Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York Pizza

New Yorkers are fiercely proud of their pizza and with good reason. Their thin crispy crust -- nearly crackery -- is perfect for folding at the middle and holding in the chewy melted mozzarella.
But, ask New Yorkers where the best pizza is and you may start a neighborhood riot.
After much research and many internet opinions, I decided to set my pizza course for geographically desirable and genuinely famous John's of Bleeker street, New York pizza since 1929.
John's is always crowded, only takes cash, and won't sell slices -- NY's favorite street food. Only whole pies with bright, fresh tasting sauce and runny, chewy, nearly molten cheese. Another gift from New York's legion of Italian immigrants.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Mile End Deli: The Continuing Search For Matzoh Ball Soup

So many food magazines, tv shows and blogs have gushed about Mile End Deli I was surprised it wasn't bigger . . . and busier.
I settled at the counter of recycled bowling alley wood looking into the tiny kitchen and ordered matzo ball soup, ignoring for a moment one of the specialties of this modern Montreal-style deli, poutine -- french fries with cheese curds and gravy. I was on a mission. 
Much as I'd read, Mile End's Matzoh balls are light due to a dash of baking powder which makes them not kosher for passover, the holiday where they are traditionally served (no leavening is allowed), but fluffy and flavorful. The vegetables are unusually crunchy and the broth flavorful if a little salty -- maybe over-reduced from a day in the hot pots.
Between bites I chatted with the not overly friendly, slightly bored waiter-host.
"How did you hear about us?" he inquired.
"You're everywhere." I said referring to the constant stream of press the Brooklyn deli has received.
He nodded knowingly.
I confessed I had never eaten the other house specialty, Montreal style smoked meat. He offered up a tasting dish. $7 for 4 small slices.

Judging from Mile End's version, smoked meat, American pastrami's Northern cousin, is less fatty and more heavily, well, smoked. Pastrami is more assertively spiced and brined. Smoked meat is dry cured and has a denser texture. It seems like what would result if Texas barbecue and Katz's pastrami had a beefy brisket baby. I like it.
"This could become a problem," I say. "It's not really like anything else."
The waiter leaned heavily on the counter and nodded in agreement. "When I haven't been at work for a few days I start to crave it," he explained.
I munched my slices with a bit of spicy mustard and watched Mile End's young cook prepare their smoked meat burger and bags of yummy looking fries. 
Then suddenly I looked a little closer.
At first she was just another tattooed twenty-something but I noticed something on her arm. I couldn't believe my eyes.
Her back to me, I ask "Does your arm say Petaluma?"
She turned quickly to give me a better view and I saw not just the name of the little town near our Norcal ranchette but an image of one of my favorite hometown icons -- a fluffy baby chick from a former hatchery on Petaluma Blvd. How often I've dreamed of owning that very sign.
Suddenly we were all friends sharing hometown stories and favorite landmarks.
When I least expect it I am blindsided by a Cheers moment in hipster, artisanal Brooklyn. It's not such a big city after all.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

2nd Ave Deli

It's not what it once was.
Years ago the 2nd avenue deli really was on 2nd avenue in the section of NY's East Village that once housed the city's renown Yiddish Theaters. The deli's front door sat squarely on the "Yiddish Walk of Fame" and the landmark eatery survived both the changing neighborhood and the, still unsolved, murder of owner Abe Lebewohl during a robbery. Then after years of service and late night knishes the deli closed following a rent dispute with its landlord and after a year reopened in quiet Murray Hill, more than 20 blocks North and not on 2nd avenue.
The building is new and much smaller, the waiters much friendlier (and Latino) but the food is the same. Probably not the best deli in town but comforting and familiar with a few stand out specialties. The pickles are crisp and sour, the chopped liver rich and meaty with no eggs mixed in, the sandwiches ample without being comically overstuffed. When I woke up craving matzoh ball soup there was one place to start, 2nd Ave Deli.
Same as ever, the broth was genuinely chicken flavored with tasty slices of carrots and one large not quite fluffy matzoh ball. Not an easy grain to keep light, the kasha I requested in the soup was almost painfully dry but still this bowl satisfies no matter the address.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Zucker's Bagels and Smoked Fish

Back in the 90's when many of New York's old time bagel shops were closing up, Matt Pomerantz of Zucker's Bagels decided to start baking.  With no experience, just a fondness for ethnic foods and a childhood spent working at his parents' Lower East Side clothing store, Pomerantz opened his first store serving fresh bagels and a selection of deli fish specialties from Acme, the largest fish smoker in the ti-state area.
As bagels have become more common with chains spreading all across the states with Zucker's New York still carries the tradition of bagels the way they used to be.  At each location the bagels are hand, not machine, rolled and briefly boiled to create the sheen and chewy outer texture bagel eaters crave. Slathered with way too much cream cheese and glossy smooth lox every day at Zucker's is a Sunday morning treat, even Wednesday afternoon.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Falafel In New York

