Pic Of The Day #1010

Frigid sunrise this morning, at Compo Beach (Photo/Amy Schneider)

Congrats, Gaetano’s!

Countless Westporters — including scores of Staples students — know that Gaetano’s is a great deli.

Now the rest of America knows it too.

The Post Road East place — it’s in a basic mini-strip mall diagonally across from Stop & Shop — has just been named the Best Deli in Connecticut, by the Food Network.

The Westport location shares the honor with 2 other Gaetano’s, in Stratford and Monroe.

The Food Network says:

Here’s a NYC insider tip: Manhattan’s Little Italy may draw the tourists, but locals head instead to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

It was there that the owners of Gaetano’s Deli got their start. Guy Catalano and Milanno Ukehaxhaj worked together at the famous Mike’s Deli on Arthur Avenue before bringing their own Italian-style delicatessen to Stratford, Connecticut, more than 2 decades ago.

The pair have since expanded their operation into 3 locations to keep up with local demand for Gaetano’s mix of Italian grocery items (including housemade mozzarella) and stuffed breads crammed with pepperoni and cheese, eggplant parm and the like.

The Food Network used this photo to illustrate Gaetano’s great menu.

The selection of panini alone takes up nearly an entire page of the menu, with more than 20 different ways to fill the grilled sandwiches. Each one starts with Italian bread picked up daily from Addeo’s Bakery in the Bronx, which is then piled high with classic deli meats.

Options include bresaola (cured filet mignon), Oldani salami and plenty of Boar’s Head varieties.

If you haven’t tried Gaetano’s yet, that should whet your appetite.

If you need even more, here’s a link to their mouth-watering menu.

Tell ’em the Food Network sent you.

(Click here for the full Food Network story, with all 50 Best Deli in the State selections. Hat tip: Frank Rosen.)

Unsung Hero #132

It might sound strange to call Bill Mitchell an Unsung Hero.

The public face of Mitchells of Westport — son of founders Ed and Norma, brother of Jack, father and uncle of the 3rd generation to lead 8 upscale men’s and women’s stores, on the East and West Coasts — his generosity is boundless.

He and the entire Mitchell family open their stores, their checkbooks and their hearts to a breathtaking variety of organizations and causes. Very quietly too, they help countless individuals, in any kind of need.

They’ve been honored often (though not enough) for all they do. But this Saturday (January 25, 6:30 p.m.), a special event will be particularly meaningful.

The Conservative Synagogue of Westport holds a “funraiser” — and Bill Mitchell is the guest of honor.

Bill Mitchell

The reason dates back 25 years. Founders were trying to get permission to build a synagogue on Hillspoint Road. Though near the Post Road, the zoning was residential. Some neighbors opposed the plan.

Unsolicited, Bill stood up at several meetings. He’s not Jewish — his family has long been associated with the Saugatuck Congregational Church, and he’s a longtime supporter of various Catholic charities — but he talked about the importance of the synagogue.

After he spoke, the Planning & Zoning Commission passed the proposal. Unanimously.

Bill’s support of The Conservative Synagogue did not stop there. On the High Holidays, he opens Mitchells’ parking lot to congregants.

He and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn have become great friends. It’s a good bet that when the rabbi offers “mazel tov” on Saturday, Bill will not be at a loss for words.

In Hebrew.

History Museum Billed Town For Employees’ Time; Marpe “Surprised” And “Concerned”

In late 2018, organizers announced the end of Westport’s First Night celebration.

Recognizing a need for family-friendly New Year’s Eve activities, the Westport Historical Society filled the breach. In just a matter of days, executive director Ramin Ganeshram and her staff organized “First Light.”

Performances, horse-drawn carriage rides, face painting, a digital caricaturist, a henna artist, food trucks, a bonfire — it was all there. And (despite the rain), it was greatly appreciated.

A true New England horse-drawn sleigh ride.

This year, the Avery Place institution — now called the Westport Museum for History & Culture — continued the new tradition.

This year’s First Light included horse-drawn carriages, a live band, short films,  tarot reader, henna tattoos, teen game night at Toquet Hall, stargazing with the Westport Astronomy Club, ballroom dance instruction — and that warm bonfire.

As with previous First Nights, and last year’s First Light, attendees wore buttons for admittance to all events. They cost $10 online, $15 on site.

