Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Real Little Italy

Meat hanging from the ceiling of one store










The cigar rollers in the Arthur Avenue Market










Yesterday I visited Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, also referred to as the real Little Italy. No store owners trying to shoo us into their restaurants, no vendors selling obscene NY t-shirts. Apparently when the South Bronx was in the toilet Arthur Avenue was safe because of the mafia. Go figure.

We first visited the Arthur Avenue retail market which is this huge indoor market with various vendors. It's a scaled-down version of the St. Lawrence market in Toronto, except that everything here was Italian. Some of my classmates (we were there for a trip on Robert Moses' creations, but stopped at Arthur Ave for lunch) went to the deli counter and indulged in meatball heros and the salami that they claimed satisfies everyone. Others bought cigars from the cigar rollers at the entrance (the tobacco, they tell us, is from the Dominican Republic). Us girls went to the pizza stand and had some of the best sicilian pizza out there. The dough was soft yet crispy, mine was topped with a layer of fresh (and delicious) mozzarella, and the sauce had a nice sweetness to it.

Afterwards, we decided to take a stroll down Arthur Avenue. We passed by Dominick's, a family-style Italian restaurant where there's no menu... they just serve you what they feel like making that day. We passed by Mario's, where Elizabeth Taylor used to dine. We entered a pork store that smelled too intense, but I took a snapshot of the ceiling that was covered in hanging cured meat. We went to a cheese shop where they molded the semi-hard cheeses into the shapes of elephants. I wanted to buy a pound of their mozzarella but alas we still had hours to go before it could be refrigerated. Then we entered Gino's pastry shop on 187th near Arthur Ave and I bought a half dozen connoli - filled while you wait style. I have since brought them back to share with friends and all are now riled up and ready to to go to the Bronx for some more.

Of course, Arthur Avenue is not that unlike everywhere else in the city. Just as Williamsburg was complaining of losing its charm with the opening of a Subway (the restaurant franchise, not the train), we spotted both a Subway and a chinese takeout restaurant on Arthur Ave. And the MSG-tainted food actually overpowered the smell of the pungent pork products.

So I leave you with a recipe for Tiramisu since not everyone has a deep fryer with which to fry connoli. And because Kayla wanted me to include a Valentines-y dessert. Shout out!

Tiramisu
just to warn you, marscapone is mad expensive... so if you can't cook i'd suggest you try first with a cheaper dish; this takes about 8 hours to create (including nonactive cook time) and serves 8 (from the Barefoot Contessa)

6 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup good dark rum, divided
1 1/2 cups brewed espresso, divided
16 to 17 ounces mascarpone cheese
30 Italian ladyfingers, or savoiardi
Bittersweet chocolate, shaved or grated
Confectioners' sugar, optional

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on high speed for about 5 minutes, or until very thick and light yellow. Lower the speed to medium and add 1/4 cup rum, 1/4 cup espresso, and the mascarpone. Whisk until smooth.

Combine the remaining 1/4 cup rum and 1 1/4 cups espresso in a shallow bowl. Dip 1 side of each ladyfinger in the espresso/rum mixture and line the bottom of a 9 by 12 by 2-inch dish. Pour half the espresso cream mixture evenly on top. Dip 1 side of the remaining ladyfingers in the espresso/rum mixture and place them in a second layer in the dish. Pour the rest of the espresso cream over the top. Smooth the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

Before serving, sprinkle the top with shaved chocolate and dust lightly with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

Notes: To make espresso for this recipe in your electric drip coffee maker, use enough water for 4 cups of coffee plus 1/3 cup of ground espresso.

You can find savoiardi and mascarpone in an Italian specialty store.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Rise of SoHa and LoMo

In today's New York Times Dining section (at least online) they discussed some restaurants in an area that real estate giants are trying to name. I guess it's in the West West Village and potential names include WeVar (west of Varick) and HoHo (Holland Tunnel/Houston). Who knew that NYC Neighborhood Nomenclature could be so tricky? But with areas now called SpaHa (Spanish Harlem, and also the name of a restaurant in Toronto on the corner of Spadina & Harbord) and NoLIta and Carnegie Hill (aka we're not in East Harlem Yet) it's all about squeezing an extra couple hundred dollars a month out of tenants since their area "sounds nicer." Turtle Bay? Clinton? Hamilton Heights? Who are they kidding? Somehow Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt doesn't sound so out there.

