Tag Archives: Italian food

A Taste of Heaven (and a little bit of hell) on Northern Boulevard

20 Feb

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After last month’s “disaster” in Port Chester and as the designated Grand Poobah of our now 15-year-old food group,  I quickly signed into order a temporary ban on Mexican restaurants for our group. No more tacos. No more enchiladas. No more grand volcanoes until further notice. Despite a mini-protest by the sudden activist, Eugene, no one dared question my motives or intentions. Eugene soon fell into line and Mike from Yonkers, whose turn it was to choose our next destination stuck to the ban and chose a Korean restaurant in Flushing’s Koreatown called Joah. While we have had enough of guacamole for awhile, we were starved for bulgogi and bibimbap.

poobah

The Grand Poobah

I arrived early and had time for a beer, so I stumbled into a non-descript bar across the street from Joah. When I entered, the few heads in the bar turned to stare at me as if I were some sort of immigrant life form they had never seen before. There was a Korean couple at one end of the bar snuggled close to each other sharing cherry tomatoes and a bottle of Grey Goose and a lone older Korean man with three empty Coors’ Light bottles in front of him, two of the Korean female bartenders huddled around him lovingly. One of the bartenders reluctantly broke away to see what I wanted. I mentioned beer and she looked at me quizzically as if she didn’t understand what I said. And then she mimicked my words; her English almost non-existent. I dared not ask what type of beers were available and just went ahead and ordered a Heineken. She nodded and returned with a glass, a bottle of Heineken and a small dish of roasted peanuts. As I started in on the beer and the peanuts a loud wail ensued seemingly out of nowhere. I turned to see the man with the cherry tomatoes and Grey Goose bottle gripping a microphone. He was soulfully crooning into the microphone, the vodka fueling his passion as he sang along with the Korean pop tune. I made sure to applaud his performance politely when he finished and then, trying not to look too stressed, downed the beer as fast as I could and got out of there before I had to hear more karaoke, Korean or otherwise.

The quiet when I arrived at the sparsely populated Joah was appreciated. Zio waddled in a few minutes later and we sat and took a look at the menu which was a colorful notebook loaded with non-traditional Korean dishes. Where was the bulgogi? Where was the bibimbap? Instead there was page devoted to “hamburger steak,” including Turkish hamburger steak and hamburger steak and sausage. There was also a lengthy section of the menu on risottos and pastas; just what was expected in a Korean joint.

“You gonna get pasta, Eugene?” I asked him.

“No, I’m gonna get risotto,” he replied, surprising me as he ordered the “Gondre” seafood risotto in a tomato sauce.

“That’s what I was gonna order,” Mike from Yonkers whined.

“No one’s stopping you,” Eugene answered. And no one did. Both ordered the same risotto in a Korean restaurant.

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Korean risotto

I quickly decided that the Korean version of Italian food might be problematic to an Italian food snob like me, so instead focused on something I had never seen before called “Eggs in Heaven OR Eggs in Hell.” The difference between heaven and hell in this case meant that the eggs were either prepared in a cheese cream sauce (heaven) or in a tomato broth (hell). Though the idea of hell always sounds edgier, more exciting, I opted for more mundane heaven; eggs in a Korean made tomato sauce just did not appeal to my half Italian sensibilities.

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Eggs in heaven

Gerry wasted no time ordering the army stew, a soup of bacon, fish cake, sausage and noodles in the same, dark red tomato broth that coated Eugene and Mike from Yonkers’ risotto. “It’s a little sweet,” all of them, including Zio, whose spicy pork plate over rice was also red in color, intoned and I agreed after taking a bite of Mike from Yonkers’ risotto.

There was nothing sweet, however, about my eggs in heaven. “Make sure you mix it all up,” the waiter told me as he planted the very hot bowl in front of me. I did what he said, the eggs cooking in the hot cheese and cream sauce, all of it easy to scoop up with the saltine crackers and pieces of Italian bread that decorated the bowl. The bits of bacon in the eggs added much needed salt to the otherwise bland, yet somewhat comforting dish.

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Though we came expecting Korean food normalcy, we experienced something much different. The results may not have been what we wanted, but the adventure most definitely was. In that regard, Mike from Yonkers’ pick of Joah was a big time winner.

Joah

161-16 Northern Blvd

Flushing, Queens

Luigi’s Prima Pasta & Pizza

12 Mar

(A menu inspired by the music of Louis Prima)

Chef Luigi

Chef Luigi

Welcome to Luigi’s Prima Pizza & Pasta where we serve the best in Italian-American cuisine. Come to our lively, festive restaurant where our beautiful hostess Felicia will show you to your table. Felicia, from Calabria, speaks no English, so Felicia…no capicia. But if you have any questions on the menu, Angelina, the waitress (at the pitzzeria) will be glad to answer them.

