Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

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With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

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Edible Inquiries: Quiche v. Frittata

quiche-frittata-faceoff

There can be only one. (All credit for awesome art to Jeff Call)

Hello, and welcome to the first post of Edible Inquiries! I know I’ve been MIA for a little bit, but while work and life kept me away from the blog, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to spice up Experimental Gastronomy’s content a bit. So here I am introducing a brand new series — Edible Inquiries, where I take readers’ questions about food and try my best to research the answer. That’s right, I’ll scour the web and bring together questionable sources, in the name of food trivia and the possibility that some of this information might actually be verifiable. Maybe I’ll even crack a book or two. So please feel free to comment on the post, hit me up on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/experimentalgastronomyblog), or tweet me with your random queries (@MaggBo). I’ll still be doing restaurant and Oreo-related reviews, but hopefully Edible Inquiries can become a permanent addition to the roster at EG.

The opening volley came from my friend Stephen, who asked the age-old question — “what is the difference between a quiche and a frittata?”

Well, if we’re judging a book by it’s cover, the simple answer appears to be that a quiche has a crust, while a frittata does not. But don’t be so easily swayed, my friends — a trip into the history of each dish reveals disparities beyond what lies at the bottom of the plate.

Quiche (most notably, Quiche Lorraine) is generally considered a quintessentially French food, but its roots can be traced back to the German word “kuchen,” meaning “cake” (Wise Geek). As the name would imply, Quiche Lorraine originates from the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, which fellow Regents Global History alums will remember has traded hands between Germany and France many times. This frequent exchange of rulers meant that the now French region’s cuisine has major influence from German cooking (for example, it’s not uncommon to find sauerkraut and beer involved in Alsatian dishes) (France Property and Information).

 The first Quiche Lorraine was supposedly concocted in the German medieval kingdom of Lothringen (to be later renamed Lorraine when the French took back the region) (Food Reference). According to some sources, Charles III, Duke of Lorraine in the 16th century, regularly ate the dish, although the first print evidence of it doesn’t appear until the 19th Century, in Linnois’s l’Histoire de Nancy, where it is referred to as a seminal French dish (The French Training Site).

 The Ur-Quiche Lorraine was composed of ingredients that would be at the ready on a typical medieval French farm — eggs, cream, smoked chopped bacon or ham, and a crust made of bread dough (French training site). Eventually the bread dough was replaced by pate brisee (short crust pastry) or the pie crust we encounter today. Other variations like the addition of cheese, onions, and other types of meat came later. The dish crossed the Atlantic thanks to the great Julia Child, assuming its rank in American brunch in the 1970s, although in France it is generally served as an appetizer for lunch or dinner (Wise Geek).

 

Although in America we place our egg dishes on equal footing, the frittata has a comparatively lowly position in its native Italy than its courtly French cousin. According to DeLallo, the frittata is part of “cucina povera,” or humble, home-cooked food. Its name comes from the verb “to fry” or “friggere,” and is basically a kitchen-sink dish used in Italian households to use up leftovers. There’s an Italian phrase ““hai fatto una frittata,” which loosely translates to “you’ve made a mess,” suggesting that accuracy and delicacy are not top priorities when cooking a frittata.

 Since eggs were readily available for most people in Italy, there’s no one particular recipe for the original frittata. Some historians speculate that the earliest omelet-esque dishes may be from the Fertile Crescent, eventually spreading throughout Europe and North Africa (History of the Frittata), although others argue that frittatas predate the French omelet, arriving around the same time as the Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the Mexican bread, a Spanish tortilla is pretty much the same as a frittata, except built around a filling of sliced potatoes) (Wise Geek). What separates the omelet from the frittata is largely the timing of the mix-in components — in an omelet, the eggs are cooked through, then the additional ingredients are placed in the middle and the omelet is folder over to cover them. In a frittata, the other ingredients are tossed in while the raw eggs are beaten, so they are dispersed throughout the dish. Traditional Italian frittatas contain “Italian sausage or ham, sweet peppers, fontina cheese, garlic, onions, salt, pepper and nutmeg” (Wise Geek). Another major difference is that, like a quiche, the frittata is eventually baked, then cut into individual slices for serving, either hot or cold (Wikipedia).

