Posts Tagged ‘Dining out’

Brunch Bunch Brawlers – Part I

Brunch – how snooty I thought! That’s for women driving Jaguars, who plan their day around socials with other women driving BMWs. Who has time for a meal in-between meals? Alas, New York City has forced brunch upon me! It seems a majority of the city’s restaurant owner believe it is okay to restrict my ability to eat lunch on a Saturday! This angered me. Every noon-time reservation I tried to make came with a brunch menu online. The lunch menu is only available Monday through Friday when I am absolutely unable to venture in because……I don’t work in the city. Why was I being punished for living in New Jersey? Why am I not allowed to have a smaller version of dinner items mid-day – you know, around lunch time?? Shouldn’t I be able to order lunch during lunch hours no matter the day of week?!….Exhale…..

What stemmed from a schedule change in life has now resulted in a new habit. Dinner was the preferred meal for dining out – it’s grand, it ends your day on a satisfyingly full belly and you don’t need to think about food until the next morning (except for we night owls who -see what I did?- nibble late night). A change in circumstances caused me to start gathering friends together for Saturday lunches and where else but in nearby New York City for a mini quarter-day trip.

First up in December 2017 was Eataly Downtown because I wanted to impress with the panoramic view and an actual lunch with no dish resembling breakfast. There were five of us for the first jaunt, so we fit nicely packed into a sedan with a little food expansion room. Since the delicious dishes will be too many to list, I must highlight some favorites to provide a Brawlers’ compilation. Any chance I get, I cap the meal off with a stroll or drive to Pasticceria Rocco’s, and if you don’t know why, read all the mentions in my blog posts.

A week later, still in my brunch protest mode, another group of five headed to the Upper West Side to Celeste. Because it was on the other end of the island, I tried Cafe Lalo (made famous in “You’ve Got Mail”) for the first time. While it was visually fun and appealing, the quality of the desserts just didn’t measure up. I tried.

Yet another week later, I tried to get my toes wet and found a brunch menu at The Ribbon that included lunch items like burgers as well. I went for it with a Breakfast Sandwich: House Made Pork Apple Sausage, Avocado, Grilled Onions, Fried Egg, Cheddar, Butter Lettuce. It made me tingle with the idea that I could get used to this. I would never have meat for breakfast but combine it with an egg for brunch? Now we’re talking possibilities. Even a Fox 5 anchorwoman seemed to enjoy herself here. At this time I was on a best-pie quest and read that Petee’s claimed that title. I’d label it “OK”.

2018 began with Locanda Verde, which really dove into brunch. I was slowly converting. The Hudson River was like a floating iceberg that day, and sitting against the glass windows, I couldn’t remove my coat. But the meal began with Locanda’s own fresh baked goods: Apple and pistachio danish and cranberry goat cheese scone. A zucchini frittata followed by a hearty Rigatoni lamb bolognese, sheep’s milk ricotta and mint plate and closing with the fluffiest lemon ricotta pancakes, never imagining a fluffier one was yet to come.

We snuck in a return visit to Eataly Downtown with a new crew of five, but the area we ate in is a seasonally changing restaurant. Then it was La Stagione, so pasta it was, closing with a most important run over to Rocco’s:

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Celebrating a friend’s birthday – and with a record eight attendees in one vehicle – closed out January 2018 and the closest thing to brunch was the fried egg on top of the thin crust pizza at Otto Enoteca, a place of nostalgia for me. Pasta and more pasta was had and still we had room for Rocco’s after walking there through Washington Square Park.

Il Buco delivered one of the cutest decors and was another true lunch. I made a guess that their bread was from Sullivan Bakery but was surprised to learn they made their own! It was a small group of four on a rainy February day. The cod croquettes were a nice diversion, and I won’t even say where dessert was had!

Five of us were warmed up by the healthy-minded brunch at Hearth on another cold February day.  Bruschetta with goat cheese and carmelized onions, Mushroom brodo for dipping a wild mushroom and cheese sandwich, Bacon/egg/cheese on warm english muffin with contadina potatoes were some of the tempting items.

March rolled in with a double shot of Bar Primi. The brunch was so good the first time, I returned with six others the following week, and we all were treated with eating near Actor Patrick Stewart.

