#15/52: Pasta Prep at Centro Vinoteca

Summer is officially over.

Summertime – a season truly carefree in character – has ended.

The 90 degree days have faded fast and I have started to feel those fall winds begin to blow. My strappy sandals are quickly replaced by my newly bought boots. Gone are the days of sweltering city walks, dips in my parents pool and trips to the beach – both Long and Brighton.

As the mercury hits the high 50’s for the first time, I turn off my overworked air conditioner and open the window by my bedside, allowing the cool courtyard breeze to enter.  I look longingly at my unused fireplace and survey my cabinets for soups, stews – and pastas too. With fettucini in my future, saying goodbye to Summer is suddenly less stressful.

Pasta – the ultimate Italian comfort food – has found its way into my Fall fantasies. But my kitchen survey reveals sad results: one half-full, half-eaten box of De Cecco brand Rigatoni no. 24. My pantry is paltry. My dried, boxed, decade-old pasta leaves me disappointed.

In my quest for perfect pasta, I spent last Thursday learning the art of making and molding fresh pasta at Centro Vinoteca.

It is Noon on Thursday and as I stand on the stoop of my Cornelia Street apartment I can hear the church chimes beckon me towards my next assignment. As the first fall breeze blows, I quickly cross over the cold and congested 7th Avenue to the calm and quiet streets on the other side. Our Lady Of Pompei rings her last bell, and just in time, I arrive at the sleek and stylish restaurant at 74 7th Avenue South.

The alluring entryway - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I round the red brick corner and arrive at the open doorway – the cool, calm, strikingly clean interior draws me inside. The inventively shaped corner building and movie theatre marquis above the front door inform me that I am in store for a show unlike any other. Centro is stylish, swanky and smooth – as are the two brothers at its helm – Enver and Rizo.

Bar stools begging for attention - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Liquid eye candy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Everything is bright and white as the light floods in through the floor to ceiling window panes. Each curve and bend of the oddly shaped bar begs you to join her for a drink. The aromas from open kitchen tease, tempt and toy with you as they urge you order something more. The colorful chalkboard menu demands that you dabble in the dolci of the day: Fresh Ricotta Cheese Cake with Slow Cooked Apricots & Mint. The only thing that would make that dessert more delectable is if Enver or Rizo would deliver it to you.

Tempted? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Tempted again? Enver and his wines - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

In here, it’s comfortable but cool. In here it’s classy but casual. In here it’s airy and open and always inviting. In here, it’s almost always summertime. And brothers-in-charge Enver and Rizo would be your ideal beach companions.

The other half of the brothers Boljevic - Rizo

As quickly as I arrive I am shuttled to the lower level to begin my pasta prep.

The prep kitchen is as clean as my apartment – only after my parents arrive for a visit. Shiny equipment, stainless steel pasta dough mixers, and enthusiasic workers fill the space. But those cool afternoon winds never wind their way down here. Busy workers and boiling bowls of red sauce raise the temperature by 15 degrees. My only escape is the refreshingly cold but painfully brief breeze I feel from the oft opened freezer door. Despite the heat, I attempt to explore the endless possibilities presented by pasta – which starts so simply with eggs, flour and salt but becomes so much more.

An intense environment for our pasta prep - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I meet Humberto – affectionately know as the pasta  guy – and he talks me through the series of shapes we are about the prepare – six in all. I love the idea that by simply changing the shape of the pasta – the tabletop is transformed. Cavatelli cups its sauces. Papardelle playfully dances with its braised lamb. Ravioli wraps around its ricotta. Same ingredients – yet such dissimilar results. But I am suddenly humbled by Humberto. My formative pasta years involved a battle between Ronzoni brand Spaghetti versus Ronzoni brand thin Spaghetti. There was little diversity in our dishes and I have so much to learn from my new friend.

My pasta guy, Humberto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Humberto explains the seemingly simple steps and the types of pasta we need to prepare for tonight’s menu. There are so many that my mind is racing and I am ready to run home to grab that box of dried pasta from my shelf and dump it into a bucket of boiling water. But I wait, and make an attempt to learn these lessons – with Humberto and his 3 years of pasta prep hovering over me all along the way.

I lay one thin sheet of pasta dough atop my new favorite tool – the italian ravioli maker. The pasta is so thin – so delicate – I can see my fingers clear through the other side and fear I might tear it if I tug too much. Humberto assures me my sheer strength won’t damage this delicacy. I brush the pasta with a light coating of egg mixture and dot each chamber with a concoction of cream, chives and shrimp. I place one pasta sheet on top to cover my creation and our ravioli is mere moments away from being born.

We pinch and seal each side and roll the fluted pastry wheel (also know as a ravioli cutter) along the edges and between each piece. My unsteady hand seems to snag the ravioli ending in an uneven and imperfect pocket. Humberto corrects my work and guides my hand along the way. Making pasta is a delicate dance – a tender twist as I try not to tear or tug the soft sheets of dough. At the end one of session – we have only 12 raviolis to speak of. We’ll need many more if this dish is on the menu tonight. I’m losing hope in my pasta prep but Humberto and I continue to work side by side and make some more. Each little pocket is looking better than the one before: the filling is just right, the sides are sealed tight and the perferations are now perfect.

Early lessons - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Ravioli rules - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A dab of egg - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Careful not to tear - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Shaky hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Sealing the sides - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The word Ravioli is said to have originated from the word Rabiole – meaning things of little value or left-overs. On long journeys by ship, sailors – not wanting to be wasteful – collected and chopped up all the left-overs (the rabiole) from their meals. They stuffed those leftovers into little envelopes of pasta dough.

I, too, have found myself feeling much like the ravioli I have just crafted. On my best days I feel firm and presentable on the outside. And on the inside – and on my worst days – I have felt glimpses that are reminiscent of that ravioli: that I have little value or that I have been passed- or left-over. Chalk it up to those unpopular junior high school years. Or maybe it was that moment, when one year ago I sat down across from my live-in boyfriend of two years and by the end of the evening I was not only short the $25 dollars for the cost of the meal, but I had to subtract one boyfriend and one apartment from that scenario. Homeless, aside from my sisters couch, I started to feel a bit like those ravioli of yesteryear.

