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Sambuca Restaurant Reinvents Itself with Wine Bar and Brunch

By Emily Frost | October 25, 2012 3:27pm

UPPER WEST SIDE — Liza Wetanson has always dreamed about serving breakfast pizza at her restaurant, Sambuca.

She imagined thin-crust pizzas that were savory and fresh out of the oven, topped with breakfast favorites like sausage and eggs. After all, she figured, "There's so much bread at breakfast anyway."

Still, for 26 years, Sambuca has been known exclusively as an Italian restaurant serving only dinner — until now.

Wetanson finally made the plunge and started offering brunch from noon to 3 p.m. on weekends this fall. The menu expansion is part of a major revamp to help the restaurant keep up with the astonishing number of new food offerings that keep appearing in the neighborhood, according to Wetanson. 

Along with its breakfast pizza, Sambuca has kept everything on the brunch menu in the Italian/Mediterranean vein, but with a twist. French toast comes in sticks that stack like Jenga pieces to make a tower, with each stick covered in cornflakes to give extra crunch and texture to the dish. The sticks are a hit with kids, said Wetanson — just as the complimentary brunch cocktails are popular with their parents.

To make everyone feel at home, Wetanson offers each table an overflowing basket of baked goods. 

"[Brunch] has been growing every week," said Wetanson. To help things along, she and her son sometimes stand outside passing out French toast sticks to people on their way to Central Park. 

Sambuca also now offers a wine bar at the front of the restaurant, which is on West 72nd Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. It's a nod to the "wine bar craze" that seems to have captured the area, Wetanson said.

"We wanted singles to come in and feel relaxed without having to make the whole eggplant parm commitment," Wetanson said. 

Acknowledging that "competition is tough" nearby, Wetanson decided that in addition to featuring a wine bar, she wanted to redecorate the restaurant, moving away from its "rustic, Tuscan, wrought iron" look towards a "clean, contemporary and fresh" decor. It now features white stucco walls and all white linens throughout the 6,000-square-foot space. 

Wetanson said she has a stock of regulars and people who eat at the restaurant almost every night of the week, who begged her not to change a thing. There are also families who make it a weekly tradition to dine together at Sambuca, like a group who appeared Tuesday night weary and hungry after karate class. 

Still, she persisted, and was able to finish renovations in just two days. "It was time for a fresh feeling," she said. Her regulars loved the change, she said. 

The restaurant has changed a lot over the last two decades, Wetanson said. In the early years, there were many nights when she was so busy she pushed two chairs together and slept in the restaurant. She can step away a little more now, but doing so still induces guilt. "It's like leaving a child," she said.

What makes her happiest is the reaction she gets from her gluten-free menu, even 10 years after its debut. According to Wetanson, people come from all around the world for the menu, which is offered in addition to the regular offerings and is full of pastas that are just as tasty as the non-gluten-free versions. 

"People want to kiss your toes, they're so grateful," she said.