The Insider's Guide
Eight locals share favorite Stamford shops, eateries, Ways to Give, must-do’s, bars and fun facts totalling 125+ personal picks
Though the skyline, population and prominence of her native city have reached new heights, Lynne Colatrella says Stamford has always been anchored by a sense of community and civic life. “My grandparents came from Italy and at that time, people helped each other,” recalls Lynne, who is vice president of events and marketing for Stamford Downtown. “In those days, it was [neighbors helping neighbors.] In this city now, we are involved in every neighborhood.”
A 1974 Rippowam High grad who cofounded Curtain Call, Lynne lives in the Vine Road home of her childhood and is active in arts, philanthropy, education and politics. To her, Stamford’s master plan was created so that the city “doesn’t become a big-box corridor. I think it’s allowed the community to stay more intimate.”
As an example, Lynne points to the first block of Bedford Street north of Broad—a retail hub in her childhood that lost business after the mall opened but has recently launched a comeback. “It’s the restaurants and bars that really brought the street back to life, and now there’s some beautiful retail,” including Russ Hollander Master Goldsmith (“He has a workshop and makes gorgeous handmade jewelry”), Fleet Feet Sports and Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery. “If you go out on any warm afternoon or evening, it’s really an incredible feeling out there, with all the nightlife and young people that come here,” she says.
Neighboring mom-and-pops, including Lynne’s go-to amenity, the venerable Wolfe’s Cleaners, reinforces the street fair atmosphere. At the mall is Hakky Instant Shoe Repair, which she has been known to use for a quick fix. Lynne stays downtown to get her hair done at Salon Shahin, and although she’s driving a new Volvo now, she depends on the A&K Gulf on Newfield for auto repairs.
Asked for a single snapshot in the city that captures the spirit of Stamford, Lynne points to the crowd at the Parade Spectacular; because strong winds grounded the balloons last year, those who lined the streets found new appreciation for the talent on the ground, including the Locust Performing Arts Center and Center Stage Dance Studio dancers, and Stamford's high school bands.
The parade route passes Summer Street mainstay Dairy Queen, and Lynne remembers when fall and spring were defined by DQ’s opening and closing. Due west is another Stamford fixture and Colatrella family favorite, Pellicci’s, where she will order the Gorgonzola and cheese pizza on a Friday night. “You see everybody you grew up with. You see Anthony, and he’s been there forever.”
Stamford Family YMCA
After arriving in Stamford from Haiti when he was eight, Ernest Lamour recalls, his father allowed him to go to just three places in the city: church, school and the YMCA. “My Creole is still good but my French is comme ci, comme ça,” says Ernest, now thirty-four and the CEO of that same Y (officially the Stamford Family YMCA.)
Or maybe not quite the same. Since taking the reins in 2010, Ernest has led an effort to take the Stamford institution, then deeply in debt and facing closure or relocation, and refocus its mission on programming and making it a safe haven for Stamford youth.
The change represents a giving back for Ernest, whose path in Stamford—from Davenport Ridge, Turn of River and Westhill High (class of ’98), to Southern Connecticut State University and the University of West Virginia—has been lighted by caring, vigilant adults. “I’ve had some impactful people in my life, people who really saw the best in me and pushed me to do better in life, not just on a ball field or court,” he recalls.
Ernest’s strategy at the Y focuses in part on partnerships, such as a new initiative with Stamford Hospital, in which a nutritionist meets with Y children twice a week to discuss healthy eating, while a Y personal trainer covers fitness and exercise.
According to Ernest, it’s one of several program-specific options for Stamford youth. There’s also the Locust Performing Arts Center. Owner Jimmy Locust’s “love of music and how he treats children of all ages that come through his studio is amazing,” says Ernest, who also points to the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford and Chester Addison Community Center, the latter now run by Domus and overseen by Mike Duggan. “He is one of my mentors and someone I can talk to about anything,” Ernest says. “What Domus does is beyond anything else that the Stamford community can offer. They pretty much get the kids that the Stamford Public schools [can’t help] and educate them, at times feed them and clothe them.”
