Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Go Fig-ure!

Ok- so my administrative skills could use some work... gonna need to hire someone to keep an eye on things around here. Coulda sworn I had posted this one months ago. (I know it says August 22, but I didn't really get this one up till early January) Anyway- better late than never.

I stopped at the farmers market on Sunday and made a great find. One of the vendors had Figs. Brought me back to the tree in my backyard in Brooklyn, a white fig tree that stood up surprisingly well against some harsh winters and put out some of the sweetest figs I've ever eaten.

So I bought a tray of these, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst... it was a mixed tray of Italian strawberry figs and black figs. After picking up a few more things, I headed home and made one quick stop at a deli on the way. Even if the figs were good, a little prosciutto would make them great. And then, if the figs weren't so good, I would at least have a little prosciutto to eat... either way, it would be a win for me.

I got home, poured a little something to go with them and dove in. I was shocked- here it was August, about a month ahead of what was usually the start of good figs from my old tree, and I was tearing through some of the best figs I had ever eaten. They were big and soft and perfectly ripe- inside was sweet as honey. They were promptly paired off with some of that thinly sliced prosciutto and devoured with little regard for fingers.

I tell ya- it was definitely the highlight of the day... maybe the week. The pair off was a little bit of perfection. A little salt, a little sweet... what else is there? A great flavor for late August. They were so good, I didn't save any for the grill... guess I'll have to get some more next week.

There is nothing like a nice mange after spending some time at the farmer's market. If the season is right and you're looking for a quick bite that will keep your mouth happy all day, you have to go with the figs and prosciutto. There really isn't a better way this time of year. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Time to get my Guinea up...

Here's a little something that SAB, keeper of the wisdom, sent my way... and just so you know, the qualifier at the beginning could have been much shorter; it would have covered everybody if it just said "all those who are Italian and all those who wish they were"... 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!


Capeeshe Italiano........ I'm sending this out to every person I know who is Italian, could be Italian, married an Italian, lived with Italians or wants to be Italian......!!!!!

Let's start at the beginning. Come stai? Molto bene. Bon giorno. Ciao. Arrivederci. Every Italian from Italy knows these words and every Italian-American should. But what about the goomba speech pattern? Those words and phrases that are a little Italian, a little American, and a little slang . Words every Paesano and Baccia galoop we have heard, - words we hear throughout our Little Italy neighborhood of New York This form of language, the "Goomba-Italiano " has been used for generations. It's not gangster slang terms like "whack" or "vig", if that's what you are thinking---nope, this is real Guido talk!

The goomba says ciao when he arrives or leaves. He says Mama Mia anytime emotion is needed in any given situation. Mannaggia, meengya, oofah, and of course, va fongool can also be used. Capeesh? He uses a moppeen to wipe his hands in the cuchina, gets agita from the gravy and will shkeevats meatballs unless they are homemade from the famiglia. Always foonah your bread in the pot of gravy (sauce) or you will be considered a real googootz or a Mezzo-finookio.

There are usually plenty of mamalukes and the girl from the neighborhood with the reputation is a facia-bruta, puttana or a schifosa. If you are called cattivo, cabbadost, sfatcheem, stupido, or strunz, you are usually a pain in the ass.

A crazy diavlo can give you the malokya (evil eye), but that red horn (contra malokya) will protect you if you use it right. Don't forget to always say per favore and grazia and prego . If you are feeling mooshadda or stounad or mezzo-morto, always head to Nonna's and she will fix you up with a little homemade manicott', cavadell', or calamar ', or some ricotta cheesecake. Mangia some zeppoles, canolis, torrone, struffoli, shfoolyadell', pignoli cookies, or a little nutella on pannetone. Delizioso! I think I will fix myself a sangweech of cabacol' with some proshoot and mozarell' or maybe just a hot slice of peetza .

