Monthly Archives: October 2019

The 16 Dishes that Define Hell’s Kitchen Today

Eating With Ziggy

Nano Ecuadorian Nano

15 years behind a desk deep inside Hell’s Kitchen introduced me to the wonderful world of car dealerships, construction machinery, and gay bars. I watched the neighborhood develop, grow and become one of the least appreciated food areas in NYC today.  It is a NYC neighborhood, full of personalities and stories.  9th ave has morphed into a little foodie paradise over the years, while 10th ave is full of destination gems.

Today I sit behind another desk, my own.  But I still visit Hell’s Kitchen about twice a week for work (so subtle) and research, and it still feels like a second home.  As with just about any Manhattan neighborhood, its nice to explore the area on your own.  But to bring some of these stories to life and understand what this neighborhood is all about, I recommend taking a tour (ok, not so subtle).  These are the dishes…

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A Day in Cinque Terre

IMG_0671This is it folks!  The moment none of you have been waiting for you.  Fresh, off the boat, Cinque Terre pictures that look the same or worse than the millions of CT pictures out there.  It took me 8 trips or so to finally see the famous five villages – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, Rick Steves, Monterosso.  Its not official yet, but as you can see, there’s a strong push to rename one, so I’m just one step ahead.

But in order to combat the Rick Steves fan club, and fully appreciate the villages, one needs to stay here for at least a few nights.  And since driving inside the National Park is extremely limited, its better to stay outside, in places like Levanto or Porto Venere.  Consider Hotel Abetaia, near Levanto.  Comfortable, quiet (in the middle of the woods, but modern), good food.  And they set you up with a parking permit in Levanto.  Consider staying at least 2 nights in order to have a full day at the villages.  Here’s a full day sample itinerary:

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Park in Levanto by the train station

Take train to Monterosso al Mare

Hike to Vernazza (Moderate.  Wear appropriate shoes, otherwise they will stop you and turn you around.  We witnessed it)

Have lunch at Il Pirata delle 5 Terre.  Sicilian brothers making all sorts of seafood magic.  Try the tuna.  You may experience heaviest crowds at this village

Take a boat to Riomaggiore to see the village from the water.  Explore Riomaggiore – walk up to the church and Castello.

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Take train to Manarola.  Make sure to take the correct scheduled train that will stop at Manarola.  Not every passing train does.  We initially got on the wrong train and quickly came out,

Have an early dinner at the awesome Cappun Magru and have the namesake dish.  Its the perfect place with the perfect opening hours for this itinerary.

Explore Manarola including a walk on top by the vineyards to see Manarola from above.  Then see the Sunset from the Manarola Scenic Viewpoint (see Google Maps).  This is why you are here.

Take train to Levanto

Write thank you note, or name first born, Ziggy

Categories: Italy, Liguria | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Cremini’s – From Le Marche With Love

Cremini's CresciaIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may or may not have noticed a slow moving shift.  A shift in the type of establishments I frequent, and write about.  Gone are the days of the almost weekly expensive meals.  Hooray fast-casual!  There was a time when I would enthusiastically read the power rankings and hot lists on a regular basis, but these days it feels more like a monthly chore.  Among my other usual sources, I now concentrate on random openings instead.  Places that open with or without any buzz, offering something that gets my attention, in convenient areas.  

The shift began a few years ago when I finally understood what “buzz” and “hot” means.  I started to talk to owners and chefs about artificial hype, and the various techniques to achieve it.  The shift continued when we started to experience disappointing meals by some of the buzz elite, some of which I’ve never written about.  But the turning point may have been when a well respected hot list I follow included a restaurant that belonged to someone I know.  That restaurant was most definitely not hot, and most definitely shut three months later.  What made it hot?  Around 3k to a marketing firm.

Enter tiny Cremini in Carroll Gardens.  The type of mom/pop that wouldnt normally make much social media noise, and is more of a neighborhood hangout.  Although Eater’s Robert Sietsema did discover its Crescia flatbread (more on that soon).  Cremini’s opened a few months ago by a young couple offering specialties of their home region, Le Marche, the lost region of Italy.  While we dont have any other Le Marche dining options as far as I know, Cremini’s is also the type of place every neighborhood needs.

Cremini'sOwners Riccardo and Elena live upstairs, and the only thing missing in their little place on Court Street is a bell.  “Like eating in someones house” is a cliche these days, but there’s no better way to describe this one.  Perhaps one day they’ll get busy enough to hire more staff and function more like a regular restaurant.  But for the time being, its like walking into your neighbor’s house, grabbing a newspaper, pretending you can read Italian.  And after chatting about politics, and 80’s Eurotrash with the owners, about an hour later, maybe eat something.

The menu is unconventional but not too foreign.  There’s even a burger, and its a good one.  But its important to keep an open mind and not expect a full menu as so many restaurants all over Italy.  Although Cremini’s may refer to Elena’s fried cream custards, you get the sense that its the stuffed Ascolana olives that are closer to a specialty here.  There are six varieties, from classic, spicy, veggie and more.  Best plan of attack is mix and match the 9 pieces, 3 x 3.

