Do you ever cross to the other side of the city for dessert or are you normal? Whether we are finishing lunch in Tribeca, dinner in Hell’s Kitchen, or brunch in Greenpoint, we often end up in East Village. It can take 30-60 minutes to make the schlep, but that’s just part of living here. Unlike in say Florida, or anywhere else pretty much, 30 minutes doesnt feel very long here.
Why dessert in East Village? Same answer as why there’s so much Thai food in Hell’s Kitchen, and do pigeons pee. I’m not really sure. But I suspect its part of the same sad reality I’ve been talking about for many years… location location location. East Village is the last Manhattan neighborhood where mom and pops can still easily open shop. That’s been the case for a while now. But during the last few years, there’s been an inflow of supremely talented bakers essentially completing the picture of Sweets Village.
Between the dessert bars, ice cream, and all the new and old bakeries, you got a wealth of sugary options scattered all over the area. But what makes it an embarrassment of riches is the high quality and the variety of experiences, from a fancy multi course dessert meal to a simple croissant. Ok, not so simple. And as for the quality, I dont ever recall seeing so many lines for sweets on a Saturday afternoon. While you’ll find a bad case of FOMO in every neighborhood these days, in EV its on a block by block basis.
I will not be able to cover all of them, as I have more important things to do, like argue with random people on Twitter, but here are some solid options for your next sweets crawl.
Librae Bakery (35 Cooper Sq) – One of the newer kids already generating much buzz. A Bahrain import, so expect middle eastern influences like Za’atar Labneh Morning Bun. But many, including us line up for the Pistachio Rose Croissants, a rich, airy, ultra flaky pastry, so messy you’ll feed all the resident squirrels on the go.
La Cabra – (152 2nd Ave) – Another new one generating long lines, perhaps the longest of the bunch. A Copenhagen import specializing in coffee, but people flock for the sick cardamom buns. I suspect you’ll see more of that in NYC soon, just like Basque Cheesecakes and other trends.
ChikaLicious Dessert Bar (203 E 10th St) – I’ve written about this place a few times in the past. Chika Tillman is a local legend. Grab a seat at the counter (if you can) and watch her and her talented assistant make magic. Pick the dessert from the menu for $25 and you’ll get a treat before and after. The outrageously light and delicious Fromage Blanc Island Cheese Cake has been on the menu from the beginning. A one of a kind experience in NYC.
Spot Dessert Bar (13 St Marks Pl) – Another fantastic dessert parlor, with full service. Incredibly unique, instagramble creations. Every single item I’ve had here including all the regulars and many specials were insanely delicious. I cant figure out my favorites, though my family is partial to the Matcha Lava, but really just the lava part, not so much the matcha ice cream. The Harvest might be the most famous.
Lady Wong (332 E 9th St) – Another Asian inspired dessert boutique. Run by a creative duo who spent a significant time cooking in high end restaurants in Singapore, including Michelin starred. You’ll see plenty of green items, due to the wide use of Pandan. Give the Panna Cotta a try, especially if you are a coconut lover. A sharp reminder that every dessert should come with a syrup dispenser.
Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe (342 E 11th St) – The grandaddy. One of the last remaining old Italian bakeries, offering fantastic cheesecakes, tiramisu, and all the rest of the classics. Its as old as the Brooklyn bridge!
Caffè Panna (77 Irving Pl) – Not in East Village, but close enough (Gramercy) and worth mentioning. This is where we go for some of the best Affogato in NYC.
This is a good start but there’s much more. Another place generating much buzz is Baonanas and its banana pudding. I havent had the pleasure (as of this writing, this may change any hour). There’s also no shortage of quality gelato and ice cream, although the best are just a bit outside of East Village… il laboratorio, Amorino… But deliciousness has no borders. Bon Appetit!
