Monthly Archives: October 2014

L&B Spumoni Gardens

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Ah, summer. I find it easy to wax nostalgic on it weeks and weeks after it has left because of New York’s long fall. It never seems like it was that long ago, and then you look at the calendar and see words like “November.” Not the time for leisurely meals outside. But when the weather is pleasant, L&B Spumoni Gardens is one the best places to take advantage of that time. And there are few better meals than those that contain pizza.

L&B specializes in the square slice, which some call a grandma slice or Sicilian-style. Read this article for more information or confusion. All you really need to know about L&B’s pizza is that it’s rectangular, cooked in a pan, has mozzarella under instead of on top of the tomato sauce, and that the crust is very focaccia-like. Also, it’s delicious. It is of no use to analyze the crust, cheese, or sauce to figure out why you love it so. Harmony is achieved, and it is elevated above its ordinary ingredients.

Eating two to three pieces is an easy feat. I once did four. Because, despite the looks of a slice, it’s rather light. Visiting hungry is essential for understanding the benefits to trying the different types of slices that come from each whole pie. Corners have two edges of crust, an edge has just one, and a middle, none. I like being able to have all three. A corner is an obvious favourite for the textural contrast between crunchy and soft, easy handling, and rarity (only four per pie). An edge is the most standard experience and keeps your fingers clean. A middle piece is definitely the overlooked child of the bunch. No handle, no crunch, but you do get an uninterrupted bounty of that soft cheese-sauce-dough combination, which could be considered the heart of the pizza.

L&B is a proper Italian restaurant with pasta, salads, appetizers, etcetera, where you can sit inside and order wine and eat with proper utensils.  It is one subway stop away from Coney Island, so it takes at least 45-60 minutes to get to from Manhattan. There are certainly other places that make a strong square slice and are easier to get to. So why go? Beyond the cheap ($2.50/slice) and satisfying pizza, eating in a far-flung Brooklyn neighbourhood is fantastic. I’m quickly reminded how diverse the scenery and people of this city are when I go. You feel like you could be in some suburb with the proper houses, more ample personal space, and unrushed vibe. Most of the other patrons probably internally (or obviously) eyeroll at a city interloper like me for taking a photo of my pizza adventure rather than just enjoying what is their normal summer routine after the little one’s soccer practice. But then you realize, no, your feet are firmly planted in New York City. Remember, long train rides are perfect for reading and catch-up sessions with your friends.

I won’t say to also visit for the namesake spumoni (it’s nothing special), but it would be a crime not to finish your meal without a frozen sweet treat. There is always room.

Italian combo at Roberta’s Take-Out & Bakery

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Anyone who knows me in real life knows that my favourite place in NYC is Roberta’s. Sam Sifton’s 2011 review in the New York Times and a visit that same year hooked me. I was knee-deep in love before I even thought it possible to actually live here. Now, I do live here and with the exception of my office lunch sushi spot and maybe Shake Shack (for $3.76 custard charges), Roberta’s sees my credit card the most when it comes to dining out. It can do no wrong in my opinion. Their pizza is my absolute favourite (the Millenium Falco, in particular), the romaine salad a standard order, the beverage program is fantastic, and pretty much everything else I’ve had has been memorable. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have one of the best meals of my life at Michelin-starred sister restaurant, Blanca. Oh, and there is also a mobile unit that shows up throughout the year at various food festivals.

The food is accessible. The food is exceptional. You won’t be surprised to face a two- to three-hour wait at dinner time, and you won’t hear me say to leave. Have a drink in the back and wait it out. Totally worth it.

Be still my heart. There is now even MORE Roberta’s with the recent opening of a take-out spot and bakery down the block from the mothership in Brooklyn.

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While my usual move is an early weeknight dinner at the bar, this new offshoot offers extras that are not available in the main dining room in the evening. The garlic knots and pastries have been receiving some buzz, and I learned you can order a “working man’s slice” made on their focaccia. But my intention for making the trek was to try the pastrami on housemade rye. That was until I read “stracciatella.” A sucker for creamy cheese, I said hello to the Italian Combo.

Growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, there really was only one place (the Italian Centre Shop/Spinelli’s) to get a similar sandwich. But I know that in this city, or maybe the tri-state area or even the entire Northeast, devotees of Italian subs/heroes/hoagies definitely have strong opinions on what constitutes a proper combo and pledge allegiance accordingly. Given my experience and history as a picky eater (a story for another time), I have no such opinions. And based on how I introduced this post, I obviously loved this sandwich.

