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

Anglophilic Appreciation: Lunch at Jones Wood Foundry

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So let’s dive back into New York food by talking about the United Kingdom and more of my travels. I’ve always had a passion for British culture, probably stemming back to my family’s love of movies starring Sean Connery (say what you will about his accent, that man is KILLER in The Hunt for Red October). I’ve traveled to the UK more than any other country, and when I was in college I spent a semester studying film at the University of Glasgow. Now Scotland gets a lot of crap about its native cuisine. Understandably so, given that the national dish is a stuffed sheep’s stomach. But to be honest, I actually ate pretty well when I was in Scotland. The Indian food I had while abroad was actually way better than any I’ve eaten in the US, and I managed to find some pretty stellar desserts (sticky toffee pudding, anyone?). Yes, the average chip shop offers a greasy fry-up and some soggy chips (read: french fries), but I’ve found you can get bad regional food anywhere you go. I ate some underwhelming pasta in Rome, some bad pastry in France, even some bad falafel in Israel. My point is, no matter what the cuisine, it’s silly to write off a whole culture because of bad dining experiences. You can’t control what the food is, but you can control the quality of restaurant you choose to eat at — does anyone actually order the steak at a greasy spoon in NY?

I say all of this because of a fantastic lunch I had a few weekends ago at Jones Wood Foundry on the UES. Jones Wood Foundry is a “food-driven pub” according to their website, located on 76th St, between 1st and East End. JWF has been open for a couple of years now, but I’d never managed to make it all the way east to get my British fix. I’m lucky enough to live near Caledonia, a Scottish pub on 2nd Ave, where I could indulge in beers and ciders from the UK that for the most part met my nostalgic needs. But last weekend my parents were looking for a new brunch location on the UES, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to check JWF off my to-do list.


First Impressions:

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.


JWF is in a narrow building right around the corner from 1st Ave. The building it’s housed in is an old brownstone, and the owners have decked out the front window with British memorabilia, just skirting the line of kitschy. Upon entering the restaurant, you’re greeted with the long, darkly rich wood bar, and a sense of classic British reserve. The area is dimly lit, the narrow hall more than halfway filled with the bar and stools, and at the end of the room you can see some steps down into the dining area. Jones Wood Foundry offers a number of beers on tap, which are listed on the chalkboard menus on the wall that also highlight the current cask ales on tap, and the pie of the day.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

Cask ales and the pie of the day.

Draft beer, cask ales and the pie of the day.

Moving past the bar you walk down into the first of three dining spaces — a small room with one wall of french doors that lead out to the second space, the garden patio, and fianlly, the larger dining room, farthest back from the bar. The decor was familiar — dark wood paneling, plain chairs and tables, the walls adorned with British posters and pictures — but with touches of a more upscale tone, such granite tabletops and leather banquettes. JWF is straightforward in its aesthetic and attitude — the comfort of your favorite corner bar, but with a little more thought and attention paid. This carries through to both the service and the menu, and I found the general unpretentious air to be one of the best things about the place.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The largest dining area -- note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

The largest dining area — note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

This laid-back but thoughtful attitude extended to the staff as well. Our waiter was happy to answer any questions about unfamiliar British food nomenclature (what are “rissoles,” exactly?), offer his own opinions on the best dishes (which we ended up picking), and even went the extra mile of switching out my mug for a fresh one when I switched from regular to decaf coffee at dessert. Yes, I had dessert at lunch with my parents — I come by this sweet tooth honestly! This thoughtfulness even extended to the end of the meal, where we received a post card featuring photos of the restaurant’s earliest employees with our bill. Ours featured a construction worker who had loved the JWF guys so much he asked if he could stay on once the restaurant opened. They found him a spot in the kitchen, and he still works there to this day.


The Food:

A lamb pie all of my own.

A lamb pie all of my own.


On our waiter’s recommendation I ordered the pie of the day, which was a lamb and rosemary pie with a side of mashed potatoes. The pie was about the size of frozen dinner pot pie, slightly larger than the handpies I’ve seen at the Tuck Shop or Pie Face, but far from the hefty ladlefulls of Shepherd’s Pie I encountered at the cafeteria at U of Glasgow. In what would become a recurring theme, the highlight of the dish was the crust — flaky and buttery without being greasy, offering just a little resistance as I plunged my fork into it. It gave way to a thick, stew-like gravy full of well-seasoned, tender chunks of lamb. I appreciated that the meat was not ground, and I thought that the rosemary was very delicately used. I happen to love rosemary, but I recognize that it’s a herb that can overtake a dish. Jones Wood Foundry’s judicious use left the rosemary as an undercurrent to cut through some of the richness of the lamb.