So salud' if you have any Italian blood in you and you understood anything written here! Then, you are numero uno and a professore of the goombas If you don't get any of this, then fa Nabola with the whole thing and you are a disgraziato. Scuzi, Mia dispiachay, I didn't mean that....... Just....... Fugheddaboudit

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Summertime... and the livin' is easy...

Sorry for this not so brief hiatus. Summer hit and the barbecues have started. And of course so has the senseless slaughter of the little grey cells in the noggin. After all, you do need somthin' to wash down all the dogs, burgers, chicken, and ribs... and then its lunch time. I do love a good early turn at the grill. Everyone thinks I'm outta my mind eating like that at 8 in the morning, but the clock in my stomach is still set three hours ahead of the locals, so it all falls in line. And besides that, what do they know? They still think beer before noon is sacrilege. Hey- it's five o'clock somwhere!

I sat down thinking this was going to be a quick post, but since I'm here already, might as well give you a glimpse at the Big Guy's summer diet. Generally, the burger-and-dog thing (either or both, depending on the previous night) is a great starter for the day- nice and fast, chase it with a pint out of the tap and the day is rolling in the right direction. After the foundation is down, you can start to think about the more involved meals for later in the day.

After breakfast, I like to get things prepped for the rest of the day. I always figure that doing more work early on gives me more time to relax in the pool with a pitcher or two (or three) of Margarita’s. And I do make a killer Margarita- who knows, I may even share the recipe later. Ok- so first I start with three racks of baby back ribs. (3 racks? of course 3... the Big Guy never likes to eat alone) I like to trim them a little, and put a nice starter cut alongside the bone to save me from having to find it later. I have a great dry rub- little of this and a little of that (come on- you didn't think I was gonna give away that one, did ya??) and I like to put a good coating on the ribs, massage it in and let it sit on for a few hours before I cook them.

While the ribs are gettin' all happy with their little flavor party, I move on to the ladies. Depending on the crowd, I figure two is enough to entertain everyone. I like to grab 'em by the legs and lay 'em on their backs and go right to work... stripping the legs, the thighs, the breasts... hey wait- I'm talkin' about chickens here... where was your head at??!!?! ...So anyways, like I was sayin', once I have them out into all their pieces (usually 10 pieces- cutting the breasts in half, but more about why later), they go into a covered bowl and can sit in the fridge until about an hour before I'm ready to eat.

Ok- now it's time to get the ribs cookin'. I get a nice fire going with the charcoal in the chimney. Then I set a couple of handfuls of wood chips in a big bowl of water. I like to use a combination of chips for my ribs; usually apple and maple, or cherry and pear. Once the coals are good and hot, I set them up for a little indirect heat in piles on either side of my trusty Weber kettle and top the coals with the soaked chips. The ribs go on the rack at 11 am and the cover stays on for about 3 hours with just the slightest venting on the top and bottom. My great grandfather, Paulie, always said things need to be cooked low and slow- it'll be worth the wait. And he was definitely right about that... by the time you take these out of the smoke, that meat won't be falling off the bone, it'll be jumpin' off!

Now that we have set the wheels in motion for the mid-afternoon mange and have the main prep work finished for dinner, time to take care of lunch. I like a nice sangwich for lunch in the summer. And I can't think of a better way to go than with sausage and peppers. I have this guy... he makes a great parsley and cheese sausage, nice and thin, perfect for the grill. But before I get that going, I need to slice some onions, peppers, and a couple of potatoes. Throw it all into a big pan with some olive oil, some salt and pepper and start coking 'em. And don't forget what Paulie says- low and slow. You don't want to take a chance on crisping these; a long slow cook will draw the sugars out, the perfect counterpart to the sausage. Once these are started, it's time to get the sausage on the grill.

Gotta keep this low and slow too, so it doesn't burst and bleed off all the good juices. After the peppers, onions, and potatoes are softened up, it's time to start making the sanguinies... open up a good roll (and by roll, I mean roll.. not bun- that would be a hanging offense), lay in some sausage and add a nice scoop out of the pan right on top. And don’t skimp- the peppers may get second billing here, but it wouldn't be the same without a nice pile on top. I'll tell ya what- you'll know you did it right if your hands are a mess when you're eating it. Don't bother cleaning it up till after you're definitely done. And by the way- that mess is delicious; I never waste a napkin.

