Friday, December 08, 2006

A Few Slices of Heaven

Ok- I know I promised it could be done, so here it is: a list of my favorite pizzerias in the five boros. The list is separated by boro, but other than that, not in any particular order, just in the order I thought of them…. And one more thing… I know there are so many more places out there, really great places that I won’t mention here because I haven’t been there, so before you start telling me my list isn’t definitive, just understand… this list is really the only one you need! ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

New York (Manhattan, to the tourists)

La Traviata 101 W 68th St
(b/t Broadway and Columbus)

Great gas oven pizza; crust is crisp and soft in all the right spots; right amount of everything – cheese, sauce, toppings; speaking of toppings, this is the only place I know of that will make a pie with green olives, a huge favorite of mine; I used to cab it to this place when I moved just outside of the delivery zone-its that good

Delizia Pizzeria
1374 1st Ave
(b/t 73rd and 74th St)

Like Traviata, good gas oven pizza; nice crust and overall a repeater; great location on the East Side; nice antipasto salad, but that’s off topic…

Steve’s Pizza 110 Trinity Pl
(@Cedar St)

Love this place for it’s heavy slices; cheese, cheese, and did I mention cheese?; always way too hot on that first bite, but there’s no other way to eat it; working Downtown, this was one of my favorite post-Happy Hour stops- always hit the spot

The Bronx

Full Moon Pizzeria
600 E 187th St (@ Arthur Ave.)

This is my First “Place” from when I was a kid, back when it was the Half Moon and was a few doors down on 187th St; texture on this pie is unbelievable- perfect grit of semolina on the bottom and edge; Sicilian slice here buries everyone else in the traditional NY pizza world; crisp on bottom and a good coating of sauce and cheese lay on a pillow-like - no, make that a cloud-like layer of soft dough; pair it off with a Manhattan Special… man- it’s unbeatable

Louie and Ernie's
1300 Crosby Ave
(Pelham Bay)

Louie and Ernie's, wow- walking down those short stairs as a kid, I remember the smell hitting me and my stomach starts rumbling, even now; I have distinctive childhood memories about a great Sausage Pie from here,memories that were confimed and validated by The Hungry Cabbie:


Nick's Pizza
108-26 Ascan Ave
(Forest Hills)

Nice pizza; thin crust where the sauce can get a little soupy; great flavor though, with plenty of fresh basil

Ciro’s Pizzeria
11303 Beach Channel Dr
(Rockaway Park)

Great pizza; thin crust without flopping and getting sloppy; pretty standard, but memorable


J&A Pizza
7820 New Utrecht Ave
(@78th St)

Great pizza made by a father and son team; right at the base of the stairs to the train; great slices; always hot, always fresh; crust has a great taste; two slices and a soda here are a delicious way to ruin your appetite for dinner on the way home

1969 86th St

Great pie; great flavor, cheese, sauce and not too much grease; really good Sicilian too; one of the last places to not bow to conventional nutritional demands- you can still get a fried calzone here, but like the antipasto salad at Delizia, that would be off topic

19 Old Fulton St

A little bit of coalfired history here; great, great pizza; paper-thin crisp crust; FRESH MOZZ ONLY!! (what a shame- I HATE to see that); great sauce, very fresh; nice well-done, almost burnt edges give every pie a character of its own; lotsa fresh basil- all around a must have

L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th St

No list of pizzerias in Brooklyn would be complete without this; the square here is definitely the star attraction; in a little twist, you’ll find the sauce over the cheese; the flavor is distinctive, nothing in any of the boro’s even comes close to the taste or the texture; it can be a little messy, so I always tried to get a slice with a “handle” ; this stuff is addictive; everyone said I was crazy for going all the way there to pick up a pie from 16th Ave and 82nd St, but there were just those times I had to have it; and there is no substitute once the L & B craving hits you

Staten Island

I don't make it out to Staten Island all that often for pizza, between the bridge hassle and all the great pizza so close to home... Anyone want to help me out?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Great Cuppa Joe