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Although more modest in size than your typical Italian hero, the quality of ingredients justified the $12 price of this sandwich. And while I did go for ice cream afterward, “modest” does not mean small. In addition to the stracciatella, there was prosciutto, sopressata, mortadella, roasted red peppers, fresh basil, red onion, and pepperoncini. It was perfect. Sweet, salty, creamy, briny, spicy.  And then there’s that housemade seeded Italian bread. It is a little bit rich (my bread-loving palate thinks there might be some milk or butter in the dough) to add more depth to the sandwich and just soft enough to yield to a squeeze and a bite without causing any fall-apart catastrophes.

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Now, as a take-out spot, there are no seats. For those of us who don’t live in the vicinity, I understand that if it’s nice out, you can eat in the main restaurant’s back garden. Otherwise, there is a large high-top table where you can stand (which I did). I am not one who enjoys standing while eating, but I can try to compromise once in a while for the ones I love. And I love you a lot, Roberta’s.

Panini at Eataly

Oh, Eataly. I love to hate you. It’s ridiculous that I do considering I’ve never had a problem with what you have sold me. In fact, I’ve always been very happy. But actually visiting you? Yuck.

One thing that I find unites most New Yorkers is their great annoyance with walking behind/around/in proximity to tourists. New Yorkers have places to go and people to see, and we use the sidewalk as cars use the road: there are rules and there is flow. It’s understandable that tourists are in their own worlds with maps and books and cameras and smartphones (we’ve all been there), but that does not make the experience of getting stuck behind one on your perfectly timed walk from point A to B any less grating. Just ask around on how many locals go to Soho on the weekends or Fifth Avenue in midtown (anytime), and you’ll get some choice words about tourists. Throw general subway and escalator etiquette into the mix, and it’s a wonder we have any friends at all considering how much we can hate on people. Because it’s not just tourists who commit the crimes.

Don’t stop. Walk left. Stand right. Mind your bag. Consider your pace. Don’t block the whole sidewalk with your party.

For me, the experience of going to Eataly mixes all such annoyances. You have a lot of people in a tight space that winds haphazardly and contains nooks and crannies of excitement that seem to pop out of nowhere. Not that it’s disorganized. It’s just a lot of busy. This can make it less than enticing to make a visit to purchase groceries, let alone make a visit to eat from one of Eataly’s restaurants or counters.

For the most part, I’ve only purchased grocery items because it’s the only way that I can ensure I’ll have minimal contact with the gawkers, who tend to gather around the restaurants. But I had read many glowing reviews of the prime rib sandwich from the Rosticceria counter, and during a week when my need for red meat was shaking me to the core, I made my way downtown for a workday lunch adventure.

I don’t ignore my body’s calls for iron because they happen so infrequently. Thus, I obviously ordered the large. The regular is not that much smaller, so when in Rome, right? Fresh, chewy bread, house-roasted meat, olive oil, salt, and pepper. C’est tout. Love at first bite. Perhaps as much for the bread as the meat. It is the kind of sandwich that haunts my dreams: Something substantial that you can get your mitts around and really sink your teeth into. Your jaw fires into action to tear the bread, and your mouth hugs the tender meat. Your hunger is rewarded with a conquering, not just a meal. Add the fact that it was nice enough to sit outside in Madison Square Park instead of having to find a nubbin of space in the Eataly zoo? Perfection.

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Prime rib from Rosticceria. The large.

With this favourable and addictive experience behind me, I had to go back for more. On a Sunday this time, when it was thankfully and actually surprisingly rather calm. This time I went to the I Panini counter and got their daily special with prosciutto, arugula, fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil oil, and tomatoes. On that same bread. Again, outside in the sunshine. The panini only come as one size (large?) and probably could be shared between two people as an average lunch. Don’t even bother asking me to share mine, though. Those creamy, chewy, salty layers would belong to no one but me.

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I Panini daily special

Cold weather might put a damper on this sandwich addiction—because it means eating in that zoo—but at least I have now turned my Eataly frown upside down.

Dining out alone: The first time

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Corvina with potato rosti

I can say with certainty that this meal was not actually the first time I dined out alone, but I can say it was the first time where dining out alone was an event for me. A fancy restaurant, a reservation—it was thought about and prepped for as something that would challenge my comfort and determine if I was as independent as I thought I was.

