Quick and East After-Work Dinner Party

Because I knew I’d have very little time to prepare a big, extravagant dinner, I simplified my menu for an after-work dinner party last night. And thank goodness I did–by the time I got back to the house from work, with groceries in hand, I was left with an hour to get everything together.

I enlisted G to make the prosciutto sticks. We had bought some flavorless grissini (breadsticks) a few days before, but rather than toss them, I thought I’d give them a little kick by wrapping prosciutto di parma around them and serving them as appetizers. In the meantime, I got to work on dessert–homemade biscotti di prato, also known as cantucci. Usually, these hard little almond cookies don’t appeal to people, precisely because you often feel as though you might crack your teeth on them. When I was living in Florence a few years ago, however, I picked up a recipe that makes slightly soft, morbido cookies, all the flavor without the crack. It took a good half hour to knead the dough–it’s meant to be very dry, but that often means that the dough doesn’t come together easily. Once it became elastic enough to hold its own shape, I rolled it into little logs, brushed a little egg on top, sprinkled them with sugar, and threw them in the oven.

The rest of dinner was a snap. I washed the lettuce, which G spun (a little too enthusiastically for my little spinner!) I then made the Parmigiano vinaigrette, and once we were all seated at the table, I threw the pecorino romano into the pan. Had the triangles been equally thick, they would have melted evenly, but alas I had to pull some from the pan earlier than others, leaving a slightly gooey mess. Although they weren’t as pretty as I would have liked, once sprinkled with honey and walnuts, they were a big hit. I had visited the wine guys the day before, and two of my guests picked up their suggestions for me–an Orvieto Classico and a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Vallevo, from the Adriatic coast). Both went quite well with the cheese, holding their own structure and flavor, while not overpowering the strong flavors of the sheep’s milk cheese.

As a dessert lover, I was especially pleased with the reaction to my biscotti. I had pulled them out of the oven when they were just golden to cut them on the diagonal. I let them sit for awhile, but when I set them on the table, there was barely enough time to make the espresso before the whole plate was gone (and I had been expecting to take a few to work!) They turned out perfectly–slightly soft, moist center; slightly sweet; perfect with the coffee. Maybe I’ll go into business with those!


Since I was making a simple turkey and roasted pepper stir-fry for dinner, I wanted a special wine to accompany it. I headed over to ABC Wine to ask the experts. A few recommendations later (after we’d ruled out Chardonnays, even un-oaked ones), we hit upon a Cotes-du-Rhone made entirely of the Syrah grape. The prefect crowd pleaser, I was told–smoky when you want it to be, spicy when you need it to be, fruity for the fruit lovers…

So today, I decided to do a little research into what this grape is all about. Syrah is a dark-skinned grape that is grown all over the world, primarily in France, the US, and Australia (where it is known as Shiraz). It can stand alone, as it often does in the case of wines from the northern Rhone region of France, but it is also used as a varietal as it gives structure to weaker varietals.

But why is it so versatile if it’s such a powerful, full-bodied wine? Its age matters a lot in this regard, as does the climate and soil in which it was grown. Syrah is a wine that can be drunk young or aged–the older wines are a little more mellow and complex, as age tempers the high tannin content. Its characteristics are wide-ranging, from dark berries to chocolate to espresso to black pepper.

And the difference between Syrah and Shiraz? Other than the names, which both come from the grape’s disputed origins (some say France, others say the ancient Persian city of Shirazi, and the Sicilians claim that it comes from their city Siracusa), the wines offer different things. The French Syrah is typically more elegant, tannic, and smoky, with a restrained fruit component. Shiraz tends to refer to the more New World wines of Australia and Chile, amongst others. Made from riper berries, a Shiraz is more fruit-forward and peppery, less tannic, and higher in its alcohol content. So, depending on what you like, Syrah/Shiraz really does seem to have a variety to please.

And by the way, it went perfectly with my meat. Although it might have been a little too drinkable…

In Vino–Italian Winebar

Want to be transported to an Italian caverna without having to book a flight? Head to In Vino winebar on 4th street at Ave B. With your back to the door, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to an underground wine cellar in a Renaissance building, with low-arching walls hugging the intimate wood booths. Everything about the ambiance feels rustic and home-made, from the small space to the low lights. This description extends the wine list–their wines, all Italian, have that fresh-from-the-vineyard taste instead of the straight-off-the boat tang that I often experience with imported wines, most notoriously younger Chiantis.

