Tag Archives: Little Italy

Daylight Factory

July 16, 2018 by
Photography by contributed

Daylight may be the most prominent feature of the Rail and Commerce Building at 10th and Mason streets. The banks of windows on every floor—including the lower level—were designed in the style of a “daylight factory,” a multi-story concrete frame industrial building that proliferated in the early 20th century, and that’s how they were restored. 

The multitude of windows was not happenstance. “We recognized the daylight as a resource worth harvesting,” says Jon Crane, president of Boyd Jones, the company responsible for renovating the building. “You need an environment conducive to attracting, retaining, and hiring quality people. Environment matters.” 

Crane motions through the conference room window to the Boyd Jones’ open-space office area. “This is a very collaborative space, which is an important value of our company. This space is very open, yet not disruptive.”

The open floor plan was a feature of the original building. The first floor Boyd Jones office was once meant for mail trucks—they drove right through the center of the building, from the 10th Street bridge to what was then the 11th Street bridge. Downstairs, in what is now the Commerce Village, there was a track so railcars could go through. When the building opened in 1926, it received nearly all the mail for western Iowa and Nebraska. It served in that capacity until the 1970s, when the existing post office next door replaced it.

Vacant for most of the years since then, the Rail and Commerce Building was condemned to be torn down when Crane and his team found it. “It was a cold, dilapidated shell on the inside. But the building itself, the structure was very sound,” Crane says. “We restored the façade and we completely cleaned out the inside and made it new. It was a historical preservation project, so we worked with the Nebraska Historical Society and also the National Park Service. We were able to preserve a lot of the neat historical aspects of the building.”

Building a new edifice for Boyd Jones’ headquarters was only a fleeting thought for Crane.

“It’s very important to remember where you come from—to embrace the past, but adapt it to the future,” Crane says. “Change doesn’t have to mean destruction. It can mean evolution.”

The location in Little Italy attracted Crane. He guessed it would attract others as well. The lower level of the Rail and Commerce Building houses the roughly 20,000-square-foot Commerce Village coworking space. With 16 private suites and 50 desks, it offers a variety of systems for renters: closed-door offices, set desks, floater desks, or one-day drop-ins. 

For the planning of Commerce Village, Crane brought in Matt Dougherty, who had prior experience with collaborative workspaces. His eight spaces at the Ford Building at 10th and Dodge streets “went so fast it became clear there is a real need for this type of incubator space,” says Dougherty. In his insurance business, he’s seeing a sort of “small business renaissance”—a trend of wanting to work for yourself rather than someone else.

That fit just right with Boyd Jones. “One of the values of our company is entrepreneurship,” Crane says. “We wanted an office space that would attract entrepreneurs and start-up companies—a collaborative atmosphere for collaborative people.”  

That energy drew Verdis Group, according to managing partner Craig Moody. “We’re excited for the opportunity for partnering with other organizations here,” he says.  

The daylight was another huge draw. An unexpected benefit? “The trains going by,” Moody says, grinning. “Sometimes I feel like an 11-year-old boy.” 

Verdis Group promotes sustainability, so they were pleased to find the building was equipped with solar panels. There’s also ample bike parking, as well as private showers and changing rooms so employees can freshen up after pedaling to work—or using the Rail and Commerce Building’s own fitness center. 

Conference rooms; access to a printer, mail, and package services; and a stocked kitchenette round out the amenities. Crane explains, “We really want people to be comfortable, like you’re in your [home] office.”


Visit boydjones.biz or commercevillageomaha.com for more information. 

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Don’t Be Bored, Get Board

January 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Every Friday night, Mickey Williams hosts a weekly ritual—board game night.

The 32-year-old Williams is a board game enthusiast. He resides just south of Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. Downtown buildings and lights are visible from the front porch of his nearly 100-year-old house. During his Friday board game nights, Williams opens his home to friends and strangers alike.

The weekly gaming tradition has been ongoing for about five years. Some nights draw 15 or more players. “It is not uncommon that we get 10 at once,” he says while arranging one of the night’s more popular attractions, Ticket to Ride, a train-themed game.

To accommodate an irregular guest list with visitors arriving at unpredictable hours, Williams makes full use of his home’s ample gaming space. In his living room, there are three dining tables. In the basement, an open ping-pong table is available for more expansive games. Other spaces, such as a gossip bench, are set up for chess and other small games.

boardgamenight2The walls and ceiling are decorated by players with graffiti and artwork, which Williams welcomes in the yet-to-be remodeled portions of his home. The wall art includes full-color drawings of anime characters, unicorns, miscellaneous doodles, and a mural of a T-Rex on the dining room ceiling. Quotes are scribbled in unexpected places.

