In the land of the new and exciting, its often easy to overlook the established and proven. The “What’s new” questions on social media by people that visited the city once or twice before have always been a mystery to me. Did you try any of the other 99.9%, like Pig and Khao, Minetta Tavern, Popina, etc etc. Are they stale? What exactly is wrong with them? There’s always something new and exciting, but the real question is who will make it past year one, or year ten. 60% fail in their first year, 80% fail within five, and very few make it to 10.
The Z-List Thai staple Somtum Der not only keep soldiering on in the East Village but is now doing it in Red Hook, Brooklyn. While East Village is ultra competitive as I keep saying for years due to the lack of tourists and abundance of students, opening in no-train Red Hook is just another level of Chutzpah. Generally Thai restaurants in Red Hook and neighboring Columbia Street Waterfront District (because real estate firms havent come up with a cute 2 syllable name) dont last very long. See Pok Pok, Krok .
Somtum Der was one of the first to introduce New Yorkers to fiery Isan food when it opened in East Village a decade ago. That was only a year after opening in Bangkok. Both places are in the Michelin guide if you care about such things. In fact the East Village location even got a Michelin star that lasted a whole 5 minutes. The new Red Hook location has exactly the same menu, with pictures. If you dont like menus with colorful pictures, you are probably not enjoying life to the fullest. If we were to give awards to menus with the most vibrant pictures, Somtum Der would be an easy three Kodak recipient.
While Somtum is known for the various namesake papaya salads, I der you to find a more flavorful bird in NYC. Just seeing the picture on the menu for me is like a kid hearing the ice cream truck. Along with the marinaded pork with the soothing sticky rice lollypops, the fried chicken thighs is a usual must. The thing about Somtum Der is that they can take any old, stale, dry meat or fish, and make it taste amazing. Thats not to say that its the type of meat we usually encounter here, but that’s the type of seasoning and marinades they use. Its sort of what Isan food is all about. Preserving meat and fish in historically poor areas.
Its also worth noting the weekly specials, in particular the sickest mushroom salad I ever had, Goi Hed. (invented by someone who thought the Beech mushrooms reminded them of uncircumcised penises). Out of the regulars, last time in Brooklyn we also enjoyed the garlic beef with rice, and a serviceable Pad Thai. My first Pad Thai in maybe 20 years. Blame the pictures.
The cool thing about the Brooklyn location is that it has a lovely garden that feels like you are in a neighbor’s BBQ. Another plus is that its in the heart of Red Hook, walking distance to the legendary Steve’s Key Lime Pie, an important former stop on my Brooklyn tour (RIP). I go straight for the raspberry Swingle these days. Might as well also check out the Merchant Stores Building next door. If it doesnt work out with Mrs Z, my next wedding venue will be at the The Liberty Warehouse. But next month will be 30 years, so who really knows…
Somtum Der 85 Avenue A (East Village) 380 Van Brunt St (Red Hook) Recommended Dishes: Fried Chicken, Marinadet grilled pork, Mushroom salad (special), Garlic beef
Quick, whats the opening lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody? If you said “Mama”, you are in the majority, and wrong. If you said. “Is this the real life?”, you probably looked it up, after thinking Mama first. No matter how many times we listened to it, we are conditioned to think Mama first. It’s either somehow stuck, or the subconscious default answer as to many other things. How did you learn to cook? Mama. Why do you hate Mushrooms? Mama. Why do you rather not re-enter the house after forgetting something and instead ask me to bring it to you outside even if it means wasting precious minutes? Mama.
Mama was the reason why I didnt care so much for fish growing up. Then I realized I only knew her fish, and there’s other fish in the sea. My answer to how I learned to cook is actually Google. Both of our mom’s are typical eastern European “hold the flavor” cooks. When I go to my in-laws, they know to put certain dishes away from me, and the salt and pepper grinders as close as possible. I’m the only one using the grinders. They are so old they’ve become sticky, and although I continue to use them, I suspect most of the flavor is gone by now.
So instead, we live vicariously through restaurateurs that got their inspiration from moms that can flat out cook. Take Rana Fifteen, a newish joint on the border of Park Slope and Gowanus. Owner Ahmet Kiranbay’s mom Rana, as many moms in Western Turkey, would lay out a feast for the senses on every meal. Fifteen dishes approximately. Hence the number of plates you get if you choose the Rana’s Table option at Rana Fifteen. Just pick the main, one of the three sides, and you get everything but the kitchen sink.