One program that Ernest calls a gem is the Stamford Peace Basketball Club. “It’s an in-house basketball training program that is just terrific. The emphasis is not on basketball itself—playing is a privilege—it’s on how you treat your peers and family.”
The city’s Recreation Department brings varied sports offerings too, he adds. Programs such as Orcas Swimming at the Italian Center or Sharks Swimming at Westhill—or tennis lessons at Chelsea Piers—bring together Stamford’s public and private school children in an atmosphere that strengthens bonds.
One long-term goal of Ernest’s is to help prepare all Stamford kids for the Young Mariners Foundation sailing program by teaching them how to swim at the Y. “That’s my next mission, to make sure that we’re doing it individually and working with partners to teach each public-school child how to swim.”
As Wendi Hoak prepared to open Inspire Fitness in 2012 with business partner Brian McMaster, they thought long about a name for the studio. “I had a friend who said, ‘Your nagging inspires me,’” she says. “Nagging Fitness didn’t work as well, although I do resort to text-nagging [clients].
“I nag my husband not to drink Coke, much to his dismay. I nag my kids to pick up their clothes. Luckily my kids are really active.”
So is Wendi, a former technology trainer from New Jersey whose interest in health was sparked after injuring her back “doing mom things” with her two sons eleven years ago. After surgery and physical therapy, Wendi became a trainer (she’s in the best shape of her life at fifty) and has mined Stamford for fitness opportunities and healthy eating choices for herself and her family (her boys now attend Stamford High and Rippowam). “We’re lucky here in that we have both beach and hilly areas, so biking and running in Stamford is varied,” Wendi says.
And requires varied workout gear. Wendi gets her Saucony cross-trainers and Nike tennis whites from The Athlete’s Source, Aqua Sphere triathlon goggles from Pacific Swim Bike Run, cycling gear from High Ridge Cycle Center and acquired her newest custom bike from Mobile BiCi. “I’m not ashamed to say: My bike is black, red and white and my helmet matches, so I look pretty cool.”
Wendi also shops at EMS for workout clothes—yoga tops and pants in dry wicking fabrics for hiking—as well as cold running gear from North Face and Vibram FiveFingers shoes.
Where does Wendi get her fit on? She likes the West Beach Park soccer run, and the path around the pond at the Jewish Community Center, a hidden gem, she says. The JCC is also a great meeting point for cyclists riding north into New Canaan.
For people seeking a gym, Wendi says LA Fitness is great for younger people seeking to socialize while working out, while the JCC space is a relaxed place for people of all ages to exercise and feel a sense of community. New York Sports Club is good for moms. (It offers baby-sitting.) But if she had to choose one place other than Inspire to work out, Wendi would pick Revolution Training. “The guy is the real deal, a real boxer,” Wendi says. “He really knows his stuff and if I’m going to box, I want a gritty boxing gym with sweaty guys and tough girls.”
Wendi is just as specific about food choices. “I tend to eat clean fruits and vegetables and lean protein,” she says. Favorites include the bagged prepared kale salad, Nature’s Path oatmeal and organic bananas from Trader Joe’s, and organic berries and grapes from A&P Fresh. Fairway is good for free-range, hormone-free organic chickens. She also likes the butternut squash frittata and spiced hot cocoa from Le Pain Quotidien. “And they have a quinoa cleanse salad—I haven’t tried it yet but it looks really good.”
Marilyn Santos Reyes
Academy of Information Technology & Engineering
The diminutive Marilyn Santos Reyes, an aspiring nurse, maybe even a surgeon, seems suddenly larger the moment she splays her fingers, raises her elbows and reaches down into an imaginary body. “I like the whole cutting-open aspect of labs, to dissect,” says the eighteen-year-old, an Academy of Information Technology & Engineering senior. “It’s something I’ve been interested in from the start.”
A Guatemala-born Springdale resident who joined her parents in Stamford when she was five, Marilyn’s interest in medicine has been a passion since she started volunteering at Stamford Hospital three years ago. “Once I was exposed to the hospital, to patient care and everything around the hospital, I realized ‘Wow, this is it,’” she recalls. “I just felt good about myself and knew I was doing what I should be [doing].”