Amber Ostergaard, a two-year regular of the board game night, painted the dinosaur on the ceiling. She says many guests have left their marks; it’s all part of the atmosphere.

Living room cabinets and the old home’s built-in shelves store a treasure trove of 127 board games “including expansion sets,” says Williams, who also invites guests to bring their own games.

The event is low-key, but Williams enforces basic rules to ensure the satisfaction of his players and the continuity of the event. He offers these rules as a guide to others who are interested in hosting their own game night event: “Playing games is required,” Williams says. “Every attendee must play a minimum of one board game every time they attend or be forever banned from future attendance.” This is the most common rule broken and enforced at game night, though Williams also will eject visitors who are excessively drunk or making other
players uncomfortable.

Williams says that many board gamers are “not adept at dealing with difficult social situations,” and that “creating a comfortable environment gets these people out to play.” Williams does not tolerate any form of harassment at game night. He tries to apply the rules “as evenly and non-sexistly as possible,” and he says, “there have been females that have been ejected for their behavior as well [as male players].”

Ostergaard says the event is “inclusive to both genders,” and male and female players seem fairly evenly represented on Fridays. However, Williams does not allow children due to the presence of alcohol.

Another crucial and inflexible rule of Williams’ board game night is that it happens every Friday. No matter what. If the event were inconsistent, Ostergaard says people would lose track of it.

“You don’t have to worry about, ‘Did I miss it, or did I not miss it?’ You don’t have to search for it in your events on Facebook. It’s just every Friday,” Ostergaard says. Williams adds that having a closed Facebook group for the event does help with reminders. “We try to take a picture of each game,” he says, laughing. “We try to post the ‘who won’ and whatnot, but we’re really bad at that.”

Because Williams facilitates game night, he doesn’t have time to be a typical host. “I’m trying to make the games happen,” he says, between his efforts at teaching rules to newcomers and clarifying disputes between veteran board gamers.

For anyone interested in hosting their own game-night event, Williams recommends simple games such as Ticket to Ride.

“You can have five adults who have not played games since they were children sit down with the rule book and learn to play [Ticket to Ride] in 20 minutes,” Williams says, noting there is less than one page of rules. Settlers of Catan is another popular game with a variety of expansion sets, perfect as groups become more advanced and parties gain more participants. Meanwhile, the game Carcassonne is also a Friday night favorite.

More complicated games such as Risk, Axis and Allies, and Diplomacy have their places at game night for his regular crowd, Williams says. Conversely, simpler games—such as Sushi Go and The Resistance—are great due to their brevity and relative ease.

Williams says the key to keeping everything moving with so many guests is to “concentrate on having multiple games of multiple lengths and multiple difficulties going on simultaneously.”

If someone were to show up in the middle of an ongoing game, the house is set up to accommodate late arrivals. They could play a quick two-player game such as Blokus or Connect Four, he explains, “then we can figure out who is staying, who is leaving, and what game we’re all going to play next.”

Everyone gets in a game. Actually, they have to. Otherwise they are forever banished.

Flour Road Paved with Dough

October 16, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Paul Kulik was a 20-year-old line cook, he knew restaurants would play an integral part of his life; little did he know that he would become a renowned part of Omaha’s culinary history, and one if its innovative executive chefs and restaurateurs.

Adding to his repertoire of restaurants in and around the Old Market, the talented owner of Le Bouillon and Boiler Room teamed up with local bar owner and design expert Ethan Bondelid and graced the public with the May opening of Little Italy’s newest pizza and pasta sensation, Via Farina.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages. Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

-Paul Kulik

Inspired by living abroad for a year in France during high school, Kulik fell in love with the food-oriented way of European life, the integrity of each course, and the quality of farm-to-table fare.

viafarina1“I had to meander a bit to find my passion,” Kulik confesses of his early adulthood. “But I could not imagine food not being a part of my future.”

A self-described “Francophile,” Kulik has long been obsessed with everything French, but a trip to Italy was the catalyst for his concept of creating an Italian eatery that even an Italian native would appreciate. All of that, he knew, lay in the craftsmanship of the dough.

“The process of making it fresh and of the highest quality is the difference,” says Bondelid, Kulik’s former roommate.

