By Carol Tannenhauser
Turgut Balikci was the first to see them, peeking out from behind a wood-paneled wall: “little trees,” he said. Balikci had been planning to preserve that wall in an otherwise gut renovation of the new space for his restaurant Bella Luna, which, after 30 years, was moving half a block down Columbus Avenue to West 88th Street. (Why? “The rent.”)
“I saw first the little trees in the back,” Balikci said, “and I thought, ‘Omigod, what’s going on? So, we took all the wood panels down and we were in shock.”
The little trees turned out to be part of a larger landscape, stretching the length of the wall – a mural of faded blues and greens, which Balikci has since had meticulously restored by Mark Rutkoski, a local expert in art research and restoration.
“I love it!” Balikci laughed, sitting beneath it with his daughter, Hannah, 22, in Bella Luna’s new location, which opened on January 26th. “This morning, a lady told me, ‘I heard the restaurant is great, but I’m really interested in the art!”
The mural, which is neither signed nor dated, has sparked interest within the Balikci family as well, especially Hannah. Determined to learn its origin, she researched the history of the building, constructed in 1893. She was aided by a customer who showed her a famous photograph – “Man in Rain” – taken in 1952 by the late Upper West Side photographer Ruth Orkin, showing the building in the background, with the name “Bill Pogue’s Bar,” faintly, but clearly on it.
“There’s a guy at the New York Public Library whose whole thing is figuring out the history of buildings,” Hannah said. She discovered that Bill Pogue had come to America from Ireland when he was 18, and owned the bar from 1933 (when Prohibition ended) to 1968. There is no record of who occupied the space between 1968 and 1977. “1977 to 1988 was a gourmet grocery store,” Hannah said. “The owner is the one who put the wood wall up. He saved it.” There followed a series of tenants, ending with a florist aptly named, “The Secret Garden.”
Both Balikcis believe, based on informed opinions, that the mural was painted early in Bill Pogue’s tenancy. “Some people think it could have been the WPA during the New Deal,” Hannah said. “The next step is going to the archives in Maryland.” Another next step is contacting the descendants of Bill Pogue. “I’ve actually found his grandkids and great-grandkids on social media. I want to see if they have any family photos of their grandfather’s bar.”
“We’re going to reach out and invite the grandchildren,” Balikci laughed, “Have a Bill Pogue party!”
“We don’t know who the artist was or what the mural’s of,” Hannah said, “so we, basically, give it up to people to make their own interpretations. It could be Central Park. Some people think the left panel is the Hudson River. Bill Pogue himself was an Irishman and the middle panel kind of looks like the place he’s from in Ireland.”
Turgut Balikci is from Istanbul, Turkey. In 1972, when he was 18, he became the national cycling champion. In 1979, when he was 25, he came to America to race, and never left. (He still cycles in Central Park.) The son and grandson of restaurateurs, he has opened 25 restaurants over the years, including Bodrum, a Mediterranean place on Amsterdam Avenue between 89th and 90th Streets, but said, “Bella Luna was always the main one.”
“We’re your basic, neighborhood Italian, not fancy, good food, simple, classic,” Balikci said. “The menu has been set for so many years. If it works, don’t fix it! And now we have this beautiful, landmark building in good shape. Plumbing, electric, gas, water; we renovated everything.”
“I wanted to do it because of the building and the community, to make it look great and make the real estate improve for everybody.”
“It’s give and take,” Balikci concluded. “The community supports us, business is good, so I’m not going to put high prices. A lot of my clientele are retirees on a budget. They come here three, four times a week – $20 a person – appetizer, main course, dessert – and a $7 glass of wine. I love these older people. When I closed for six months to renovate, every day they asked, ‘When you opening? When you opening?’ I love that!”
Bella Luna’s hours of operation are Sunday – Thursday, lunch 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., dinner 4 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday lunch 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., dinner 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
By the way, Balikci added, “Right now, Hannah’s helping me with a brunch menu, new ideas. When the outdoor café is approved, probably in May, we’re going to have a nice brunch.”