Fine dining in TCI? Pass. Coming from NYC, we find fine dining in the Caribbean pretentious, overly expensive, and full of hiccups. When you shell out a considerate amount, you cant help but notice all the little things that go wrong. We mostly avoid them these days after being fooled one time too many. Fool me once shame on you, fool me 15 times, I’m a glutton for punishment. But sometimes you want to take your wife somewhere new and exciting, where she can sport her Rent The Runway dress, and matching scarf. And sometimes when the stars align, you hit a homerun. Or in this case, a “Six”. If you know, you know.
Indigo is the brainchild of Australian Andrew Mirosch, the Culinary Director at Wymara. Its the old Gansevoort which recently rebranded to Wymara. Its essentially the new Stelle for those familiar. We avoided Stelle all those years, but social media chatter and early reviews suggested Indigo is the one new kid on the block worth checking out. Indigo is named after one of Mirosch’s daughters. He often flies to Australia to see them, and comes back with highly sought-after Australian Salmon and lamb. As long as he doesnt bring back Vegemite, I think this formula will work for a long time.
Our expectations at places as such lowered over the years. But Indigo is doing its best to lift that bar. The one thing I really like about Indigo happens almost as soon as you sit down. A menu intro by Mirosch himself. Instead of meeting the host at the end of the meal as happens so often, a chat at the beginning helps with the menu navigation and palate matching. Its a game changer for some. It doesnt take long to see how passionate and dedicated he is on freshness and the ingredient driven menu. As with any place on Provo, you need to satisfy a wide range of tastes (ie tourists), and by all accounts it looks like Mirosch got the tools and expertise to do so.
The rebranding to Wymara didnt mean rebranding from sexy. So we, including Mrs Z scarf immediately felt that sense of belonging. I’m pretty sure, if we didnt arrive at Provo senior hour (7), when Indigo was fairly empty, we would have gotten plenty of the usual looks, and the few patrons we saw were simply too busy with the menu. Choosing from the menu turned out to be a difficult task as there were some very interesting looking specials that night. I prefer small menus, and this was definitely not. Andrew Mirosch, the fisherman to the rescue.
We started with the two soups on the menu, including one special. Fish soup was pleasantly creamy and loaded with various chunky delicious fish. But as good as it was, the Conch Chowder special made it look pedestrian. Complex, supremely flavorful, and as good as it gets really.
Second course was a special trio of tapas called “Would it kill them to add another shrimp to make it shareable”. Lobster spring roll and Mirosch’s take on Maryland crab cake totally upstaged the lone sad coconut shrimp which needed the two terrific sauces to give it some life. A flashy but tasty app overall.
Although it was still windy, the island fishermen went fishing after a 4 day break, hence a superb local grouper special. A hefty, perfectly flaky fish, sitting on top of freshly made light fried rice. This dish worked slightly better than the buttery lobster. Indigo has an interesting dessert selection but being a sucker for sticky toffee pudding I stopped reading the rest of the menu. A tad too sweet perhaps, but still enjoyable and something I’d order again.
The service is usually understandably lacking on the islands, but it wasnt the case here. Friendly, proficient, and anticipatory. I dont recall the wine we had as I wasnt planning on writing a dedicated post while there. But this was an enjoyable meal from start to finish. A solid exception to the rule. Go!
Podolica Ribeye at Soul Kitchen (Matera) – This list has the dubious distinction of being a “best thing we ate in X” list starting with an item in Y. Soul Kitchen isnt in Puglia, but the neighboring region of Basilicata. Matera is very often paired with Puglia as a major destination. But hey, I dont make these rules! Simply put, this steak was freakishly good. Expertly cooked Podolica (the southern answer to Chianina and Fassone), and ranks high up there with anything we’ve ever had in steak heaven Tuscany. So good I just had to hug the chef.
Shrimp baked in Salt atLa Puritate (Gallipoli) – People come to Gallipoli to see Gallipoli, but I came to see the famous shrimp. Trattoria La Pure Joy as we coined it, dished out a shrimp dish unlike anything I ever had. They are plated table side along with delicious EVOO, and although plenty of salt used, they never cross into the too salty territory. Outstanding to say the least.