All dishes are prepared home-style and created from recipes evolved from Chef Luigi’s grandparents from the “old country.”

Here is a sample of Luigi’s award-winning menu.

Antipasto

Minestron’

Pasta fazool

Zooma Zooma Baccala (served  room temperature in a salad with hot cherry peppers)

Ol’ Fashion Salami

Brooklyn Pastrami

Cucuzza*

*”Cucuzza grows in Italy, they love it on the farm. Something like zucchini flavored with Italian charm”

 

Pizza

Tomatoes and fresh Mozzarella*

Sausage

Meatball

Fresh Garlic

Anchovies

Mushrooms

*Extra mozzarella, the way my cucuzza likes it, add $1.

 

Pasta

Lasagne

Ravioli (Luigi’s specialty)*

*Comes with one meatball. Extras are $2 each.

 

Primo

Cutlets Parmigiana  (chicken, veal or pork)

Steak Pizzaiola

Chicken Cacciatore

Virginia Ham (on the bone)

 

Sweets

Bananas (unless we run out and then, yes, we have no bananas)

Banana splits*

Spumoni

*A glass of ice water free with every banana split order.

 

Enjoy Yourself at Luigi’s!

 

Louis Prima’s Food  Discography

Angelina

Banana Split for my Baby

Closest to the Bone

Enjoy Yourself

I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal, You)

My Cucuzza

Pennies From Heaven

Please Don’t Squeeza the Bananas

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Zooma Zooma

A Bronx Bacchanalia Courtesy of Carmine Sunshine

4 Sep

Patrizia's

“You better come very hungry,” Gerry warned us all in preparation for our impromptu dinner at a place called Patrizia’s in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

This deviation from our normal gathering routine where we take turns finding a restaurants that meet our budget requirements of $20 or less per person was based on Gerry’s insistence that Patrizia’s, though for our frugal selves, costly, worth the added expense.

What was this Patrizia’s place Gerry was so high on and how come I hadn’t heard of it if it was as good as he claimed. Sure it was hidden in an Irish enclave of Woodlawn, but with today’s media, social and otherwise, a restaurant would be hard pressed to find itself “under the radar,” as we used to say when such places existed.

Only Zio, who was assigned grandfather duty by the demanding and uncompromising Colonel, could not make it. Rick, a rare presence at our normal gatherings, even made it a point to drive to the Bronx on this pleasant August evening.

As we entered, Eugene, who has an uncanny memory for faces and names from his illustrious Battle Hill childhood, stopped short when the owner of Patrizia’s, greeted Gerry, his longtime business associate.

“Carmine Sunshine,” Eugene addressed the owner with a grin that almost turned into a smile. “What’s it been, 30 years?”

Carmine Sunshine shrugged as if he had no clue. And then the two men hugged.

“This is the guy that wouldn’t let me buy a slice at Sunshine Pizza,” Eugene said to us as we witnessed the reunion. “I felt guilty going in there. He wouldn’t take my money.” The connection, I was quickly to learn was that Carmine, the current owner of Patrizia’s was once the owner of a very popular pizzeria in downtown White Plains called Sunshine Pizza.

Carmine seemed overwhelmed by the adulation bestowed upon him by Eugene and was literally speechless. Instead, he led us to a huge booth in a private room and slid into the booth with us, apron tied around his ample waist. After some small talk with Eugene bringing up names from Sunshine Pizza’s past like Nicky, Sal, Joe, and Phil, Carmine stood up and did that thing chefs do when they are about to test their guests’ eating endurance—he clapped his hands and said: “So, any food allergies I should know about?”

Only Rick responded with a feeble, “Um…pine nuts. I can’t eat pine nuts.

Carmine nodded and headed off to the kitchen.

“Do we order?” Mike from Yonkers asked Gerry.

“No, he’ll just start bringing what he has.”

Mike from Yonkers flipped the menu away. “Okay, let him bring it then.”

“Oh he will,” Gerry responded, indicating he knew something we didn’t.

First to arrive on the table was a small pizza made in the restaurant’s wood burning oven. I have a faint recollection of Sunshine Pizza, but one thing I am sure of, that slice joint never had a wood burning oven. Carmine’s pizza was crisp, layered lightly with cheese and tomato sauce. It was a winning start.

Following the pizza, a waiter deposited a platter of coconut crusted shrimp on our table.

“This is the first time I can truly say I’ve had anything with coconut in an Italian restaurant,” I announced.

“Yeah, what was Carmine thinking?” Gerry wondered as he speared one of the jumbo shrimp and shoveled it into his mouth.