“The appeal of pizza and pasta is very broad. It’s family-friendly, and has a sweet spot for all ages,” explains Kulik. “Pricing our menu accordingly, not being overly pretentious, having fun, and bridging the demographic gap so that it is a place for everyone was important to our success.”

The owners received overwhelming support from the opening day of Via Farina, which translates to “Flour Street” in Italian. Thanks to their impressive collaboration—Kulik’s background in all things food-related and Bondelid’s knowledge of beverages and design—the inviting atmosphere blends an industrial sophistication with an inviting ambiance.

viafarina3The centerpiece of the establishment is their open kitchen’s dramatic wood-fired oven, manufactured in Italy and adorned with Egyptian tile, designed to retain heat. The south wall of the restaurant pictures a giant backdrop sketch of a Vespa’s assembly, modern globe pendant lights hang from the ceiling crisscrossed with natural wood beams, there is a backlit bar, and a DJ spins hits from classic vinyl. Out front is a refreshing patio and a trio of cheery yellow Vespas waiting patiently to deliver gastronomic masterpieces to famished locals. 

The menu features 11 unique pizzas, six pasta dishes, and an authentic selection of Italian appetizers. Patrons can expect to be impressed by the locally sourced meats, cheeses, herbs, and vegetables. The sauces, dough, and pasta are all made in-house using a unique process. Each menu item also features wine recommendations, chosen with Bondelid’s expertise.

“We’ve been very fortunate Via Farina has struck a positive chord with the public,” says Bondelid. Kulik adds, “We want to make sure we continue to accomplish the quality we’ve been providing since our opening. Restaurants are living, breathing things, and you always have to improve and evolve.”

Via Farina welcomes guests on Mondays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Visit goviafarina.com for more information.

Encounter

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Feeding Frenzy

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The chatter among agents in the spacious, sunny work area of the NP Dodge Real Estate office in Elkhorn doesn’t focus on the global economy, the Brexit fallout, or what Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve might or might not do about rate hikes. They are too busy writing up contracts and swapping stories about how fast a listing sold in what continues to be a robust housing market.

“We’re seeing multiple offers on one home, like we had 20 years ago,” says Nancy Bierman, who manages 120 agents in the office at 204th Street and West Dodge Road. “Homes are selling above asking price. We’re seeing more cash buys, and homes are going very quickly, selling in one day.”

Homeowners now include millennials, the biggest generation ever to come into the marketplace. They’re moving into all areas of the metro, not just west Omaha.

“The urban market, Omaha’s core, seems to be really strong,” says Jeff Royal, president of Dundee Bank. “Young professionals want to live closer to older, established neighborhoods with more character like Benson, Blackstone, Dundee, Field Club, even south of Old Market in Little Italy.”

What’s driving Omaha’s housing frenzy? Chronically low 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages, now below 3.5 percent, tell part of the story—one that has benefited everyone involved in real estate, from brokers to builders to bankers.

InterestRates1“It’s a good time to be a buyer,” says Royal. “We’re seeing an uptick not only in mortgage applications, but refinancing as well,” which follows a strong national trend. Figures from the Mortgage Bankers Association show applications have been running more than 21 percent higher than last year—a far cry from the darkest days of the Great Recession of late 2007-2009.

“That was bad,” John Caniglia says bluntly. The owner of John Caniglia Homes, builders of higher-end custom homes, remembers buying a few foreclosures and flipping them just to stay afloat. “We started to see a perk up in 2011, even in the $450,000 range, when interest rates were really low. Then the tight regulations on borrowing money started to ease and we’ve been rolling along every year since, even our apartment and office development.”

The experience of that recession made Caniglia and other developers highly skittish to build on spec—building before you have a buyer—which explains an equally huge factor in Omaha’s hot market: a lack of existing homes. According to Omaha Area Board of Realtors statistics, the 2,600 homes on the market this spring represented a 16 percent drop from 2015, and a whopping 56 percent drop from 2011, when 6,000 residences were available. In addition, the median price of existing homes rose 7 percent over the past year, to $155,000.

“Many baby boomers looking to downsize are finding they have to pay more for less square footage because of the median prices going up, so they’re staying put and their houses aren’t available,” says NP Dodge sales associate Therese Wehner, explaining another piece of the housing crunch equation.

This classic scenario of low supply and high demand has tossed homebuyers into a whirlwind.

