Monthly Archives: April 2015

The original Patsy’s Pizzeria

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not one for eating pizza by the slice. I don’t like eating on the go. I want to sit, relax, and be comfortable while eating my meal. I like to be talking across from someone, reading a magazine, or watching television. I definitely don’t want to be standing. And the only thing I enjoy eating while walking is an ice cream cone.

But New York is a city where quick eating is a necessity. On the way to the subway, on the way out of the subway, on the subway platform, on the way to work, on the way home, outside the bar, outside school, next to the movie theater, before entering the sports arena, in the park, along the water. Food that you can quickly eat in less than five minutes is everywhere, and the pizza slice is definitely king. Any opinion I might have about good pizza immediately goes out the window when you learn I have very little slice experience. I care little about rectifying that, but I am aware.

A few weeks ago, J. Kenji López-Alt of Food Lab fame posted a picture on Instagram of his slices from the original Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem. I acquired a pizza itch for those slices, and I wanted to know why Kenji loved the crust. Earning some cred by having a slice from one of the only original coal-oven pizzerias (it opened in 1933) that still served pizza by the slice was also motivating. Perhaps most importantly, it was time for me to try honest-to-goodness New York pizza. A simple, thin-crusted cheese, sorry “plain,” slice.

Work takes me relatively close to Patsy’s sometimes for meetings, and the perfect opportunity opened up for me to bookend my lunch break around one of them. The walk from the subway afforded me the chance to see some of Spanish Harlem for the first time, and on the beautiful spring day, it was a fun one, with street vendors out, people casually walking, and the presence of the good mood that seems to wash across the world when the air finally feels warm. There is a proper sit-down restaurant where you can order full pies, but I was there for the take-out space. Miniscule, with only a small counter for standing. a soda vending machine, and the oven, Patsy’s take-out typifies a slice joint. You are not there to eat or linger. You are to get your slices and move on. Many of the customers were double parkers who ran in to get a quick slice and then jumped back in their cars. Others picked up their snack to wolf down and keep walking. I was lucky in that there was no pizza ready when I arrived, so when I got my two slices, they were fresh from the oven. Perched at the little counter trying to manage my work bag, phone, and jacket, I was the current outlier with no rushed take-it-to-go vibe

The charred crust has the thickness and weight of the paper plates that the pizza is served on. There’s a momentary worry that the cheese and sauce will soak right through. But then I picked one up and made the required fold for ease of handling and eating. No problems. The crust also bends as easily as a paper plate, demonstrating that you will be getting chew and not crisp. It was great. As I worked my way down, I appreciated the perfect amount of sauce, adequate coverage with just enough to slip through the fold to make you quickly lap it up. The cheese pulled enough without becoming a stringy mess or coming right off the slice. Textbook.

These are definitely slices as snacks. I should have ordered three to feel satisfied for lunch. But that would have taken away from the act of being there for only a quick spell. Snack not meal, I have to tattoo to my forehead. If I wanted a real lunch, I should have just gone to the restaurant next door. I didn’t have the time. I was on the move, needing to get to my meeting. For 10 minutes at least, I was just a busy New Yorker taking a short break for a New York slice.

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Prince Street Pizza

Spicy Spring and Original Sicilian

I think I was about 7 or 8 years old. It was the end of the season and in one of my dance classes, tap I think, we were celebrating the last class. With a pizza party. But at this age, I didn’t eat pizza.

Up until this point, when my family would go out for pizza (Pizza Hut, most often), I would get the children’s spaghetti, eat a few slices of garlic bread, and beg my parents for their crusts. The crusts were just like bread, and I loved bread. I think that my fear of pizza was due to the fact that back then, I liked my food separate, no touching, no mixing. I could handle noodles and sauce, but no extra things. Pizza was a big mash-up of things. Like a sandwich, which I also didn’t eat and now am in love with. At birthday parties where the meal would be make-your-own personal pizzas, the pizza shell that went into the oven for Rhianna was simply topped with melted butter and maybe some Kraft parmesan cheese. When Little Caesars came to town and that became the new go-to, my meal consisted of crusts and crazy bread.

