First post pandemic update, and a complete overhaul really. I reduced the number from 50 to 30, and now sorting by neighborhood. 30 is just easier for me to update and keep tabs on. Still sticking to Brooklyn and Manhattan as these are the two boroughs tourists and I mostly frequent. Only rule as usual is $10-100 per person. Meaning nothing should cost over $100 or under $10 per person. That eliminates cheap eats like pizza, and pretty much covers 99% of sit downs in NYC. An affordable list for the people, by the people (Ok, by one person, but you get the idea).
Additions: Dell’anima, Milu, Anton’s, Nish Nush
Removed: Too many to mention. Some closed, some lost their mojo, including sadly Momofuku Ssam. Yep, for the first time no Momofukus on the list. From three to zero.
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.
I spend roughly 3% of my time at home looking for my glasses. Last time after an intense search I found them hanging on a shirt I was wearing. I spend more time looking for a particular item in the pantry or fridge. Half of the time I forget what the item was at some point, and sometimes the act is prompted by something totally unrelated. Like when I’m about to head out to rake the leaves, but open the fridge instead. You might as well take the eggs out and make a Shakshuka while you at it. “Why are you making Shakshuka, we just ate, and I asked you to rake the leaves”… “Remember when we talked about being more spontaneous?”.
Anywho, I didnt have to spend much time looking for the House of the Red Pearl because I knew exactly where it is. But unless you cheat, you can have an especially frustrating scavenger hunt looking for it in the new Tin Building by Jean-Georges. Since no one can pronounce or spell his last name, we simply refer to him as Jean-Georges, or JG. For the same reason it is easy to forget that Cedric of EWZ fave Wayan and Perry St. is JG’s son.
There used to be a time when a food hall would open in NYC, people paid attention. Nowadays, with more than 30 halls and food courts scattered all over town (Source: EWZ Research) you forget about it the day after opening. But Tin Building in South Street Seaport is worthy of a detour. I used to visit SSS when I was younger, but for the past 20 years or so, it has become a place we regrettably have to pass while biking to another place. But with the rejuvenated Pier 17, the openings of Momofuku Ssam, The Fulton (also by JG) and other notables, you may want to include SSS on your Brooklyn Bridge or Staten Island Ferry day. I wont go into detail describing Tin Building, except to say that the percentage of items I wanted to taste or purchase here is quite high. Its an elegant, and extremely thoughtful food hall.
If you thought that entering a Minetta Tavern takes you back to the Gilded Age, wait until you open the curtains of House of the Red Pearl. An old fashioned, yet modern Cantonese speakeasy. A movie set really, with some comparing to something you may see in a Bond flick, though for some reason Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came to mind. No reservations can be made yet, and I hope it stays that way. The building just started opening on Wednesdays after a soft opening so closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for now.
Much of the motivation behind the menu came from Jean-George’s time spent in Hong Kong. Wontons or Dumplings in Chinese restaurants rarely excite (unless of the soup variety). The Pork & Shrimp Wontons here did. Perfectly balanced, with just enough heat. Eggplant, cooked down to the consistency of Enoki Mushrooms, with beautiful scallion-garlic notes to match. Currently not on the menu but most definitely should be. Flavors reminiscent of Danji’s sick tofu. On a return visit there was zero question whether I’ll order the Bacon Fried Rice again. In fact it was the main reason for the return visit. One of the more complex fried rice dishes you’ll find in the city.
The hope is that they dont dumb down the menu over time as it gets its share of tourists. And that the larger dishes improve just enough to be on par with the small. The Stir Fried Lamb, seasoned well, but not quite the best Cumin Lamb version in NYC as Eater’s Sietsema states. Not enough cowbell. Mala Chicken, the spiciest item on the menu, wont exactly “Mala” your mouth and will probably get some heat for that from the die-hards, but its agreeable nonetheless and I would still order it again. The roasted monkfish was perfectly fried, though the accompanied sauce was a bit too pungent for the fish. We devoured it of course.
The mains will satisfy most, but not as flawless as the smaller dishes, and one particular dessert. Mango Sago Pudding is an especially proper finisher, and quite the looker as well to match the space. The House of the Red Pearl is unique, fun, and features an ingredient driven menu full of hits. Go!