 

Fennel salad

Fennel salad

Carmine himself brought the next course; a fennel salad adorned with grilled calamari and dusted with…pignoli nuts. After presenting it he slapped the side of his own head realizing his mistake with the inclusion of the pine nuts and their toxic effect on Rick. “Okay, I’ll bring something else,” he stammered and while all but Rick sampled the aromatic fennel salad, he returned quickly with an overflowing platter of steamed little neck clams.

“Just ‘cause your allergic to pine nuts doesn’t mean you’re getting all those clams,” Gerry barked as he spooned a few onto his plate drizzling them with their own broth.

 

Steamed clams

Steamed clams

Before we could finish with the clams and fennel salad, another waiter presented a platter of roasted Italian peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage. With the previous four courses consumed the hunger that I was told to bring by Gerry had now faded, but that didn’t stop me from devouring one of the peppers, the saltiness of the sausage complimenting the sweet pepper and the mild mozzarella.

 

Stuffed peppers

Stuffed peppers

I sipped a glass of wine from the magnum of Cabernet on our table hoping to clear my palate and reintroduce that hunger before the next course but there was no time. Carmine appeared like a sadistic inquisitor with a platter of octopus cooked in his fiery wood burning oven. How could I resist?

Pulpo

Pulpo

I looked at Gerry. “Is this man planning to kill us here, so close to Woodlawn Cemetery,” I asked once Carmine was out of sight.

“Stop complaining,” Gerry said with disgust. “We haven’t even gotten to the pastas yet.”

And that was what I feared. I drank water and got up to go to the bathroom mainly just to stretch my legs and work off the first five courses. When I returned, there was a “family-size” platter of homemade cavatelli with more of that salty sausage and broccoli rabe sitting alongside another platter of what Carmine explained were “money bags,” or golf ball size dumplings stuffed with four cheeses in a rich mushroom and ham sauce. Both pastas were spectacular but also weighty on my already swollen belly. That didn’t stop me or others in my “family” from quickly consuming what had been assembled on the family-sized platters.

I paused to breath. I knew there was more to come. After all we had really only dined so far on the “primi,” even though the “primi” courses were coming perilously close to double digits.

 

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

Money bags on the left, cavatelli on the right.

“It’ll be awhile before the fish is ready,” Carmine explained; an almost evil smile on his face. “It’s cooking in the oven.”

“The pizza oven?” I asked.

He nodded. “Sure come take a look.”

Any excuse to get up and move; to stretch and work off whatever I could of what I’d already eaten was more than welcome.

In a pan close to the glowing embers were two huge branzino, also known as sea bass, juices simmering in the heat of the oven. They looked beautiful and momentarily revived my appetite. I lingered for a bit there, not wanting to get back to food quite yet even though I had a responsibility to fulfill.

 

Branzino in the oven

Branzino in the oven

When I returned to the table I saw, at least to my ancient eyes, what looked like a football covered in brown gravy. Upon closer inspection what was on the table was really an enormous shank of osso buco and it had been placed in front of my seat reminding me that there was work yet to be done.

Mike from Yonkers was now eating standing up and groaning while continually shoveling food into his mouth. Two huge bowls of chicken, potatoes and vinegar peppers  just added to the decadent misery we were experiencing.

I picked at a pepper.  I broke off a piece of the tender veal shank and nibbled at it. And then finally the branzino arrived—each fish in an individual platter coated in a light tomato sauce and topped with shrimp and clams. I pierced the skin of the fish and scooped out the white moist meat not bothering with the clams or shrimp. I just wanted to say I at least tried the fish. And then I couldn’t help myself. I filleted a little more and, finding reserves I never knew I had, finished it off.

I turned to Gerry. “If he comes back tell him ‘no mas,’” I pleaded.

“Yeah I’m done,” Rick muttered, a dazed look on his face.

Only Eugene remained unfazed by the feast. He was still glowing over the blast from the past in seeing Carmine. “He wouldn’t let me buy a slice? I couldn’t go in there anymore,” he repeated again as if we didn’t hear him either the first or second time he mentioned it.

Carmine slid into the booth again. “What about a steak,” he whispered to Gerry.

Gerry laughed and swiped his finger across his neck signifying that we were done.

“Okay I’ll just get dessert,” Carmine said, not waiting for us to protest the arrival of more food

A fruit platter followed and then, the finale, pastries, stuffed with molten dark chocolate cooked in the wood oven and topped with powdered sugar. I summoned my reserves and found room for both.

 

Osso Buco

Osso Buco

Mike from Yonkers took the Branzino that was untouched home to his betrothed while Gerry and I went out with doggie bags of the chicken and potatoes. Nothing remained on the shank of veal that was once osso buco. And all the money bags somehow had been disposed of as well.

