Tag Archives: vodka sauce

The Happiest of All Hours: WXOU Radio

27 Feb

WXOUWhen I was a kid, I used to listen to the transistor radio at night and pull in AM radio stations from as far away as St. Louis and Detroit. I knew then that the stations west of the Mississippi River began their call letters with a K and conversely with a W east of the river, where I was from. I knew this because at night, when the stations’ signals were clearest, I could hear St. Louis Blues hockey games and in the summer, Jack Buck calling St. Louis Cardinal baseball games from KMOX in St. Louis.

I found out later, the early 1990’s to be precise, that there was a KCOU in Columbia, Missouri that is the University of Missouri’s flagship radio station. I know this because on the Upper West Side there  was a no-frills, some might say, dive bar called KCOU. Maybe the owners of KCOU went to the University of Missouri. I didn’t know and I never asked. It was just the name of a place I would go to early and often; mainly for the bar’s happy hour which began, I believe, at four in the afternoon and lasted until eight at night. The happy hour featured a two-for-one deal on anything you wanted—there were no restrictions as many bars institute now where the two-for-one deal applies only for “well” drinks made with the house booze, usually far from top shelf.


At KCOU my preferred cocktail at the time was a Stoli on the rocks with a wedge of lemon. And the bartenders, who of course I became very friendly with, would not skimp on the pour, generously filling the four ounce glass to the rim. Along with the drinks, big bowls of salted peanuts or mixed nuts were complimentary. On many nights those bowls of nuts, which were replenished whenever emptied, would serve as my evening meal.

The cocktail of choice at KCOU.

The cocktail of choice at KCOU.

The bar had an eclectic juke box and was usually very quiet at least until eight when the imploding frat scene that was taking over the stretch of Amsterdam Avenue where KCOU was located would begin to infiltrate the space. By then, after too many two-for-ones, it was lights out for me anyway.

To my dismay, the frat scene implosion eventually forced KCOU out of its Amsterdam Avenue location. But I quickly learned that there was a sister “radio” bar named WXOU on Hudson Street, diagonally across from the legendary White Horse Tavern.

Though a subway schlep from where I lived uptown prevented WXOU from replicating KCOU’s home away from home status, I would make my way downtown often enough to enjoy the similar happy hour atmosphere at the cozier WXOU. The bar had the same two-for-one policy and even the complimentary bowl of nuts in the identical white bowls that I was familiar with from KCOU. The juke box was, I was happy to see, almost a carbon copy of the uptown version. The major difference was that WXOU was much more popular than its late uptown brother. In the West Village, the happy hour at WXOU was a hit; the chances of a frat implosion on this stretch of Hudson Street was remote.

Once upon a time at a dive named...

Once upon a time at a dive named…

After probably a decade long absence, I returned to WXOU recently and discovered, happily, that it was pretty much exactly as I remembered it. The posters for the movies “Stranger than Paradise,” and “Once Upon A Time in America,” were in the same spots they were when I last visited. Same with the picture of the old Brooklyn Dodgers and the portrait of Jackie Robinson. The WXOU radio clock still stood where it did before; in the back of the bar near the restrooms. I flipped through the juke box selections. They were still top notch.

Jackie Robinson was still there.

There were changes, however. The happy hour, which I noticed now began at three, was no longer two-for-one. Pints of draft beers were a mere four dollars and, like it had at pretty much every drinking establishment, the beer list expanded to include microbrews and beers from Belgium that I never knew existed back during my “two-for-one” period.

I ordered a Spaten, a German beer from the bartender, a female with multiple colorful tattoos on her forearms. Along with the beer, I was given a bowl of nuts. Upon further inspection, the bowl of nuts included some of that other crunchy, salty stuff; pretzel pieces, honey coated almonds, mini-crackers, and those salty sesame sticks.

Spaten and nuts

Spaten and nuts

I sipped the beer and stared at the “All Cash. No Red Bull” sign above the bar. It was still daylight outside and from my perch at the bar I watched the activity on Hudson Street. Fathers, more than mothers, I noticed were accompanying their young children home from what must be a nearby school.


I finished the pint—and then another. The Animals were on the juke box: “We’ve Gotta Get out of this Place.” I was in no rush to leave this place, but I gathered my belongings and collected what remained of my money on the bar, minus a tip.  The last thing I did before I left was to grab a handful of the crunchy salty stuff from the white bowl and while walking out, tossed a few  into my mouth.

The view from my perch.

The view from my perch.

