Going across town for real Italian pizza

Yesterday, after a long day of work, I took the wrong train home and found myself at Waverly Place in the West Village, completely disoriented. I was so hungry that I could not think to straighten myself out. A $10 cab ride later, I was at my door in Alphabet City. Since there was nothing in the fridge, G and I decided to go out to dinner rather than hit the grocery store. I headed out in the direction of one of the many restaurants I had read about, thinking that on a Wednesday night, it wouldn’t be too full. I was wrong–there was a short line out the door. When we went to ask how long the wait was, G eyed the portions and shook his head. We turned our backs on the hostess as she came toward us and set out in search of something a little more…substantial.

La pizza, he said. Why don’t we go to that pizza place over on Carmine and Bleeker? We’d looked for this place before, but with G’s great sense of direction, we’d spent an hour and a half wandering all around it, never finding it, even though he’d eaten there before with friends. And it was in Tribeca. I wasn’t quite ready to tell him that I’d just been over there, that I’d splurged on a cab to get back to the east side. So I agreed. Plus, once he said the magic words, my brain was hooked on the thought of an (almost) authentic Italian pizza.

This time, we knew exactly where to go–we headed straight for the yellow awning with the big “28” written on it, catty-corner to the new GROM gelateria. After walking across town, we sat ourselves down amongst all of the other Italians in the restaurant. Around us, I only heard one table of English speakers–a good sign! The menu listed a few antipasti, but its main emphasis was pizza, which you can order in 14″, 18″, or 29″ derivations. We debated splitting a 29″ pizza, but I was craving pizza bianca, while G went for the S. Daniele (prosciutto, arugula, and parmigiano). We opted to split two 14″ pizzas–the pricing came out about the same anyway.

The wine selection was also pretty wide–all Italian wines, but a good variety, from Barbera d’Asti to Nero d’Avola. After ordering himself a Moretti beer and me a glass of Falanghina, we turned to the pizza. He ordered the S. Daniele, while I debated the Tartufo (mushroom sautée with truffle oil) and the Bianca con Soppressata (spicy salami). Without hesitation, our waiter recommended the Tartufo, so I followed suit. Ten minutes later, pizzas were on the table, hot out of the brick oven…too bad my wine arrived hot too.

G and I split our pizzas half and half, but one bite of the Tartufo and I was smitten. I had a piece of the S. Daniele, but ended up giving the rest back to him. Instead, I savored the mushroom, ricotta, and truffle dance that played out in my mouth–sound cheesy? It was. Melted cheese-y.

We cleaned our plates like good members of the Clean Plate Club that I have belonged to since I was a child at my mother’s table, but our empty plates sat for too long on the table. I began to pick at the little scraps until I could finally wave down a waiter by ordering a tiramisu–we had to compare to Giano’s, of course. It came a moment later, already prepared and cold from sitting in a refrigerator. The waiter (not ours) sat it down on the table, and we inhaled it the moment he turned his back. Embarrassingly fast. In fact, the busboy cleared it before our original waiter knew we had even ordered it, so the check came sans tiramisu.

Vintage Irving

Having opened in the past two weeks, I decided to try out the new wine bar on 15th street at Irving Place, near Union Square. I met a friend for a post-work drink outside–it was a little difficult to find, as the name is not well-marked. My friend, who was waiting for me, and I poked our heads inside before committing, and we liked what we saw. To the right of the door is the L-shaped bar, its stock evident against the dark wood of the wall behind it. To the left, several long, elevated tables filled the first room. We wandered past these into the second room, which had another high table in the center; we, however, chose to sit along the walls, with our feet on the ground, next to the paneled wood wall. 