We thanked Carmine Sunshine. Eugene gave him another hug. “I’ll see you in another 30 years,” he joked.

“Next time I’ll make you a steak,” he told all of us and maybe it was the short stroll to my car on now desolate Katonah Avenue that momentarily gave me a second wind, or maybe I had more in my reserve than I thought, because by the time I got into the car returning for a steak actually sounded like a good idea.

 

Patrizia’s

4358 Katonah Ave

Bronx

Scungilli and Red Sauce in the South Bronx

15 Apr

 

Venice Restaurant

I pulled into Venice Restaurant’s private parking lot just off 149th Street in the Bronx and noticed its neon sign claiming the restaurant’s establishment as 1951. How did an Italian restaurant in the Bronx that had been around for 63 years escape my radar? I was ashamed of myself.

“At work we take out from there every two weeks,” proclaimed Eugene in an email after Rick chose Venice Restaurant. Unlike the rest of us, to the grizzled Eugene, the restaurant was no secret.

With Rick back after a hiatus, this was the first time our group was fully assembled in over six months. The rust was evident as Rick first suggested a few restaurants that just did not meet our criteria including one our group, without Rick, previously visited. He finally settled on the Venice for its old school “red sauce” appeal. And there was nothing wrong with that as far as I was concerned. And that it had its own private (under 24-hour video surveillance) parking lot just added to the appeal.

Venice

The dining room had images of Venice painted over the walls while the tables were covered in mustard-colored glossy vinyl. Rick wasted no time in adding to the atmosphere by ordering a glass of Chianti. Old school red sauce aside, Gerry and I took advantage of the restaurant’s full bar and instead ordered Swedish vodka.

Old school appeal

Old school appeal

“How’s the Italian food in this restaurant,” I couldn’t resist asking Eugene, whose swarthy features were actually very similar to those of Sollazzo the Turk.

But, for whatever reason, Eugene was a bit slow and didn’t get the reference. So instead of responding with, “Try the veal. It’s the best in the city,” he just shrugged and reminded us that he only had take out. He did, however, whisper to Gerry that the fried calamari wasn’t very good.

"Try the veal, it's the best in the city."

“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”

We stayed away from the fried calamari but couldn’t resist the seafood salad and baked clams. Overflowing with calamari, shrimp, and, as a bonus for those who care about such things, sliced tender scungilli, the seafood salad was served family-style to the extreme and more than enough even for our gluttonous family.  The baked clams, though far from the best in the city, were good enough to quickly leave 12 empty shells floating on the oily breadcrumbs that remained on the platter.

Seafood salad

Seafood salad

“Whaddya gonna order?” I asked Zio.

“I dunno. I think a sandwich,” Zio responded with a straight face.

“A fish sandwich? Gerry joked, reminding Zio of his unfortunate choice at our last destination, The Cutting Board (Uni and Ovaltine).

“Maybe you’re right,” he realized. “I’ll try the veal and peppers.”

Keeping it safely within the red sauce barometers, I chose baked ziti with meatballs while Rick went with the white clam sauce and Eugene the red. Gerry veered somewhat by ordering the penne with sausage and broccoli in a white sauce. Saddled by a mild gluten allergy, Mike from Yonkers had to refrain from pasta instead choosing the balsamic chicken—with a side salad.

Soon enormous platters began to arrive on the already olive oil stained vinyl tablecloth. The pastas and entrees were all very close to family size. I picked at the baked ziti; the anticipated red sauce overly sweet and not up to my very high standards while the meatballs, though spiced correctly, a bit leaden. Zio’s veal and peppers, on the other hand, were smothered in a more piquant red sauce and outstanding.

Who says they don't know red sauce in Venice?

Who says they don’t know red sauce in Venice?

I looked at Rick’s platter of linguini with white clam sauce. “Are they canned?” I asked, referring to the clams.

Rick nodded. “Yeah, they’re canned, but I’m not complaining.”  And neither was Eugene who, working silently and with purpose, slowly devoured his monstrous platter.

The rest of us, however, on this evening, just did not have the stamina Eugene had and, possibly a first in the 12 years we had been doing this, had no choice but to ask the waiter to bag up half of all our respective dinners to be eaten for lunch the next day.

The shoveling of the red clams begins...

Devouring the red clams

As we headed to our cars in the private, security-maintained parking lot, no one had much to say about Venice which was maybe an indication why it had remained “undiscovered” for over 60 years. But despite the restaurant’s mediocrity, we were able to all convene again as a complete group and over a seafood salad that included scungilli. We couldn’t really ask much more than that.

