The Matriarch of Italian Food

“Lidia, oh Lidia; say have you met Lidia?” No, not the tattooed lady – I’m speaking of Lidia Bastianich. My answer is yes. Have I dined in her premier restaurant until now? My answer is no. After eating in nearly all of Mario Batali’s New York establishments, why would I delay dining at the matriarch of the B&B empire’s signature place?

My husband and I initially met Lidia in person when eating at B&B’s (Batali & Bastianich) Del Posto, the only four-star Italian restaurant in New York. She visited the tables as a gracious host asking if all was well. And of course it was. We glared at her in the center of the room as she hand-whipped and hand-delivered my husband’s zabaglione dessert. However, it was not until my birthday last week that we finally decided to respect the mother of this golden Hospitality Group and venture to Felidia for dinner.

IMG_6776 It was a Sunday 6:30 reservation, and the bar – the only thing you see when you enter – was empty. I looked to the right, and the silence was the product of a nearly empty dining room. Since I follow Lidia on Facebook, I already knew she was basking in the culinary delights of Croatia and Southern Italy the same time we decided to visit her home in NYC. Did everyone know that she wouldn’t be there? Is that why there were only four out of 15 tables occupied?

After a delightful conversation with John the bartender, who voluntarily recommended some of his favorite dishes, we tiptoed quietly to our table. The decor was simplistic and the furniture felt a bit dated, as if it hadn’t changed since opening in the 80s, but we were here for the food. The menu distracted us from the blah-red chairs. Four tasting menu options made the selections more difficult, so instead we just ordered a la carte.Felidia 003 The basket of mixed crispy-crust European-style breads was the first sign of quality. A spread of bean paste, olive oil and herbs was more updated than an 80s offering of just butter. After two pieces, I needed to push the basket out of reach so as not to fill up before my appetizer. I would have been easy to accomplish. The first plate to land, the Tutta Crudo, helped to ignore the bread. This first suggestion looked like a Jackson Pollack on a plate made of shaved raw tuna, salmon, branzino, vegetables, puffed rice and shaved horseradish to top it off. The bartender did mention that Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra was also a painter, and it showed. Yet it wasn’t exorbitantly decorated (although I must mention that the pricing seemed a bit exorbitant for the not-4-star Italian restaurant). John stated that everything on Chef’s plates are meant to be there for texture, taste profile, color. It’s very purposeful, and with every forkful that I stole from my husband’s plate, it served me a great purpose while I simultaneously enjoyed a pasta special filled with rabbit meat, topped with carrot and rabbit jus and butter. Felidia 004   Felidia 009Not too long after came the grand dame platter of simplicity and flavor: the Gigliata de Pesce – grilled scallops, lobster, calamari, shrimp, octopus, razor clams ‘alla piastra’, string beans, green onion, sea beans. Felidia 008 Even though I knew I would not finish it, happiness abounded knowing I would have more for a second meal the following day. While alternating cutting small pieces from each different piece of seafood, I missed the description of the black sea bass special as the waiter poured a green herb sauce into that bowl. Felidia 006 We waited a bit before sharing a single dessert: the palacinke, which is like a caramelized crepe with poached peaches, local sheep milk yogurt, peach salad. Although Lidia was not present to greet us again, we experienced the essence of her style and felt like we raided the fridge in her home and had her personal chef cook for us.

Screaming for It

It’s summer, and I’m screaming! Where is the homemade ice cream?! For a quick fix, New Jersey has Baskin Robbins, which brings memories of my teenage years of scooping hard ice cream with my skinny arms, blending milk shakes, and constructing ice cream cakes by cutting the tubs of ice cream by pulling a metal wire that looked like a serial killer’s weapon. But back to happy, sweet, cooling treats: Unlike Manhattanites (until very recently when they opened their first), New Jerseyans have also had the option of soft ice cream and the indulgent concoction called a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.

photoWhen the warm weather hits, we foodies even get a little snobby about our ice cream. As with most delivered in mass quantities, quality suffers. With Baskin Robbins, some of those 31 flavors sit for a long time and harden, and the colors resemble a tie-dye shirt. I apologize to the lactose-intolerant, but I want my ice cream to have real cream in it and real nuts. Hold the preservatives please.

Because our East Coast state has limited ice cream-consumption weather, many of the stores that make their own are only open during this “season”. But, yes, some people still crave it in the winter regardless of temperature. So if you don’t have a homemade ice cream parlor near you, and you need to take your child’s softball team out after a game, by all means stop at your local DQ.

However, when it’s just you and your date, and you want to take the time to really enjoy your cone, visit one of these long-standing through-backs:

Denville Dairy has been around for about 32 years. While they offer soft-serve, diet, low-fat and sugar-free, the regular hard ice cream is most popular…and 32 flavors (they just had to top that other place that claims to have 31).