“When a house under $150,000 comes on the market, it’s like throwing raw meat into a lion’s cage,” quips Carole Souza, associate broker at NP Dodge. “You have it on the market and within four or five hours you’ve got 10-15 showings. Before the day is done you have at least one offer, sometimes more.”

But the downside of quick decision-making often leads to headaches for all involved.

“We’re seeing an increase in buyer’s remorse,” explains Souza. “They win the battle, but lose the war sometimes.”

The number of sales contracts that fall apart keeps rising. Wehner noticed, over a two-day period in early July, 19 houses that previously sold went back on the market. Three hours later, when she checked again, the number had risen to 21. Sales agents concede it is getting tougher and tougher to seal the deal.

“The buyer rushes into something, they sleep on it and decide, ‘Well, I really like the first house I saw better,’ and then they look for an out,” says Wehner. “And I’m telling you, when that happens, the emotions from the buyers and the sellers can run very, very high.”

Well-trained real estate agents will make sure their client asks all the right questions up front before making any decision. Sometimes they’ll suggest a simple, but effective, gesture to win a bidding war.

“A listing agent told me my client got the house because of the ‘sappy’ letter my client wrote to the homeowners saying, ‘I love how you took care of your home and I will love it, too,’” says sales associate Kori Krause. “Letters can work.”

The health of the real estate industry always depends on the big economic picture, especially as a presidential election looms. As John Caniglia says, “We builders pretty much spend our whole life worrying.” But with less than two months’ worth of housing inventory available and high demand, experts expect the Omaha market to continue its amazing run for the next three to five years.

Visit federalreserve.gov/releases/h15 for more information. B2B

Year of the Startup

November 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and bring their ideas to fruition.

Sebastian Hunt, 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space to test out their concepts. The University of Nebraska at Omaha economics graduate interned with various local employers and surveyed the area startup community when an idea struck him for a by-application, curriculum-based residency program serving new entrepreneurs. That inspiration turned into Year of the Startup.

Launched in 2014, the program operates out of a humble house at 4036 Burt Street in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood. Hunt and co-founder Jason Feldman, 28, room there with young residency fellows whose startup ventures range from making bio-fuels to providing night owl shuttle services. They are a millennial bunch who favor sneakers and sandals. They take informal meetings to nearby CaliCommons and Lisa’s Radial Cafe. They variously hunch over laptops or tablets and carry smartphones as appendages.

This communal work-live space model for business mavericks is new to Omaha. The usual startup accelerator is a concentrated, 90-day, off-site program. Omaha has a few of these, notably Straight Shot. Hunt saw a need for a program that invites a broader range of people into the accelerator fold and supports them much nearer to the start of their dream than other programs.

“We feel like we can take people at very early stages because we are four times as long as the average program,” says Hunt, who adds that Year of the Startup is also not tech-centric like many programs tend to be. “In our model we substitute intensity for duration. I think a lot of the learning here comes through unstructured, serendipitous interactions we have that is not curriculum-based, it’s just happenstance.

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“With a house there are so many different ways you can bring ideas and people together. I think that’s maybe that critical binding agent and sense of place that helps accomplish things.”

He says in this intimate environment “there’s no other choice but to immerse yourself in the setting,” adding, “We’re always hanging out in the living room or out back talking about startup stuff—monetization strategies, capitalization tables, vested equity entity structures.”

“It’s this immersive experience of camaraderie, of these natural flows and idea generation,” Feldman says.

Hunt says, “This is very difficult to get bored with because there’s always somebody whose business is either in crisis or growth stage or some interesting part of the curve.”

“How could we get bored when we’re creating a platform with four startups and all we get to do is ideation,” Feldman says. “It’s a constant buzz we get from interacting with these startup founders and helping them build their ideas.”

Built into the program are activities that encourage fellows to break out of their comfort zone and to offer honest criticism of each other’s ideas.

Hunt compiles multiple data points on the startups.

“We’re developing really deep insight about how do people start successful businesses.”

The program utilizes mentors from the entrepreneurial community.

“We bring in people who are experts in specific areas to talk on those topics,” Feldman says.

“They get ideas flowing,” Hunt says of the mentors.

Feldman says he regularly covers with fellows “the major components of what you need to look at to start your business,” and then mentors like Mike Kolker, owner of graphic design firm Simplify, teach lessons about operational efficiency and “how to simplify running a business.”

Hunt is a newcomer to all this and goes by instinct as much as research to support his vision.

