MICHAEL MENTESANA, the grandson of Italian immigrants on both sides of his family, grew up in a red brick house in Marine Park, Brooklyn, on a quiet street not far from Sheepshead Bay. His father was a dental technician; his mother was a nurse. There was a basketball court in the backyard, along with his mother’s small garden, heavy on roses and mums.
Mr. Mentesana lived in this house while attending Brooklyn College and as a graduate student at Columbia University. Between 1999 and 2002, with a timeout after the attacks of Sept. 11, his home was Battery Park City, followed by what he describes, only half joking, as two years of living in his Volvo. “I didn’t exactly sleep in it,” Mr. Mentesana said, “but practically. I was traveling a lot, staying at hotels and with friends, and I didn’t have a real home.”
Today he has a very real home, the 2,400-square-foot duplex on West End Avenue that he shares with Nancy Schueneman, his fiancée, who arrived in the summer of 2010. The household also includes Derby, his Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy.
Judging by Derby’s multiple beds, she is clearly the apple of her owner’s eye. One suspects that when alone in the apartment, she has also been known to curl up on the inviting-looking sheepskin rug in the living room, even though that’s not really allowed.
Mr. Mentesana, 37, works as a consultant in the field of biopharmaceutical research and development, and his home sometimes does double duty as an office. More important, the duplex allows Mr. Mentesana, an enthusiastic amateur chef and wine collector, to indulge his culinary passions.
Along with an impressively equipped kitchen, the apartment has room for 30 people to gather around his Stickley dining table. He has enough glassware to entertain 140 at a party. And with five Sub-Zero refrigerators — one full-size, three smaller units dedicated to wine, and a bar fridge that fits under a counter — guests never leave thirsty.
His building, at 87th Street, is one of West End Avenue’s Art Deco beauties, and in 2005 he bought a one-bedroom on the sixth floor for $685,000. “It was an utter mess and needed to be gutted,” Mr. Mentesana said, “and I’d just started work at PricewaterhouseCoopers.” But he recalled the words of his grandfather Sabato Siano. “As he always used to say, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ ”
Three years later, when an equally disreputable one-bedroom just downstairs became available, Mr. Mentesana bought that one, too, for about the same price, and with the help of his contractor, Jim Prousalis, and his architect, Alexander Gorlin (“my invisible pen,” as Mr. Mentesana describes him), proceeded to create a duplex. The cost of the renovation, including appliances, was $800,000.
The two levels are linked by a handsome open staircase supported by a single steel beam. Every time Mr. Mentesana heads up or down, he passes his treasured “Yellow Submarine” poster, a reflection of his unexpectedly retro musical tastes. Don’t be surprised to hear Simon and Garfunkel wafting from the sound system tucked away in a closet.
Despite his affection for vintage rock, Mr. Mentesana’s aesthetics are very much of the moment, and his duplex is sleek, streamlined and high-tech, right down to LED lights, many subtly recessed behind walls and panels. Finishes are luxurious and come with impressive pedigrees. Along with marble, black granite and powder-coated steel, surface coverings include blue glass tile from Murano, volcanic stone from Pompeii and slate from the Lake District in Britain.
Mr. Mentesana has strong opinions on handles — “I don’t like them,” he said — and that’s clear from the soft-close drawers and handle-free closet and cabinet doors. Nor are these the only ingenious touches that a visitor might not notice unless Mr. Mentesana pointed them out, among them invisible drains in sinks and closets so cunningly designed they’re practically invisible.
As one might suspect from the contents of those Sub-Zero fridges, wine is a huge part of Mr. Mentesana’s life, and his trove includes nearly 1,000 bottles. “Even when I lived like a hobo,” he said, “I collected wine.” Bowls scattered around the apartment hold hundreds of corks — “I expect to be buried in my corks,” he said — and each bears a scribbled notation, such as French Laundry, reminding him where and when the wine was consumed. It’s no surprise that Mr. Mentesana named his dog after a cocktail, the Brown Derby, and he boasts that he can fill any drink request at his bar.
He can also cook almost anything; a recent spur-of-the-moment dinner featured homemade gazpacho, ricotta figs and rosemary bread. Ms. Schueneman, who is more of a baker, lets her fiancé bask in the culinary limelight, or as he sums up the arrangement, “She allows me to be the chef and she takes more of a sous-chef role.”
When not bent over his Wolf stove or one of his two stone farmhouse sinks, Mr. Mentesana is a busy man. He climbed Machu Picchu in Peru — he has photographs to prove it — and he’s a part-owner of a watch company and a bar in Queens. He juggles. He plays the drums. But despite the high-tech décor and relentless schedule, what strikes a visitor is how much these rooms are permeated with a sense of Mr. Mentesana’s family, especially Mr. Siano.
He lived in Middle Village, Queens, not far from where Mr. Mentesana grew up, and played a major role in the family’s life. When Mr. Mentesana’s father died in 1999, that role grew even greater. “He really became the bedrock of the family,” the grandson said.
A framed certificate dated August 1944 and titled “Testament to Neptune: Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep” hangs on one wall. The document was presented to Mr. Siano when he first crossed the Equator aboard a Navy ship. Mr. Mentesana also has his grandfather’s military discharge papers and his dog tags.
Mr. Mentesana credits his grandfather for his love of cooking, and Mr. Mentesana compiled a cookbook of his favorite recipes after he died in 2007 at the age of 90. A robust-looking Mr. Siano, standing in his backyard and holding two plump tomatoes, beams out from the cover. Inside are his recipes for such dishes as rabbit gravy and Grandma Maria’s pepper cutlets.
“He filled our lives with love,” Mr. Mentesana said. “He was a military officer, a father, a grandfather and most notably our chef. He had a contagious energy which was felt by everyone he came into contact with. Sal always left them wanting more.”
The House of Annotated Corks (NYTimes)