Friday, September 30, 2011

No Credit Card, No Problem: Downtown Italian

If you are looking to find where the locals go to eat Italian food in Manhattan, leave the credit cards behind and head downtown. Some of the best homemade Italian in New York will not take your Amex, even if it’s black. But no need to max out your withdrawal at the ATM, these neighborhood spots are so friendly on the wallet you could almost pay for dinner with the change hiding in the couch cushions.

Malatesta Trattoria: The servers at Malatesta in the West Village may occasionally have a hard time with English, but at least their Italian-heavy accents indicate you are in for the real deal. Open late, the restaurant often takes names for half hour waits long past 10pm on the weekends. But once you get a table, preferably outdoors on a nice night, rewards come quickly in the form of speedy service and bargain house wine by the carafe. Pastas are mostly homemade; tagliatelle comes in a solid rendition of Bolognese while cheese ravioli appears slicked with a sheen of pink sauce. For such an authentically Italian crew the food leans more toward Italian-American but that is no insult- whatever the provenance the food is good and worth the wait.

Bianca: Bianca has long been my personal go-to for deliciously inexpensive Italian food, specifically the kind heavy on the cheeses and cured meats for which the Emilia-Romanga province is famous. The lasagna is unparalleled in the city: paper thin sheets of homemade pasta are stacked layer upon fine layer with a mortar of meat sauce and béchamel sealing together the towering stack. Bianca does fine work with seafood as well, whether in their simply grilled fish of the day or in the frutti di mare tagliatelle: a pile of homemade noodles studded with mussels, clams, squid, and shrimp with just a bit of tomato and white wine to hold the dish together. Like Malatesta, cash is king and waits can be long, but at least here you can head next door for a glass of wine or two at Von and George, possibly the city’s friendliest maître d’, will come get you when a table becomes available. Oh, and in a city that sways with the ups and downs of the market, Bianca is a fortress of homemade food seemingly built to withstand any storm- its prices have not changed since the doors opened eight years ago.

Frank Restaurant: A haven for East Village hipsters, Frank is the kind of place to dig into solid Italian-American fare and not care for one instant from which province each pasta hails. Uncle Tony’s Handmade Gnocchi are a favorite, soft and pillowy with a deeply flavored red sauce. Tagliata Toscana- skirt steak Italian style, marinated, grilled, and thinly sliced- is nicely charred on the outside and still pink on the inside. Best of all is the Frank “pay by consumption” program. Frank is willing to open any bottle on their extensive list and the guest in turn is free to drink as much or as little as he or she pleases. When dinner is done, the server will measure the amount consumed and charge accordingly. This works out well for couples who don’t want to drink a whole bottle, or groups who’d like to sample a few difference wines of the quality one would get ordering by the bottles but without having to commit to more than a glass, or even half a glass, at a time.

In the case of these downtown favorites, no credit card is no problem. The food is so cheap and cheerful that you might start wishing more restaurants went cash only. You might just get used to leaving the plastic behind.

Malatesta Trattoria, 649 Washington St., New York, NY 10014

Bianca, 5 Bleecker St. #1, New York, NY 10012

Frank Restaurant, 88 Second Ave, New York, NY 10003

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bar Food: Weirdly Good and Just Weird

There has been a trend lately toward restaurants elevating the sort of food one would eat only when high or drunk to something of an art form. In Los Angeles the restaurant Animal is making fancy poutine (fries covered in gravy and cheese) and pork rinds grace bar tops from Publican’s spicy version in Chicago to Maialino’s in New York, served with a tangy vinegar dipping sauce.

With all the high-end places venturing into lowbrow food, it is no wonder that certain restaurants known more for their happy hour than haute cuisine are trying to up the ante when it comes to booze friendly snacks. Some of these creations are minor revelations, others are just weird and should go back to the hazy high from whence they came.