They start you off with the appetizers. Like, all of them. And all of them have an ingredient or two that gives them the extra oomph. From the supremely flavorful garlic shrimp, to the perfectly creamy Labneh, to the as cool as the other side of the pillow Tarama fish roe. It will take a good amount of time to try all of them, and it will take an equal of amount figuring out your favorites. I crowned the Labneh, but there was no wrong answer.
As for the mains, so far, unconventionally we tried the chicken and Iskender steak as opposed to seafood. The steak was a nicely cooked strip topped with tangy tomato sauce (hence Iskender), sitting on top of bits of pita with yogurt on the side. I always hesitate to touch the yogurt when things work. The chicken is nicely spiced, albeit not easy to cut. While I enjoyed the two, seeing the octopus and branzino parade around the room, made me dream of coming back for a third feast. Note, this deal is for two people minimum, and you share a main for two. Its more than enough food.
The first meal was brunch, and the concept is similar. Just pick the egg dish and you get that to share plus a thoughtful array of a dozen or so savory and sweet homemade delights including outstanding pancakes and spreads. A symphony of flavors. There are only two egg dishes to choose from, which I kind of like. Less is more. I usually stop reading when I see a Menemen, one of my all time favorite eggy creations. You can have them scrambled, or Shakshuka style
Rana Fifteen is the latest from Ahmet Kiranbay and Armando Litiatco, the duo that brough us another EWZ darling, FOB Filipino. I tend to stalk the chefs I like. This duo is what NYC food is all about. A multinational homage to our ancestors. The Rana experience is closer to eating in someone’s home, rather than eating in a typical Manhattan resto. The friendly “Brooklyn casual” service, and exposed beams are the perfect fit. Meaning, dont expect your glass to be filled every 5 minutes, or even know the name of your waiter. Just go and enjoy mama’s cooking at its finest.
Did anyone notice that influencers stopped posting cheese boat pictures, and moved on to Birria? It feels like we are in the midst of a Georgian food inflection point. Much has changed since Tone Cafe introduced south Brooklynites to Georgian bread and Khachapuri a couple of decades ago. You can now find decent Georgian in Manhattan and Queens, but south Brooklyn is where they keep multiplying in an increased pace. Its not just Brighton Beach anymore, but Bensonhurst and now Bay Ridge joining the party.
Chveni Cafe at the north edge of Bensonhurst is probably the closest we’ll get to my old high school (FDR) on this blog. I almost felt the bullying, mainly the ones I initiated, while munching on Khachapuri Chveneburi, a new discovery for me. Its filled with that wonderful Georgian cheese and just enough green onions to satisfy both onion lovers (me), and haters (Mrs Z). Its the one house specialty you wont find anywhere else.
Chveni is primarily if not entirely female owned and operated. A multi talented babushka was running the kitchen during our lunch. And the owners are two best friends who decided to open their first restaurant in a curious but manageable location. Its an area where nothing interesting ever opens, and the only reason to go there until now was for one of those classic Italian pork stores.
Its a full menu in typical Georgian fashion, but you get a sense that the Chvenis can do no wrong. An outstanding rolled eggplant stuffed with a walnut spread. Kupati, huge, juicy, grainy sausages come sizzling, and accompanied with a sauce that compliments them beautifully. Another delicious sizzler is the Shkmeruli, a spatchcocked chicken in milky garlic sauce. Its so crispy and garlicky that you fully forgive the borderline too salty.
Another hit was a cornbread that tasted like a sick Arepa. There’s also a cornbread with cheese. The lone dessert, a huge, fluffy, airy, fresh Napoleon is the best I ever had. But it wasnt until we had the Kharcho soup we took home for next day’s dinner, when we heard the Georgian chant. Or is it Gregorian? It doesnt matter. What matters is that instead of the big chunks of beef we are accustomed to, we got smaller pieces of goodness in a well balanced broth.
Needless to say, this is the start of a beautiful relationship. I dont think I ever had a Georgian meal where everything clicked as such. The room is attractive. The owner (we met one of them) is reserved but friendly, and most importantly knows what Georgian food supposed to look and taste like. Trying the rest of the menu will be a tough task since we’ll be tempted to mimic the last experience. Its that good. Go!