She’s making good on a goal to earn thirty college credits before graduating from AITE as she plans for nursing school later this year—possibly through the two-year associate’s program at Norwalk Community College.
Marilyn says making her parents proud is a major motivator, and she enjoys spending time at home (with mom, dad and little sis) as well as with friends—the latter at Stamford Town Center. She especially likes the restaurants: Kona Grill, P. F. Chang’s and Cosi.
“I really like California Pizza Kitchen, even though I don’t actually get pizza—I love their chicken club sandwich” with a virgin piña colada. While at the mall, Marilyn and her friends often shop at Forever 21.
For a quick lunch close to school, Marilyn and her friends may go to Reddi Rooster, where she’ll order the “Number One”—chicken nuggets bag-it menu item with fries and a soda. But when she’s with family, as she often is, Marilyn can frequently be found at Sergio’s Pizza on East Main, sitting in front of a pepperoni-and-bacon calzone and chicken and cheese salad. A favorite dessert is any tropical flavor from Sunny Daes.
During summer, a go-to family spot is the Dorothy Heroy Park pool in North Stamford—“It’s a great place, with a basketball court, pool and hut with tables [for picnics]”—and the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, where Marilyn likes spending time with the llamas, horses, ducks, pigs and goats. “[Prior to moving to the U.S.], I spent time with my grandparents a lot in a rural area with lots of animals,” she recalls.
There’s also Cove Island Park beach. “We bring everything there—extra clothing, towels, food. We usually bring steak and chicken and, being a Hispanic family, there’s always rice and beans, and music.”
A veteran bus rider, Marilyn has a car now but still likes riding the Metro-North line into New York City and is eager to try out the new Harbor Point/Downtown Trolley.
Marilyn plans to eventually raise her own family in Stamford. “I think it’s a pretty safe environment and I could show them where I hung out when I was younger.”
R. J. Mercede
Eat for Equity and Ignite Stamford
After earning two college degrees and spending two years organizing communities around the United States as a non-profit professional, R. J. Mercede returned to Stamford in 2010.
A third-generation Stamford native and 2003 Trinity Catholic grad, R. J. had known he wasn’t destined for Frank Mercede & Sons, the property acquisitions and management firm that his great-grandfather launched as a construction business after landing here from the province of Puglia in Italy. “What drew me back was having such a big family and familiarity with this area,” recalls R. J., a middle child with four sisters.
“I started thinking about what meant the most to me, and I’d enjoyed my time at AmeriCorps,” he says. “I was, professionally speaking, doing well. I had so much to grow and learn with that opportunity, but I wanted to do more in Stamford.”
And he is. “I love it,” R. J. says of living in Springdale. “I can get on my bike and come downtown or I can walk.”
R. J. is a regular at Half Full Brewery’s monthly rare beer nights, with favorites including the American Pale Ale. “I’m getting big into the chocolate coffee brown, too, which is cool because they use coffee from Lorca,” he says.
Other edible and drinkable favorites include the pizza and wings at Coalhouse Pizza—“I try something different every time and it’s always so good”—the chicken cutlet sandwich from Giovanna’s Gourmet Deli, and the alfajores and coffee at Lorca.
Though he meets people around the bar scene, R. J. also stays active. He joins Fleet Feet Sports’ pub runs, plays in Monday night coed soccer league matches at Chelsea Piers (team name: “Pitches and Hoes”), and runs along Hope Street, through Mill River Park and at Mianus River Park. For cultural experiences, R. J. is a member of the Avon Theatre; he especially enjoys their filmmaker talks and special screenings, after which he sometimes pops over to Volta Gelateria for some gelato.
“I think I always try to look at volunteering, as well,” R. J. says of his social life. He’s put time in for Domus on Holiday Mall Day as well as Stamford Museum & Nature Center, Community Plates food rescue, Fairgate Farm and Franklin Street Works.
