It is the eve before Thanksgiving. My bags are packed and placed at the front door and my heartbeat quickens with anticipation. I am going home. I couldn’t be more excited.
As I lean in to close and lock the drafty window above my bed I notice that familiar scent – of pies being baked – that floats up the interior courtyard of my apartment building. A bouquet of apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan tease me as they gently crawl up the curtain of my bedroom window. The aroma is so alluring I am tempted to stay and beg the family in 5F for a dinner invitation. But I have a train to catch and I have somewhere to be.
I spent last Thursday in Hampton Bays in the home that I was born and raised with family, friends and food. I was also lucky enough to get a glimpse into another very special family – The Halsey Family – who have lived (and farmed) in these parts for over 350 years.
Halsey Family Apples - an antiqued photo
With my belly full from my large thanksgiving feast (two feasts actually – we ate twice!) I ventured East to the area known as Mecox, in the town of Water Mill, in the heart of the Hamptons. This is not the Hamptons of bikini bathing suits and summer houseshares. This is the Hamptons that I know. A Hamptons filled with fields of grapes and green pastures, of open skies and orange pumpkins, of farmers markets and fruit stands – and of backyards filled with apple orchards and peach trees.
I spent a few hours of my Thanksgiving weekend at The Milk Pail Family Farm & Orchard which has been under the watchful eye of the Halsey family for generations.
The Milk Pail Country Store in Amagansett, NY
Over 30 years ago, The Halsey's ran a Dairy & sold milk at their farm stand, hence the name, The Milk Pail
U-Pick pumpkins and apples in Fall
Driving down the long and windy Mecox Road – lined with farms and fields, and bordered by corn crops and pumpkin patches – I feel a sense of provincial peacefulness as I arrive at #723. The grit and stress of those NYC streets are both a distant memory now. As I walk up to the house, along the stone steps, I am greeted by the newest and youngest member of the Halsey family – a blond haired and blue eyed little guy named Will. Will is only 14 months old but – as the 13th generation in a family of farmers – he is already taking a liking to the outdoors, just like his mother, Jenn Halsey.
We wave goodbye to Will, and Jenn takes me on a gentle drive through her 20 acres of apple trees as we chat about apples and about family life on the farm. In the US there are over 100 varieties of apples that are commercially grown and New York State is the 2nd largest apple producer. The Halsey orchard is filled with a small but well chosen 26 varieties. All of the apple trees here are semi dwarf trees reaching only about eight feet in height – perfect for apple picking – no ladders are required! And at 5’7″ I could eat apples for days without ever going hungry.
It is a windy and rainy day and off in the distance the water level from the picturesque Mecox Bay is rising as we ride along. Jenn and I retreat inside the country store to warm up and to get a glimpse of the fruits born from these orchards. A sea of apples in every variety – sweet, crisp fujis and tart, juicy Jonagolds – are propped up and packaged in small white bags with a handle atop. Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns. Everywhere I look are apples in every form imaginable; homemade apple crumb pies, freshly dehydrated apple slices, jugs of apple cider by the gallon and apple cider donuts sizzling hot and fresh, just out of the fryer. Biblically speaking, apples are a symbol of temptation. They remind us of the innocence we once had. They are also that perfect present for your favorite teacher. They are wholesome, hearty and sweet – just like the Halsey’s.
Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns - and peaches too!
I am standing in the most coveted corner of the country store where I am put in charge of monitoring the apple cider donut making process – a fairly simple process where donut mix is blended with apple cider instead of water to give it that unique flavor. Simple or not, the moment that delicious dough hits the hot oil, the chimes on the front door of the shop begin a continual track of music as customers come running to my corner to collect their hot, fresh treats. I feel like the most popular kid in the class as the donut hungry shoppers glance through the glass window to get a glimpse of me and my donuts. Although I am sure that between the two of us – the donuts definitely win the prize.
Apple Cider Donuts
Time to eat!
In between the ringing chimes and the rush of customers – and off in the corner by the the Granny Smiths and the Golden Delicious – I can hear Jenn and her sister Amy discussing plans for Amy’s upcoming wedding. They’re so busy they didn’t even see me sneak a nibble of a donut – hot out of the fryer. This is half the fun of my job. The pace is steady but slow inside this little shop: the 40-year old donut machine continues to drop perfect rings of dough into the boiling hot vegetable oil and the girls continue to chatter about the upcoming nuptuals – both filling the shop with a sense of sweetness. And I realize… the lines between work and family are blurred here – and that’s the way the Halsey’s like it.
The Halsey’s have been farming for over 350 years on this land. Generations #11 and #12 – John & Evelyn Halsey and their two daughters – all live within 20 paces of one another on the orchard. It seems as if everything they need is only steps from their back door. It makes me think about my own far and wide search – when sometimes what I am looking was already within reach.
I have traveled the globe in search of new friendships, when my very own sister is a 50 minute train ride away. I have looked for wisdom from my neighbors who pontificate on the stoops below my building, when my own wise aunts and uncles are just over the Brooklyn Bridge. I have sought the solace of a father figure when my own father is only a phone call away. I even ask netflix for advice on which films might perfectly fit my personality, when my very own brother-in-law always seems to know better. This gets me thinking – about my efforts to Google every answer to every question when my own unlived life awaits. In fact, maybe everything I need is right in front of me – just waiting to be harvested.