Pizza at 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 actually. Delicious, perfectly chewy crust, with top notch, zero km ingredients. And I suppose I reached the pivotal point in my life where I just had to finally try pizza shaped like a star and the one here, with beautiful 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.
Seppia Tagliolini with shrimp at Ristorante Blu Notte (Lecce) – Sometimes, not often, its the happy accidents that produce the most stellar results. We stumbled upon this gem by pure luck after some places I marked were closed, and it turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. After enjoying the famous Puglia antipasti all over, the seafood spread here were quite memorable. But the pastas, especially the rich Seppia win the prize.
Tuna Carpaccio at Antiche Mura (Polignano a Mare) – I’m a sucker for a good tuna tartare or carpaccio. You can just see recent posts for evidence. This silky smooth goodness in this seafood mecca is simply divine. A lesson in freshness, quality and simplicity. The baby squid, Tagliolini with fish, not too shabby either. After the meal head to Super Mago del Gelo Mario Campanella, or “Super Mario” for the specialty coffee with lemon and Amaro.
Lobster Roll at SoFish (Otranto) – SoFish is the type that best exemplify the fun of travel, especially for the seafood deprived like us. A hip, “Fast Casual” joint specializing in quick seafood. Its not exactly an old concept in Puglia as it appears that it started by the great success of Pescaria in Polignano a Mare not too long ago. This roll is more like a well crafted lobster salad with huge chunks of meaty lobster and the rest of the lobster resting on top. Perhaps the most outrageous lobster roll you’ll ever encounter.
Lasagnariccia at Cibus (Ceglie Messapica) – Picking one dish from this Slow Food legend is not easy. I could have picked any of the sick antipasti spread like the Stracciatella with black truffles or the Zucchini flowers with ricotta and toasted almonds. But I think I heard the angels finally sing when I tried theLasagnariccia, a beautifully deconstructed Lasagna with eggplant, like the best eggplant parm you will ever eat.
Puccia at La Lira Focacceiria (Alberobello) – Puccia is a sandwich made with pizza dough, and this place and its animated owner makes one heck of a Puccia. “Now wait outside until you hear Puccia! Like this… PUCCIA!!!!”. Dough, ingredients rocked big time. Same with their crafty stuffed focaccia sandwiches
Pasticciotto at Pasticceria Andrea Ascalone (Galatina) – Eating the Pasticciotto here is like eating Pasteis de Nata at Pasteis de Belem in Portugal. You can have them all over Salento and they’ll taste pedestrian next to the original where it was invented. 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.
Pear, Ricotta, Rum Dessert at L’antica Locanda (Noci) – I literally heard fireworks when I ate this, but pretty sure it came from outside. It’s a simple but incredibly addictive concoction, especially if you are into boozy desserts. My dining companions thought it was a tad too strong, but to me it was perfectly balanced. Noci is where those in the know go to eat when they visit Alberobello, and L’antica Locanda is its crown jewel.
I’m almost done writing about Puglia. I got a doozy I’m saving for last. But it would feel incomplete without mentioning “Florence of the South”, even though its not exactly a secret anymore. We happened to be travelling to Florence after Lecce, and that made us appreciate Lecce even more. Even with the tour groups arriving in droves, Lecce still feels like a sleepy hilltop village when compared to Florence. Lecce’s old town is not large, but its golden sandstone streets make for pleasant walks even when you pass by the same streets and cats every morning.
Lecce is one of the strongest reasons that Puglia requires some time (at least 10 days), and it’s old town splendor compliments the Puglia itinerary beautifully. Its also a solid base to explore Salento. You got Otranto and its mesmerizing coast 30 minutes to the east. Gallipoli 30 minutes the other way, along with spectacular beaches like Punta Prosciutto that was calling my name for some bizarre reason. And lesser known jewels like Galatina and its frescoed Basilica in between.
Palazzo Massari, a comfortable bed and breakfast very near the old town ticked all the boxes especially in the parking department. We found Lecce to be easy to get in and out, even with some sneaky ZTL entrances. On your first day, a good way to get oriented with the old town and its history is a food tour with Antonella through Airbnb experiences. While there wont be a food shortage with this one, much of the focus is on history and culture.
