus pose.

“It wasn’t that hard to work on two degrees at once; I know how to do school,” he says and laughs.

Jagadisa-devasri, who recently earned the right to put the title Dr. before his name, is getting ready to start post-doc professional training.

“It’s a job not a degree,” he’s quick to add. “It’s funded by the U.S. government, and I will get paid. I’ll be working with senior researchers.”

As a behavioral scientist, Jagadisa-devasri will focus his research on HIV prevention with black men who have sex with men.

It goes without saying that to accomplish all of this, Jagadisa-devasri had to be disciplined and dedicated.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

It’s not as easy as Jagadisa-devasri makes it look.

Every morning, he’s up by 5 and on the yoga mat by 6, where he runs through the Asthanga Primary Series then meditates for 20 to 30 minutes.

He starts his day and doesn’t stop until everything is done.

“I strive to have a balance in my life,” he says. “And I have a wonderful network of friends and chosen family.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Thinking: What should I do next?

He’s looking forward to doing cutting-edge research that will make a difference in HIV prevention.

“I’m never going back to school,” he says. “I’m done. But five years from now, I will probably be teaching and doing research at a university. East Coast or West Coast, I’m open to wherever the opportunity takes me.”

And to helping others realize their potential.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

How about side plank on the sidewalk?

“I’m slowly approaching 50,” he says. “I’d like to be a mentor or a role model and give back to individuals and communities; I really am living up to my Sanskrit name.”

Jagadisa-devasri takes a moment to reflect on his very full life.

“I’m just a happy person,” he says. “I do a lot of everything and it’s interconnected and everything fuels me.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019.

It’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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Astoria Characters: The Cocktail Curator
by Nruhling
Oct 23, 2018 | 1020 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex is a co-owner of HandCraft Kitchen & Cocktails in Manhattan.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

When you’ve just finished an overnight shift, 9 in the morning feels like an exceedingly unseemly hour.

Which is why Alex Mouzakitis keeps apologizing; he got off at 5:30 a.m. after working 15 hours and hasn’t had much sleep.

He has his Mets cap pulled down over his somnolent eyes and worries when he takes it off that he has hat hair. (He doesn’t; his tresses looked professionally tousled.)

He’s not going to lie, he’s more worried about his mouth than his head. He’s not sure he can string a sentence together. (He easily finds his nouns and verbs.)

Alex needs a drink. Not the kind of fancy cocktails he conjures up for his Gramercy Park bar, HandCraft Kitchen & Cocktails.

He needs coffee, please. He takes a gulp. OK, he’s ready to go.

Alex has been in the hospitality business since he was 16. Growing up in North Massapequa, Long Island, he started serving tables at Friendly’s while he was in high school.

“I was making a lot of money,” he says. “That was a motivating factor.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex is from Long Island.

By the time he was at Stony Brook University working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Alex was bartending at TGI Friday’s. Again, to make money.

He found that he enjoyed talking to people so much that when he graduated, he decided to stay behind the bar.

Five years ago, he got a job at Astoria’s William Hallet on 30th Avenue.

That’s when his life really changed.

Before long, he was managing the bar, which is where he met his wife (she was an occasional customer) and reconnected with a friend who became one of HandCraft’s partners.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

He’s never been to bartending school.

Personally and professionally, things progressed, or as Alex says, “fell into my lap,” and the two sectors of his life dovetailed in 2015.

“We opened HandCraft, and I got married a week later,” he says. “For the honeymoon, I left for a month – we went to Las Vegas, California, Hawaii and Japan. We also made a stop in Amsterdam so we could shorten a 10-hour flight.”

The HandCraft idea, he says, was to create a bar that served high-quality cocktails in an unintimidating atmosphere.

“We wanted it to be approachable,” he says, “especially for those who have never ordered cocktails.”

The menu divides the cocktails into categories: Punches (like bourbon and rose sangria), Classics (remember the Old Fashioned and the Salty Dog?), Dad Drinks (think Grasshopper and Harvey Wallbanger) and Alex’s seasonal sets of witty wet-your-whistle creations.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Alex has a degree in psychology.

