Little Italy – Two Bright Spots

February 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG would be derelict in his culinary duty if he didn’t point out two bright spots in the dim haze of present-day Little Italy. Di Palo’s Fine Foods at 200 Grand. Just great. While best known as one of the great cheese stores in the world, Di Palo continues to expand into offering the best salume, prosciutto and everything else Italian. A wonderful landmark that continues to thrive. Don’t be discouraged by the lines. The staff is very efficient and knowledgeable. The other bright spot is Caffe Roma at 385 Broome. Open since 1891, this institution is still run by descendents of the original owners. Have some espresso and a cannoli (best in New York). Take home a pound of pignolia cookies. This is a great spot for dessert after a Chinatown meal with friends.

A little to the north of what is traditionally termed Little Italy — and now called NOLITA — a little renaissance seems to be brewing with restaurants re-interpreting traditional Italian American fare. The bright star of the bunch is Torrisi Italian Specialties and its sister sandwich and lunch spot, Parm NYC. Initially started as a higher end lunch and sandwich place, Torrisi has become (according to critics and other folk) one of the most exciting restaurants in New York. HG has yet to try, but certainly will be tempted on his next trip to NY. Also noted (by SJ) is the great pizzas being churned out by Rubirosa NYC on Mulberry Street.

The Sad Demise of Little Italy

February 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s sad. Manhattan’s Little Italy used to be a great place to eat, drink and stroll. No more. Now it’s filled with tourist trap restaurants, tour buses and various kitschy pastiches of homage to The Sopranos,The Godfather and Goodfellas. Nonetheless, Vincent’s Clam House (now named the Original Vincents Restaurant) survives at the corner of Mott & Hester. This was an HG favorite (and a favorite of many men closely monitored by the FBI). Superb scungilli (sea snails) salad. Scungilli was always pronounced “skuhnjeel” and the salad was composed of the sliced snails, very good olive oil, abundant chopped garlic and a squeeze of lemon. HG would shake some hot pepper flakes over it. Skuhnjeel, shrimp and clams were also served over linguini in a fiery marinara sauce. Good stuff late at night. Especially after some heavy boozing at Lower East Side bars. Vincent’s was traditional, patronized by the Little Italy establishment and visited by police, politicians and rough and ready gourmands from all the boroughs (and Joisey). Then a competitor arrived on Mulberry Street in 1972 — Umberto’s. Brooklyn gangster Joe “Crazy Joey” Gallo visited the interloper on April 7, 1972 and absorbed many bullets which left him decidedly dead. There were theories, of course. One was that he had offended the proprieties of Mafia executives. Culinary theoreticians said the rub out was inspired by his abandoning Vincent’s for Umberto’s Well, Umberto’s still exists a few blocks north of it original location. The food has descended, HG hears, but it is an obligatory stop for tour buses. The eatery is well decorated with news stories of the Gallo hit.

HG’s favorite skuhnjeel and hot sauce joint was not in Little Italy but in Chinatown on the corner of Mott and Bayard, unlikely location for a very Italian place but it thrived for decades. HG was first invited there by two Made Men (as HG’s Mom would say: “Don’t ask!”). There was a polite inquiry: “Do you like it hot?” HG responded positively and was presented with a bowl of red sauced shrimp and linguini. HG was rendered speechless as sweat poured into his eyes and scorched mouth. The Made Men were amused. If you fancy Italian sea food in the tradition you can try Vincent’s in the Howard Beach section of Queens or Vincent’s in Carle Place, L.I. HG doesn’t know if either has any connection with the Little Italy original. And, if you want to do some skuhnjeel at home you can obtain the frozen variety (harvested off Rhode Island) from Ruggiero Seafood in Newark or you can still find it fresh in the fish markets in Arthur Avenue in the Bronx or in Chinatown on Grand Street between Eldrige and Forsyth. Ignore the canned stuff (mostly Asiatic snails) and too mushy.

The Real Reuben

February 14th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG’s delightful pal, Lynn S., sent along a funny YouTube short film called A Reuben By Any Other Name. In the film, two contentious Jewish couples argue about the proper construction, history and etymology of the Reuben sandwich. Permit HG, a sage in such matters, to make the final decision. The Reuben sandwich is now ubiquitous, served virtually everywhere and, for the most part, very badly prepared. During HG’s days in New York the Reuben was only served at the classy Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen (long departed) at 6 E. 58th Street in Manhattan. Arnold Reuben opened the first Reuben’s Restaurant in 1908 (there were a number of moves before the final landmark on E.58th). Legend has it that an actress working with Charlie Chaplin ordered the combination in 1914 and the Reuben was born. HG had it many times at that delightful eatery with crisp French fries and kosher dill pickles. It was the best.