Even if you’ve seen every church in Italy, you do not want to miss the significant Lecce handful, especially the crown jewel Basilica di Santa Croce (above). Another gem, of the hidden not so hidden kind is the Jewish museum in the ancient synagogue right next to Santa Croce. A short tour of the six or so rooms and a short video gives you a good understanding of the history of Jews in Salento.
The notion that Lecce food is meh overall (as per some well known bloggers) is a misnomer from our experience. Maybe compared to the major cities of the north, its lacking, but there doesnt appear to be a shortage of good eats. You can eat well and poorly just about anywhere in Italy. Ristorante Blu Notte and 400 Gradi for pizza were the highlights. La bottega del corso is a fun cheese/salumi/bruschetta quicky. The lone miss was an expensive meat-fest at Tabisca. More here, and more to come.
Thanks to Covid, longest Providenciales hiatus since we discovered the Turks and Caicos islands roughly 15 years ago. Like Columbus, we just happened to be sailing the Atlantic, south of the Bahamas until we found these beautiful, barely manned islands one day and we never looked back. Much has changed since then especially in the food department. The weather didnt cooperate this time, but once you are there, the Provo zen kicks in, and you ignore all your problems. A plethora of great dining options help. Unlike previous visits, even some new places delivered this time. Here’s the recap…
Provo is generally expensive, even for NYC standards. But that doesnt mean you cant find cheap local eats. Even with prices pretty much doubling since we started coming to Sweet T’s, its fried chicken is still the best deal in town. You order by the dollar amount. For $5 you get about 10 full wings which is enough for two. Add $2 fries, $1.50 bottled water, $1.50 tip and you got yourself a meal for $10. This has become our usual first stop after landing since its a 2 minute drive from the airport.
One of the obligatory lunches for fish and chips and fish tacos at the Sands. While the fish and chips are still the same old flaky goodness, and perfectly seasoned fries… err.. chips, the fish tacos were just ok this time. The tortillas got soggy pretty quickly and the mango salsa sweetness was a little more prevalent this time. Wife liked them though so who cares
I haven’t been in MR in so long I forgot why I dislike it. Last visit was at the old location at the Alexandra. I figured since its still fairly popular it’s time to try again in the newer location in Turtle Cove. New verdict: Same as the old. Tuna salad was as basic as something you get in a Panera Bread. Coconut Shrimp was more like it. Appetizer lineup was somewhat lacking, forcing me to order things I don’t usually order. Grilled Snapper was serviceable if not a tad dry. The saving grace was the lobster curry. Surprisingly well balanced curry with just enough heat. I would come back just for this. Mango cheesecake was good and pretty to look at. Sexy even if I may say. Ambiance was that of a cheap wedding that didn’t pay for music. Even the drinks were wedding-like weak.
Omar’s Beach Hut
When Grace Bay misbehaves, head to the always dependable Sapodilla Bay (see below) or Taylor Bay, followed by lunch at Omar’s in Five Cays. You will pass a rough stretch on the way, but the location is superb. Omar spent many years managing Bugaloos next door so he’s no stranger to the conch scene. In almost godfather-like fashion everyone gets a chance to meet him. Well almost everyone. Waiter: “Did you see Omar”. Me: “No, I went to the bathroom, but he met my wife”. Waiter: Would you like to see Omar”. Me: “Ahhm, I think we are good, thanks”.
My lone concern was that “Island time” will take away from FIFA time, but it was quick and tasty. Conch fritters was proof that they dont necessarily need to be crispy to be supremely flavorful. Fish tacos topped with a nice tomato salsa were decent. The winner was the oxtail. You can tell a lot of love went into preparing this dish. Just wished there was more rice to accompany that sick dark gravy. And pretty much the best, freshest plantains we’ve had anywhere. Outstanding lunch.