House of the Red Pearl 96 South St, South Street Seaport Recommended Dishes: Wontons, Fried Rice, Eggplant, Mala Chicken, Mango Sago Pudding
I never imagined I would ever write a top 10 food post on Iceland but here we are. Iceland reputation doesnt quite extend to food, and I’ve been warned by some that this is one heck of a challenging area. Maybe all they ate was fermented shark and Sour Ram Testicles to reach this conclusion? The more traditional Icelandic food like Plokkfiskur (fish stew) most likely wont thrill your taste buds, but that doesnt mean that they are the dominant menu items, other than perhaps on food tours. Fresh Seafood, especially Cod, its cousin Ling, and Arctic char reign supreme, whether baked, grilled, or in soup form. Same goes for Lamb, though I suppose it was a fail for us since it didnt make this cut. I did not include the usual suspects you see in every blog like Skyr and Hot Dogs. These are more specific, and obscure items.
Baked Arctic Char at Skal! (Reykjavik)
The dish that set the stage for a 10 day fishorama. Skal! is more like something you can find in NYC including its food court home (the first food court in Iceland) but with these kind of ingredients I’m not complaining. The fish is not much of a looker but was cooked to perfection. The Char is most likely the signature dish here but dont overlook the expertly cooked skirt steak, and the outstanding roasted sunchokes (Jerusalem artichoke)
Date Pesto at Gilbakki (Hellissandur)
If Gilbakki feels like eating at someone’s house that’s probably because it is. Or it looks like it at least. I was not in liberty to inspect or ask for a nap instead of dessert. Calling this spread Pesto may cause people turn in their grave in the beautiful cemetery in Genoa, the Pesto capital of the world. But its a very agreeable thick mix of dates, olives, nuts, and cheese that comes with a bagel. The curried fish soup here is not too shabby either. And the location, in sleepy Hellissandur, a mini Wynwood if you will, the mural capital of Iceland, is another reason to visit.
Seafood Soup at Sjávarborg (Hvammstangi)
When I asked the waitress if there are more restaurants in Hvammstangi, she started to laugh. I took it as a no as I didnt find any myself. Its good to have a monopoly but it was the food quality that made us backtrack 12 km after we were done with Kolugljúfur Canyon. We sampled more fish soup in Iceland than all our years in college combined, and this was the best of the bunch. Chunks of fresh delicious fish in a well balanced broth.
Fish of the Day at Naustið (Husavik)
Will Ferrell’s hometown of Husavik is one of Iceland’s worst kept secrets. But finding food that isnt catered to the whale watching crowds was a little challenging. That meant two visits to the excellent Naustið, something we rarely do abroad. After trying much of the menu its not a surprise that the best dish was a simply grilled Fish of the Day. Some of the fish we tried in Iceland was lacking just enough texture, but this Blue Ling (Cod’s fat uncle) was firm, and perfectly flaky.
Fish and Chips at Fancy Sheep (Seydisfjordur)
Fish, fish, fish, fish soup, fish. See a theme here? Well, thats the end of it as we started to experience fish fatigue by this point. We had fish and Chips three times during this trip and this was by far the best one. Nothing fancy here. Just great, thin batter, and none of the mushiness you often get with Fish and Chips. Fantastic fries.. err.. chips to boot. Even the Tartar sauce is better than average. This truck is run by a duo that’s in the happiness business, giving the obligatory jumps at the nearby rainbow church road extra oomph
Steak Tartare at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
Another unexpected delight. Staying in seemingly a middle of nowhere chain hotel, it felt like I struck gold with this so called appetizer. It was not only a Piedmont style expertly done chop, but big enough to be a main course. We couldnt finish it. These flavors came especially handy while the couple sitting next to us insisted on discussing politics. I thought that was the point of vacation these days. This Fosshotel also produced the best breakfast hotel of the trip
Seafood Pasta at Kjarr (Kirkjubæjarklaustur)
Kirkjubæjarklaustur, say it three times. Ok, say it once. Seven days without pasta was a proud moment, but enough is enough. This unassuming newish Italianish was just what the doctor ordered. There were other standouts like the Tiramisu, but the star was seafood with Squid Ink Taglioloni that wasnt terribly far from what you get in the motherland. The view of the twin waterfalls added to the magic. In the US this would have been a state park, while in Iceland its just another corner.
