Tag Archives: family rituals

#16/52: Egg Cream Creation at Hinsch’s

It’s 77 degrees and sunny.

New York City is having a heat streak.

As winter takes an early exit and our premature summer takes center stage, I’m feeling ready to release a few layers. I dispense of my dependable down jacket and store away my series of scarves. I tuck my winter-wear deep into the depths of my narrow New York closet and unearth an enormous amount of sleeveless summertime survival gear. Unfortunately, my comfy winter coat covers nearly half of my hallway hanging space and I come to the conclusion that I need a more sensible scenario.

After a quick tap on Target.com and a delivery 2 days later, I find myself on the floor of my 300 square foot apartment contorted and confused as I build a new 36 piece clothes closet that will house my seasonal skirts and summer shirts. Sweating and suffering from 3 hours of Spanish-only assembly instructions with more washers and wooden dowels than I care to mention, I place the final fixture atop my 6 foot 5 inch creation and hope that my 3 years of Ms. Crecca’s high school language lessons have served me well. I gained a brand new closet to store my seasonal stock but depleted my recources and exhausted my energies in the process.

I need a drink.

And not one of the alcoholic variety but rather, one of those sweet syrupy refreshments that symbolizes that summertime is about to bloom out of this springtime of indecisiveness.

I quenched my thirst last Thursday making Egg Creams at Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

The handsome Hinsch’s sign, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn – sandyhechtman.com

I wake at 7AM with only one item on my agenda: To craft the quintessential Brooklyn Egg Cream. My only obstacle is the R train. After 2 unexplained train delays and 22 sessions of “please stand clear of the closing doors” I arrive in the Borough of Brooklyn for my morning shift.

Awaiting the R train – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I was raised hearing histories of a Brooklyn of an ancient era. My parents painted a picture so pure and peaceful that I sometimes wish the subway was a modern day time machine. I wish that when I emerge above ground on the other side of the East River that I will arrive in a Brooklyn filled with stoop ball and Spaldeens and sock hops and sweet confections sold for 5 cents at the corner store.

As I arrive at at 8518 5th Avenue and spot the old-school style sign for Hinsch’s Luncheonette that stands out among a sea of modern meal monopolies, I begin to wonder if all my wishing has been rewarded. I’m about to enter one of the few old-time luncheonettes that have been lost on our recent city landscape. This one is complete with its own confectionary. Yes, they even make their own malted milk balls and nonpareils and the best-I’ve-ever-eaten-butter-crunch in small batches off site and sell it here at Hinsch’s. I’ll have to save some of those for later. What I’m most in need of is a good old fashioned egg cream. But I’ve got to begin with the rites and rituals of this carbonated concoction before I can quench my thirst.

You’ll love Hinsch’s too – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

In a sea of sameness, one stands out – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

As I enter the 1890’s building the series of forrest green bar stools beckon me back in time. The wallpaper patterned plastic booths invite 3 scoops and 2 spoons to savor Hinsch’s homemade ice cream. But I’ve got labor longer before I enjoy her rewards. At Hinsch’s, as delicious as the dinners are… it’s all about the drink.

Old school bar stools beckon – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Simplicity. What more might you need? – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I meet Raul, the ice cream professional who schools me on the subtleties of egg cream creation. With a passion for perfection, Raul instructs me on the proper proportions and the ideal order of ingredients. Raul corrects my mistakes as I make them – and there are many. The egg cream is an art form created at the fountain and focusing on 3 specific items: milk, seltzer and Fox’s u-bet brand chocolate syrup – in that order and with specific measurements.

A proper education – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I reach for the proper vessel but am overwhelmed by the shelf lined with banana split bowls and antique sundae dishes. Raul guides me to the classic coca cola glass and places it on the countertop. My tentative pours lead to much less milk than my recipe requires and my stirring ability lacks speed. The signature frothy foam atop my egg cream is in danger of losing its bright white color as I drizzle a dab of chocolate syrup in the wrong direction. Raul coaches me a few more times before I make an egg cream worthy of the next customer that wanders in.

