The view from the Staten Island Ferry is pretty amazing, especially at sunset when the great golden ball retreats to the West, to be closer to you, dear Austin. The ferry is packed w/ commuters returning from Manhattan to the fifth borough. They sit on the benches, not staring at the beautiful vista, not looking out at the bay where Ellis Island still stands, haunted still by the thousands and thousands who passed through it, carrying paper packages tied with string. We lean over the railing, catching the breeze in our hair. We are headed to Denino’s, and we are hungry.
Addie, short for Adeline, greets us with a loud shout over the packed restaurant, over the tables crammed with regulars, each of whom would later tell us: “I grew up at this place”. The Homies in Staten Island are legit, Austin. Friendly and fearless, so totally at ease and at home in this family shop stacked w/ a century’s worth of tradition and comfort. We sit at two long tables in the back room and try to remember to pace ourselves as the salads are followed by the wings followed by pizza after pizza after pizza. Their dough is so good; each pizza is perfectly round and cooked just right. They use gas ovens like ours, cooking directly on stone: no screens, no short-cuts – and every time nothing but net. Denino’s is like that old man at the playground who schools every hotshot by hitting three-pointer after three-pointer. Practice, it is clear, makes perfect.
I walk outside to call my sweet wife back home. It’s maybe 10:30 on a Wednesday night and the ice cream shop across the street has three lines, four deep, that constantly stay that way by the cars pulling up and the families getting out. The New England houses are simple and practical two story buildings. The trees that line the street are thinning; Fall is close. When I go back into the shop they’ve put “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” on the juke box in our honor. A few of us move to the makeshift dance floor between the tables in the main dining room and two-step. Nano takes a middle-aged Staten Islander by her hand and dances with her. She is giddy, her ruddy cheeks blushing. We are not the first to dance in this way, impromptu and joyous, in this shop. I can tell it has happened a thousand times before, and will continue on forever. As this is that kind of place: where the neighborhood ties of family mean something, where the heart of that neighborhood is that shop. We, as a group, are honored in that moment for being recognized and named as family. I miss my wife, at home w/ you Austin, more and more. Being in the center of a family like that reminds you of the family you have, the neighborhood that is yours. I sure miss you, Austin.
We meet the next morning and walk uptown to Madison Square Park with Shake Shack and EATALY in our sites. We go into EATALY first. This is the huge, and I mean like big-as-a-city-block-and-some-five-stories-high, super market. And I mean SUPER. It is like an old school European Market w/ constellations of counters and mongers of every type and kind. I stand dumbfounded in their bakery where three guys are cutting down a huge piece of dough, folding it into loaves. One of the baker’s apprentices off-handedly picks up a handful of flour and tosses it against the glass, where I stand. He smiles at me with the kind of playful irreverence we love and value at Home Slice. I love this guy. I make my way to the drawers of dried mushrooms and smell each, thinking about the earth they came from, the people who picked them, the travel they made to come here in the middle of Manhattan, and the vision of the great Chef Mario Batali who is the genius who knew that EATALY was exactly the sort of thing New Yorkers needed: a place where artists could work, and where the community would benefit from that art. Each department of the store is like an old Roman City State, separate and independent brought together by Caesar’s Road. Batali is that kind of Caesar. Hail Batali!
The line at Shake Shack is already curving the South End of the Park, already a good 30 people deep before we double it w/ our crew. There are probably 30 employees inside of the tiny building, each moving fast and fluid. There is no room inside for any kind of loose elbow, no space for any slumping body. The woman at the counter is cheerful and kind, her Bronx accent thick and lush. She doesn’t blink twice at the size of our crew, or of disorganization. She smiles sweetly as we bumble through our order, making changes as we go. Minutes later we are sitting in the park, being harassed by the pigeons, eating burgers and fries, each one equally as beautiful as the next. There is nothing slapdash in what they are doing. We are inspired by their stamina, and their dedication to excellence.
That evening we went to Lombardi’s on Mulberry in Little Italy. It’s just a short walk from the hotel, Austin, just a few blocks. Lombardi’s is THE OLDEST pizza shop. The apprentices from that shop, way back at the beginning of the 20th century, went on to open Totonno’s in Coney Island, John’s in the Village, and Patsy’s uptown in Harlem. Lombardi’s oven is bigger than your car, Austin, and runs close to 900°. The guy working the oven wears safety goggles and heavy gloves. The peel he sticks into the oven to move the pizzas around is as big as a Viking Oar, and heavy to boot. These guys in the kitchen are moving fast but quiet. There is no room for error, there is no space for indolence. They open up the coal feed and I stare into the fire. I swear, Austin, time stopped for me when I got close to that fire. I got as close as I could, feeling the heat come off the coal, staring into the white hot void. Feeling the skin on my face tighten, I could hear only the fire in front of me, where the coals have been burning for the last 100 years. I was transported, Austin, as if I were staring into Vesuvius. They pulled me away from my trance, as I would not have moved any other way. I went upstairs to join the crew.
The pizzas that came out were crisp and charred, each burn a birthmark, a badge of honor. Their tiny pepperonis curl up like the Grinch’s smirk. Their ricotta, so beautiful and scalloped, is charred at its wispy tips. The flavor of that oven is undeniable. The coal’s accent lingers on the dough. I walk Jenna, one of our cooks, over to the chimney that is built into the wall that runs down to that huge oven below. We put our hands on the brick and feel the heat. It isn’t so great that we are repulsed by it but rather so comforting that we both find ourselves moving closer to the stone wall, embracing the heat that feels like a warm hug, that feels like the sun baking your body after you just get out of Barton Springs. We hold hands while holding on to that wall. It is amazing how current runs through us humans, transferring at the fingertips and palms. We are conductors, all of us. I feel it in each slice of pie I eat. I feel the work and pride of Lombardi’s Army. I feel the history and careful dedication to excellence. It comes through loud and clear, above the din of the other diners, beyond the cacophony of Little Italy on the precipice of the San Generro Feast.
