Category Archives: People

Pietro Scotti’s Next Culinary Chapter

For 3 decades, Da Pietro’s has been one of Westport’s hidden culinary jewels.

The tiny spot on Riverside Avenue draws raves — and repeat visits — from everyone who knows it. They love the charming, intimate atmosphere; the feeling of being someplace special, and — especially — the consistently flavorful southern French and northern Italian dishes cooked by talented and welcoming chef/owner Pietro Scotti. (There’s a fantastic wine list too.)

Pietro Scotti

But a change is on the horizon. Pietro has put his building up for sale. When it’s bought, he’ll pack up his knives and turn off his stove.

Thankfully though, Pietro will keep cooking. He’ll be a private chef.

Pietro has loved serving the community. But it’s time, he says, to put all the other parts of running a restaurant — hiring and supervising a staff, paying bills, even sweeping the floor — behind.

Now, he’ll focus solely on cooking.

“Being a chef has always been my calling and my passion,” Pietro says. “My dream for this next chapter is to spoil a wonderful couple or family in the area.” He’s still looking for that position.

He’ll also be available for cooking classes, and pop-up dinners for favorite organizations.

Da Pietro’s (Photo/Katherine Bruan)

Pietro’s legacy extends throughout the community. For 30 years he’s cooked for the Girl Scouts, Wakeman Town Farm and the Blues, Views & BBQ Festival. He’s organized tastings at the Playhouse and A Taste of Westport, and raised funds for the Food Bank of Lower Fairfield County.

Pietro’s humble beginnings on the island of Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples, laid the foundation for his love of food, gardening and animals. He’s embraced Westport with his warm hospitality. His generous spirit, humble nature and constant energy will serve his private clients well.

It will take a while for his building to sell. Which means there is still time for Westporters to enjoy their 100th — or 1st — great meal at Da Pietro’s.

MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Halper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

Noya: Fine Jewelry Meets Fine Art

Noya Fine Jewelry is one of those hidden Westport gems. (Pun intended.)

The Riverside Avenue boutique offers a stunning selection of rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets (and much more).

Jewelry is a form of art, of course, and owner Renee Serfaty takes that “artist” role to heart. She and her business partner Natalie Toraty try to bring the worlds of jewelry and art together, by hosting events with local businesses and artists.

Natalie Toraty and Renee Serfaty.

“We’re constantly amazed how many of our customers are artists, in one form or another,” Renee says. “And we’re amazed by their talent. Fortunately, our store is the perfect space for displaying art.”

So now — and running through June — Noya offers a monthly local artist series.

The initial exhibit — featuring young Westport artists — runs through February 1. Leah, Leora, Millie and Tessa Chapman; Cristian Montoulieu; Benjamin Serfaty, and Raphael and Roberto Toraty display their photography, ink drawings, sculptures and paintings.

The adult showcase kicks off February 5, featuring artist Daniela Balzano. Future artists include Sarah Chapman, Angelika Buettner and Debra Condren.

Perhaps Noya will have to add “Fine Art” to its “Fine Jewelry & Accessories” name.

(Noya Fine Jewelry & Accessories invites the public to an open house on Friday, February 1 from 4-7 p.m.)

“Meditative Painting,” by Sarah Chapman.

Remembering Leo Keehan

Leo Keehan died on Tuesday, at 89. He was a lifelong Westporter, a 1947 Staples High School graduate — and a man with an intriguing connection to our town’s transportation history.

Leo Keehan

Leo owned 3 businesses here. One — Teddy’s Taxi — was located for years on the eastbound side of the Saugatuck train station.

It shared space with the local Avis rental agency — which he also owned.

Noticing growth in the number of trips to New York airports, he added a limo service: Teddy’s Limousine.

Leo’s son Kyle says, “Leo had many amazing and sometimes scandalous stories about famous people who rode in his fleet of vehicles. He had ‘Taxicab Confessions’  before HBO came up with the idea.”

In the 1970s, Westport was selected by the state government as an ideal town for an experimental local transportation system. In the first phase, Mercedes “minnybuses” followed fixed routes to and from the station, taking commuters to the train each morning and bringing them home at night.

In between, the buses ran routes connecting downtown with outer neighborhoods.

Inexpensive passes allowed Westporters to ride minnybuses without limits. Parents quickly realized the buses were cheap babysitters. They put their kids on, and waved goodbye, occupying them happily for hours.

The second phase — “maxi taxis” — was a van service. Several customers sharedrides to points around town. 

A Minnybus at Jesup Green.