If I stop and think about how much coffee I have probably consumed in my life, astronomical figures start racking up in my head. Not that I can think about it and say "This one particular cup of coffee on this day was the best I have ever had"; my recall is good, but not that good. Generally speaking though, I always have a sense for when and where I have had good coffee. So many great cups of coffee at just the right temperature, with just the right flavor. Not a single one of them has ever come from Starbucks, Peet's, or any other corporate chain.
My favorite coffee comes in a blue and white cup with Corinthian columns and gold lettering thanking me for my patronage and asking me to please call again... and let me tell you, that cup is a magic cup. I’m almost sure that it’s impossible to serve a bad cup of coffee in one of those cups. These magic cups can be found in most diners, corner deli’s, and nearly all of those beautiful silver coffee carts that can be found on almost any corner of My Fair City.
The people in these carts spend most of the year braving one extreme weather condition or another: in the winter, they freeze and in the summer, they bake. The thing that remains constant is the fantastic coffee. No need to ask them to “leave some room”, either. Unlike those high priced cups of Corporate Coffee, these purveyors of caffeinated goodness will actually prepare your coffee for you. Why fool around with trying to judge just how much milk and sugar to put in? Their bargain rate buys the services of an expert, someone who makes hundreds of cups of coffee everyday. Sorta how Mom always knew just the right way to make your sang-wich.
And you won't need a pocket translator to order, either. You have your basic sizes of small and large. You have decaf and regular. Skim or regular milk. You can ask for your coffee by depth of color, too:light, half-and half (for those mornings you want to treat yourself), regular, dark, or black. And you can ask for your sugar by the count, making for easy combos- regular with one sugar, for example. In short, you can order your coffee (note I said coffee, not coffee flavored drink) any way you want it. And I was always happy to be able to retain my dignity and masculinity by not having to resort to some ridiculous made up name to ask for a good old cuppa joe.
I still remember going to my "coffee guy" on the corner of New St. and Exchange Pl... after the first two or three days, he had my "usual" down- large coffee, milk, half a sugar, and a buttered roll. The tab? A whopping $1.50. Can you believe it? And the coffee actually came with the milk and sugar put in it! The coffee was hot and delicious, not burned; the roll was fresh, topped with poppy seeds and had likely been baked in the “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (ahh, Frank), not delivered by some refrigerator truck from headquarters, wrapped in plastic with a nutrition label slapped on the back and an ingredients list a mile long. Of course, just to keep it interesting, I would have to throw the occasional curveball. Large regular with two buttered rolls (regular in the City means milk, but across the River in Jersey, ask for regular and you are likely to get some sugar in there too). Or I might opt for a danish. But that great coffee was a constant. And always in those special cups.
Around here, I can’t find a decent cup of coffee for a reasonable price (sometimes even for a not-so-reasonable price), not to mention the requisite buttered roll to pair off with it. The chains have convinced the masses that it is ok to spend $3 on a cup of coffee. So, these days, I mainly drink my own brew. My brother sends me the coffee from the same store my grandmother used to go to in the Bronx and I use an old percolator espresso pot on top of the stove. Sometimes, if you want something done right… But when I go Home, I always make sure I get over to have breakfast on my old corner, eating and drinking some of the best food on Earth.
Hey, if you are lucky enough to be in the City at breakfast time, whether you are just getting up or just getting in, make sure you stop and grab a great cuppa joe in that beautiful blue and white cup. It’s the only way to go. ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Monday, September 25, 2006

When the Moon hits your eye...

OK- so now we are going to move on to something near and dear to my Big Guinea heart... Pizza. I never feel more at home than when I have a coupla slices in front of me and (hopefully) a Manhattan Special chaser. I won't begin to try and write about my favorite places to partake of the pie while in New York. There isn't enough room here to impart all the delicious details and, if there was, who really has THAT kind of time?!?? (...I don't know if I could even just LIST all the places... actually, I'm sure I could, but that will have to wait for another day...)

First and foremost, I like my own pizza best while in California. However, I don't always have time to build a fire in the brick oven out back, let it burn for two hours to get the temperature up, break out the dough and everything else involved... Sometimes I just wanna walk in, grab two slices and wash 'em down with a little carbonated sugar water. When I get to feeling that way and I'm in Southern California, there are only a few places "on the outside" that will do.

In Los Angeles, I have found two places that can really call what they make 'pizza' and both are owned by NY transplants. The first one I found was Albano's (officially Albano's Brooklyn Pizzeria), a little place on Melrose Ave, on the north side just west of La Brea. First time I walked in and took a deep breath, I knew I was in the right place. These guys make a great pie. Actually, they make a lot of great pies. My two tops are the plain slice- the benchmark by which you can judge all pizzerias- and their white pie with spinach. Both are pretty heavy on the garlic; not overdone- just enough to carry you back to Brooklyn. Great ambiance too. Plaster walls covered with some Brooklyn love- a picture of MY bridge with MY Towers in the background and the REAL Dodgers. The rest of the wall is covered with signatures, well wishes, and signed headshots. Lotta familiar faces- niiice.