Choose your weapon – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

I’ve never met a drink so ritualized and revered and with so many obstacles to perfection. My own Father often schooled me on the secrets of a excellent egg cream. His every-other-evening treat was an exercise in potions and portions. He offered me ingredients and insight as he spoke standing at his perch at our kitchen countertop and instructed in such a stoic manner as to signify the ultimate importance of: Milk, then seltzer, then syrup, then a speedy swirl of the spoon.  And even today, with Raul watching my every move and with my father’s voice echoing in my ears, the excellent egg cream eludes me.

My first foray – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

The proper proportions.

Even the name egg cream is crowded in confusion and marred with mistakes. There’s no egg.  There’s no cream. And mysteries surrounding the moniker abound. One story suggests that the use of grade ‘A’ milk lead to the name:  “A” cream, which sounds suspiciously similar to ‘egg’ cream. Another theory attests that ‘egg’ is a corruption of the German word echt (meaning genuine or real) and that this drink was indeed an echt cream. Another argument in this unending debate travels all the way from Paris, France where the ‘chocolat et crème’ (chocolate and cream) morphed phonetically into our beloved Brooklyn beverage. A final sentiment on the subject suspects that the first version did, in fact, use egg and cream, but that those ingredients were eliminated due to food restrictions during WWII. And even though my cocktail technique may fall short of perfection, Raul appears impressed with my egg cream understanding.

Fast friends – Me & Raul – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

An egg cream understanding – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

My best shot at the Egg Cream

All this egg cream investigation has me thinking about a few labels of my own. I wondered about the words we so regularly whisper but seldom scrutinize. Our cast of characters is filled with lovers and enemies, friends and foes – all playing overlapping roles. And what about the word family? How do we define a word that is littered throughout our lives so frequently, that it often escapes explanation.

I have an adorable uncle named Stanley who, by definitions sake, is not really my Uncle. Many years ago my Dear Uncle H passed away. My Aunt met a nice man at a meeting and although they’ve never married, Stanley is more my uncle than many others, though there is no bloodline between us. And from my vantage point, whenever I stand on my Cornelia Street stoop and look lovingly all around, I see my extended family: I have 15 blue shirted brothers who work behind the counter at Faicco’s at the beginning of our block. I have a best friend who also happens to be my boss. We all share one beautiful black coated canine named Charlie who resides at 29 Cornelia. And lastly, I have a husband at Home Restaurant and although he may not exactly fit the origins of the word (from the Old Norse meaning Master of the House) he serves as more of a husband than others who have held his position. Although none of them know this is their namesake, our Greenwich Village Family – while not ancestors, nor blood, nor brood – share a Cornelia Street kinship that is apparent to anyone who is willing to extend their dictionary definitions.

As I think about my new friends back at Hinsch’s, I am starting to see some of these very same characteristics. There is a difference between dining in a restaurant and being adopted into family. And Hinsch’s has perfected the latter with its proud papa and protective patriarch: Roger Desmond at the helm. Roger is the type of owner who offers hellos, handshakes and ‘how ya doings’ to each and every one that enters. Hinsch’s is not an exclusive club. One needs no engraved invitation. There are no formalities, no fancy furnishings or tables topped in white. No velvet ropes to wrestle with and no reservations required. This is a flock of friends who have formed into family. Just one order of their well known waffles and you’ll feel the same.

A second home to so many – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

But this family – Hinsch’s happy family, like so many other families – is marred with mourning and near misses.  After 6 generations of family-run fun and countless egg cream creations – Hinsch’s was going to be history. On September 29, 2011 a sign in the front window read: HINSCH’S IS CLOSING AFTER 63 YEARS OF SERVICE. It struck me that, in NYC and beyond, you never know what you’re walking by until it’s gone. Well loved shops with long histories fall by the wayside, just as my Grandfather’s did. And Hinsch’s was about to suffer the very same fate. Hinsch’s originally opened in 1915 as Reichert’s Ice Cream Parlor before Herman Hinsch took over the business back in 1948. Hinsch eventually sold, in 1962, to the Logue Family who carried on the namesake – along with handmade chocolates and hand packed ice cream – until the current economic crisis, rising rent and desire to retire threatened this beloved brooklyn eatery.

Hinsch’s went the way that so many Happy Days era diners do. They were done for.

When the doors shut on that dark day, this story might have ended sharply. The headlines were headed to print (and printed) and the locals forced to find another hangout to call home. Another New York institution loses its life.