Our waitress brought us menus within a few minutes, pointing to the wines by the glass on the first page, followed by the full wine list, as well as beers and cocktails (which all seemed to have an absinthe base). Small plates, cheeses, and charcuterie followed. She gave us a few minutes to decide. Since the weather in New York is turning, we both decided to skip the white and head straight to red to overcome the slight chill in our bones. When our waitress returned, I asked her about three that appealed–a Garnacha from Spain, a Paso Robles California Zin, and a South African Cab. She immediately pushed the Cab, saying that it was actually a blend of Cabernet, Syrah, and Tempranillo grapes, a little fruit forward but with great body. It was from an area called Paarl, a name which I recognized from my weekend wine-tasting of Sauvignon Blancs from around the world. My wine guy had told me that wines from Paarl, because of the extreme changes in temperature from hot summers to cold winters. I had liked the Sauvignon Blanc, so I thought I’d give this one a try. We both ordered it. 

The wine arrived about five minutes later. It was absolutely one of the best wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Every sip filled my mouth completely and felt full without ever biting. We savored it so long that we forgot to look at the rest of the menu–the waitress came over twice to see if we wanted anything else, but both times we hadn’t gotten around to it. We finally called her over to order the drunken goat cheese, a Spanish blue made of goat’s milk, and the duck prosciutto. 

The plate arrived about ten minutes later. The presentation on the small rectangular plate was lovely: four long pieces of the first cheese were flayed out over an herbed-mayonnaise sauce; the blue cheese, cut into small triangles, was accompanied by a whole-grain mustard mixed with pieces of onion; and the four, glistening pieces of duck prosciutto were layered, one on top of the other, next to a bowl of stewed berries. Both the duck prosciutto and the blue cheese were extraordinarily flavorful. Although the slices were small, the cured duck felt rich on my tongue, and the goat’s milk brought out the strong flavors of the blue cheese. The date for one glass of wine turned into several hours spent talking over the beautifully balanced flavors of our small meal. I can’t wait to go back. 

Vintage Irving (120 E. 15th St. at Irving Place, 212-228-4200)
**the wine was a Glen Carlou Cabernet “Grand Classique” (2004) from Paarl, South Africa.

Sundaes and Cones

I could live on ice cream. It’s my hands-down favorite thing in this whole world. When my brother and I were little, we would scarf down our dinner in order to get to dessert–a bowl of Breyer’s natural vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Sometimes, with strawberries on top. I would eat my scoops quickly, while they still held their perfect shape, trying to divide my chocolate sauce evenly between the bites of vanilla. My brother, on the other hand, would swirl it round and round, even letting it sit for awhile and warm up until it became soupy. Then, he’d slurp it down with his spoon.

Summer camp brought on the advent of Mayfield ice cream sandwiches. After rest hour, we’d all run to Store to grab our treat for the day, and in the hot heat of Alabama, we always went for something cold—an icey soft drink, frozen skittles, or in my case, most likely the ice cream sandwich. I remember licking it evenly around the edges, gently compressing the chocolate wafers until my fingers left their prints, and then with just a little bit of ice cream left, I would bite into the sandwich. Of course, I’d finish it off by licking the extra chocolate from my fingers.

To this day, ice cream is one of the few things that makes me truly happy–most likely because of these memories. And although I am still a die-hard fan of vanilla ice cream with chocolate, I’ve branched out. In France, nothing beats the combination of 2 boules de glace, two tiny scoops of the famous Berthillon ice cream in Paris; I always go for the combination of rich chocolate and slightly tart raspberry sorbet. Italy’s gelato, however, is obviously the best in the world, especially if you wander away from the tourist sites and into the neighborhoods. G is from Rome, and his family lives in an area well outside of the city, whose main piazza has a gelateria that makes the most wonderful Ferrero Rocher gelato.

However, if you aren’t heading to Europe any time soon, or if you need a quick fix to hold you until you get there, you should try Sundaes and Cones, a Japanese ice cream shop on 10th street between 3rd and 4th avenue. They mix up their creamy goodness in-house, and the selection is amazingly varied. You can pick anything from normal (I use that term loosely because it sure beats Baskin Robbins) mint chocolate chip or strawberry to moka chip, tiramisu, or coconut; and if you really want to get adventurous, there’s sesame, corn, red bean, and green tea. And these are just some of my favorites—there are about 30 flavors to choose from at a time.