Leo was recruited as president. Both programs ran successfully, until funding ran out.

Leo sold his businesses in his early 50s. Retirement lasted only a year. The family that purchased Teddy’s wanted his expertise to grow the business. Twenty-five years later he retired permanently from Teddy’s’ — a job he truly enjoyed.

A young Leo Keehan

Leo was a Korean War veteran, stationed in Germany. After returning to Westport he began working in the auto parts industry. He married Beverly Breault, daughter of Gilbert and Breault — original owners of Ye Olde Bridge Grill.

Leo lived at Compo Beach for more than 45 years. He loved the water, and sailing.

The Keehan family has been Westport residents for over a century. His sons  Kyle and Scott both live in town, and hope to keep their family here for another 100 years.

A celebration of Leo’s life will be held on Friday (January 25, 10 a.m., St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, 1719 Post Road, Fairfield). In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Wounded Warrior Project.

Dr. Kendi’s Journey

Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.

It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.

The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.

Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.

And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.

Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.

It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”

Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:

America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.

Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.

Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.

Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.

Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.

In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)

As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has  not yet been announced.

The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr.

He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.

Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.

(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)

My True Moth Story

Jane Green is a wonderful author. She’s written 19 novels, has over 10 million books in print, and been published in more than 30 languages.

Our Westport neighbor is as gifted a storyteller in person as she is in print. For years she entertained book tour audiences with her tale of cooking dinner for Hugh Grant.

Jane Green

The Moth — the wildly successful radio show and podcast featuring real people telling true stories — heard about Green’s routine. They chatted a bit, before deciding it was not quite right for The Moth. They asked if she had another story to tell.

She did. It was about her middle-aged head being turned by the attention of a handsome younger man. First told at Cooper Union, “Greener Grass” (clever name!) was wildly successful. It’s been heard more than a million times.

Which got Green thinking: Why not bring The Moth to Westport?

A longtime supporter of the Westport Country Playhouse — and one-time board member — Green always looked for programs appealing to  young audiences. She’d helped bring a “Hamilton” singalong, David Bowie tribute and Lisa Lampanelli play to the fabled stage.

The Moth was a natural next project.

Which is why next Friday (January 25, 7:30 p.m.), 5 great storytellers will bring The Moth to the Westport Country Playhouse.

Well, 4 great storyteller. Plus me.

I can’t believe I’ll be standing up there with Green herself; Alistair Bane, a Shawnee who makes dance regalia, paints and rehabilitates feral reservation dogs; Henia Lewin, a Lithuanian instructor of Hebrew and Yiddish, and Trina Michelle Robinson of San Francisco, who explores memory through video, archival materials and text.

Not quite the Westport Country Playhouse. But close.

I tell stories every day on “06880.” I can type a tale in my sleep.

But performing as a Moth storyteller is waaaaay different.

I’ll join 4 experienced folks — including a woman who has done this before, and written 17 New York Times bestsellers.

And — oh yeah — the Moth Radio Hour is heard on more than 475 stations. The podcast is downloaded a million times each week.

But I’m ready. I might rock it — or bomb.

Either way, for the rest of my life I’ll have one more intriguing story to tell.

(For more information and tickets, click here.)

Fast Music

The recent death of Ed Baer — the Westport native, longtime resident and renowned, versatile radio DJ — got local folks thinking about the role of radio in our lives.

Inevitably, talk turned to Westport’s rich musical past.

Mike Fast has plenty of memories to share. Growing up in Bridgeport in the 1950s, he was one of many young boys fascinated by radio’s reach and power.

In 1957 he started hanging out at the WNAB studio downtown. Just 13 years old, he learned all he could about the business.

A couple of years later, at Harding High, he spent after-school hours at the station’s transmitter site. Mike had no formal training, but he learned how to build and design his own equipment.

Mike Fast, at WNAB’s Bridgeport studio.

At 17 — through his Westport friend Stuart Soroka — he discovered WMMM. The station’s studio was above Oscar’s, on Main Street. Mike’s interest in Westport was piqued.

“It seemed like everyone in town smiled, and wore new clothes,” he recalls.

In 1961 Mike, Stuart and a kid named Gordon Joseloff started a radio station at the YMCA. Their 1-watt transmitter — a couple of miles away, at Compo Beach — was hooked up to a phone line in their “studio.” It was an early “pirate” station — and it was called WWPT.

A July 1961 New York Times story on WWPT featured (from left) Gordon Joseloff, Jeff Berman and Stuart Soroka. As the caption notes, Mike Fast was missing from the photo.