Ravioli, however, has come a long way. Gone are the days of leftovers encased between two thin sheets of  pasta dough. No longer are they filled with things of little value. Now their inner workings are so precious and filled with such worthwhile ingredients – think: shrimp, chives and cream at Centro Vinoteca – that our main task (Humberto’s and mine) as it relates to ravioli is to be sure that those insides don’t escape their safe shell and find themselves floating around a hot pot of boiling water. After we fill the ravioli we press the edges to ensure they are sealed. We press. And we seal. And we press again. This small task is life or death for our dish. And we learn that even though something starts out being undervalued or looked over, the world eventually comes around to getting it right. We are no longer in high school and gone are the days of that disasterous Greek meal on Amsterdam Avenue. Our ravioli is sealed with goodness inside. No shrimp will dare swim away. And your tastebuds will be the better for it.

Humberto and I continue with Cavatelli. We slice our pasta dough into a long sections about 1/3 of an inch thick. After a quick lesson, I begin to roll the dough gently through the italian imported cavetelli maker and spin out a series of shapes that are ripe and ready to be joined with broccoli rabe. This task is remarkably easier than the one before. And while cavatelli is traditionally made by hand (think southern italian or sicilian grandmother cooking in her home kitchen) I have a newfound appreciation for the tools of the trade.

The Cavetelli connection - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Perfect little pieces - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Humberto's hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The word Cavatelli is derived from the Latin word cavum. Cavatelli means a hollow or cave; a hole, a cavity or a depression.

In my hometown of Hampton Bays the day after Labor Day was referred to as Tumbleweed Tuesday. It was always a sad day. A sense of loss prevailed – a loss of the freedoms that summer afforded us. Summer has indeed ended and a palpable shift has take place – here in NYC and in Hampton Bays too. And with its passing I am left with an empty space, a deep void — a cavum. But within that loss there is now a space for something more to enter in. In that cave – that hole, that depression – enters something new: new friends, new classes, new goals and a new space and clean state to begin again. In that space of our cavatelli – in that soft and subtle void of our pasta shape – there is space for sauces: for pestos, for browned sage butter and for bolognese too. I am beginning to rethink the very definition of depression.

With ravioli and cavatelli completed, we move on to long strands of papardelle and pici, to roasted mushroom stuffed cappellacci and spin out some beautiful black tagliatelle.

Cappellacci class - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The tricks of the trade - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A perfect little hat - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Strands of pici pasta - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Papardelle means: To gobble up - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The final task: Black Tagliatelle - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

My arms are getting tired and my fingers are freezing up from all this pressing and pushing and molding and manipulating of these pasta shapes. I will never look at a plate of pasta without imagining the hours of labor involved. I run upstairs to take a breather. On my way, I hesitate for just a moment and stand in awe of the hundreds of bottles of wine that line the walls – all Italian and from regions of Italy I have yet to discover. I imagine a warm red would be the perfect pairing for the pasta I have just prepared. I must admit my wine knowledge is a little lacking and standing there with these bottles towering over me, wondering what I would choose  – my confidence is shaken and my knees are feeling weak.

The wall of wine - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enver leans in close and whispers wine to me. He enthusiastically explains how he chooses his wines from lesser know regions, like le marche, based on its agricultural advantages. Speaking of advantages, Enver is an expert with his wines and you’d be remiss to not mark your calendar and schedule your own private tutoring session.

The underrated regions - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enver enthusiastically explains - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

And if there is anything to get you out of your cavatelli cavum, your depression – it’s brothers Enver and Rizo, a seat at the bar and a glass of my favorite – and house favorite – bubbly: prosecco di valdobbiadene, terra serena.

After my lesson in libations, I turned my attention to Greg Pollio for the final phase of my cooking class. Greg, the former student of ornithology (think birds) and herpetology (think reptiles) turned Sous Chef, guides me as I plate my well-made papardelle. Greg’s study of the sciences makes him a master in the kitchen as he teaches me about the subtleties surrounding pasta shapes and their contrasting cooking times. My pasta hits the hot water and hovers there for mere moments. All the while I am sauteeing Greg’s braised lamb bolognese and seasoning it with white wine and mint while my pasta cooks for what seems like a split second. Before I plate the papardelle I stop and perform my most important task: The taste test. I bring the sauce straight from saute pan to the spoon and into my mouth before it ever reaches the dish. There is nothing quite like that first forbidden kitchen bite – and the assurance that you did everything just right. Greg’s bright eyes, even brighter smile and his easy and natural way around the kitchen make you want to take him home along with your leftovers. If you visit Centro Vinoteca I’m sure you’ll agree that Greg only adds to the atmosphere inside. And I’m doubly sure you’ll understand the sentiment: Thank you open kitchen.

Watching and learning with Greg - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Did you run to make your reservation? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Prepping the Papardelle - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

So it doesn't stick - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The taste test - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Spinning and swirling - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

When I left Centro Vinoteca I noticed a few leaves had fallen and the winds began to pick up and swirl around the sidewalks. I held a sense of renewal in my heart and a flutter inside for what might be to come. With these fall winds beginning to blow and the new year upon us, I have started to feel far away from any resemblance to those left-over filled ravioli. I’m not sure if it was the change of seasons, or the bright and futuristic chandeliers floating overhead at Centro Vinoteca or the smiles on the faces of Enver and Rizo and the regulars than dine there, but now I am feeling much more like the one pasta I didn’t even prep: farfalle, and its literal translation: butterflies.

Proud plating - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#14/52: The Hot Dog Eating Contest

I’m hungry.

I’m hungry and I’m bored.

A devilish combination.

I’m hungry and I’m home and I’m not quite sure what I want. But then again, I’m never quite sure what I want – and that feeling doesn’t simply stop with my summertime snacks.

What do I want out of my life, my career, my next relationship and most important, what do I want for lunch? The latter being the more easily solved.

Questions so challenging I’ve taken to trying technological tricks and tactics as a fast fix. Technology has, seemingly, become my ally in my quick quest for everything from companionship to couscous.

It’s gotten bad. To choose my meals I’ve been using the Wheel of Lunch to sort through the possibilities and narrow the field. For dating I’ve resigned to relying on late night lurking of online profiles.

As I peruse the online prospects and meander through Menupages, one thing becomes clear – no picture on the page of my Macbook (be it a handsome bachelor or a Momofuku Pork Belly Bun) makes my quest any closer to conquerable.

Pork Belly Buns

Jake, The Bachelor

The online search is far from the solution I seek. Finding fantastic food in this fair city and finding equally fantastic friendship is not as formulaic as the reviews would have us believe.

Here’s how my internet interaction usually plays out:

I’m hungry. I go online to seamless web and drool over photos of food – tasty morsels only 30 minutes, 4 flights of stairs and a friendly delivery guy away from my plate and my palate. The food arrives bruised and battered from its journey – 35 blocks is a long way to travel. I end up disappointed that it does not resemble its photos. Somehow, it’s less tasty. My hopes are dashed.