Langoustines at Fjöruborðið (Stokkseyri)
After some big fails the previous few days, and an amazing day spent hiking Landmannalaugar we really needed this one. A three course feast of langoustine soup, langoustines with potatoes and other veggies, and dessert. These Danish beauties were buttery, garlicky, and unlike Hofn Langoustines (see next) just the proper texture. You know things are working when we dont talk to each for over 10 minutes (and its not a fight). Even the beer here, Ulfrun Session (available only in the summer) was a notch above the rest we tried.
Skyr Dessert at Pakkhús (Höfn)
This may confuse some folks that are well too familiar with Iceland or those serial researchers that read about Höfn being the Langoustine capital of Iceland. You would think the Langoustine would get smart by now and swim elsewhere. But there’s no need for that as Iceland is in the midst of a fishing pause so Langoustines are imported these days. Still, we enjoyed Langoustines here even though we found them on the softer side. But it was really the dessert that got our attention. Beautiful layers of Skyr mousse, Tahiti vanilla, ample crunchy crumble and caramel. An absolute Triumph.
Love Balls (Ástarpungar) at Almar Bakari (Hella)
This was the best little snack that we heard nothing about prior to the trip. Nothing earth shattering, just tasty ball shaped donuts, usually with raisins but flavors defer. They are called Love Balls because Ballsacks the literal translation of Ástarpungar doesnt sound as appetizing. To most at least. We first discovered them at the charming Beitarhúsið in the North but the orange flavored Schweddy Balls at Almar won us all over.
Cinnamon Buns and anything really at Brauð & Co
Hot Dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Rye Bread Ice Cream at Café Loki
Burger at Vogafjós Farm Resort
Beef Carpaccio at Gistihúsið – Lake Hótel Egilsstaðir
Unlike the old guards like Anthony Bourdain, today’s TV food personalities are in the dangerous habit of hugging every chef they meet. It seems a bit more natural to chief hugger Phil Rosenthal than Stanley Tucci who occasionally forces it uncomfortably. But whether the hug recipients like it or not, its really the ultimate sign of respect and validation for their hard work. Since we are mostly a polite species, words can only do so much. But for me, in order to waltz into a kitchen to hug the chef, at the very least I need to get a little intimate with his/her meat. I dont care how that sounds.
So perhaps for the 5th time in my life I hugged a chef. It happened in Matera, during Covid times no less. Judging by the firmness of the youngest of the two brothers who run the excellent Soul Kitchen, the feeling I assume was mutual. It was the type of hug you only see in funerals. The equivalent of roughly 500 Google reviews, or 700 Trip Advisor. By the end of the evening, I was at the home of a newly discovered and favorite cousin where we can argue about politics, and Eurovision songs. You just cant talk about Bruno or bread. Matera vs Altamura can be a touchy subject.
Some meals are like movies. They start a bit shaky, and can turn into epics. A table mix-up with another group resulted in some uncomfortable moments but all ended well. I’m always careful abroad with jokes that may not translate well, but I let one get away this time. Other personalities would have kicked us out, but not this loveable teddy bear. I haven’t met the older brother, but I can only imagine that he possesses the same passion as the younger Mimmo. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, and definitely taste it in his creations.
Mimmo, with high end stints in Miami and other cities, pays homage to Matera specialties like the appropriately named Crapiata (rustic local bean soup) but at the same time can elevate with flair. Most in the know, come here to experience the outstanding Podolica (the southern answer to Chianina and Fassone) Ribeye. This expertly cooked cut ranks up there with anything we had in Tuscany.
And then you have the Risotto with Porcini, a trip spoiler in a way. Just about every mushroomless Risotto whether its red wine or cheese based, tastes inferior after this. Another standout was a Panna Cotta with Crusco peppers and orange infused olive oil. When you finish one of those meals with a dessert like this, its like culinary extasy. Hence what followed. We had other dishes but these were the memorable ones.
In one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the gastronomy scene is still in its infancy. In my brief time in Matera I didnt get a chance to try much, but you get the sense that its already an especially competitive environment. Soul Kitchen is full of just that and is as solid as its its rock cave home.