To be continued in Part II, where the Brunch Brawlers Bunch are fully addicted to this in-between meal….

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Verboten Broten

Forbidden Bread: In today’s society of scandalous starch and refuting gluten, how does Sullivan Street Bakery survive? First, it’s people like me who revere crunchy-crusted, airy-centered fresh-baked breads as works of art to be idolized. Instead of admiring the loaves with my eyes and nose, however, my mouth engulfs it and removes it from IMG_5619possible display. I literally could eat a special loaf with just some EVOO (or even plain) as an entire dessert meal.

My first exposure to this delicacy (yes, I just referred to a raised ball of yeast as a delicacy) was at Mario Batali’s Babbo Ristorante. My then boyfriend Daniel and I needed to know if they were creating this crispy wonder since everything else brought to the table was fresh, high-quality food. The server gave up the provider – the secret of Sullivan Street Bakery. I know can almost always identify the overwhelming amount of restaurants that provide us diners with such a free opening treat.

The next time we were wandering the Village, we walked down Sullivan Street looking for the bakery to buy our own samples to enjoy at home, but no such luck. We did not know that Sullivan Street Bakery was no longer on Sullivan Street. According to the web site, Sullivan Street Bakery was founded in 1994 in New York City.  In 2000, the bakery moved to Hell’s Kitchen. And since then, they opened a cafe to the public in Chelsea on 9th Ave. to enjoy breakfast/brunch-style servings incorporating their breads!

Today, I had a carb craving. After all, I played tennis in the morning. There was a parking space practically out front. The different breads jutted out from racks on the wall like a beautiful sculpture. Two stools opened up at the counter, and a friend and I eagerly sat ready for someone to offer up the best options. Nobody behind the counter paid attention though. A kind regular patron told me to go to the register a few feet away and order. I found that a bit bothersome. The young man at the register made me feel compelled to try am Uovo in Coppetta though (poached egg bowl). I selected the AL CONTADINO – two poached eggs, toasted Truccione Sare bread, butternut squash, cipollini onion, fingerling potato, herbs, lemon oil. THIS made me experience a different kind of Flour Power!

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I’m also a sucker for a good butternut squash soup because I enjoy cooking my own. Even though this could’ve been slightly thicker, the pieces of sour apple and toasted pumpkin seeds gave it a different spin. As luck would have it, the kitchen accidentally made two instead of one bowl, so guess who enjoyed that? I needed a sandwich to truly experience their bread. The young man suggested ANINI D’UOVO (served on their Strecci bread) – The Originale: with soft-cooked eggs, crisp Prosciutto di Parma, demi-sec tomato, basil. So simple. So good. And just because it had the words “Roast Pork” in the description, I sampled that sandwich as well; it was very good but surprisingly my least favorite of the selections if I had to choose.

I always ask at a New York City dining establishment when I think their bread is provided by Sullivan Street because I want to confirm how identifiable its goodness is. I am mostly correct except one time I was fooled at Il Buco, where it turns out they used to be supplied by SSB, but decided they could make their own. Watch out Sullivan Street; they had ME fooled.IMG_5564

Circling back to the opening where I mention dessert, while the dessert items such as the bomboleno were tempting and I did taste their artistic cappuccino with swirly design, the Little Pie Company was only a six-minute drive! A seasonal pear apple crumb and the traditional high-covered old-fashioned apple pie were tasty, but don’t ask for it warm. The microwave “melts” the pie crust and steals the flaky, crispy texture that defines its excellence.

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The metaphor I used is ironic for I just found out that “Jim Lahey studied sculpture before learning the art of bread baking in Italy. When he returned to New York City in 1994, he opened Sullivan St Bakery in Soho with little more than the wild yeast he hand-cultivated in Italy and a desire to bring the craft of small-batch bread baking to America.”

No More Soul (food) Searching

Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern US. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations such as Charleston, Atlanta I call it “down home” cooking and think immediately of one of my favorite places packed with memories: New Orleans. While NOLA has its own brand of Southern food – Cajun – it’s all about soul too. My vision is an African-American family cooking together.