And so we find ourselves at the first intermission, a little lull in the action. Seems a highly appropriate time to mix the first pitcher of Margarita’s. And now, if you promise to just keep it between us, I'll tell you how to make a great Margarita. The key to a great Margarita is simple: quality ingredients. A great tequila is essential. As a minimum for quality you need to start with something like Sauza Hornitos or if you must go with a Cuervo product, try the Tradicional. Second, get yourself a bottle of Cointreau. And then we come to the sour-mix, easy enough to make on your own. So... here we go- 5 parts sour mix, 1 part Cointreau, 2 parts Tequila (using a 2 cup standard, it's 1.25 C, 0.25 C, and 0.5 C respectively)...a squeeze of blood orange right on top... put it into a shaker tin, shake vigorously and strain into an ice filled glass, with or without salt. Drain. Repeat. (Follow these last two steps as often as necessary)

Now that we're all feelin' so niiice... time to get the ribs off the smoke. Depending on how tenacious I am feeling, I may glaze the racks with some fresh made barbecue sauce and let it bake on in the grill, but only for a few minutes. When you sit down to go to work on these, its going to be a mess, too, like the sangwiches. And in much the same way, don't bother with the napkins till after you're done. Even then, why waste all that goodness?

At this point, it's time for pitcher number 2 (at least) and a little dip in the pool to cool down. I like to spend a little time floating around, digest a little, and let myself wind down. It's mid-afternoon and just one more meal left on the day. After the way the day has already gone, good thing it's only a light meal of chicken and some corn on the cob.

I like to wait till the sun starts getting low in the sky before I get my chicken on the grill. I take it out of the fridge and set it out on a big baking sheet with the pieces all linked up like a big game of Tetris. I prep them the way Mom taught me so many years ago with a good coating of coarse Kosher salt. I let them sit for about 10 minutes or so and use the time to put a few inches of water in a big pot and set it to boil. As a general rule, I don't boil my corn. I like it steamed; it seems to retain a little more body in the kernels and not shrivel up after coming out of the boil. Once I get a boil going, I throw the corn in and cover it for 9 minutes... not 8, not 10; 9.

After one last rinse for the chicken and a quick pat dry with a towel, it's onto a nice hot grill they go. Chicken is ruined by so many rookies... either burned over a flame that is way too hot or dried out and over cooked out of fear of a visit from that lovely couple, Sam and Ella. That's bush league stuff. It's easy to avoid this. First, make sure the pieces are as uniform in size as possible. As I mentioned previously, this is why we whack the breasts in half. Second, be sure to cook over a medium high flame and keep the pieces moving every few minutes. I always find that the more I turn my chicken, the more likely I am to get great chicken.

Wings and backs will, of course, always be done first. These fall under the "Chef's Prerogative" rule. These are open for consumption by the chef and anyone he chooses to share the booty with. These pieces need not ever make it to the main platter. (It's a rule. No; really... it is!!) After the last turn that sets them skin side up, it's time to hit them with the sauce. Dab a good coating on with a quality brush, close the top and let it bake on. Once the glaze is baked on nicely, I set the chicken out on large platters and watch it disappear. Always great to watch the bowls fill with bare bones and gnawed cobs.

After the sun is down, it's time to move from Margarita’s to the good stuff, straight up. Shots of tequila and whiskey get poured. But this is the sippin' kind... not built for slamming back, take your time and enjoy it. I always say have a few; after a day of eating like this, a hangover is going to be easy compared to how the rest of your body feels.

And if you have the right group, all the fun is just starting... but that's probably better left for another post.