Prices are more on par with the European treats than with Blue Bunny, but every bite reminds you that it was worth every penny… especially when it’s really hot outside. You can sit inside or out, and if you need a caffeine boost, they serve Oren’s Coffee (for those of you familiar with the coffee shop on Broadway near Columbia).
1 scoop: $3.18
2 scoops: $4.38
3 scoops: $5.54
**prices are for wafer or sugar cones, without tax, although I prefer the waffle cone. It’s also made in house, and its flavor is melt-in-you-mouth delicate.

To Live by Bread & Cheese Alone

I used to spend my summers in the south of France—my mother’s childhood friend had moved there to study painting, fell in love with a man, and never left. So, we obviously went to visit. From a very young age, then, I was introduced to the simple lifestyle and eating traditions of Provence. Simple salads. Fresh food that came straight from the market. Baguettes bought that morning. And Roquefort… I have been a bread and cheese lover ever since. In fact, I think there is no better meal if you are looking for something quick and delicious, especially on the go.

Today, G and I prepared a picnic that he brought to Bryant Park at lunch time. It was a perfect day—not hot, not chilly, no rain, a little breeze. We sat under the birch trees and set the table. This morning I had packed up my little cooler with a small cutting board and a paring knife wrapped on a dishcloth that ended up serving as our tablecloth. G added the fresh-bought baguette from the store around the corner, salami, apples, and the cheese—gorgonzola dolce and parmigiano. He sliced the bread and the salami and began to make little open-faced sandwiches, while I ate each separately, savoring their individual flavors. It was a perfect summertime meal: crisp, fresh, simple. When it was time to go, we shook the breadcrumbs from the cloth, rewrapped the knife, and packed the cooler, leaving it much lighter than it had been when he arrived.

Retail Review: Alphabet City Wine Co.

My street in the East Village is one of the most fabulous places to be in terms of quality food and wine at affordable prices. In the past six months or so, great wine and cheese shops have popped up (as well as new bars, cafes, and restaurants) all along Avenue C. Amongst these is the Alphabet City Wine Co., haven for wine geeks, both confirmed and aspiring, everywhere.

Walking in, you feel like a guest in someone’s private wine cellar: a coffee table surrounded by a few leather chairs is on your right (always with at least one glass sitting on the table); a large wood-plank table is in the center of the room used for display and their twice-weekly free wine tastings; and the walls are lined with bottles. In fact, the wine bottles appear more like art than a product to be sold. There are no signs or explanations–these guys want you to ask questions and to engage them in conversation about every bottle on the shelf. The only writing, other than that on the wine label, is the small price tag…small both in size and scale. The goal of the shop is in fact to prove that good wine can be affordable. The owner Keith and his staff hand-select each of the wines they carry. They know the nuances of every wine, comparisons that can be made, and of course the perfect pairing.

In fact, I like to go in, describe what I am planning on making, and ta da! the perfect wine appears in my hand, chilled if need be and ready for consumption (or if they’re down to their last bottle of white or rose, they have the low-down on the cool-down quick fix–a bucket of ice water and salt). Last night, I had decided to make an asparagus and ricotta tarte and wanted to find the perfect wine to go with it. After discussing the merits of a cava or prosecco versus a gewuerztraminer (a sweeter German white to which my palate has yet to adapt) when paired with the strong taste of asparagus, we settled on the Icardi Cortese. Ever heard of Gavi di Gavi? One of my favorite sipping wines, the Gavi di Gavi is actually a wine produced in the town of, you guessed it, Gavi, and it is made from the Cortese grape. That said, I was sold. As for the pairing? Excellent while cooking, but it had warmed by the time the tarte was ready. Next time, I’ll be sure to keep it on ice.