Alex, who disdains the word mixologist, considers himself a beverage curator. He developed a taste for cocktails and a knack for designing them while on the job.

“I never went to bartending school,” he says. “I was just instantly good at it. My process is really simple. It’s what I like.”

Take his Kiwi Strawberry Gimblet, which is made of vodka infused in house with the two fruits and lime juice.

“This was based on flavors that I remembered from when I was a kid,” he says. “I remembered drinking Snapple’s Strawberry Kiwi and thinking it was too sweet. So I made the Kiwi Strawberry Gimlet with that in mind.”

Sometimes Alex’s ideas bubble up in his brain and flow like Champagne. Sometimes, he has to keep trying and tweaking until he gets a taste worth toasting.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

On his days off, he stops in for a drink at local bars.

“One of my favorite things to do is to use what’s on hand,” he says. “I go to the refrigerator and see what we have – it’s visual inspiration.”

His Harvest Moon — mezcal, ancho reyes, blood orange syrup, cayenne pepper, jalapeno, egg white and lime — is HandCraft’s signature staple.

It came into being when Alex got the idea to pair agave-based spirits like tequila and mezcal with blood-orange juice, which he happens to like a lot.

“The name came afterward,” he says. “It just seemed appropriate. They work well together.”

Berry Lemonade — Smirnoff vodka or tequila, blackberry/blueberry shrub and lemonade – takes a little more prep.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Goofing around on the street.

Alex ferments the shrub – apple cider vinegar, honey, blueberries and blackberries – for three weeks in the refrigerator.

It’s typical for Alex to put in 60- to 80-hour weeks at HandCraft; even when he’s not at the bar, he’s always thinking about the business.

“My wife and I like to travel and go out,” he says. “I’m always checking out cocktails at other bars.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Contemplating his next cocktail.

When he’s in Astoria and not in bed, he stops in at local spots for a drink.

“I don’t have anything fancy,” he says. “Just a shot or a beer.”

Although Alex is far too busy to think about his future in anything other than general terms, he does intuitively know that HandCraft has enough legs to become a successful brand.

“We designed it to be a franchise,” he says. “My wife’s from California and wants to go back. Five years from now, maybe I’ll be running a West Coast branch.”

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling


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Astoria Characters: The Guy Who Likes Pi and Pizza Pie
by Nruhling
Oct 16, 2018 | 940 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid is the owner of Macoletta.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

"Not all pizza is created equal,” says Walid Idriss as he sprinkles flour on the countertop and places a roll of dough in the center.

The crust may be a little thicker or thinner. The toppings may be arranged slightly differently.

Or in the case of the one he’s making, the pie may not form a perfect circle.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta, the pizzeria and beer/wine bar, is at 28-15 24th Ave.

And that’s OK by him. In fact, it’s kind of the point.

When Walid opened Macoletta, his artisanal brick-oven, Neapolitan-style pizzeria/wine and beer bar earlier this year, he never intended it to follow the rote recipes of Pizza 101.

That may be because in his entire life, the 36-year-old Walid has never chosen a conventional path.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cara and Walid met at an Astoria restaurant.

Walid, whose parents are from Egypt, was born and raised in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria.

After graduating from a French high school in Algiers in 2000, he decided to come to New York instead of going to college. His first stop was White Plains, where his older brother lived.

“My parents thought I was crazy,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan. I knew how to speak French and Italian and Arabic, but I didn’t know how to speak English.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid and Cara got married in 2015.

But America had always been on his mind.

“When I was 8, we came to New York City for a family vacation,” he says, “and I knew I wanted to live here.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid came to New York when he was 18.

He got a job in a restaurant, where he worked 14-hour shifts prepping salads and pastas.

“I had never worked in my life or in a kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t even know the names of the pastas.”

A year later, he moved to Nyack to live with his uncle and subsequently worked his way through an American language school, Rockland Community College and Baruch College by managing five gas stations and filling in his spare hours with shifts at restaurants. He also had a series of unpaid internships at banks.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Making the mozzarella.

“I’m best when I’m really busy,” he says, as he pulls his pizza out of the oven.

In 2005, he moved to Astoria, and in 2009 he graduated from Baruch with majors in math and actuarial science. He promptly took a full-time job in a French restaurant.