Of all the things I experienced in my day on the farm, I am most awed by the process by which apples are transformed into apple cider. Red, ripe and perfectly round apples are hand-picked, washed and ground – seeds, core, stems and all – into a mash or pulp called pomace. Layers of apple pulp are wrapped up by hand like christmas presents, packaged in cloth and placed between metal racks – 13 layers in all. A hydraulic press squeezes down – 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch – and the juice flows free. It takes alot of apples – about 36 – to create just one gallon of apple cider.
With my hands still scented with the sweetness of those cider donuts – and as we are layering and pressing the apple pulp – I learn that apple cider is essentially apple juice that is unfiltered so it retains all that apple-y goodness – course pulp and sediment included. Most juices also add additional water and other ingredients to maintain a lighter flavor and a clarity of color. Trust me, once you taste the rich and hearty taste of apple cider – watered down juice will simply not suffice.
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Pure, unadulturated, unsweetened, unfiltered, undeniably good apple cider is born. But 2,200 pounds of pressure is a significant amount of stress on those sweet shiny apples. Which gets me thinking about pressure and how much of it we place on ourselves and on our loved ones.
I sometimes seek a stress-free life. In the past, when my friends and family would place demands on me I felt weighed down by the pressure of those obligations and responsibilities. But as I watch those 2,200 pounds squeezing the life from those apples, and I taste the sweet apple cider that results – I am reminded that in order the get to the good stuff – those deep and meaningful relationships – sometimes we have to endure a little pressure.
In apple cider making – much like in family life – even though it might sometimes feel like you are being squeezed by a force of 2,200 pounds, you have to remember – that’s how you get to the juice. The Halsey Family knows this well.
My afternoon is winding down. I covered alot of acres and learned alot of apple lessons today. And although those apple cider donuts are calling my name, there are thanksgiving leftovers waiting for me from my own family. But the next time you find yourself way out east on the end of that very long island you must promise me you’ll swing by The Milk Pail, say hello to John, Evelyn, Jenn, Amy and little Will – and stay for a while. You will surely satisfy your craving for fresh squeezed apple cider, hot apple cider donuts and for family-time too.
A little Seinfeld apple/farm reference – watch the first 2.5 minutes!
Milk and Cookies. It is a beautiful marriage. A perfect pairing. A flawless union. And there’s a tiny shop, on a windy street in the heart of the west village, that pays homage to this fine couple. Filled with romance, intrigue and seduction, Milk & Cookies Bakery is a lesson in love.
Even the bench is inviting - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
The romance begins even before your first nibble. The shop, which sits at 19 Commerce, practically whispers to its passerby – Come in, Come in. Tucked away from the main drag, the shop has eluded even local village residents. And that is certainly part of the allure. Once you stumble upon this great cookie sanctuary – you feel as if you have just discovered a speakeasy during the prohibition era. You want to keep the secret for yourself and shout it from the rooftops – all at the same time. NYers love to stumbled upon a secret saloon or discover a chef who experiments with a yet to be explored food group. The search is half the fun. Luckily for us, the capture at Milk & Cookies is just as rewarding.
When I first found myself winding my way down the curve of Commerce Street and I peered into this little nook – I knew I had to know more. I spent last Thursday falling in love with these two classic American treats…
Like any good date, my day at Milk & Cookies Bakery starts with a little mood-setting. Damien DePaolis is the store manager here and he is a man in charge of his cookies. The first order of business upon entering the shop is to dim the lights and raise the music to create the right cookie-indulging-atmosphere. You can almost hear the echo of Barry White playing in the distance.
I walk into the shop and I am kissed by the sweet smell of Pure Premium Madagascar Vanilla, Guittard Chocolate and Valrhona Cocoa. We haven’t even begun to bake yet but the walls, which are painted a Robins egg blue, and the hardwood floorboards are soaked in the sweet scent of freshly baked cookies from days gone by. All of my senses are standing at attention now.
Damien has a newsboy cap on his head, fire in his eyes and drama in his voice. He speaks slowly and smoothly – like he’s got a secret to tell. He dances, in one poetic movement, across the floor of our little shop: lights… camera… action… cookies! Damien is an actor and he knows just how to create the right ambiance for the cookie encounters our customers are about to experience.
We begin our work by displaying all of our sweet treats on the large marble counter-top. I am given the task of placing and piling the chocolate covered macaroons in a perfect pyramid ever so delicately on a paper doily which sits atop a white ceramic cake plate with laced edges. Each Macaroon is dipped, halfway, in chocolate and Damien instructs me to arrange the plate so that the chocolate sides all face the same direction. There is a method to Damien’s madness…
Our cookies and our other treats [macaroons, magic bars, lindsor tarts, blondies] are meant to be admired and adored and eaten – in that order. Everything here, at Milk & Cookies, is pretty. From the chalkboard colors used to highlight the ice cream sandwiches, to the counter display, to the precious little smart car that is used for emergency cookie deliveries – the beauty is apparent in every corner. Even Damien is pretty.