The sad neighborhood news on 9/29

Symbolic little engines that travels Hinsch’s perimeter – sandyhechtman.com

But Hinsch’s fate followed a less predictable path. She’s the little luncheonette that could.

Enter Roger Desmond: Local business owner. Neighborhood guy. Hero.

When the nostalgia nestled in Roger was inspired, then inquired and eventually acquired Hinsch’s. He remembered the Hinsch’s of his youth – he’d stop in after school whenever he was in the mood for a good old grilled cheese & some neighborhood girls. His heroism is not completely lost on him. As humble as he is, Roger does get a kick out of his newfound status. “I own Hinsch’s, for gosh sakes.” It’s a bit of a self esteem boost for him. “If you can make Hinsch’s come back, thats nice.” There’s something sweet and simple about the sentiment. But after all, there’s something sweet and simple about Hinsch’s too. And after 2 months of renovations, the doors eventually opened again. Long live the luncheonette.

Roger is the one-time bartender turn soda fountain owner responsible for saving our fair Hinsch’s. He’s the man that made is possible for Edna to eat her 3 meals a day – every day – here at Hinsch’s. He’s the guy who remembers where Vicki went on vacation when she comes in after a few weeks away. He’s the angel who allowed Julie and James to have a place to celebrate (on the house) the fact that today – on the day of my employ – their doctor informs them that they will soon be proud parents. Julie and NYC firefighter James always visit Hinsch’s for their small scale celebrations – as their family has for 3 (and soon to be 4) generations. Roger is the host who warmly welcomes his diners. With boldness and  brevity he simply asks, “a little lunch?”

And even if you’re not yet a regular, wait a little while – you surely will be soon.

A verbal & visual tour – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Enchanting tales of his takeover – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Hinsch’s is his labour of love – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

He has my attention and he’ll have yours when you meet him – Photo: sandyhechtman.com

Julie & James – a reason to celebrate – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

A sentiment shared – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

And so Hinsch’s was saved – as the backside of the staff shirts proudly proclaim. Brought back from the brink and rescued from a harsh reality – as so many of us have. I, too, remember a time when I was feeling quite lost myself. And my savior? The city itself. To her, I am forever indebted. I recall a time in late August of 1998 when I wandered jobless and joyless just after grad school graduation. I moved from my small Hamptons hometown to live in the corner of a cousin’s kitchen on 77th and Columbus. I knew nearly no one except for the next-door neighbor I dated for a short time, only to discover he was also dating his next-door neighbor – one wall away from me. I’d listen at the door for the sounds of his arrival and often sat in silence when he wouldn’t return for a while. I figured it was time to find another friend so I turned to New York and asked for her assistance. She became my constant companion. I devoured her sights and sounds, block by block. I rarely took her subways  but preferred a more intimate approach. I pounded the pavement and after 3 miles to work and 3 miles back, a best friendship was born. And as strange as it may sound, as long as I’m in NYC surrounded by her skyscrapers and brownstones, and even when I’m alone, I am never ever lonely. She’s a warm blanket and a cozy cocktail. And only a New Yorker understands her offerings and gets her gifts.

So sometimes, as in the case of Hinsch’s, we save the city. And sometimes, the city saves us.

We all suffer in silence at select moments of our lives. And just when we need it most, sometimes someone swoops in and gives us a save. My only question to you is: Who or what saved your soul in these last few seasons of your life and are they even mildly aware of their influence?

Back in business – Photos by sandyhechtman.com

Hinsch’s before it was Hinsch’s: Reichert’s Ice Cream Parlor – sandyhechtman.com

Always an ice cream parlor in this spot – Reichert’s

Lunch break with The Cardinal – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

In addition to egg creams and countless other items (I had the utterly amazing Chicken Cardinal with fresh local mozzarella and roasted red peppers on ciabatta lightly brushed with herb butter) that fare much finer than so many other diners, Hinsch’s still sells those sweet handmade confections as it has for 60 years. Their nonpareils are the best I’ve had and well beyond any boxed candy variety. And it’s perfectly appropriate that those dark chocolate discs dotted with white are Hinsch’s bottom line best seller since the French word nonpareil literally translates into: having no equal or unparalleled. I think it’s fitting.

Be sure to stop by Hinsch’s Luncheonette in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and visit with our hometown heroes, Roger & Raul. And maybe even wave hello to Julie, and James of the FDNY.  And don’t forget to order an egg cream for an experience of unparalleled proportions.