WXOU Radio Bar
558 Hudson Street

On Pizza, Pomodoros, Putin, and Putinka

27 Nov

I’m a purist in many ways. With few exceptions, I don’t like fusion—unless I’m creating the fusion. When given the choice, as I always am, tap water works for me at a restaurant. I scoff at all the sauces presented to compliment a broiled or grilled piece of prime meat that should need no compliment.  I don’t buy flavored seltzers. If I want lemon or lime, I can easily add my own to plain seltzer.

And the same can be said for vodka. Who needs cranberry flavored seltzer when a splash of cranberry juice will suffice? That is, unless I’m in the outstanding Russian Samovar, sitting at the bar and trying to decide which of their house made infused vodkas I should order. Maybe start with a shot of ginger followed by the coriander? See, there are exceptions. I’m not totally unmovable on this.

The Russian Samovar Collection

The state of today’s pizza, I’m afraid, has been a serious blow to my purist sensibilities. You enter a pizzeria now and the cold, congealed varieties presented under Plexiglas counters are staggering. The pies are covered with everything from broccoli to kale, from barbecued shrimp to Buffalo chicken strips.

I like my pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella; preferably more of the former and lighter on the latter. I have been known to throw on some anchovies to improve a mediocre pie. Beyond that, I have no interest in sausage, pepperoni, meatball, mushrooms or any of the usual toppings.

Adding to the ever-growing assortment of pizzas is pizza with “vodka” sauce—the spin on penne a la vodka. I know pizza with vodka sauce is not a new phenomenon. I guess I just put it out of my mind,  desperately trying to deny its existence despite it’s increasing popularity.

I’ve made penne a la vodka myself. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of. I use cheap, local canned tomatoes. Who cares about the quality of the tomatoes if I’m adding cream to it—and vodka? And when I go into my vodka stash just to have it fuse with the sorry canned tomatoes and cream I cringe. It’s one thing to waste a few splashes of red wine in a sauce, it’s quite another to use some of the precious Russian clear stuff.

Well, not always Russian. Sometimes it might be Swedish, Danish, or even from some place in Texas.

Penne a la vodka is an amiable and infrequent diversion. It’s like the undercard of a heavyweight bout; the opening act for standouts like Neck Bones Tomato Sauce  or  Neck Bones Anchovy Sauce, pesto, or the perennial champ: marinara sauce.

So why would I ever be interested in the undercard of a topping for pizza? I wouldn’t. Or I thought I wouldn’t until recently. The lure was drawing me in. Was I missing something here? And how could I comment on something I’d never experienced?

The sign said it all: “Home of the famous vodka sauce.” There was even a banner flapping in the wind above Spring Street advertising “vodka pizza.” The place was called Pomodoro and apparently vodka sauce was their trademark. If I were ever going to experience a slice of pizza with vodka sauce, I would guess this would be the place.

I surveyed the countless array of already made pies under the Plexiglas counter for the vodka pie, but my eyes, inexperienced at least regarding vodka pizza, could not identify one.

I asked the man behind the counter for a slice of vodka. He took out a pie that looked like any other “regular” pie and cut out a slice which he threw into the oven to heat. A few moments later it was presented to me.

Vodka slice from Pomodoro

My normal reflex whenever eating a slice of pizza is to grab for the red pepper flakes and sprinkle generously over the slice. I did the same here not knowing that the vodka pizza was already spicy.

The slice was coated with chunks of very good, albeit spicy, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella while the only negative was that the crust was a little on the thick side for my taste. It was a more than commendable slice. Still, I was puzzled. I admit to being a vodka pizza virgin, but was this what a slice of vodka pizza tasted like? It didn’t taste anything like my penne a la vodka. Where was the vodka in the vodka slice?

So they called it something other than what it really was. It didn’t matter. I liked the pizza and brought a few slices home to give it another shot. This time I thought maybe, instead of beer, my usual accompaniment to pizza, I would accompany the vodka slice with vodka.

For the occasion I had a Russian named Putinka in my refrigerator. An apparent tribute to Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the Putinka also billed itself as “soft,” vodka, whatever that meant. Was soft vodka the equivalent to light beer? I hoped not. And really, would the former Lieutenant Colonel of the KGB want a vodka named after him that was billed as “soft?”

Soft vodka

Either way, I reheated the vodka slice and poured a shot of Putinka over ice. I sipped and then took a bite. The vodka, soft or not, gave me the familiar and comforting burn that, I discovered, paired brilliantly with the so-called vodka pizza.

I finished the vodka and the pizza a bit too quickly and then realized something that should have been obvious to me—something that conformed to my purist sensibilities. There was no need to search out a pre-made vodka sauce pizza where, most likely, the vodka sauce wouldn’t be up to your own standards. Just like adding your own flavor to your pure vodka, you could do the same with this pizza. All you needed was a warm slice of pizza and a cold Russian in the refrigerator.

51 Spring Street

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