Applegate Farm has three locations –  Hoboken, Nutley and Upper Montclair. This farm has been producing fresh dairy products for Northern NJ families since the mid-1800s. It has become one of the largest retail outlets for ice cream on the East Coast, according to its website. They must be doing something right.

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One of my favorites is Bischoff’s in Teaneck. This confectionary staple just marked its 80th anniversary. It has the appearance of an ice cream parlor from the 50s with all the old-style candies to purchase, as well as counter stools. You can choose to sit with your friends in booth for more privacy. On a recent visit, my first of this year, I had to be sure and ask: “Do you still make your own?”

photo 3“Yes, we make all our ice cream in the basement.” It sounds so covert, but whatever the secret is, I just need to taste those ingredients, not know the quantities.

Van Dyk’s in Ridgewood is a close second, but it’s a bit hidden for those who do not venture to this neighborhood. There is no seating indoors, but most people sit down outside on the stone wall, if it’s not covered with melted drippings.

The Jersey Shore is rife with these gems, so find one, be a kid again, but this time taste the difference between home-made and mass-produced. You certainly will.

The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.

 

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And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Hot Dining without the Heat

My favorite “Iron Chef” thus far has been Mario Batali, but I am exploring the restaurants of his competitors and successors. Forgione (Marc) came first, and now I have finally tackled his fellow redhead; and being one too, I almost feel obligated to support the red-head chef club. But I must admit, I have avoided dining in a Bobby Flay establishment because heat emanates from his fiery red follicles and translates to his dishes.

Growing up with parents from Germany and Switzerland, my digestive tract never had the opportunity to be acclimated to spicy foods. Therefore, the association with Flay to chile, habanaro and any other peppers of that sort are directlIMG_6513y linked to discomfort rather than enjoyment. Tearing eyes, flushed skin and a burning hole in my gut are not the memories I’d like to conjure up from a dining experience.

Then, Bobby opens Gato recently – Mediterranean focused, and this opened the door for me. I immediately made a reservation three weeks out. This would be his opportunity to prove to me that not every Flay dish is laden with fiery spice. The design was a bit similar to Forgione, with the brick walls and exposed black pipes. There is bench seating along a wall of windows that frame the kitchen. Once I saw Bobby working, I chose the chair facing him and asked my husband to take the bench with his back to the kitchen. It’s hard not to become a little chef star-struck, but I gain a deeper appreciation seeing him actually cooking instead of hiding behind fancy camera work.

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We truly did want to order almost everything on the menu, but narrowed it down to the following:

SCRAMBLED EGGS ALMOND ROMESCO, BOUCHERON CHEESE, TOMATO CONFIT TOAST – I had read from a reviewer that this is a must, and boy was he right. When I ordered it, my husband exclaimed “scrambled eggs!?”. The server and I both said, “It’s not what you think.” It was better than what anyone could think.

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ROASTED OCTOPUS LEMON, BACON, BASIL – The smokiness gave the outside a nice grilled crackle, but the octopus was oh so tender.

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Chef Flay stepped out of the kitchen several times (standing right next to our table) and surveyed the dining room. My husband complimented him on the scrambled egg appetizer after realizing his pre-conceived notion was way off. He said, “I’d love to get that recipe, haha.” Flay responded in a humble yet secretive way: “It’s just eggs.” No, no; it is like eggs that were pampered and mixed with a silk spoon. And yes, there was pepper with the romesco (nut and red pepper sauce), but it was a mild heat – one that creates a contrast yet balance.

The waitress talked us into trying a vegetable side, and this may have been my favorite flavor profile of the evening:

ASPARAGUS & FAVA BEANS YELLOW ROMESCO, PECORINO, PISTACHIOS

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STEAMED HALIBUT SICILIAN OLIVES, MINT, ANCHOVY, SAFFRON-TOMATO BROTH,
COUSCOUS

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ORATA PIQUILLO PESTO, ROASTED LEMON OLIVE OIL, PINK & BLACK PEPPERIMG_6518

 

We were quite full as dessert approached and were debating since we kept dipping the bread in the olive oil from Sicily with a bit of sea salt. What the heck – let’s get the full experience:

MEYER LEMON TART PISTACHIO WHIPPED CREAM

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TARTE TATIN SALTED CALVADOS CARAMEL, VANILLA-BLACK PEPPER GELATO

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Field of Food Festivals in NJ

There must have been one time that an adult reprimanded you for eating while walking or running around. We all know now that it was done in our best interest, so as not to choke on food and to simply develop proper eating habits by sitting at a table and acting civilized. But let’s admit, it’s not easy to remain seated with the grill fired up and a hamburger, watermelon or ear of corn in hand.