So there you have it; a blueprint for any given Summer day. If it's a barbecue you want, you have to start early and keep it going strong all day. There is no other way to do it. 'Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Wanted: A Sack of Schnack

OK… so here I sit, feeling a bit of euphoria after a quick visit home… I made it there in time for one of winter’s last stabs at asserting control the day before St Pat’s- always a big day in the City. And while I was there, I did my best to hit all the necessary spots and make sure my old standards are keeping up with their, well… old standards. In the midst of all my reminiscing, though, I was introduced to a new venue that will undoubtedly be a lock for my next trip.

Tucked away on a side street in Brooklyn (Carrol Gardens, but right on the border of Red Hook- as a matter of fact, they bill their location as the “Gateway to Red Hook”) is a little place called Schnack. Consistently voted best burgers in Brooklyn, even though they are so much more. I walked in the door and was smacked in the face with a smell that just set my stomach to grumble mode… it was great, just what i needded after a long day of walking around the old stomping grounds. The specials board advertised RC Cola Ribs and Beer Milkshakes… I knew I was in the right place.

I sat in the corner with a few friends. We were quickly greeted and within a short time, we were fighting over the baskets of onion rings and sweet potato fries (a seasonal treat and, sorry-the season just ended!). Everything on the menu seemed to scream about comfort, but I was in the mood for a burger, so burger it was gonna be!! It was, in fact, a Super Combo and a pint of Schwag, one of the three house beers.

The burger came out just as the natives (aka my friends) were getting restless… and what a sight we were given- not sure how the table supported the weight of all this food! The burger was great- stacked high and loaded with all kinds of flavor, completely living up to the beautiful smells that greeted us at the door. What a great texture, too… the meat crumbled and blended with all the other great flavors. The levels of taste just got more and more complex. I wiped my hands after the first bite, but I knew it was pointless and after that, I dealt with the mess till I was done.

The meal was, in a word, perfect. On a cold night with day-old snow on the ground, what could make you feel more warm and toasty (and ready for hibernation) than a nice heavy meal? I ate like a of guy headed to The Chair, with little regard for how I would feel the next day. And, unfortunately, without giving thought to the finer offerings on the menu, namely, the Beer Milk Shakes. So now I sit here, 2500 miles away, kicking myself and wondering what I was thinking, just where my head was at… no Beer Milk Shakes, jamming that burger down and not taking up the offer to try some of the RC Cola Ribs, limiting myself by ordering the quad… what a mess. All the more reason to go back though. Schnack has hammered out a space in my heart and I know its going to be there for a long time.

Dr Seuss, a personal favorite of mine, once wrote: “I have cracks in my shack/I have smoke in my stack/and I think there’s a Schnack/ in the sack on my back…” Well- I’ll tell you what- if the good Doctor was lucky enough to have a sack full of Schnack, then there wasn’t much else for him to be worried about. Especially if he could get a Beer Milk Shake to go!!

I have eaten many a burger in many a place, but nothing could possibly stack up against this Quad… it represented everything a great burger should be. And if a great burger is what you’re after, there’s no need to leave town- just make a quick trip to the outer boros. Everyone needs to satisfy a burger fix now and again; when the need hits you, do yourself a favor and head over to Schnack. ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

122 Union St

Saturday, April 07, 2007

4 Years and a day... Miss you Mom... we all do...

Friday, March 09, 2007

East vs West: Cold War in the Carolinas

Time to switch gears for a minute. I’m sure you realize how the Big Guy feels about Food and about New York and about Food in New York; Best of the Best, right?. But there are times where you have to travel a little bit to get a particular taste. Like Barbeque. Trust me, I’ve looked all over this city, tried a lot of places and nobody anywhere on MY island makes exactly what I am looking for.

I even spent some time looking and asking around in LA. A lot of people pointed me towards Zeke’s. It was good but not quite what I was looking for. So now, after one more incident of disappointment, I think that the only way to satisfy my search for this flavor is by telling the whole story. Maybe someone out there can help me find what I’m after.