But there I was in tap class, faced with a bounty of Little Caesars pepperoni pizza. I didn’t have any friends in that class, and I was definitely one of the weaker dancers. I was smart enough to know that refusing the pizza would push me to the periphery even further. I took a slice and started to take small bites. The strange, new taste of the pepperoni was my first hurdle. Thankfully, I liked the texture and slight spicy sweetness. But the mash-up. Cheese and sauce and “bread” were all acceptable to me, so it was just a matter of ploughing through. It was also a matter of clueing into the fact that lo and behold, I liked pizza. Thirty years later, we say I love pizza.

Prince Street Pizza is a slice joint in Nolita that receives lots of love and has a heavy presence on Instagram. The pizza cognoscenti of the city recommend it, especially for the square slices. Pizza lord Paulie Gee himself declares the original square the city’s best. The pepperoni slice is more popular, however, and that was the slice I was most wanting to try given the origin of my pizza love. It had also been ages since I’d eaten pepperoni pizza. Ages. Especially since soppressata has a much bigger presence in the Neapolitan pizza world that I tend to prefer.

The slices were smaller than I was expecting, so I got an original for good measure. One slice would be a snack, two a small lunch. Because I’m not much of a snacker or a slice eater, I think I forget that a slice is more of a snack than a meal. The small pepperoni slices became shallow bowls from the heat of the oven, making for super crispy edges and leaving little pools of delicious spicy grease within. And as I find with most square pies I’ve tried, the crust is much lighter than it looks, spongy and foccacia-like instead of the dense crust of its guise. The sauce wasn’t all that spicy, but it was a great slice. The original one was as well, its sauce a bit sweeter.

I think I still would choose L&B, however, for square pizza and that might be purely for the atmosphere. But I’m glad that I finally tried Prince Street, and it’s handy to know its there. Especially to recommend to visitors who head to the area for shopping.

The Cubano at Coppelia

I thought Chef was a rather mediocre movie. What did you think? The kid/social media stuff was dumb, and I found the plot too predictable. And what was the point of the Scarlett Johansson character? All of the food footage was enjoyable, though, and I’m glad Roy Choi’s involvement wasn’t totally wasted.  It definitely left me with the feeling that there are not enough Cuban sandwiches in my life.

I’ve only ever tried a few, including the one at the overloved Cafe Habana in Nolita, but there’s not much to screw up when it comes to double pork (roast and cured), cheese, mustard, and pickles, pressed. I have no issue on the variance of pig used, but not enough pickles or mustard is a shame. More of both always, please. Bread that is too thick can also be problematic, although the interweb tells me that a long, thicker roll is traditional.

It’s funny that such a flavourful sandwich comes from Cuba. As a Canadian from a cold climate, I knew many people who would spend a week in Cuba during the winter. You could often get a better deal to Cuba than Mexico. But time after time, I heard that the food wasn’t very good in Cuba, regardless of if you were at a resort or exploring Havana. Bland is the word I heard most often. Bland is not a word I would use to describe a Cubano.

Coppelia is a “Latin diner” right on 14 St (next to The Donut Pub) that has a wide range of Latin American culinary delights in the guise of a traditional diner. There’s a charm to it, and the diner atmosphere makes it immediately comfortable. Having first tried to satisfy my post-Chef Cubano craving with a mediocre version during a work lunch (seriously under-pickled), I was a bit more desperate for a fix. Thus, I overlooked the addition of a spicy aioli, the use of thinner bread, and a smaller size. The menu doesn’t mention aioli, but the oozy dark orange sauce was unlike any mustard I’ve tasted if that is what it was. Regardless, I liked it even if it got on my fingers. (I generally am averse to dirty finger food.) The thinner bread and smaller size made it handle and look like a more refined pressed sandwich. Lady-like… a Cubana. I’m more inclined to go back to try their tres leches, but I’d have this sandwich again, adding a side of yucca fries. I could practice my Spanish. Yoooo-ca.

Oh, and speaking of, because of my lessons, I now know that El Jefe means The Boss. That’s worth $600+ in lessons, no?