That’s the amount of time I recommend spending in Florence if the purpose of the trip is to leave your kid there to study. Because not many humans can stomach more than 48 warnings and suggestions on how to secure your personal belongings. Thats roughly 48 dad warnings, followed by half a dozen mom snap-backs at dad. Even monks, and pickpockets at some point go “Alora, enough already. As long as she doesnt have Cappuccino after 10 she’ll be fine”. But I digress. A little early this time.
If you’ve been to Florence before, and you dream about seeing naked David again, prepare for a shock if you are returning anytime soon. Post Covid revenge travel is real, as everyone’s mom, neighbor, and accountant is talking about travelling to Italy these days. We arrived to Florence from “Florence of the south”, Lecce. As popular as Lecce was, Florence made Lecce feel like a remote sleepy hill village. Even the taxis had trouble navigating the crowds. I imagine Rome and Venice are not much different these days.
But Florence is still Florence, and there’s only one Florence. Even the Florence of the south is nothing like Florence of the north. Art, monuments, amazing food, and history on display particularly at the time of our visit. When you see a makeshift stadium built in front of Santa Croce, it can be one of two things. Either a Taylor Swift request was lost in translation, or its Calcio Storico time. Luckily for us it was the latter and we managed to score tickets to one of the semifinals. If you are not familiar with Calcio Storico, Ask Jeeves can probably explain better than Football, Wrestling, Rugby, Kick Boxing, and Couch Potato (When one sits on an an opponent back for 20 minutes for some reason) combined into one. Its one of those events that would never be allowed in the US.
When you revisit such cities, you often revisit a favorite place. To me that place in Florence is Da Ruggero, a quintessential trattoria passed from generation to generation, firmly outside of the tourist route. Traditional Tuscan food doesnt get much better than this. The Tuscan Crostini has quite a bit more oomph than the typical version you find all over the region. Some consider the Pappa al Pomodoro the best in town. Loved introducing my kid to it in between warnings. Salumi, outrageous as always. And the pastas, seemingly so little effort, and yet so much flavor. My happy place in Florence.
Since our accommodations this time were at the roomy and peaceful Residenza Marchesi Pontenani near Gladiator arena (Santa Croce), it was hard to avoid the craziness surrounding All’Antico Vinaio these days. On my last visit, roughly 8 years ago, All’Antico Vinaio was just another good sandwich shop. Today its the L’As du Fallafel of Florence and then some. They practically took over an entire block with multiple lines, police directing traffic, teens posing with the overstuffed sandwiches for selfies, and countless picnicking on the curb. I wasnt even tempted to try it. Ok, maybe a little. But I had other plans…
When in Bistecca city, you just have to have the, you guessed it, Gelato. Its not just a matter of which Gelato, but how many times a day. My old rule of picking anything that begins with “Car” is in serious jeopardy now that Carapina is no more. Though Carabè is still going strong. But on this trip, I settled on another old fave, Gelateria dei Neri where I ate three times in two days. EWZ historians tell me its a new EWZ record. The only unforced error was that only one of the tries was the sick Ricotta and Fig combo.
I had other plans for dinner that evening. But when we checked out the place that shall remain nameless earlier, we got a slight bad vibe. Plan B however turned out to be a smashing success. Nugolo is a little far from traditional Tuscan. In fact its closer to what one can find in Paris. But I was intrigued by it after seeing its name pop on the excellent Girl in Florence. And FOMO completed when Nugolo was featured on Stanley Tucci’s new show on CNN before it even opened.
At Nugolo the decor is smart, colorful, playful, and really so is the food to match. The rabbit ragu for instance comes hiding beneath the Risotto for a lasting, milky spoonful. Another clever combination was the slow cooked egg (64 degrees) inside a kataifi nest, with green peas and potato foam, and pancetta. Fresh pasta in a form of “Bottoni” are just that, buttons, stuffed with red potatoes and ‘nduja, and topped with broth of mussels and wild rocket (Arugula) sauce. The Beef tartare was probably the lone forgettable dish. Monkfish, taccole beans, pine nut cream and crusco peppers was superb. So was the Veal’s cheek with potato gratin, Borettane onions and cashews. Every fatty and tender meat cut should come with Borettane onions. A simple but very solid Tarte Tarine capped a memorable meal.