I forget how much I like 5th Ave. The other one, in Park Slope. As soon as you enter it, no matter what area of the city you are coming from, you are transformed into an atmospheric, calm chaos of sorts. And yet very New York, due to the 50 shades of red brownstones (oxymoron?) lining the side streets, and the multi national array of dining options from Caribbean to Israeli, Greek, Indian, and of course French. In the past decade or so, due to the thousands of French immigrants flocking into that part of Brooklyn, new bistros and boulangerie are popping all over the place. French food to me is like Big Bang Theory. I never seek it, but enjoy it whenever I have it. I would love to finally try Le Succulent, among other notables on 5th and surroundings.
But this post is about yet another Korean, Haenyeo. Named after the famous female seafood divers of Jeju Island in South Korea, at the expense of being unpronounceable, and difficult to spell. That’s right. There’s a method behind the title madness. To remember how to spell the name without Googling requires a certain level of concentration akin to the mysterious ability to remember a person’s name after an introduction. What auto shop sells these filters?
This copy and paste gem is run by a husband and mega talented wife team. Sort of like my house. Jenny Kwak is a Korean food pioneer that no one heard about. She opened her first restaurant in 1992, Dok Suni in East Village when she was just 19, before opening a second one with the help of Quentin Tarantino. While the two places eventually closed, they were open long enough not only to garner celebrity fame, but open the door to a plethora of Korean establishments all over town. In fact Oiji and its addictive honey butter chips replaced the very same Dok Suni’s space.
Haenyeo is in the very solid two stars, “very good” category. It has its hits, few misses, and one particular hiccup that not only drives me crazy, but changed the way I order food in restaurants. Bringing the mains before we finish the appetizers is a little pet peeve that grows into a big one at spendy places as such. Its inexcusable really, and I cant even hide my displeasure when it happens. I understand that NYC rent is sky high, but at least let me enjoy something with my wife for a full 90 minutes. Anyway, here’s the food and drink rundown..
The Squid and the Whale cocktail – mizu lemongrass shochu + sesame oil + egg white. Love Sesame oil in cooking, but it was just too prevalent and too weird for me in a drink. I was intrigued due to the rave reviews. Maybe if it came with a side bowl of noodles?
School Girl cocktail – blanc de blanc + elderflower liqueur + lychee. Wife liked it and demands I now make it every Thursday (while pretending to be a school boy, which I dont mind but why does it have to be catholic).
Grilled oysters – seaweed butter, brioche toast. Nice and buttery escargot-like oysters. Not the heavy breaded ones you find in NOLA. Kwak’s husband is from New Orleans hence oysters and Beignets on the menu.
Crispy wings – yang yum. Sweet, sour and spicy. Typical high end Korean wings. Thats a good thing.
Dukboki – fundido saucy & spicy rice cake, chorizo, Oaxaca cheese. Probably our favorite dish of the night. Mexican, some may even say Staten Island inspired (bakes ziti, a SI staple) but unmistakable Korean flavors. Best part is the Oaxaca cheese soaked (eventually) in all that chili.
Sablefish filet – pan sauté simmered in soy garlic sauce. Very good. Like a nice and flaky miso glazed cod.
Kalbi jjim – beef short ribs, carrot, jalapeño. Supremely flavorful, tender short ribs in a thin broth. Served with plain dry white rice for some reason, but still an enjoyable dish.
Sugar dusted beignets – Not bad. Not nearly as fried, or good as the famous Cafe du Monde. More like sugar dusted Gnocco Fritto. Try not to make the mistake I usually make, exhale while biting.
Final cost for two $220, but we ordered an extra dish. Expect something more in the $180-200 range, although I would recommend sharing a main and ordering a bunch of apps instead of what I actually did in this case. Worth checking out.
Unlike previous visits to CTX, we were not the only white people this time. Thats most likely because it was Christmas eve, the night when New York Jews indulge in Chinese food. Not terribly different than the monthly routine for many. The tradition started decades ago when places like CTX didnt exist much here. At least not as far as I know. Back then your main options were Cantonese American/Chinese palaces with big round tables spinning egg foo youngs and pepper steak, before the General Tso’s and chicken with broccolis took over. We still eat the latter stuff on occasion, though I secretly reheat them sometimes with chili oils and crisps to get some sort of resemblance to the flavors of a CTX.