“It took me that long to get a degree because I was working all the time,” he says apologetically.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Walid’s pie — deliciously, it’s not perfectly round.

That same year, he met his wife, Cara, a native of Washington, D.C., who had come to New York in 2008 after earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts then doing volunteer work with homeless women in California.

Cara’s first job in New York was with a public relations firm; later, she worked in a Manhattan restaurant.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Into the oven.

That’s where they were in life when they arrived at Brick Café (now Mom’s) in Astoria.

“The seats were so close that it was almost like we were sitting at the same table,” Walid says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta is the only restaurant in New York City with a Marana Forni pizza oven.

There was no reason for them to converse with each other because they each had come with a friend.

But given such close quarters, Walid, who loves pi as much as pizza pie, couldn’t help overhearing Cara mention that she was looking for a math tutor to prep her for the GRE exam.

He offered to help.

She was, to say the least, surprised by his overture.

“He and his friend had been speaking French,” she says, adding that she wasn’t paying much attention to them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Adding the garnish.

So it was that Walid, who may or may not have told Cara that he was looking for an English tutor for the GRE (he says no; she insists yes) began tutoring each other. And dating and living together.

“We both actually did study, and we did learn a lot,” Cara says, adding that she did, indeed, take the GRE and did, indeed, pass it.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Ready to eat!

While Cara was earning her master’s in anthropology from New York University, Walid, who never did get around to taking that GRE, was pursuing a career in banking.

They married in 2015.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Cara is working on a doctorate in anthropology at NYU.

“We’re very different, and I like that,” says Cara, who is working full time on her doctorate in anthropology at NYU and helping Walid with public relations and marketing for Macoletta. “I’m into reading and writing, and he’s into math – he does calculus for fun – and entrepreneurship. We learn from each other.”

In 2017, Walid came up with the idea of Macoletta, which he opened in June 2018.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Macoletta’s signature pie.

“I had quit my job, but a bank I had worked for before offered me a position, so I’m still working there full time,” he says. “I really like doing both things.”

Walid brings a second pizza to the table. It’s the pizzeria’s signature Macoletta – cauliflower, roasted tomatoes, zucchini, artichokes, olive oil and sea salt resting on a bed of harissa, the Maghrebi hot red-pepper paste that reminds him of his heritage.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

You know you want a bite!

Walid says opening Macoletta was an easy decision because pizza is his favorite food.

“It’s affordable – the highest price on our menu is $16 – and it’s easy to make,” he says. “It’s magical; you put it in the oven, and it’s done in 90 seconds.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The piece de resistance.

Cara confirms this, adding that “he even loves frozen pizza, so much so that people got tired of him offering it to them when they came to our apartment.”

Once Macoletta is a success, Walid hopes to open more of them.

“I want to master my craft here first, though,” he says. “If it takes 10 years, I can wait.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Chatting with a neighbor.

He serves dessert – Nutella pizza with the chocolate spread sandwiched between the pastry-thin, oven-warm crust.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.


Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling

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Astoria Characters: The Bakers Who Are Sweet on Each Other
by Nruhling
Oct 09, 2018 | 811 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print | permalink
Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero is at 44-17 30th Ave.

Text and Photos by Nancy A. Ruhling

It is pouring down rain, but Michael Dellapolla, the owner of Gian Piero Bakery, doesn’t notice the deluge.

What he sees are the customers pouring in. Sure, he wishes the sun were out, but in the 23 years the bakery has been in business, he’s weathered far worse weather.

He goes out to do some errands, leaving his wife, Anna, in charge. When he returns, the rain has eased and there’s a line outside his door.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Michael and his family came to America when he was 11.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, it was tough going in the beginning because Gian Piero was selling all-natural breads and baked goods when nobody else was.

“Our breads have a hard texture,” he says, “and customers thought they were old.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The bakery opened in 1995.

He smiles, watching the Italian and American flags flutter out on the street in front of the shop.

Michael has a lot to be thankful for. Gian Piero, which has 30 employees, sells not only to customers who stop into the shop for a loaf of bread or a fancy cake but also to more than 200 restaurants in the metro area.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Anna has been working at Gian Piero since it opened.