“I just had an irrational confidence, market insights, and a great theoretical background thanks to primary research I completed and to lessons I learned from Phillip Phillips, Michael O’Hara, and Art Diamond in UNO’s economics department. I read constantly about who the players were in the startup world, so I was fairly prepared.”

Even though he directs a startup program, he only started participating in one himself (Venture School). He acknowledges Year of the Startup is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.

“Coming out of college I had student loans and not a ton of money. I’ve held two jobs to finance the project. Now the project is financed by a combination of me working and renting out one room. One-hundred percent of the money our entrepreneurs pay in rent will be returned in full and so everybody has a strong incentive to follow through with the program. That may be what makes us sustainable.”

He’s working on securing corporate sponsorship for the program. Meanwhile, he wants to help get participating startups to the next level.

“We’re functioning like a pre-accelerator at this point. We want to get our startups profitable and then refer them to the Straight Shots, so they can focus on growth in a pure accelerator program.”

As Year of the Startup moved into a larger house in Omaha’s Little Italy district on July 1 and a new class of fellows arrives, Hunt says there are “interesting talks happening right now to bring this to other cities.” He and Feldman say economic development agencies are willing to pay a license fee for them to do startup houses in other cities. The partners are having proprietary software developed that will enable new startup houses to replicate their branded Omaha model.

They look forward to engaging with the emerging 10th Street cultural district but may keep the midtown house to accommodate growth.

Hunt and Feldman believe they’re catching the wave, or tipping point, of a big new startup rush and they’re betting their model is poised to be a niche player in this wild frontier of entrepreneurial prospecting.

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You Know You’ve Lived in Omaha A Long Time

October 15, 2015 by
  1. Johnny Carson hosting a show on WOW-TV in 1950 called The Squirrel’s Nest. The Omaha show was the television debut for the Nebraska native who went on to national stardom as a late-night TV host.  Remember when Carson took a microphone onto the ledge of the county courthouse to interview the pigeons?  He wanted to give their side of the controversy surrounding pigeon’s loitering on the ledges.
  2. You followed your nose to South Omaha. The neighborhood was malodorous because of nearby stockyards. Some neighbors referred to it as “the smell of money.”  Nicknamed “The Magic City” in the 1890s, South Omaha is an historical and culturally diverse area with eclectic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Little Bohemia.  Each year Cinco De Mayo adds fun and music to the streets.
  3. The Omar Baking Company near 43rd and Nicholas streets filled the neighborhood with sniff-worthy aroma by delivering bread door to door. You may remember the jingle:  “I’m the Omar man, (tap, tap, tap). Knocking at your door (rappa tap tap). When you taste my bread (mmmm boy!), you’re gonna want more (rappa tap tap).” The building is now used for offices and events.
  4. Perhaps your brush with fame was graduating from Westside High School in 1959 with actor Nick Nolte, eventually named People Magazine’s 1992 Sexiest Man Alive. Or living nearby when Jane and Peter Fonda resided with their aunt on Izard Street. You may have gone to UNO with Peter or cruised Dodge Street with Jane.
  5. You might have tasted the world’s first TV dinner (98 cents each) in the 1950s, introduced by Omaha brothers Gilbert and W. Clarke Swanson. The package was designed to look like a TV set at a time when only 20 percent of American homes had a television.  The TV dinner’s aluminum tray ended up in the Smithsonian Institute in 1986 as an American cultural milestone.The Swanson name lives on in Omaha on W. Clarke Swanson Public Library, Swanson Elementary School, Creighton’s W. Clarke Swanson Hall, and Durham Museum’s Swanson Gallery.
  6. The Orpheum, a movie theater built in 1927 as a burlesque theater, closed in 1971. Maybe you were there in January 17, 1975, for the renovated theater’s grand reopening. We know you weren’t there in 1971 for the last movie shown; the theater was empty.
  7. The Indian Hills movie theater built in 1961 near 84th and Dodge streets was called “the hat box” because of its shape. Perhaps you were among the people who tried to save the wide-screen Super-Cinerama theater building before it was torn down in 2001.
  8. The Cooper theater near 15th and Douglas streets, a former “bastion of bump” (burlesque) when its name was The Moon, was a place to see movies until it was demolished in 1975.

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Weekends are for Waffles

May 29, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was originally published in May/June 2015 edition of The Encounter.