Now that spring is in full swing in New Jersey, there are a number of opportunities to combine food and the outdoors. Here are a few that I try not to miss, mostly because the food goes beyond zeppoles and hot dog carts.

While the Hoboken Arts & Music festival does not denote food, it is a major component. The combination of music and food awakens your auditory, olfactory and gustatory senses all at once. Now that’s a way to feel alive. Hoboken offers this in both the spring and fall, so if you’re reading this after May 4, 2014, you have another chance this year to attend. The music performances are some of the best FREE acts you can see in New Jersey, including a headliner of high merit. This year it is Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, but in years past, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Joan Jett, Peter Noone, Mickey Dolenz, Roger McGuinn, Flo & Eddie, and John Eddie. Yes, I’ve been to a few. But before settling into the music, it is a priority to grab some lunch from some of the finer vendors or restaurants with stands. It is probably the only time I ever eat a gyro. Two of the most popular vendors are closest to the end stage: the crab cakes and the brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches. For those who prefer traditional fair food, there are plenty of fried oreos, cheese steaks, and potato chips on a stick to give an elephant arterial discomfort.

My absolute favorite festival, however, comes along in June. It is the Annual Seafood Festival in Belmar. For all of you crazy crustacean lovers, this is a weekend-long celebration of breaking legs and peeling shells. Many of the tents offer the same types of platters that can include a whole lobster, shrimp, clams and corn on the cob for a set price. Walk around the field and scout them all before you jump at the first claw reaching out to you. The lines tend to be long, and seating is sparse. I prefer to take a few steps across the street and sit cross-legged on the boardwalk, facing the ocean while dipping everything in a little clarified butter and lemon and making a mess on my hands. There’s the added benefit of a beer and wine tent for those who want to wind down with a cold one, but looking at the Atlantic Ocean is generally calming enough.

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Now begins the season of great New Jersey festivals. If your focus is food, there are plenty of others such as: Shad Fest in Lambertville, Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival in Augusta, Highlands Clamfest in Highlands, NJ Chili & Salsa Cookoff in Toms River, plus many more. Now is your chance to be that rebellious child – grab some food and eat while walking!

Craving for Tapas

Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

It’s 4 p.m. Friday, and my body is starting to perform the no-dinner-plans shake. The easiest remedy is to rely on one of my staples like Bocconi, but this evening I was craving for something different with friends. I went into a Google and Yelp research frenzy. This was the night that tapas and I were meant to become acquainted. Not to sound cheap, but I always like to get the value of what is being paid, and the notion of spending $10 or more on “small” tasting plates never seemed favorable to my belly or my purse.

Cravings in Ridgewood, NJ, eradicated that stigma. Parking limitations in downtown Ridgewood can be a deterrent, but this place is located across from the train station, where cars are coming and going often, opening up spaces. The restaurant was bustling, yet we managed to get a 7:30 reservation with a few hours’ notice. The menu offered tapas portions and entree portions, but it wasn’t clear which was which with prices varying from $12 to $25 or so.  The waiter explained without us asking that items priced under $15 were tapas.

Lobster Sandwich

Lobster Sandwich

Anything “lobster” usually flashes loudly on the menu, and my friend heard and saw it clearly. He ordered the lobster bisque and the lobster sandwich, described as, “Maine lobster, buttered white toast, sunnyside egg, pickled onion salad”. The bisque was bouncing with lobster flavor, but any evidence of even bits of lobster meat swimming in that bowl was gone. I searched high and low for chunks of lobster in the “lobster” sandwich but could only see some orange flecks. The descriptions are a bit too promising. Maybe if they said “lobster-flavored”, the expectation would be lower and the dish would be very enjoyable just the same. The sweet/sour onions married beautifully with the arugula and fried egg.

The tapas portion sizes were generous.  They say pork fat rules; I say crispy pork fat rules. I was secretly clapping when my friend ordered the chicharones with clams and cannellini beans. We couldn’t decipher the difference between some of the white beans and the hunks of garlic. That’s a positive for some people like my other friend who collected them on her plate and ate them all like candy. Oh, but that crispy pork was predominately mine. It was a great trade. The ahi tuna tartare with cucumber and toasted sesame dressing was just the opposite, being a lighter, refreshing tapas. It was delicate and a bit hard to take off the plate, as the the thin slices of cucumber were too flimsy to hold the tartare. But once it hit your mouth, it didn’t matter how it fell apart.

Chicharones with Clams

Chicharones with Clams

Ahi Tuna Tartare

Ahi Tuna Tartare

My favorite, though, and surprisingly so, was the gnocchi topped with lamb and fresh thyme. The gnocchi wasn’t too dense, and the lamb added a bold taste to a normally bland pasta. However, I think it was an entree.