 So in many ways, the quiche and the frittata are strikingly similar. Both arose from common ingredients found in agrarian European households, both are intended to be sliced and eaten by multiple diners, both are open to plenty of mix-in interpretation, and both require at least some time in the oven. But although the crust may appear to be the defining difference, the true distinction between the two dishes lies in the filling. Quiches must be made out of a custard, which comes from the incorporation of some sort of dairy with eggs (traditionally heavy cream). A true frittata is prepared just with eggs as the base, making it lighter than its decadent French relative (Reluctant Gourmet).

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Quiches are a richer French dish defined by the use of a custard (dairy + egg) base, with an optional crust, while Frittatas are Italian and have just a plain base of eggs. While quiches were served to royalty, Frittatas were a “leftover” meal home cooks threw together.

So there you have it, Stephen. In America, of course, we’ve basically removed all the class connotations with regards to our egg entrees, except the weird implication that quiche is an “unmanly dish” (thanks to the 80s bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche). Next time you’re looking over a brunch menu, decide if you’re feeling particularly lactose-inclined before ordering. Regardless of what you pick, quiche or frittata, you’re basically eating a piece of history.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

Quiche:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiche

http://www.france-property-and-information.com/french_food.htm

http://www.foodreference.com/html/artquiche.html

http://www.regions-of-france.com/regions/lorraine/food-gastronomy/quiche-lorraine/

http://www.thefrenchtrainingsite.com/easy-french-recipes-french-facts-about-la-quiche-lorraine/

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-quiche.htm

Frittata:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frittata

http://www.delallo.com/articles/la-frittata-egg-dish-endless-possibilities

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-frittata.htm

http://kitchenproject.com/history/Fritatta/index.htm

http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/omelets-frittatas-or-quiche/

When in Rome: “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini

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As a little kid, I always dreamed about being a grownup, and getting to decide exactly what I wanted to spend my money on. From the perspective of a child, it meant getting to buy as many Snickers and Whatchamacalits (a highly underrated candy, IMHO) as I could fit in my purse, seeing eight movies a week, and keeping up with my bimonthly subscriptions to Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-men. Yup, I was a pretty cool kid. The idea of “discretionary income” was an alien concept — all money is discretionary when your parents cover shelter, food and warmth, and your major concerns are pretty much confined to standardized tests and trying not to blow your allowance in one week.

I feel like most of my friends tended to spend what teenage money they had on largely the same type of stuff — slices of pizza, Starbucks lattes, songs from iTunes or videogames, and the occasional splurge on a pair of Converse or concert tickets. I’ve loved watching us all grow up and define our spending priorities — what makes the cut for a twenty-something devoting the majority of her budget to rent and utilities? These days, we all choose different indulgences, and frankly, I think we’re all justified to spend our money as we like. Most of my discretionary income goes towards eating, be it keeping my fridge stocked or hitting all the spots (and more) that appear on this blog. Could I be living on Cup of Noodle or PB&Js and be saving more than I am? Sure, but I’d like to believe that happiness should be a budget priority, too.

So although a certain black-hole of NYC dining expense is part of my standard arithmetic, I will also never turn down a good deal. Especially one of the caliber of “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini, a weekly pasta-themed bargain I took advantage of a couple snow storms back.

Osteria Morini is one of the more casual spots in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group of high-end Italian restaurants, from sea-food centric Marea to his new steakhouse Costata, to the Midwestern-infused pizzeria Nicoletta. Even resting on the lower end of the affordability-scale, Osteria Morini is generally far from a cheap eat, and so when I heard about their “Industry Night” special, I jumped at the chance to finally try out one of White’s restaurants. The deal, running Monday nights from 9pm till close, discounts almost all of the pasta dishes down to $10 (from usually $20 or more), and offers bottles of Lambrusco for $28. Although you can’t get the pricier lasagna, risotto or polenta dishes, you still end up with about a dozen options of hand-made fresh pasta and stunning accompaniments.

So the Super Friends of Super Eating (aka, Mike, Jacob and I) assembled once more, and headed over to Osteria Morini, pretty damn hungry after waiting until 9pm to have some dinner (seriously, I don’t get how Europeans eat that late regularly).