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#17: Rice Balls at Faicco’s Pork Store

It’s 8:58 and I’m already late.

Lucky for me, I can be at work in only 2 blocks time. But in my race to arrive on schedule, and as I exit my apartment and pull the door to slam it shut, my flimsy full length mirror slides from its unstable perch and falls to the floor.

Cracked.

I have 200 tiny little pieces and seven years of bad luck to contemplate. As I painstakingly pick up the shattered slivers, I start to wonder about the reality of that old wives tale. Legend leads us to believe that a mirror not only reflects our outfits, but actually steals our soul. And when we New Yorkers run around with no time to spare and crowd our oh-so-tiny abodes leading to living room liabilities– we not only bump into and break our mirrors but we damage our destiny in the dealing. Since our cells and our souls are said to regenerate every 7 years, I may have several seasons of unseemly events to sort through.

Feeling like I could use a little luck, I went in search of a cure to combat my curse. I had hoped for a Ladybug landing or even a penny in my path, but no such luck. And unfortunately, the only wishing well I know is 2 hours east of here on Mill Race Road in my hometown of Hampton Bays. Finally, I found a food that would force my good fortune to return. Ancient Chinese tradition hints at the historical significance of rice as a source of good luck – which is one of the reasons we sprinkle the seed ceremoniously on the bride and groom. To combat my 7 years of instability, I must attempt to harness the healing and restorative recources of rice. But in my Italian neighborhood of Greenwich Village, the only suitable starchy seed to secure is the one found in the rice-centric Sicilian Arancini.

I spent last Thursday making Italian Rice Balls at Faicco’s Pork Store at 260 Bleecker Street. And without that full length mirror to monitor my appearance, the 10 hardworking and honorable hunks at Faicco’s must fill the gap. Indeed, Faicco’s is the only place I know that a self conscious single girl can walk into feeling a little uneasy and alone and, after a few supportive smiles, can walk out feeling like the loveliest lass in the village – and without a mirror in sight.

Internationally known – and for good reason – sandyhechtman.com

With my luck ready to run out and a rainstorm about to arrive, I step into Faicco’s small space and walk safely over the sawdust covered blue and white checkered tile floor. The soft yellow streamers hung from the ceiling serve to brighten this grey day. I’m compelled to step further into Faicco’s by the calling of the clear glass cases featuring house-made sausages in Sweet Italian, Hot Italian and Plain Sweet Italian – although there is nothing plain about the sweet Italian on the other side of the counter.

The streamers change seasonally. The customers stay the same.  Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

SWEET, HOT, ITALIAN Sausages – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Sweet Italian from Sorrento – Photo: sandyhechtman.com

At Faicco’s, you’ll never feel like a piece of meat-sandyhechtman.com

I have entered an old time meat market that has been holding its own for over a hundred years. I am the only female in sight and the staff seems eager for my arrival. I have never felt more welcomed. Judging by the line of ladies that forms around lunchtime for Faicco’s famous Italian Special Sandwich, I am not the only one who feels at home here at Faicco’s.

Awaiting my arrival – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Carefully sidestepping the considerate compliments from Faicco’s baby-blue-shirted cast of lovable characters, I immediately go to work– hoping my rice ball creation will revive my fortune. I walk past the display cases filled with Pork Chops and Pinwheel Steaks and skip over the shelves lined with everything from anchovies to artichokes and escape to the secret space in the back of the shop. As I round the corner I get a glimpse of the coveted rice ball propped up like a pyramid behind the old-school-style sign. I only hope my rice ball preparation will yield equally appetizing results, and provide a little luck to spare.

Everything you need is in this tiny shop – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

The pride of Faicco’s – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

In fact, I’m already starting to feel just a little luckier than I did a few hours earlier. I’m about to be schooled by the chief of the shop. In a city of shiny facades and false fronts, and with so many avenues filled with awnings advertising the names of absentee or non-existent owners, here at Faicco’s, there actually is a Faicco – and his name is Eddie. By my side to teach me the tricks of his inherited trade is the ever popular Eddie Faicco – leader of the pack and owner of the shop.