This is not a particularly health-mindful cuisine as many of the original cooks could not afford shortening to fry. They would use and re-use the cheaper lard. In order to be more appealing to a more food-educated society, some tradition is overlooked to save a few arteries, but ethnic preservationists argue that taste and tradition are sacrificed with the use of vegetable oil and the substitution of pork.

But what about the sweet potato? It saves the day with its beta carotene, and collard

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Candied Yams

greens are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, helping to mask the other high levels of starch, fat and cholesterol. That’s why I highly recommend those two items as sides at Paula’s Soul Food Cafe in Hackensack, NJ. It’s easy to drive right by and not notice it among the two continuous rows of retail storefronts that comprise Main Street. But the word “Soul” got my attention.

I had just eaten lunch but needed to check it out for future reference. The cafeteria-style display of foods allowed me to get an overview and see its potential. Okay, I had to try something small, so I left with a side of candied yams.  That was enough to make me want to return for lunch the next Saturday.

I left there feeling a sense of culture, of family working together, even though we are in the North and the owners are Hackensack natives, which is not a town in Georgia. The Baileys opened their first location in the Bronx, and after two years, embarked on a hometown location. I saw a middle-aged gentleman dressed in a suit on the patron side of the counter, pointing at the younger man hustling behind the counter with other family members, proudly exclaiming to another: “That’s my son!” No sooner did he take off his jacket, roll up his collared shirt sleeves and jump behind the counter to assist.

After you peruse some of the items they have to offer – don’t miss out on the seafood offerings that may not be visible – you place your order and pre-pay. The food gets dished with generous portions on a plate and complemented with a piece of their cornbread (I missed the texture of some whole kernels in this version).

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Cornbread

Your name is called for pickup.

Generally, I am turned off by deep-fried foods because I imagine the unhealthy effects taking place the moment it is being ingested. There’s something about fried okra, though, 20171119_134046that transports me geographically and emotionally. It reminds me of gumbo (which can only be eaten in New Orleans in my opinion) and of my husband, who so often spoke about not being able to get good fried okra in this part of the country, and I agreed. So he made pickled jars of okra at home. Prepared any other way, it tends to have a slimy texture, but fried adds the exterior crisp needed to enjoy this vegetable. The South has a love affair that the rest of the country doesn’t understand. They fry, pickle, grill and add the green pod to stews. It contains potassium, vitamin B, vitamin C, folic acid, and calcium. It’s low in calories and has a high dietary fiber content. And Paula’s does it right, so go for it!

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Beef Short Ribs

A true testimony to the quality of food here: My tennis partner and I recently celebrated a winning match. He’s Jamaican, and I dared to suggest having a soul food lunch. As he viewed his options, he discounted the oxtail and told the woman, “I’m from Jamaica; I’ll try something else.” Our other friend got an order and offered a taste. Our MVP exclaimed, “Mmm, goodbye Jamaica!” There’s also chicken galore: baked, barbecued, fried, smothered; but the large turkey wings wound up being the dark horse.20171119_133817

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Sampling Away

CIEL IT WITH A SEMI-SWEET KISS

If you even just know me by name, you probably know that all retail desserts are measured against the quality of my mother’s desserts. Most don’t come close: too sweet, too many artificial ingredients, not baked enough, etc.  As a result, I am extremely selective – some label it snobbish – as to if and where I eat dessert elsewhere.

Most of you who do know me, know I’ve found the perfect competitor in Rocco’s, New York City, but that’s across the big river. I’ve written about two worthy contenders in New Jersey:  one in Ramsey, L’Arte , where I even dared to bring my mother once, and the other in Teterboro, Palermo’s. So when I saw a nearly full-page newspaper article (yes, I look at an actual printed newspaper), on a four-month-old French pastry establishment in Westwood, NJ, my eyes and mouth perked up. A panic rush of self-addressed questions comes over me – why didn’t I know about this, could it be as good as the pictures look, how soon can I try it? The first answer I don’t know. I was four months behind on this intel. Shame on me. The third answer was …this evening! And that would provide the second answer: yes!

