Big Apple Sweetness Melts Into The Big Easy
New Yorkers can sniff out their own.
We’ve seen it all, heard it all, and done it all ever since we started hailing taxicabs from our baby strollers. We’re an entitled, jaded bunch.
To use the name “Manhattan” in any business venture? Well, you’d either have to have a lot of chutzpah, or be prepared to hear a chorus of Bronx cheers.
That’s why my nose immediately turned up when I approached a bespectacled man with “Manhattanjack” sewn onto his white chef’s coat.
“Manhattanjack, huh?” I sneered. “Does that mean you’re from ‘The City’?”
“Yes,” he said with a guarded smirk.
I extended my hand and challenged, “I grew up on Mercer Street.”
He extended his hand. “23rd Street and 5th Avenue; I loved Chelsea,” he said sweetly.
My snobbery gave way to a smile. We spoke the same language.
That’s how I met Jack Petronella, 52, and learned why an established Culinary Institute of America chef and chocolatier would leave the center of the universe to hang up his shingle, which boasts “NYC Bagels” no less, at 4930 Prytania St.
Manhattanjack will celebrate 2 years in business this Jan. 11, and bills itself as a coffee house, bakery and confectionery. They serve fresh blended Viennese Mocha Java coffee, produce 27 fresh, baked-from-scratch products daily, including “original recipe” New York City style bagels and sell chocolates and award winning salted caramels.
“I never thought there was a city in the South I’d enjoy and be comfortable living in as a New Yorker,” Petronella said. “No one realizes how akin New Orleans and New York really are. The arts are great, the food is great, the music is great. How much would I be giving up? It wasn’t as much as I thought.”
Petronella wasn’t always a believer.
In addition to his hip, happening, Manhattanjack confectionery in Chelsea, Petronella also had a booming Boardwalk bakery in Asbury Park, NJ.
He had no clue The Big Easy would beckon when his sister came to live with him after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“I couldn’t figure out why she was so depressed,” he said. “She had only been living in New Orleans for a year. But she really wanted to go back. She felt like she was abandoning the city.”
Not so keen on the hurricane horrors he saw on the news, Petronella decided to accompany his sister from the Empire City to the Crescent City not knowing what they both would find there.
“I stayed long enough to meet the real people of New Orleans, those who stuck it out and were committed to rebuild,” he said.
After that inspired, initial trip Petronella found himself visiting up to 5 times a year. He kept a permanently packed knapsack by the door in case his sister called with a last minute invite to a cool party, event or festival.
“I would visit during the winters, and it was so nice down here,” he said. “And I didn’t want to go back up to face the blizzards and the snow. Then I started to think, maybe I’d like to live here permanently.”
“There was no recession in New Orleans,” Petronella said. “They were building away, restructuring and small businesses were thriving. I kept thinking, it could be done.”
Petronella was able to unload his 2 businesses in a New York minute, and headed down South.
There, he met his business partner, Coleman Jernigan, an Oklahoma native, fellow New Orleans convert and baker. Together, Petronella said, they expanded the concept of Manhattanjack and took advantage of their combined talents as co-owners.
“This city has coffee on every corner,” Petronella said. “Were we so arrogant to come down from New York and think we could open a coffee house? We’re so much more. We’re a world class European bakery. We’re a high end, superbly blended, fresh roasted coffee house, and we give the same love and care to our fresh baked goods.”
Open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., 7 days a week, Manhattanjack provides breakfast, lunch and chocolates. In addition to serving their specialty coffee, teas, frozen blended beverages and espresso, Manhattanjack bakes their own breads and desserts, roasts their own deli meats and boils their own bagels, all in house.
For breakfast, menu items include western omelette sandwiches, fried chicken biscuits drizzled with local honey, doughnuts, croissants, scones, biscuits and bagels.
For lunch, try fresh mozzarella grilled cheeses, grilled warm housemade PB&Js with your choice of bananas, bacon and marshmallow fluff, NYC Italian subs, Cubans and Monte Cristos, and, did I mention bagels?
There are white, wheat, plain, sesame, onion salt, sea salt and everything bagels, pretzel bagel sandwiches, bagels and lox, and bagels with cream cheese schmears.