Online dating is just the same. I start out hungry. Hungry for something, some one, some conversation, some compatibility. I log on and drool over photos of a guy – a tasty morsel only 30 minutes, 4 flights of stairs and a friendly delivery away. He arrives bruised and battered from his journey – 35 years is a long way to travel. I end up disappointed that he does not resemble his photos. Somehow, he’s shorter. My hope are dashed.

And what about me? What will he think of the real me versus the fantasy me? Will AmyWVillagegirl match up to his expectations? What if my laugh is deeper and heartier than he thought it would be? What if I curse more than he hoped? And what will he think of me when I don’t match up perfectly to my photos or his fantasies?  He might like the photo with the curly hair and I show up after an hour of flatironing. He might like the picture in the red dress with the view of The Collesium in the background, but I show up in jeans and we’re far away from the romance of Rome. It’s all too much pressure to place oneself on a pedestal to be judged and sized up from the outside in. I mean, I’m fine if you want to judge me as I walk down the street – but I’d rather not pay the forty dollar fee for such a service.

It is a contest I will not win. The buildup, the photos, the supposed perfection of it all sized up in a 400 word essay About Me and About My Date.

At a time when our technology has us seemingly so connected, I started to feel disturbingly distant. I spent more time online than outside. I spent more hours reading NY Times restaurant reviews than being the reviewer myself.

I decided to switch off my ipod, put down my blackberry, and shut down my laptop.

So I officially logged off from online dating and I decided to peruse my plates in person instead of online ordering — all in an effort to reclaim my identity as a self proclaimed old fashioned gal. I will look a stranger in the eye. I will say hello to my neighbor. A little experiment, a little test – far from the cruel contests of online love.

So far, things are seeming more organic, more fluid and I feel more present. My mission is much less a search and destroy, and much more a see and discover. And now the only contest I want to participate in is that all american hot dog eating competition. The only thing I want to judge is my food.

Luckily, I spent my Thursday serving as a Judge for the Concours de Chien-Chaud (AKA: Hot Dog Eating Contest) at the French Culinary Institute. My assignment: The condiment contest. Now thats a contest I can sink my teeth into.

Happy to be the judger and not the judgee of this contest – I sauntered south to SoHo and was welcomed by the staff. I was escorted into a room filled with custom-designed equipment — from Jade ranges to Winkler Wachtel deck ovens to Vulcan Swiss kettles — where eager students stood before me just asking to be evaluated.

I would not judge them on their looks, nor their personality. There was no swimsuit competition in their future. These students will be judged on their creativity, their inventiveness and their skill. Their challenge: To concoct the perfect hot dog accompaniment. And my job: simply to eat.

I move from station to station – from Roasted Red Pepper Date Sauce to Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Pineapple & Mango Relish evaluating each bite for texture, taste and transportability. I look around the room at the serious students standing before me with their brows beading with sweat. I sense their nervous energy as they list their ingredients and instructions for preparation. And as their sentences begin with a stutter, I pause to notice my heart has begun to skip a beat as well. And even though my food — my condiment in this case — is not on the chopping block, I somehow feel uneasy.

As I move from condiment station to condiment station my temperature rises – and not just from the enormous amount of hot dogs of have just inhaled. I diligently jotted down notes, scribbling key words and phrases here and there: sweet vs. savory, spicy vs. mild and inventive vs. old school. The flavors begin to run together. The criteria becomes confusing. The memory of what I tasted only moments before begins to fade. The faces of the students become blurred and my mouth is now ablaze with Spicy Roasted Red Peppers. My belly is full and now — so too is my brain. I escape the room and wander off down the hallway to quietly collect my thoughts.

What right do I have to judge? At a time when everyone seems to be an internet food critic, I wonder: who am I to say which dish shines? Feelings of insecurity come over me and I am sure I am now feeling more pressure than those students in the spotlight. But aside from my own feelings of inadequacy and separate from the stress and the pressure placed upon my palate, one burning question begins to plague me: How will I know when I have found the one – for food, or for friendship.

Will a rating system help or hinder? Should I write down all of my qualifications on paper and check them off accordingly? Should I close my eyes, spin around and pick one? Or, will I just know when the right one – the winner – comes along?

On my way back down the hallway, as I fret over finding a fix and selecting a solid winner, I locked eyes with good-looking guy. With my pact to meet people in person instead of in the online universe, I decided it would be a good idea to simply say hello. So, I said Hello. Then, he said Hello. I smiled. He smiled back. I told him my name was Amy. He said, “I’m Greg.” We stood staring for what felt, in those early stages of attraction, like an eternity but was, in reality, merely a minute, a moment, a second that stood still. When the moment passed and we came back down to the universe we continued to talk as if not a beat was missed. He was instantly warm and easily engaging to the eye. He wore a silly tie and pleat-front pants.

Greg, in the distance - Khaki's and all

We soon were entrenched in a deep discussion surrounding the challenges of choosing the right condiment for your hot dog. Greg certainly knew his hot dogs after having spent a lifetime surrounded by his family’s hot dog business (a NY favorite: Sabrett) and he was a stickler for staying true to what he considered to be the ONLY hot dog condiment that made any sense: Spicy Brown Mustard. Between judging the condiments for their viability and evaluating Greg for his viability I was becoming overwhelmed. And then, I discovered something.

Greg was young – nearly 7 years my junior and well out of the desired age range listed on my online profile. Greg wore an Irish cross around his neck – not even remotely the type of guy I would find in my late night scans through jdate. Greg didn’t match up to my height requirements and his facade on this day – in those pleat front pants and quirky Sabretts tie given to him by his grandfather – would never have passed my initial internet sight test.

But he had something. I felt something. And through his eyes there was a connection that hadn’t been matched in my last series of blind dates. In fact, I discovered, I’d rather not be blind. I’d rather see. Even if that means I have to wait and see – or wait and wait and wait and then see.

And then I discovered something else.

I left Greg and headed back into the condiment contest kitchen. I tasted the last and final topping and I instantly knew I had found the winner. There was no questioning, no notes to refer back to, no tally to count. There was just one clear winner. It felt right and I knew it in a place far, far from my brain. I knew in my gut – that deep, center of the soul that sometimes screams to us so loud even when we try to ignore it. I knew that my taste buds were right on target and worthy of judging all of the condiment contenders. I knew the winner worked well not because of the notes I scribbled on my page, not because of some fantasy condiment criteria or list I had created in my head — but because my body told me so. And I knew greg was a contender as well – for a drink at the local bar, a meal in the east village, and a night out in the meatpacking district – all of which eventually happened.