SoHa has yet to find a distinct set of boundaries. It's the area between Morningside Heights and Harlem (hence South of Harlem), supposedly, although some of the bars in the 100s and Amsterdam say that they're in the "SoHa" area (remember, the infamous dive where Barnard girls danced on tables for locals?) While it sounds more swanky than Morningside Heights, per se, it seems like a name permitting students to go outside of the 110th-120th bubble without *gasp* going to Harlem. Since some of my freshman floormates a few years back were convinced that 109th and Amsterdam was, in fact, Spanish Harlem, I'm somehow not surprised that shopkeepers banked on the SoHa nomenclature.

When I first arrived at school, SoHa as I define it - the stretch along Amsterdam from 118th-125th - was more or less a void. There were some eateries: AmCaf, the only bar I'd go to, Max SoHa, Kitchenette, but it seemed more or less like an abandoned strip. I remember walking down Amsterdam to 125th with a skirt to be dry cleaned and not seeing anyone walking down the street. Now, SoHa is just booming. Honestly, the 110th-116th restaurants are really subpar, mostly because they're known for their bar scenes and not their food. But Radio Perfecto, which opened on 118th & Am a few years ago serves some decent entrees, Panino Sportivo has excellent (albeit expensive) paninis (Amsterdam btwn 120 & 121), and Max Cafe on Amsterdam & 122 is a great lounge area for the stuffy but amazing Max SoHa. Since arriving at school, Sezz Medi - known for its coal oven pizzas - opened, AmCaf became AmRaTL (or Amsterdam Restaurant and Tapas Lounge, now off-limits to undergrads), and just recently "Fresh Cafe" opened at the southeastern corner of 121 and Amsterdam. Plus, last year Turquoise Grill opened, the Israeli restaurant that I briefly served at, but that is definitely not an asset to the now-trendy SoHa. When serving at Turquoise I saw so much foot traffic on Amsterdam, hitting up these restaurants. When I lived at 122nd over the summer the same thing. They don't even need their name anymore. Store facades are getting facelifts, dry cleaners are no longer dirty, and everyone's looking to buy in. Talk about a change. Luckily, all the food coming into the neighborhood is great.

When I was a wee freshman I told my parents - eager to move to the city once my brothers were at college - that they should consider investing in LoMo. A name I invented myself, LoMo (or Lower Morningside Heights) is "that void" between 96th and 110th, the area that's not quite the Upper West Side and not close enough to Columbia for most students to venture to regularly. The area is safe, but it was visibly different - plenty of 99 cent stores, buildings being demolished, abandoned storefronts, you name it. They didn't listen. On Saturday Jon and I were walking down Broadway in LoMo to get to Indus Valley - the best Indian restaurant in walking distance - and he stopped, turned to me, and said "damn, you were right." The neighborhood really has gotten a face lift.

Ben and Jerry's opened at the corner of 104th and Broadway during my freshman year. So did Carne at 106th, PicNic at 104th, Cafe du Soleil somewhere in that vicinity, and Garden of Eden at 108th. Construction sites from freshman year are now pricey condominiums - the Opus building at 107th and Broadway was featured in the New York Time some months back as in the few million dollar range for a 3-bedroom, another highrise on 103rd has a new Gristedes on the bottom. At 100th they're building another high rise which I noticed has a girly name that now escapes me. At least some of the neighborhood joints in the area have stuck around during this mass gentrification of the area - Taqueria and Noche Mexicana are packing full houses, La Meridiana (though overly expensive) is still around, and the 99 cent stores are still lining Broadway albeit in smaller quantities.