In a society were the graphic tee is king, it’s only natural to spot one reading Weekends are for Waffles. Even with the growing population of millennials living downtown in the Old Market, NoDo, Little Italy, and surrounding areas, it’s proving to be a lot more than just designer-tee-wearing hipsters and your typical waffles and syrup. If you’re looking for a way to spend your weekend morning, it’s clear downtown boasts some great mid-morning eateries that will excite even the crankiest morning person.

Waffles, yes. Bloody Marys and Mimosas, yes. Poached eggs on a bed of homemade corn beef hash, yes. And of course, a group of your closest friends for a good gossip session called ‘brunchin.’

This easy-to-follow route for your downtown brunchin’ crawl is not your typical Easter or Mother’s Day brunch, which the urban dictionary defines as a breakfast and lunch usually occurring around 11 a.m. for snobs who like tea and jam. Brunchin’ is just an excuse for anyone who wants a cocktail before noon when it’s not football season in Huskerland.

The queen of the world of brunchin’ is the Bloody Mary. Whether you are working through a hangover or just like to drink you vegetables, this cocktail is a sure-fire thirst quencher and hangover mitigation device. Almost any restaurant hosts their own version of this popular drink, but Stokes Grill & Bar at 11th and Howard allows you to build your own. The buffet line features a do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar with different tomato juices, spices, vegetables, pickles, shrimp, and even bacon. Yes, we said bacon. Squeeze in a lime, head out to their patio and lounge in the sunshine on comfy couches, and wait for your order of the chocolatiest chipped pancakes this side of the Missouri River.

If fruit juices are more your thing, J’s on Jackson at 11th and Jackson runs a weekend special of $4 mimosas and Bloody Marys if you have a group. The special runs all day long. Bring your pooch because their patio is dog friendly. They will even bring your furry friend their own bowl of water!

A favorite of soccer fans is Wilson & Washburn at 14th and Harney. Opening at 10 a.m., the owners are aware of the time difference between

the United Kingdom and the central United States and will air almost all of the English Premier League soccer games with a newly developed brunch menu. (Yes, sure, Americans and fans of sports involving the arms are welcome, too). The smaller menu consists of a few traditional items, but with their own funky twist. It’s your choice if you want to pair the smoked peanut butter and berry-compote-topped French toast with a hot French press coffee, or, one of their brunch cocktails. We suggest the Dirty Wicked, a cold brew coffee with bourbon, simple syrup, and bitters that will have any brunchin’ patron cheering. If you’re not in the mood for something sweet, try the hangover-slaying, homemade corned beef hash topped with two soft poached eggs and horseradish aioli.

Wheatfield’s Eatery and Bakery at 12th and Howard is a natural stop for a brunchin’ crawl. They offer a large, basic brunch menu. Perk up with a creamy, whipped-topped, hot hazelnut latte. This is a great meeting place with early-bird specials starting as early as 6 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday morning. Pair your coffee with eggs, eggs, and more eggs. Not for the small stomach type, the Grandma’s Scrambler is ham, eggs, and potatoes scrambled with a drizzle of Hollandaise sauce. Did we mention it comes with a very large side—Ron’s Large Hot Cinnamon Roll?

If you’ve done the downtown brunchin’ crawl right, your stomach is about to burst, but your once-throbbing head isn’t. What better way to get a proper late start to a weekend day?

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Now That’s Italian

January 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon at the Sons of Italy hall on South 10th Street. The hum of conversation is punctuated by greetings from the regulars, and by 11:15 a.m. the hall is near capacity. Downtown business professionals mix elbows with construction workers at family-style tables. During campaign season, the Thursday lunch draws politicians like flies to honey—make that cannoli.

They are all here for the traditional Italian fare served up with a genuine smile and occasional wise-guy crack. Today’s menu: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and fresh bread. Quintessential Italian but far from ordinary. The sauce has been simmering for over 24 hours, its seasonings taking on a richer, more complex flavor, just like the neighborhood. The troupe of volunteer cooks never work off a recipe. Rather, the sauce is a happy combination of a few family recipes adapted over the years. Over 240 gallons are made for these Thursday lunches, a tradition that dates back 50-plus years. The men have cut over 200 pounds of lettuce for the salads and hand-rolled 2,000 meatballs. And if the early crowd is any indication of the late lunch numbers, they will need every morsel of this copious amount of food.