 

First Impressions:

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

Osteria Morini is located on Lafayette, just half a block away from the Spring Street 6 train stop. The exterior balances on the edge of ostentatious, its name emblazoned on a large sign brightly lit in the winter evening gloom. Yet the interior is immediately recognizable as the understated Italian-American red-sauce joint, full of dark wood, accents of red on the walls and on the place settings and low-lighting that makes the case for intimacy amongst the hum of conversation and clinking of silverware.

 

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A long bar takes up the front half of of the restaurant, starting a few feet from the entrance and running all the way back to the dining room. There are a few small tables wedged into the space across from the bar, an indication of the volume of diners Osteria Morini sees daily. The walls around the bar are covered in photos and framed retro postcards from America and Italy, while the dining room is adorned with home-style touches such as paintings and shelves lined with kitchen accoutrements, from wine glasses to pots and pans. We were seated at a banquet table in the back left corner of the restaurant, providing great views of both the bustling kitchen and the packed tables. Clearly this deal is not really “insider info” anymore (if it ever was).

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

The Food:

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

The game plan, as always, was drinking and overindulging in shared plates. With that in mind, we decided to make the most of Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night” deal, ordering some Lambrusco to start. I had never had Lambrusco, so deferred to Mike who picked a bottle of Fattoria Moretto off the wine list. This was my first sparkling red wine, lightly carbonated with a punch of sweetness at the start and tart acidity at the end. I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not sure I would order it again. I think I prefer my Prosecco and my Chianti in separate glasses.

At the suggestion of our server, we ordered a few starters to supplement our pastas, beginning with the Lamb Crudo Crostini and the Insalata Mista. For the pastas, we ordered the Stracci, the Tagliatelle, and the Spallina. I had just come off of splitting a Salty Pimp that afternoon with my mother (wow, that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write), so I opted out of dessert (ostensibly, though bites were had), but Jacob and Mike finished the meal with the Torta de Olio.

 

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Our meal began with a basket of complimentary, thick cut focaccia. The bread was puffy and warm, pulled from a warmer drawer outside the kitchen and sliced just before it was served. You can see in the photo the crackly, salt-speckled crust and pillowy interior, leagues above the generic Italian bread thrown on the table at many restaurants. The only disappointment was that it was served solo — nary a pat of butter nor drop of olive oil in sight. I was perfectly happy to chow down on the bread, and maybe Michael White thinks it stands alone, but I’d like to try it with a bit of olive oil just for the sake of science.

 

The Lamb Crudo -- deceptively filling considering its petite size.

The Lamb Crudo — deceptively filling considering its petite size.

All of our food arrived pretty quickly, our appetizers appearing on the table before we’d even finished the bread. At first I was concerned about the portions of the Lamb Crudo (olive oil, chives), since the plating seemed to heavily favor the crostini over the meat. However, the richness of the tartare proved that the plate was balanced. Normally I’m not particularly into raw foods (see my gradual acclimation to sushi), but I am a big fan of lamb, so it seemed like a risk worth taking. I enjoyed the gaminess of the meat in contrast to the fresh herbs mixed in with it. The lamb was finely ground, giving it a soft, slippery mouthfeel that spread easily on the crostini. Osteria Morini earns more points in the bread box, since the slices were griddled instead of baked, preventing the almost-stale, cracker-like hardness that can come with bruschetta, when the bread just shatters in your mouth and spreads crumbs everywhere. Here the bread was thinly sliced, crunchy but still pliable, and a great vehicle for the crudo. All in all, I’m glad I tried it, although in terms of personal satisfaction, I’m not sure I would get it again. I definitely missed the caramelization and tender chew you get from cooked lamb, but maybe it’s simply a matter of me working my way up to the concept of raw proteins.

 

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way -- imaginative, light and refreshing.

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way — imaginative, light and refreshing.