Ice cream sandwiches - Delicious, even in winter. Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Smart Car for emergency cookie deliveries. Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
I am reminded of those early stages of love. In the beginning, before we touch – we look. We admire. We breath in the fragrance of our object of affection. We exalt in the symmetry of the face. We contemplate the curve of the hip. We are captivated by that cascade of hair that falls gently across the eyes. Buying a cookie is much like this romantic dance.
Baking cookies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
As our customers approach the counter, they are timid, shy and quiet. I ask my first customer what she would like and I can sense her apprehension. Buying a cookie, I discover, is about alot more than a purchase of sugar, butter and gourmet chocolate chips. Buying a cookie is an indulgence. It feels as if they are taking a bite of the forbidden fruit.
I step back – away from the counter – and to occupy myself with some other task. I realize I have just entered a private space between a lover and the object of her affection and I become fully aware that there is no place for me here. This cookie is not a gift for a friend or family member. It is not a token of appreciation for a co-worker. This is a very personal and private cookie encounter. If you watch closely in your local bake shop – you just might notice this same dance.
Finally, my first customer orders – and she does so apologetically. A cookie, especially one that looks so pretty and tastes so perfect, feels like an indulgence – especially when you pair it, like she does, with a small glass of Ronnybrook Farms milk. And Damien and I step back again so our customer can enjoy this moment at a quiet table in a cozy corner of the shop.
Damien knows what he is doing. And he knows food. As a child, his only notion of breakfast was meatballs and a loaf of italian bread. And Sunday dinner just had to be a stuffed chicken in Sicilian sauce. On Saturdays he was treated to Pizza Fritte. Damien’s Saturday date with fried dough, butter and sugar – was only foreplay for a career in cookies.
A Traditional family recipe for Pizza Fritte:About 1 LB Prepared Pizza Dough3 cups oilPowdered Sugar, Butter or Cinnamon Sugar
Heat Oil in skillet to about 325f to 350f Break off pieces of dough about the size of the palm of your hand and flatten with your hands till about 3/4 an inch thick Fry dough in oil till light brown one side, turn over and brown other side Drain on paper towel or brown paper bagSprinkle on cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar or spread on some butterServe Warm
“I am food obsessed,” Damien tells me, “have been since I was a kid.” And here, at Milk & Cookies, Damien combines his two passions. In addition to his food obsession, Damien is an actor and an artist and a showman. He knows just how to dim to lights and raise the curtain on our leading couple: Milk and Cookie.
Cookie of the Day - The Java Chocomel: A vanilla based cookie with espresso, dark chocolate chunks & caramel
At Milk & Cookies, we have 14 different types of cookies to choose from – 15 with our cookie of the day. No wonder it is so hard to decide. It is just about as overwhelming as logging on to jdate to glance at the available bachelors. So many options – but only one cookie is just right for you. And the funny thing is – with all those choices – only one cookie seems to stand the test of time – The Chocolate Chip!
The Chocolate Chip! - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Milk & Cookies Bakery adds rolled oats to their chocolate chip cookie – making it a more complex cookie with a depth of flavor that is absent in most store-bought versions. And the use of E.Guittard chocolate doesn’t hurt either. With so many cookie choices: Dark Chocolate Toffee, White Chocolate Macadamia, Milk Chocolate Caramel, M&M, Peanut Butter and on and on – sometimes simpler is better. The simple chocolate chip is the house favorite here.
I like to keep things pretty simple too. I live in a 6th floor walk-up building in Greenwich Village. I have no use for fancy things like elevators and doormen – or even cars or TVs for that matter. I don’t wander much above 14th street or much below Houston and I stick mostly to the west side of 5th Ave – NYC’s dividing line. SImple is good. And sometimes a cookie is indeed the simple answer to all life’s problems…
It’s about noontime and I’ve been so curious about the cookie buying habits of human beings (it is almost like watching a documentary about the courting rituals of peacocks on the National Geographic channel) that I have forgotten to eat. While no one is looking, I grab a quick cup of the full-fat Ronnybrook milk and drink it down. I don’t think Damien noticed. And that should just about hold me over.
I slowly and carefully descend the spiral staircase to the heart of the bakery. I swipe a fork-full of raw dough (since I can’t have my milk without my cookie, albeit a raw cookie) and I continue my work – this time mixing 72% dark chocolate, butter and corn syrup, which we will use to glaze a large chocolate chip cookie birthday cake. While stirring the chocolate over low heat, I have a chat with the former Banker turned Baker, Teresa Coles.
Teresa is sweet and pretty – much like the cookies she is decorating. She stands among a sea of butterflies and daisies as she hand decorates each one with pink fondant and yellow and purple piping. I love watching the transformation – as butter, flour, sugar and eggs become butterflies and daisies. And butterflies and daisies become smiles and laughter on the faces of happy children.
Butterflies - almost ready to fly
Butterflies - fly away!
Back up stairs, I am needed to help bake more cookies. We’re low on M&M Sugar, Double Chocolate and, of course, Chocolate Chip.