Ganeshram gave credit to the town of Westport, for helping support the event.

That support includes police officers, fire fighters, logistics — and funding.

On December 11, Ganeshram asked for town assistance “from the fund formerly attributed to the First Night Celebrations.” She detailed “projected costs as they exist to-date for the First Light Festival on New Year’s Eve.”

The organization’s spreadsheet showed that the horse and carriage would cost $1,300. The band was $250, the tarot reader $200; Branson Hall rental $200; marketing materials and buttons $100.

There is also a line item that reads “(1630-2130 hours x at holiday rate (#82.50 per),” at a total cost of $1,213.

In addition, the Museum requested that the town reimburse half the cost of the salaries of 5 Museum employees. They were projected to spend anywhere from 30 to 80 hours each on First Light activities, at fees ranging from $11 to $25 per hour.

The employees work in several areas for the Museum, including programs, operations, marketing, administration and administrative support.

Four of the employees would be reimbursed by the town for half of their hours worked: $750, $600, $600 and $500. The administrative support staffer was projected to work 30 hours at $11 per hour, for a total of $330. The Museum requested $330 from the town for her salary, but confusingly also said they would contribute $330 to it.

The total reimbursement request to the town for Museum employees’ salaries was $2,780.

Executive director Ramin Ganeshram was listed as spending 20 hours on First Light, at $50 an hour. Her $1,000 was covered fully by the Museum.

The bonfire at Veterans Green. (Photo/Dan Woog)

The invoice was sent December 26, and received at Town Hall 2 days later. A check for the full amount requested — $5,943 — was issued to Westport Historical Society, Inc. on December 30.

I asked 1st Selectman Jim Marpe about the use of town funds to cover salaries of Museum employees. He responded:

For nearly 30 years, the Town of Westport co-sponsored “First Night,” a family-friendly, substance-free New Year’s Eve celebration that offered an array of musical and variety performers, kid-oriented activities, bonfires, carriage rides and even fireworks.

This event took place through a combination of volunteers under the volunteer leadership of enthusiastic residents such as Barbara Pearson-Rac and her husband Frank, the late Bill Meyer and Allen Bomes, donations from local business and fund-raising organizations, and also town funding in the range of $7,000.  First Night also sold admission badges to help fund their budget, and the town provided some of the venues for various events.

The First Night concept was very popular around Connecticut and New England for many years, but in recent years, Westport became one of the few towns to offer this NewYear’s Eve option. Unfortunately, it became virtually impossible to stage a fireworks show in the downtown area, and rising costs and the dwindling number of volunteers began to limit the variety of entertainment options.

Fireworks were once a First Night tradition.

While the Town budgeted $7,000 to support the 2018 to 2019 New Year’s Eve First Night (last year), it became clear in the early fall that we would not be able to conduct the First Night event as we had in prior years.

The then-named Westport Historical Society stepped forward and offered to produce a mini-version of First Night called First Light.  The town approved the use of a small portion of Veterans Green for a bonfire, and provided financial support to underwrite the carriage ride and other out-of-pocket costs for performers as well as Fire Department oversight of the bonfire activity.  It was (and is) our belief that a substance-free, family alternative to celebrate the new year is a good thing for Westport and its residents of all ages.

In anticipation of this year’s (2019 to 2020) New Year’s Eve, we budgeted another $6,000 in case the now-named Westport Museum of History & Culture decided to conduct another First Light event, which in fact they did with some expansion of their offerings and venues.

Face painting was a popular activity at this year’s First Light celebration. (Photo/Dan Woog)

It was always the intention of that money to cover the costs of outside services such as the carriage rides, musicians and other performers and marketing material which the director of finance and I approved.

I was surprised to learn in the past week that the Town’s support was also used to cover a portion of the salaries of several Museum employees.

It was never our intent to subsidize the costs of non-town employees, and I’m concerned about the potential inappropriate use of town funds for this purpose.

I have asked our director of finance to look into this matter immediately, and to determine the appropriate course of action regarding this payment.

As I noted earlier, I believe that events like First Night and First Light are good for our community and add to our reputation as a family friendly community, particularly when they are supported by volunteers and non-for-profit organizations such as the Museum.

The town has always been willing to consider financial or in-kind support of specific services for events that serve the whole community, but it has never been our intention to subsidize the salaries of individuals who work for those organizations.