The weather has turned on our last day, Austin. The thick humidity has fallen even heavier on the concrete. The storm clouds rolling in from the West are menacing and serious. The light in the city is dim even at mid-day. Traffic is thick. We march West to the Highline, a beautiful park along the West Side Highway, built on the skeletal remains of the El Train. It is planted w/ wildflowers and herbs. It is strange, Austin, to be standing three stories above Manhattan, with a nose full of Sage and Rosemary. We wait on a few pizzas from the new addition of a respected shop from the East Side. We are tired, Austin, and the pizzas can’t really come soon enough. Soon enough for our bellies, which still demand more pizza. Soon enough for the threatening sky, which will open up sooner rather than later. They quote us a ½ an hour for the pizzas, which is respectable. The guys behind the line kind of balk when they see the size of our order (4 pizzas), and grumble amongst themselves about this weird pop in the otherwise slow morning. One guy shrugs his shoulders while building a large salad into a pizza box. “It’ll be done when it’s done,” he said to no one. The order takes double the amount of time, a full hour after all is said an done. The sky opens up as if on cue when Terri & Jen step out onto 10th Avenue to head up the stairs to the highline. The rain comes down w/ the intensity of a Central Texas gulley-washer. The rain is thick and fat, cold and heavy. We scramble, along with everyone else (including Alec Baldwin) to cover under a building built above the highline. There are stalls along the side with people selling coffee, or juice, or prints, and now umbrellas. We’ve lost Jen and Terri to the rain. Nano goes off in search and returns shortly w/ Jen, Terri, and the pizzas that took too long.
My Goodness, Austin, those pizzas just weren’t that good. I could tell from the cuts on the pies alone that the cats working that shop just didn’t care. The cook quality on each pizza varied wildly. Even their signature Artichoke Pie was flawed and runny. In that moment I felt so sad for those cooks who don’t know the satisfaction of continually pressing past the line of excellence. They don’t know the joy that comes from making a stranger happy. They don’t know how a promise is a promise, and thirty minutes means thirty minutes. I thought about my small gang of cooks back home, tending those ovens and making the magic happen. I thought about how each cook works to maintain quality above quantity, and how deeply they respect the customer they can not see. Each pizza, after all, is a kind of gift. It is that thing you open on Christmas morning. Wrapping paper strewn, boxes ripped asunder, revealing either that thing that was given with love, or that thing that was simply a quo following someone else’s quid. Those guys, at that shop, on that day, did the bare minimum and gave what little they had to offer. So sad for them. So sad for those who will go unsuspecting and receive only what money can buy. I think again of our shop there on South Congress, and the staff that continues to delight themselves by exceeding what had been possible. I miss my cooks, dear Austin, almost as much as I miss you. But I am happy, here on the West Side Highway, that you have each other.
It is our final dinner, Austin, at Rubirosa in the heart of Little Italy, on the opening day of the San Gennero Feast. Rubirosa is small and intimate, a kind of warm rabbit warren of a shop w/ twisting turns of hallways that lead to the back room where our group sits. The courses come with Italian timing, perfectly lazy with plenty of space in between for conversation and more wine. We are chummy, Austin, there together in that space. The dishes are large, family style; it suits us perfectly. Each of us makes a plate for the other. We feed each other in this way, course after course. Though our service skills are sharp it is our love that really makes this happen. We are all so happy to be together in this way, sharing ourselves and our meal.
Nano gives the final speech of the trip, raising his glass to the group. He breaks down “enjoy” linguistically and gets to the thesis that it really means BRINGING JOY. As he looks around the room, from cook to host, from host to waiter, from waiter to concierge, from concierge to manager, from manager to owner, he sees that unifying trait: each brings joy wherever they go, like the tiny tinder Prometheus stole from the bottom of Vesuvius when Zeus wasn’t looking. I am surrounded, dear Austin, by this gang of lovers, this team of caretakers. We raise our glasses to the work we’ve done in the past. We raise our glasses to the work we will do in the future. We raise a final toast to you, Austin. We are ready to come home.
We landed at JFK tired, a little confused, and hungry. We were right on track following the steps of the Italian immigrant history of pizza, here in old New York City. It’s 28 of us, Austin. Some of us have gone every year for the last six; some of us have never been to New York before at all. Some of us worked until about three hours before the plane took off @7:00 AM yesterday. Some were too nervous too sleep. All of us, dear Austin, came here on our pilgrimage w/ a piece of Austin in our hearts. It is the graffiti we leave behind here in this concrete canyon, here is this tall city w/ small strips of sky. We come like the immigrants before us, with our native Texas soil in the crease of our shoes, to New York so that we can learn more than we know, test what we believe, and, unlike the immigrants, to return home to the soft and rolling hills, the clear and wide sky, the sweet and cool rivers and greenbelt, of the City that is our home, the place where our ovens burn.