Among the more interesting ideas comes the novel use of wonton wrappers. Nine, a minor figure on the Hell’s Kitchen drinking and dining scene in New York, scores points for its “Buffalo” Chicken Dumplings- the lovechild of Buffalo wings and fried dumplings. Wonton wrappers are filled with a traditional mix of ground chicken and spices then skewered on a popsicle stick before hitting the deep fryer. The resulting crispy impaled dumplings are drizzled in tangy sauce hot sauce and a thinned out ranch dressing. The result is a happy marriage of east-west snack food.

In other creative-use-of-wonton-wrapper news, The New York Times reported this week on the men behind Torrisi Italian Specialties serving up Chinese Nachos at their San Gennaro Festival stand in New York City. These fried wonton nachos come drizzled in duck sauce and hot mustard. Ligaya Mishan reports that “Nothing but mustard registers.” Maybe so but I like the idea. Perhaps for the full on restaurant version they could try covering the fried wontons in shredded duck confit and duck sauce, easy on the mustard. That’s a crazy upscale bar food idea I could get behind.

Finally, in ideas that should never have been, at PBR Bar and Grill in Las Vegas trailer park favorites like corn dogs and fried pickles can be had with a side of Fire Cracker Cole Slaw. Coleslaw is hard enough to get right in its most simple form, too often degrading into a tasteless pile of soggy shredded cabbage drowning in mayonnaise. PBR decided to take a bad thing and make it worse by topping the already terrible rendition of this cabbage salad with Pop Rocks, those neon colored candies that sizzle and pop when they come in contact with liquid e.g. one’s mouth or the soppy coleslaw. The effect this offensive side salad elicits cannot be underestimated- even after pushing the slaw as far away from me as I lost my appetite for everything else on the table as the Pop Rocks continued to snap, crackle and pop in a chorus of talking food.

Call it fancy stoner food or simply the next phase in scaling up comfort food, but I think pork rinds with $18 glasses of Bordeaux are probably here to stay. As for those bars who used to think fried bar snacks were their exclusive domain, I fully support creative explorations in the use of wonton wrappers. But when a gimmick, like Pop Rock covered coleslaw, is disgusting then it is just that, a gimmick, and no amount of Jagermeister is going to make that taste good.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bagging the Burger: The Spotted Pig

Ever wondered how to satisfy the hankering for the über decadent, legendary burger at The Spotted Pig without the 90-minute wait? You are not alone. On a recent packed Thursday evening this West Village Manhattan gastropub seemed as happening as it did seven years ago when it first opened breaking Village rules with its decadent no-substitutions food and no-reservation policy. The curious flocked for the sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi and Devils on Horseback. The regulars appear to keep coming back, and judging by my prime seat by the kitchen one recent evening, what they’re mostly coming back for is the burger.

This is not any ordinary fast food burger. The burger at The Spotted Pig is a good 1.5 inches of rich, fatty ground chuck topped with Roquefort and placed a pillowy bun. No mayonnaise, no mustard, no ketchup. Just meat, cheese and bun.

My waitress that evening confirmed that on any given night 75% of the orders are for the Spotted Pig burger. This seems an astronomical number even in a country as burger-obsessed as the United States.

With so many people clamoring for a taste of this high end patty of ground beef, what tips could our friendly waitress give for a local who wanted in on the beefy party without such a painfully long wait? I got the scoop.

1. Eat at the bar. Tables might take 60-90 minutes on a regular night. However bar seats are on a first-come first-serve basis and the whole menu is available if you happen to snag an empty stool. (This is hardly as secret as the host tells this to everyone who walks in the door but it is worth remembering.) Just come prepared with sharp elbows to work your way up to a stool through the Wall Street suits.

2. Get your order in, stat! On occasion, the burgers do sell out. But if you are having a drink at the bar you can actually reserve your burger, saving the coveted sandwich for when your seat finally becomes available.

3. Hold the Fries. This is a painful sacrifice, I know, but according to our waitress if the burger is taking a long time it is usually because there is a hold up at the fryer for the crispy nests of shoestring fries that accompany each burger. Spare yourself the calories for a night and order the burger solo- you will probably be satisfying that craving a lot sooner.