Venice Restaurant

Venice Restaurant
772 E. 149th St.
Bronx

Uni and Ovaltine

17 Mar

Cutting Board

I was in the rest room of the Cutting Board, on Bayard Street in Chinatown staring at the cheery murals in front of me when I heard Zio’s voice.  I got to the restaurant before Zio and he must have come in just behind me because now I could hear him speaking loudly from our table.

“I waved to him a few times: no response!” he said incredulously.

Was he referring to me?

I cleaned up and headed back to our table. He looked at me.

“What?” I wondered.

“You just ignore me on the street?” Zio asked.

“What are you talking about? I didn’t see you.”

“I waved to you a few times. Looked right at you. It was like I wasn’t even there.”

“Did you call out my name? Did you say hello?” I asked.

“No…but how could you not see me?”

It was another frigid night. Chinatown’s sidewalks were even narrower and difficult to navigate on this evening; dark overstuffed plastic garbage bags piled on top of, and next to gray mountains of ice that had not yet melted from the winter’s multiple storms crowded the sidewalks. I had my head down and was walking with a purpose. I was hungry. I just wanted to get out of the cold and to our destination.  Even if my head were up, I would not have noticed Zio. His rotund physique, stuffed into a dark down coat, rendered him camouflage amongst the garbage bags on the street.

But I didn’t tell him that. “Why would I be looking?” I said instead.

He just shook his head and stared down at the menu. Something we all decided to do.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room.

Some of the happiness inside the Cutting Board rest room

.The Cutting Board was my choice and picked because it was, according to my research, an odd amalgam of cuisines with a heavy Asian accent. Here you had your choice of Western starters like chicken wings, chicken tenders, and fried calamari, or the Asian standards; bbq spare ribs, edamame, and shrimp toast. And then there were the blending of cuisines like the Cajun fries with seaweed, the Caesar salad with pork katsu, or even the pasta with uni.

“What’s uni,” Eugene inquired.

For a man who had been dining with our group for 12 years, eating just about every type of ethnic food offered in the Tri State region, Eugene’s lack of food knowledge was disconcerting.

“Sea urchin,” Gerry told him.

“What’s sea urchin?”

“That spiny mollusk you don’t want to step on in the ocean,” I said.

“You eat that?”

“You scoop out the creamy stuff inside…” I tried to explain but wasn’t doing a good job of it.

“What’s it taste like?”

Eugene’s food curiosity was as impressive as his food ignorance. One canceled out the other in my opinion.

No one at our table could really define the taste of uni. It was more about its consistency.

Undaunted, Eugene put his menu down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with the sea urchin,” he told the waiter.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Spaghetti with sea urchin

On the menu was something I had not seen before in a Chinese restaurant much less any other restaurant called “creamy rice.” Could it be a bastardization of Italian risotto? The idea was enough to convince me to give it a shot and I chose mine with “fatty beef.” Also intrigued by the concept, Mike from Yonkers tried the creamy rice with grilled chicken, which the waiter mentioned was one of the more popular items on the menu.

Gerry veered toward the “rice” section of the menu and zeroed in on the “classic beef in curry sauce.”

And then the waiter was hovering over Zio.

“Oh, um, I’ll have a fish sandwich,” Zio said and then added: “With Ovaltine.”

The waiter left and I stared at Zio. This time it was my turn to be incredulous. “You could have had the pork katsu spaghetti” I said. “You could have had the juicy bobo burger. You could have had the kimchee beef udon. But you chose a fish sandwich? Why?”

He just shook his head. “I…don’t know…” he muttered.

“All right, listen, if you’re good I’ll let you try my fatty beef,” I said. “And you don’t even have to give me a bite of your  fish sandwich. But I definitely want a sip of that Ovaltine.”

Cajun fries and clams

Cajun fries and clams

We started with a bowl of clams steamed in light red tomato, wine sauce that was good enough to soak up with a loaf of crusty bread.  Unfortunately all we were given was one thin slice of garlic bread. Along with the clams were the thinly sliced, tender barbecue ox tongues and a side of Cajun fries salted with dried seaweed.

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Barbecued Ox Tongue

Also arriving was Zio’s Ovaltine. The promised sip was offered to me. It had that same, bland taste with just a teasing hint of chocolate I remembered the last time I sipped an Ovaltine; probably 40 or more years ago. I chased the Ovaltine with a gulp of Sapporo beer and returned the paper cup to Zio.

Zio's beverage of choice

Zio’s beverage of choice

Our main dishes came soon after we devoured the starters with Eugene’s spaghetti with sea urchin the first to arrive. In the menu the sauce was described as a “pink creamy.” What appeared in front of Eugene had more of a yellowish hue to it. He shared with all. The spaghetti was,  as if I expected otherwise, overdone, the saltiness of the sauce the only indication that there was uni in it. Maybe it melded with a light tomato sauce to form the creamy, yellow consistency? Either way, Eugene was pleased and that was really all that mattered.