20170920_214927Open until 10 p.m., which excites me by fitting into my late night schedules, I dashed to Westwood at 9:30. The space is tucked sideways, perpendicular to a strip center with another Korean-owned eatery, focused on bbq, called Kimchi Smoke, which moved from Bergenfield. The bakery case in front appeared nearly wiped clean, but there were a few desserts left. The Korean man (owner/partner) explained that these rectangles were called pallets. They are like mini-pound cakes that are warmed up and sliced, but they’re elaborate. One was pistachio, draped in white chocolate and another was milk chocolate and coffee with almonds. I ordered one of each to sit down and enjoy.

 

The back room is the open kitchen with counter and stools, along with a handful of tables. I was given a menu for separate plated desserts, which were more elaborate. At this point of the night, I had not eaten dinner. Dessert was destined to be my dinner because that’s what Ciel serves, and it’s served very well! Chef (and co-owner with her spouse) Jane’s resume sparkles in the pastry arts. Eleven Park Madison, Le Cirque and Nobu piqued my level of impression.  They both explained that they don’t and won’t serve savory dishes because they are doing only what they do best…..dessert! After all, you wouldn’t expect the pitmaster at Kimchi Smoke to serve up crème brulee.

When asked for a recommendation off of the dessert lounge menu, the gentleman suggested the chocolate soufflé as a first timer (a familiar French word of course). It is

 

baked to order in seven minutes and served with fresh made creme chantilly. The airiness and the gooey inside combined in a light and not-so-sweet marriage. That choice paired with the two “pallets” should’ve been a good enough first-visit tasting. But no; I had to notice the apple tarte tatin. I couldn’t  pass it up. It was the most beautiful looking of the desserts I had, but also the smallest portion. Here, Chef Jane’s artistic prowess was exhibited best. The “tarte”  looked like a large, square caramel filled with pieces of fresh apple. It was decorated with thin, dried apple slices, dabs of meringue and radish micro greens.

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Remember, French pastries such as these are meant to be tasted meticulously and slowly with small bites because the portions are not large. The textures are meant to touch every side of your mouth. In fact, the tasting of such desserts, rather than shoveling, is celebrated with a distinctive offering….a dessert tasting menu experience. Ciel offers a 20170920_215724five-course dessert tasting that she serves at the counter. The unique experience with her personal explanations takes about 1.5 hours. There’s also a three-course version that would take about 45 minutes. Reservations for a tasting experience is required at least 48 hours in advance. The tasting menu option truly brings the quality and New York food experience across that river and into this Bergen County town that’s filling up as a foodie destination.

She is quoted in The Record: “I barely use sugar. Fruits — raspberries, mangoes, cherries — have plenty of sweet in them. I don’t use anything that isn’t good for your body.” Her partner told me he goes to the market every morning to select the freshest fruits.

Dessert you can feel good about consuming! She even offers some that are vegan and gluten free, so there’s no excuse for anyone not to try her creations.

UPDATE: This writeup tasted so good to my co-workers, we all decided to try the three-course tasting created by Chef Jane. The images will artfully and tastefully speak for themselves…

 

 

Batard: A Lone Shining Star, the Sequel

 

IMG_4609Not to start this out on a discordant note, but this is the sequel to my first and only visit to Batard two years ago. It was my last anniversary dinner with my husband. I felt a need to revisit the experience – alone. As I walked down North Moore street looking for the restaurant again, I had a vivid recollection of last time when we walked by the entrance two or three times. It’s a somewhat dark section of West Broadway. At 6:45, the restaurant only had two other occupied tables, and I was led through the empty room to the same table we had occupied, but this time, a chair was removed. I sat on the bench seat along the wall. I requested that table in my reservation, sillily thinking it would stir up some remnant particles of previous presence. Instead it was just a sad reminder of the absence.

But the server greeted me with a smile that I forced myself to comply with. At least I knew Michelin-starred (1 still) dishes would be on their way to me soon enough to forget about those things for a while. And then, it returned: the algebraic dilemma – two or three or four courses and the added complexity of which combination of courses would best add up to the number selected. I settled on appetizer, first course and entrée after I saw the complimentary bite-sized dessert being given to the table next to me at the end of their meal.

