Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

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’.

Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

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Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

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.

Back to Bocconi again and again*

It’s that typical Friday again, and like an obedient one to my regiment, I head back to Bocconi AGAIN!

dishingondining

It’s a typical Friday evening, heading home from work. I make the anticipatory and, at the same time, dreaded phone call: “Where do you want to have dinner?” There’s always an attempt to suggest restaurants to which we haven’t been locally, but at the end of the work week, comfort always seems to win. While many aspects of my life are regimented, I like my food and travel to be multifarious. So when the answer from either one of us is ultimately, “Let’s just go to Bocconi,” there’s an air of ambivalence.

We try to fight that response, but deep down, both of us know that our mouths and stomachs will end up

much more than satisfied and our pockets won’t be heavily emptied, which weighs greatly in the dining decision for many people. In order to reject the repetition in some fashion, I insist on ordering something different…

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