The creamy rice with the fatty beef that I was hoping would resemble Italian risotto was closer to Campbell’s tomato rice soup with thinly sliced chipped beef as a topping. But I didn’t hold that against it. The dish was hearty and comforting and Zio, who I shared some with, agreed.

Creamy rice with fatty beef

Creamy rice with fatty beef

The comfort level increased when Gerry’s classic beef curry arrived. More a diner/comfort food concoction than anything purely Asian, the beef was ground and the curry sauce strong flavored like the kind you might have found in a curry dish prepared in the UK decades ago. Topping the dish was an egg over easy and a side of potato salad.  And all of that for only six dollars. You really couldn’t get much more comforting.

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Beef curry-Cutting Board style

Finally Zio’s fried fish sandwich arrived and was no different than any other fried fish sandwich you might find in a thousand restaurants and delis throughout the city. Zio made sure to apply tartar sauce.

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Tartar sauce fish sandwich

Eugene had cleaned his plate of spaghetti and uni and nothing remained of either my creamy rice with fatty beef or Gerry’s classic beef curry. We all looked toward Mike from Yonkers.

“Some things never change,” Eugene said as he watched and  waited while Mike from Yonkers deliberately and methodically ate his creamy rice with chicken.

“I like to savor my food,” Mike from Yonkers said in response to he always being the last to finish.

“We do too,” I said. “We just savor it with much more urgency.”

With that, Mike from Yonkers shoveled down  the last kernels of creamy rice and the five of us left the warmth of the Cutting Board for the icy streets of Chinatown.

Cutting Board
53 Bayard Street
Chinatown

Pizza Interloper on Arthur Avenue

27 Sep

Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, once a prominently exclusive Italian/American neighborhood, has over the past couple of decades, opened its welcoming arms to immigrants from other countries, in particular Albanians.

Arthur Avenue: where pizza and bureks live in harmony.

Arthur Avenue: where pizza and bureks live in harmony.

You will also now find Mexican and Japanese restaurants nestled side by side and close to both an Italian cheese store and a dried sausage place where they co-exist peacefully.

arthur

But Arthur Avenue can be fickle about newcomers. Several years ago, McDonald’s made an attempt to infiltrate the block. Thankfully they were soundly rejected.

No love for McDonald's on Arthur Avenue.

No love for McDonald’s on Arthur Avenue.

And then a legendary downtown seafood joint, Umberto’s Clam House;  it’s legend born from the graphic and gruesome blood and tomato sauce murder of a famous mobster, tried to make it in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue on the site of what once was a live poultry store.

Tourists came, but no mobsters.

Tourists came, but no mobsters.

Umberto’s tenure on Arthur Avenue was longer than McDonald’s, but whether it was just because most people can’t name the mobster who was gunned down at the original Umberto’s it was so long ago, or that the ghosts of thousands of butchered chickens have cursed the location, it is now gone, replaced by a “Mediterranean” restaurant.

So today, with so many very good, established pizza options on the block…

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Cafe al Mercato

Cafe al Mercato

…should Arthur Avenue accept this new interloper from downtown?

IMG_4288

Can another pizzeria survive on this glutenous stretch of landscape?  Will the display of co-allegiance to the Garden State forever diminish the reputation of this fabled establishment? And finally, will the restrictive and somewhat haughty “no slices” policy be amended to reflect the open door sensibilities of the neighborhood?

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

Tomato Sauce in the Raw

11 Sep

tomatoes

 

Every August or September, Goomba Joe, who I wrote about in these pages regarding his meatballs (Goomba Joe’s Polpette), would invite my family up to his apartment for dinner where one of the courses would undoubtedly be what he called “pasta crudo,” or tomato sauce in the raw. He had a small terrace where, with limited sun, he grew enough tomatoes for a few batches of this uncooked tomato sauce.

Goomba Joe is sadly gone, though now my family has a spacious sunny terrace where, using planters, we can usually grow enough tomatoes for more than just a few batches of pasta crudo. This year because of, let’s see, a cool spring, too much rain, a brutally hot early July followed by a cool August, culminating with an invasion of  tomato hornworms—or any other excuse I can come up with—the terrace tomato crop has been paltry . As of this writing, however, they are making a strong late season comeback and their bounty has yielded enough for at least one good batch of pasta crudo.

The hornworms like their tomatoes raw.

The hornworms like their tomatoes raw.

There really isn’t much to making uncooked tomato sauce. If your tomatoes are ripe, in season summer tomatoes, you can’t go wrong.  The sauce is not exclusive to pasta. It can be used as an Italian salsa or, even better, slathered on crusty bread as a bruschetta topping.