4. Make Monday Burger Night. While the more socially conscious are practicing Meatless Mondays, consider doing the exact opposite and indulge in your carnivorous side. Like many restaurants, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are the slowest nights at The Spotted Pig. But even then, expect a little wait unless you don’t mind starting dinner after 10 pm.

5. Come for lunch. You could make like the models of nearby Meatpacking District and eat cigarettes for lunch, or you could walk south to The Spotted Pig for a pleasantly quiet mid day meatfest. But if you plan on ordering the burger, you might also want to slot in a post-prandial siesta. Meat that rich will put you into a coma faster than Ambien.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dining Dilemma: Starving Artist in Los Angeles

Hi Amy! I'm from LA; my parents live in Encino. I'm going home for Labor Day and taking a friend’s brother out for dinner. He just moved to the LA area, is a starving artist, and is living in Korea Town. I love Korean Town and all of the amazing restaurants there, but I'm worried that Joe doesn't have the most adventurous palate. I'm looking for a restaurant that's in the downtown, West Hollywood or Santa Monica areas, that is delicious and doesn't have too aggressive a menu, so Joe doesn't feel uncomfortable. :) But I love good food, never get to go out in LA, and want to go somewhere memorable!

I don't have a specific price range, but probably don't want to go above $100 for the two of us.

If you have any recommendations, please pass them along! Thanks!!


Hi Rose!

Sounds like fun. Always nice to treat the starving artists. Some thoughts:

Lazy Ox Canteen: Eclectic, not too expensive with an interesting always changing menu. You could order weird stuff and Joe could certainly find more standard fare.

The Spice Table: Singaporean/vietnamese newcomer with a great interpretation of street food.

Mercantile: Part of an expanding group but each restaurant has its own identity. Great sandwiches and bistro fare. Cool but not expensive. Outside of the main craziness of Hollywood.

Pizzeria Mozza
: This is a favorite. Best pizza in LA. Sitting at the pizza bar is most fun and you don't need a reservation. Best if you go at an off time like late afternoon or for a late dinner. You can try getting a reservation for a table if the pizza bar is not your thing.

Santa Monica
Blue Plate Oysterette: If you both like fish, this is a great spot. Everything from fish tacos to catch of the day. On ocean blvd so good spot to be as the sun is going down.

The Yard: It is more of a bar with food but the food is very good. Chef is CJ of Top Chef fame. He’s doing delicious justice to bar foods ranging from sliders to mac n’cheese.

Rustic Canyon: Farm to table with a big influence from the nearby farmer’s market. Not much more to say than that I really like this place. Only downside is that the seasonal menu is not very big. Might be a problem for picky eaters.

Let me know where you end up!


Hi Amy! My stay in LA is coming to an end so I wanted to tell you about the restaurants I've enjoyed while here. I went to THREE of the restaurants you recommended. I caught up with one friend at Rustic Canyon; we shared fried cauliflower, sardines with an eggplant sauce, figs and burrata, and polenta with a sunny side up egg. I took my parents to Blue Plate Oysterette while we were wandering around the promenade. I had fish tacos, and tried a peruvian ceviche with yellowtail and the ahi sandwich. Yesterday, I had dinner with Joe at Pizzeria Mozza. It was so delicious! We split white bean bruschetta and goat cheese with lentils, and I had some kind of garlicky goat cheese pizza with leeks. I've never eaten so well in LA! My parents have been going to the same sushi restaurant in the valley for 20 years!

Thanks so much for the delicious recommendations! I'm definitely keeping your list, and look forward to trying the rest of the restaurants when I'm back later this year.


Awesome to hear Rose! Yes, glad to hear you discovered there are lots of delicious places to eat in LA beyond sushi in the valley... though sushi in the valley is never a bad option!


Do you have a Dining Dilemma in a city you are traveling to? Send me a mail and I'll send over some ideas for delicious dining.