I hate to sound like a broken record already (we haven’t even reached the entrees, Maggie!), but I was nervous about ordering the Insalata Mista (mixed greens salad, apples, seasonal vegetables, Morini vinaigrette) because of disappointing memories of Olive Garden lunches in my youth. Those salads were sad specimens of greenery, limp romaine lettuce topped with stale croutons, flavorless cucumbers, and a handful of grape tomatoes. However, the dish’s description suggested Osteria Morini had more up it’s salad sleeve, and sure enough, the Insalata Mista far exceeded expectations. It was a great mixture of greens — crunchy, chunky romaine intermingled with radicchio, some peppery arugula, and a little frisee. The sweet red apples were thinly sliced and tossed with the pomegranate seeds in between the vegetables, the whole shebang covered with a dressing that coated the salad without weighing it down, just the right mix of acid and sweet. Weird as it might be to say this, it was a memorable appetizer salad, a refreshing and light entryway into the heavier pasta course.

 

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

Our pasta dishes arrived basically at the same time, so I’ll tackle them in order of increasing favorability. The Stracci (wide ribbon pasta, braised wild mushrooms, rosemary oil) was the least favorite of our choices, although I think I enjoyed it more than Jacob and Mike. Unfortunately, the dish suffered due to its plating — the long pieces of pasta clumped together, like an overpacked container of chow fun noodles. Instead of distinct pieces of wide ribbon, you ended up getting small stacks of layered, slightly gluey pasta. It was clearly fresh and hand-made, but the delicacy of that craftsmanship was lost when piled in a small bowl, which made it difficult to get a bite that had all of the components of the dish in it, and led to the pasta generally overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. However, when tasted separately, the mushrooms were great, and pairing them with rosemary is always a dynamite combination. I especially appreciated the light sauce, considering the weight of the pasta, and the parmesan on top was deftly applied, although again it was hard to mix it into the bulk of the dish because of the mass of starchy noodles. It seems like simply plating the Stracci in a longer or more oval dish would make it far more successful, since the simple ingredient list seems geared to have the pasta shine.

 

The Tagliatelle -- Michael White's version of mama's bolognese.

The Tagliatelle — Michael White’s version of mama’s bolognese.

The Tagliatelle (ragù antica, parmigiano) had been highlighted in a couple of reviews of Osteria Morini that I read, so I pushed for us to order it. I’d wager this dish best captures the aim of Osteria Morini, at least on the pasta side — classic, homestyle cooking executed with real skill and presented in a pretty, if reserved manner. The Tagliatelle was pretty much an elevated bolognese, a simple but stellar display of familiar flavors. The antica ragu combines veal, pork and beef, crumbled into a classic base of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. Here, the wavy strands of pasta were the perfect vehicle, allowing a twirl of the fork to scoop up the chunky sauce into the little crevices between noodles. The fresh cheese on top added a nice salty addition to the meat and harmonized the elements of the dish. It seems obvious to say, but you don’t realize how shockingly refreshing authentic red sauce is until you take a break from the Prego jar. Jarred pasta sauce is so sweet, where as at Osteria Morini the sauce never overwhelms the palate — the natural sweetness of the tomatoes is balanced but their acidity and the floral herbs. It’s visually evident that the Tagliatelle was just a far more balanced plate, since you could see the nearly equal proportions of meat and sauce to noodles.

 

The Spallina -- double the ravioli, double the fun.

The Spallina — double the ravioli, double the fun.

As satisfying as the tasty, but recognizable Tagliatelle was, I enjoyed the Spallina (double ravioli, squacquerone cheese, rabbit, porcini) the most out of our pastas because it took an item  I knew (ravioli) and stuffed it with an unfamiliar filling. Rabbit seems to be increasingly popular on NYC menus these days, but I have only had it a handful of times in my life, so I leapt at the chance to try Osteria Morini’s take. I also felt it was the most visually appealing in terms of presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen double ravioli before, so I was delighted to find our bowl filled with petite ravioli pillows with a divot in the middle, splitting up the pockets of rabbit, mushroom and squacquerone (a soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese). The dish seemed to be drizzled in some sort of balsamic reduction, acidic with a hint of sweetness against the umami-forward filling of mushrooms and cheese. The rabbit was subtle, just a hint of gaminess. There just seemed to be a perfect ratio of filling to pasta, allowing both the interior and the exterior of the dish to shine. I would definitely order a bowl of the Spallina for myself over the other dishes — it was new and intriguing, but still somehow instantly familiar and comforting (probably the cheese, cheese makes everything comfy).