Some of R. J.’s favorite social events to attend as a creator or advocate are those that connect people. He’s one of the founders of Ignite Stamford and is helping to drive Eat for Equity Stamford, where money is raised for local nonprofits at events that center on a shared fresh meal. “I love the idea of being local and connecting as many people as we can in a more informal, hanging-out setting, not something stuffy,” he says. “Coming from an Italian background, food is always around and that was what brought us together. The thinking is that you can do that in a community.”
Napa & Co.
Mary Schaffer sees the same faces around her native city—on the town, at charity events or grabbing a pizza when there’s nothing left in the fridge at her Springdale home. “No matter how large Stamford gets, it’s still a small town,” says Mary one recent afternoon at Napa & Co., a restaurant that caters to burgeoning tastes in Stamford that Mary anticipated when she opened it in 2006. “The trend was moving toward wine, and the thought was to emulate clean flavors,” she recalls. “We wanted to simplify the food, with much more clean flavors, farm-to-table driven, more about health and certainly easier to pair with wine.”
An anchor of the downtown scene, Napa has become a foodie mecca that’s filled a niche for wine lovers by offering myriad styles, varietals and regions, as well as regular wine classes that Mary runs. She can be found at Napa most of the time—a personal investment that she values. “It’s very important in these days of chains and franchises to connect with the owner. It’s different from ‘I’m the Northeast manager.’ You know they have skin in the game.”
It’s one reason Mary likes The Fez, for its champagne cocktail in addition to what she calls “a really creative program.” “They have something no one else in Stamford has, that Moroccan influence.”
Coming home late from work, Mary may pop into Pappa’s Pizza on Hope Street. “The owner has been there forever. She’s a hard-working woman that I like to support.” Mary likes the hot oil pie from Colony Grill, too. “I love spicy food, so Bartaco really fits that niche for me.” Her favorite there? The Baja fish tacos with mango habanero salsa.
And I love [El Charrito] up on West Main—by Beamers,” Mary adds with a laugh. “I usually get tortas and the pork tacos, extra spicy.” Another favorite? Station Eats. “That’s a really neat find,” Mary says. “I like their chicken dog, with grilled onions and jalapeños.”
Admittedly, those are rather sophisticated tastes compared to what Mary displayed as a Stamford Catholic student (class of ’85). Cutting class back then meant heading to the Friendly’s that used to be up on High Ridge Road—though today she’s not above hitting the Burger King for a fish sandwich once in a blue moon. When she’s in the area, Mary may also drop into Olé Molé for chorizo and vegetarian burritos, and was thrilled when Trader Joe’s opened in the former Borders space. Now she shops there for their truffle Parmesan cheese, “great whole wheat crackers you cannot find anywhere else,” apple butter and “great prepared foods” when she’s in a rush. Her guilty treat? Frozen yogurt at 16 Handles. “Coffee flavored, with chocolate chips, coconut shavings and M&Ms,” she says. “It costs $30 when I’m done.”
Old Timers Athletic Association
Bob Kennedy’s mother used to say he was one of the first fifty babies born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, now the Tully Health Center. “I’m not sure if it’s true or not,” Bob says from his condo living room, less than one mile from his birthplace and a decent Hail Mary from Stamford High, where he graduated in 1960.
It’s geography that Bob has trod all his life through infrastructure changes, wide development and a bustling business community. “A lot of changes had to be made, and they’ve made Stamford a better place to live,” he says.
Looking back, though, Bob says he attended Franklin Elementary, today the site of Inspirica, and took his first job at age eleven, earning $1 a game to hang numbers from the Belltown Park scoreboard during Twilight League semi-pro baseball games. “In those days, I lived on Third Street and I could ride my bike or walk to school and we could go home for lunch,” he remembers. “You could cross over Bedford and Summer Street but in those days there was no traffic.”
Kennedy started dating his wife, Bartan, after high school, and they’d often go to the movies (“that was a nice cheap date”) at The Palace, The Ridgeway (now LA Fitness), the Rich Forum, and The Plaza (razed to make room for the mall).