Eddie Faicco – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Coffee and our classroom – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Behind the scenes and below the degrees- Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Watching & learning – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Tricks of the trade-Photo by Sandy Hechtman-sandyhechtman.com

Faicco’s sells nearly 600 rice balls on their busiest day so I’ve got 600 chances at salvation. I have no time to waste. Eddie advises me as we combine our cheese-lovers trifecta of fresh ricotta, chopped mozzarella and grated romano. We mingle the mix together and add a sprinkling of seasoning: salt, pepper and parsley. Next, I suffer through the long process of laboring over 10 pounds of long grain carolina rice. Julio and I keep the flame low and the mixing to a steady speed. If we burn the bottom, our entire pot of rice is ruined and we’re all out of luck. For 15 minutes we steadily stir as each turn of the wooden paddle becomes a struggle to complete. Our only saving grace is the timed 10 minute break while we wait for our rice to thicken. Julio and I return to our mixing madness, combining the cheese trio with our ready rice. Eager to glean some luck from each grain – and while Julio isn’t watching – I sneak a taste as I bring the fantastic formula into the fridge where it will cool and become ripe for rice ball formation.

My lucky rice getting ready – sandyhechtman.com

The magical flavors mingle – sandyhechtman.com

Harder than it looks – sandyhechtman.com

While no one is looking, except for: sandyhechtman.com

Hoping the luck will rub off – sandyhechtman.com

It’s 10 minute resting place – sandyhechtman.com

With Julio on hand for advice, and Eddie always an earshot away, it’s time for Franco and me to mold each ounce into a full tray of 85 perfect portable bites. We drench them in egg wash, shower them with bread crumbs and dip them in the deep fryer. 85 down and 215 to go to complete today’s rice ball requirements. Franco works fast and he works hard. But according to him, he has a debt to repay to the ‘best boss in the world.’ As we round off those rice balls, Franco – with the passion of an Italian – fills me in on how he is forever indebted to Eddie Faicco. When Franco asked Eddie for a job, it became instantly clear that he didn’t need anyone new. But since Eddie has the biggest heart on all of Bleecker Street, he took him on anyway. Maybe these rice balls are lucky after all? Not only does Eddie take on the lost, lonely and unlucky, but he buys us breakfast every morning as well. In these tight quarters in the back basin of Faicco’s, it’s difficult to tell where one worker ends and another begins. They finish each others task and do so with speed and a smile. I’ve rarely seen 10 guys so talented and attentive. But then again, the father of this ‘family’ is worth working hard for.

Julio, finding my inabilities humorous – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Getting the size right with an ice cream scoop – sandyhechtman.com

Almost edible – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Teamwork at Faicco’s: Franco and me – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Not quite perfectly round – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Franco enjoying my still flawed rice balls – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Perfectly round rice balls ready for breading – sandyhechtman.com

Hoping for no shells – sandyhechtman.com

A quick dip in the bread crumbs only adds to the flavor sandyhechtman.com

215 to go for today – Photo by: sandyhechtman.com

Almost complete – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Final fryer phase – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Eddie Faicco’s family arrived in America in 1897 and they opened Faicco’s Pork Store 4 years later. Eddie’s Great Grandfather (Edward) passed the store down to his Grandfather (Joseph) who handed it to his Dad and Uncle (Joseph and Edward) who proudly passed this shop and their Brooklyn store  on to Eddie and his two brothers. And if you arrive at Faicco’s on a Saturday afternoon, you might just see the next generation ready to force Eddie into early retirement: daughters Jillian and Gianna are always eager to stock the shelves and serve the sea of customers.

Just like his daughters, Eddie started his work behind the counter at age 7.  He began with one simple task: to crack open their Green Sicilian Olives with a wooden mallet. It was an all day affair. He’d place the olives upon a butcher block, which was worn down from repeated use, and crack each one of the 100 pound pail. Olives are often cracked so that they can absorb the curing materials faster resulting in a fuller flavor. After all that cracking, Eddie’s olives were bathed in oil, fresh garlic, chopped parsley and crushed red pepper. And since they’re cracked open, all that goodness can seep inside.