Stevie Wilson teaches me how to roll the cookie dough just right. Each of our 14 different cookies are rolled differently – some more square, some round, some flat. Some get squashed with the palm of my hand and some are left plump. Stevie teaches me that each cookie really has a unique personality and that each ball of dough has a life of its own. Some cookies (the dark chocolate toffee, smores, milk chocolate caramel and white chocolate macadamia nut) need to be baked on the top shelf with higher heat because they tend to be “spreaders” and they will end up flattening out and becoming thin and puddle-like. The high heat source insures a nicer cookie shape. Stevie also tells me that if we roll them too tight or bake them on the wrong rack, they come out ugly, misshapen, fat and lumpy – and then we have to throw them out – or chop them up and give them away as samples. The uglies and the misshapens don’t even make the cut for selling.
Baking is serious business - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
Rolling the cookie dough - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
So many cookies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com
The uglies. The misshapens. The fat. This reminds me of a few blind dates a recently went on. But can we really size up a cookie, or a potential mate, by its outward appearance? When it really comes down to it, doesn’t it taste the same? Maybe we have all been too picky about what is on the outside and we have been forgetting what is at the core. I’m not sure. But what I am sure about it that they do indeed taste the same. I know because I ate them – all of them – even the lumpies, the misshapen, the uglies and the fat.
When I was in high school I remember that all of the girls were thin and pretty and blond. And there I was, with brown curly hair feeling like I just didn’t quite fit. I also remember that appearances were important. And I recall that all the popular girls had the coolest clothing and the funkiest accessories and the hippest hair styles. I think I was still wearing OshKosh B’Gosh until 6th grade! Not only did appearance matter, but it was everything. The cuter the girl, the blonder the hair, the more ski-sloped the nose – the more popular she was. Oh how I would desperately try to become one of them – putting sun-in highlights in my hair and going on those silly diets (Richard Simmons dancin to the oldies, anyone?) and denouncing or denying my Jewish heritage. I even found myself hanging out at St. Mary’s Church on Ponquogue Avenue with my Christian friends – all for the sake of fitting in, looking the same and trying my hardest to not appear just like those cookies we were throwing to the curb earlier today.
Times change. And while appearance and how we present ourselves to the world still matters, it does not matter more than what is on the inside. I’ve always gotten along better with people who don’t quite fit the mold and who are a bit misshapen. I find those little cracks, crevices and imperfections to be the thing that makes people most attractive, not less. A slight stutter or a scar just above the eyebrow – this is the stuff of real people and real beauty.
At Milk & Cookies Bakery, we want our cookies to look beautiful and to be perfectly shaped. In real life, there’s a little more leeway. And even though some of our batches (especially mine) may not always look perfect – they sure do taste good.
Stevie and I continue to work the cookie dough into their proper shapes and sizes. Stevie is pretty cool girl. She’s a geek – but she’s the cool kind of geek that you might find living in one of those hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn. She has fair skin and dark hair – well except for the hot pink streaks!
Stevie and I chat like two grandmothers who have been making cookies for generations. Stevie is not more than 30 years old but she has a wisdom and a sense of authority about her. She teaches me how to roll the cookie dough, properly and pop it in the oven, properly.
Stevie is also an artist. Specifically, she’s a comic book artist. She writes love stories, but not the kind of love stories that are familiar to you and me and not the kind about married couples like Milk & Cookie. Her stories are no fairy tale. They are urban fables filled with cursing, drinking and, as she puts it, gay-themed-romance.
By day Stevie sells the sweetness of milk and cookies but by nightfall, she writes and draws the darker side of love. Whichever your preference – Stevie’s talent is undeniable. See for yourself – and come by Milk & Cookies to say hello to Stevie – she might even draw you into one of her comics!
My day is almost done. Stevie and I have few more trays of cookies to bake before the late shift arrives. I sneak a little bite of a cookie from the tray of misshapen, lumpy and fats. Ah the sweet taste of imperfection!
The late shift is ushered in by the owner of Milk & Cookies herself, Tina Casaceli. By day, Tina is the Director of Pastry and Baking Arts at the French Culinary Institute. Her nights are spent here.
Fittingly, Tina’s last name loosely translates into House of the Sky or House of the Heavens – and I think that explains where her cookies come from.
Tina’s earliest memory is of being a little girl only as tall as the kitchen table and watching her grandmothers and aunts make cookies. Back then, the women of the house never went to the store to buy cookies for a special occasion – they made them. Tina remembers how all the ladies of the house would sit around and chitter chatter and make cookies. The only problem was that their fingers were too large to tie the tiny little bow on the top of those cookies – and that is where Tina enters stage right and begins her career in pastry.
Young Tina’s little hands were the perfect bow-tieing size and, when needed, she would step up to the plate and lend a hand to the women of the house. Cookie-making, for weddings and christenings and holidays, was a 2-3 day family event – and Tina loved being a part of it. As the ladies would gab on and the elaborate and intricate cookies were designed – Tina would dream about the day when she would be old enough to get her hands in the dough. That day finally came. And we are all thankful it did!
Milk & Cookies. It is a perfect match, isn’t it?
Marriage is a tough business. We have all watched, with hope and expectation, the rise and fall of so many. There was Princess Diana and Charles. There was Fergie and Andrew. And then there was Brad and Jen. Not all marriages are made to last. But thankfully, some do.
There is an almost indefinable quality to this one-man-show of a foodgroup.
A slice of pizza conjures up playful images from our youth. Eating it make us feel devilish, childlike and almost naughty. It evokes memories of birthday parties and grammar school classroom celebrations. And there is, certainly, no replacement for that quick and easy phone call to our favorite local pizza joint for a speedy delivery of both pizza and good time – especially during game night – especially during the World Series!