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The Sons of Italy is not much to look at from the outside. The only nod to its Italian heritage is the green, white, and red striped awning over the front door. But once inside, the hearty aroma of tomato sauce, the cheery red and white checked tablecloths, and ever-present laughter make you feel like you’ve walked into an Italian family reunion.

“It’s like coming home to Nana’s kitchen,” says Rich Mengler, who has been working the Sons of Italy lunches for 14 years. “I’m the kid here,” the 77-year-old quips. And if the name Mengler sounds more German than Italian, it is. “I’m an IBM,” he jokes, “Italian by Marriage.”

 Settlement Days

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha in 1893. The railroads, stockyards, and meatpacking plants provided the promise of work. Most came from Sicily—in particular, Carlentini—and settled in the area bounded by Pacific and Bancroft streets to the north and south, respectively, and from the river to 13th Street. They built businesses and wrote to family in Italy to come to the American Plains’ burgeoning Italian community.

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By the time immigration from southern  and eastern Europe was cut off, more than  5,000 Italians called Little Italy home. “It was almost like a separate small town” within the larger city of Omaha, says Mike DiGiacomo, member of the Santa Lucia Festival committee and trumpet player in its marching band.

Ties to the old country were strong, so strong that residents turned to their heritage to stave homesickness for Sicily. In 1925, Little Italy residents hosted the first Santa Lucia Festival, a New World version of the centuries-old festival held each year in Carlentini. They managed to raise an astounding $2,000 to replicate the statue of St. Lucy in Sicily for use in the Omaha festival.

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The Santa Lucia Festival gradually evolved into a three-day party, including Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, a parade down 10th Street, music, rides, games, food, and the crowning of a queen at Lewis and Clark Landing. It is one of the Midwest’s oldest festivals, running continuously for 90 years, save the four years of World War II.

DiGiacomo says tradition and heritage have kept the festival afloat: “While many of these types of festivals have died off, the Santa Lucia Italian Festival has continued to defy the odds. The people who grew up with it, who are part of it, are so dedicated to St. Lucy and what the festival stands for. This festival is what gives the city character, a sense of community.”

 New Development with a Historic Foundation

The passing of time brings change. It’s inevitable. One of the neighborhood’s revered institutions, Caniglia’s, closed its doors in 2006. And when Frank Marino decided to finally retire at 80 and close the 13th Street grocery store his father had started 88 years prior, people lined up to buy the last of his homemade Italian sausages and ravioli.

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But there is also continuity in Little Italy. Orsi’s Bakery, at 7th and Pacific, is still going strong. Owner Jim Hall spent much of his childhood at the bakery. His Little League coach was a driver for Orsi’s, so Hall would help him make deliveries on the weekends. In 2010 Hall purchased Orsi’s with his wife, Kathy. “It has such a longstanding history. I didn’t want to see it close,” he explains rather matter-of-factly.

Orsi’s offers a variety of Italian meats, homemade Italian sausages, pastas, and olive oils, but bread from old Orsi recipes is the foundation of the business. Pizza is take-out only, or as old Mr. Orsi used to say, “Get it and hit it.”

Hall now sees a revitalization of Little Italy. DiGiacomo concurs: “While there was a feeling that the neighborhood was deteriorating in the late ’80s and ’90s, that feeling is no longer present. Recent development has helped the neighborhood grow again and redevelop that sense of community.”

The Santa Lucia Hall is under renovation. Out of the ashes of Caniglia’s Steak House has risen a community of town homes called The Towns, developed by Bluestone Development. Its clapboard exterior recalls the siding popular with most of Little Italy single-family dwellings. Driveway names like Lucia and Caniglia Plaza acknowledge the neighborhood’s heritage. Twenty-something urbanites gravitate toward Bluestone’s apartment complex at 8th and Pacific.

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The neighborhood’s price point and feel are appealing, says Bluestone’s Christian Christensen. “The vibe of Little Italy is very connected,” he says. “It’s a longstanding neighborhood and eclectic with 25 to 55 year-olds hanging out together.”

To wit: Fork Fest, a neighborhood festival centering on music, a bocce ball tournament and scavenger hunt, camaraderie, and food (of course). Andrew Marinkovich is one of Fork Fest’s founders. Its success, he asserts, is a communal effort. “You become part of the neighborhood’s fabric” when you move there, Marinkovich says. “You are so close to everyone, you are forced to interact.”