We went straight to L&B Spumoni, in Gravesend, Brooklyn, just spitting distance from Bensonhurst. It is an aging Italian community and there, for 63 years, is this pizza shop: L&B. It has a wall of ovens, 3 triple stacks in a row, w/ a fourth in the corner, a pounding table between it and the long line of shiny, metal deck ovens. Out front there is a large patio, lined w/ long rows of bench tables. The locals outnumber the tourists 2:1, and tourists arrive in busses for the famous Sicilian Square pie. The accents are amazing, Austin. They are sharp, and lyrical, and hard nosed. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about “Dis Guy” or “Dat Guy”. Everyone was advising the other: “fuggehdaboutit”. We could not fugghedabout their pie, their famous Sicilian. Its lift is something else, Austin – like pound cake. The sauce is sweet, not quite like cake icing but somehow not quite not like cake icing. The pizza men carried pie after pie out of their kitchens into the patio, to the waiting groups of families, and strangers who had become friends. I can’t lie, I think our Sicilian is different – crisper, lighter, less saucy, but saucier in attitude. Confident and sexy. Just like you, Austin.
We later went to Lucali, in Carroll Gardens. This little shop is just over seven years old (remind you of any other pizza shops you might know?). The owner and pizza maker, Mark Ionoco, is a neighborhood guy who made good and took over a failing candy store and converted it into a shop which is, in its own way, an homage to Dom DiMarco @ DiFara’s Pizza. Mark is cooking in a 900° wood fired oven. He hangs his kitchen mandolin on the parmesan grinder mounted on the corner of the thick marble slab where he hunches and stretches his dough. His pies cook in just under three minutes, with minimalist but bona fide ingredients. Oh, Austin, I wish you could meet Mark. We’re trying to convince him to come visit. He’s dying to do so. He’s heard so much about you. Mark opened his shop to us, and talked pizza w/ us. He was kind of stunned at what we knew, and that there were so many of us. It is simply him and an apprentice, in his shop, with three very, very pretty women working the front of house and lavishing us w/ hospitality. We shook hands when we left, pleased to meet a brother in arms, and friend in a strange place.
Today we took pizzas from Ben’s, pizzas from Prince Street Pizza, Italian, Meatball, and Eggplant subs from Faccio’s (est. 1932) and carried the entire picnic across the island of Manhattan to the piers on the West Side, with the beautiful Statue of Liberty directly South of us, and New Jersey to the West. We stared West, past that industrial skyline, and knew you were past that horizon, Austin. We ate slices, sharing bites. We fed each other sandwiches, careful of the messy and downright sexy marinara sauce on the meatball and eggplant parms. Their Italian Assorted was brilliant in the contrast of the spices in the cured Italian meats, and the zing of the vinegar dressing the lettuce and tomatoes. The picked peppers are an amazing touch. The bread, so soft and deep in texture and flavor, is dusty w/ flour, and split up the side like a taco.
There are no Breakfast Tacos here, Austin. It is hard to believe. It’s most hard to believe in the morning, when you really want a taco.
We leave in a couple of hours for Staten Island, to Denino’s Pizzeria. It’s a home grown, family shop now run by ex-fireman Mike. Mike’s great grandfather John (American born and Sicilian Immigrant’s son) opened the shop in 1937Mike also has a room full of ovens, like L&B, satisfying the community that grew up eating that pie for special occasions of celebration, or simple occasions of families joining for food. Their pie is special, Austin. Crisp and perfectly cooked. Served w/ a kind of Staten Island sass that warms your heart, and tickles your ribs.
We are two days in, Austin, w/ two more to go. There is so much to see, so much to try to learn. So many great cooks and pizza makers. And, I have to tell the truth: the people here are really, really nice. New York has been kind and loving to us.
But we look forward to coming home, Austin. To be with you, day and night. To feed you the pie we make with love, in the town that is our home. We are immigrants no more, Austin. And in two days, we will be home.
Homies, that time of year has come again! In just a few short days, your favorite Pizza Dudes will be taking the flight to the Home Land in pursuit of the greatest pizza on earth! You know deep down that you are curious what we’ll be up to, and the good news is that the itinerary is right here (NYC Schedule) waiting for you! We’ll be hitting up some old faithfuls, as well as grabbing some grub at a new place or two. Stay tuned for more details and a trip wrap-up in the coming weeks, this year promises to be an awesome trip!
The Big Apple has been New York City’s nickname since the early 1900s and officially since the 60s. But with pizza seemingly on every block of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, The Big Slice might be more fitting. For a city that is richly flavored by each immigrant community’s authentic and diverse cooking, Italian food, most notably pizza, has become synonymous with New York food culture. New York City is the undisputed hometown of pizza. And the staff of Home Slice is headed back for the fourth year running for a pizza-centric trip to slice joints and other bona fide eateries for education, enjoyment and a fresh dose of street cred. The trip will run from Labor Day, September 6th to Friday the 10th. Home Slice, the original, dine-in location at 1415 S. Congress will be closed Monday, September 6th through Thursday the 9th, open regular hours on Friday the 10th. More Home Slice, next door, at 1421 S. Congress will be open throughout, open one hour later Sunday, September 5th until 11 pm.
This year, 28 Home Slicers (our largest group yet) will make the trip hitting some classic and up-and-coming restaurants all around the city’s motley neighborhoods. Thanks to all our fans, friends, and readers for their awesome suggestions on places we should check out. You guys definitely know pizza! In fact, throughout the years, we’ve been to quite a few of the places you guys have mentioned including Grimaldi’s, Patsy’s, and Roberta’s. Great suggestions outside of the city, too. If we could find a way to get the whole group to New Haven, CT in a timely manner, we would be eating a clam pie there to be sure.
This year we will start off by a trip to the historic Brooklyn staple, L & B Spumoni Gardens for a wicked Sicilian slice and homemade spumoni. Then we head to the Coney Island boardwalk for a stroll by amusements and hot dogs at the foot of the Atlantic Ocean. That evening, as is our tradition, we will converge in the last stronghold of Little Italy for coal fired pizza at NYC’s first official pizzeria, Lombardi’s. Lombardi’s has been in business since 1905 and is still as rocking and delicious as ever.
