HG/BSK are at the warm and welcoming Rhode Island home of Lesley and Massimo R., their daughter and son-in-law, for the family holiday festivities. And, the feasting continues. Arriving from a day at the utterly delightful New Bedford Whaling Museum, HG/BSK were greeted with glasses of pinot grigio and a platter of smoked scallops and room temperature shelled mussels (with appropriate sauces, of course). This was followed by bowls of steaming linguini with white clam sauce enriched with bottarga (dried and pressed mullet roe). Wow!! When HG is in the glorious little Ocean State, HG wolfs down many a clam–raw on the half shell; stuffed with savory garlic infused bread crumbs and topped with bacon (clams casino); in clear and briny clam chowder (no cream) and, of course, enriching al dente linguini. HG is convinced that Rhode Island clams (sorry, Long Island) are unsurpassed.
There are idiosyncratic dining customs in the HG/BSK family. Christmas eve dinner, of course, is a Feast of the Seven Fishes (done Eastern Europe/Jewish style). On Christmas Day, after a mad, 5-hour present opening session (it is a generous family), cooking doesn’t seem like a good idea so it is a time for enjoying the smoked fish wonders left over from the Christmas Eve feast. Thus, the big time dinner takes place on the night after Christmas. And, at this event Gifted Daughter Lesley R. strutted her stuff. Read and be envious: LR made a brandade that was the ultimate. Creamy. Garlicky (but not too). Popped in the oven to give it a crisp brown crust. Served with toasted bread and (an HG innovation) endive spears. Next course was papardelle (from The Italian Corner in East Providence) in a sauce of exquisitely sautéd mushrooms (a mixture of varieties – some fresh, some dried). Brilliant LR sautés them for various amounts of time to insure their moisture disappears and their flavor remains). A reasonable family might call it quits after the pasta. Not the HG/BSK Clean Plate Warriors. LR made exquisite veal rollatini (thin scallopine rolled around prosciutto, gruyere and sage). Browned and then finished in the oven. Accompanied by ultra lush braised fennel. Dessert was flan and Italian nougat. Sheer happiness.
Christmas Eve. Time for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The Russian-Jewish-Italian-English-Irish-Japanese-American-Canadian HG/BSK family gives this Italian tradition a twist by focusing on smoked fish from New York’s venerable Russ & Daughters. SJ brought the goodies from New York) with a stop at Kossar’s Bialys for authentic bialys and great bagels). There were two kinds of herring (Fresh fillets from Holland and German-style roll mops). Three kinds of smoked salmon (Western Atlantic Nova, Gaspe Bay Nova and Double Smoked Danish). Two types of caviar (salmon and topiko). Sable. And, R & D’s signature chopped whitefish and baked salmon salad. Count them. Nine seafood varieties. The family believes in abundance. Olives. Capers. Three varieties of cream cheese. Sliced onions. Celeriac salad. Hearts of Palm and tomato salad. Sour cream. Creme fraiche. Gifted Daughter Lesley R. made blinis and delightful crepes enriched with buttermilk. HG drank (okay, guzzled) lots of icy vodka and ale chasers (drawing some frowns). Other family members practiced moderation. Wonderful, joyous feast. A happy family tradition.
The Italian-American Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence has long been famous for Italian restaurants (mediocre, in HG’s opinion) and food shops (many good ones but Venda is the show stopper). And, given the nature of its population and the American fascination with fictionalized accounts of organized crime, Federal Hill has been featured in a number of movies and TV dramas. But, if you visit Providence (a wonderful, liveable city full of art, culture, intellect and political corruption) be sure to pick up great Italian food at The Italian Corner in East Providence. Superb Italian sausages and other charcuterie. Splendid cheese including an enticing and fragrant white truffle cheese. Fresh pasta (the papardelle is extraordinary). Big variety of dried pasta, olive oil, condiments, sauces, etc. There are about eight dining tables and you can order a gigantic sandwich of the best ingredients. The establishment does a fixed menu dinner every Saturday (it’s booked six months in advance). As the Michelin guide says about an outstanding restaurant in the French countryside, The Italian Corner is “Worth a Special Detour.”