Wiener schnitzel 

Out of the few resolutions I made in January, cooking a proper meal once a month is the only one that’s stuck. I’m not going to bed 15 minutes earlier, and I’m not taking shorter showers to be less rushed on work mornings. I’m not surprised. Cooking is a pleasurable me-time activity. The other two are both related to a denial about having to give up me time. But it’s still laughable rather than laudable that a girl in her mid 30s has to resolve to cook properly for herself. I think I only do it with little shame because I live in a city where not cooking is practically the norm.

So, March. Frying. I have dreams of deep frying at home one day, but as I’m very afraid of fire, dreams they may stay. Pan frying is not as scary, and it gave me a chance to break in the All-Clad tri-ply stainless steel pan I bought with Christmas money. (Is it also laughable that a girl in her mid 30s still gets Christmas money from mom?) With some encouragement from a friend, I decided to go with wiener/veal schnitzel. And, yes, I strategically placed this post after my adventures in well-fried pork katsu to reinforce the amateur hour nature of my cooking experiments.

I have been reading Felicity Cloake’s “How to make the perfect…” column in The Guardian for a while now, and I thoroughly enjoy all her trials of various quintessential recipes. The best part is learning just how different experienced chefs will prepare classic dishes. That is, it’s fun to see just how unclassic the classics are. Her version of wiener schnitzel was straightforward enough that I wasn’t too intimidated. My main concerns were that the oil would not be hot enough or that I would overcook the meat (my perennial meat cooking fear). I decided to consult Melissa Clark’s pork schnitzel recipe as well, as she makes everything seem so easy. I watch her New York Times videos religiously on Friday afternoons, pretending that one day I will cook as effortlessly as her.

Lucky for me a grocery store down the street sells veal cutlets already pounded thin, so the real annoying part of the recipe was done for me. Hooray! Proper schnitzel is made with breadcrumbs, but Melissa’s recipe uses panko. I didn’t want to put the effort into making my own breadcrumbs and buying them just seems wrong to me. Buying panko on the other hand seems less wrong, even though it’s a similar product. I feel less guilty buying/using panko because I’ve never heard of anyone making homemade panko. Felicity didn’t like Melissa’s panko crust in her column, but I was willing to place my trust in Melissa.

Veal schnitzel with spaetzle and cucumber salad

I shouldn’t have. The panko was too heavy of a breading. Now, I haven’t eaten tons of schnitzel, but I wanted mine to have a light, crisp crust that would indicate that I fried it properly and perhaps even did the swirling of the oil over the meat correctly—the technique for getting that airy, rippled crust that schnitzel is known for. My schnitzel was crispy, hold your applause, but I worry that it darkened too much (oil too hot?) and that the crust was a bit heavy. It wasn’t horribly greasy, but I wonder if the panko held on to more oil than breadcrumbs would have because of the larger crumb size.  Anyone? Thankfully, it was not heavy enough to fall off. Or maybe that means that I did something right when dredging and cooking. The veal was tender, and it tasted just fine.

To round out the meal, I pulled out my mandoline and made Melissa’s quick cucumber salad. I do like German potato salad, but as the weather was cold when I made this, I wanted something a bit heartier. Spaetzle? Mark Bittman published a terribly easy recipe that’s more dumpling than tiny noodle, but who cares because they were fantastic. I won’t see any wrong in pillows of dough fried in butter. I made the dumplings in the afternoon, put them in the fridge, then fried them at the last minute when the schnitzel was resting. Spaghetti and butter always wins for my emotional eating, but I think next time my feelings are in the gutter, I’m making Mark’s dumplings.

The real takeaway is that frying in my apartment is a very very bad idea. A tiny space and no exhaust hood meant that everything smelled like schnitzel for days. A dish of vinegar left out overnight can help lingering kitchen smells, but it doesn’t help get the smell out of my pillow.

Dreams they will stay.

Felicity Cloake’s wiener (veal) schnitzel.

Melissa Clark’s pork schnitzel and quick cucumber pickles.

Mark Bittman’s spaetzle.

Pork katsu at Ootoya and Katsuhama

Sushi, check. Ramen, check. Izakaya snacks, check. I’m a fan of some of the styles of Japanese food that are much promoted and loved right now. What I have yet to get into is soba, and I should stop dragging my heels on that as I understand New York to be home to some really great soba places. I’ve also never had Japanese curry, which is what I would put more in the realm of “cooked” Japanese food, for lack of a much better term. Whenever I think of this side of Japanese cuisine, I always think of the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie has a real date with her f&ck buddy. They go to a Japanese restaurant that Carrie has suggested because of the amazing yellowtail (hamachi? mackerel?) sashimi they serve. He makes some bro comment about not eating raw fish and promptly orders chicken teriyaki. She looks at him like he’s a Neanderthal.