I’m no longer hungry. And I’m a little less bored than I was before. And even though it might take a little longer and require a bit more energy on my part, I’d rather search for my soup and my soulmate in the real world.

Here’s to my winner – Glen Cinguina and his Spicy Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Pineapple & Mango Relish for reigniting my enthusiasm and forcing me to trust my palate. And here’s to Greg for doing the same.

(get well sandy)

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#13/52: Breakfast with Bloomberg

Ollie has left the building.

Ollie is – or shall I say was – my neighbor. We shared a building – and many a late night courtyard conversation. Ollie was the best at barbecues and the life of the party here on Cornelia Street. He had a knack for collecting friends as he strolled – simply with just his smile.

Yesterday I came home to find Apartment 2F cleared out of its couches — and empty of Ollie.

My neighbor (and friend) has moved out, leaving only a short handwritten note behind.

As I walk through our empty apartment courtyard, absent of Ollie and his fun-loving antics, and as I pace over his spacious hardwood floors, I am reminded again that everything changes – for better or for worse. People exit our lives and babies are born, friends move away from Cornelia Street and new tenants come calling.

Change is tough. Adapting to change is a talent. By force of nature, I think I am getting good at it. Almost as good as Chef Raffaele Ronca from last week’s Delicious Thursday - an immigrant who, 20 years ago, arrived and thrived in NYC. In honor of Raffaele’s journey to America and in honor of my own journey as recorded weekly on this blog, I was invited to meet Mayor Bloomberg and join him for breakfast at Gracie Mansion as part of Immigrant Heritage Week. Luckily, it happened to be a Thursday.

Photo by Sandy Hechtman

I walked up the wooden steps and circled the wrap-around porch of Gracie Mansion. Shortly after I arrive I am greeted by plates of sweetly syruped waffles swirling around the room. Baskets of bagels and international coffees abound.

The lovely yellow country house on East End Avenue - Gracie Mansion

I wandered off to quietly collect my thoughts and stumbled upon the awesome acreage of this 1799 mansion – first through a room dressed in peacock blue, then passed the canary yellow quarters and finally into the dining room with walls dressed in The Gardens of France. The murals, mantles and moldings of this Mansion on East End Ave at 88th Street remind me I am far from my small studio on the West side. After a meet and greet with Mayor Mike – and a bit of breakfast – I head back downtown, before my subway car turns into a pumpkin.

Amy Bandolik and Mayor Mike Bloomberg

On my way home from Gracie Mansion I came across an abandoned chair sitting curbside. Perched on the corner of West 4th Street and 6th Avenue I found a perfectly good mid-century style teal blue armchair. Like any good New Yorker, I studied it, analyzed the wear and tear and then picked up the orphaned item and carried it to its new home on Cornelia Street. I will never know who owned it before I adopted it into my home. Maybe it belonged to an immigrant who had realized his American dream and moved on to fancier furniture. Possibly. Maybe it was excess from Mayor Bloomberg’s Mansion. Not likely. Or maybe it was Ollie’s – the last remains of his disappearance from Cornelia Street. I don’t know – but I hope so.

What I do know for sure is that my new chair had clearly lived many lives, in many houses, and over many years. It is comfy and cozy. It is tattered and worn. A bit unraveled and unfinished. But it has substance and soul – just like me, and just like Chef Raffaele. What I also know is that if anyone wants to come over to my apartment, worn out or not – there is now a place to sit – comfortably. My chair needs a little work. But then again so do I. So do we all. None of us are excused from a little growth and development. Not even the Mayor.

Not surprisingly, breakfast with the Mayor was less about breakfast and more about the Mayor — the experience, the house and mostly, the journey to get there. The food played backup to the story surrounding it – as it oftentimes does. Next week our food focus returns. Until then, happy eating.

my new chair!

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#12/52: Raffaele at Palma Restaurant

I’m feeling lost.

One year ago today my life was very different. I was in a committed relationship. I was living in a spacious one bedroom apartment of the 19th floor of a doorman building on the Upper West Side. And I was running 6 miles a day.

Nowadays I reside in a tiny studio in Greenwich Village. I am single and standing on my own two feet. And just yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in 10 months.

Although I am happy with where I am in life and although there is no amount of money that could get me to hop on that 1 train and head back uptown– change is tough. The ups and downs of life; the breakups, the career changes, the relocations that seem to be so prevalent in this fair city – they leave me a little shaken, a little insecure and a little alone. There are moments when I feel like I am living in the land of the lost. On a few rare occasions and in certain critical or condemning company, I become so uncomfortable in my own skin that I almost feel like an immigrant in my own homeland: lost, alone, confused.

But my strife and my struggle pales in comparison to the real stories of strength and survival of those who truly are strangers in a strange land. The story of the immigrant experience in NYC – with its searching and its strivings – and the eventual fulfillment of that good old american dream – that story is one I can only stand back in awe and admire. In search of some comfort to ease my own feelings of newness, confusion and questioning in my life – I turned to someone who had experienced those same emotions – only tenfold.

I spent last Thursday evening with Raffaele Ronca, Executive Chef at Palma Restaurant, who shared his tales of his immigrant experience in New York City.

Inviting and warm, just like Raffaele - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Raffaele in action - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I didn’t have very far to travel to find Raffaele commanding his kitchen – only 40 paces from my front door I am welcomed inside by the brightly colored yellow and white striped awning. The color coordinated purplish-pink tulips in every corner, the wooden tabletops and the beamed ceiling transport me to another place and time. A time more reminiscent of Raffaele’s youth at home in Italy.

The bright & shining star on Cornelia Street - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Attention to detail is one of the strong suits at Palma - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

These are a few of my favorite things: hidden gardens in NYC - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Nearly 20 years ago Raffaele Ronca arrived in NYC to begin anew. Born in Naples and raised by the sea, Raffaele was blessed with a good upbringing, natural talents and, above all, a lucky locale. If Italy is the country most known for its culinary delights – then Naples is the capital of that kitchen – and Raffaele is undoubtedly the Prince of the pasta.

As quickly as Raffaele greets me hello he sends me on my way. After phoning in his orders for tonight’s feast, Raffaele sends me on a mission to find the fresh foods at the top of his list. I am off to Ottomanelli’s butcher shop on Bleecker Street to pick up ten pounds of organic Bell and Evans chicken breast, ten more pounds of grass-fed black Angus strip loin and yet another ten pounds of pork chops. Thirty pounds later I find myself in a physical struggle to make it back to the restaurant. This reminds me to keep up my work at the gym.