 

The Torta di Olio -- an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

The Torta di Olio — an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

Now I had every intention of abstaining from dessert, but damn, it’s hard to resist a piece of cake in front of you.  And the Torta di Olio (olive oil cake, citrus marmalade, ricotta crema, espresso gelato) was a pretty sexy looking specimen, a thick slice of golden cake glistening with mouthwatering  sheen. I’ve never really liked olive oil cakes, but Osteria Morini’s version almost made me a convert — it was like a thick slice of pound cake soaked in oil. The taste was clean and instantly recognizable, and while it still hasn’t won me over, this was clearly a well-done version of the dessert. The accompaniments ranged in texture and flavor, from the crunch of the nut crumble to the silky richness of the ricotta crema, to the potent bitterness of espresso gelato, flecked with visible bits of beans. Like the Tagliatelle and the Lamb Crudo, this was a case of a well-executed classic dish incorporating high quality ingredients. All three were satisfying, especially if you’re already a fan of the dishes in most iterations, but I found the more unconventional plates at Osteria Morini to be the most memorable.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the value of a deal like Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night,” and I’d happily come back another Monday to try some of the other pastas and appetizers. From the restaurant’s general atmosphere to the service and the food, everything felt approachable and relaxing, intended to remind the diners of a night out at the neighborhood trattoria. The only complaint I had (which happens at a lot of restaurants when you order a separate beverage) is that the staff could have been more attentive to our water glasses, but I’m an extraordinarily thirsty person, so this might not bother others as much. Basically, if you can splurge, go whole hog and visit Osteria Morini any night of the week — try the risotto and tell me how it is! But if you’re picking and choosing with your grownup indulgences, check out “Industry Night” on Mondays and have yourself a rustic, homey meal that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. That way you can still buy your weight in Snickers bars.

 

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette St.

http://www.osteriamorini.com/

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

Snackshots Labor Day: Summer Sweet and Savory

Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.

With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).

So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.

Hester Nights:

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop's stall: a deluge of dim sum.

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop‘s stall: a deluge of dim sum.

There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.

The diverse dumplings on display.

The diverse dumplings on display.

Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.

The Duck Confit Dumplings -- delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings — delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you've never heard of.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you’ve never heard of (note the sign in the upper left for an introduction).

For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”

Khao Man Gai -- some assembly required.

Khao Man Gai — some assembly required.

We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.

Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by "lab" equipment.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by “lab” equipment.

ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?

I'm sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors do you have?

I’m sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors did you say you have?

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes -- it's basically another trial of Hercules.

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes — it’s basically another trial of Hercules.

Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry  gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.

The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.

So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel

6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets

http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/#!hester-nights/c7h0

Brooklyn Wok Shop

 182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)

http://brooklynwokshop.com/

Khao Man Gai NY

https://www.facebook.com/KhaoManGaiNY

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston) 

http://www.laboratoriodelgelato.com/

A Birthday Brush with Foodie Fame: Seasonal Italian at Barbuto

Despite working in the entertainment industry, I still have a tendency to get a bit starstruck. Back when I worked at a talent agency, if I encountered a famous actor or musician, I would attempt to “play it cool.” In my case that meant avoiding all eye contact, and keeping the conversation to a polite minimum to avoid swallowing my tongue. One of my more embarrassing moments was loudly complaining to the receptionist that I had just missed seeing David Alan Grier, only to look over at the nearby waiting area and see the man waving pityingly in my direction. Cue my natural-born talent to blush intensely, and a hurried exit back to my desk.

Nowadays I work in production, so my exposure to celebrity is much more limited. I’d like to think that I’ve matured into a more capable human being in the face of the famous, but a chance encounter last weekend revealed that I’m not as chill as I’d hoped I’d become. I was out for a birthday dinner with my family, and as the gal of honor I chose the restaurant — Barbuto, down in the West Village. Why pick a seemingly random restaurant that’s been around for 10 years? Enter foodie origin story! Obviously I’ve always loved eating (and dessert), but my fascination with cooking and chefs didn’t really start until I got into Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef Masters, season two, way back in 2010. Watching the chefs conceptualize and execute these amazing dishes made me curious to try expanding my own palate a bit. Of all the contestants, the chef that produced the most rapturous salivation per episode for me was Jonathan Waxman. I remember watching the season and marveling that I wanted to eat literally every dish he made. So when I discovered he had a restaurant in NY earlier this year, I locked in my birthday dinner immediately.