First came two selections of bread, both of which were placed on my bread plate: a slice of grain sourdough and a brioche topped with sea salt. Bread is my starter dessert, and when the woman asked if I’d like more bread, the left side of my brain said, “Don’t; you’ll get too full.” The right side said, “It’s too good to pass up; you have plenty of room in that empty stomaIMG_4607ch.” Out came: “Yes please”. Right side wins, and I unexpectedly was given one of each again.

Then came out my beautifully presented first choice: Madai Crudo, blood orange, cucumber and red pepper vinaigrette. The colors exploded in front of me like a bag of Sunkist candies. It’s still summer for sure! I see the French sauce spoon and am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t quite sure of its proper use. Should I break the fish with it? It’s somewhat flat, so I don’t see it being useful in scooping up that delicious vinaigrette that the snapper was bathed in. I faked it using the fork to break apart and eat the fish, alongIMG_4608 with the crispy curls of fish skin and then the ‘spoon’ for whatever less-solid remained. I cleaned up well.

The room began to fill up, and I didn’t feel so alone any more. It was a later-night dining crowd. The next course arrived. Tortellini,  tomato conserva, sweet corn, andouille, pickled chiles. It had just enough heat from the chiles and sausage to warm the tongue but not too much to burn the tummy. The little packages of pasta had the IMG_4610proper chewiness and the yin and yang of the gentle sweetness of the corn and slight sharpness pepper blended into a harmonious dish that left me wanting more….partially because of the smaller-sized portion.

Even though the waiter tried tempting me with the special pork schnitzel entrée, I told him I would reserve that for my German restaurant and go with the striped bass with goldbar squash puree, halved baby red potatoes, thai basil, roasted fennel bulb and some type of cabbage greens with the golden-browned fish draped over.

Surprisingly, probably because I went with fish versus meat, I wasn’t weighted-down full.

The two-bite-sized complementary pistachio mini muffin (but fluffier) with roasted pinapple laid in the top was enough to satisfy the need to end with a “dessert”. I’m doing it an injustice by calling it a muffin. In four bites, the two were politely completed.

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My first visit I questioned why it wasn’t two-star rated. After revisiting LB last September, I recognize where Batard has some room to grow. I didn’t feel like the Queen I was crowned at the 3-star. I wasn’t asked how everything was! I want the chance to give positive feedback after each course. I will likely not return soon, as the memories are still raw, but under regular circumstances, I would want to return for the food!

Fly Over to the Uncle’s

I rarely order takeout food. It’s either cook at home, heat up leftovers or dine out. Recently I discovered the need for a quick meal that might be divided into multiple meals with no preparation time. It was a forced issue, taking care of two hospitalized parents at the same time and running around with other everyday matters. Where could I save time and satiate my hunger without sacrificing my taste buds or my cholesterol level, which remains ideal? I could have thrown together a salad, but my belly needed a little warming and there was no time to drive back home.

It was only a few weeks ago I was reminded of Uncle Paulie’s Peruvian Chicken in Maywood, NJ. I was at my office when a delivery guy walked in with a food order for Evelyn. It certainly wasn’t for me. It so happened that there was another Evelyn down the hall. When I ran into the delivery guy on the way out, I asked, “By the way, where is that food from? It smells really good.” He answered enthusiastically, “Uncle Paulie’s in Maywood. You should try it.” Well I had tried it before and was now gustatorily charmed to try it again.

A whole rotisserie chicken marinated in their ‘special ‘ Peruvian sauce can be taken home for only $10. If that’s not what you walked in for, you will be tempted to get one as you become hypnotized by the rows of seasoned whole chickens rotating behind the front counter where you pay. The chicken is served quartered, making it easy to divide it into meals or deliver half to someone else. There are many other Peruvian-style items, but if chicken is in the brand name, make chicken your first order here. While chicken is never a leading star, the seasoning combined with the moisture of the meat makes it a winner.

According to the web site, Owner Paul Padro had fallen in love with the Peruvian cuisine of his wife’s native country. There was an absence of Peruvian food in Bergen County. He found he had to travel to further towns like Passaic and Paterson. His establishment has been open in Maywood since 2009. Fly over there when you’re in a rush to bring something home to the family or if you don’t mind sitting in a pizzeria-type dining area for a homey (a Peruvian home) meal.