The Almond Tree
One of the new and exciting kids on the Provo block, located in the stunning Shore Club. Pretty busy on a Sunday since many places including all my favorites pretty much closed. Open kitchen, but surprisingly ventilation issues for such an open layout. Nice looking space dominated by a large tree in the center. I’m guessing of a nut variety (almond?). The food is elevated American comfort food with an emphasis on the south.
The standout was the Pulled Braised Short Rib that comes on three little biscuits. Very nicely executed. The Gnocchi was nice and creamy. Pine nuts and sun dried tomatoes just for decor I suppose, and not much truffle essence from the truffle cream. But still enjoyed it. Old Bay Seasoned Shrimps (doubt it was named by famed executive chef Martin Davies) was good but essentially basic shrimp and grits. Maybe average if you eat it regularly in the south or high end places. Bread was stale, and service overall was lacking. Its a soft recommendation from me for now. If you are after the familiar (nothing wrong with that) go for it.
A quick enjoyable lunch at this popular Airstream food truck. I preferred the fried chicken sandwich over the grilled Mahi sandwich, she preferred the Mahi, and we both concluded that the Churros were the best thing we ever ate here. Fresh, light, fluffy and awesome. My lone gripe is the elevated prices even for Provo.
One of two regulars for dinner. Another flawless meal from start to finish. I think the most common complaint about LB has always been the service, but I feel more confident that kinks are mostly fixed. We’ve been coming here long enough to know what works best for us. Any type of Carpaccio. This time a silky smooth, melts in your mouth tuna. Add a touch of their excellent salt.. superb. Conch Chowder is always flavor packed with plenty of heat. Comes with this Harrisa sauce on the side in case you need even more heat and complexity. Steak Au Poivre still the bomb. You can tell it’s cooked well as soon as you touch it. Maybe a tad on the blue side for us as we prefer medium rare. The fries are like the best McDonalds fries you’ll ever have. And yet another perfectly cooked fresh snapper that makes other island Snappers pale in comparison (I’m looking at you Mango).
New for us. A fantastic experience from start to finish that deserves a dedicated post. Will update soon.
Part of our busy lunch rotation (we are the only Seven Stars guests that hardly eat at the resort). This is where we usually get our Jerk and goat curry fix. So often whether in Anguilla or here we get lesser quality fatty goat, but this one was not the case. Not as spicy as I remember but just as enjoyable. Same for the terrific Jerk chicken. That sauce! I till haven’t washed my hands properly since. The local Gon-Ta-Nort Amber is the beverage of choice throughout the week, again.
Our first and last meal on every trip. Sometimes we even sneak one in the middle. Italian with a Caribbean twist. One of a few mid to high end spots that attract many locals. I met an Italian woman in Sapodilla who said “they are the only ones” when I asked about for her favorite Italian on the island. Well, at first she said “my kitchen”. The one gripe this time is that there were no specials on both visits which was always a rarity. Whether its a fresh Wahoo, Grouper, or a pasta of sorts, I’ve always enjoyed the specials here. But we persevered and then some.
The Tuna Carpaccio on one visit, Tuna Tartare on another were standouts, the former in particular. Just the perfect combination of silky smooth tuna with quality EVOO, salt and pink peppercorns. The Gnocchi was the same ol’ pillowy awesomeness. You won’t find more delicate gnocchi anywhere. The only app that paled in comparison to previous visits is the Octopus. Still good, but missing some of the old oomph.
During lobster season you can count on a solid Spaghettoni Lobster Fra Diavolo. We “Scarpetta’d” the heck out of that sauce with the usual quality bread. On the second night we enjoyed the pungent and meaty Orecchiette. The grilled lobster here is serviceable. I would also feel confident ordering ribs and steak here as we’ve done in the past. And you most likely wont find a better Affogato anywhere in the world. Its a mystery why no one else adds Baily’s to the mix.
Summary and Random Tidbits:
Standout meals: Le Bouchon, Caicos Cafe, Indigo, Omar’s, Chinson’s.