A holiday delight is Panettone, the Italian sweet bread/cake that makes its appearance on grocery shelves just as the happy days of Thanksgiving and Christmas occur. Panettone is a yeast cake enriched with butter, orange peel and dried citrus fruits. It is enclosed in paper and packaged in a box that has the shape of a squashed obelisk. Not too sweet. Not too rich. It is delicious and versatile. Good toasted and buttered. Delightful when gently warmed and drizzled with honey or coated with marmalade. Pleasant with a glass of chilled prosecco or moscato. Splendid dessert when topped with vanilla ice cream. HG likes it best at breakfast with a mug of steaming cafe au lait. Obligatory on a Christmas morning such as today with excited kids wallowing in the paradise of over-abundant gifts.
Some 60 years ago, HG was a New York journalist. There was a pleasant custom at International News Service/International News Photos (where HG was employed). Jewish journalists would volunteer to replace their non-Jewish colleagues on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so the non-Jews could enjoy these holidays with their family. And, that’s why HG worked at the news desk on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Where to have dinner? HG’s favorite dining places were closed. The shot-and-beer-chaser bars were open but populated by maudlin or surly drunks. HG’s workplace was on E. 45th, just east of Third Avenue ( at the time, the El was still rumbling overhead). Nearby Lexington Avenue had a Bickford’s Restaurant on the northeast corner of 45th and a Horn and Hardart Automat on the southeast. So, Christmas Eve HG dined (with good appetite) at Bickford’s. The special of turkey with all the fixings (and extra gravy upon HG’s request) was tasty. Dessert was pumpkin pie a la mode and HG “corrected” his coffee with cognac from HG’s concealed flask. Christmas Day found HG at the Automat. Three hot casseroles were lined up before HG (plucked from the Automat’s windowed wall of savories): Beef Pie, Macaroni and Cheese, Baked Beans (topped with a strip of bacon). Coconut custard pie for dessert. “Corrected” coffee. Well meaning friends expressed concern that these meals might prove depressing. They were not. Yes, HG’s fellow diners were not a jolly group. But, the lonely folk were quiet and unobtrusive, allowing HG the peace in which to read a bundle of newspapers while sipping brandy-laced coffee.
A Christmas wander many decades ago on the then un-gentrified, rough-around-the-edges Upper West Side of New York City: With the kids well insulated against the cold, HG/BSK strolled north on Broadway. Passed Zabar’s, the temple of great smoked fish, bread and cheese. Much smaller then. Passed the New Yorker cinema (perpetually playing “The Sorrow and the Pity”). Passed The Symphony (then a movie house, not a performing arts center). Passed The Thalia (the tiny, eccentric movie theater that showed only the great classics–foreign and domestic). Passed the Senate Cafeteria (the place where Holocaust survivors drank endless cups of tea and provided habitué I.B. Singer–who relished the Senate tunafish salad–with material for his Nobel Prize-winning fictions). Passed the 96th Street newsstand (the best and busiest in New York). Arrived at the destination on 98th: The Great Shanghai Chinese Restaurant. Friends and their children were waiting. What a lovely way to spend a Christmas holiday late afternoon — gathered around a big round table with hungry pals devouring savory Chinese food. The Great Shanghai was large and loud, ruled by an imperious Chinese lady. The food was wonderful and the menu was both expansive and very inexpensive. The kids loved the dumplings and noodle dishes. The adults concentrated on the seafood — exceptional lobster, shrimp, scallop and crab dishes. Plus whole fish steamed with ginger, garlic and black beans or fried and topped with a fiery Szechuan sauce. After farewells, HG/BSK and the kids (who were anticipating dessert) picked up sweet good things at Babka Bakery on 79th and ice cream at adjacent Gourmet Treats. Yes, it was the Sixties and America was involved in domestic turmoil and bloody, wasteful war (So, what else is new?) but HG/BSK could put peace marching and civil rights activism aside and enjoy the delights of food and family.