In a Sicilian Kitchen

I admit it – for the most part, I don’t like when a friend recommends a restaurant.  That’s a facet of my entertainment life I’d like to hand pick. Maybe it’s because I love to explore and research and dive into the “About Us” of the restaurant before dining there. I want to go in feeling confident that the food is going to be good and I will thoroughly enjoy it. Everyone has different tastes and preferences; some are food discerning and some are quantity satisfied.

So when my friend Eddie suggested a New York City restaurant to me for casual Italian food, I almost ignored his recommendation. First understand Eddie. He loves to eat and does it as often as I do, but he finds a favorite dish at a restaurant and orders it every time. He literally licks the plate clean. He appreciates food like I do but within his own confines. I see the pleasure run from his mouth, through his body and settle warmly in his belly. I understand it. We used to enjoy Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ and have been hit and miss finding similar home-cooked-feel restaurants with quality food and family-like hospitality. It wasn’t until Eddie said, “They serve your food in the pan it’s cooked in, and there are only about 10 tables,” that I knew this had potential.

I made a lunch reservation (I wasn’t ready to fully commit to dinner) at Piccola Cucina on Spring Street, NYC. Mind you, it’s not Italian; it’s Sicilian food. The servers all have an accent; although one has a South African accent – it all sounds good. Okay ladies, they do hire for eye candy appetizers it seems.

Without a reservation, I’m not sure how you get in or where you stand. It’s small, and I’ve come to find out they have a larger location with a different type of menu around the corner on Prince Street. But with small comes personal. From the moment the servers and bussers approached our table, I felt like we were friends in another country. A birthday celebration was happening and all the lights were turned out as dessert was brought to the birthday child (not in an Applebee’s manner); everyone was singing and the kitchen staff rhythmically was hitting the pots and pans with utensils. It was a momentary party at someone’s house. Aside from the welcoming staff, let’s get down to the food.

Lunch and dinner are listed as separate menus on the web site, but I can’t see 20170513_173841the difference. Highly recommended by me now, and at the original suggestion of server Misha, the Eggplant Parmigiana Rivisitata is a fun and delicious “revistation” of the traditional dish. Served with grilled toasts and mixed green salad, the glass jar is layered with a pureed eggplant/basil mixture, topped with a creamy tomato sauce and finished off with a fluffy ricotta. We were instructed to reach from the bottom with the small spoon and scoop up, then spread it on toast. Delicioso! Close your eyes, and it’s a lighter, deconstructed version of eggplant parm coming back together in your mouth.

Another appetizer worth trying is the Polpette della Nonna con Caponata Siciliana  -Homemade grilled MeatbIMG_3990alls. But the apogee of appetizers was the special Grilled Octopus delivered on a cloud of burata cheese with olives and cherry tomatos. It was tender and smokey, and it turned a non-octopus-eating friend into a fan. The visual alone drew her in.

 

For the main course pasta dishes, these were all easy home run hitters:

  • Tagliatelle verdi con ragu’ di cinghiale aromatizzato alle erbe di campagna e scaglie20170319_142111 di tartufo  – Green Tagliatelle in a wild boar ragu’ with fresh herb aroma topped with black truffle shavings
  • Ravioli agli spinaci e ricotta con ragu’ di salsiccia – Spinach and ricotta ravioli with sausage sauceIMG_3931
  • Linguine all’astice 25 Lobster linguine served with half grilled lobster and tomato sauceIMG_3930

The only Second Course entree that made it in front of me was:

  • Composizione di crostacei al vapore  – Steamed Shellfish with vegetables

My only gripe might be that the same basic sauce is seen among several dishes. That might get boring after the love affair loses its luster.

The Prince Street location right around the corner is a bit roomier (larger) and focuses more on the fresh seafood displayed in a case but has similar dishes just IMG_3986as wonderful. While the servers tend to run back and forth between the two, sometimes to grab a cup of cappuccino or espresso from Prince St. for the customers at Spring St., my allegiance is now to Spring St. and my friendly waiters.

Their coffee rocks, but I admit I walk the .4 mile to Pasticceria Rocco‘s for dessert and a visit with my other fairly new hard-working Italian ‘friends’.