Chuan Tian Xia is not only fun to say, but a lot of fun to experience. Its not your typical Chrismukkah Chinese establishment, but a fiery, numbing feast for all senses, especially the Jewish ones. Its located in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, home to arguably the most authentic and largest Chinatown in the US. CTX, along with Hot Space, another Sunset Park fave, stand out in a sea of Chinese establishments, perhaps since most Sunset Park immigrants came from Fujian which is known for milder fair. Even the dishes we experienced so far at Hot Space and CTX werent as fiery as Queens staples like Szechuan Mountain House and Legend of Taste.
Our last visit to CTX was more successful than prior. Maybe because this time I finally used the Szechuan magic word, “Medium”. Spice levels werent quite up to snuff before, but were more like it this time. We can handle more, but sometimes there’s that fine line between handle and joy. Mrs Z didnt even have one of her infamous coughing episodes. Usually at the beginning of a spicy BYOB (Bring your own Bounty) fest (eg Ugly Baby), she starts the meal with a prolonged cough attack where we both sort of expect it and ride it out while the staff looks in horror. After its over, its business as usual as she handles the heat like a champ.
I also love reviews that wildly rave about the spice levels, and at the same breath talk about how they couldnt finish the dish due to said spice levels. If its too spicy to eat, its too spicy to enjoy, even if you normally enjoy spicy food. I recently crossed that line at Rowdy Rooster in East Village where I opted for the next level on my fried chicken. What was wrong with the lower level I enjoyed previously? Absolutely nothing.
As soon as you sit down at CTX, delicious tea and dangerously addictive spicy peanuts arrive. Often its the little details that make a difference. The smart decor of murals of what looks like Lucha Libre masks is akin to something you find in Manhattan, not Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Service is usually friendly, efficient, and English is never an issue. In Sunset Park, particularly in the Dim Sum palaces, its often point and speak.
Cold appetizers, including cold Chengdu mung bean noodles are more popular here than hot appetizers like the Sichuan staple Dan Dan Noodles. Although there was nothing particularly wrong with the Dan Dan last time. The griddled simple veggies here are usually a must get for us. Over time we settled for the cauliflower and string beans. No matter how much I try to replicate them at home, it doesnt come close to these flavors. The string beans, unlike at other Sichuan places dont come topped with pork but quite flavor packed nonetheless. Its not on the menu but it should be.
One of my favorite Sichuan dishes is dry fried fish fillets, and the CTX version (“hot and spicy fish fillet” on the menu) didnt disappoint. The only miss last time was the Chongqing chicken, a classic I usually enjoy. The chicken was a bit overly diced, and so too small to balance the strong flavors, though the pineapple fried rice helped. The Kung Pao chicken was more like it, and a fitting dish for the occasion. Its like a nice bridge between American and Sichuan… sweet, sour, and just spicy enough to remind us where we are. Happy New Year!
Chuan Tian Xia 5502 7th Ave, Brooklyn Recommended Dishes: Pineapple fried rice String Beans, Cauliflower, Hot and spicy fish fillet, Kung Pao chicken
Well, hours really these days. In the winter, Brighton Beach and its Atlantic winds can feel like a Siberian beach resort. Especially on frozen tundra days that sneak up at you without warning. You know, the days when you open the door to leave the house and before you know it, you are sliding down the stairs on your bum, and the streets are flooded with people lying on their back. Dont bother calling 911 if the person is awake since that is the first question they ask. So a fun Brighton Beach day is cut to a couple of hours in the winter where we do some quick shopping and beg restaurants to turn on the heat and invest in vestibules. Yes, new word for me too.
Rain or shine, or Sharknedo, the “Russian” neighborhood of Brighton Beach, along with Sunset Park are probably my favorite Brooklyn neighborhoods to explore. The borough may not be as diverse as Queens, but it has a remarkable number of distinct neighborhoods, led by these two. I will write in more detail about Sunset Park in the future, but today I will focus on Brighton Beach. Though if you happen to be a long time follower (many thanks to both of you), there’s not a whole lot new here. Ok, maybe just enough.
A recent influx of Uzbek and Georgian immigrants helped put the quotes in “Russian”. Although Russian is still the common language, its no longer the dominant cuisine. Even the food store “Taste of Russia” changed its name but that’s another story. Its not your grandpa’s Brighton Beach, and not even your dad’s. My old favorite dollar slice, back when dollar slices was not a thing because that was the price, is now a Starbucks. Getting a Knish is pretty much impossible these days. I used to sell them at Volna on the Boardwalk which quite remarkably still exists, especially considering every other space on the Boardwalk is owned by Tatiana today.