Joseloff went on to become an international news correspondent with CBS — and later, first selectman of Westport. Today he runs WestportNow.com.

Mike’s Westport connection grew stronger. He, Dennis Jackson and Cliff Mills bought a turntable, and ran record hops at the new Staples High School on North Avenue.

A poster for dances at Staples High School. Perhaps Mike Fast’s shows cost a dime more than Dennis Jackson’s because they were 2 hours longer.

In 1962 Ed Baer — whom Mike had befriended back at WNAB — was working weekends at New York’s WMCA. Mike had very little experience, but when Ed set him up with an interview there, Mike talked his way into a job. (The key: Both his mother, and the mother of the engineer interviewing him, were from County Cork.)

Mike worked other jobs too: doing sound at the United Nations; at the National Radio and TV Center; at WHN. A stint at 1010 WINS lasted “about 10 minutes.” He played the wrong record, and legendary DJ Murray the K threw him out.

In 1965 the WMMM engineer retired. Mike talked his way into that job too, even though he knew little about transmitting equipment.

Around that time, Staples began bringing live bands to the auditorium. The school had no PA system, so the ever-resourceful Mike supplied groups like Cream and the Rascals with his own.

Ginger Baker, on the drums at Staples High School. (Photo copyright Jeremy Ross)

But Mike’s real love was live recording. He worked often with the Westport Country Playhouse, and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford (which burned to the ground last Sunday).

After doing sound on the road with Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Mike produced and managed his own bands. They were booked all over New England.

But those gigs did not pay well. Mike got back into radio. He moved around: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland.

He returned east — and went back to WMMM. He was there when Donald J. Flamm bought the station, and turned it into WDJF (named for his own initials).

When the FCC changed rules — eliminating the need for radio stations to hire 1st-class engineers — Mike was fired. The same day, his wife told him she was pregnant with their first child.

But he always found work. Mike has spent his entire life in radio and sound.

Mike Fast

“It’s a different world today,” he notes. “Radio stations are not the creative factories they used to be. I consider myself lucky to have been there, in the golden age.”

WMCA, WINS, WMMM — none of them are the stations they once were. But Mike Fast worked at all of them.

And — thanks to Westporters like Ed Baer, Gordon Joseloff and Murray the K — he’s had a very memorable career.

(Hat tip: Dennis Jackson)

Mobil Self-Serve’s Sam Is Back!

When ExxonMobil closed its Westport location near Barnes & Noble in September, Sam Hiba promised his many customers he’d keep in touch.

Four months later, there’s good news. Sam — the popular, generous owner who brightened everyone’s day, while working tirelessly to support his 5 children and on behalf of refugees from his native Syria — is now a partner in the Global station right off I-95 westbound Exit 14 in Norwalk.

Global is Sam’s new gas station.

The address is 224 Connecticut Avenue.

You might want to take the back roads there, though. 95 may be gridlocked — jam-packed with all of Sam’s fans.

Sam Hiba, at the Mobil Self-Serve.

Jill Meyer Is Away For The Day

Fairfield County is filled with active, engaged senior citizens who love to go places: the theater, art galleries, museums and historical sites.

But they may not want — or be able — to navigate Grand Central or the streets of New York. And trains don’t go to places like Goodspeed Opera House.

So what can older folks do when they want to go away for the day?

They contact Away for the Day.

For the past 17 years, Jill Meyer has owned the company. She — well, buses she hires (and vans she drives) — takes area residents to New York, New Haven, Hartford, Boston and other interesting spots. They see Broadway shows, tour the Cloisters, enjoy boat rides, and do much, much more.

All they have to do is get to one of 5 pickup spots, from Stratford to Greenwich. The Westport meet-up is the I-95 Sherwood Island commuter lot.

Jill Meyer, during an Away for the Day lunch.

Meyer brings a varied background to her service. After moving to Westport in 1965 she taught English at Staples High School. She was mentored by “wonderful” instructors like Tony Arciola and Karl Decker.

Raising 3 children — Ben, Alexandra and Nicholas — brought her out of the classroom. She tutored for many years, then returned to the school system working with the gifted program (and its very gifted teacher, Annette Fournier).

Meyer also worked as an accountant for Nancy Strong’s fitness business; in children’s literature, and then for an eye care communications company.

When that firm moved out of the area, Meyer bought Away from the Day from its founder.

She was attracted by the opportunity to help seniors enjoy activities at a reasonable price. What she did not realize at the time was how important it was as a way for them to make new friends.