Restaurant Review: Candela Candela

*now closed

Last night, G and I went to Candela Candela, a Cuban-Italian fusion restaurant on 2nd avenue between 5th and 6th. Strange mix? I thought so too, so I decided it was worth a try. The interior has a purposefully dated look–old photographs and a mural decorate the walls, and rough-hewn wood tables and countertops characterize the space. It’s sure to have a cozy feel in the wintertime, although we sat halfway between the open window and the patio.

Our waiter, a Franco-Israeli, was extremely attentive and helpful. He brought us the menus immediately, as well as the wine list. The wines, however, were available only by the bottle, so for wine by the glass he resorted to memory. There were three whites, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and a Sauvignon Blanc (all to be expected), and five reds. No labels or provenances were mentioned. He helped pair our wine to our meal choices–Cabernet Sauvignon with my red pepper souffle and a Pinot Noir with Giorgio’s chicken.

Despite the extensive selection, the menu left much to be desired–there was no true sense of fusion of the two cuisines. Instead, the Italian dishes were listed alongside the Cuban ones, saltimbocca next to ropa vieja. We decided to go for an appetizer and a main course between the two of us. To me, the Tortino sounded the most appealing–a red pepper souffle baked with walnuts and served over chickpeas and corn puree. For G, I thought the Perugina sounded perfect–chicken breast rolled around baby spinach, prosciutto, and pine nuts, served with a gorgonzola sauce. He typically likes the most heavy-sounding thing on the menu.

Our wine was served, and a few sips later, the food came out, served on country crockware that matched the restaurants rustic feel. The Tortino was about a palm’s size, as I had expected, but I noticed G blanch when he was served–5 tiny little medallions of chicken and spinach rolls. We dug in, however, and both dishes proved to be quite filling. On the other hand, the flavors were unadventurous. His gorgonzola tasted more like a cream sauce, and I couldn’t trace the red peppers anywhere in the cake, which was more of a veggie pattie than a souffle. It lacked any sort of airiness–I can only assume eggs were included for it to have been given that name.

The service was the most exceptional part of the evening. Candela Candela is a great neighborhood joint–you leave full and satisfied–unless you have your own spot that your already love to frequent. Nothing about the food, from the concept to the flavors, is very special, and the Cabernet leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Restaurant Review: Giano

In Roman mythology, Janus (Giano in Italian) was the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings—so it’s fitting that I’d choose Giano as my entree into this blog. There is nothing like this East Village treasure, which takes the Roman god as its inspiration to put a new twist on Italian cooking. Like Janus, the restaurant looks both to the past and to the future—its innovative take on the traditional dishes combined with creative new approaches to a more modern cuisine results in the most mouth-wateringly delicious food that I have tasted on either side of the Atlantic.

The antipasti are all wonderful. I’ve tried the summer spinach salad with strawberries, the goat cheese and black olive terrine, and the caprese (the mozzarella is surprisingly fresh and nutty). However, the real winner is the carpaccio di polpo, thinly-sliced raw octopus—for you non-octopus eaters, stash your prejudice. There is no off-putting texture or fishiness, just a refreshing start to your meal. The lemon dressing really caps it off nicely.

I Primi: The gnudi, traditionally conceived as “naked” spinach and ricotta ravioli filling, are whipped into tiny souffles (a far cry from their normal rustic texture) and drizzled with butter and crispy sage leaves. I dream about these little Italian dumpling, they are that good. That’s not to say the other pasta and risotto should be missed–the taviolini tartufo e bottarga, a creamy truffle and fish sauce over the long, tubular noodles, is surprisingly amazing, while the pappardelle con ragu biano d’agnello (a white lamb sauce) is an ultra-modern take on the old comfort dish. And what’s there not to love about circular lasagna? As for secondi and dolci, the stuffed pork cutlet followed by tiramisu are really unbeatable.

Everything about Giano, in the end, is about the present: the meal, the ambiance, the presentation, the service, the wine. It’s all wonderful, beautiful, and encourages you to stop and savor every bite, sip, and moment.