Al Goldstein, the eccentric publisher of Screw magazine and pioneer of hard core, “non socially redeeming” porn is dead. At one point in his very checkered career (according to the Times obit) he was a “greeter” at the 2nd Avenue Delicatessen in New York. Only met Al once (when he was a deranged teenager) but his father, Sammy, was a pal. Sammy, a news photographer at International News Photos, loved to eat. (so did Al, who once weighed 350 pounds). When HG was a photo editor at INP, HG and Sammy (a pastrami addict), shared many meals at the 2nd Avenue Deli and Katz’s. (The duo also overate at Ratner’s, Sammy’s, Dubiner’s,Rappaport’s and other Lower East Side eateries). Sammy was a very good boxing photographer. HG has a vivid memory of Sammy at Madison Square Garden (then on 8th Avenue) ringside putting down his Speed Graphic between rounds to munch on (you guessed it) a pastrami on rye.
New York’s Gramercy Park has always been a jewel — and during the Christmas season, it is an especially glamorous jewel. The elegant private park (just south of E.23rd Street and Lexington Avenue) blooms with discreet holiday decorations and the backdrop of turn-of-the century buildings gives the whole neighborhood just the right, magical touch of old New York. During the holiday season HG/BSK would often stroll around the perimeter of the park honing their appetites for dinner at Paul & Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant on Irving Place. (They would pause for a moment to admire the opulent Ben Sonnenberg mansion on the southeast corner of Irving Place and the Park). Happily, Paul & Jimmy’s menu featured great traditional dishes: Mozzarella in Carozza, Clams Oreganata, Stuffed Mushrooms, Chicken Scarpariello, Shrimp Fra Diavola, etc. All of the pasta primi were outstanding and, to HG/BSK’s joy, so was the seafood. Whiting in Brodetto and Striped Bass with Vinegar and Garlic were memorable. Yes, there’s still a Paul & Jimmy’s Italian Restaurant in the immediate area; however, it is but a shadow of the original.
When HG/BSK lived (with famille) in their spacious rent controlled paradise on New York’s W. 79th Street, HG would escape from the Christmas holiday jingles and saccharine melodies by visiting a stronghold of traditional Jewishness: Paramount Dairy Restaurant on W. 72nd. The stroll on Broadway during the Upper West Side’s pre-gentrification days was always interesting. HG passed culinary landmarks like Daitch Dairy, Babka Bakery, Izmir Pizza, Gitlitz Delicatessen, Citarella Fish Monger. Fellow strollers included junkies, female sex workers, muggers, burglars, crazy ladies talking to themselves, sad eyed refugees from the Nazi terror; and, the usual crowd of West Side intellectuals, artists, writers and bohemians. On almost every block, HG would pause for a chat with a friend or acquaintance. Once in the Paramount, HG was seated at a table adorned with a huge bowl of breadstuffs — each the best of its kind: rye and pumpernickel bread, bialys, pletzels, challah. A dozen pats of unsalted butter. No Christmas decorations. No Chanukah decorations (not even a minor league menorah). Very refreshing. HG would order warm gefilte fish (a note to the uninitiated–this is a fresh water fish dumpling, a Jewish quenelle). This was served in a bowl of fish broth with a boiled potato and carrot. Accompanied by blazing horse radish. HG would dip thick slices of challah in the fish broth. Very comforting. This was followed by kasha varnishkes with mushroom gravy (HG recently wrote about this dish). Many cups of coffee and overindulgence in buttered bialys and pletzels. Refreshed and Judaized, HG was then ready for another onslaught of Bing Crosby and “Silent Night.”