Speaking of Tatiana, a long, lazy lunch on the Boardwalk is something we dont do enough. Or pick up an oversized Shawarma sandwich at Little Georgia around the corner on Brighton 6th, sit on the boardwalk and watch the world go by. Who knows, you may even get invited to join the Babushkas of Garden of Joy (adult daycare). Outside the winter months, we dont miss a chance to walk the boardwalk halfway to Coney Island and back. But as a tourist you may want to walk the length and end your day there (or vice versa). On many summer evenings and Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, the boardwalk transforms into one heck of a Passeggiata.
Back to the Boulevard, just about every visit these days involves picking up frozen Pelmeni (Russian dumplings) at the Ukrainian long timer Ocean View Cafe. The pictures of Nicolas Cage on the walls are gone now, but long time patrons remember Lord of War. Over the years we switched from Siberian Pelmeni (veal, pork, beef) to chicken as the former started to taste too gamey for Mrs Z. You can obviously have them inside as well, along with a fine Borscht. Or at least as good as Borscht can get.
Ziggy’s Guide to cooking Pelmeni: The classic way: Boil for 8 minutes, add butter, a few splashes of red wine vinegar, black pepper. My way: Boil for 8 minutes, mix with a Chinese style dumpling sauce (I like this one along with Momofuku’s or better yet Fly By Jing Chili Crisp), top it with sauteed veggies like Cauliflower or Zucchini
Then its usually crossing the street for another long timer, Vintage Gourmet Specialty Food, or as we call it, “the chocolate store”. We pick up some Halvah, and chocolates that are either hard to find, or just cheaper than other gourmet markets. Back in the day the store was half the size today, although its not large by any means. My weakness is dark chocolate, preferably with pistachios, and the selection here is unmatched. But you also have a nice selection of Turkish delights (its Turkish owned after all), teas, spices, nuts, and much more.
The street crisscrossing here can be tiring as many drivers still confuse the boulevard for the French Connection chase location (It was actually filmed in Bensonhurst). That means its time for a snack. One of the things that hasnt changed much over the years is that you can still get street food off the street. The mini supermarket right next to Vintage, Gold Label sells meat and veggie filled Pirozhki from its window for as long as I remember. Its just a little tricky to time the freshness sometimes, as very few snacks are as satisfying (and cheap) as a fresh beef Pirazhok. For the similar but different Uzbek Cheburek, I would head to the corner on Brighton 5th, or better yet Kashkar Cafe on the “quiet side” of BB. More on this gem later. Golden Label is also the perfect size store to explore, especially the prepared items, and cakes. Say what you want about Russian food, they know how to make killer cakes.
From the old to the new, and a little detour. The Georgian bakeries and restaurants seem to be multiplying, not only in BB, but all over Brooklyn these days. 10 years ago, no one heard of Khatchapuri and Khinkali. These days you see these Khatchapuri love boats even in Manhattan. But the place that started it all is Tone Cofe on Neptune. Its one of the oldest if not the oldest Georgian restaurants in the city. And the first one to use a “Tone”, a Georgian oven where the dough is smacked inside by hand, and removed with a special stick. You can have a pleasant meal inside their adjacent restaurant, but these days we come to purchase their best in the hood Kharcho (Georgian beef soup), bread of course, and sometimes when we feel naughty, the regular pizza-like Khatchapuri, as opposed to Adjaruli Khatchapuri (cheese boat)
While less noticeable than Georgian and Uzbek, Brighton Beach also has a much bigger Turkish presence these days. If I have to name two things Russians love besides Russian food, its Sushi and Turkish. In some of the small supermarkets like Black Label you will often find a sushi chef doing his thing. And besides the delights of Vintage you also have the new Güllüoglu Baklava on Brighton 1st pl for more imported and homemade sweets. Vintage recently started importing artisanal Baklava from a top bakery in Turkey to intensify the BB Baklava wars. For kebabs or a more complete meal head to Beyti Turkish Kebab, one of the better lunch specials around.
Manhattan will soon get its first Tashkent Supermarket and the young professionals will soon learn about Plov, Samsa, Monti. and the consequences of going to an Uzbek super store hungry. In the original in Brighton Beach, I’ve had too many in and outs due to the crowds. On weekends they sometimes employ Japanese train pushers to move people by the Plov section. Hence I mostly shop at the less chaotic Ave Z location. They dont just have one kind of Plov (Pilaf), but a variety that covers every “Stan” kind. These days we lean toward the chicken plov, but the classic lamb and the rest are excellent.