The ingredients are few:

3-4 baseball-sized ripe (but not overripe) tomatoes, chopped

1-2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic*

¾ cup of basil torn into pieces

½ cup of olive oil

1 teaspoon of sea salt

Crushed red pepper to taste

Parmesean Reggiano to taste

1lb of fusilli, rotini, or spaghetti

 

chopped tomatoes

Put the chopped tomatoes into a non-reactive bowl (glass or ceramic).

Add all the other ingredients and mix delicately with a spoon.

Let the sauce sit or “macerate” for at least one hour. The tomato sauce can sit at room temperature for up to eight hours, any longer I recommend refrigerating and then pulling them out of the refrigerator at least an hour before serving.

Tomatoes and basil

Meanwhile cook one pound of pasta. For this, I used fusilli, but spaghetti works well too.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and add the sauce, mixing well.

Sprinkle generously with grated Parmesean Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.

Tomato sauce in the raw.

Tomato sauce in the raw.

*If you have an aversion to raw garlic even though it has softened during the maceration process from the salt and the acid from the tomatoes, slice or chop it into bigger pieces before adding it to the sauce and then remove it just before serving. Why you would do this, I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s Slice: The Broccoli Rabe

10 May

 

 

 

 

In the previous  installment of “Today’s Slice,” here on Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries, I visited Full Moon Pizza on Arthur Avenue for the Spinach and Artichoke Slice ( see Artichoke and Spinach Pizza). In that post I mentioned Cafe al Mercato and the mini pies and square slices they sell from their booth  inside the Arthur Avenue retail market.

Cafe al Mercato

The preferred slice at Cafe al Mercato is, undoubtedly, the broccoli rabe slice. And I’m not alone. When I last visited, the broccoli rabe was piled high on top of the booth counter in anticipation of being applied to many thin, square slices.

mercato

What makes Cafe al Mercato’s broccoli rabe slice so good starts with the broccoli rabe, cooked tender, but not overdone, topped with slivers of fresh mozzarella. All of this is applied to a thin, yet durable, crunchy crust cooked in a traditional “slice” pizza oven as opposed to a fancy, imported wood Neapolitan stove.

Cafe al Mercato

If you have an aversion to broccoli rabe or anything green, the simple, “regular” slice with tomato sauce and mozzarella will bring back memories of “homemade” pizza. And when I say homemade, I mean what my grandmother used to make in an old cookie pan, rolling out the dough, topping with her sauce and adding a few slices of  Polly O Mozzarella. All of it cooked in her basement oven. It wasn’t pizza as we were used to from the pizzeria, but we never complained.

The Cafe al Mercato unbeatable combination.

The unbeatable combination at Cafe al Mercato.

Cafe al Mercato
2344 Arthur Avenue
Bronx

 

 

Your Gravy is My Sauce: A Concession to the Dark Side

2 Apr

Sauce

Sauce

In the latter quarter of the previous century when I was in college, my dorm buddies and I had many bong and beer fueled discussions.  Subjects ranged from who was the better detective, Kojak or Baretta, what was the best bathroom reading—and why, Penthouse or Hustler, or which album, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Steely Dan’s “Aja,” or Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World,” would make it into the top five of best albums of all time list (see the photo below for my pick).

Most of the time, the discussions remained semi-civil. When the subject was the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, it could get very heated. In the hot category, though not as hot as the Yankees-Red Sox discussions, was the debate over sauce or gravy. For some reason, for the Italian-Americans I roomed with, myself included, calling tomato sauce gravy, or vice versa ignited personal passions that boarded on the irrational.

My grandmother immigrated to the States when she was 22 and settled in New Jersey. The sauce she made each Sunday with braciole, meatballs, sausage or any other meats that were around was called sauce or, as she would say, “sugo rosso.” So  I am clearly in the tomato sauce corner and, really, until I got to college, never could have imagined that what my grandmother made each Sunday could be called anything but sauce, much less something so…um…earthy…as “gravy.”

When you call it gravy, it makes me wanna holla.

When you call it gravy, it makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands…

In the gravy corner were my friends from Massachusetts and New Jersey. The sauce contingent seemed to be from Connecticut and New York, where I was from.  How, I asked when I heard it for the first time, can you put gravy on pasta? Gravy, I always knew as something brownish in color and layered on turkey, roast beef, or meat loaf. This was an affront to my Italian-American sensibilities. The corruption of a basic known culinary term. A gross misuse of nomenclature.

“If you’re really Italian, you call it gravy,” was the insult that was thrown back at me when I confessed my disgust at the vulgarity.