I feel that sentiment still kind of exists, which is unfortunate because I’ve recently learned the joys of pork katsu (tonkatsu), which is breaded and fried pork loin. I’ve always noticed it on bento combos, but I never have considered it out of fear of disappointing Carrie. Raw must prevail! Not always. Fresh fish treated appropriately is great, but so is crispy, panko-encased tender pork, dipped in a sweet sauce, and served with rice.

I first tried tonkatsu at Ootoya, as it is right around the corner from my Spanish class. It’s a chain from Japan that serves mostly “comfort” food, but there is sushi on the menu.  A friend of mine living in Japan explained that, in Japan, Ootoya is considered to be like Denny’s. There are two here, and the décor, service, and patrons do not suggest Denny’s at all. Much more first date than last call. I came specifically to try the tonkatsu as a Japanese guy I had messaged with (full confession) on Tinder told me it was his favourite place for it (I used him for this info then promptly stopped replying…). The tonkatsu comes with rice, shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce. For a few dollars more, you can upgrade to a set that includes miso soup and chawanmushi (egg custard). A hot mustard is also provided for dipping, and I also paid extra for tororo to put on my rice. Tororo is grated mountain yam. It’s the whitish sludge at the bottom of the picture. I had never heard of it before so just went with it. My server instructed me to put soy sauce in the tororo and then pour the mix on my rice (as it’s a faux pas to put soy directly on your rice). It didn’t wow me.

Tonkatsu set at Ootoya, with tonkatsu sauce, mustard, rice, miso soup, pickles, and chawanmushi, as well as tororo for the rice

But the tonkatsu was delicious. The breading was crisp and didn’t fall off the pork between bites. I loved doing a double dip in the tonkatsu sauce and the mustard for a mix of sweet and hot. The chawanmushi (top right covered dish) was smooth, creamy, and savoury. After the tonkatsu, the miso soup was my favourite dish. I’d never had miso soup with pork and vegetables in it before. I now only want my miso soup to have pork and vegetables in it. A complaint is that I don’t like this many-dishes-at-once style of eating. I get too excited and stimulated by all the choice and end up eating everything too fast. I need courses.

Miso soup and pickles at Katsuhama 55

Like the two I got during my visit to Katsuhama: miso soup and then my main. Now, Katsuhama, is clearly named for… katsu. The said Japanese boy told me that Katsuhama (there are also two locations) used to be good, but it is not anymore. In any case, my cobbler is right next to the location on 55 st, and it made an easy lunch stop when I had to drop some boots off. I have no interest in truly comparing the two places, so I went with what I suspected would be a deeply comforting dish: katsudon.

Kurobuta/Berkshire pork katsudon at Katsuhama 55

In this case, the tonkatsu receives a creamy layer of egg and is served with stewed onions over rice. The ample serving of white rice obviously made me happy, but the crispy pork covered in egg, further enhanced by tonkatsu and sesame sauce I would add, is was made it a fantastic and satisfying lunch. I got my miso soup first, thankfully, and also totally dug it. I didn’t see any pork, but it did have vegetables, mostly cabbage, and was more flavourful than standard miso soups I’ve had. Yes, the pork was covered in egg, so it might be silly/obvious for me to say that Ootoya’s katsu was crisper, but my observation was based on some of the edges with no egg. Feeling spendy, I upgraded to kurobuta/Berkshire pork, and it definitely was a bit richer and fattier than the pork I had at Ootoya. I liked it. I guess one of the joys of eating at Katsuhama is that you can grind your own sesame seeds to add as a paste to the tonkatsu sauce. As I was seated at the bar, I didn’t get to do this and was presented only with a bottled sesame sauce. As I was eating a big, messy mix of pork and rice and egg, I don’t think I missed out on much.

Totally hooked on tonkatsu now. Couldn’t care less about Carrie.