Tuesday, we will first hit up Torrisi’s, a deli and Italian specialties shop that serves only domestically made Italian-American fare. No typical deli, this place is run by two up-and-coming chefs and has an almost cult following. There is often a 2+ hour wait for dinner. Then we head uptown to the original Shake Shack location for, burgers, shakes and fries in Madison Square Park. Shake Shack has take out service and quality down to a science, and is a must see for all our More employees. Although this trip is not mandatory to our staff members who went last year, I’m willing to bet most everyone makes the trip for another taste of the ingenious Shack Stack, a burger stacked with a fried, stuffed portabello mushroom. Dinner will be over the bridge in Brooklyn at Motorino, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria opened in 2008 that comes highly recommended. Considering the rave reviews, and the popularity of Kesté, another Neapolitan-style pizzeria, amongst last year’s staff, we are very excited to try Motorino’s fare.
Wednesday we have our city-wide scavenger hunt, where each team is sent to a historic Italian neighborhood in one of the five boroughs to learn about it’s unique history. At dinner, each team reports on their neighborhood and the best presentation wins. For dinner, we will head back to Brooklyn to Queen, a restaurant founded in 1958 and still run by the Vitiello family serving classic Italian fare. Pasquino and Vincent Vitiello, sons of founder Anthony, are chefs and co-owners.
Thursday we are thrilled to make the trip way out there in Brooklyn to DiFara. Arguably the best NY-style pizza in the city. Owner Domenico De Marco has been artfully preparing pizzas, one at a time, since the 50s. Hours are unreliable, the atmosphere is cramped and chaotic, with no discernible line and people eyeing the few seats like lions to lambs. What is not unreliable is the incredible pizza. And what is AMAZINGLY INCREDIBLE is that our kitchen manager, Phil, wrote a letter to De Marco’s daughter that began correspondence that would lead to us getting a private hour in DiFara with De Marco! Lastly, we head to Totonnos in Coney Island, the oldest pizzeria continuously run by the same family since 1924.
And there you have it, in a nutshell. We look forward to seeing you all in Austin again, refreshed and inspired with our love of pizza.
Well well well it’s nearly Labor Day again, which means it is nearly time for the Home Slice crew to invade NYC. For the forth year in a row, our crew will be heading North to taste the best pizza the city has to offer.
This year for the first time, we’re asking for our customers, fans, friends, and followers to tell us which places we can’t miss. We invite you to leave a comment here, on our Facebook page, or scribble something down on a cocktail napkin and hand it to our of our crew.
The trip, which will include 28 members of the Home Slice team, will feature visits to legendary NY pizzerias Lombardi’s and DiFara’s, among others. In addition to group meals, the staff breaks off into small groups on a kind of cultural scavenger hunt where they have to visit authentic Italian or historically Italian neighborhoods scattered throughout the city, mingle with locals, locate interesting businesses, and then make a group presentation of their findings.
We’ll be closing down on the original spot on Labor Day, Sept 6, and re-opening Friday September 10th. More Home Slice will remain open throughout the entire week!
During our trip to NYC, we had people go in teams of three to get to know some legendary neighborhoods around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Phil, Shauna, and Shane went to Bensonhurst and this is what Phil, so poetically, had to say about it.
The Verrazano Bridge kisses the forehead of Bensonhurst, teasing it. It spans the narrows and connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. The Verrazano is the Italian cousin of the French broad in the harbor with the torch. Bensonhurst sits in her shadow like the neighborhood boy who never left the neighborhood; nice but not too wise.
We had met in front of the hotel, clandestine as a European Novel: The Cook, The Waitress, and The Bartender. It is mid-morning and the walk down to the Delancy Station is quick in the current of the Lower East Side. She’s from Upstate; but no stranger to the city. He’s from Chicago and can move at a city’s pace. I am not yet in Brooklyn; but I will be soon. I walk fast.
The F train comes out from under the river into the sunlight of a morning. It’s elevated this far out in Brooklyn where the graffiti tags are worn and faded. This is not my neighborhood, not my Brooklyn. It is as odd as going to your friend’s elementary school. Everything is distinctly familiar but oddly out of place. The proud brownstones are pockmarked, whitewashed, two story brick houses standing shoulder to shoulder as we cross Ditmas Avenue, where Marco works at DiFara’s Pizza. The shop is on the corner, down the street from the Ukrainian Social Club, and Marco’s granddaughter darts and around and tends to the old man. Normally, I would get off the train to stand in his shop, lean on his green linoleum counter, next to the humming coke box, and watch him. We are pizza people, the Waitress, the Bartender, and myself, and for me Marco is the Dali Lama. His dough is crisp and perfect; the edge is crimped in because of the shallowness of his Baker’s Pride Oven. He cuts bouquets of basil with safety scissors. None of his moves are sudden; each one is measured. The dough on the back, marble topped table visibly responds to the life in his broad hands, his flour speckled forearms. The old man lays it on the wooden peel and absentmindedly picks around its side as if he were straightening the corners of his bed. Only for a moment. His ladle move was fast; his sauce bright red. He was deliberate with the large pieces of fresh mozzarella. With each piece of cheese the intensity and speed increased. His pizza is perfect harmony. I see the shop from the window of the moving train as we went deeper into Brooklyn, into Bensonhurst.
We pick the stop at Avenue N because it’s closest to a legit Italian Market. It’s been there for sixty years, and the son of the original owner took over the day they started construction of the Verrazano Bridge. His daughter, in her thirties, was behind the counter when we walked in. Her cheeks were rosy from standing behind the store’s line of cold display cases. Her hair was tucked into a Yankees ball cap. She wore a yellow sweater under her white butcher’s coat.