Not too far from Cremini’s, people wait one hour for the “hottest” pizza at the moment, F&F Pizzeria (its good!).  And a bit further out some wait three hours for a red hot burger at Red Hook Tavern.  Meanwhile there’s zero wait at the moment for Elena’s steakhouse quality burger where she mixes three meats, and counters with Provolone, sweet caramelized onions, and.. bacon.  The only other main is Le March style “meatballs” of fried pasta with ragu.  You’ll enjoy them as long as you can convince the inner New Yorker in you not to expect, well, meatballs.

Cremini's MeatballsThe Crescia is like a cross between a Piadina and Laffa flatbread where you can mix and match various meats and cheeses.  The Mortadella and Gorgonzola settle nicely once the taste buds get over the initial Gorgonzola funkiness.  One thing about the new Italian immigrants is they dont mess around with the raw materials.  No need to bastardize much these days like the old Sicilian immigrants did.  Another such example here is the excellent Tiramisu.

Cremini’s is not the type you expect perfection.  Its the type you want to root for.  When you talk to restaurant owners these days you get the sense that its a brutal, survival of the fittest market.  A real estate market that erased virtually all such places in some neighborhoods across the river.  One just needs to step inside Cremini’s to remind ourselves why they are still needed.

Cremini’s
521 Court St, Carroll Garden
Rating: 2 Z’s (out of 4)
Stars range from Good to Exceptional. Simple as that
Recommended Dishes: Fried Olives, Burger, Crescia, Meatballs, Tiramisu

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Enoteca L’Alchimista – Food Magic in Montefalco

IMG_1384When you visit Montefalco, a medieval stunner, smack in the middle of landlocked Umbria, it wont take you long to see which is the star restaurant.  About 5 minutes in fact after you enter the main gate.  30 minutes if you get distracted by more truffle sauces and hanging grandpa’s balls (Palle di Nonno).  Its the one in the main square with all the happy people occupying every inch of the space.  Some of the happiest ones are munching on pigeon done five different ways.  And while the star restaurant does not always deliver the results you’d expect, this one shines.

At the helm is Patrizia Moretti, the alchemist, the magician, and local legend, who runs a tight ship along with daughter and daughter’s partner.  L’Alchimista doesnt have the look and feel of a small mom/pop Trattoria but of a sprawling, busy, well run establishment with a traditional yet refined menu.  Delicate flavors so on point, you hear angels sing with every morsel (We did eventually asked them to lower the volume when it got annoying).  Facing one of the most atmospheric squares in Umbria doesnt hurt.

The only thing better than a restaurant with a signature dish is one with two.  Onion Parmigiana may not sound too enticing but here you get sweet protected onion from nearby Cannara that sings with that cheese.  Burrata with 24 month Norcia Prosciutto we couldnt get enough in Umbria was spot on, and so was the delectable ravioli with goat cheese.  Tenderloin, marinated with the local Sagrantino red, so tender you can cut with car keys.  The remote square ones, not the one you ignite with.

IMG_E1383But the undisputed shining star, and a dish of the trip nominee is the pigeon.  Just like Onion Parmigiana, pigeon just never jumps out at you when you read a menu as such.  But then we recall the tasty pigeons of nearby Tuscany, especially the one made by another female magician 100 km away.  This bird comes in a variety of ways – pigeon breast, pigeon sausage, pigeon liver, and pigeon stuffed with more pigeon.  Its outstanding.  The only thing left to do is finish with a proper Tiramisu, and its indeed fantastic here.

Although I’ve had Enoteca L’Alchimista on my radar, I was not expecting this level of cooking, and an impeccable attention to detail.  Neither should you.  It helps when you go anywhere with low expectations.  Or lower than the enthusiasm you get from such blogs.  Different tastes, off nights, and just picking the wrong items to match your palate means way too many variables involved to guarantee anything.  But for us, on this particular night, it was flawless.

Categories: Italy, Umbria | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Z-List Update – Fall 2019

tone cafe - ajaruli khachapuriIts been 8 months since the last update.  5 in, 5 out this time.  The Z-List is essentially my favorite 50 restaurants in NYC today.  I try to conduct surprise inspections as frequently as I can.  I show up wearing a hat and fake mustache.  Even though they dont know what I look like, you can never be too careful these days.  Rumors out there that I look like Tom Branson from Downton Abbey are unfounded.  I know because I founded them.  Anyway here are the changes…

In:  Wayan, Rezdora, 19 Cleveland, Kawi, Tone Cafe

Out: 

Pasquale Jones – Just getting a sense that its getting a little too touristy these days.  The group keeps opening restaurants and sometimes they lose focus.  Besides I needed to sacrifice one Italian as I have too many

Totto Ramen – Too many Tottos out there lost in the shuffle of too many great Ramen joints these days.

Oiji – Just not strong enough for me to keep coming back.  All sorts of great Korean on this list

Bombay Bread Bar, Timna – Closed

The full list with map

Congrats to the new members.  Happy eating!

Tom

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