I'm not sure why there is so much good falafel in New York. Pretty much every neighborhood has at least a better than average place and some much better. Filling, cheap and generally open late falafel is good anytime food.
Most times when I find myself in the village looking for tasty chick pea treats I head to Mamoun's, a local chain with a carry out window. But today with winter cold and afternoon wind settling in I slipped into another mini chain, Taim a bright spot in the West Village. Taim is all vegetarian. They offer a selection of salads and sides and three flavors of falafel, green, red and spicy. The spicy, laced with harissa, is usually my first choice but the green with hints of cilantro and mint seemed just right on an afternoon where I was dying to see a bit of spring to come. Though offered as a sandwich or platter today my falafel came as a side to a tasty plate of Sabich, thin slices of eggplant fried to order and topped with Srug a traditional Yemeni hot sauce -- my favorite Taim menu item along with savory Moroccan carrots.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shopping In New York's Little Italy

 It's been years since New York's Little Italy was the vibrant immigrant community featured in movies and memories. As rents have gone up more and more of the first generation Italians that were once the life blood of the area have moved out while upscale condos and even more -- do we really need them -- Chinese souvenir shops have moved in. Yet tourists still flock to Mulberry and Mott (between Canal and Spring) for a taste of what once was.
Despite what was probably an inevitable decline (Italian immigration slowed dramatically in the 1960's) and the Italian carnival/ Disneyland atmosphere prevalent today ("Hey bootiful -- we got pasta mangia mangia") I still love Little Italy. I love standing in the shops, loading up on fresh pasta and smoked mozzarella. I love hearing lilting strains of Italian on the street -- though these days it's mostly travelers from the boot in search of America's Italian Heritage.
Years ago full of Italian groceries and latterias, today few -- those that reinvented as Italian grocery stores not just homemade cheese shops -- remain. The big two, DiPalo's and Alleva, stock not only mozzarella and ricotta made in house but a variety of olive oils and Italian groceries.
 Alleva calls itself the oldest Italian cheese shop in America (I'm not sure where a more than 100 year old cheese shop of any kind exists) and only recently (well 8 or 10 years back) gave into the public's demand for more than just cheese with meats and dry goods and delicious made to order sandwiches. Their ricotta -- triple drained, thick and creamy is worth the trip. I could easily sit on the stop and eat it with a spoon like ice cream. Now made for the shop at a dairy farm (longtime friends of the Alleva family) near Albany the lightly yellow ricotta (that's the extra butterfat) might be Alleva's best but not most popular item. Their fresh mozzarella floating in salty brine brings customers in the door. My favorite, scamorza con burro is a dry version with a creamy runny buttery center. Delicious.
 Just down the block on the other side of Piemonte Ravioli, a wonderland of both fresh and dried pastas is DiPalo's, Little Italy's remaining Italian Grocery Superstore.
 The DiPalo's are committed to providing not just the best homemade products and local breads but also the best Italy has to offer. They make frequent trips to stock the shop with new and interesting tastes and the small shop is packed to the gills with irresistible items for DiPalo's discerning an sizable clientele. Leaning on the marble counter one of the DiPalo brothers (two brothers and a sister now run the 90-some year old shop) handed me tastes of Italian cheese while he ladled out meatballs, Tuscan beans and my favorite DiPalo's antipasto salad -- olives (three colors today), artichokes, red peppers, cheese and salami. Standing at the counter I tasted (and bought) a wedge of Alta Badia (it was new to me), an Italian (from the Dolomites) raw milk cheese similar to a Gruyere but with a more earthy, nutty flavor. James is going to love it. I can't wait to bring some home for a special Little Italy inspired grilled cheese.