“We make 300 bagels a day, and they have an insane following,” Petronella said. “We sell biscuits because our New Orleans clientele is obviously familiar with them, but we really enjoyed watching our guests start to order the bagels, and order them more and more and more, and now our bagels outsell our biscuits 2 to 1.”
To make the quintessential New York bagel, Petronella uses King Arthur high gluten flour – less when it’s humid out, more when it gets cooler – and boils them in malt syrup. He said when his bagels are fresh, out of the oven, the aroma takes you right back to the streets of New York.
Nestled in between La Thai Uptown and The Creole Creamery, which used to house McKenzie’s Bakery, Manhattanjack gives a nod to the nabe serving up 2 of McKenzie’s specialties. “We wanted to show our customers and neighbors we honor the history next door,” Petronella said. “We make and sell buttermilk drops and turtle cookies with our own signature touches.”
Other sweet treats include classic New York City black and white cookies, Chinese chocolate dot cookies and 25 chocolate cakes a week. At $40 each and $6.50 a slice, these moist, dark, rich cakes with chocolate buttercream icing are the only cakes Manhattanjack makes.
Ironically, Manhattanjack’s Prytania Street location used to house a gym. “It went from a place where you would lose weight to a place where you’d gain weight,” Petronella said.
“We’re unlike a coffee house where you slow down in the afternoon,” he said. “We stay busy all day long. When people can’t keep their heads up in the afternoon – they don’t want a coffee and a pastry. We give them coffee and high end chocolates, hand-dipped and hand-made.”
Petronella realized early on New Orleans locals champion their neighborhoods and support independent small businesses. He said his customers are loyal and protective and 99% of their regulars are now their friends. They tried to cultivate this neighborhood vibe with Manhattanjack’s décor, consisting of grey and yellow muted tones, a comfy living room lounge up front, a large communal table in the middle of the cafe, fine art on the walls, fresh flowers on the tables, lots of floor and table lamps, a patio and garden that seats 20 in the back and a wide range of music on the stereo, from Dinah Washington to Fitz and the Tantrums.
Petronella said it’s Manhattan warehouse chic.
Like any true New Yorker, Petronella also has a nose for real estate. Landing the prime parcel on Prytania took 2 years, and their newest acquisition on Magazine Street is where expansion plans are shaping up.
“I put our restaurants in locations where people could afford and appreciate us,” he said. “And we have a captive audience already Uptown. We thought it wise to open a new restaurant in the same neighborhood our customers already know and trust us.”
Petronella hopes to open his new Southern Italian trattoria, Altamura, in January, if the City Council votes on the CZO and clears the area for commercial use.
Located at 5119 Magazine St., a block away from Chef Sue Zemanick’s Ivy, Petronella plans to pay homage to his Italian grandmother Jennie whose authentic Italian dishes are what he grew up on.
“We did as much build out as we could short of violating the code,” he said. “But we’re planning a 60-seat fine dining restaurant, and look forward to cooking classic Italian using fresh farm-to-table ingredients, in a space with a rustic, laid back feel.”
Appetizers will include Spiedini a la Archer, named after Petronella’s favorite Italian restaurant in New Jersey and features layered melted mozzarella with an anchovy lemon caper sauce. They’ll be Pastas Bolognese, Carbonara, and Puttanesca, prime steaks and osso bucco, and seafood dishes including Lobster Tail Fra Diavolo.
“We’re not down here from New York to rip people off and make a buck,” Petronella said. “This is my home now; we’re putting down roots. I love it here.”
While Petronella may reminisce about schlepping around New York to eat at his favorite Italian restaurants and catch a Broadway play, he seems very content to feast at local favorites Coquette and Patois, and looks forward to the pork chop sandwiches at Ms. Linda’s Catering booth at Jazz Fest. He’s a New Orleanian now. He even painted Mardi Gras hours on Manhattanjack’s front door. They close at 2:00 p.m. on Lundi Gras and are closed on Mardi Gras.
“Putting that on the door is important to us,” he said. “It’s a day to celebrate, not a day to work. It reminds everyone we are natives now. We got it!”
Petronella was proud to announce a new Manhattanjack is due to open in Old Metairie in 2016.
4930 Prytania St.
New Orleans, LA 70115