2013-06-15 19.51.43

Little did I know that, 10 years into the run of his restaurant, Mr. Waxman is still intimately involved in the day to day life of Barbuto. About half an hour into our meal I turned to see the chef casually strolling amongst the tables, dressed in a polo shirt and chef’s pants. Our fantastic waiter, Matt, told us that Waxman (or “Papa,” as the staff calls him) comes into the restaurant nearly every day, and approves the menu via email if he can’t. On his second turn around the tables, while checking in with various diners, he paused by our table. I was overwhelmed by the moment, stuttering out a hello before my mother announced it was my birthday. Feeling I couldn’t let the moment pass, I asked for a photo. Sure thing, replied Mr. Waxman. And with shaky legs I stood up as the inspiration for my food fascination casually placed his arm around my shoulders. The resulting photo, featuring my stunned, ecstatic expression can be viewed at the end of the post.

That event in itself would have made the night, but, in an abundance of riches, our dinner at Barbuto turned out truly tremendous. So now that I’ve gushed enough about the chef, let’s get down to the dishes!

 

First Impressions:

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

 

Barbuto is an upscale, casual restaurant, a fact that is immediately apparent from the architecture of the space. It’s literally a converted garage, the front walls of the restaurant in actuality garage doors that are rolled up into the ceiling in the summer, leaving the restaurant open to the cool evening air. There is sidewalk seating, but our table was still technically indoors, right by the front of the dining area with a clear view of Washington Street and access to the open air. The back of the restaurant features an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and one of the two spaces for private parties is located right by the kitchen (a smaller room behind the bar is also available). The overall attitude of the restaurant is laidback and unpretentious, the industrial elements of the original garage mingling with smaller, homey touches — from white tiling on the walls and bar to simple wooden tables and wicker chairs.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

 

The Food:

 

Our server, Matt, was extremely friendly and happy to answer any and all questions we had about the menu. He explained that each menu is dated in the corner because it is constantly changing — in fact, one of his favorite dishes appeared for just one week before fading into the mists of time. As the remaining members of our party arrived, Matt suggested that we might get the most out of Barbuto’s Family Menu. Basically a chef’s tasting menu, the Family dinner covers the four courses listed on the menu, plus individual desserts for each guest. The chef selects from the list of antipasti, primi, piatta unici, and contorni, and they are more than happy to accommodate any allergies and special diets. In our case that meant no pork, no unpastuerized cheese, and options for a vegetarian (I know, we’re high maintenance). Matt was obliged with nary a blink of his eyes, and off we went on our Italian adventure.

For the sake of not overwhelming you all with the massive quantity of dishes, I’ve picked out some of my favorites for the night. I didn’t take as many notes as I did for Blue Duck Tavern, partially because I was still flustered from meeting Jonathan Waxman, and partially because I was determined to be in the moment for my birthday dinner. So here’s a not-so-quick rundown of some of Barbuto’s best bites:

 

Antipasti (Appetizers)

The Family Dinner generally comes with salumi, but we opted out because of the heavy pork contents. Instead we were presented with the Ravanelli (local radishes, roasted garlic butter & toast), the Insalata Spinge Pietra (sea beans, fregola & podda classico), the Insalata Crudi ( asparagus, carrots, watermelon radish, pecorino & bread crumbs), and the Insalata Stagionale (radicchio, baby romaine, capers, fava beans & anchovy). All four of these dishes were fresh and delicious, but I’m going to focus on my two favorites — the Insalata Crudi and the Insalata Spinge Pietra. I will say, however, that my brother Sam mopped up as much of the garlic butter as he could, and my father was all over the anchovy salad. So clearly there were a mix of opinions for favorites.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

 

Of course I forgot to photograph one of my favorite dishes of the night — the Insalata Crudi. The dish is composed of ribbons of asparagus and carrots, with small slices of watermelon radish mixed in and crisp pecorino and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. The salad features tri-color carrots, so I had my first purple carrot experience outside of Israel. Overall, it was a light salad, even with the cheese coating the vegetables. The saltiness of the breadcrumb/pecorino topping meshed well with the fresh moisture of the vegetables. As a big fan of carrots, asparagus, and cheese, I found myself taking seconds and thirds of this salad. With clear but not domineering flavors and a brightness from the produce, this is a great way to start a meal.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra --     don't be put off by the succulents, it's delicious.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra — don’t be put off by the succulents, it’s delicious.