Okay. What are the ingredients? Grilled Jewish rye bread coated with Russian dressing. Corned beef. Sliced swiss cheese. Sauerkraut. Like many great things, the ingredients are simple. But, in order to have that great sandwich — favored by significant figures like Charlie Chaplin, crime boss Arnold Rothstein and showman Billy Rose — all the elements have to be of top quality, the proportions need to be perfect and finally the bread needs proper grilling (not toasting!). Don’t cut corners and you’ll be rewarded with a classic taste of American regional cooking.

Mother Knows Best

February 11th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

HG’s Mom often prepared HG’s favorite after-school snack: A slice of Pechter’s Pumpernickel liberally covered with chicken fat and topped with sliced onion and kosher salt. As HG matured, he pondered his Mom’s heritage which encouraged such obviously unhealthy food. Well, the small town — well, shtetl really — Belorussian lady knew something. Chicken fat (aka Schmaltz) is rich in lineolic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid with many health benefits. So, comrades, schmaltz it up with impunity. It is essential with chopped liver. Very good with garlicky chopped eggplant. Enhances fried onions. HG likes to stir it into a bowl of Goya garbanzos topped with microplaned garlic and sea salt. (HG intends to pair it with Duvel Belgian Ale while watching key NCAA basketball games).

Chicken fat can be ordered online from: mykoshermarket.com. Or, make it yourself (many easy recipes — such as this ONE — to be found online ). DYI chicken fat provides crispy and delicious bits of chicken skin known as “gribenes” — Jewish cuchifritos. For a carnivorous meal drenched in chicken fat go to the Shrine of Schmaltz: Sammy’s Roumanian Restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side. Wash the golden grease down with plenty of frozen vodka. L’chaim!!

Tilapia: The Surprising Fish Brings Family Harmony.

February 10th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Tilapia is a farm raised fish, and like farm raised salmon, has been scorned by HG. As HG’s massive public knows, HG is a fancier of batter fried catfish (rolled in flour, dipped in beaten egg and rolled again in panko or cornmeal and first soaked in buttermilk). Well, here’s the problem. BSK doesn’t like catfish. Says it tastes muddy. HG believes BSK’s distaste was caused by eating wild, bottom feeding catfish in her youth. Today’s farm raised catfish (an exception to HG’s quickly disappearing No-Farm-Raised rule) does not taste muddy. Emphatically not. But, BSK won’t change her mind. So, what to do? A number of culinary authorities (including Mark Bittman) have said you can substitute tilapia for catfish when you’re hovering over the big, sizzling cast iron pan. HG bought a pound of tilapia. No buttermilk bath, but followed the usual procedure. The result was sensational, Even BSK had to agree. Crisp crust covering juicy, firm white fish. A treat. BSK cooked up a mess of southern greens. Had a few boiled fingerling potatoes. There was lots of hot sauce and lemons. Once more, family culinary harmony prevails.

Beautiful Baked Goods

February 8th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

HG misses the high caloric New York breakfast treats of yesteryear. Greenberg’s Sticky Schnecken Buns. These honey, nut and cinnamon drenched little guys were more addictive than heroin. Sold by a shop — William Greenberg Jr. Deserts — on Madison Avenue, they were expensive and madly delicious. It took self discipline not to demolish an entire box before they were brought home. When the effects of weed smoking brought about a passion for sweet goodies, all senses cried out for the Greenberg’s product. Apparently Greenberg’s son is alive and well and making these wonderful buns according to his father’s recipe which are for sale HERE.

Croissants from the Sutter bakery on Greenwich Avenue in The Village. Flakey, crisp, outrageously buttery. Much superior to anything in Paris. BSK was partial to slices of Zito’s bread (from the old Bleecker Street bakery which closed in 2004) drenched with honey. With softly scrambled eggs, HG liked buttered Jewish rye or Pechter’s (or Stuhmer’s) pumpernickel (obtainable at Zabar’s).