Cracked Olives – Eddie Faicco’s first job in the family business – sandyhechtman.com

I started thinking about my cracked mirror back at home and the poor luck that was predicted. The word cracked reminds us of broken-mirror-bad-luck and of step-on-the-crack-break-your-mother’s-back childhood rhymes. And looking deeper, I discovered the mid-15th century meaning of the word cracked to be defined as Mentally Unsound, Unstable, and Insane. But after one bite of Eddie Faicco’s Cracked Sicilian Olives, I started to think that cracking up and breaking the mold might not be so bad. I may have some shattered shards of glass waiting for me back home and I may not always follow a predictable path free of zig-zag nooks, crannies and cracks in my timeline, but in my mind and for my life, these dents and seams seem to provide the most flavor.

Faicco’s seems to support this very same philosophy. A few cracks and seams in it’s only-timely atmosphere only make for richer rewards. And while their sandwiches and other italian specialties are always top notch, Faicco’s sees no need for a shiny new makeover. This shop is one of the few you’ll find in New York City that is still filled with warm souls not fake smiles, real people not unnecessary artificial attitudes. Here you’ll find a personal touch as evidenced by the handwritten signs hanging everywhere and the absence of many modern technologies and corner cutting techniques. Faicco’s serves as a model for so many newly opened shops attempting to appear old fashioned. But this deli is the real deal. Faicco’s is one of the few in NYC that has achieved an utterly effortless authenticity, absent of any pretension or pomposity.

Equally appealing: The meat and the men at Faicco’s-Photo by: sandyhechtman.com

A little break with one of my Faicco’s favorites – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Hand written with heart – sandyhechtman.com

As I untie my apron strings and step out from the Faicco’s inner sanctum I see the buzz of midday shoppers lining up all around me. After Shaheer advises me on how to slice the meat for Faicco’s famous Italian Special Sandwich, I consult with one of our regulars while she is waiting in line, Tribeca based writer Wickham Boyle.  Wicki’s been shopping here since 1972 and today’s she picking up some house-made hot and sweet sopressata for her husband. ‘Meat makes men happy’, she says, and Faicco’s is thrilled to maintain her merry marriage. Wicki is an intriguing character who serves as tornado of optimism and positivity. On her way out she informs me that today – Thursday, April 26th – is the 10th annual Poem in your Pocket Day – a NYC invented, and now National, celebration. Wicki hands me a small card with a poem written on it and she’s gone. In a flash she speeds away on her basket fronted bicycle and it’s almost as if she was never even there. All I’m left with is the card in my hand with a poem that reads:

Ladder
Lord knows you can’t avoid it sometimes,
you need to walk under a ladder —
but what about the bad luck?
Try this, if you have faith:
They say spit on your shoes and let the spit dry
and you are safe to walk on through.
I believe it. Sort of.
Do you?
 

My new friend, Wicki – Photo by Sandy Hechtman – sandyhechtman.com

Spreading the Poem in Your Pocket message for all – Photo by:  sandyhechtman.com

Wicki is an intriguing character and someone worthy of tracking down and talking to some more. She’s grounded yet mysterious and mystical and by some miracle she handed me a Poem in Your Pocket that provided some insight into my recent search for lucky charms and superstition solutions. Maybe all my work with those rice balls has instantly paid off. Maybe my dear Wicki and her pocket poem was sent to foster my faith. I’m starting to feel a little bit lucky to have met Wicki and mostly, to have worked with my Faicco’s friends… but only time will tell what the next seven years have in store.
I suppose the luckiest landing of all is that I currently reside in this fair city and only a few paces from Faicco’s front door. As my friend Mayor Bloomberg put it best, 50.5 can’t be wrong. Be sure to pop over to Faicco’s at 260 Bleecker Street in NYC and say hello to Eddie and the gang. You’ll be instantly transported back in time and with one bite of NYC’s tastiest rice-centered treat – you’ll start to feel a little bit lucky yourself.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
50.5 Million Can’t Be Wrong
By Mike Bloomberg – For Poem In Your Pocket Day
Hey there, fella! Lady, hey!
Didja hear? It’s “Poem in Your Pocket Day!”
Tenth anniversary—the bubbly’s flowing
People are cheering… yelling… Tebowing
Where best to celebrate this whole affair?
The Crossroads of the World—Times Square
Historic site of many a saga
And on New Year’s Eve… one Gaga
From across the globe, they visit here
50.5 million last year
Wanting to see all they’ve anticipated
Just follow directions—it’s not complicated
Bronx Zoo? (Take the 5 or the 2)
Rockefeller Center? (Walk 6 blocks, then enter)
Empire State? (Bus to Fifth, then go straight)
Ferry to Staten? (At the tip of Manhattan)
Unisphere in Queens? (Get there via several means)
NY Aquarium? (Too far for kids to walk. Just carry ’em)
“Mamma Mia”? (Right behind you. See ya.)
So on this big birthday of PIYP
Have a fantastic day in NYC
Take in the town—there is so much here to do!
(Just have a Poem in Your Pocket when you do)
 

