I’ve never lived in a desirable neighbourhood. That is, a neighbourhood my friends and peers would choose for themselves. Growing up in a city where my concept of neighbourhood was where your house was, where you likely went to school, and what word you looked for on the bus marquee, I never saw it as a reflection of my parents’ values, aspirations, or taste beyond a decent house and convenience to amenities like groceries and schools. (I am aware of my naiveté.) You travel to different parts of the city to get what you need if it wasn’t within a few blocks, no big deal. Life is in your city, not your neighbourhood. So as an adult, I’ve almost wholly looked to make a home in places where I could get the most from that close to me, the most convenience, the most ease for my daily activities—work, transit, groceries, exercise. The one exception was when I first moved to New York and found an apartment that was more cache than common sense for my routine. Lo and behold, the story ends with my asshole landlord raising the rent astronomically. It was then when I could fully articulate what I want from my neighbourhood, especially in a city like this where it can become your everything. What I found landed me on the Upper West Side, a place that often gets silence when I tell others where I live, or for those who know, prompts the question, “Do you still like living on the Upper West?” I’ll keep my justifications to myself, but yes, I do.
I will never promote the dining of my neighbourhood as being destination-worthy, but I do understand its function and why, despite high prices and a lack of creativity in the menus, establishments are always full. They do what every other restaurant does in this city without the addition of interlopers: they feed the neighbourhood. And in mine, that means lots of folks with enough disposable income to go out or order in most nights of the week (but again, maybe that’s everywhere). So, I assume it only serves them best to be consistent and good enough. Salmon for the mom, a steak for the dad, and pasta for the kidlets. Pub fare for the young finance guys. Just-hot-enough Thai for the retired ladies’ book club. An endless number of places that could serve as the setting for one of Jerry’s, Elaine’s, or George’s problematic dates. Sweeping generalizations, I know, but this is what I see as I walk past and wonder, who eats there? I’m being unfair because in amongst the good enough, there is good. It’s just not highly promoted across the city because there is no need (and because the Upper’s can be so uncool in the eyes of those who reside in the Lower’s). Their seats are filled nightly with those who live close by. The fact that those seats can be easily filled without lines of bloggers or tourists builds trust and loyalty with those who will return after, or without, the Instagram photo.
While a little more moneyed and conservative than the Upper West, the Upper East Side has presented me with similar experiences. Lots of good enough, unspectacular meals with some legitimately good places that I should try to get to again, but don’t. Unless there’s a reason beyond eating. I embrace a forced hand, and so when dinner was required before a talk at the 92nd St YMCA, I returned to a pizza place that some friends and I had enjoyed previously when on the UES for an event, San Matteo.
I don’t think you have to be Italian to make good pizza, but for what it’s worth, San Matteo is a small, Italian-run Neapolitan pizza restaurant that fulfills my chewy, charred-crust cravings very nicely. The tight room is simply adorned and could easily be a cozy spot on an Italian city side street. The list of pizzas, panuozzos (pizza dough sandwiches), and calzones is long despite the tiny workspace that fronts the wood-burning oven, but each one seems rooted in traditional Italian ingredients and flavour profiles. Lucky for me, I arrived while happy hour was still on—to be appreciated given that it’s not really a bar—and I took advantage of the $5 deal.
My calzone of choice was the Ripieno, with tomato sauce, homemade mozzarella, salami, buffalo ricotta, and prosciutto cotto. The tomato sauce adorned the top, preventing it from getting dry but also serving as a dip for the perimeter. Ripping those crusts off and sinking my teeth into the chewy dough was immensely satisfying. The flavour of the dough does not touch some of the better known and simply better Neapolitan pizza places in the city, but it is better than good enough. The thick edges were unbalanced by thinner dough around the filling, resulting in a soupy, fork-and-knife required middle. But I think, in fact, that makes it “authentically” Neapolitan. I prefer not to use utensils with such a dish, but given that I used them to eat a mess of creamy cheeses and salty meats, I can deal. Very well.