“Can I help you?”
We are foreigners. We have come from Austin, TX to stand in the middle of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and Jane Goodall it to the best of our abilities.
The Waitress’ tableside manner is legendary. She and the Butcher’s Daughter greet each other with the secret language of immigrants’ children.
The shop has green, gallon, olive oil cans lining the wall. Ten pound cans of Tomatoes. Pastas. The checkered linoleum floor was scuff free. The Bartender moved carefully with a kind of reverence. Behind the wall of cold display, over the Butcher’s Daughter’s shoulder, worked an Abbot and Costello duo – table slicers whirling. They mutter to each other in Italian as they work in the stark white kitchen that dominated the shotgun grocery on Avenue N. The Waitress and the Butcher’s Daughter stand at the register, still clasping both hands together in a greeting minutes old.
There are two bowls with fresh mozzarella balls soaking in them. The mozzarella is the size of the Butcher’s Daughter’s fist.
“Yours?” I am respectful and awed in my question.
She shrugs and smiles at the same time.
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her, my eyes lingering on the salt brine bath. It is the Mediterranean, or at least a quart of it, and the mozzarella archipelagoes float buoyant as a school of whale. She reached in like Calypso and plucked out a ball. She turned her back to us only for a moment and gave each of us, and the young mother who had entered the shop, and was buying l/4# prosciutto, a thick wedge of still damp cheese. The wax paper was blotted with brine.
The salt on the cheese tasted like the ocean, like the sea, like a strong, old god and sea monsters. It tasted like the trip home from Troy, when Odysseus couldn’t find his ass with his elbow.
The body and the cream of the cheese was more like Persephone, whimsical in her femininity, sexy with her crush on Orcus. I looked up to see the Butcher’s Daughter smiling at me from under the brim of her cap. The little girl in the stroller gurgled happily around the mozzarella.
She had told us which train to take to get to sweet shop on 18th Avenue near Christoforo Columbo Boulevard. Alba. She told us it was a real neighborhood shop whereas her shop, well, its just place people might come. She smiled and blew a kiss to the little girl in the stroller as the Mother rolled her out into the neighborhood.
There was no one on the street for blocks. It was quiet in a way I had never before experienced in Brooklyn. There was no traffic, no commerce. There was no one. The three us walked past a rusty synagogue book ended by a Key Foods and a Nail Salon. Across the street, three blocks up, were a clutch of aqua-netted beauty school girls smoking, still wearing their protective black smocks. The Waitress began counting the number of people using walkers.
The Verrazano knuckled out into the skyline, a smooth arcing line against the decaying 1950s neighborhood grid. There were plenty of shops windows covered with brown paper from the inside, some covered with plywood from the outside. We walked past a bodega that advertised the world’s best coffee and Santeria on the same placard.
Everything looked far away but close on Avenue N. Manhattan cut across the landscape jagged like Arizona. In this part of Bensonhurst, it seemed like even Staten Island was too far away in the shadow of the bridge.
We stopped and went in to the bar.
LGM: Local Gin Mill. Old Man Bar.
The old man behind the bar has a white tuft of hair slicked back from his high forehead. He has Popeye forearms and a round belly. There are a couple of neighborhood guys sitting at the bar, sipping high-balls in 8oz glasses. It is dark except the light coming in from the street window. The arcade game faces away from the bar, back in the corner, and the guy sitting on a stool, feeding it quarters, is kicking its ass. The barman is in his mid 50’s probably went to elementary school with the four regulars: the two guys at the bar watching TV., the guy playing the arcade game, and crazy Tommy going in between the two, unable to keep still.
We order Bloody Marys.
The Barman and the Bartender exchange greeting much like the Waitress and the Butcher’s Daughter.
“You want it spicy?”
The Waitress flutters her eyelashes from behind her eyeglasses. “I’ve always like it spicy,”
The three of them share the best kind of laugh: the laugh that is had at a bar at noon, when you drink the last Bloody Mary of the morning. Frankie, the barman, handles the ice with delicate respect as he bare hands the cubes individually into the squat glasses. I walk into the back courtyard and call in a cheese delivery.
The yard is as wide as a family room, deep enough for ping pong or air hockey. The building across the astro-turfed rectangle had some kind of vine trellising up its surrounding chair link fence. There are white metal chairs lining the side of the yard. There are potted plants and end tables with little beanbag ashtrays. The bar is under two stories of someone’s home. Or two families, at least. And kids. There was a big wheel. The clothesline was empty.
I call in the cheese order like a hit. I call into the shop and talk haltingly in foxhole Spanish with the Guatemalan King of Prep. I realize quickly that I am in the backyard of the tenants, the people who live above the bar, the family on the block. I ended the call as quickly as I could. I straighten the chair I was sitting on and try to leave their backyard pristine.
A regular, crazy Tommy, is chatting up the Bartender and the Waitress. Frankie, the barman, is talking to one of the guys at the bar, their conversation full of low tones.
The Bloody Mary is strong. The mix is good, though missing horseradish. There is a good bite of black pepper and the Tabasco is not out of control. Frankie rests his knuckles on the bar and asks us where we’ve been so far and smiles when we talk about the Butcher’s Daughter. It’s obvious from his reaction that she is a neighborhood girl, and he’s known her since she was this high. All the guys in the dark bar smile in the same way. They all know her from back when. It is that kind of neighborhood, and that kind of bar.
A younger guy, in his late forties, walks in off the street and takes a seat at the elbow of the bar.
“Mike, where you been?” Frankie is already mixing Mike’s drink before the question is out of his mouth, before Mike’s ass has hit the stool.