I have witnessed culinary evolution outside of the borders of my school and the enormity of its scale when tied to gentrification. I wonder how much it will change when I revisit it for my five-year reunion in 2011. Will it be uber-yuppified? Or will it go back to being desolate? Maybe it will be the next big restaurant area - especially since the UWS had been frowned on for subpar restaurants for years. That would be nice.


Angel Hair with Checca Sauce
This dish is 'bangin.' I picked it because of the wonderful Italian food that I had last night at Max SoHa. This is actually Giada de Laurentiis' recipe (Everyday Italian) and my friends absolutely love it. All you need is a blender or a food processor to make the sauce.

8 ounces spaghettini or angel hair pasta
4 scallions (white and pale green parts only), coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 (12-ounce container) cherry tomatoes, halved
1 (1-ounce) piece Parmesan, coarsely chopped
8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, tender but still firm to the bite, stirring often, about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the next 7 ingredients in a food processor. Pulse just until the tomatoes are coarsely chopped (do not puree).

Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water. Toss the pasta with the tomato mixture and fresh mozzarella in a large bowl. Add some of the reserved pasta water (about 1/4 cup) if the sauce looks dry. Serve immediately.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The De-Evolution of the Panini

Is that even a word?

I first tried a panini when I was almost 16 and in Paris for my cousin Ben's Bar Mitzvah. At the time I was extremely fond of the "University" sandwich at Strawberry Fields - fresh mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes (added), avocado paste and balsamic vinegar on a sourdough baguette. I had actually had my first encounter with fresh mozzarella and avocado and tomato combined into sandwhich form was when I was eleven and in London after my cousin Jon's (Ben's brother) Bar Mitzvah. But back to Paris. My family and I were heading over to Musee D'Orsay and we stopped to eat lunch. Regardless of the gastronomical delicacies in Paris, Kosher food is really hard to come by out of the Marais. So we ALL got mozzarella and tomato paninis. I was skeptical at first - why would I want them heating up my good old mozzarella sandwich? - but when I noticed that the cheese was in cube form I realized that I could only eat it when it was melted. And it was delicious. It was a lot simpler than the University, the taste was fresh, the bread gave the sandwich a needed crunch and the cheese wasn't as melted as on a slice of pizza but was still chewy. Too bad America hadn't heard of the delicacy.

The summer after my freshman year I bought a George Foreman grill at Rite Aid for $19.99. Around that time the New York Times Dining section had a spread on panini makers. Apparently they had caught on. During the summer I would buy fresh mozzarella from Zabars, tomatoes from Fairway, and whole wheat rolls from Milano market and create my own panini. I sliced the cheese and put them on either side of the bread, sandwiched the tomatoes between it, wrapped the whole sandwich in tin foil and stuck it on my George Foreman (the tin foil was mostly to keep the grill somewhat kosher since I primarily used it for meat). The result was not the charred and crisp sandwich that I had endulged in on the steps of the Musee D'Orsay but nonetheless edible and filling. I made a habit of eating them regularly for dinner and saved myself a lot of money, since the little sandwiches cost about $2 apiece at most.

The spring of sophomore year Jon (my boyfriend... it gets confusing when him, my brother and my cousin and all of my other friends have the same name) and I went to Paris for Spring break. After the Holocaust most of my dad's family moved there and with the exception of my dad's nuclear family, all still reside there. We were on total student budgets - we stayed at my dad's cousin - Jean-Jacques' - house in a French suburb (a block from 'La Varenne' station, and close to the riots this year) and bought weekly metro passes into the city. We lunched with my dad's cousin Patricia, went to her house right by Jim Morrison's grave for dinner, and only endulged in the 10-euro prix fixe meals when in the Latin Quarter. We managed to come back without being completely broke only because we lived off of paninis for a week.

They were everywhere.

Whether we were near the Musee D'Orsay or in the Latin Quarter or in La Marais or lost in a residential district we could take solace in the three-euro sandwiches. They were enormous and fresh and crisp and warm and we probably ate a dozen between the two of us. That and the smoked salmon and baguettes that we would buy at the Monoprix and eat in random parks were what filled our tummies during lunchtime.