The bakers work in two shifts, which necessitates Michael and Anna and their son, Gianni, being on the premises pretty much all the time.

Gian Piero, which is named for his son and his former partner, is Michael’s third successful business.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker ices some cookies.

This is all the more extraordinary given the fact that there are no precedents for cookies or cakes or commercial concerns in Michael’s family.

He, his two sisters and his parents left Nusco, a small town in Italy’s southern province of Avellino, when he was 11 years old.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero’s products are all-natural.

They moved to Astoria, where Michael’s uncles owned property.

“My dad worked two jobs, and I started working after school at a hardware store when I was 12,” he says. “My older sister and my mother worked as seamstresses. It took us two years to save $11,000, which we put down on a six-family house in Astoria that we bought for $36,000. Our family still owns it; I live across the street from it in a two-family house.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oven mitts at rest between batches.

By the time Michael graduated from high school, he not only was working for a hardware store but also was a locksmith and burglar-alarm expert.

Michael didn’t get much time off, so it took him a decade to return to Italy to visit family. While he was there, he met Anna.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets the bread ready for the oven.

Anna, who was working on her family’s farm, liked Michael immediately and thought coming to America would be a great adventure.

“I didn’t know any English,” she says, adding that they were each 21. “But Michael’s family spoke Italian, so I didn’t feel alone.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Working the dough.

When they married, Michael started driving a bakery truck to make more money.

“I did this for nine years, seven days a week, working from midnight until 2 p.m. the following day,” he says. “The money was good, and I built up a wholesale business. I was able to buy a house in two years.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker gets ready to cut a cake.

Before long, Michael had a restaurant in Manhattan and Gian Piero in Astoria. In addition, for five years, he owned a bakery in Brooklyn.

“I was never home,” he says. “At one point, I had all three businesses together, and all I did was go from one to the other. Eventually, I sold the Brooklyn bakery, and I had to close the restaurant because the building was going to be torn down.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Panna cotta ready for the mouth.

This gave him more time to devote to Gian Piero, which is where you’ll find him and Anna every day. She generally comes in at 5:30 a.m., and he follows at 6.

Sometimes she comes in in the afternoon and leaves a little early, but generally she stays until 10 p.m., closing time. Michael, however, is always around until midnight.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

A baker puts the finishing touches on the biscotti.

Their 38-year-old son, Gianni, works with them. Their daughter, Laura Garfalo, grew up working in Gian Piero. She owns Senso Unico, a recently opened Italian restaurant in Sunnyside.

Gian Piero, which opened 90 days after Michael bought the building and renovated it, specializes in authentic Italian fare.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Oh, chocolate!

“We’re known for our Stasi Napoleons,” he says. “They are made from an old recipe I got from an old-school bakery in Corona that opened in 1950. It’s very simple – it has layers of dough and powdered sugar on top. It’s a light dessert.”

The Corona bakery owner, a bachelor who had been in business for decades, finally retired, but Michael and Anna are too busy to think about such things.

They assume that Gianni will take over Gian Piero, but things could change. After all, he has a family and would like to spend some time with them.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

Gian Piero has over 200 wholesale clients.

“That’s why we’re still here,” Michael says. “To make sure he wants it; if he doesn’t, we’ll have to sell it.”

Michael and Anna, who generally take a couple weeks’ vacation every couple of years, talk, rather vaguely and unconvincingly, about traveling.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

The open door of the sfogliatelle cabinet is so enticing.

“My life is work every day,” Anna says, adding that one of her primary roles is filling in for staff members who are ill or on vacation. “I get very tired, but I cannot leave the business alone.”

Michael figures they have about seven working years left; Anna doesn’t disagree with this.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling

I’ll have that. And that. And that.

A staff member sticks his head into Michael’s office to tell him he’s going to make a delivery.

Michael nods and gives him the OK; a few minutes later, he standing on the sidewalk with Anna and Laura greeting customers, who arrive with umbrellas under their arms and leave with white boxes tied with green and white string.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 22, 2019. It’s a free, public event.


Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;

@nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling



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