You will see Mercato Centrale recommended in every guide book and Florence FB group, rightfully so. But it took me all those years to realize that Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, the locals choice is the real deal. They are only a 20 minute walk apart. We tried mainly some fruits, bread, cheese and salami, and one particular salami stood out. Good, spicy salami is my weakness. At a vendor right off the middle western entrance, the Salame Spagnolo had that “come to papa” color, and the flavor had just the right balance.
In Florence, being the outdoor museum that it is, I opted not to brave the crowds at museums and churches this time. But it would feel like an incomplete trip without another visit to Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. The atmosphere surrounding it, views off and of it, the cemetery, simply mesmerizing. Still feels like a secret considering the lack of crowds. You can find them all in Piazzale Michelangelo down the road. A more pleasant visit to the area would involve taking a taxi or bus to Miniato, walk down to the Piazzale, and down through the gardens toward the river for numerous selfie opps.
Even with only 48 hours, I could not leave Bistecca city without having the Bistecca. To me its like going to Mexico City and not having a taco. But with some of the old faves like Sostanza closed on Sundays, picking the right place was a challenge. I’m a serial researcher when it comes to food, but picking a good Bistecca in Florence is almost like throwing darts at a map. It dominates almost every review page to the point that none of the restaurants in Florence can afford to offer a bad cut, or not have it available. I cant think of any other city in the world with a similar situation. Segovia and its famous suckling pig comes close, but not quite.
I ended up picking Parione, and as expected turned out to be just what the gastro doc ordered. Its touristy alright, but you get a sense that just enough locals frequent it. The eggs with truffles didnt quite do it for me. The Picci did. The Bistecca while bluer than I remember did not taste like it needed to be cooked more. Supremely flavorful, buttery, slightly funky with just the right seasoning. If you havent perfected the Bistecca art at this point, you would have been in serious trouble. The one mystery here however was the total lack of seasoning on the beans. Did the old Pisa salt tax ban tradition extend to beans as well?
One block away from Milu, in Madison Square Park, you will find the original Shake Shack. Twenty years ago, Shake Shack transitioned from a hot dog cart to a kiosk selling burgers and shakes. And before you knew it, FOMO and long lines started to disrupt the local squirrel population. Today Shake Shack has 360 locations worldwide, including one 5 minutes away from my house. The chicken sandwich ranks up there, and the Smoke Shack, featuring the signature quality beef with applewood-smoked bacon, cherry peppers, and Shack Sauce is perhaps the finest fast food burger we have today.
But while Shake Shack revolutionized America’s burger culture, the original shack neighbor Milu may be in the early innings of reinventing American fast food as we know it. Its a tough task considering our obsession with the familiar. But if anyone can do it, its probably fine dining veterans and students of taste, Milu’s co-founders. The trio has an extensive combined resume, including stints at another famous neighbor, Eleven Madison Park.
We essentially have an Eleven Madison Park and Shake Sack love child. I dont have the slightest idea if the co-founders have any ambitions beyond this, although by all indication ambition isnt exactly lacking here. To open a Chinese fast food operation that is far from traditional Chinese food, and far from traditional fast food in an ultra competitive environment requires some major chutzpah. Even if they dont open another location, I’m rooting for these guys as there’s nothing quite like Milu out there.
Thats not to say you should expect big flavors that are in line with finer dining, and you can cancel your ressies at nearby Upland. Thats to say for $10-15 you can get a well crafted bowl of expertly cooked protein, rice and greens, usually Watercrest salad, or cucumber salad. Some may balk at the amount of protein, and abundance of veggies, but thats part of the idea. Make it tasty, cheap, and healthy(er). Another big benefit is the space. Fast food often involves rubbing elbows, noise, long lines, and pretending that you are comfortable eating in the park while telling every other stranger that the Hoisin sauce was on your shirt before. At Milu its as comfortable as it gets. Although at peak lunch time you may experience a full house, and a line.