 I usually stroll right by the pastry shops -- not many of them are any good really -- but today I couldn't walk by La Bella Ferrara, another of Little Italy's centenarians. I don't know why I couldn't stay away. Maybe it was the sign announcing Sfingi and Zeppole, traditional desserts for St Joseph's day (Italy's Festa del PapĂ ).
 La Bella Ferrara may very well make these pastries everyday -- I honestly don't know -- but wandering by on March 19th it just seemed right. I joined the throng at the counter for a single mini-sfingi (sfinge? sfinga?), a creampuff like shell filled with super sweet and -- okay I admit it -- super delicious -- ricotta cream dusted with powdered sugar by the young lady behind the counter.
 Future generations may prefer supermarkets and grocery deliveries but while it lasts I'll stroll Little Italy and carry my bags for a living taste of years gone by.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ivan Ramen

I've been following the cooking career of Long Island native Ivan Orkin for quite some time now. The self described "Japanophile" became a ramen master in of all placed Tokyo -- winning awards for his modern renditions of the traditional favorite. Food magazine have been gushing about him for years -- imagine an American conquering the Japanese palate. When Orkin opened his first American outpost on Manhattan's hipster heavy Lower East Side I vowed to sit at his counter. I love ramen and am a regular at several Los Angeles outposts.
As luck would have it I looked up and found myself mere blocks away from Ivan Ramen's Orchard Ave outpost. 
I settled in with a view into the small kitchen and ordered one of my favorites, spicy chili ramen. And, because Orkin has made a name with inventive combinations of traditional flavors, deep fried pork meatballs. These came out scorching hot with a creamy buttermilk dressing and drizzles of slightly sweet soy based sauce. Bonito flakes covered the top. The pork meatballs were amazingly light with a crisp panko based crust. But overall not very well seasoned and not special enough to warrant the extra calories.
Unlike other ramen shops I frequent, Ivan Ramen charges for the egg in the broth which is a standard topping. Much has been made in the press of the waitstaff's pushing the toppings that turn an already heftily priced bowl of broth and noodles into a $20 (for all of the add ons -- roasted tomato, egg, and pork) not quite quick soup lunch. 
Bowls seemed to be coming out of the kitchen a little slowly even though the restaurant was not terribly crowded. My deep red broth was flavorful and searing, painfully hot with chiles but not temperature. The soup was oddly lukewarm and the egg actually cold. A kitchen misfire that cheated me of the warming delicious feeling I was craving on a cold windy day. 
The kitchen didn't mean to serve lukewarm broth and I thought about sending it back. But the noodles drew me in. Chewy delicious rye based ramen noodles custom made for Ivan Ramen. Though the kitchen may be inconsistent I'd go back and probably happily lay down $20 for another chance at those noodles. Maybe they will get right next time.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Russ and Daughters

No trip to New York, no matter how short, is complete without a stop at Russ and Daughters.
The great grandmother of the city's appetizing stores Russ and Daughters specializes in -- for lack of a better explanation -- food to eat with bagels. There are myriad varieties of lox and smoked salmon (I love the pastrami flavor), sturgeon, whitefish, herring, sable and more -- each one personally selected for optimum quality by the Russ family. And then there's the slicing. A nearly lost art, lox should be sliced by hand and thin. Thin enough -- it is said --  to read a newspaper through. In years past -- though some still may -- customers would line up behind their favorite slicer for lox with tremendous flavor and delicate texture that melted beautifully into each bite of bagel and cream cheese. For more than 100 years, starting from a Lower East Side pushcart, Russ and Daughters has been serving up the kind of Ashkenazi jewish specialties that non-jews have come to love, that New York does better than anywhere. Quite simply though other appetizing counters remain in the area (no where near the number that once peppered the jewish neighborhoods in the city) Russ and Daughters has survived and thrived because it is the best. The oldest, the last, and the best.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Staten Island Red sauce

There's a certain kind of soulful neighborhood Italian restaurant that I think doesn't really exist outside of the NY area. Casual family friendly spots, priced for the working class that offer a vast menu of Italian American specialties and crisp crust pizza.
Everyone has his favorite. A new friend recently took a group of us to his red sauce spot of choice, Denino's of Staten Island.
As we sat down the table was already covered with eggplant, chicken and shrimp parmigiana platters -- topped with a heavy but tasty red sauce and gooey, dreamy melted mozzarella. The sideboard held crisp green salads and one of my favorites, cold scungilli salad. Scungilli, a long-time Italian American favorite, has practically disappeared from the menu of Italian restaurants though under the English name whelks they are becoming an ingredient of the moment among celebrity chefs and hipsters alike. I forgot how much I like scungilli.
Next came lightly fried calamari with both spicy and mild red sauce for dipping. The food kept coming.
I thought it was over and then came the pizza. Crisp, hot, covered in melted cheese. Wide slices just right for folding over before a first joyous bite.
Though chefs in the city are trying to claim and create chains of the area's red sauce tradition with "joints" like Parm and Carbone, the real thing still exists, and while there still are family owned restaurants and delis serving up hearty red sauce on stacks of paper plates and hero rolls I'll be there.