I found out about this place for one simple reason–it’s owned by my wine guys at Alphabet City Wine Co. Therefore, I hadn’t any doubts about the quality of the selection, but they managed to impress me anyway. G and I dropped in on our way home from a movie. We had eaten a light dinner, so we took our seat at the bar. The owner immediately brought us the wine list, or rather, wine book. The first few pages list their mission statement, their desire to introduce quality Italian wines to the New York community, as well as the wines offered by the glass and the quartino (about 3 glasses worth–a better deal if you’re ordering in two!)

The rest of the menu reads like a book… and in fact, it feels like a book in your hands, with its weightiness and soft leather cover. Each page describes one of Italy’s regions and its wine-making history, and then at the bottom, lists the wines available by the bottle that are representative of the region’s best. Here’s a blurb:

Sicily produces more wine that any other region in Italy, which comes as no surprise as it’s also the largest region in the land. However, the island has always been known to emphasize quantity over quality. To this day, less than ten percent of the wine made each year makes it into bottles, with the rest used as blending grapes to boost the alcohol content of low quality wines both in Italy and elsewhere. That said, Sicily does make some fantastic wines and has built a solid reputation for itself as one of the upcoming wine regions in Italy, particularly when it comes to reds. The native Nero d’Avola seems to be the focus these days, though much attention is being given to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah—which some Sicilians claim as a native grape as well, named after the town of Siracusa. Given the intense heat on the island, whites tend not to fare as well. However, some producers have gotten great results out of grapes such as Grecanico and the native Inzolia. Look to Tasca d’Almerita for a beautifully floral, somewhat sweet, example in their “Regaleali”.

G and I decided to have a quartino of Grillo, a Sicilian white which I had tasted for the first time in Agrigento a year ago (if you find your way to this southern Sicilian town, look for the restaurant Per Bacco and try the shrimp and pistachio risotto with your Grillo… heaven). Ever since, I’ve been hooked. It’s a refreshing white, not too sweet or aromatic, but without the mineral quality I associated with drier whites like a Sauvignon Blanc. Perfect for relaxing after a hot day of walking around New York.

Even more perfect if you pair it with cheese, specifically the sottocenere they offer. G and I had ordered a small tasting to have with our wine. The Robiola a Tre Latte (a soft goat/cow/sheep’s milk cheese) and the Sottocenere (a truffled cow’s milk cheese with an ash rind... the name literally means “under the ash”) were served with thin slices of apple and a small pot of honey. I love Robiola because it’s an interesting cheese that pleases any palate, but the Sottocenere with a spot of honey brought out a tangy-ness to the Grillo that was absolutely delicious… We left an hour later having savored everything, down to the last drops of honey and wine.

Now, my next mission is to have the wine guys at the shop order me a bottle… and tell me who gives them their cheese.

In Vino, 215 E. 4th St at Ave B
Quartino of Grillo $20
Two cheese tasting $13 (let’s add that they are very generous portions)

Looking for Greek food? Try Pylos

Last night, I took an out-of-town friend to the Greek restaurant Pylos–she’d had a hankering for something different, and I decided it would be a fun place to try. The word “pylos” (pron. pee-los) refers to the clay pots that are common amongst the ruins of ancient Greece, and in fact, the restaurant’s entire ceiling is covered in these little clay jars. It is a small, home-y space that fills up quickly–in the front are several tables for smaller parties, while the back is filled with cozier bench seating and the communal table that also doubles as a bar.

The decorative motif echoes Pylos’s food philosophy of rustic home-cooking. Renowned chef Diane Kochilas, who specializes in Greek cuisine and lives almost full time in Greece, is the primary consultant on the menu, making sure that the food is as authentic as it can be away from the Aegean. The menu is full of traditional dishes: hot and cold appetizers that include dipping sauces and stuffed grape leaves; comfort foods like pastitio, the Greek take on lasagna; as well as lamb, steak, and fish, all dressed in traditional Greek sauces. And of course, there is a Greek salad.

Menu aside, Pylos’s unique selling point is its wine list. They only serve Greek wines (and primarily Greek varietals, although there are some international… and more familiar… grapes on the menu). Before dinner, I checked it out online, and when it all sounded, well, Greek to me, I did a little research. With the Pylos selection as my guide, I focused on 3 varietals. The first was a white, assyritiko, grown primarily on the islands and reminiscent of a Riesling. The second and third grapes that I looked into turned out to be Greece’s most important red grapes–the agiorgitiko (which means St. George) and the xinomavro (acid-black). The St. George produces a lighter-bodied, fruitier wine, with a hint of tannins, while the xinomavro, like the name hints, makes a dark-red wine, deeper and spicier, that is akin to Italy’s Nebbiolo grape.