I hope I remember what Raffaele ordered - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A classic butcher shop in the village - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Last order before closing time - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Making friends - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Not so graceful - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting back in time for prep - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Cooking is a physical task – as much as it is an artistic one. Before my entrée enters the oven and before my branzino beckons the broiler – the beef must be bought from the butcher and the shelves must be fully stocked. In my 15 years in the workforce I have hardly lifted a finger. Are these physical tasks a glimpse into the lives of my ancestors as they arrived on Manhattan Island – and labored with weighty work and extended hours? Is this a snapshot of what it was like for my great-grandfather, Tanaham Bandolik, when, nearly 103 years ago, he docked in the Port of New York and took his first steps off The RMS Lucania? And when the young, handsome, dark-haired and deep dark-eyed Raffaele Ronca stepped foot into the terminal at JFK’s airport with only 20 years of life under his belt, was this sort of labor what he imagined was in store for him?

I arrive back at Palma just in time for prep work. It’s nearing 6pm and we’ve got to quickly gather our ingredients before Raffaele’s fans and friends flood this family run restaurant. We climb down the shaky stairway into the dark and low ceilinged basement below. At 5 foot 7 inches in height, I can’t even stand up straight down here.

As we enter the seemingly freezing fridge and examine the rows of ripe produce, Raffaele reminds me that this recent trend of fresh, seasonal, locals foods is nothing new to him. Growing up in Italy – everything he ate was fresh, seasonal and local. This is not a new idea to him – just a way of life. I learn that the gift we get as a result of the immigrant entering America is that we are reminded of a different way of life – far from fast food fixes and fanciful feasts. We are reminded of the simple, rustic, raw way of feeding our families that is lost in many parts of our country. I am thankful for the reminder.

As we search for ingredients, we get to talking about Raffaele’s first few hours in NYC. After an 8 hour TWA flight from Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome to NYC’s JFK, Raffaele took his first few tentative steps in his new home. After his cab driver tried to swindle him by circling the airport several times, running up the meter to the grand total of $150, Raffaele finally settled in with some family friends in Howard Beach. While Raffaele can now laugh about his early days in America, he tells this story as if were yesterday as he recalls a time when his inability to communicate in English brought about many lonely and lost nights. Equal parts hope and fear propelled Raffaele forward. Failure was not an option.

We gather some sprigs of basil, six containers of red ripe cherry tomatoes, three hearty eggplants and climb back up the steep and narrow staircase. Raffaele takes me into the small shed behind the restaurant that is no larger than a midsize car. I don’t mind the cramped quarters. Raffaele’s childlike smile, fiercely determined eyes and true italian accent are the reason many people come back to dine at Palma. That – and the food too.

Only lost a few tomatoes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Time for my first lesson - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Choosing the best ingredients - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Slicing just right - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Like a true italian, using his hands to communicate - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Those intense italian eyes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

On my own - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Careful not to cut my finger - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I am responsible for prepping the special for tonight: Cartucho – which after many italian translation tools I came to discover is a filet of Branzino which is wrapped in tin foil so it can cook in its own juices. Between my chopping and taking notes – and Raffaele’s still strong italian accent and quickening pace – a few words might have gotten lost in the exchange. But in the language of food – we are certainly on the same page – as Raffaele guides me in my task using his hands to punctuate each sentence and explain each step. Raffaele reminds me that in true italian cooking – simplicity equals success. A few fresh ingredients are all you need. If he can count them on one or two hands, he’s happy. If I can get these few simple steps down while he leaves me in a room alone with my food prep, I’ll be happy.

Showing me the steps - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Learning from my master - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Measure out the tin foil. Place the sautéed seasoned greens on top. Place the branzino on top of that. Sea salt. Cherry tomatoes in halves down the center of the fish. Olive Oil. White wine. Wrap and seal tightly. Next.

On my own - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Perfecting my technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Branzino prep from A to Z - Photos by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

After I prepare five of these little packages of perfection Raffaele pops inside the small shed and asks how I’m doing. When I tell him I have five more to go – he gives me a knowing look which I interpret to mean I should speed up my steps in the way that only a suave and savvy Italian man can. Somehow, he gets me to move even faster without once making me feel as if I have failed at my first task. He could have told me my shirt was on fire and I think I would have found him soothing, sultry and reassuring.

A little guidance - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A little technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Raffaele arrived on these shores in 1993. He was 20 years old and hoping the break into the world of acting. Back home in Italy he was making only 80,000 Lira per week. Thats roughly $40. Within one week of arriving in NYC Raffaele made $600 as a bartender. This artist would be starving no more.

Raffaele’s main crisis upon arrival – aside from missing his family – was that he couldn’t find a good italian meal – at least one that tasted like home. For Raffaele, and many of us like him, food is the comfort that reminds us of home and soothes our troubles – large or small.

Raffaele and I are quite similar . We turn to food for comfort. We are soothed by the familiar. Although for Raffaele, familiar is a 4-course meal topped with a butter and sage sauce or a balsamic reduction — my familiar is less a hunger for my own ancestral eats but more so a cool cup of Carvel ice cream with cookie crunch, hot fudge and rainbow sprinkles. The Bandolik family special.

When Raffaele arrived he was hungry. Hungry for success in New York. Hungry for a creative career. Hungry for a good meal – one that reminded him of home. What most immigrants miss upon arrival is just that – food and family. Without stepping inside a formal cooking classroom, Raffaele learned to cook. With a family of butchers and fisherman Raffaele spent his winters helping his Uncle Peppino in the family’s butcher shop and his summers with Uncle Mimmo catching and cooking fish. Now in New York his only access to the wealth of resources his family held was to pick up the phone and call. And so he did. Day in and day out Raffaele would call home to his Mom, his Grandmother, his Aunts and Uncles and work through those old Italian recipes. He would cook – so he could eat. Raffaele was like most immigrants. His talents were born out of necessity.

Doing what he loves - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

He's intense about everything - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I am not an immigrant. I was born in Southampton Hospital and raised in the Hamlet of Hampton Bays on the east end of Long Island. My family has lived in these parts for several generations. According to the Passenger Record and ship’s manifest of The Lucania, my Great Grandfather, Tanaham Bandolik, arrived on Ellis Island on April 27th in the year 1907. He was 27 years old. My great-grandfather, like so many others before him and like Raffaele after him, turned to food. Tanaham Bandolik was a produce vendor on the Lower East Side, transporting watermelons from as far South as Valdosta, Georgia to NYC to sell off the side of a truck.