A tight-knit, historic neighborhood is what Michael Giambelluca and his wife, Donnamaria, were seeking when the couple relocated to Omaha this past summer after Michael accepted a job as Creighton Preparatory School’s new president. “Little Italy still seems to have that old-fashioned neighborhood feel that Donnamaria and I had growing up in our own respective areas of New Orleans,” he says. “People know each other and look out for each other. And people have a real pride in the place, that it has deep roots, and wonderful tradition.”

The Magnetts’ Dunsany Flats Condo

August 20, 2012 by
Photography by minorwhitestudios

Charlie and Sherri Magnett were driving through Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood when they spotted the vintage Dunsany Flats building near 10th and Pierce streets. It was built in 1901 to house railroad workers. They found their dream condo inside. The deck first caught their eye.

“The deck sold us on this condo,” says Sherri. A glass wall leads to a spacious deck with a ceiling fan, couch, and chairs. Their deck overlooks a “green” roof where living plants flourish. The colorful roof provides insulation for the garage below, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer, as well as a pleasant view for condo owners.

Sherri Magnett admires her view of Little Italy.

Sherri Magnett admires her view of Little Italy.

Charlie and Sherri were so struck by what they saw, the Millard-area homeowners sold their place two years ago, then bought two Dunsany condos and melded them into an airy 1,900-square-foot home. A brick wall was removed and replaced with sliding oak doors that were the original unit’s front doors. Windows flood the rooms with natural light.

The original exposed brick walls and woodwork that were new the day the building opened more than a century ago were retained and restored during renovation. Ornamental iron flower boxes sit just outside the windows of the condos.

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The media room is wired for sound. Electronics are hidden in a closet to give the room an uncluttered look. Posters from movies popular with family members—which include daughter Page, 19, and son Chase, 22—hang from the walls. Each chose a favorite movie to feature: The Wizard of Oz (Charlie); Silence of the Lambs and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Sherri); Reservoir Dogs and Forrest Gump (Page); and Boondock Saints and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Chase).

Movies made in Nebraska are saluted in posters that line a hallway leading to the bedrooms of Page and Chase: Sideways, Election, Up in the Air, and About Schmidt. Reverend, a fluffy white puppy who lives with the Magnetts, appears not to have a favorite movie. We would have guessed 101 Dalmatians.

Son Chase spends a good chunk of time in the media room.

Son Chase spends a good chunk of time in the media room.

The couple invested in a system that uses a strip running along the upper wall with wires that hang down to hold the posters, making the hanging job easier. Also on the front hall walls are framed maps that Charlie collects. Shelving in the hallway was custom-made for them from 100-year-old salvaged wood.

They’ve had as many as 50 guests in their double condo. But it’s unlikely the neighbors were annoyed by noise. Acoustical flooring, 12-inch-thick masonry walls, and a sound-proofing system assure privacy and quiet. “You barely hear your own footsteps,” says Charlie.

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The custom-designed, European-style kitchen was Sherri’s project. Cabinet doors open accordion-style above the Corian counters. “The one thing Charlie wanted in the kitchen was an integrated kitchen sink (sink and countertop are formed together),” she says.

“We bought the appliances on eBay,” adds Sherri, who relishes a bargain.

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Bedroom closets feature backlit, glass doors. Lighting makes it easier to find clothing and shines through the glass for a soft light in the bedroom. An attic was added by the Magnetts to supplement the storage space already available. A metal ladder folds down to allow access to the attic, which doubles as a bedroom when Chase’s friends visit.

Before settling into the Little Italy neighborhood, Sherri checked City of Omaha plans and learned the area is targeted for revitalization. The Blue Barn Theatre’s new building is scheduled to go up by 2014 across the street from their condo.

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There’s a lot going on in walking distance. They can stroll to the Old Market, Durham Museum, and TD Ameritrade Park, where Charlie caught the College World Series. They can watch July 4th fireworks from Downtown Omaha and hear music from Stir Cove across the Missouri River.

Charlie now has only a seven-minute walk to Union Pacific headquarters where he is an engineer. Sherri’s commute to Peter Kiewit, where she is an IT worker, also is shorter than from Millard.

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They wanted to be closer to their jobs and closer to the center of action. “There’s so much to do. It’s a different lifestyle,” says Charlie. “We’ve been talking for five years about doing this.”

They found new friends and a lively neighborhood in Little Italy. The couple ride bikes and attend ball games with neighbors. Sherri and a friend won this year’s tournament on the neighborhood bocce court, even though she had never played.

“We know everybody by name,” says Sherri.