Stay-At-Home Moms Gets Up And Go

Plenty of Westport moms work outside the home.

Plenty of others don’t.

For women who move to here with young children — sometimes leaving the workplace — meeting others in their situation can be hard.

Nearly 2 years ago, newcomer Nathalie Jacob tackled the problem. With Sonam Sethi and Samreen Malik — who had similar ideas — they created a Facebook group. “Westport Stay-at-Home Moms” brings mothers of babies and toddlers together.

There certainly is a need. Nearly 400 members meet for play dates, trips, Moms Night Outs, potlucks at the beach and more.

A recent outing, with moms and kids …

The newest event is Play2Give. These are play dates at which the mothers help their children do activities for charity. For the holidays, moms and toddlers picked out food at a supermarket, and packed it up for donations.

“What we have in common is that we all have children of a similar age,” Nathalie says. “We’re enjoying this amazing new stage in our lives as parents of babies and toddlers.”

“Many of our own parents live far away. Through this group, we’ve made friends who feel like family.”

… and another …

Members mirror the diversity that is part of Westport, but not always seen. They come from more than 30 nations — the UK, Italy, Serbia, Australia, Greece, India, Russia, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Guyana, South Korea, Paraguay, Jamaica, you name it — which adds great energy and variety to activities.

Moms in nearby towns are welcome. So are working mothers — and fathers. They’ve even formed a sub-group. “Yo DAD” gets together once a month.

A pleasant surprise: “Not just the moms, but our husbands and kids have become close as well,” Nathalie says. “It feels like an extended family, where our kids have a ton of ‘cousins and aunties.’

“We celebrate holidays together, watch each other’s kids in emergencies, and even travel together. We all feel at home, because we have created a family in Westport.”

… and moms alone, at Via Sforza.

Anyone can design or host a play date or event, anywhere they choose — “their home, a playground, the aquarium, wherever,” Nathalie explains.

“We all vote on big decisions, like the group’s rules. Everyone always has a say and a voice.”

Feedback is great. One woman says the group helped out of a shell of loneliness. Another says she has met her closest friends, who help her feel “connected, support and loved. A third called it “life-changing — no exaggeration. I met the most amazing moms, with equally amazing toddlers.”

Moving to the suburbs can be tough. Moving without the tether of outside work can make it even tougher.

Say what you will about Facebook. For hundreds of women, its Westport Stay-at-Home Moms group makes the move work.

Pic Of The Day #1009

The scene from Sherwood Island State Park (Photo/Taryn Bolotin)

Papyrus Folds

Main Street’s latest casualty is Papyrus.

An “Everything Must Go” sign hangs in the store window. As first reported on WestportNow, all stores in the chain are being liquidated.

Papyrus sold greeting cards, wrapping paper, planners, ornaments, wooden music boxes, snow globes and the like.

No date has been set for the closing.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Westport History Museum: A Remarkable Story

When the Remarkable Book Shop closed, Westporters mourned the loss of a quirky, comfy store that for decades epitomized Main Street.

When former owners Sidney and Esther Kramer gifted the Westport Historical Society the right to use the name — and their Edward Gorey-inspired logo — for its gift shop, Westporters rejoiced.

The Remarkable name lived again — and on Avery Place, just a few yards from the original store. Not everyone who shopped for books, maps and posters about Westport knew the significance of the Remarkable Gift Shop name, or the delightful logo, but that didn’t matter.

Those who did, smiled.

Remarkable guy at Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

But they — and the Kramer family — are not smiling now.

Besides renaming both the Historical Society itself (it’s become the Westport Museum for History & Culture), and the main exhibition room (the Sheffer Gallery now honors Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust), there’s a new name for the gift shop.

Gone is the Remarkable name. Gone is the Remarkable guy.

“It’s a makeover!” the website trumpets. “New space. new stock, new name!”

Are you ready for the great new name? Nothing says Westport like …

“The Shop at Wheeler House.”

PS: Neither Wendy Posner nor Mark Kramer received any notification from the Westport History Museum that their parents’ naming gift had been expunged.

Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

Pic Of The Day #1008

In front of a Post Road West art gallery: a banana duct-taped to a utility pole. Art? Or a snack “hidden” by a hungry runner? Something else? (Photo/Kirsten Woods)