Standout dishes: Snapper at LB, Tuna Carpaccio at CC, Conch Chowder at Indigo, Oxtail at Omar’s, Curried goat at Chinson’s, Churros at Cocovan, short ribs app at Almond Tree, lobster curry at Mango Reef, Affogato at CC
If you are staying at the Seven Stars or even if you dont, try the Tuna Wrap and Caesar’s Salad for lunch.
Pick up some sandwiches for the flight back at Julien Deli (Le Bouchon owner). The Julien classic is good, especially according to Julien
A couple of places I wanted to check out but ran out of time:
Sj’s Curryclub – Recommended by a few locals. Opened by a Provo veteran most recently at Graces Cottage. I’m told it’s a small place. I love Indian too much so not usually looking for it on vacation, but I was intrigued by some southern dishes like Chicken Chettinad.
Conch & Coconuts – Recently opened near Turks Kebab. That’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge about it. Would be nice to have a solid affordable local place in the hub even though that particular location can use some sprucing up
You may not know how to pronounce it, but have probably heard of Puglia or Apulia. You may even heard of Bari, Alberobello, Lecce, and your British aunt may have mentioned Polignano a Mare once or twice. But unless you’ve been researching Puglia extensively, you probably never heard of Cisternino. Blame Puglia’s wealth of stunners, many of which concentrated at the heart of Puglia, Itria Valley. I cant think of another Italian region that boasts such wealth in such proximity.
Cisternino therefore is easy to overlook, but I’d argue that its the best base to explore the region with a car. Most pick the more famous Ostuni, 20 km to the south. But Cisternino is not only better positioned, but has a lot of things going for it. It reminds me of the Varenna and Bellagio situation in Lake Como. Its a small mystery why most chose Bellagio to this day where Varenna is not only more convenient, but arguably as attractive.
Draw the main sites in Valle d’Itria, and you’ll find Cisternino smack in the middle of it all. 30 is the magic number. Less than 30 minutes to another white stunner, Locorotondo, the mentioned Ostuni, and mother of Capocollo, Martina Franca. Food heaven Ceglie Messapica and the great Cibus is 16 km away. Cisternino is not only surrounded by Trulli but Trulli capital Alberobello is less than 30 minutes away. Then 30 minutes down the shore you got Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. And the nearby stretch between Savelletri and Torre Canne not only boasts some of the best beaches in the area, but known for its seafood.
Sometimes you come across a place that ticks all your boxes. One of mine is not only good food, but preferably a place that specializes in something. Cisternino is known for the Fornello Pronto, a network of butchers that will barbecue the meat of choice on the spot. Walk in, choose your meat, pay, and grab a table. Might as well make that meat another local specialty, Bombette, small meat rolls stuffed with cheese and pancetta, though you may find various variations.
But if you happen to lead a largish group like I did, or simply seek a more traditional sit down, there are no shortages here. Family owned and operated Ristorante Mezzofanti, recommended by our host, is literally a hidden gem in a quiet corner of the old town. Try the baked Entrecote with breadcrumbs, and honey mustard. Neapolitanish Pizzeria Doppio Zero is dope! And quite popular so make reservations.
Dining options get even more interesting in the country side. One is Il Cortiletto, a Slow Food guide recommendation in the tiny village of Speziale. Here you’ll find a charming cameo appearance of the chicken, and an exceptional version of the Altamura specialty Tette delle Monache, that may or may not be safe to Google at work (its means Nun’s tits). Another option is Masseria Il Frantoio for a family style set menu dinner in a striking environment. If you overlook the lavish wedding service, you’ll enjoy the elevated traditional grandma cooking with matching wine.
You dont have to stay inside Cisternino in order enjoy it, although waking up inside the empty old town is probably an experience in itself. The beauty in this part of Puglia is the variety of accommodations like Trulli, Masserias, or both (Masserias with Trulli). Consider Masseria Cervarolo, or the more subdued and homey Spetterrata, a short 15 minute drive from Cisternino, and 20 from Ostuni.
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.