But, in actual fact, there is nothing naughty or devilish about pizza. On the contrary, it is quite good – and good for you – if you use the right ingredients.
I know this because I spent 13 hours with my hands in dough—as well as chopping and browning the onions, stirring the sauce, finishing it with olive oil, basil, oregano and Parmigiano cheese and even delivering it to your doorstep. Let me tell you about my day…
By days end I was making Pizza- Placing mozzarella on a Bleecker Street favorite: the Nonna Maria. Photo by Sandy Hechtman
I arrive at 10am and I am immediately put to work. Very quickly I learn that before one can cook, one must clean. See, I always thought it was the other way around – I always thought we needed to clean up our messes after we made them. But this is not the case today.
I am handed a roll of paper towels and some windex – and I proceed to wipe down everything I see – the tables and chairs which will be filled with hungry eaters by noontime, the counters where our customers will eventually lean their elbows and press their noses in search and in study of the perfect slice, the windows, the glass soda cases and lastly, the plastic sign out front which boasts, “Best pizza in NY – 3 years running!”
Greg Greenwood and I are a tag-team operation. He brings out the chairs for our sidewalk cafe, I wipe them down. Greg is the brother of the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza, Doug Greenwood, so this is a family operation. It is a nice and sunny day and Greg happily does his work. He is not quite whistling a tune, but he certainly seems like the type of guy who might do just that.
Greg came out of retirement to work here and keep an eye on things for his brother. He worked, for over 30 years, at a desk job for NY State Tax. He’s not quite sure which is harder: pizza or taxes, but he remembers fondly that he had an easier time finding a lunch hour in his old gig. Here at Bleecker Street – it’s always lunch! He is very funny and very sweet. Throughout the day you can hear Greg instruct customer after customer to, “watch your step” so they don’t trip on the stairs as they leave. It doesn’t matter if you are a first-timer or if you are a regular here. No matter how many times you have walked up the steps to Bleecker Street Pizza, Greg will kindly part ways with you with a simple, “watch your step.” It’s just his thing. What you don’t know about Greg is that he knows you are a regular – and he wants you to watch your step anyway. That’s just the kind of guy he is. And Bleecker Street is better for it.
Watch your step!
I keep my eyes on Greg for most of the morning. Even when I am off doing other work, I feel the need to know where Greg is at all times, just in case I need to watch my step.
Greg tells me that he chose to come out of retirement because he gets bored after a few days at home with his two friends: Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer. That being said, after a few days of Pizza and Pizza-hungry customers, Oprah’s not looking so bad to him. So Greg and I give everything a once over and I am eager and anxious to get started with the real work. I know I can always run back to Greg if I need a break or if the heat of the kitchen gets to me.
Greg has a warmth about him and his work means something to him. Greg is the kind of guy that gets to work at 9:30, when he doesn’t really have to be in until 10. And he teaches me a valuable lesson: He shows me that before I can make a mess out of something (pizza, for example), I need to clean up from the night before and start with a fresh slate.
While windexing the last of our 4 outdoor tables I realize: Greg’s lesson about cleaning before cooking can be applied more broadly.
I think about past and present relationships. I think about how I sometimes come to new relationships without having cleaned myself up and wiped myself off from those that came before. I remember a date I went on – only 3 weeks after a recent breakup – and I later realized that everything I was saying to him (the new guy) was really meant to be said to him (the old guy). You’ve got to wipe the counters down before you get yourself cooking – in life and in love – and in pizza.
After cleaning I spend about two hours doing nothing. Well, seeminglynothing. Nothing only to the untrained eye. For two hours I watch… and I watch… and watch. I only later discovered that all that nothing was indeed – turning into a something.
I find myself a little perch in the corner of the pizza place. I am nestled in between a burning hot oven (I know this because my wrist accidentally grazed it a few times) and an even hotter pizza-maker. I watch Tony ever so gently and delicately make pizza. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.
Tony works for 10 hours a day and he makes pizza the entire time – one after the other after the other. While he is doing this, he has his ears tuned in the every aspect of the operation at Bleecker Street. He hears and he knows everything that is going on behind him – but his focus remains on the pie.
Tony has quite a gentle and artistic way with his work. And as the pressure from the kitchen heats up and the lunch crowds pour in – Tony is anything but tense. He is calm and cool – a man in control of his pizza.
While Tony technically resides in the fast-paced city of Manhattan, his heart and his rhythmic and calm pace are an echo of his former existence in a place that is far away from here. While he makes pizza (Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat. Dough, sauce, cheese, repeat.) he paints me a picture of a land where people don’t run from one appointment to another and where food choices are much more limited. He reminisces about a simpler life. Tony speaks of a place where just one meal a day is enough to pleasure and satisfy a person, all the while he is serving up pizza to the masses – for their lunch, and their dinner and their late night snack.
So, after I wait and watch – and watch and wait – Tony finally turns to me with those dangerous steel-blue eyes and says one simple yet powerful word, “ready?”
Tony finally decides that I am ready to go to the kitchen after watching him make pizza for 2 hours. Photo by Sandy Hechtman
All that waiting and watching and finally, my time has come. I later learn that Tony was teaching me my second lesson for the day. Sometimes we do have to watch and wait and take it all in… and learn.