My other LA spot is in Venice- the Abbot's Pizza Company, a pizzeria also started by some guys from NY. This place makes a nice pie, thin crust and just the right amount on top. They also do something I have only seen at one other place (Pietro's in East Meadow LI); they line the edge of the crust with a topping of its own: you get a choice of sesame, poppy, onion, garlic, or "the blend". Because of this "seed "condition, their pizza is often called Bagel Crust pizza. You also get a choice of sauces (Olive pesto, garlic pesto, alfredo, and of course, tomato sauce) I'm a purist- I really don’t delve into the "optional" sauce categories all that much. And Sesame seed is as adventurous as I have gone with the crust. If I wanted a bagel, I'd get a bagel and some lox- that's a whole different animal. In general, I stick with a good old regular crust, the way the good Lord intended us to eat it. I have two favorites here also: their plain pie (of course) and the Popeye Chicken Pie, with spinach, mushrooms, onions, and marinated chicken over the olive pesto sauce. Normally I don't go that far off the block when it comes to pizza, but this one is really good. Definitely worth a try.

Further south in San Diego, I have one more spot that hits home with me. They even got the name right: Bronx Pizza. It is a place started by a few guys from the Bronx (and one guy from Huntington). Are we starting to see a pattern here? These guys started in a little place with a great approach: the "2 slices and a soda" deal. Last time I checked it was $6, which is ok, I guess. You get two slices of any pizza you see and a fountain soda. There is always a good variety in the case, with vegetables, meat, and white pizza available almost all the time. They make a great plain pie and their sausage pie is great, too: lots of meat and great flavor. Plus, it’s about the only place I can go in San Diego and get a little NY attitude. The walls are covered with all kinds of NY memorabilia- a map of the Belmont section of the Bronx (Mom's old neighborhood) and a great mural that you can see from sitting at their "counter" seats are most notable.

Now- here comes the disclaimer: while in Southern California, I can recommend all of these places. They represent the best of what exists in the pizza business in this area. If we were in NY, who knows? Things would probably be a little different. There is more competition and that only brings improvement. Given the option, we all know I'd be in NY eating a coupla slices. I am, however, here... in this place... eating this stuff.

Hey, I love my own pizza, but if I have to go to the "outside", the only three options are Albano's , Abbot's, and Bronx Pizza. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Omakase, Itamae-san

Probably one of the best things I have learned about food here in California is that the sushi here is unbelievable. Don't get me wrong, I have a handful of favorite spots that I can't live without in New York- mostly small, quiet places (like Mori, Tomoe, Koodo- mmmmmmmmm, Koodo) But the sushi on the left coast is killer; I suppose it doesn't hurt that so much of the fish comes from the Pacific, giving it a better shot at freshness.

Now, I'm not saying ALL the sushi out here is great- it definitely isn't. I've paid the tab on some sub-standard meals, and let me tell you- The Big Guy was not too happy about that. But I digress; I am here to talk about Good Food, not bad. Having said that, I will tell you that my best "full experience" in a sushi restaurant was in Downtown LA at a great little place called Sushi Sharin. The first time I popped in there, I opened the door and almost retreated. The room was pretty full, and it didn't sound like anyone was speaking English. I was more than a little intimidated. I stayed, though, and I'm really glad that I did.

The true "experience" came on my third or fourth visit. I sat down and gave full control of my meal that night to Itamae-san (the chef). This was probably the single smartest move I have ever made in any restaurant. It's like going to Sunday dinner at Gramma's house- she knows all the right stuff to make and all the things that she makes best.

I ate so many different foods that night that I never would have known to try, more new tastes and textures than I have ever had in one sitting. Everything, from the crispy, fried baby mackerel (yes- you eat the whole thing, bones and all) to the uni that finished my meal- was spot-on. Somewhere along the way, I had a small bowl with broth, vegetables, and a couple of pieces of cooked fish that had the most fantastic, clean taste. I mean I could actually taste the fish. The texture was perfect- firm, yet giving as my teeth went into it. The bit of seaweed salad with a touch of ginger mixed in was ideal. The simplicity of all of it was one of the most refreshing and exciting parts of this experience. There were so many delicious tidbits from start to finish that I had never known about, and still feel like I don't really know about. It was impossible to keep up with what everything was.

There was an older couple sitting next to me (late sixties, easily- maybe older). They went from speaking Japanese with the chef to speaking English with me seamlessly. They spent part of the evening encouraging me to "put the chopsticks down and eat with your fingers" and part of the time watching me like parents looking at their child eating for the first time. I think they were surprised by the range of what I found palatable. By the end of the meal, I think I had won some respect for my open attitude towards the meal, especially the uni. The gentleman even questioned the chef as he prepared it and passed it over to me. Itamae-san smiled, though; I'm sure he remembered I had ordered and raved about it on each of my previous visits.