For better or for worse, any time we change the course of our lives, we leave a little something or someone behind. A necessary loss of the growth we all seek. What Raffaele did not leave at home was his intensity, his talent and his passion for food and for feeding others. Italy’s loss is New York’s gain.

And good-looking too - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I may never fully understand what it feels like to be an ocean away from my family and from the foods of my formative years. I may never know what it felt like to first step foot in a foreign land with no plan for a return to my roots. I can only borrow bits and pieces, stories and sentimentality from my own ancestors and from my friend Raffaele. When I am feeling lost, I crumble. I lose sight of the aspects of my life that are good and secure and solid. I lose perspective. When Raffaele arrived, lost and alone in New York, he showed a meticulous, intense and uncompromising determination to succeed as only someone who seriously understands the gift that is America can do. If only I could borrow a bit of that lesson. If only I could see the good in general– despite the confusion in the immediate. If only I could be a bit like Raffaele.

After several hours of prep time and a short stint in the kitchen, I left Palma Restaurant at about 9PM. Raffaele stayed well into the night. I walked away with a few sore muscles, a small slice to my pinky finger and newfound appreciation for what it takes to make it in America.

The word immigrant is defined as an organism found in a new habitat. If that is the correct interpretation of what it means to be an immigrant – I suppose I am an immigrant too. I suppose, at times, we all are.

My grandfather's ship, The RMS Lucania - courtesy of: http://www.greatships.net/lucania.html

Blog post featured as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Immigrant Heritage Week.
-Amy Bandolik

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#11/52: Greener Pastures

I have spring fever.

All the signs are there: I’ve been sleeping with my windows wide open, cleaning out my closet, and leaving my scarf, hat and gloves at home in the hopes of greeting another 70 degree day.

There’s only one problem. With last month’s butter-filled trip to the French Culinary Institute I have been feeling a little sluggish and not quite bikini ready. I need a miracle – a cleansing, healing, curative miracle. And I found one in Brooklyn.

I spent last Thursday doing detox — and planting Wheatgrass with the friendly folks from Greener Pastures – an urban farm in the borough of Brooklyn. Later that week I experienced the medicinal benefits of the juice born of these blades of grass.

Farming. Brooklyn style - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I hopped on the R train and traveled from Union Square to Union Street. I rose from the subway stairwell in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, situated roughly between Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. Gowanus is one of the few remaining manufacturing neighborhoods in Brooklyn. But if I am attempting a cleanse, I’m not quite sure the grit of Gowanus is the right place to get the job done. And how can a series of streets filled with steel and sawdust provide fertile ground for the growing?

I round the corner onto Sackett Street and find the door marked 575. As I enter the grey industrial space I am greeted by Sam, Sascha and Stewart. Sam and Sasha are friendly canines. Stewart is a friendly farmer.

Farmer's little helper - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Sascha & Sam's best friend - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart even looks like a farmer with his grass stained jeans and his soil stained fingernails. Stewart is slender and strong. Hardworking and humorous. He is the doctor of the dirt who doles out his holistic drugs on a daily basis.

I’m anxious to down my detoxifying drink but I am nearly 6 days away from that glass of grass. First, I’ve got to grow my own greens.

I start by standing over a large stainless steel sink and scrubbing hundreds of plastic containers to prep them for planting. After dousing the plastics with a gunshot stream of water power I load the trays into the bright orange shopping cart.  The cloud of condensation surrounding me feels more like a ride on the Maid of the Mist than a day on the farm. My rain boots are the only thing protecting me from the flood forming beneath my feet. I am soaked.

I seem to always find myself washing dishes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A powerful blast - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Soaking myself as much as the trays - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Checking my work - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Our planters are ready for soil and seed and I am ready to try my hand at farming – albeit urban farming. Like the passing of the torch, Stewart hands me a well-worn plastic Tupperware container and instructs me to dip it into the mountain of soil that sits in the wheelbarrow near our farming table. The Tupperware container happens to have the perfect measurements for filling our trays 3/4’s full with soil – it also happens to be discontinued. If I have learned one thing these last few months, it is that having the right equipment is essential to my success – so I appreciate Stewart’s attempt to hold the crumbling container together with many rounds of masking tape. With our home-repaired version of a shovel, we spend the next few hours filling our pots with soil and preparing for seeding.

Digging in the dirt - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Our tupperware shovel - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart knows his stuff - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart guides my hands as I gently sprinkle the wheat seeds in a circular motion atop the soil. I am shocked and surprised at how difficult it is to evenly seed the soil. On my first attempt my tray suffered from empty spaces and steep summits. Stewart keeps my spirits high with a series of jokes (a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…) and stories about his urban farm (this space actually used to be a coffin factory). After a few tries I start to get a feel for it. The seed bucket becomes an extension of my hand and in one circular motion I start to evenly seed the soil. By the end, my 10th tray, I can close my eyes and still have a lay of the land.

Trying to get it right - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Learning from the master - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting the hang of it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart watches me like a hawk. Too few seeds and I’ll miss out on some body-healing blades of grass. Too many seeds in one spot and I’ll over-populate the soil. They should touch but shouldn’t be on top of each other. Sounds like a good guideline for first dates as well.

Am I doing OK? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

My seeds are set. I am still soaked from my kitchen sink shower and now I am covered up to my elbows in soil. The warehouse is cold, damp and dark – and I am dirty.

I’ve spent several hours digging in the dirt and seeding the soil and I am feeling frustrated. I wanted to purge my body of all that butter and add enzymes and amino acids to my system. I was hoping for purification, detoxification and rehabilitation. I was looking to restore the balance to my blood and cure my common cold. It looks like I’ll have to wait.

The challenge with farming, I learn, is that you work and you toil and you labor – and then you wait.

Waiting, I’m used to. I feel like, lately, I’m always waiting. Waiting for the E train to arrive at the West 4th Street Station so I can head out to Queens to visit my family. Waiting on the checkout line at the Gourmet Garage so I can rush home to bake a flourless chocolate cake or cook up a rib eye steak. Even waiting for love to arrive around the next corner. Waiting — I’m getting good at.  And now, I find myself waiting for blades of grass to grow. But will all this waiting be worth it?

