Stella Ballarini moved to Italy as a ballerina. She fell in love with the country and stayed for ten years. She changed careers while there, switching from dance to running a solo PR company. But when she returned to the States, she had no work references, other than her own word. With no employment options available, Ballarini opened her own event consulting firm, Scoozi Events NYC. Through a mix of chance and good fortune — like landing Ed Sullivan Restaurant as a client when Anthony Bourdain was the head chef — Ballarini grew her one-man band into a mid-sized corporate catering company with 16 full-time staff and 70 active freelancers. Now Ballarini has opened a new eatery, Amused (142 West 83rd Street; 212-799-0080). The new spot offers Ballarini and her team more opportunity for creativity, with whimsical takes on American fare.
The new storefront evolved out of her Upper West Side grilled cheese shop, Say Cheese, and it offers a mix of Ballarini’s catering favorites, Say Cheese sandwiches, and new dishes.
Much of the menu consists of creative takes on childhood favorites. The one-bite Pig in a Pretzel is a kosher beef hot dog stuffed inside a pretzel bun, topped with mesquite-smoked chunky mustard. Ramen noodle carbonara with pork belly is presented in a styrofoam cup, like Cup Noodles. String beans frites are a healthier twist on fries. General Zoe’s Cauliflower with spicy cilantro glaze and sriracha is a playful riff on takeaway Chinese. And Ballarini’s popular grilled cheeses are still available. Look for combinations like white cheddar with tomato-bacon marmalade on rustic bread, smoked gouda with figs on peasant bread, and French onion soup, a mix of gruyère, Swiss, and caramelized onions on sourdough. Gluten-free bread is also available.
The beverage menu is just as playful. It includes house-made seasonal lemonades with fruit purées (like rosemary and strawberry-meyer), local craft beer, sangrias, and cocktails made from soju and shochu. Beer cocktails include choices like the Tall, Dark, and Handsome (stout and sparkling apple cider), Little Apple (cider and Sam Adams), and a beer float with vanilla ice cream and Mother’s Milk Stout. RX cocktails are prepared in little prescription bottles, come in miniature jars, and are mixed by guests at the table. The Cure is a combination of strawberry, meyer lemon, and soju. Blackberries, lime juice, and shochu make up The Party. Each RX comes with a list of side effects such as “promiscuity” or “break out in laughter.”
Brunch is Saturdays and Sundays. Expect to see savory items like poached eggs and tater tots with frizzled herbs and Popeye Bruscetta, poached egg over sautéed kale with four-cheese hollandaise and tomatoes. On the sweeter side, there’s a breakfast banana split, banana brûlée, yogurt, and berries. For dessert, Ballarini serves things like churros with salted caramel sauce and deconstructed s’mores. To wash it down, there are bellinis, sangrias, and a Bloody Brewski with Bloody Mary mix and a smoked-salt rim.
Ballarini is not a trained chef, but as a kid, she would spend time in the kitchen with her French grandmother, who, she realized much later, must have learned how to cook from a professional. For small holiday dinners, Ballarini and her grandmother would cook for three days leading up to the event. In the end, there would be five people eating.
In Italy, she expanded her culinary knowledge by talking to chefs. “In Italy, I’d go around to restaurants and compliment chefs on the food,” says Ballarini. “So many of them would take me into the kitchen to teach me a dish.”
Even with her lifelong love of food, Ballarini didn’t expect to be a chef herself. While working as an event consultant, a friend told her about a fair at Columbia University for minority business owners. Figuring she’d give it a shot, Ballarini brought a table, flowers, sangria, and an Asian chicken salad on endive leaves. That year, she booked 80 parties through the university. “When my friend mentioned it to me, I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’m not a minority,’ ” says Ballarini. “She said, ‘You’re a woman.’ So, I did it. I had no business plan. But necessity is the mother of invention; I had to live and I didn’t have a job.”
Still working with her previous event clients, Ballarini slowly grew the business. Unwittingly, Anthony Bourdain helped her along the way. That was in 1998, when he was working on his memoir Kitchen Confidential. As executive chef, Bourdain has a solid team underneath him. But Ballarini would ask Bourdain to borrow pots, pans, and other kitchen supplies. “He didn’t know I was doing that,” says Ballarini. “He’s just a super nice guy.”
With a growing roster of clients, Ballarini finally got the full-time help she needed in 2002, from her husband. A year after returning from Italy in the mid-Nineties, she met Italian native Gianluca Ballarini. A gemologist by trade, Gianluca was working at Harry Winston when their daughter was born in 2001. Shortly after her first birthday, the couple’s daughter came down with her first fever. Ballarini had an event that night and asked Gianluca to stay home with the baby. Neither she nor Gianluca thought it would be an issue. Gianluca’s office was under construction that summer; there was little work and no A/C in the 100-degree heat. That wasn’t the case. “His boss said, ‘Shouldn’t your wife leave what she’s doing? She’s a woman,’ ” recalls Stella. “That’s when he quit. We had been growing enough at that point for him to quit his job.”
Gianluca now manages the administrative aspects of the company while Ballarini works the creative side, teaching the team how to bring it all together. Her goal with the new eatery is to encourage her chefs to come out of their shells, so she can eventually hand over control to them. Over time, Amused will host themed pop-ups, during the week, that will really let them have fun with the food. She already has ideas for one based on the five senses and another based on childhood memories.
Amused is now open Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.