Mike says he’s been at the hospital. Frankie’s tone changes immediately. His voice lowers and he asks with real concern, “How’s your Mother doing?” Frankie gets even closer to Mike as he serves the drink, and knocks the bar twice with his ham fist for good luck. Mike is being stoic and Frankie appreciates it; Frankie reaches across the bar and squeezes Mike’s shoulder.
We finish our drinks and walk back out into the neighborhood at half past noon, sunlight only beginning to breakthrough the overcast day. The three of us walk back down the Avenue, past the hamburger stands and barber shops, to the train station.
The vegetation has claimed the brick sides of the elevated station. There are a few clumps of people on the platform waiting to head into the city and no one on the other side, waiting to go deeper into Brooklyn. We ride two stops, the length of the neighborhood, and get out two blocks from where Gotti used to walk the neighborhood in his bathrobe, hoping to play the insanity card in the upcoming trial.
The little courtyards in front of the small multi-family housing have small porcelain statuettes of saints and virgin mothers under Italian and American flags. A rabbi stops to observe as we ask directions from a neighborhood guy, sitting on the stoop, pie-eyed. Slurringly, the neighborhood guy is helpful and kind. He points us in the right direction and we begin walking past more housing to 18th Avenue.
18th Avenue has Italian flags arcing its breadth, the length of the avenue, as far as I can see. There are Italian social clubs and Kentucky Fried Chickens. Societa Figli di Ragusa & Dunkin’Donuts. There are more people on 18th than there were on Avenue N. There are families and children and old people and a few hipster Manhattan exiles. We walk down the Avenue towards the sweet shop.
The sign hanging over the doorway is small, with light blue cursive print. “Alba” is all it says. The mosaic on the vestibule floor has a world map. Only New York and Sicily are colored in. The window facing the street is wall to wall, floor to ceiling, packed with pastries and cakes.
The chocolate is dark and the iced, layered cakes shined in a way that Lou Reed might appreciate. The powdered sugar seems to have fallen like a Bolivian snow. The white crème icing is the color of a negligee.
The shop has a high ceiling and a counter that goes all the way around the large space. Large enough for a six by six obelisk of scones and biscotti in its center.
Four women wove back and forth, from one side to the other, bagging sweet things as they passed, a flutter of wax paper. The oldest and most matronly of the four, a solid chess piece of a woman, stood next to the cappuccino machine, on the North wall, behind the raised marble barista counter. The couple at the counter is sipping espressos in paper cups, waiting for their lemon ricotta cake to be boxed. It is Wednesday afternoon, after all; this is when they come for the lemon ricotta cake. The ricotta comes from Sicily.
“Signorina, Signorina” the youngest of them
calls after the mother hen.
The Mother Hen moves fast, at a clip, around the horn of the counter to the register. The young girl, with dark mascara and Sophia Lauren lips, had maybe made a mistake.
“Volete una sola?” She clearly believes I am on the verge of making a mistake. I order three cannoli instead of one. The couple with the espressos nod approvingly.
The Matron at the cappuccino machine makes my cappuccino while continuing her conversation, in Italian, with the lemon cake couple in their porkpie hat and bouffant hair. She has a satisfied flick of her wrist when the espresso piece takes hold in its place. She flicks the kitchen towel from one shoulder to the other, unfolding her story, steaming my milk. Lemon Cake Couple laughs, as does the Matron, and I find myself smiling goofily, caught in the hilarity of the moment.
The young girl disappears into the back kitchen. Moving the way a daughter might when called out by her Mother in front of the entire neighborhood.
The Waitress and the Bartender find me at the barista counter, leaning the way I might have at DiFara’s, my elbow cool on the marble. The hum of Marco’s coke box has been replaced by the Matron. She sings to herself, the way my father used to, a clutch of loose opera phrasings.
The Mother Hen is sacking a large, round loaf for a par of neighborhood girls clearly running errands. I did not need to know Italian as the Mother Hen handed over the round to the young teens.
“Say hello to your Mother, alright?”
“Si, Signorina.” In unison. They’re twins, I realize.
“Mind your Mother, alright?”
We walk out to the corner with our coffees and cappuccinos, cannolis and some kind of dense sponge cake drowned in rum, in a tiny bread pan. The waitress held the small cake out of the pan, letting the shower of rum fall back in. The Bartender and I stood transfixed. The Waitress had seen this very dessert on a travel cooking show, just the last weekend, and now was going to eat it herself, on a Brooklyn street corner.
Maybe it is the street traffic, the gypsy cabs and metro busses. Maybe it is caffeine. Perhaps it is the lingering sound of Italian ebbing into the America of Brooklyn, but my heart raced as I watched the Waitress hold reality to imagination’s promise.
This is Bensonhurst, remember, an Italian Neighborhood in the shadow of an Italian Bridge. Their night sky ended on one side with the blue stars of the Verrazano, with the Southern most tip of Manhattan jagged in the far distance. This is the place where mafia dons ride out their exile. Sardina is never far away from Bensonhurst.
And so, of course, the thick rum cake moved the Waitress to tears, salty with appreciation, salty as Lot’s wife. The bartender and I ate cannoli, the cream of which was comforting, lingering, with enough body to move me, and seductive enough for me to want to me moved. The Bartender and I handled the cannoli like stogies, and stood on the corner like old men, and talked about how nice the weather was, and watched as the Waitress did the most Italian thing of all.
“You have got to try this. Now. You have to get this in you.”
The Bartender went first. The Waitress served him, of course. His knees buckled a little as he telepathically sang a love song to the Waitress.
I looked at Brooklyn all around me before she fed me, too. I looked at the second story rooftops, the forest of 20th century TV antennae. I listened to neighborhood guys sitting at fold out card tables in front of the Social Clubs. I could still taste the salt from the Mozzarella. The cappuccino foam was still in my moustache.