Sometimes we can’t win the jackpot on our first pull of the lever. Sometimes we can’t score a home run with our very first swing of the bat. Sometimes we can’t even make a lasting marriage with our first walk down the aisle. Life is funny that way. Sometimes we have to watch and wait.
I have a habit of always wanting to jump right in to everything I do. I want to make things happen and make them happen quickly. I want to fall in love, and find the perfect career and make fast friends instantly upon first encounter. I want to get to the end, before I even try my hand at the beginning. I want to move in and marry you, before I even know your name – or at least before I even know who you really are and who I really am as well.
Tony’s slow and patient pizza making lesson is a lesson for life. And when I think about my life, with Tony’s simple lesson in mind, I realize that some of the best things in my life are those that took a bit of time. I have three best friends – we are a foursome all together. There is no one I trust more deeply and can lean on more closely than these girls, who I have known since 3rd grade. And while I have met some fabulous people in this great city, Tony reminds me of the lesson that good things take time and patience – with friendships as well as with pizza.
So now, it is time.
“We go to the back” Tony says with a smile and a nod. We walk, like a death march almost, to the kitchen in the far back of the restaurant. Tony opens one-half of the swinging kitchen door and says to Miguel, “This is Amy. Show her what to do.”
Now I am officially nervous. I look for Greg one last time but he is now far away from me, up front by the register making sure people are getting in and out of the door without tripping all over themselves. So it is just me – cooking in the kitchen with Miguel – tripping all over myself.
Miguel speaks little English but he has kind eyes and a tender way about him. He apologizes for his lack of language skills – and that is the last time for the entire day that it feels like there is any language barrier between us. I am in a tiny kitchen with tight quarters, with Miguel and we are joined by 6 other young guys. They bump into each other, get in each others way, borrow each others knives and drop packages on the floor. But not once do they fight. Not once do they seem to get frustrated with each other. Not once do they stand angrily on top of one another. They all seem to get along. And they all seem to know their first and only priority – to get the job done.
The very first thing we do has nothing to do with pizza. I also thought it had nothing to do with ANYTHING of any importance – but I would later find out that I was wrong.
We begin assembling the salads. Most pizza places have a salad on the menu as an option – so this is where we start for the day. We fill our clear plastic containers to the top with mesclun greens, 4 tomato slices, 5 cucumber slices, a handful of sliced black olives and cubed red peppers. We add a slice of purple onion for flair.
Then something happened to me in that moment when that very first salad came together. Mind my raced – from thinking that this task was meaningless and hoping to move on to more important matters like dough, sauce and cheese – to all of the sudden realizing the importance of what I was doing – however large or small.
The idea that someone – some random person – was going to eat the salad I had prepared for them kept me going. Don’t get me wrong, I have made salad before – all types of salads with goat cheese and toasted pine nuts and all sorts of fun treats on top. But the realization that I was making this salad for someone to enjoy – for someone to find pleasure in – that alone made it worth it.
We all do our jobs for different reasons. In that moment, as a salad maker, I found pleasure and satisfaction in the idea of feeding people. To help someone’s day go more smoothly, to give them a bit of pleasure, to allow a busy mother to enjoy a quick and heathy meal – that made it all worth it. When you begin to make food for others, especially if you (like me) have never really done so, it takes on a meaning and a life of its own. It becomes quite maternal. I don’t cook much, just like many single NYers. But the chance to make a simple salad as my first task in the tiny kitchen in the back of Bleecker Street Pizza helped me to understand the true value of feeding another human being. I realized the purity of real people (not real machines) making real food – even something as simple as a house salad.
After salad prep, we chop onions and garlic for the marinara sauce. We let this brown for a very long time in a pot that is larger than any I have ever seen with a wooden spoon that is, quite possibly, larger than any you have ever seen. Every time one of us passes by the big pot with the big spoon on our way in and out of the kitchen or in and out of the refrigerator in the back of the kitchen, we give it a good stir. A few hours later – with the addition of tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper, oil and few other secret ingredients – WE HAVE SAUCE!
So after several hours of salad and sauce and a little bit of a roll in the dough, I have indeed graduated. I only know this because when I looked up from that steaming pot of thick and hearty red sauce, I see those steel-blue eyes checking on me to gauge my progress. Miguel and I peacefully part ways. I tell him he is a great teacher. I’m not sure he understands me – but he smiles just the same.
With Tony by my side, I return to the front of the house – to the stage where Tony makes his pizza. And it is indeed a stage – elevated just enough from the common pizza eaters. Tony’s perch sits on a pretty nice piece of real estate – complete with a large window view. He often gazes out the window – and if you’re lucky, you get to gaze back in at him. I say this because I can see how very valuable Tony is to the neighborhood people. As the workers of Greenwich Village are going about their day – they never neglect Tony as they shower him with warm waves and winks. Tony never neglects them either and no matter how busy things are inside our little pizzeria, Tony appears, to the outside world, to be connected and in tune with the beat of the neighborhood streets. Greenwich Village practically has a mayor on every corner – an old timer who has survived the decades or a young shop owner who is treated by all like royalty – waving hello as he goes. That is the way Greenwich Village is – and that’s the way we like it. Tony is like a king – of the corner of Bleecker & 7th at least. But he’s a good king and a benevolent dictator – I think this is one of Tony’s favorite things to do – to watch out the window and be one with the people.