“All I know is that my Italian grandmother calls it sauce…” I insisted.

“You sure she’s Italian,” someone cracked.

At that, a bong might be tipped over. And beer was definitely spilled.

“Come to Worcester and my Nonna will make you a nice gravy,” someone from Mass joked.

“Should I bring the mashed potatoes?” I would shoot back.

Gravy

Gravy

The arguments were endless and had no resolution.

“Oh, and one more thing,” a bleary voice from the sauce crowd would chime in. “The Red Sox most definitely suck.”

And just like that, we were onto another of our favorite topics.

Since those days, I’ve still maintained my allegiance to calling sauce what it is…sauce.  But over the years I’ve mellowed. I am no longer appalled when I hear someone mistakenly label what my grandmother referred to as sauce as gravy. I get it. It’s what the ill bred were taught. It wasn’t their fault. They were just poorly misinformed about worldly culinary matters.

A gravy/sauce altercation.

A gravy/sauce altercation.

As I said earlier, my Grandmother made Sunday sauce with an assortment of meats; pork, beef, sausage, etc. But on a very rare Sunday when none of the above were on hand, she would make the sauce with chicken. Chicken in a Sunday sauce might seem like an anathema, but if you’ve never tried it don’t knock it. The flavor from the chicken, different from the usual meats, gives the sauce heartiness equal to what you might get from red meats but with a slightly smoother taste. It works and not only as an enhancement to the sauce, but also as a way to enjoy the chicken which, after slowly cooked, remains amazingly moist, the sauce practically absorbed into the meat itself.

As part of my willingness to be more accepting to those not as cultured as I, I’ve decided to make a concession by naming what most definitely is a sauce, as gravy. I hereby extend my magnanimity to those I spent countless wasted hours trading insults with and present here, as I sit on my hands so I don’t hold my nose, my recipe for—Pasta with Chicken Gravy.

Ingredients:

3 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes

4 chicken parts (I used two chicken thighs, and two drumsticks, skin on and bone-in)

6 cloves of garlic, chopped

Two tablespoons of olive oil

Quarter cup of red wine

1lb of dried pasta (rigatoni, penne, ziti, preferable)

Salt and pepper to taste

You can make this sauce on the stove top, in fact, it’s probably the best way. If you don’t have the time to stick around the kitchen for hours, a slow cooker works and that’s how I made mine for this recipe. The result, I learned, was equal to what you would accomplish on top of the stove.

In a large frying pan, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil.

Season the chicken parts with salt and pepper. Drop into the hot pan and brown on each side. About two minutes per side. Once the chicken is browned, put it to the side.

Browning the chicken.

Browning the chicken.

Pour the crushed tomatoes into the slow cooker

Throw the garlic into the same frying pan you used for the chicken and cook on medium heat until just lightly brown; two to three minutes. If the pan is dry, add the other tablespoon of oil.

Scrape the oil and garlic into the tomatoes in the slow cooker. Return the frying pan to the stove, turn on to medium-high heat, add about a quarter cup of red wine to deglaze the pan.  Cook for about five minutes tops or until the wine cooks down.

Pour whatever liquid and bits from the chicken and garlic remain into the tomatoes in the slow cooker.

Add the browned chicken to the slow cooker.

The "gravy" is now ready to be cooked very slow.

The “gravy” is now ready to be cooked very slow.

Turn on high for one hour and then set to low for about six hours.

After six hours, if the sauce is too thin for your taste, remove the top, turn to high and cook for another hour or so with the top off until the sauce forms your preferred consistency.

Remove the chicken pieces to a separate platter.

Chicken Gravy (3)

Serve the sauce…I mean gravy…over your favorite pasta.

Top with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.

Enjoy, take a look at what’s in the bowl and keep repeating to yourself: “I am eating gravy. I am eating gravy. I am eating gravy.” Say it enough and you might even believe it.

Pasta with chicken gravy

Pasta with chicken gravy

 

The Fusion Files: French Pizza in Harlem by way of Africa.

1 Mar

French Pizza

I’ve noticed a few pizzerias in Harlem that have a French accent.

oui (7)At first glance, crepes and pizza might seem like a natural mix.

oui (5)And at Oui Oui there was a French/English menu where one of the crepes  was named for the largest city in Mali. Was I on to something here?

oui (6)Why order a pedestrian “Italiano” pizza when a merguez was available?

oui (9)And so I did. Not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised that the piquant sausage made of lamb and beef gave the pizza a very welcome kick to it and was, in my estimation, a worthy substitute to traditional Italian sweet sausage.

crepeThe “Harlem” crepe, however, was another story and one not worth dwelling on.

oui (3)Still, everything was made in Harlem. And what could be better than that?

 

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