The drunken piece of cake was light and springy. Amazingly vibrant. Punch drunk, perhaps. The dark rum was strong. It was the drink of sailor’s and sailor’s sons, of generations of seafaring merchants, wayfaring homebodies.
The marriage of the two, of course, is the whole story. Either alone are towered damsels or drunken merchant marines. Together they are the thing of legend, of love stories. Together they expose the starfish left behind in the low tide. Together they chart the stars in the night sky. Together they are Penelope and Ulysses, who still have a two family building in Bensonhurst.
Shake Shack is located in Madison Square Park and serves burgers, dogs, shakes, and beers. The restaurant was conceived and developed by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. I know what you may be thinking. No, it’s not pizza nor is it Italian. The relevance of our visit comes on the eve of the launch of our 7 day a week (!) take out business.
Shake Shack is a simple concept. Burgers, fries, dogs and shakes. No frills. No big whoop, right? Yet people wait in line a minimum of 30 minutes, more commonly and hour, for what on paper sounds like run-of-the-mill fare. Oh, but don’t underestimate this place. Shake Shack is the perfect example of how doing something right, no matter how simple, is all you need to create fervent loyalty.
The line wraps through the park, but no one seems antsy. It’s the opposite of the DMV or a 6pm line at Whole Foods where you’re guaranteed to get yelled at by the multitasking, low blood sugar businessman behind you for taking 13 items in a 10 items or less line (true story). The spirit of the line, quite the opposite, was like that of an amusement park. You’re amped and giddy knowing that the result of waiting in line is pure joy. People were chatting and laughing under the shade of the trees, and most of the conversations I overheard were about the food. Wow.
I talked to a friend who lives in Brooklyn about our itinerary, as soon as I uttered the two little words, he flipped out and insisted that I order the Shack Stack. I eat a burger about once every three months, never at the same place, because one of my life’s missions is to find the perfect burger. The best part about this search it that the perfect burger needs the perfect moment. You have to be ready to receive the communion of The Perfect Burger. And oh, there is not just one perfect burger, there are so many out there ready to be discovered. And I know Texas’ unofficial state food is beef, but some of the best burgers I’ve had are in NYC. Freemans made my favorite burger of 2008. The Shack Stack, so far, is the front runner for 2009. I quite literally took a bite and felt compelled to flip off the entire world because the only thing that mattered in existence in that moment was that burger. I sh*t you not. That’s a perfect burger.
The Shack Stack is a beef patty that is a Shake Shack proprietary blend of beef hand formed daily by their butcher. You get the fixings you want, and on top of the beef patty is a fried portabello mushroom stuffed with cheddar and Muenster cheeses, all tucked into a perfectly griddled potato bun.
We sampled many things from the menu. The crinkle cut fries, shakes of all flavors, beer(including a beer created with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garret Oliver), concretes and frozen custards. Everything was absolutely wonderful and perfectly paired with all the other flavors. It was pure enjoyment injected with warm and fuzzies of childhood summer vacation outings to roadside burger joints.
There is something about the anticipation and delayed satisfaction that truly enhances the experience at the Shake Shack. If i could just walk up and get my fast food fast here, it wouldn’t be quite as exciting and rewarding of an experience. Dare I say? I dare! Better things come to those who wait.
Our ‘big dinner,’ as we like to refer to it, was at Pó in the cute and hopping Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. They cook beautiful Italian food from a variety of regions with seasonal ingredients. During the day, we had gone in teams of three, each team to an assigned neighborhood in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx to get to know the flavors, history, and people that defined it. Towards the second half of dinner, each group got up and shared their experience in their neighborhood. If Shauna waits on you, just ask her about the Babbo. She’s still raving about it.
I cannot begin to tell you how magical this dinner was. Really. There is an image of our special menu below for you to check out because it would take me all day to rave about each and every one of these dishes, and we all made sure to try everything. The dinner was paced perfectly. The service was absolutely impeccable. Through the meal, you couldn’t really distinguish who the owner from the food runner to the waiter in the sense that everyone was equally as warm, attentive, and accommodating.
Some of the appetizers we had that were not on our special menu were THE MOST AMAZING MEATBALLS IN SAUCE EVER; roasted beets with endive, sliced baby artichokes, watercress, and Taleggio crostino; and cured tuna with white beans, sliced artichokes, chili mint vinaigrette. We could barely bring ourselves to talk about anything but the food. The wine parings were also beautifully chosen. What I loved about all the food was that the ingredients sang in harmony. You could clearly pick out each flavor but they all worked in perfect balance.
For our first course, I ordered the orecchiette (a handmade pasta that translates to “little ears” and is native to Apulia) with broccoli rabe in a sweet sausage ragu. The slight sweetness of the sausage and the bitterness of the broccoli rabe did this wonderful dance in your mouth, like the tension between Paso Doble partners, the push and pull of wills that make such a dynamic performance. We were all passing plates around, making sure no one missed a flavor. While my lamb entrée was delectable, I must say that the cornish hen took the cake. Wow. The dessert that I loved was the custard topped with a blueberry sauce.
This dinner, I think I can say for most of us that have made this trip for three years, was our favorite. The food, the atmosphere, the incredible warmth and service of the staff. We kept that place open well passed close and no one made us feel rushed or unwelcome, in fact the kitchen staff ducked out the back door so we wouldn’t be disturbed or alerted to the fact that the place was closed. (such a far cry from Austin restaurants that won’t let you come in and dine 20 minutes before they close.)
It was our last dinner together and it was wonderful to share those three days together experiencing NYC in a way that even my friends(with money) who live there don’t get to and it was absolutely magical.