One of the other entrees we tried was the sauteed branzino with tomato, roasted fingerlings, kalamata olives. This was another winner for the crisp category.

Branzino

Branzino

The meal felt like an eating frenzy for my first tapas experience because there were a number of dishes coming out at once, and I didn’t know what order to go in. Each time a new plate arrived, it felt like the new kid striving for my attention. I now am proud to have a tapas stripe on my foodie belt and am ready to advance to Casa Mona in NYC.

Lemon Tart w/Blueberry Compote

Lemon Tart w/Blueberry Compote

Mohawk Kitchen Madness

After the Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali era of Iron Chef episodes ended, my interest waned a bit. Although the impressive and much-respected Morimoto is still hanging in there. So when I came across a Wall Street Journal article on the resurgence of chefs providing tableside service, one of the names of these such chefs was vaguely familiar: Marc Forgione. It wasn’t until I looked up his image that I recognized this follicley-creative restaurateur. I was trying to figure out, though, the name of his restaurant. Duh, it’s “Marc Forgione”.  And after perusing the menu and reviews, with a huge push from the Wall Street Journal article, I needed to go there…soon.

I read the paper Tuesday and was able to get a reservation for an easy drive on Sunday to this quiet section of TriBeCa.

IMG_6150Street parking was a breeze only a block away. The coziness embraces you with the rustic feel of barnwood and brick,  shelves filled with collectible cookbooks and kitchenware. The lighting replicates a lodge illuminated by only a fireplace with candle in glass cages hanging overhead.

“Fishy” fish makes my tastebuds retreat like a frightened turtle, so when the amuse bouche was presented as blue fish with radish, my mini fork approached it like a child going in to pet the head of a rottweiler. But the strong flavor was cut with acid, maybe a vinegar. It was almost like a fancy tuna salad, and I was getting very comfortable with this rottweiler yet still cautious.

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I am enamored with breads; they bring me such delight and act as a shotgun to the start of my dinners out. I curiously, and somewhat sarcastically asked why we each had a butter knife when our appetizers came out. The waitress was surprised that we did not get our bread.  The bread boy must have been immediately instructed to rectify that because we now had our wooden  board with two small egg-washed rolls and some creamy butter that I was able to slide my butter knife into.

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Since I read about the chef’s tableside service with certain dishes and since I am a well-behaved star gazer, I was hoping to spot the Mohawk in the dining room. However, the sight of my appetizer was nearly as pleasing. It was Kampachi Tartare, avocado, Sechuan buttons, toasted pinenuts, Saratoga chips, and what was in the bowl was deconstructed in spoons outside the bowl. At first you are requested to taste each component individually and then you can dive into the combined flavors. My foodie blue belt should have been stripped from my waist by thinking that the Sechuan button was some kind of Asian mushroom. In fact, it’s the little bud in soup spoon that I was instructed to let roll around and numb my tongue in order to electrify and awaken my tastebuds for what was to follow. I admit; I was almost a little scared. Consequently, I didn’t didn’t let it “roll around” too long before swallowing it. Mouth numbness sounds just as enjoyable as the “fishy fish”.

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Maybe I cheated myself from that entire experience, but I think the appetizer electrified me all on its own. My companion began with the BBQ baked olde salt oysters, with aromatic sea salt and pancetta powder.

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The entrees came out, and again, I had some inner questions about what some items were on my plate. After all, I ordered veal tenderloin, and there were a few different looking cuts of meat. Veal tenderloin, black truffle crepinette, cheek, paisley farms brussels sprouts, celery salsa verde was beautiful and fun to take a taste from each different part of the plate. At a perfect temperature on the inside, the loin’s outside was crisp like pork fat. The one cut I bet myself was sweetbreads, but I wouldn’t confirm it until I was finished. I don’t want any misconceptions and childlike “yucky” thoughts ruining this delicious soft meat. The other entree was the halibut en croute, artichoke, golden raisins, hazelnuts, sauce “PIMG_6158roposal”.

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The desserts we chose were:

  • Pumpkin Creme Brulee, Pepita Brittle, Poached Cranberry
  • Mascarpone Cheesecake, Bananas Foster, Pecans

I favored the second, but it was interrupted by a milk incident. I asked for coffee with just milk and was brought a small metal container of milk with a handle too tiny to grab but a big enough loop to stick my finger through to hold it. I was not warned it was steamed milk, and the container was metal-hot! Without making a big deal about it, my husband told the waitress while I was in the ladies’ room cooling off my finger, and she brought a glass of ice. Nothing was offered to smooth it over, but the manager did apologize. Patrons should be alerted it is a hot container – or it should be put in something that doesn’t conduct the heat so well. All in all, I would definitely return.

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