I arrived a bit early, and as much as I like wine with a lot of kick to it, I decided to go for the agiorgitiko–a change from summer’s whites and roses, not too heavy, and named after G’s patron saint. Two were available by the glass, the Nemea Haggipavlu and the Red on Black; since both were the same price, I went for the one that sounded more Greek. It was served in a glass goblet, and I found it to be very drinkable–light, a little tannic on the tongue–nothing too special, but it kept me company while I waited.

Once my friend arrived, we were seated at the front of the restaurant, in the open window. We immediately took care of ordering so that we could get to talking. We decided to go the route of small plates, so that we could taste and talk more easily. Pita bread came out with some homemade hummus, and then the plates came out as they were ready, slowly filling our small table. First, the poikilia, 3 traditional dipping sauces (the yogurt-based tzatziki, the fish roe taramosalata, and the eggplant melitzanosalata), came out in little cakes on a plate, followed by the heavier anginares moussaka, a small layer-cake of artichoke hearts, caramelized onions, herbs, and three greek cheeses. We balanced it with the lighter Greek salad, a bowl full of fresh tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, capers, kalamata olives, feta, and a simple olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing.

Round two consisted of more pita, grappa-soaked haloumi cheese logs topped with cooked grapes, “light-as-air” meatballs (heavier than advertised), and
dolmathes avgolemono, grape leaves stuffed with rice, ground beef and pine nuts, served with a lemony sauce. Every flavor was distinct–the moussaka was creamy but retained the texture of the artichoke hearts; the grape leaves were grassier than I had expected; and the haloumi cheese was a soft white cheese, hardened a little by the grappa. My personal favorites were the tzatziki, the moussaka, and the haloumi, as long as I scooped the grapes up at the same time, for the sweetness cut the strange texture, making it more palatable. Everything was delicious, and we even had leftovers. I can’t wait to go back to try a new combination.

128 E. 7th St, near Ave. A

Pasquale the mozzarella man

G and I went out to East Hampton for the holiday weekend to visit my aunt and to get away from the city for a bit. Saturday was a rainy day, so we all went to Sag Harbor to see the boats and to grab a bite to eat at a new place called Grappa (excellent portions for a light lunch)—I had a rose’ with my grilled asparagus and poached egg salad, G had a panino made of salami, and my aunt had the arugula salad. We all shared a cheese plate, with Taleggio, Fontina, and Gorgonzola Piccante, all very flavorful and yummy.

On our way home, G and I mentioned that we might like to go bowling. Next thing I knew, my aunt had dropped us off at a bowling alley. We walked in and immediately decided that it was not what we wanted to do at that time. Instead, we decided to cross the very busy street to the “Tutto Italiano” food store across the street–it promised good things, since it even included Sardinia in the map, which no one ever does.

We were in luck. Instead, we witnessed a man making in-house mozzarella. He was squat, about 5’7″, with a big chest, a bigger belly, and huge forearms. We watched him as he labored over his big, metal bowl of milky water. He pulled the mozzarella like taffy over and over again, across the flat part of his long paddle. His left arm bulged as he steadied his movements, while his right hand massaged the cheese. He rolled it over and over again in the water, until he thought it was ready to form.

He began to pull and gather the cheese into fist-sized balls, which he twisted off and dropped into a vat of more milky water to his right. Every now and again, he made bite-sized bocconcini, which made my mouth water just thinking about biting into them. When he finished, he moved around to where we were standing, so we got out of his way. He began to place them in their plastic containers to be weighed, when we heard “where did that couple go?” He saw us and said “Paesano, vien qua,” more or less, get over here peasant.

We scooted back over, and behind his back, he handed G a bocconcino. G turned his back on the crowd, and as he took a bite, a change came over his face. “Let me try” I said, and he offered me a bite. Milky, smooth, nutty, sweet–the homemade mozzarella was all of these things, none of which we had expected. We looked at the man in wonder, and he responded, “It’s all in how you work it… no one takes the time any more to do it like this.”

We found out that Pasquale had moved over from Naples when he was fifteen. His grandmother had chosen him of all of the nipoti to learn the family recipe, and he’s made his living off of the trade–as a nineteen year old, he made $700 a week making mozzarella, the same as his colleagues, some of which were upwards of 60 years old, slightly insulted that some kid from Italy was better at their trade. Now, he owns the food shop in East Hampton and still makes the very special cheese that got him there.

Tutto Italiano by Citarella, 631 324 9500. 74 Montauk Hwy East Hampton, NY 11937.