Friday, October 30, 2009

Start spreading the news -New York

New York City. What can anyone say that hasn’t already been said? If you’ve been there, you already know and if you haven’t, you can only imagine. I’ve visited the city maybe a dozen times. I’ve eaten deli sandwiches so big that there is a difference in air temperature from the top to the bottom. I’ve mopped up amazing Ethiopian spiced meals with the spongy flat bread they serve. I’ve wandered the amazement that is Chelsea market, marveled at the unending choices of street vendors, sampled dim sum in Chinatown, picnicked in Central Park and dined at The Four Seasons. Yet, I haven’t even scratched the surface. The city holds so many culinary wonders that thousands –thousands, of books, articles, periodicals and blogs are solely dedicated this one-of-a-kind city. The sensory cacophony is overwhelming. That’s why I love it so. It’s the rush.

I was in town on business during a crisp, fall week recently. My work kept me much busier than I’m used to and I really only had late night dinners to enjoy and unwind. That’s fine by me though, because the best food you’ll ever taste is only 2 blocks from wherever you’re standing in the Big Apple. In most cities, I turn to the internet for guidance on where to get the best local fare, but not in New York. The best way to experience food culture of this metropolis is to simply go for a walk. You won’t travel far. My first day there was a bit of a blur. I worked late; very late. I didn’t get to my hotel till around 9:30PM after a 14 hour day. I was pretty exhausted. In these situations I typically order in and keep my expectations low. Greasy and poorly flavored Chinese food or some chain restaurant pizza is my standard. But here, in the world’s most diverse gastronomic town, I’m just as excited to order in as I would be to dine in any fancy restaurant. On this night, it’s pizza.

A trip to New York without eating pizza would be like going to the beach on a hot summer day and not even putting your feet in the water. It’s anti-American. It’s heresy. I ask the guy at the desk for the number of the closest place that delivers and he gave me the number for Tostino’s Pizza. I didn’t ask him for the best; just the closest. I didn’t have to. Any sub-par pizza place in New York would last about 3 hours. An hour later, a perfect pie was sitting in front of me and I was in heaven. Notice those black, crunchy bits yet each slice was designed to be folded in half and eaten in messy fashion. Not laden down with heavy ingredients or thick sauce, this pizza represents Americana, New York style. Of course you can get good pizza around the country (although every good New Yorker will argue that –they say it’s in the water), but what you don’t get is the volume. If you accidentally pass the pizza place on your left, the one a block down on the right is just as fantastic. Had I gone home the next morning, this pizza in my hotel room was all I would have needed to be satisfied.

The next day was just as grueling at work. I got back to my room pretty late and pretty tired. Still I had to venture out. I was in the mid-town neighborhood of Chelsea and I knew there was food to be had. In mid-town alone, there are around 2500 restaurants. I didn’t have to go far. Stepping out into the cool night, I walked all of a block before an Italian bistro caught my eye. Restivo’s has a patio out front (for the warmer days) and an inviting bar just inside the front door. The room was a bit dark –just soft lighting, and I thought I caught a glimpse of Frank Sinatra sitting at one end. The smell from the kitchen permeated every corner of the room. I could smell sauces, garlic, pasta and spices. Perfect. This looked like a great place for a late dinner. The menu was exactly what I expected. Classic Italian fare with few frills.

No one sits at a bar in New York without talking to your bar mates. It’s just a simple rule. So I began chatting with the two guys next to me and it turns out I was chatting with the owner, Joe Restivo. Joe embodies every bit the part of a New York Italian bar owner. Thick accent, perfectly combed black hair, a little on the heavy side (I’m not one to talk) and ready to strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat, Joe explained the Menu to me. Tonight I was having Ossobuco over a mushroom risotto and for an appetizer, I went with escargot (not really Italian but a favorite of Joe’s). The snails were buttery and tender and had none of the slight toughness that I’m used to with escargot. Just another testament to New York that the quality of the ingredients here are superior to just about anywhere else I’ve been. Of course, the Ossobuco was perfectly braised and super tender with a rich, silky flavor infused with the tomatoes and spices it was cooked in. Another perfect meal.

I spent an hour or so chatting with Joe. He’s owned this restaurant and the apartments over it for years. He talks of hard work and I learn a lot about what it’s taken him to be successful. Joe owns a corner of New York City and that is no small feat. Nowadays, he spends much of his time on a farm in Pennsylvania but his passion for his work and his city come through. If I had only a few hours in the city, it was Joe I really wanted to meet.

There are so many reasons to visit New York, but as a foodie, the culinary experience is my favorite. But the museums, shows, shopping and pure amazement at the concrete jungle would make for a fantastic visit and with the holidays right around the corner, the city becomes pure magic. I’m not sure when I’ll be back but I’ll be just as awed the next time.

Note: I was so exhausted on this trip that I forgot my camera. These photos were the result of internet searches. I can't take credit for that.

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