Sometimes nothing tasted better than a warmed (not toasted) bialy liberally smeared with Daitch’s cream cheese (or Zabar’s scallion cream cheese). HG never fancied bagels. HG is concerned that bialy baking has entered a period of decline (are the old masters dead or basking in Florida sunshine?). Have not had a truly great bialy in years. Sadly, bialys shipped recently by HG’s much loved Russ & Daughters didn’t have that old time oniony zest. (SJ will interject now. The old time great bialy still exists at Kossar’s Bialys on Grand Street. A serious treat when warm from the oven and eaten whole right from a brown paper bag. Says SJ: You wouldn’t order fish from a baker, so don’t order bialys from an appetizing store.)

Possibly the best breakfast treat of all was the “pletzel.” This was a roll covered in baked onions. Good? As my Mom would say: “Nu,nu, don’t ask.” These were on the table at Jewish dairy restaurants like Ratner’s and Rappaport’s on the Lower East Side and at Jewish bakeries throughout The Bronx. Gone, all gone. HG’s eyes grow misty.

An Onion Pletzel

Super Super Bowl

February 7th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Often, the Big Game is a Big Bore with the commercials outshining the combat. Not this time. A close nail biter with a Manning/ Manningham Magical Moment..Giant fan HG was a happy guy. Watched at the home of Polly B. and David F. All generations were there. The kids were face painted to show their loyalties. HG turned down an offer to have his face painted Big Blue. BSK brought gravlax, perfectly cured slabs of salmon. There were three kinds of meatballs: Italian, Asian and “Spicy.” New Mexican Green Chili Stew. HG quaffed much vodka and beer. Drew some modest frowns from BSK but all was forgiven in the joy of victory.

Sweet, Greek Goodie

February 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

A simple great dessert is Greek yogurt (preferably, the Fage brand) doused with some good honey and sprinkled with an abundance of walnuts. Presume this was enjoyed by Socrates, Aristotle, Melina Mercouri and other splendid Greeks. HG first had the dessert in Chicago’s Greektown after a lunch of grilled, tender octopus and a big platter of greens and okra braised in garlic and pungent Greek olive oil. Washed it down with retsina (an acquired taste), of course. HG’s counsel: Follow it up with Metaxa and throw some plates around. Zorba had it right.

Melina Mercouri

Rapini

February 5th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Rapini (also known as broccoli di rabe) is a splendid vegetable, combining the sweetish taste of broccoli with the pleasantly bitter taste of mustard greens. HG is going to have it with some linguini tonight. BSK cooks it perfectly and simply, first sauting a bunch of garlic and sweet onion in good olive oil until the onion is translucent and just starting to color. Then BSK chops the rapini up and blanches it in boiling water before adding it to the pan with the onion and garlic. When the rapini softens she hits it with some chicken stock and eventually finishes the linguini in the pan. Serves it with the olive oil bottle, grated parmesan and the pepper grinder on the table. Usually BSK adds chopped pancetta to the dish but tonight there will be slices of grilled chorizo. Kumato tomatoes and anchovies as a starter and some clementines for dessert.

B-r-r-r-r-r!!!

February 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Yes, It’s cold and snowy in the lovely Italian city of Bologna. Some 18 inches of snow drifted down upon the city, smashing every meteorological record for the region. Gifted Daughter Lesley R., who resides in Bologna, reports that the Bolognese are puzzled. There are no snow plows. Few snow shovels. Some folks are trying to attack the drifts with brooms and the city is almost completely shut down. The photographs Lesley R. has sent show a bleak, frozen city and HG hopes that she is able to keep warm and full by stocking up from the few shops that have managed to open.

A storm in Bologna of all places has caused HG to muse about cold weather food. No, not the food prepared at home, but the food HG ate on the street or at lunch counters when the winds whistled from the Hudson, Harlem and East Rivers. During the Great Depression, little HG ate “Hot Mickeys” (roasted potatoes) shared with his buddies over an improvised wood fire in an empty lot. HG also bought, for a penny or two, hot sweet potatoes, chicken fat doused chick peas (“hayseh arbis”) that were served in a paper cone and the ubiquitous roasted chestnuts sold by street vendors. In later years HG favored the big bowls of steaming cabbage soup sold in bleak Ukrainian diners on the Lower East Side. Glorious Pho, a byproduct of the very inglorious Vietnam War, had not yet arrived.

But, the best cold beater HG ever had was on a chill December day in Bologna. This was a glass of espresso, liberally enriched with grappa, and topped with almost three inches of whipped cream. Virtually all of HG’s senses were warmed and delighted.