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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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