Every piece of fish I ate was ideal. It was fresh and firm. The cuts were just right: generous, but not Godzilla sized (can I say that?!??). The rice was certainly fresh, also. And perfectly seasoned with a touch of vinegar and sugar balancing the light stripe of wasabi painted onto the rice under each piece of fish in the nigiri-sushi.

Itamae- san knows his business- the sequence of my meal,the varying of taste and texture, and the perfect bottle of cold sake that he chose to go with it- all of this combined to create a lasting impression.

In Downtown LA, Sushi Sharin is the place to go for a "full-experience" sushi dinner. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Sushi Sharin
359 E. 1st St
Los Angeles

239 Park Ave South
New York

172 Thompson St
New York

129 Front St, Lower level
New York

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On the Hunt for some New York Soul Food

Footnote to the Boar's Head marketing department on that one- I never thought about it as such, but it seems so elementary. Pastrami and Corned Beef definitely qualify as New York Soul Food. Places like Katz's and the Second Avenue Deli (RIP) are staples to the NYC diet. They provide a real comfort meal that is tough to find once you venture off the Isle of Man(hattan), if you expect even a minimal amount of quality and flavor. When I started working in LA, I knew that I would have to find something to keep the tastebuds happy. I read about a place called Langer's on a few websites and figured I had to try it.

I could not have been happier. I stepped in and immediately felt at home- from the long counter and the red vinyl booths to the smells coming from the deli counter; everything was dead on. I immediately sat down, looked at the huge menu, and wiped a joyful tear from the corner of my eye.

The menu was filled with delights I haven't seen since before I migrated to the West. I hardly knew where to begin. As a newcomer to the area, I took the suggestion of the sign I saw coming in. I ordered the #19 (Pastrami, Swiss, and Russian, with Cole Slaw on the sandwich) on what I sincerely hoped would be a decent rye bread (I have had a hard time finding good bread, being as spoiled as I am from the last three decades of so many carbohydrate options) and a Dr Browns Black Cherry as a chaser.
The plate hit the table and if appearances meant anything, I was definitely in the right place. The meat was piled high, in an even spread across the bread. The juices of the Cole Slaw dribbled enticingly down the side, begging to be licked away.

The first bite assured me that I was right. The Pastrami was perfect- tasty, flavorful, not overly salted, and just enough fat to keep it tender(Pastrami was never really meant to be eaten "extra-lean", no matter what your doctor tells you). The sweet-spicy Cole Slaw only enhanced the levels of taste. And the bread.... oh the bread.... was that a crunch I detected as I took that first bite from the edge? I had to take a second bite off the other edge to be sure. Eureka! Nirvana! Heaven! I had finally found what I had searched for over the past year or so that I was here: a bread that was soft on the inside and had a crisp crust on the outside. The bread was perfect.

Now, before any of my NYC brethren come out here with a baseball bat, I am not drawing comparisons to Katz's Pastrami... like a good parent, I can love them both. Besides, unless I had a side by side, freshly made sandwich from each, it would be tough to call. Hey, look- I'm from NY so Katz's will always be at the top of my list, it's special to me like everything else in that Great City is. But I don't get the option of a Katz's sandwich here (I've called, and no way they'll deliver a sandwich here). In LA, Langer's is number one in the Pastrami department. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so.

Langer's Delicatessen
704 South Alvarado
Los Angeles

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

And so it begins...

Sooo... at the suggestion of my best friend's wife, I am embarking on a side career as a blogger. To give you a little background, I am a 32 year old male of Italian(Sicilian)-Irish descent. I spent a few years behind the line in the restaurant business and I have spent the last 10+ years in the Securities Industry. I'm not sure which of these two career paths helped me develop my palate. Maybe it was neither of these; maybe it was the years of exposure to the fantastic cooking of Mom, Grandma, and Great Grandma... I'll have to give that one a little more thought.
Until recently, I had spent my entire life living in and around the five boros. Now, I live in a place where.... well, let me just say I'm still getting used to the idea of the ocean being on the wrong side and a general lack of rain, even on cloudy days. OK OK- I'll cop to it already- I live in Southern California; during the week I work in LA and I spend the rest of my time in San Diego. Now as a die-hard, hardcore New Yorker, I have had to try very hard to give this place a fair shake- especially in the food department. I have to admit, though, that it is growing on me. I spend a lot of my time looking for good food and pondering the wonders of the universe. I really want to use this blog to share my thoughts about food for the most part, but I'm sure that other things are going to creep in also. Well, like a good "best-man" speech, I'll keep this one short; next time, I promise to write about a food experience in one of the cities I have lived in (which city will depend on how homesick or nostalgic I am feeling)