Tony’s other favorite thing to do – make pizza. And he’s good at it. Tony gives me a look and I know my time has come.
We start, of course, with the dough. We slowly work and stretch the dough – by rotating it and pressing it on the marble slab countertop. Tony slides his gently against gravity and into the air – and i try to do the same. We stretch and manipulate the dough until it grows into a full size pizza crust. My dough comes out a little thinner than it is supposed to be. Tony tosses it, without malice, into the garbage.
Out of kindness, and a bit of sympathy, he hands me his dough and I continue my work with that. I sprinkle some cheese – maybe a little too much – on the pie. Tony takes off the extra cheese and puts it back in the cheese bin. Time for sauce. Tony hands me the ladle and he patiently guides my shaky hands as I place each dollop of sauce in the correct quadrant. Tony then tries to move the sauce around, with his hands, so it is placed more evenly throughout the surface of the pizza. Tony and I have a back and forth rhythm now: I make, he fixes. Finally, I sprinkle the oregano, Parmigiano and my favorite ingredient, some extra virgin olive oil on my pizza. And we have liftoff! I pop the pizza in the oven and I breath a sign of relief. High fives all around. I have learned that it is not at all easy to make pizza and it is even harder to make good pizza. With the right ingredients – and maybe 1,000 more lessons from Tony & Miguel I might just get the hang of it. Take a look for yourself:
Finale (photo series by Gary Winter)
All this pizza making had me curious. I wanted to know more about the Man Behind the Curtain. With my new found knowledge that pizza-making is not an easy task and that running a pizza shop is an overwhelming project, I needed to explore what it was that would compel one man to take on such a feat. He had to have a good reason.
Doug Greenwood is the owner of Bleecker Street Pizza. Doug is a charming man. He is warm, inviting and almost seems a bit of a softee. He has that paternal quality of generously yet forcefully pushing food on those around him. “Eat, eat” he said several times until I was forced to enjoy a salad and a slice.
I think this is an important quality in a restaurant owner. But a softee he is not. Doug is a retired NYPD Captain. He served for 26 years. He may be soft hearted but there is certainly a strength and a sense of leadership about him – uniform or no uniform.
Cops, firefighters – they are all welcome here – and they know it. In fact, at Bleecker Street Pizza, anyone who comes in wearing a uniform is treated with a certain respect and a sense that they are not taken for granted here. Besides having great pizza, it is a good place to be for a man or woman in blue. There is a sense of fraternity and comraderie on the corner of Bleecker & 7th. And I suddenly feel even safer.
I spent a little time with Doug last week. He took me to the back and through the kitchen into the refrigerator. With childlike excitement Doug shows me all of his fabulous ingredients. He points out, with enthusiasm, the Basil from Israel and the real Parmigiano–Reggiano cheese. “Not everybody uses this”, he says. Quality – and sometimes costly – ingredients are what make the pizza great. That – and an italian grandmother with a perfect recipe for sauce.
My night at Bleecker Street Pizza ends with a delivery. I was having so much fun working with these guys and making people smile with a slice, that I neglected the fact that there were some hungry mouths to feed just down the street. Good thing the boxed up pie was sitting on top of the oven – cold pizza is just not the same.
This season’s 30 Rock says it best:
(After you have watched it: click “Continue” and then “Pause” – these clips tend to run on for some reason.)
Vodpod videos no longer available.
Much like a schoolboy, Tony grabs his backpack and gives me a nod. It is 10:36. We have put in a full day and it is time to go home. It’s funny to think that he spent his whole day participating in this seemingly simple task – but that he brought so much pleasure to so many.
I’m not actually a pizza person. At least I wasn’t until I tasted the house favorite a few years back: The Grandma Nonna. I am a thick crust kinda girl and this square slice just does it for me. The Nonna Maria is pretty life changing as well. They are both knee-buckling bites to eat.
And while I didn’t consider myself a pizza-craving fanatic like most manhattanites, lately, I have been dreaming about hooking my arm up to an intravenous drip of that Bleecker Street marinara sauce. Yes, I have been dreaming about pizza – and Tony and Miguel and Greg and Doug and the rest of the boys at Bleecker Street. I have been thinking about how hard they work and how much heart they put into each and every slice. If you happen to find yourself wandering around Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue – I beg you to pay them a visit. If you can’t get down that way, give them a ring for delivery. You just might get me at your doorstep.
Visit me on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at: Bleecker Street Pizza, Bleecker St & 7th Avenue, NYC 10AM – 2AM After my day on the job I will be blogging about the experience. Be a part of it! Eat my Pizza! Read my stories!Got any pressing Pizza questions? Send me a note and I will ask them for you! http://www.bleeckerstreetpizza.com/index.htm
Chinese Food, TV dinners & my Thursday cooking lesson with Mom
When I was growing up, dinner at the Bandolik household was nothing fancy. Don’t get me wrong, it was special – but it just wasn’t fancy.