To get to the heart of this, we need to head South, down to North Carolina. Particularly, to Charlotte. I’ve spent some time south of the Mason-Dixon line in my life and have developed a healthy appreciation for real Barbeque. And when I want a good plate of barbeque, nothing else will do. Not any old meat is going to do it either- it has to be pork… Pulled pork, slow cooked in a smoker, and by slow I mean about eight hours. (Now that’s slow...)

My emotional attachment to this tender dish began in a place called Roger’s Barbeque. But, before I get into the particulars of my love for this Southern delicacy (specifically the Eastern North Carolina version), I’m going to pass on a little knowledge, just as it was passed on to me by “Roger” himself. His name is actually Dick, known to just a few as “Smoke”. He is a Charlotte native; being a Yankee, with limited knowledge of things such as this, I took him at his word. This has become Gospel etched in my food-loving soul and nearly all of my ideas of what make good barbeque stem from his wisdom. Any arguments you have with the case I make, you can take up with him… but I wouldn’t. (See 'Third' below)

First, Barbecue in North Carolina means different things to different people; mostly it depends on what part of the state you are doing your eating. It starts with the part of the pig used. In the west, pork shoulders are generally the choice piece of meat. In the east, you’ll usually find the whole pig dressed and resting over the fire for a good six to eight hours. The sauce can cause a little controversy, too. The whole state agrees on one part of it: a vinegar-based, heavily seasoned sauce. The distinction here is that in the west, there is one more ingredient than you’ll find in the east: a small amount of tomato base added to the sauce. (I have found that most places offering barbeque outside of North Carolina only make the western version. And to tell you the truth, it is usually a lot wetter than I ever found it to be in North Carolina. Now, add one more idea to the mix… I cut my teeth on Eastern barbeque, so it is naturally what I am after… making my search a little tougher)

Second, Barbecue is never to be eaten alone. And it didn’t take any experience to figure this out. No, all of my instincts told me from the first time I saw it looking so delicious, calling me over, that it was part of a bigger, better picture. Too many things will fit on that plate with it. Everyone I have ever talked to about barbeque confirmed that but we’ll get into more about what the Big Guy likes with his barbeque later.

Third, and very important: never argue one man’s idea of barbeque versus another… I’ve almost seen it come to blows over that. At first I wondered why; they seemed so similar. The major difference I noticed was the slight variation of the sauce; how could there be such a huge issue over that? But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand… I know how I would feel if someone told me that the meatballs my mother made for me all my life were being made the wrong way; no doubt in my mind there would be some blood shed over that one.

OK- and now, after our minor introduction to this delicacy, I can start to tell you about Roger’s Barbeque a place just outside the Charlotte city limits. Roger's wasn’t only about the food, it was a full Southern experience. The walls at Roger's were covered. There were small signs offering bits of wisdom (Like 'Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig' and 'Never trust a man that doesn't drink'), a rack of 'personal' mugs for the rail-birds (daily regulars that sat and 'crowed' at the counter), and just about anything you could think of relating back to a pig. Needless to say, walking through the door, you had a good idea this place was not for vegetarians. The menu at Roger’s, top to bottom, inside and out, was just filled with food to make you feel comfortable. Biscuits and gravy with grits for breakfast, a nice bowl of Brunswick stew for lunch, and for dinner… well, that is where the story really gets me going. (While it is true that I could have eaten the que for lunch, after my taste developed, I always liked saving it for my biggest meal of the day…) As a side note, Roger’s is sadly no more and all I have left is the memory of food that I may never see again.

Barbeque, as a meal, is multifaceted. It is not simply a plate of pulled pork. Just as important is what you surround it with. Personally, I like to have half a dozen hushpuppies, some collared greens, and a nice dish of coleslaw always seemed to sorta cool things down (even though it had a nice spicy mustard base instead of a mayo base) . I still remember the first time I tried barbeque. I had no idea it would cause the obsessive search I am taking part in now. After one meal, I was hooked. The savory vinegar and spice infused meat with the smoky undertones… all the great dishes that accompanied it (and outside North Carolina, it is nowhere to be found)…just one more thing we need to cover: Beverage.