Away for the Day travels to the city …

Away for the Day attracts “intelligent, curious, well-educated, well-traveled and well-read” people, Meyer says. “They’re still curious about life and the world. They want to keep living. They don’t want to drive. But they love telling their grandchildren they’ve seen a show, or been to Hartford or Boston.”

Many are former teachers. Most are women.

“Occasionally we get men with their wives,” Meyer notes. “But my own husband finds it difficult to get on a bus with 50 women.”

(He did love “Jersey Boys.” And he just got back from what Meyer calls “a fantastic production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'”)

Away for the Day sponsors 2 or 3 trips a month. There are fewer in winter, due to weather.

… and the country.

Among the highlights starting in late February: “Sleeping Beauty” at Lincoln Center; the New Britain Museum of American Art; “Kiss Me, Kate” with Westport’s own Kelli O’Hara, and a historical tour of Providence.

Away for the Day occasionally goes away for 2 or 3 days — like an upcoming trip to Philadelphia and the Brandywine Valley.

For seniors who want to explore the world, the sky’s the limit.

Or at least anyplace Away for the Day can drive to.

(For more information, call 203-226-4310 or email jill@awayfortheday.net)

Shakespeare’s Stratford And Westport: A Twice-Told Tale

Early Sunday morning, fire destroyed the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford.

News reports noted that the 1,500-seat venue — modeled after London’s Globe Theater — hosted performances by Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes and Christopher Walken.

When the theater thrived, its garden on the banks of the Housatonic River featured a garden with 81 species of plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, in its heyday.

Papers reported too that the idea for the theater came from Lawrence Langner. It was not his first rodeo. In 1930 — 25 years before developing the Stratford venue — the Weston resident turned an apple orchard and old tannery into the Westport Country Playhouse.

But Westport’s connection to the American Shakespeare Festival Theater runs far deeper than that.

In fact, our town was almost its home.

In 2014 I posted a story that began with a note from Ann Sheffer. The Westport civic volunteer and philanthropist — who had a particular fondness for the Playhouse, where she interned as a Staples High School student — had sent me an old clipping that told the fascinating back story of Stony Point. That’s the winding riverfront peninsula with an entrance directly off the train station parking lot, where Ann and her husband Bill Scheffler then lived.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Stony Point today (left of the river). The train station and tracks are at top.

Written in 1977, the Westport News piece by longtime resident Shirley Land described a New York banker, his wife and 2 daughters. They lived in a handsome Victorian mansion with “turrets and filigree curlicues.” The grounds included an enormous carriage house, gardener’s cottage, barn and hothouse.

It was the Cockeroft family’s country home, built around 1890. They traveled there by steam launch from New York City, tying up at a Stony Point boathouse.

After the daughters inherited the home, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad purchased some of the land for a new train station. (The original one was on the other side of the river.)

The 2nd daughter bequeathed the estate to the Hospital for the  Crippled and Ruptured (whose name was later changed, mercifully, to the New York Hospital for Special Surgery).

But the property fell into disuse. Eventually the hospital sold Stony Point to real estate developers.

Which brings us to Shakespeare.

Around 1950 Langner, Lincoln Kirstein of Lincoln Center and arts patron Joseph Verner Reed had audacious plans. They wanted to build an American Shakespeare Theatre and Academy.

And they wanted it on Stony Point. Proximity to the train station was a major piece of the plan.

The price for all 21 acres: $200,000.

But, Land wrote, “the hand of fate and the town fathers combined to defeat the efforts of the theatre people.” Many residents objected. There were also concerns that it would draw audiences away from the Westport Country Playhouse. (Others argued that a Shakespeare Theatre would enhance the town’s reputation as an arts community.)

The theater was never built in Westport. It opened a few miles away –in the aptly named town of Stratford — in 1955.

It achieved moderate success there. But in 1982 the theater ran out of money (and backers). The state of Connecticut took ownership. It closed in 1985.

The garden turned into weeds. The theater grew moldy. The stage where renowned actors once performed the world’s greatest plays was taken over by raccoons.

The entrance to Stony Point.

The entrance to Stony Point.

Meanwhile, in 1956 Westporters Leo Nevas and Nat Greenberg, along with Hartford’s Louis Fox, bought the Stony Point property for residential development.

It’s now considered one of the town’s choicest addresses. A recent listing for one home there was $14 million.

That’s quite a story. We can only imagine what might have happened had Westporters decided to support — rather than oppose — the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Westport.

Then again, as a famous playwright once said: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”