2007. After finally settling into a regular, career-type job in Edmonton, I now had paid vacation time and the ability to save up to do something with it. But, my friends were either coupled up or students, so finding a travel partner who had the time and income to join me on a big trip was next to impossible. Not one to wait until someone was available, I decided I would go on a vacation by myself. Somewhere far and foreign and big and urban. Somewhere I could walk the streets unnoticed and fulfill some sort of fantasy of being a gutsy, worldly girl traveller:  Buenos Aires. And as I had some Chilean friends and it seemed close, Santiago, Chile, as well, for good measure.

First up, Santiago. First night, the critically acclaimed Astrid y Gaston. Although I had graduated up from “Let’s Go!” travel guides and did my best at due diligence internet research on cultural differences, I still ended up being the silly Canadian who makes a reservation for the first seating. When no one else is there. So, I killed some time at the bar with a pisco sour and eventually moved over to my table for one. I felt self-conscious. I felt strange. I felt special.  I had something to read. I ordered wine and multiple courses and savoured my meal. Avoiding eye contact with other patrons was easy when I had delicious food to distract me. The dining room eventually filled up, including the private party space that was located in a loft-like area above the main dining room. As the room was rather quiet, they were easily heard and seen as they looked over the ledge to the diners below.

“Look at her. Isn’t that sad?” I heard in a thick drawl.

It took but a moment to realize that she was talking about me. And it took but two moments for all the insecurities and self-consciousness I was trying to suppress about the dinner, the trip, my appearance, you name it, to rise to the surface and seize me up.

My cheeks still flushed, I unclenched my fingers and took another bite. F*ck it. I would never see her again.

I may live on for her as the sad solo diner, but she lives on for me as the small-minded American who talks too loud. It was the FIRST night of my big adventure. It was unfair to let her ruin it. I hear her words almost every time I enter a restaurant alone, but they have become like my Rocky anthem. It is almost to spite her that I eat alone when I don’t have a dining partner, or frankly, when I don’t want one. And I will make a reservation, goddammit. For one!

Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna

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Fried saganaki

My new favourite place for dining out is Queens. Yes, the land of Frank Costanza, Vincent Chase, 50 Cent, and Fran Drescher. What it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in character. And what it lacks in cool factor, it more than makes up for in actual culture. While in Manhattan, I may end up cramped at a tight table with tourists and an expensive cocktail; in Brooklyn, with Edison bulbs and a kale salad; in Queens, I’m cramped with a grandmother cooking in the back and a $15 tab. Sweeping generalizations, I know, but sometimes true. I get excited in this city when I feel like I’m on a movie or TV set, and I’ve felt a lot of that in Queens. There is an electricity to some of the main drags there that give me “pinch me, I live in NYC?” tingles. I’m not saying anything new by fawning over the treasure trove of ethnic enclaves that exists in Queens. Doubly so by fawning over what can be much, much more friendly dining prices. Yes, there’s a long train ride. But, there are long train rides to Brooklyn, too (I’m sure the Bronx and Staten Island are somehwhere in my future). In any case, I can always use an excuse for reading.

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Grilled octopus

Gregory’s. On the corner of 26th street in Astoria. A friend and I had scoped this place out via online reviews as the place we would have a Greek feast. Decked out in seaside tchotchkes, Gregory’s can feel like an homage to a much-loved homeland as well as a worn-in family dining room. But you’re quickly reminded of your custom as your tablecloth is covered with a fresh sheet of paper.

Feast, we did. Missing from these photos are the loaf of warm bread we were immediately served (which went with the olive spread) and our half-litre, $10-bottle of Retsina.

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Dandelion greens, olive spread, cold appetizer plate

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Lemon potatoes

Also missing are the old Greek men who tucked themselves into the corners of the place as the night wore on, the couples young and old, the man who told us inappropriate jokes as he waited for his takeout, and the charming waitresses whose lipstick was maybe just a bit too pink. The octopus was tender, yet meaty. Those smelts were like french fries. The dips all perfect on the pita or used like ketchup for those fishy chips. The potatoes became a sneaky favourite because you think that you could make them at home, but then you remember that you’ve never actually been able to achieve such texture. It was hard to stop. Especially when pieces of honey-soaked semolina cake were brought gratis with the bill. We didn’t realize that the greens were served cold. They would not make the cut next time. But there will be a next time. I want the grilled sardines. The stuffed grape leaves. The possibility for more old man inappropriate jokes.

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Fried smelts