I am a great believer of the “when in Rome...” theory of eating. Certain flavors are meant to be together, something the locals have spent a lifetime pairing off. When you are eating barbeque, what could possibly better compliment this treat than a big glass of sweet tea? Like barbeque, there is something inherently Southern about sweet tea. Actually, finding it is as tough as finding good barbeque up North. But down South, it is a staple. And I’ll tell you- nobody, I mean NOBODY makes sweet tea like a Southern girl does. I think it has something to do with just the right mix being handed down, generations tweaking the recipe till it was just right. If the barbeque is seasoned like it is supposed to be (and because sweet tea made the right way is just so good), one glass just won’t do. When all those spices kick in, you’ll need another one; more is always better with sweet tea and barbeque, but only if both come from the right side of the Mason Dixon line… (Oh I wish I was in Dixie….)

If you just can’t wrap your head around what I am trying to tell you… if the idea that the Big Guy has admitted that there might be a dish made better somewhere than right here in My City… don’t worry too much. And don’t get yourself too used to it happening either: it won’t happen often enough to warrant that. Just this once, though, we’ll try something new. An open mind is ok. Just don’t let it get so open that you forget where the center of the Universe is. For my money, though, if it’s Barbeque you’re after, make the road trip and make sure it’s the real thing. There is no place better for North Carolina Barbeque than North Carolina. ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Friday, January 26, 2007

You've seen the sea gulls.. now it's time for the Bagels!

New York… City of my birth… Center of the Universe…I really start to miss it sometimes, especially when it seems like half the people I know in LA are going there some time in the near future. Definitely time to book a trip.

I’m not sure, but I think what got me started was bagels. I could say “I can’t remember the last time I had a really good bagel…” but that would be a lie. I remember exactly when the last time I had a good bagel was: last time I was home, of course! When it comes to this breakfast of (NYT crossword) champions, I am really selective about where I go and what I eat- but that’s nothin’ new. And you can be assured of one thing- I have found a few places that make my favorite bagel, my favorite way; for me, it’s gotta be an Everything Bagel with a nice schmear of lox spread- nothing, but nothing, else will do.

Now, if you’re looking to have a sit-down with a bagel and some smoked fish, this list would have to be revised. I love these takeout places best for a quick bite on the go- like a good slice- but if you wanna go full on, you’ll have to consider places like Barney Greengrass (best chopped liver in the city- even for a mensch goy like me!!), Ess A Bagel, or Noah’s. A whole separate write-up as far as I’m concerned.

There is a great shop in Carroll Gardens, on the corner of Henry and Union. And considering what my bagel of choice is, it seems the perfect place for me: Everything Bagel. First time I was here was during a snowstorm- big feather-like flakes were piling up on any surface they could find- the street, cars, me… I stepped in and was greeted by the great smell of fresh baked bagels and the beautiful sight of baskets behind the counter loaded with them. It was my first time here and I went right for the benchmark so I could make a proper call on the place- Everything with Lox spread, coffee regular. I was not disappointed: the bagel was still warm, making the cream cheese a little mushada; it had a slightly crisp exterior with a good mix of salt, garlic, onion, and all the appropriate seeds and the steamy interior was just chewy enough… Great coffee too, which never hurts.