After earning a degree in sociology from La Salle in 1964, Kennedy returned to Stamford for good, taking a job as a sports reporter at The Advocate (he pronounces the final syllable with a long ‘a’). His father, J. Walter Kennedy, had just finished a term as Stamford mayor, and was launching a twelve-year run as NBA commissioner.
Bob himself would work at the paper for four decades, retiring as its sports editor in 2007—earning induction the following year to the FCIAC Hall of Fame and serving as grand marshal for the Stamford St. Patrick’s Day Parade. By then he’d amassed thirty years of Babe Ruth Baseball coaching, including five teams that went to the league’s World Series. He now serves on a committee of the Stamford Old Timers Athletic Association.
Today, Bob daily drops into the Belltown Superette for his coffee and lottery tickets and is a regular at Mario the Baker (regular cheese pizza please), Colony Grill (same) and especially Pellicci’s, where he gets the penne with Bolognese sauce.
He drives there in a Ford—Bob says he’s been leasing Fords from the Stamford Ford Lincoln dealer for forty years. “I’m not sure how I started that, but it’s funny: the guy I see there, Tommy Zvon, his mother used to be my babysitter,” Bob says.
Stamford ties run deep for Bob—and he’s passed some of that along to his kids. He and Bartan have a son in Bridgeport, a daughter in Atlanta (with five children), and twin sons P. J. and Chris, who respectively live in Stamford and New Canaan. P. J. has two kids that Bob says he and Bartan see regularly.
Some day those kids may accompany their grandfather to one Stamford landmark—Boyle Stadium—that has stood the test of time, and which Bob came to know well in his time as sports editor. “When we grew up, there was only Stamford football,” Bob recalls. “We would walk up to watch the games. It was the thing to do on a Saturday and everybody in Stamford would be there.”
Stamford Center for the Arts
As board members of the Stamford Center for the Arts, Lynn DiMenna, with her daughter Meredith, are tasked with smoking out the musical tastes of Stamford and helping shape events at the Palace Theatre that appeal to them; the two bring professional experiences and interests that span much of modern music.
Lynn, a former radio host who as a high school student in the early 1960s sang in Manhattan’s folk scene and now performs a Dinah Shore tribute show in cities nationwide, is a fan of the Great American Songbook, cabaret, Broadway shows and jazz. Lynn has also performed at Pops in the Park and Alive at Five. Meredith, a professional musician, producer and director, cofounded the artist development and production company The Shot Entertainment. Asked to name an arts group or entity that she’d like to see return to Stamford, Meredith says Green’s, the gritty, grungy rock bar that for years operated where Casey’s Tavern is today. “If there is no developing rock room, then there is nowhere for people who are trying to do original music to start,” Meredith says one recent morning from the café at The Palace, home to the Ballet School of Stamford, Stamford Symphony, Stamford Young Artists Philharmonic and Connecticut Ballet.
And if there’s nowhere to start, then a local musician can’t imagine tapping a pipeline for making a go of it professionally, Meredith adds. In places where that pipeline exists, musicians generally play a mix of original and cover music.
It’s that thinking that inspired the already popular (and free) Showcase 61, a series featuring contemporary musicians. “I tried to put together a diverse lineup: a mix of styles with local and national acts. We’ve recreated a NYC downtown music venue, from the sound, lights and setup to the level of talent, but all here.”
For Lynn, signs of success in Stamford include the first-ever Perfect Pairs series at The Palace that she designed and was brought creatively to the stage by B. T. McNicholl, the Palace’s producing artistic director. “We had four evenings of two performers who just complemented each other,” Lynn says of the series. “It focused on cabaret, Broadway and jazz, and we watched it build from September to January.”
Lynn also points out signs of Stamford’s roots and interest in the arts that dot the city, in established organizations such as the Loft Artists Association, the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery, events such as Art Walk, Art in Public Places, and also in powerful bursts like the mural on the wall of The Palace itself. “That was a sign to me that somebody was making an effort to bring the arts and artistic expression into downtown and felt it was important enough to make a real investment,” Lynn says. “It sends a very important message to the community. It says: ‘Here is a space that we can liven up and beautify a bit.’”