 

I found the Insalata Spinge Pietra intriguing because it used a number of ingredients I had never seen before. The only thing I immediately recognized on the plate was the arugula. Matt explained that sea beans are a type of succulent, or plants that tend to retain water in arid conditions (like cacti). Up close they resemble the lovechild of green beans and broccoli rabe, with long stalks and smaller branches coming off the sides. The sea beans have a natural saltiness reminiscent of the ocean, but in the way good shellfish tastes briny, not in a mouth full of sand way. The other two items, the fregola and the podda classico, turned out to be Sardinian varieties of familiar ingredients. Fregola is a semolina pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and podda classico is a sheeps and cows milk cheese with a nutty, tangy taste. It was an assault of flavors from salty to bitter to sweet and tangy, and I really enjoyed discovering these regional ingredients.

 

Primi (Pasta)

The Risotto alla Primavera --  solid, but missing the speck.

The Risotto alla Primavera — solid, but missing the speck.

We were served two dishes for our pasta course — the Risotto alla Primavera, and the Gnocchi con Carote. While the risotto was well executed, I felt like it was somewhat one note. Generally the asparagus, peas and basil are complemented with speck, an Italian sausage, but it was left out of our dish. While I’m generally not particularly interested in cured meats, here I think the potential salt and bite of the speck would have lifted the dish.

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

One of the dishes that kept cropping up on reviews of Barbuto was Waxman’s take on gnocchi, and when it arrived, I understood the reason why. Gnocchi is my favorite form of pasta, and when I see it on a menu, I feel compelled to order it, so I was delighted that it came with our dinner. The Gnocchi con Carote is served with with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and Parmesan. Each tiny pouch of potato had a slight crust, cooked in what tasted like brown butter, which added a delicate nuttiness. Those same tricolor carrots were chopped and cooked down to a creamy softness, while the sliced snap peas were still crunchy, keeping the dish from falling into a monotony of texture. The overall taste of caramelization was decadent, but for a gnocchi enthusiast like me, I would gladly have eaten the entire family style plate.

 

Piatta Unici (Entrees)

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

If it seems like my family had already been served several mountains of food in our first two courses, prepare yourself for the main attraction. Our entree course came with the Pollo al Forno, the Manzo ai Ferri, the Platessa alla Plancha, and a vegetarian fregola and chickpea dish. I’m going to focus on the chicken and the flounder, but I will say the Manzo ai Ferri (prime skirt steak, chickpeas, and roasted shishito peppers) was supremely cooked. It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth steak that is so rarely achieved in steakhouses, thinly sliced, perfectly medium rare and absolutely luscious. And although I wasn’t about to chow down on some peppers, spice-wimp that I am, when eaten with a piece of the steak, the kick took it up a notch.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken -- this bird is full of herbs and spices.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken — this bird is full of herbs and spices. You can literally see how juicy it is.

The Pollo al Forno is guaranteed to be a part of each Family dinner at Barbuto, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call it the restaurant’s signature dish. In fact, it’s described on the menu as “JW Chicken & salsa verde,” the only item specifically touting the Waxman’s initials. Luckily, like the highly regarded gnocchi, this dish also lived up to my lofty expectations. The chicken was roasted and seasoned with tarragon and oregano, creating a crispy skin and plump, tender meat underneath. Despite the salsa verde (a green sauce of herbs, anchovies, capers, vinegar and oil) served on top, I felt the tarragon had the strongest presence. It was the kind of roast chicken that reminded me that chicken is not just a safe bet. Here was a relatively straightforward dish, without any fancy new techniques or exotic ingredients, and it was just superbly done, putting that buttermilk poached chicken at Blue Duck Tavern to shame. Interestingly, I managed to snag a small piece as leftovers, and the chicken actually reheated wonderfully. I think I actually enjoyed the dish more a few days later because I got to focus on the flavors of the chicken alone, rather than amongst the inundation of delicious entrees that I had when dining at Barbuto.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