If the mood strikes me while I am on the West Side, up in the 70’s/80’s, there is a great little spot on Amsterdam Ave. Bagel Talk has warm bagels coming out of the oven all day long. The turnover is fast and I’ve actually been double-parked out front waiting for their Everything Bagels to come out- warm and chewy on the outside, steam coming off the soft doughy inside as it is cut open- what else is there? Let them put a nice (Now if only I could avoid those meter-maids …)

These two places are good if you’re in town, but to get my favorite bagels, the best bagels I have ever had, you would have to go east- out to the Island. May seem like a long trip, but that never stopped me and it shouldn’t stop you either. I have been eating bagels from this place since…whoa- a really long time. Take the LIE to exit 37 or the GCP to exit 28 and head south a bit. On Willis Ave in Albertson, you’ll find a place called Bagels and Bialys. Couldn’t be more straightforward than that, could it? This place has been putting out the best everything bagel the world has ever known for as long as I can remember. It is THE perfect bagel. Hit it with a schmear of (you guessed it) lox spread and chase it with a nice cuppa coffee; could you get much closer to heaven in a handheld breakfast? Almost enough to make me convert!! The line on any given morning, not just Saturday or Sunday, is surprising, but only if you have never tasted their bagels. I used to make the occasional trip from the boros out here just for bagels. I’m not sure, but I think the receipts from any given Sunday would just about wipe out the national debt- I have seen the line that long!!

So there it is- the Big Guy’s picks for a few places to catch a great bite on the run. If you find yourself in the neck of the woods of any of these places at any given time, do yourself a favor, step in and grab a half dozen to take home and let them fix one for you to have on the ride, too. If you don’t wanna do yourself a favor, then do me a favor and send em out to me- these lifeless lumps of dough out in SoCal are killin me!!

Remember, bagels aren’t just a breakfast food- like a good slice, not only good to travel with… you could eat it any time. Stop in any of these places anytime they’re open and ask for whatever they have that’s warm with a schmear- if they won’t tell you what’s warm, put your hand on the glass window between you and your meal- you’ll find out fast enough. There’s no way you could be disappointed. ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

Everything Bagel
520 Henry St
(corner of Union)

Bagel Talk
368 Amsterdam Ave
(left side b/t 77th and 78th)

Bagels and Bialys
1152 Willis Ave
Albertson LI

Monday, January 08, 2007

Let Me Get Right to the Ponte

When it comes to eating, I love all my basics- a nice dish of macaroni, maybe some chicken cutlets, and of course pizza; but even the Big Guy can’t live on pizza alone- believe me, I’ve tried.

Now, in my mind, stepping out for any reason in New York is a reason to get “dressed”; And even more if you’re stepping out for a good meal; at least a button down and some nice slacks- all those tourists in sneakers and backpacks can really kill the mood. (Side note: in Southern Cal, everybody seems to think jeans are appropriate dinner wear. Trust me, no matter how much you paid for them, jeans are rarely ever acceptable dinner wear.) When I’m looking to keep things a little “Uptown” without having to go Uptown, I like to head over to F.Illi Ponte.

During the summer, the time to sit down is just ahead of sunset. As the sun reflects off the River, Jersey actually makes a decent backdrop (I knew it was good for something!). During the winter, sunset is way too early, so any time after dark will do.

F.illi Ponte is a great place; I hope I don’t ruin my chances at getting a table so easily by talking it up too much! I really am a big fan of this place, and on so many levels.

First, the restaurant is gorgeous- all exposed brick and open archways. The staff is great, too: attentive without being over your shoulder and rushing you through every plate. Every time I’ve been here, I get treated like a regular, from my first visit all the way through to the most recent (which hasn’t been recent enough, by the way!).

Let’s sit down and get started. Now, right off the bat, I’ll tell you: the menu at Ponte is great and you really can’t miss with anything it offers but, listen, they don’t call ‘em “specials” for nothing! Pay close attention to the waiter and don’t be afraid to try something new. Before you can get to that, though, they hit you with some great bread to get the ball rolling. It is always fresh, and it doesn’t just taste that way because they warmed it. But the real kicker is this- they also set you up with a nice plate of fresh mozz and some eggplant caponata. Not from the jar either- this stuff is like my Aunt Maria makes. Talk about starting you off in the right direction!!

Their steady menu always reflects some seasonal changes and I usually find myself hard pressed to figure out what to start with. Broccoli rabe and sausage, always a good choice, or maybe a plate of Littlenecks. But I’ll tell you what, if you catch them in season absolutely go with the squash blossoms- a winner every time.