The mashed potatoes were actually more whipped in texture. I’m not a big mashed potato person, but they were part of a grand bargain to allow me access to the “chips” part of my father’s fish and chips. My parents seemed to enjoy the mash, and I certainly appreciated the delicate presentation of the potatoes next to my pie.

My mother got a dish that seemed to be a British play on Smoked Salmon Benedict, featuring a crumpet instead of an English muffin (but what do the English call muffins?), and scrambled instead of poached eggs. I’ll admit I was too enraptured with my lamb pie and tasting the fish and chips to try more than the crumpet. I’ve had crumpets before, and found them too spongy for my taste. This one seemed perfectly fine to me, and I think my mother enjoyed her brunch. Dessert certainly helped seal the deal.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

The other strong recommendation from our waiter was Jones Wood Foundry’s take on fish and chips, which my father ordered. While personally my lamb pie took the top spot in the entree competition, the fish and chips were a close second. In my visits to the UK I’ve had many a newspaper-wrapped piece of fried cod, and there is something incredibly comforting about a slick sheen of grease on the paper as evidence of the tremendously unhealthy food you’re ingesting. It’s like folding your slice of pizza only to have a sluice of oil run down the back off your hand. When you’re stumbling drunk and paying 5 bucks, the cholesterol is almost a bonus.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

But JWF’s fish and chips is aimed at a slightly more conscious eater, and thankfully the dish was no gut bomb. Presented on a wooden board with a cup of medium-cut chips, the fillet of cod was very lightly fried. Like the crust on my pie, the batter used on the cod was flavorful without being overly buttery and rich. It was just salty enough to play off the mild fish meat, which flaked delicately. Alas, there was no malt vinegar to be found (usually a fish and chips standard), but it was served with a nice lemon aioli. As for the chips — being a bit of a french fry connoisseur (is this a job? Can I evaluate fries for a living?), I was slightly disappointed in the chips. They were too thinly cut to be authentic, and were a bit soggy considering how well cooked the fish was. On the other hand, the potato base was clearly of a higher quality than your average steak-cut chip shop fare.

So after our very light and healthful lunch (hah), we couldn’t help but peruse the dessert menu our waiter brought around. As I mentioned above, my favorite British dessert is sticky toffee pudding, but my parents were leaning more towards the Apple Grumble and the Banoffee Pie, so I was happy to compromise and try those out. I’ll just have to save the pudding for my next visit to JWF to compliment a cask ale.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble!

The Apple Grumble was pretty much a regular fruit crisp, filled with pieces of pear and apple, topped with a brown sugar crumble, and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was rich with great vanilla bean flavor. The fruit was all right, poached but not quite as melt in your mouth soft as I would have liked. The crisp topping (again with the pastry) was the real star, with sizable chunks instead of a mound of crumbs.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

I ultimately preferred the Banoffee pie, again largely because of how the pie crust played off the filling. The pie had real slices of banana suspended in the toffee pudding, topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. The base was a super rich graham cracker crust that somehow balanced the sweetness of the banana and toffee. The contrast of textures in the baked, yet crumbly crust, the soft pudding filling, and the crunchy toasted almonds kept every bite interesting, and I happily scarfed down 3/4 of it, trying to ignore the fact that it was my second pie dish in one meal. Looking back on it, I’m very happy that I shared the Banoffee Pie, because it probably would have been too large a portion for one person alone. But if I’m coming back to skip dinner and go straight for beer and dessert, then maybe it’s a perfectly reasonable size.


Final Thoughts:


Overall, my lunch at Jones Wood Foundry was an enjoyable experience from start to finish. The staff is friendly and attentive, the food is familiar but slightly more refined in execution, and atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. I’m eager to return for dinner and see what other British staples have been toyed with on the menu. Eating at Jones Wood Foundry is like having comfort food for an Anglophile. Sure, you’re paying more than you would at your average Irish pub, but I’m happy to shell out for artful hand with pastry, and the lack of indigestion later.  Jones Wood Foundry won’t dazzle you with cutting-edge innovations in Anglo cuisine, but maybe, just maybe it’ll make you believe that a Brit armed with the right ingredients can turn out some quality dishes.

Jones Wood Foundry

401 E 76th St

www.joneswoodfoundry.com