Roughly half of my trips to Brighton involve a visit to Kashkar Cafe, one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city. Now that I no longer run food tours I can share all my secrets. One of which was a meal at Kashkar Cafe, the first Uyghur restaurant in NYC, maybe the US. Although its not much of a secret in NYC anymore, or even the world apparently. I ran into Fiona Shaw once on a tour here. Uyghur is essentially Uzbek on crack. In addition to Lagman soups (hand pulled noodles), expect a drier Geiro Lagman, and Juvova dumplings, the Uyghur answer to Pelmeni. Exceptionally fresh Cheburek (like a Pirazhok), Samsa, and really excellent kebabs. Homey, family operated places as such are increasingly hard to find in other parts of the city.
You are now in the “quiet side” of Brighton which has a much different feel since the subway is not hovering above, and businesses on only one side of the boulevard. But similar nut stores, buzzy bakeries like La Brioche, and gourmet supermarkets like Netcost are worth checking out. Or forget everything you read here, and just follow your nose and the crowds. You may bump into the same places, or maybe discover something I havent. At the end we’ll all agree that love it or not, there’s nothing like Brighton Beach in North America.
I feel like sharing with you something very few know about me. You may want to sit down for this one. In 36 years of living in NYC I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty. Tried once off the NJ side, saw the line and turned around. I figured since I live here I have all the time in the world to do it and she and I are not going anywhere. For the same reason it took me three years to try the Cronut. I was just passing by one day, saw no line, popped in and just bought one.
The FOMO thing just doesnt really work for me in NYC. Hype is often just that, a product of a marketing collaboration very few can afford. Maybe if I had lived in Bologna, I could see myself getting anxious to try a new Sichuan joint, and maybe miss an intimate Tortellini in Brodo filled evening. But NYC is the city of a million options, no matter the Borough. Yes dear friends, even on the island of Staten, I can now have decent Thai, Ramen, Filipino, best Sri Lankan, and maybe even the best Taquerias in NYC.
Pecking House, yet another product from an Eleven Madison Park alumni (see Milu) has spent three years as a pop-up in three boroughs before finding a permanent home in Park Slope. By that point the chili coated fried chicken already reached legendary status in NYC. A pop-up in this case doesnt mean the traditional kind. You had to add your name on a waiting list that meant waiting weeks sometimes. At some point there were close to 10,000 waiting for a crack at the bird. When your turn came you were assigned a day and time where you could pick up your order.
After one too many “Best Fried Chicken in NYC” calls, I’ll be lying if there wasnt any FOMO at all in this rare case. After a few years of hearing about it, I finally put my name on the list. But when my lovebird was ready I didnt make the effort to cancel all my plans for this. Over time FOMO evaporated and I forgot all about it. Even when the news of a permanent brick and mortar opening in Park Slope, I figured I’ll wait a few months and let the lines subside. But since Winter is Coming I couldnt wait too long.
It was almost disappointing when there was no line at all last Sunday, and I was able to easily snatch a table for two. Like at Milu you order up front, take a number and wait a few minutes that feel like hours for your order. The best way I can describe the chicken is this. They offer it naked (lightly seasoned, not spicy at all), Salted egg, and Chili flavor. The Chili was so satisfying, I may never try the other two, ever. It matches my taste like your old Nike shoes you still wear even though they have holes in them. Crispy without being too crispy, spicy without being too spicy, and just juicy enough.
Pecking House essentially perfected what the former colleagues at Milu do best. But that’s not all. Take the sides of a fast food place like Popeyes and see what Eleven Madison Park cooks can do with them. Most order the Dirty Fried Rice (dirty due to the rich chicken liver bits), and Mashed Potatoes with Duck Heart Gravy, rightfully so. But dont underestimate the Butter Bean Salad with an addictive sesame vinaigrette. The perfect order here for two is two two piece orders (one side each) and an extra side. Even the drinks here are elevated like the Elderflower Soda. If you enjoy putting Elderflower liquor on anything (good with bud light lime) you will enjoy this.