After trying about half of the bowls, I settled on the Chili Crisp Chicken. Its not terribly spicy, and it helps to be familiar with Sichuan sodium levels. The Sichuan Cauliflower with the Seaweed salad is outstanding as well, and so is the Brisket. They used to offer a Sichuan fried chicken on Saturdays that was plenty hot, and ultra, dentist approved crispy, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case. You also have access to free water, a big indication that they value comfort/needs over $$$.
On occasion you do get a taste of Milu’s growing pains. Last time, my Mandarin Duck’s crispy skin was far from it, and while the meat was tender alright, there wasnt much of it underneath the skin. The terrific marinated cucumbers, and duck fat rice however helped curb the disappointment. Even at well oiled machine Shake Shack, you can get a bad burger sometimes.
But there’s more. Milu also offer products that will upgrade your pantry in a meaningful way. Chili oils, Soy, Hoisin, their own seasoning, and dumpling sauces. I probably purchased around half of them and pour their seasoning on just about everything I cook. Although they make their own Chili Crisp, perhaps the most notable (and expensive) item they sell is the Fly By Jing Chili Crisp. The added Umami with this Chili Crisp will transform your eggs and pastas into something as complex as figuring out Bronski Beat lyrics. I’m still trying after all those years.
How do you lose ownership of your namesake restaurant. It happened to Alon Shaya in New Orleans. Shaya, the restaurant was considered by some, the best new restaurant in America in 2015, and Shaya the chef joined the A list of the American culinary world as a result. I still needed some convincing because the last thing I wanted to eat in NOLA was Israeli food. The second last thing happened to be pizza, which meant skipping Shaya’s other place, Domenica after many visits to NOLA. Both, as part of the Besh Restaurant Group at that time, seemed like slam dunks, but for New Yorkers its like eating Indian food in Bologna.
Everything was going smoothly for Alon Shaya, arguably the most successful Israeli chef in the USA today. The Michael Solomonov of the south if you will. Then the Me Too movement happened which shook the food industry. 25 women filed complaints against partner John Besh, and Shaya tried hard to disassociate himself from the group. Shaya wasn’t successful at keeping his namesake, but was able to replace it with two Israeli standouts, Saba (grandpa) in New Orleans, and Safta (grandma) in Denver.
At both Safta and Saba, women play a key role. Shaya gives homage to Israeli grandparents that brought influences from Middle East, Europe and North Africa. EatWithSaba and EatWithSafta are the social media handles and websites (hence the title), even though you are surrounded by the usual under 30 crowd, and there’s no gefilte fish in sight. Shaya is back on track. Right? Well, there are some groups out there pushing to rename “father”, “mother” into something more inclusive. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Talking about inclusive, coincidentally there’s a growing movement in Denver called “Judaism Your Way” which is pretty much what the name suggests. A do whatever the f#%k you want Jewish community that is reimagined, inclusive, and beyond reformed really. Instead of Bar or Bat Mitsvah, they offer a gender inclusive Be Mitzvah. You want to end your Yom Kippur fast at noon, no worries, we even offer water if needed at the services. Heck bring a Porchetta sandwich if you absolutely need. But since “exclusive” is not part of their dictionary, this is not the type that would cancel grandma.
“Here’s an idea, Ziggy. Maybe stick to food?”. Ok Ok! Safta’s strength is well documented, and in fact written all over the entrance in huge letters. “Pita + Hummus”. The pita and hummus is straight out of the Michael Solomonov (Zahav/Dizengoff) Israeli food for dummies playbook. Or is it the other way around. The pita here is a little crispier (perhaps reheated) but just as good as what you get in Philly. The hummus with lamb ragu was like a Hava Nagila in your mouth – the wedding version. Though much of the flavor came from the well crafted ragu.
You can even add “+ Falafel” to the wall. Golden crispy exterior, and creamier than your usual green interior. The Salatim (small, mezze like salads) is another thing from the Solomonov playbook, and every single one we tried was spot on. The Lutenitsa especially stood out, but I wouldnt skip the smoky Baba and the peppery Muhammara. You can have a satisfying meal with simply the dishes I mentioned so far.
Sometimes, when everything goes well in a highly acclaimed place, your get on a food high. Thats when any faults that follow become unnoticed, forgivable, or become apparent later. While the lamb shank’s flavor was spot on, the meat was a bit dry. For $44 thats a no-no. The duck confit tagine was fine, but again, on the dry side, and wont win any Tagine competitions. Harissa chicken was probably the best main, though not particularly exciting to New Yorkers, including in the looks dep’t. If you order more than one main, might as well add the Persian rice that can compliment just about all.