The well known & much loved Faicco’s Italian Special Sandwich/sandyhechtman.com

~Rice balls and story brought to you… lovingly… by Amy Bandolik.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#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

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

#6/52: Joe’s Dairy

 

I am blue.

But don’t fret. There is no cause for alarm. I am not blue as in sad. I am blue as in the cheese.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, with the moon still beaming bright, I find myself unable to sleep. It is an unusually warm winter night yet the heat persists in pumping up through the pipes only to settle in my sweltering 6th floor apartment. Unable to rest, I open my laptop to see what searches are in store. I come upon a game to get me through the night: A cheese quiz. In preparation for my day of cheesemaking, I eagerly fill in the multiple choice form – curious to know my cheese identity. Try it for yourself: http://cupped-expressions.net/cheese/quiz/

The results of my cheese persona are in. It turns out I am a Blue; mellow, knowledgeable, a little crumbly but wise. Not bad – aside from that crumbly part. I examine the other cheese descriptions and notice the mozzarella is most becoming: soft, imaginative, creative, young, flexible and fresh. Mozzarella sounds so dreamy… so delicate. Oh how I wish I was a Mozzarella.

In an effort to learn the art of cheesemaking, as well as make a major personality conversion, I spent my Thursday at Joe’s Dairy at 156 Sullivan making fresh and smoked mozzarella and falling in love – with Anthony, Vincent, Frank, Ro, Luis & Luis (yes there are two of them).

Joe's Dairy at 156 Sullivan Street - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I walk into the shop and I am instantly transported to a simpler time and place. Handwritten love letters line the walls: a pound of Cabot Pepper Jack for $4.49 and Rosemary Crusted Goat for $14.99 are casually written, scratched out, and re-written on white sheets of butcher paper. Scattered among the glass showcases filled with cheese and propped up on the wooden shelves next to the pastas, imported olives oils and balsamics are photos of family and just-born children. And like any Italian household 3 weeks before the holidays, you can hear Bing Crosby belting out White Christmas from the speakers of the 1980’s style boom box in the back.

Hand written cheese notes - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I am greeted by Anthony Campanelli (the shop owner) and Ro Pianoforte (a family friend) who is behind the counter – and has been for 10 years. Anthony is busy packing and unpacking mozzarella deliveries for Luis to transport to nearby restaurants and Ro is tinkering with her cheeses and checking the refrigerator temperature to make sure it is calibrated correctly. While they work – and without skipping a beat – they carry on a cheerful conversation about their holiday gift giving ideas. Among the feta, the manchego and, of course, the mozzarella they chat about snow globes and fairy tale figurines. Joe’s Dairy is a fairly balanced blend of family and fresh mozzarella.

Ro unwrapping her cheese - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Out pops Vincent from the clear plastic partition which separates the shop from the kitchen where the mozzarella is hand crafted. Vincent is Anthony’s older brother. He is lively and bright-eyed and full of philosophies on everything – from family life to mozzarella making.

Vincent - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Do you do any ballet?” Vincent questions me. If you thought he was commenting on the graceful line of my neck as I initially did – you’d be wrong. “It gets pretty crowded back there – and we’re not tiny.” Vincent was right. I did plie and arabesque  – and also slide, and slip, and almost fall to the floor all throughout the course of my day. Thankfully, Vincent was there to quickly catch me on those first few futile footsteps.