In NYC of course. This is not a Puglia blog yet as the last three posts suggest, although much more on Puglia coming soon. I’ve been living in NYC for 36 years now, and I dont remember a more exciting time for Italian dining. Even though The prices are moving in the opposite direction. A full meal at a mid price, full service restaurant now averages $175 for two (source: EWZ Stats), up from $150 not too long ago. But the competitive environment has never seen levels like these before. A glut of new Italian immigrants has turned the Italian scene upside down where Italian/Italian is the new American/Italian especially in Manhattan and north Brooklyn. Cacio e Pepe is the new Chicken Alfredo, and Neapolitan pizza joints are opening at faster pace than NY style it seems. Its a pizza revolution of sorts, although a complete pizza transition wont happen in my lifetime.
The title of this post is oxymoronic in a way since there are literally 100’s of underrated Italian in NYC today. But I’ll focus on five places that are much easier to reserve (unlike Don Angie, Lilia, Ci Siamo, Rezdora, and so many), and may bring you similar levels of joy.
Dell’anima (Hell’s Kitchen) – The easiest pick of the bunch. Best Italian in Hell’s Kitchen historically has been a mystery, just like the glut of Thai restaurants in HK. Mercato held that claim for some time IMO, but ever since Dell’anima moved to Gotham West Market (conquered really as there’s not much left there these days. Even Ivan Ramen is no more) it established itself as the one to beat. While tourists continue to flock to places like Becco for the quantity, locals line up chef Andrew’s counter for the quality. I dont recall ever having a less than stellar dish here. You cant go wrong with menu staples like Tajarin Alla Carbonara, and Pollo al Diavolo, but I wouldnt hesitate ordering new additions and specials. The location, and being inside a food hall of course has something to do with the underrated tag.
Ulivo (NoMad) – Talking about Mercato, long time readers should not be surprised to see it’s little sister here. With that said, somehow Ulivo managed to outgrow it’s sister, and establish itself as a solid choice in an extremely competitive area. That’s partly due to the talents of Sardinian born Emanuel Concas who figured out the right formula after years at Mercato and six years now at Ulivo. What you get is top notch ingredients, solid pizza, and a plethora of fresh pasta dishes, their bread and butter. You’ll find some hard to find Sardinian and Sicilian autocorrect specialties like Malloreddus with sausage ragu, and the simple but outstanding Busiate with almonds, fresh tomato, basil and garlic. No Secondis here. Instead, order another drink from the award winning bartender.
Faro (Bushwick) – This is another no brainer. A Michelin star recipient (yay Michelin!) only to lose it a few years later (oh who cares about Michelin!). Faro is being too modest when it bills itself as a simple neighborhood Italian. Neighborhood Italian dont do Cappelletti stuffed with sweet corn purée, topped with a slow cooked short rib ragu. I could have just ended the previous sentence after Cappelletti. This is one example of a rotating, masterfully executed seasonal pastas. I believe only the Bucatini with confit chicken has been on the menu longer than a year. And they ought to bring the sick Gnocchi Alla Romana back. Its more of a destination Italian. The problem with Faro is the most likely reason its on this list. Its kind of Faro, as in deep in the heart of Bushwick. But Bushwick, thanks to the growing list of mega clubs like Avant Gardner is slowly becoming a nightlife mecca.
Popina (Columbia Street Waterfront District) – It was fun seeing Popina grow over the years, and somehow remain true to itself. On my first visit. I expected the short menu to change and expand at some point to accommodate the masses, but thankfully it never did. Chris Mcdade’s stints with places like Maialino and Marta, his southern roots, and unconditional love for anchovies help create a fun, concentrated menu. Items rotate frequently but if they ever remove the signature spicy Chicken Milanese, expect local strikes. On a recent visit one particular Monkfish dish really showcased the tiny kitchen’s range. The team is opening Gus’s Chop House in nearby Carroll Gardens, sort of a gastropub.
Song’E Napule (Greenwich Village) – You can skim through 120 best pizza in NYC lists and you wont find anyone singing the praises of Song’E Napule. You will need to look at an Italian publication like Gambero Rosso which we probably should be doing anyway when it comes to pizza. The name has nothing to do with singing. It just means “from Napoli” in Neapolitan dialect. But if you are a fan of the Neapolitan style you’ll be belting out romantic tunes to your neighbor, Napoli great Diego Maradona on the wall. Legit oven, proper ingredients, and a capable pizzaiolo results in light and airy awesomeness. As genuine as it gets in NYC.