When I returned to New York I was happy to see signs in nearly every deli marking that the panini had arrived. Yet I was disappointed to see their interpretation of the panini. The closest thing to the mozzarella one (aptly named 'Fromage et Tomate') was the 'Meatless Panini' - so named by every deli and lunchtime joint. The filling: "Fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, fresh sundried tomatoes, fresh spinach, fresh pesto on fresh European flatbread." I kid you not. Yet the Mozzarella is often dry, the spinach gets lodged between my teeth, and the "European flatbread" is soggy AND has fake grillmarks (you'll notice that they're present on the bread before they go to the grill). At $6+ it was also more expensive than the 3 Euro panini, which, given a dreadful exchange rate was still no more than $4. I won't complain about them being made in advance, because that's what they did in Paris (no substitutions like you can get in NY or LA) but this was so unappetizing.

I am assuming that panini bread and its innards are now being mass produced and shipped everywhere from Hamilton Deli to Jubilee to Pret a Manger to Cafe 75. When I was a freshman I wanted to do none other than create a restaurant with a toss-your-own salad bar and a make your own panini bar and all that jazz and have it be fresh. Now I notice that such establishments exist yet the quality is just hideous. I was at work today (right in Rockefeller Center) and decided that the cafe downstairs just wasn't cutting it for lunch so I walked down the street. I was disappointed in my lunch options. While they do offer some fancy sitdown options, all of the 'grab and go' meals are exactly the same. Maybe it keeps employees from venturing to establishments outside of the building. Nevertheless, mediocre (and not that cheap either) lunch food has become the norm. And they've taken the dear panini with it.

Thus, the Panini's evolution has fallen into a downward spiral into the stomachs of New Yorkers with no appreciation for the real cheap and tasty sandwich.

The 'Fromage et Tomates' Panini (NOT the Meatless)
If you don't have a panini grill (by the way, Uris has two available for your use by the seating area) you can use a George Foreman. If that doesn't work, use Rachael Ray's technique of sticking the sandwich onto a frying pan and weighing it down with a cast iron skillet.

- crusty baguette or another crusty roll (like sourdough)
- 4 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced
- 4 thin slices tomato
- balsamic vinaigrette (or balsamic vinegar and oil), apply as desired

Slice the bread horizontally. Sprinkle with vinaigrette. Place 1/2 of the mozzarella on the bottom half of the bread, followed by the tomato and then the other half. Close it with the rest of the bread and wrap in tin foil (optional). Place on/in a hot grill until the cheese is melted but not oozing. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Walk Through the Village























(the photos are of top: the official Magnolia cupcakes and bottom: our version of the heavenly desserts)

This weather has been uncanny. But the unseasonably mild Saturdays, where the sun is shining and everyone outside is wearing sweaters - just sweaters - is really killing whatever work ethic I had left. Just over a week ago, it was one of those Saturdays and I was feeling quite anxious. I realized that I had just under a guaranteed five months left in New York, yet I had not ventured into many a "dining landmark." So, with Jon in tow, I took the 1 to Times Square and transferred to either the N, Q, R, or W to Union Square.

When I say Dining Landmark I do not mean Alain Ducasse @ the Essex House or Nobu or Babbo. I mean those locations where you have to wait for the ONE specialty of the house. The few locations that tourists are willing to venture to even though they're not near Times Square or the World Trade Center site. And the places where even New Yorkers - who will risk their right arm to keep a subway door open (to safe a few minutes) - will wait and wait and wait.

After getting out of the station we noticed that a few of the Greenmarket vendors had actually set up shop. Tempted but unwilling to shell out $3 for a loaf of bread (only because I knew it would be gone within hours) I passed by the stands and instead stopped by the vender selling politically charged buttons. Since the strap of my sling-backpack is lined with buttons I generally get a lot of attention when I pass by such vendors. These buttons were a tad too big for my liking but I bought Jon a Ghandi bumper sticker for his fridge and the man gave us a Hindu Vegetarian Cookbook for free. Wow, warm January weather makes New Yorkers really nice.