We load the wheatgrass trays into a room where misting water gently coaxes the grass to grow. This is a true urban farm: no greenery in the ground – just tabletop growing at its best. The space is an eclectic mix & match of parts much like my canine friends (Sam is a lab/chow and Sascha a pit/husky). The floors are a grey cement, the walls are brick with a messy mortar stacked in between and the garage doors are a moody blue. The space is dark and shady and filled with soil and dirt. The only brightness comes from Stewart’s quirky smile and the shiny green blades of grass starting to peek their way out of the soil.

Exposed brick at its best - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The waiting game - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Prepping our grass to grow - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Here she comes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I’ve got 6 more days to go before I see the full fruits of my labor. But once the grass has grown, will the juice from these crops be a cure-all? Will the waiting be worth it? I must admit, I am a little skeptical. An old coffin factory in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn is an unlikely place to perform lifesaving acts.

Wheatgrass juice is said to have life-altering effects. It has been known to increase red blood-cell count and lower blood pressure. It cleanses the blood, organs and gastrointestinal tract of debris. Wheatgrass stimulates metabolism and the thyroid gland, correcting obesity and indigestion. It might even be a cure for cancer. Seems too good to be true. It was time to put the grass to the test.

After a week of waiting, I find myself soaking up the early spring at a packed farmers market in Union Square. I wander over to the crowd formed around the yellow school bus just off Union Square West. I make my way to the front of the pack and see Stewart’s smiling face and sinewy frame. A welcome sight. On the table between us are a series of pots of wheatgrass that have grown 6 inches in height and are sparkling in the sunshine.

My wheatgrass - one week later - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart cuts the grass we grew only one week before. He slowly feeds the blades of wheatgrass into the hand crank juicer. The juice emerges – dark green with a layer of foam on top.

The master juicer - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Stewart's stand in Union Square - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Will the wheatgrass be a cure-all? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

About to take the plunge - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I down the shot and hope for the best. The taste is strong and sweet, green and grassy. I don’t know if one glass will be enough to erase those butter filled weeks. A few more glasses of wheatgrass – and time – only that will tell.

I leave the farmers market and wind my way back to Bleecker. I feel a strange spring in my step — a bit of energy in the air around me. Maybe it’s due to the usually warm weather. Or maybe it’s because I am playing hooky and away from work in the middle of the day. Or maybe – just maybe – it’s the wheatgrass. Just the idea of ingesting something so green and so good for me – that alone sets my mind at ease. And maybe that alone is enough.

Several weeks of working in NYC’s top kitchens has trained me to pick up my pace, speed up my slicing and spice up my sauces. After a day of planting and a week of waiting I have learned the value of slowing things down a bit. In a city of constant chaos and a culture of instant gratification I realize, there’s really no rush. There are goals to accomplish. There are ladders to climb. There are small successes to accumulate. But there’s no gift in getting there quicker. In fact, I think the opposite is true: Slow and steady wins the race. The simple lessons learned from a day of digging in the dirt extend far and wide. Farming is a lesson in patience. A lesson worth learning. Especially when body-healing benefits are the result.

The farmer works. The farmer waits. The farmer is rewarded.

-Amy Bandolik

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#9/52: Bellavitae

I don’t like alot of things.

I’m not into sports (playing, watching or even the Superbowl), I don’t get swept away by island vacations, and after seeing the wonder that is the Taj Mahal I was, sadly, not moved. I have often felt that the things I was supposed to enjoy – the things that other people seemed so excited by – just didn’t click for me.

I can count, on one hand, the rare few things (aside from the obvious friends and family) that never do me wrong and always make my heart beat a little faster. Here is my list:

1. NYC – anytime, all the time.

2. Farmers Markets, Specialty Food Shops, Street Food Vendors & Roadside Farm Stands.

3. Knowing my neighbors by name.

4. The painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth.

5. Google-ing and finding answers to random questions at 3AM.

These five never fail me.

But, from the moment I walked into Bellavitae Restaurant one year ago, I found myself not wanting to leave. Something clicked. Something felt right. A possible #6 on my list? I wasn’t able to put my finger on it just then, but I knew I was on to something big.

Front entrance of Bellavitae on Minetta Lane - this shot and the interior also featured on Saturday Night Live (Season 34, Episode 8) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Over the next year I recall telling the owner, Jon Mudder, how much I adored his place in the hopes that maybe he would grant me a permanent reservation at stool #5 around the Chefs Bar. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work there or eat there or maybe I could simply move in to the cozy corner near the brick oven and take up residence. Are there still laws in support of squatters rights in NYC?

The charming Jon Mudder. Who wouldn't want to hang around Bellavitae? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman

I wondered and brainstormed about what it was that made Bellavitae so appealing. And then it dawned on me. Bellavitae is everything I am looking for in a partner. If I were going to describe my perfect mate it would most closely resemble my first impression of Bellavitae:

SWF seeks SWM who is: Charming yet unpretentious, simple yet elegant, rustic yet refined, sexy yet sophisticated, intimate without being too intense. Must like being surrounded by family and friends. Must reside in the NYC but enjoy weekend visits to farms and wineries to scout out and bring back the finest food and drink. Should enjoy a day of food shopping for the best ingredients and then cooking dinner for friends. Your door is always open and you are inviting of new friends and adventures. Above all, you are warm… much like a brick oven.

A preview of the brick oven at Bellavitae - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

After spending last Thursday evening at Bellavitae, I realized the importance of being with the right people and in the right space. I also learned that those right people, places and spaces thankfully do exist. The search is over.

I arrive at 4pm to Bellavitae at 24 Minetta Lane – the quiet and hidden oasis just steps from crowds on both sides: the taxi-cab filled Sixth Avenue at one end and the pedestrian playground of MacDougal Street on the other. As the winter sun begins to set and the chilly air chases me around the corner, I stand, for a moment, in awe of this small and shadowy street. I am only a stones throw from the West 4th subway station but suddenly I feel like I am a world away from the chaos of a typical Thursday night in Greenwich Village. This is a good thing.

Aged balsamics & wines at Bellavitae's entrance - Photo by Sandy Hechtman-sandyhechtman.com

I enter the restaurant through the wooden doors and walk past the barrels of aged balsamic vinegar and bottles of wine from family owned vineyards. The click-clack of my boot heels against the large wooden plank floorboards in the ample and open space reminds me more of a rustic farm-house than a downtown restaurant. I slide my gloved hand along the sleek and smooth Tuscan marble bar and I greet Jon, Bellavitae’s owner, at the other end. Luring me into the back, along with Jon’s obvious charm, are the Venetian style lamps – handmade with silk and hand painted with gold – dotted throughout the interior. This is the kind of place you’d find (and I did find) in the hills surrounding Bologna, not just off Sixth Avenue. But sometimes… we New Yorkers… we get lucky enough to have it all. Country comforts in an urban setting.