The early years
Sometimes it meant ordering Chinese Take-out from the one decent delivery place in town. I remember when my Dad would phone in the order and the voice on the other end of the phone would respond, “ah yes, Uncle Kenny, hello.” He was such a frequent customer, they knew him on a first name basis. To this day they still call him Uncle Kenny – even though he is not an uncle to anyone there. As the story goes, one day my father happened to walk into the Chinese restaurant at the exact same time as my cousin – and my cousin gave my father a big, “Hello Uncle Kenny.” So my Dad forever became known as Uncle Kenny to the staff of Ming Garden.
A familiar and comforting image
On very special nights, my family would go out to dinner – also involving Chinese food. We would often frequent Panda Garden or Johnny Chih’s in Westhampton Beach. I remember all of the elements and how very special it was to be dining outside of the home. White table cloths, white linens, steaming hot tea and fresh crunchy noodles in a bowl. My favorite element of this experience was that we shared everything. Plates of food filled the table and were passed from one to another. We would chat about what tasted good, and what we didn’t like, what we should have gotten, and what we’ll get next time. Comments on the perfection of the crispy walnut shrimp (they get it right every time!) or the blandness of the chow fun (why do we keep ordering this?) or the fullness of our bellies (why did I eat the whole egg roll?) filled the table. The idea of shared food and a shared experience warmed my little heart. Less so for my older sister, Jennifer. She hated Chinese food.
One of our family favorites in Westhampton Beach
On most nights, however, I recall my sister popping a TV dinner into the oven (no, not the microwave, the oven). I remember those dinners being delicious and exciting. I think I liked all those compartments; one for chicken, one for mashed potatoes, one for vegetables and if you were lucky, one for a brownie. I also remember how my sister would doctor up each compartment to make it taste even better than it already did. A little pat of butter on the mashed potatoes. A little pat of butter on the vegetables. A little pat of butter on the chicken. A little pat of butter on the brownie. Well, you get the idea. And I’m not joking – she totally put butter on that brownie and it totally tasted better. And now that I am 35 and have some slight exposure to the world of food, to fabulous restaurants and to fantastic chefs – I actually think that with all that butter, she must have been french trained!
Don't forget to butter your brownie!
But my most profound food & family memory must have emerged when I was about 9 or 10 years old – and continued for many years. My mother and I had this little ritual that we would share and that I cherish to this day. I’m not even sure if she knows how important it was to me. My mom was a working woman, but she happened to be off from work every Thursday. Thursday became a special day where she could relax, run errands and make a nice family meal. Oftentimes she would make fish – either shrimp or flounder were the typical choices – and a nice big bowl of Spaghetti and Ragu brand sauce. Simple things really.
The only sauce I knew
The ritual we shared went like this: After school my Mom and I would ride in the car towards the ocean to go to Tully’s Fish Market. Growing up in the Hamptons afforded us lots of great fresh local fish – of which we mostly stuck to shrimp and flounder. We’d get to the market – and although my Mom was not referred to as Aunt June – she was indeed on a first name basis with the shop owner. The shop was exciting. It almost felt like a place you shouldn’t be in or shouldn’t see. It felt like a warehouse that was off limits. But there we were – with all that fresh fish, all that seawater on the floor getting our shoes all dirty and fishy, all those live lobsters moving about – it felt like an exciting world to get a glimpse of every Thursday after a tough day at school. After we got all the trimmings for that evening’s dinner – my mom would get one more thing, just for me: A quarter pound container of Tully’s fresh crabmeat salad. This was special – because if I didn’t finish it in the car on the way home, then I would sit at our small, round, faux-wood kitchen table and eat my crabmeat while watching my mom peel, de-vain and wash the shrimp. She had her own ritual way doing this. She would always rip open the brown packaging that the shimp was wrapped in and use that as her working area. I can still hear the tearing sound of the brown paper bag. She did this simple task with such confidence – making our Thursday meal was something she knew well and something she did well. Between bites of crabmeat I would sometimes help her dip the shrimp into the egg batter and then into 4C salt-free Italian breadcrumbs. We would leave the breaded shrimp on the brown paper wrapper until we were ready to fry them up as soon as my Dad walked through the door from work.
A staple in the Bandolik family pantry
This ritual never left me. And while I have broadened my palate to include much more than chinese food or shrimp and spaghetti or TV dinners with butter, butter, butter – I have never lost sight of the importance and value of the family meal. From food shopping, to preparing the ingredients, to the shared plates of pork fried rice, my earliest and most fond memories of growing up are always around that small faux-wood table filled with food, family and friends. I remember those Thursdays especially well – and will always treasure that early food journey to Tully’s and back – crabmeat salad and a cooking lesson from mom.
And now, inspired by my family’s communal table at home and enriched by my experiences as a Culinary Tour Guide for Foods of New York Tours, I embark on my own journey — through the world of food, with the goal of highlighting and promoting family run businesses, mom & pop shops and places and foods that remind us of home sweet home.
52 FOOD ADVENTURES FOR ONE HUNGRY GIRL...
After 6 years (and counting!) of working as a culinary tour guide for Foods of New York Tours, I became hungry for more. I decided to take a (de)tour and embark on my own journey, through the world of food. Week by week, I will spend one day (Thursday) experiencing (growing, milking, chopping, mixing, baking, tasting and delivering) a unique aspect of food and writing about it here. Tune in!