We walked along Tenth Street where we passed the remains of Second Avenue Deli. Tragic, isn't it? After taking a few snapshots (other passerby were too) we continued our trek east, and Jon was amazed by the row houses gracing the streets. Times like these make me grow slightly jealous of the NYU crowd even though I love Upper West Side and Harlem architecture. These were just so... dainty. Like ones that you would see in the Food Network's Gingerbread House competition.

Eventually we were on 10th and Avenue A and I was confused because we hadn't passed Veneiro's yet. THAT'S the type of dining establishment that I was talking about. While I tried to call everyone in my phonebook that might point me in the right direction, I finally walked up to 11th and saw the sign. After entering into the crowded take-out section and grabbing a number Jon and I proceeded to wait a good 20 minutes for three - yes three - cannoli (one for my friend Julia as well).

We then walked westward along 11th and inevitably through Historic Greenwich Village. Somehow I have never paid attention to these houses, but damn are they gorgeous. Again, I can only aspire to live there but... WOW. They're just these old, classy, pre-war brownstones that have the type of "landmark" feel to them. Of course, to tone down my envy I said to Jon "well, this is soooo unliveable. There aren't any grocery stores nearby." Then I spotted a Fresh Direct box laying near a trash receptacle. I could only imagine a giant truck parking itself on this prim and proper New York street.

Eventually we hit Bleecker and from the smell and the mob ahead of us I knew we made it. Magnolia Bakery. The line was at least 50 deep and wrapped around the corner with a mix of international tourists, college students and tried-and-true locals. The scent was like that of a cotton candy machine - really sweet and warm. I realized that we were probably in line near the ventilation because as we grew closer and closer to the door the scent vanished. After waiting (rather impatiently) for our cupcakes the bouncer - yes, they have a bouncer - allowed us into the tiny bakery. We bought 14 cupcakes (there's a limit of 12 per person) and a small banana pudding since that too is one of Magnolia's gems. We devoured a cupcake a piece in the nearby park, sitting at a chess table, and brought the rest back with us to the dorm.

Later that evening, with Julia we partook in a sweetfest of cannoli and cupcakes and I realized that THIS is what I'll miss about New York. Not necessarily the items themselves but just these independently owned (albeit rather sold-out) specialty shops. Aside from Veneiro and Magnolia there are the Pickle Guys, Crif Dogs (which I have never been too), Doughnut Plant... you get it. They're the type of place that won't have substitutions, where when the product's gone then baby it's gone (I've been to Doughnut Plant when there were only 2 varieties left - at 3pm), and where New Yorkers will actually wait their turn. How do bakeries and pickle stores get people to act civilized?.

Of course, once the cupcakes were gone Jon was going through withdrawal so I whipped up a new batch. Since the actual cake of the cupcake was not very memorable I bought a box of organic vanilla cake mix from Whole Foods (the subject of my next blog) and so the dessert was - as Sandra Lee would put it - Semi-Homemade. The Buttercream Frosting is what is what draws the masses into the itsy-bitsy storefront and thanks to my KitchenAid Stand Mixer it was a cinch to make. Here are the pics of the authentic and homemade Magnolia cupcakes.



Magnolia Cupcakes
- make some cupcakes according to the instructions on a box of cupcake mix
Frosting (as in the official buttercream frosting):
2 sticks of butter (1 cup)
6-8 cups of confectioner's sugar
1/2 c. milk
2 tsp vanilla (you can be more generous here)
food coloring

Cream the butter and 4 cups of the sugar. Add in the milk and vanilla. Now add in the remaining sugar gradually until it has the consistency of a spreadable frosting. You may not need to use all 8 cups but when I made it I used about 7. Add food coloring of your choice until the frosting is pastel colored. Put frosting in piping bag and squeeze out said frosting in a circular motion over each cupcake until each one is covered in buttercreamy goodness. Garnish with sprinkles. (Enough frosting for 24 cupcakes at least)