You will feel 'at home' at Bellavitae. The space reminds me of a farmhouse I visited in Umbria - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

At Family Meal Jon introduces me to the staff, sets the stage for the evening and offers a casual quiz on some Italian food vocabulary. (Q: Parma is? A: A city in the Emilia-Romagna region. Q: The pasta which translates into ‘little ears’ is? A: Orecchiette.) After a few bites of pasta – only a preview of the food fantasy we are about to create – and with our Italian adjectives in tow we scatter to our stations. My assignment for the evening is to work behind the Chefs Bar with the lovely Liza – the two of us will be on display all night in true open kitchen style. Any mistakes or missteps will be easily identified.

Amy & Liza preparing for the evening at the Chef's Bar - the best seat(s) in the house - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

At 6pm the double doors fling open, the diners are greeted, the coats are checked and the first party is seated. The waitress sends us a wink and within minutes the first order of the night pops up at our station. The sound of the ticket printing is like a morse code or a magical tune with a meaning that only we know. The dishes on the ticket are written in Italian and, for once, I am thankful for my month-long intensive Italian language lessons at Scuola Italiaidea near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Jon Mudder is warm and welcoming. Here we are studying the first food ticket of the night - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A tinge of fear flies through me as I read the order. It’s time for Gnocco Fritto: Fried pillows of puffy dough pockets served with hand sliced aged Prosciutto di Parma Grand Reserve. Some things in life taste better when you work hard to get them. This is one of those occasions.

Liza guides my hands on the Berkel imported hand slicer – which a work of art in its own right. I need both arms to garner enough strength to pull this off.  It feels as if I have the weight of the whole animal to slice through. I’m getting stuck at the top and can’t even finish one rotation successfully. Little bits of Prosciutto are being shaved off – certainly not pieces worthy of plating at Bellavitae. Eventually, I complete one fluid motion after another and begin to churn out tender slices of our 6-month dry aged Prosciutto. Around and around the wheel goes as tender, delicate slices of velvety rich meat flow free.

Do I have the strength to slice through that? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Getting stuck on the Prosciutto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Finally getting the hang of it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I gently swirl the slices – eight in all – around the edges of a small white place and step over to the fry station to quickly deep fry and plate the crisp doughy bread pockets. In a flash the pockets rise to the surface and the dough is done. At the table, our diners tear open those bread pockets and fill them with the newly sliced Prosciutto. A better sandwich has not been born.

Prosciutto Plate Art - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

This is where the word FRITTO comes in - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Presentation matters: Marc Levinson & Amy Bandolik arranging the Gnocco Fritto on the plate with the Prosciutto - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

And off she goes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Moments later, some friendly faces prop themselves up to the Chefs Bar. Watching their meal be prepared makes it all the more meaningful – for us and for them. Appetizers of Arancine, Polpettine and Mozzarella di Bufala fly from the kitchen. The couple at the bar chooses the Il Polletto – the de-boned young Chicken with Italian Herbs roasted in the Brick Oven with Fennel and La Costoletta di Maiale al Forno – the Pork Chop (also) roasted in the Brick Oven with caramelized Onions.

La Costoletta di Maiale al Forno. My photographer was hungry so I made one for him! - Photo and full belly by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

However enticing these dishes may sound and however tasty to the tongue, (and they are. I ate both later that night.) these menu choices represent a conundrum for me. It means that I will be, once again, lunging into a 600 degree brick oven. I can only hope my arm hair will stay intact.

Liza coaches me through the rules of the game as a gear up to tackle the oven. Jon stands by my side to quietly root me on.

Moral support from Liza - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I pour a drizzle of olive oil on two silver sizzle plates and slide the plates deep into the hottest part of the oven. My hand instantly turns red and remains that way the rest of the night and into the morning. I prepare the meat (one pork chop and one baby chicken) and place them on to the metal plates – being sure to coat the sides and all the edges with the sizzling hot oil. Sparks are flying (and not of the romantic variety) and hot oil is splattering everywhere. Liza seems cool and unaffected while I am ducking for cover and shielding my chef’s coat from going ablaze.

Making sure the edges of the pork chop are dipped in the sizzling olive oil - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Clearly, I am afraid of the oven - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Into the oven they go – but this time I beg Liza to do it for me so my hands can cool down. Moments later I dive into the oven again to turn the meat and add some fennel to the chicken and caramelized onions to the pork chop. A few quick minutes and the dishes are done and I am out of harms way – at least for tonight!

Plating it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Careful not to forget the juiciest bits - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Cavemen were on to something. So is Bellavitae - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

A job well done (Liza helped) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

I am convinced I was a cave-woman in a past life because I seem strangely drawn to fire. But I am not alone in acknowledging its effects. With the warmth of our food-filled-fireplace burning in the background, those strangers at the chef’s bar became friends and their quiet conversation turned to laughter. They linger a few hours in the glow of the tapering flames and as the clock nears 11pm they leave the restaurant having completed the quintessential New York night – a perfect 2-hour dinner. Amazing what some flames and some Finocchio al Forno will do.

Even at home, in my new apartment, I don’t feel as if the night is complete without the fireplace raging in the background. With no TV, the fireplace seems to serve as my visual entertainment. I am however no expert in the field of fire-starting. And I do recall my first fire being a bust as I tried unsuccessfully to light a few logs absent of any kindling. Thankfully, Bellavitae has a better handle on this task.

Later that week as my fire was slowly dying out, my night was just getting going. My new neighbor Tim knocked on my door to celebrate the fact that we are the two newest tenants in the building. We both moved in within weeks of each other in January. I suppose that is cause for celebration, no? After scouting a few local places we ended up at a little spot around the corner on Jones Street. Our tapas style meal was met with all the obvious introductions and all the common get-to-know-you games. Tim is pleasant, bright and a true gentleman. A perfect neighbor to have. He’s also a bit rustic and kinda charming. Reminds me a little bit of Bellavitae.

My (fire)place on Cornelia - Photo by Amy Bandolik

If you’d like to meet my neighbor, Tim, you can find him on Cornelia Street. If you are looking for a great Italian meal near a romantic brick oven fireplace, you must go to Bellavitae (http://www.bellavitae.com/) since Tim’s kitchen is currently under construction. And if you want to taste Bellavitae’s Ricotta Cheesecake, you can also find it here on the Foods of New York Central Village Food Tasting Tour: http://www.foodsofny.com/village-soho.php

Busy hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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