Next, if we’re gonna do this right (and when it comes to food, we’re always gonna do our best to get it right), we need to work in some pasta for a real first dish, at least a half order of something. Maybe a simple dish, like a little Ziti al Pomodoro or a some Linguine Aglio e Olio. Most people would say “Sure, that’s it, keep it light- there’s more to follow”. Not me, though. I always go straight for the goods. Like maybe some fresh Gnocchi or Ravioli, especially if it’s a plain cheese rav. Last time I had those here, the macaroni was unbelievably tender and it was filled with a creamy, rich, almost liquid center that had to be a combination of ricotta and b├ęchamel. The delicate shell of macaroni played beautifully off the rich interior. It was topped with a ragout of duck that must have been slow-cooked all day over a flame no hotter than a match. I mean, this was the perfect combination of tender meat and tomato, with a hint of wine behind it. I can still feel the textures of that dish, and almost even taste it...

Ok- here is where we slow it down a little. It would really be a waste to rush a meal like this, so let’s take this moment to pause for a brief intermission. This is the perfect time to sit back with a little wine (some Villa Antinori Chianti, if I get my way, or on an extra special night it could be Brunello di Montalcino), maybe pick at a little green salad, with some vinegar and oil, just to break things up a little. Take a little time and think about the great meal you are in the middle of, from the bread and caponata down to that last leaf you just ate. Enjoy the company of those fortunate enough to be with you that evening. Let the whole thing sink in and leave an impression on you that will last till the next time you can come back. The second act is about to start, and if you planned it right, it’s gonna be a killer.

This is where I get a little picky. (OK, OK- the picky thing didn’t really start here) Like I said, the menu here is great. Who could argue with a Veal chop with mushrooms and a little Marsala? Or maybe a thirty ounce T-Bone? Even a little Aragosta all’Arabbiata, their signature dish, might be nice. And the specials are, well, “eexxxtra special”. And for most anyone out there, this would be enough. Not for me though; I’m not that easy. I remember when I was growin’ up, Mom would make one thing for dinner and I wanted another; she’d tell me “Whaddaya think this is, a restaurant?” Hey Ma, tonight, it is!! So, anyway, I like to see if I can go off the menu a little. Don’t be afraid to ask for something you like if you don’t see it; I can’t remember ever being turned down on a reasonable special request. For example, I love Veal Saltimbocca and there are a couple of places that never fail to make it for me; it’s perfect, but off the menu. Not here though. At Ponte, I always ask if they might be able to fix me a dish of Chicken Scarpariello. This dish is one of my favorites and it is one of those dishes they make exceptionally well here: sausage, potatoes, and chicken (on the bone is always the way to go with this one) in a light white wine sauce with onion, garlic and some hot and sweet peppers. Niiiice. Hey- I could make this at home. Sure, why not; but it’s so good here, I almost never do.

Alright, we’re down to the wire here and I hope you saved some room for dessert. What better way to finish this fine meal than with coffee and something sweet? After you have given everything a few minutes to settle down, get ready for your finale. Double espresso to start with, of course, and some Marie Brizzard on the side. Dessert, if I can manage it, always depends on the season. I love the Italian Cheesecake they make here… almost as good as Gramma’s ! (Don’t tell her I said that, or I’ll never see another slice in my life!!) But in the summer, nothing works as good as a little sorbet- lemon usually. Gives you a nice finish to a great meal.

While it may not be a place for dinner every night (I don’t know if my belt could take it), Ponte’s is the perfect place to spend three or four hours at dinner with good friends. Not a bad spot to stop in for a cocktail or two, either, and maybe catch a piece of a Yankee game.

No two ways about it, if you want to step out for a meal at a place that hits every mark- beautiful room, great staff, excellent view, and knock-out food, F.illi Ponte is where you need to go…‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

F.illi Ponte
39 Debrosses St (at West St)