Charlotte Canda was a young high society debutante in the 1840’s. On February 3rd, 1845 while coming back from her 17th birthday bash, she was flipped from the horse carriage and died. Her death, and its circumstances shook New York. Charlotte herself designed some of the features of her own tomb in Green-Wood. Her father, who served under Napoleon, utilized some of Charlotte’s elements from the memorial of her aunt which Charlotte helped design a year earlier. Her grave is 17 feet high, 17 feet long, and her statue wearing 17 rose petals circling her head. Her fiance (I know, 17) Charles Albert Jarrett de la Marie killed himself a year later, and buried a few feet away. Not as close as he’d like because it was a suicide.
It’s one of the many stories that visitors came to see at Green-Wood around that time. I hesitate to write “cemetery” because this doesn’t feel like one. But the more I learn about this place the more I understand why it was once NYC’s number one attraction for over 100 years. Before NYC was a tourist friendly city, people came to see destinations like Niagara Falls, and Green-Wood. It was our first major park that inspired the creation of Central and Prospect Park.
Yep, its now officially the strangest food blog in the world. And my Brooklyn tour where we spend about 45 minutes in the cemetery is the oddest food tour out of 206 in NYC (rank #7 but who’s counting). NOLA did this! If you’ve been with me since the beginning, you’d understand my obsession with cemeteries. Important cemeteries around the world like Zagreb, Genoa, Arlington, and even tiny ones like in Getaria, Spain are a good way to connect to local culture, and history. Just like food in a way.
Out of all the famous cemeteries I’ve seen, Green-Wood is still the most striking, and approachable. While its hilly, and massive, it doesnt require a great effort especially if you have a vehicle. But yet, many New Yorkers still havent been or dont even know about it. When I was a kid living in Brooklyn, no one took me there or told me about it. Today its lost in the shuffle of the many attractions NYC has to offer. Considering the lack of crowds, its arguably NYC greatest hidden gem, and the best free museum.
Some of the notable sights at Green-Wood:
Battle Hill – Highest natural point in Brooklyn with striking views, Leonard Bernstein’s grave, and Minerva the roman goddess waving to her cousin Libertas (Statue of Liberty)
Inventors like Steinway, Peter Cooper, Elias Howe (Sewing Machine), Samuel Morse (Telegraph, Morse code), and perhaps the most important inventor of them all, Charles Feltman (Hot Dog)
Controversial statues like Civic Virtue, and James Marion Sims (currently in storage) – gynecology pioneer who experimented on slaves. Green-Wood is where unwelcomed statues go to die.
Henry Chadwick – “Father of Baseball”. Grave adorned with a baseball theme
Statue of 12 yo Drummer Boy – first Brooklyn casualty in the Civil War
Artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. I toured with Tiffany’s relatives once.
Bill the Butcher and William Tweed (Gangs of New York)
Notable pets like the infamous Rex and Fannie Howe. Read about them before visiting.
The grand Nicholas Cage-like Van Ness-Parsons Pyramid. Nick Cage has a similar tomb in Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. As of this writing, he’s still alive.
The odd looking bear sitting on top William Beard who painted the famous Bulls and Bears in The Market.
DeWitt Clinton grave and statue that once served as the main advertisement for Green-Wood when it stood in front of City Hall.
Four lakes including the mesmerizing Sylvan that make you forget you are in a cemetery.
The church and dramatic main entrance. The nest on top of the gate is home to Argentinian Monk Parrots. One of many bird species residing in Green-Wood.
Most important is a new meeting point. Due to extensive construction by Gran Morsi, I’ve been experimenting with a new location for a while, but will make it official now. We now meet at Mattress Firm Tribecca (yes with two c’s) – 140 Church St. Thats in Manhattan, not Brooklyn. Its on the corner of Warren and Church, but we meet on the Warren side.
As usual please check your email prior to the tour for any changes. Construction is spreading all over NYC like wildfire. Its a poor analogy these days but its true and sad. I may need to change the meeting point last minute.
The tour keeps evolving. Less emphasis on Dumbo (due to, you guessed it, construction). More emphasis on Brighton Beach (Added my favorite Georgian Bakery), and Green-Wood Cemetery. Look for a blog post on the latter soon. Dumbo was a minor stop anyway.
One of the most fun changes, for me at least, is a new game we now play. I tell a lot of stories during the tour, and one of them is false. At the end of the tour you will try to guess the fake story. I started doing it mostly with Australians as a way for them to pay more attention and stop looking for squirrels 😉
Unlike the other two tours, this one is not bookable on Trip Advisor/Viator yet. Best and only way to book is via email. EatingWithZiggy@gmail.com