By Erin Levi

On the biggest night of the year for Americans — Super Bowl Sunday — Ilya Zavulunov decided to host his birthday party.
Is he crazy? Out of touch? Sure, at 45, he’s a much beloved businessman and community leader, but how could he even compete, I wondered? Or do Bukharians not watch football?
Luckily, I’m not much of a football fan, and only watch the game for the half-time show, unless either the Giants or Steelers are playing. It’s like kind of like being a Jew who only attends synagogue for the High Holidays—just doing my minimal duties as an American.
So, last Sunday evening, when «work» called, I gave myself a pass and headed to Queens.
I rolled up to Da Mikelle Palazzo in style, thanks to being escorted by Ilya’s parents from Da Mikele Illagio, one of the Zavulunov’s many incredible event halls, where Rafael Nektalov and I had first turned up. There were people in fancy dresses and gowns, an open bar and sushi, but as guests began congratulating a man who wasn’t Ilya…we realized we had crashed a wedding by mistake.
Upon entering the grand doors of Da Mikelle Palazzo, we were greeted by sparkly women fanning large feathers as cameras flashed and live jazz played. There was a line to pose with the man of the hour himself, dashing in a blue and black tuxedo, in front of a green-mirrored backdrop framed by white flowers.
«It’s a different vibe here,» Rafael said to me, smiling.

We went straight to coat check, passing a blackjack table. I was handed a ticket number «54» and turned to Rafael, saying, «Like Studio 54!» We began to laugh…because it was true!
In that moment, I realized I was about to attend one of the best parties of my life.
It would have been enough if the party had been contained in the cocktail room, where casino games were offered; a four-piece jazz band – Jacques & Marie Paris Swing Quintet –played in the corner (not very Bukharian, Rafael said, but this was Ilya’s nod to American culture…I’ll take Jazz over football any day!); specialty cigars from Brazil and Connecticut were being rolled and slipped into paper rings branded with Ilya’s initials (IZ); and fresh sushi, roasted meats, and fruits and nuts were served. (I ate enough spicy salmon rolls and to-die-for baklava to be considered a meal.)
It would have been enough if the fruits were simply local and presented in a bowl, but, instead, they were exotic and tropical—star fruit, dragon fruit, and a prickly, seeded fruit I’d never even seen before—decadently displayed on a carved ice tower.
It would have been enough if the bartenders could make good cocktails, but «show bartender» Ivan Usov has forever ruined the bar experience for me. If, when I ask for sparkling water, you’re unable to juggle my glass and toss the bottle of San Pellegrino behind and around you, you’re only getting a 10% tip. Usov’s showstopping skills were put to good use, as he stepped out from behind the bar to perform for everyone, balancing cocktails atop an ice block on his forehead, and juggling bottles he lit on fire, which set off the fire alarm. The crowed oohed and aahed, fully captivated. (It’s no wonder Usov has such a large following on Instagram.)
It would have been enough if the night had ended there, at 6:45 PM. But it continued in the most mind-blowing way, as we left the cocktail bar for the main dining hall.
I walked into the dining room, beckoned by the live saxophone as I entered a bacchanalian world, one that I imagine was suited for Roman and Greek g-ds, with lush, plentiful buffets atop each of the long 20-seat tables for the 200-plus impeccably dressed guests. It was also very Bukharian, as I thought back to the banquet I attended during the high-level geopolitical conference I attended in Tashkent in 2021, thanks to Rafael sending me there.

Lured by the music to the stage, where behind the saxophonist was a beautiful, I then noticed a beautiful blonde woman in a red dress spinning around in a hoop. This show was just the amuse-bouche of the entertainment that was to come: a Phantom of the Opera performance, dancers from shows like Dancing with the Stars who pranced amidst pyrotechnics, and teeth-gritting circus-style acts where a man could have died by 20 sharp knives had he not been able to hold his backbend.
Then, there were speeches. «If you have to age, you gotta do it in style,» said the first. Amen. Even one given by Ilya Zavulunov himself, who switched into a white tux, making him easy to spot as he later grooved on the dance floor to a special «Happy Birthday» tribute as he was surrounded by his wife Tammy and their three kids Liron, Levy, and Sofia. Everyone continued dancing to live-Italian and -Russian ballads, and catchy tunes from the Gipsy Kings and ABBA. Some of the moves on the floor were obviously Bukharian, with arms spread like wings and wrists twisting.
It would have been enough if there had been three courses at dinner—but there were nine! And technically, more, if you counted all the appetizers on the table: baba ghanoush, herring, more sushi and exotic fruits, and noni toki – a Bukharian flatbread that looks like a conical-shaped matzo, among many others. As it was, I only made it to the 5th — duck breast with mushroom risotto and fresh shaved black truffles — before I had to skedaddle home, gutted that I’d be missing out on the rest of the speeches, and of course, dessert .
Before leaving, I noticed one familiar face who I had never met in real life: Leo Jacobs, founder of the Bukharian Law Association, looking sharp in all white. Turning to him, I asked, «Is this how you always party?»
«Yes—this is the standard!» he smiled, revealing his pearly whites as he raised his hand high.
I mean, who needs the Super Bowl halftime show when you know the Bukharians? Especially Ilya Zavulunov—one of the greatest showmen the city has ever seen.
Photos and videos by Artur Studio, Aka Yura, and Action Studios by Eli.