Desserts did not produce anything noteworthy. Although the lone dessert we didnt try, the Knafeh, may very well be the one to get. We just eat plenty of Knafeh back at home. The space is attractive, comfortable, and the drinks were well balanced. Safta is a solid B. And while the execution of the mains can use some work, I can see myself becoming a regular if I lived in Denver
In Baseball, you bring the all dependable closer to finish the game. It doesnt have to be necessarily the best player, but one with just the right skill set for the job. Similarly, in travel, you often find just the right place to add to the itinerary, that seals the deal. It doesnt have to be the highlight, but one that checks the rest of the boxes. Salento is the Mariano Rivera of the travel closers. The plush white towns of Valle d’Itria, and the atmospheric Matera will make you want more. While the spectacular Salento coastline, and Florence of the south, Lecce, will finish the job.
There’s only one little problem with Salento. Its not exactly know for its food. The Florence of the south thing, has nothing to do Bisteccas. But the heel of the boot is not exactly lacking in quality ingredients. You got some of the finest tomatoes in the world, fantastic seafood, top tier olive oil, and splendid local Cheese you’ll find everywhere. But for some reason, its not known for a wealth of great dining destination, at least compared to the rest of the country. Maybe its a misnomer, or entirely wrong conclusion on my part. Either way, have no worries folks. Uncle Z is here to help. Here are five places that may perk your interest.
Trattoria La Puritate (Gallipoli) – Trattoria la pure joy. As beautiful as Gallipoli is, to me this is one of the reasons to visit. The famous Gallipoli shrimp baked in salt, and plated table side was unlike any shrimp dish I ever tasted. Stellar pastas like Linguine with shrimp, with fish and turmeric, or with Bonito. You cant go wrong with either of the three, or a fresher than fresh simply grilled Amberjack. Puritate is a bit old school, but comfortable and inviting. One of the most memorable meals of the entire trip.
SoFish (Otranto) – I’ve already written about this gem in the Otranto post. As the name implies SoFish is a hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. Note “Quick” in Italy is roughly an hour. It appears that this is a relatively new fast spreading concept, started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare. Although more of a restaurant this is a sound alternative to your usual bready quickies.
The menu features a nice selection of seafood sandwiches, salads and excellent craft beer (Reminder: Italian craft beer is most underrated in the world). While everything we tried was good, the lobster roll is worth a dedicated blog post. Its one of the most outrageous Lobster Rolls I ever had. Pricy (for Puglia) but once you get it you see why. More like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top.
400 Gradi (Lecce) – Highly acclaimed Neapolitan, and arguably the finest pizza in Puglia. According to this well regarded list, one of the best in the world. Delicious, perfectly chewy crust, with top notch, zero km ingredients. And I suppose I reached the pivotal point in my life where I had to try pizza shaped like a star and the one here, with Ricotta filled sun rays didn’t disappoint. Its a bit outside the closest old city gate, and quite popular with the locals. So come as soon as they open or be prepared to wait.
Ristorante Blu Notte (Lecce) – If I have to pick one must on this list, this is the one. In fact I started writing a dedicated post on this one, before I quickly realized I dont have enough pictures and material for a full story. Its a relatively unknown place that I havent seen mentioned anywhere. We come from NYC where much of the seafood is imported, and so we go abroad with a certain appetite, sometimes even in areas not known for seafood (eg Bologna). Blu Notte satisfied the urge and then some.
But the best part is that we stumbled upon it by pure luck after two other places I marked were closed during lunch, and the skies were getting angrier. We watched the old streets of Lecce practically get flooded within minutes. The house antipasti alone here is worth the “price of admission”. A dozen or so land, sea, and street food delights. But the pastas weren’t too shabby either, especially the outstanding Seppia with shrimp. Fantastic homemade desserts and really a flawless meal from start to finish.
Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone (Galatina) – In Lecce and much of Salento you’ll see these pastries called Pasticciotto everywhere. You’ll find them in every bakery, B&B, and featured in every food tour. Eat them at your own risk, since once you’ll try them at this Pasticceria where they were invented, every other Pasticciotto will taste pedestrian. Tour buses including week long food tours make the pilgrimage to this place. Smart to build an impressive 15th century Basilica nearby, with some of the most stunning frescoes you’ll find anywhere.
Notice the all important extra letter. This is not a political post. Quite the opposite actually. Its a celebration of our great uniter, American cuisine. Whatever that means. Since USA is relatively young compared to the rest of the world, its a bit complicated to define, even though you have enough examples of it (burgers, pastrami, bagels…). The label is often used more as a default when you cant call it anything else, except Italian in some cases. But we often categorize restaurants simply based on the origin of the owner/chef, as is the case with Upland.
Upland menu is as American or Italian as it gets in NYC, but it bills itself as Californian. Chef Justin Smillie who since left to Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, named it after his hometown in California. Maybe its my software engineering background, as I like things to be orderly for search purposes among other reasons in this case, but is it really necessary to break down the American tag into states? I can only imagine the poor Google or Yelp engineers trying to figure out the impact of adding a new category or subcategory. Upland is the only restaurant in NYC currently labeled as such. Does the signature burger, a creative riff on In-N-Out has something to do with it? Is it the grilled peaches?
Perhaps its the seasonality. Though we do have a label for upmarket seasonal American: “New American”. An Italian visiting NYC for the first time, will feel more at home at the pizza and pasta dominated Upland than a Californian. Sometimes restaurateurs try to be cute, and differentiate themselves in a crowded field, but more often than not, its best to keep it simple. Be bold, but be proud. Its American. This is not a rant by the way, but an observation. Its a celebration, remember?
Upland is a bright star in the Philly based Starr group’s huge portfolio that includes names like Buddakan, Pastis, and of course, the shiniest of the stars, Jackass Burrito. Upland got everything going for it. A prime Flatiron location. A deep American and Italian greatest hits menu. A striking, high ceiling, trendy looking space. And unlike many of its peers, it survived the pandemic. Its the type of place you can bring a date, new coworker, or host a 70th birthday celebration. On a recent visit, we witnessed suits, and gym attire.
Whether you come for Brunch, lunch or dinner you will face a very full menu. Though for some reason the much hyped Burger is not available for dinner. The Pizza is exactly what you’d expect from a place like this, except in the case of Breakfast pizza at least you get double the listed ingredients. In addition to bacon, cheddar, egg you get Broccoli, Sausage, Onions and more. It worked just fine for us, but could be misleading for others.
The Shakshuka-like “Eggs in Hell” had a nice flavor but missing something like sausages, or potatoes. The reason that shakshuka works on its own is that you usually get a nice fluffy pita and the eggs are more prevalent. While a dining companion was not looking I borrowed one of her breakfast sausages that made a big difference. Desperate times, desperate measures. This is the only miss from the two recent visits.
In some ways Upland reminds me of Via Carota. A jack of all trades, master of all. Solid pizzas, solid pastas, solid everything else. I couldnt fault anything with the Pappardelle with spicy sausages. And the Bucatini Cacio e Pepe were the best I’ve had in NYC since, well, Via Carota. Maybe even better since not quite as salty.
There are very few starters as satisfying as a nice Stracciatella with honey and grilled peaches. The combination here works so well, making the added Shishito peppers (both turned out spicy) unnecessary. The Duck Wings is a trend setter. I started seeing them more and more since Upland opened. The skin is crispy, well seasoned, while the dark flesh easily falls apart. You know its good as soon as you start operating.
But the best dish on the menu might be surprisingly the cod, and that may not have anything to do with the cod. The flaky fish, while mildly discolored, is expertly cooked. But the mixture of Fregula (Californian for Israeli Couscous), calamari and bits of chorizo really elevate the dish.
Extra brownie points for serving delicious fluffy bread with butter without charge. Refreshing to see these days. Solid drinks, nice atmosphere. In super competitive Flatiron, Upland is still a solid choice for American (with subtle Idaho hints). Its a Go!
Upland 345 Park Ave S (26th), Flatiron Recommended Dishes: Pappardelle, Bucatini Cacio e Pepe, Duck Wings, Stracciatella, Cod, Budino