Somewhat surprisingly, my favorite entree of the meal was the Platessa alla Plancha (flounder, garlic scapes, and capers). I probably would never have ordered it for myself, so hats off to the Family Menu for the come from behind winner. While the fish itself was nicely cooked and flaked off easily, what made the dish for me were all the accompaniments. The garlic scapes (which, for the uninitiated like me, are the curling tops of garlic plants) had a sharp, strong garlic bite to them, which heightened the sweet apple-ish sauce underneath the fish. I found the combination utterly addictive, and though the rest of my family thought the sauce was a little cloying, I repeatedly had helpings of the flounder over the steak. Much like the seabean salad, I found myself excited by the discovery the scapes, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find them on other menus, or even cook with them myself. Oh, and in case you wanted to be hip to the lingo, apparently in the farmer’s market world, scapes are the new ramps (oh the ups and downs of the trendy vegetable scene).

 

Contorni (Sides)

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

A quick word about the sides for our main course. We had the Verdure (market greens with chili flakes and garlic) and the Patate (potatoes, pecorino & rosemary). The Verdure was made up of kale, escarole, and chard, and like many of the dishes at Barbuto, had a fair amount of black pepper and chili seasoning. It reminded me of the spicy kale I ate at Cafeteria, and while it certainly mitigated the bitterness of the greens, I can’t say I’m really into this fad of lacing salads with peppery heat. I think I prefer my sides to complement my meal, and the addition of heat makes the vegetables stand out too much for me.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate, on the other hand, was right up my alley. It was as if the chef interbred roasted potatoes and french fries, making a starchy mutt that my family wolfed down. The potatoes were cut into thick chunks, leaving a soft but starchy interior surrounded by a cheesy, rosemary-infused, deep fried crust.

 

Dessert

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Last, but not least, we’ve got dessert. With all the variety of dishes, it was a little surprising that every person in our party was served the same dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because that dessert was fantastic. Waxman has worked with the same pastry chef for the past 16 years, at both his restaurants and his cookbooks, and it’s pretty easy to see why. My plate arrived with a scoop of chocolate pudding and a small square of tiramisu (with a birthday candle in it, of course). Our waiter explained that the chocolate pudding is always on the dessert menu, but the tiramisu is a dessert exclusive to the Family Dinner. After the family size portions of the rest of our meal, I actually appreciated the relatively modest dessert plate. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to finish the meal, but keep me from feeling too overstuffed.

Tiramisu tends not to be one of my favorite desserts, but this was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had. Instead of the typical lady fingers, there was a delicate sponge cake separating the layers of airy mascarpone and whipped cream. The wine and espresso flavors were very subtle, highlighting the cocoa more than standing out on their own.

But man, the chocolate pudding was just unreal. Sweet milk chocolate with a prominent cocoa taste, it was thick and creamy, nearly to the point of being a mousse. I could have eaten an entire bowl of this — it simultaneously evoked the nostalgia of Bill Cosby Jello pudding packs while showing you how much of a difference quality natural ingredients can have with even the simplest dessert. It was the perfect representation of Barbuto’s menu and overall vibe — fresh food that is familiar but also gives you pause. You wonder why all gnocchi isn’t cooked in brown butter, why more restaurants don’t serve seabeans, and why this chocolate pudding isn’t being sold in large vats at Stop ‘n Shop.

 

Final Thoughts

From start to finish, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday dinner. I got to make of a fool of myself fawning over a celebrity chef (who fortunately was incredibly down to earth and forgiving), I got to try new ingredients and new flavor combinations, and I ended the night with a mouth full of chocolate. I know I’ve said this several times before, but what truly made this a memorable meal was the service at Barbuto. From our eager-to-assist waiter Matt, to the busboys who truly knew the components of each dish they were serving us, to of course Papa Waxman himself, we were treated with respect and endless amounts of accommodation. Barbuto is worth visiting for the food, but perhaps even more so for the friendly, easygoing, but thoughtful vibe — yes, they care about the food they serve, but they’re also thinking about who’s on the other end of the fork.

Me and Chef Waxman

Me and Chef Waxman


Barbuto

775 Washington St (Corner of W. 12th)

http://www.barbutonyc.com