By the time we got to Roberta’s, we had sampled 20 different slices from 10 different pizzerias during Slices Roulette and had at least 5 different types of pizza at Kesté, and to be honest, we were fairly intimidated by the thought of eating again. The neighborhood, while I’m sure is absolutely bustling in the day time, had an eerie, abandoned feel. From the outside, Roberta’s has a nondescript cinderblock facade with a small, handmade sign. But, we walked into Roberta’s and immediately relaxed. The place felt like home. To the right of the door is a wall of chopped wood supported by metal pipes. To the left of the door is the open kitchen, wood stove open to view with a handful of smiling, adorable boys making pizza. (we were wondering if they enforced a mustache policy because they all had one) They serve wine in small, jelly-sized Ball jars, they have a rooftop tomato garden, a little radio studio where they podcast from, and a patio the size of the restaurant where one side is covered and cozy and the other side has picnic tables and a fence lined with vintage bikes. I don’t know if the bikes were decoration or not, but they fit right in to the eclectic, casual feel of Roberta’s. The place is really cool, and not in a pretentious way.
We started out with Prosecco and pitchers of locally brewed beer. Antipasti included a baby arugula salad, delicious mixed olives, meat and cheese plates that were out of this world. I’m not an aficionado, but I love cheese almost as much as my mom (and my mom is wicked rad) and there was this Brie or very Brie-esque cheese that was the loveliest, creamiest thing. I actually snapped at someone trying to pass the plate on while I had my knife in the cheese. I was kinda mean. But it’s not my fault! The cheese made me do it. The second course was pastas. The braised lamb ragu pappardelle was fricking amazing. The meat was tender and full of flavor and the pappardelle seemed to me to be homemade and cooked to perfection. Definitely my favorite dish. Not to undersell the pizza, but I was a little pizzaed out at that point (I know I know, but I’m only one human). The pizza was delicious. They have really incredible topping choices including caper, smoked mozzarella, two types of prosciutto, and Berkshire pork sausage?! Yum. We were pretty tickled when a pizza came out with chorizo, radish, cilantro and sour cream. We were like, “OMG, we can’t escape Mexican food!” Not that we would ever want to, but you have to mix it up. It was pretty damn good, I have to concede, even though I’m more of a pizza purist.
The pizza chefs let our kitchen manager and magician behind our desserts, Phil, get back there and freaking make pizzas with them. How awesome is that? If you are ever there, chat them up, they are all sweet and open to talk about whatever. Pizza. Life.
What I can surely say about Roberta’s is that out of all of the wonderful places we went, and I would and will go back to all of them, this is the place I’m going to take my friends for no special occasion to have a delicious meal, enjoy each others company, wander in twos out to the patio to listen to some music, and chat with the guy who made my pizza and find out his mom is sending him chiles from her garden for the next special pizza(Alfonso, you rock!), like it’s my house but way, way cooler!
A scant 2 hours after Slices Roulette, we arrived at Kesté Pizza & Vino, open for only 5 months, on Bleeker in the West Village. We were welcomed by the co-owner and chef, Roberto Caporuscio, who started us off with a brief history of Neapolitan pizza and his philosophy behind his pizza. Of course, it is all about the crust. Well crust, simplicity, and freshness.
Kesté, meaning “this is it” in Italian, serves authentic Neapolitan pizza. In fact, if you want to get the best in Neapolitan pizza, this is IT. Roberto is President of APN (Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, which maintains strict member guidelines for ingredients, dough, and cooking). He’s like the Wizard of Oz of Neapolitan pizza.
Kesté was by far, leaps and bounds and kangaroo jumps, some of the best pizza we as a collective group have ever put in our mouths. We were served much more food than we ordered, and despite being stuffed to the gills, we kept eating because it was all so amazing. We started with a salad of mixed greens, walnuts, pears, with a simple dressing of lemon and olive oil. Then the pizzas started flying out.
Pizza, loose as a term compared to today’s pizza, was invented in Naples centuries ago. Tomatoes had been introduced to Italy then, but in pizza’s early days, people still thought they were poisonous. So, one of the first versions of pizza, was flatbread with lard and herbs. When we heard they served a lard pizza we were super excited to try it. Something that, by it’s description, did not exactly sound appetizing to many of us. I need a new word for amazing, really. The crust was at once charred and soft as a pillow, the lard was salty and crispy around the edges and the basil was a refreshing counterpart to the fatty saltiness. The Margherita was awesome, super simple and divine. The special of the day was a pizza with a truffle cream spread. That piece of pizza, it wasn’t food, there is something too utilitarian implied in using the word food. It was straight pleasure. We had many pizzas, all delicious, but the last pizza that really made a huge impression on me was a pizza that out of the oven was topped with arugula, prosciutto, and shaved percorino romano. If you live in New York, or can afford to drop everything and get on a plane, go here. Go here now.
And you know, in researching Kesté, I read a lot of bum reviews. We all know that people like to complain. It makes them sound smart. But most of the bad reviews were from people that I don’t think really know what Neapolitan pizza truly is. For those people, I have a story.
Nano, our general manager, and his brothers growing up were not allowed to say things like “eeewww, that’s weird,” or “Yuk! That’s gross.” They had to instead say, “That is not what I am used to.” And it very subtly changed their perspective, and left their minds open to eventually become used to the “weird” European food and such their parents were introducing them to. So, for those people who poo poo this pizza, are you really going to tell the President of Pizza that he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I challenge you, instead of trying to retro-fit this pizza to what you are accustomed to, look at it with fresh eyes and taste buds. The only way you would be disappointed is if you burn your tongue on an iron while getting ready. But you wouldn’t do that, I know you wouldn’t.