I am crushed in the corner of the tiny kitchen clutching the steel basin of the sink as I try to avoid making a fool of myself and sliding on the slippery, wet floor. Luis is standing over a large pot of nearly boiling, 185 degree water – making mozzarella by hand. Hot milky water is flying in front of me as I attempt to delicately hold my position to keep out of the way. With a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face Luis shifts his focus from his work and quickly rolls and ties a tiny ball of mozzarella, dips it in sea-salted water and hands it to me. It looks like a perfectly wrapped present – a bocconcini with a bow. The milky, warm, creamy mozzarella melts in my mouth. I have been to Italy and back and never once tasted something so invited. It is meltingly good and undeniably fresh. My knees are buckling – but this time not from the fickle floor. Luis, watching my delight, gives me a nod. And with this one gentle gesture he initiates me into this private club and my work can commence. But of course, I must start at the very beginning.

The cow’s milk cheese curd comes to Joe’s Dairy by way of Buffalo, New York. I am responsible for first grating the cheese curd in order to create more surface area so that once these tiny pieces of curd hit the hot water they will melt more speedily. Using a Guitara or Harp – otherwise know as a cheese grater – I push pounds of curd through the metal strings – careful not to cause any cuts on the few jagged edges.

Using a harp to grate the cheese curd - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Like a school teacher (which he was) Vincent helps me polish and perfect my technique and advises me to keep the curd towards the center of the harp. He even holds a pen in his right hand – as if he is about to correct my first assignment. Vincent encourages me not to be afraid of the cheese – just dive in and get dirty is his best suggestion. I never thought of myself as fearful of cheese but after he mentions this I can sense my own apprehension. After a few minutes I relax my shoulders and I realize I quite like this ritual and pressing and pushing – especially to the tune of Vincent’s philosophies. “You gotta be insane,” he insists to be in this business – to put your hands into a nearly boiling pot of water and commit your life to making mozzarella for 19 hours a day. Brothers Vincent and Anthony recount stories of those early days when they would work around the clock – then take a break to run home and shower – only to repeat the cycle again the next day. While I am working out my biceps and triceps on the countless cups of cheese curd, I am enjoying the tales of mozzarella past. In this little kitchen there is a fierce competition. Between the cheesemaking and the storytelling – it’s a tie for first.

Brothers, Vincent & Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Getting into the debate with Vincent and Luis - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

And sharing some more philosophies - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

I slide over to the hottest hub of the kitchen. I am nestled close to Luis and a pot of 185 degree water which sits atop a four-burner gas stove – just like the one I have at home. Next to that stove is large empty pot where we pour my freshly grated cheese curd and then bathe it gently with in hot water – one saucer at a time.

Luis being careful not to burn himself with the hot water - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Luis guides my hand as I stir the cheese and watch it melt from hundreds of separated slices into a one 32 pound ball of mozzarella. Waves of water are swishing everywhere – on me – on Luis – and onto the floor. A big splash and then another – and I am soaked. Luis assures me I’m doing okay. Our hands are in hot water as we fish out the large mozzarella ball and begin to stretch it out like bread dough – ever so gently as to not lose the butterfat. And then the games begin.

Stirring the pot of mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

It's harder than I thought - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

As if it is an olympic sport, Luis speedily tosses one pound balls of mozzarella to Anthony and me at a quickening pace – and they teach me how to roll them out into a ball, tucking the cheese into itself and then pinching off the neck to maintain the moisture. One after the other after the next, we toss the mozzarella balls in cool water and then into a wading pool of sea-salt – creating a polished and shiny surface. While we work, Anthony and I get to chatting about his business and his life.

Mozzarella rolling school with Anthony - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Watching the master - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Listening to the expert - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Back to the drawing board - trying to understand the technique - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

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

 

Anthony and Vincent were raised in apartment #3 – just upstairs from Joe’s Dairy. Although Vincent became a full-time NYC teacher (and part-time philosopher as well) Anthony decided that college was not in the cards. When when the owner of Joe’s Dairy, Joe Aiello, decided to go back home to Italy permanently, Anthony knew exactly what he needed to do. Just 3 weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Anthony put his key in the door of his very own mozzarella making shop. For the first few years he was only inches away from creditors. Then the customers came. At first they came out of professional curiosity – but they stayed for the cheese. And you will too. It is a story of a neighborhood boy done good. Anthony loves what he does. As he put it, “who wants stick your hands in hot water all day?  I do. I do”

Fresh mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Getting a nod of approval from the boys - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Anthony, Luis and I continue of shaping and molding one pound and half pound balls of mozzarella in the back, while upfront actor Willem Defoe is buying a large one pound ball of freshly smoked mozzarella from Ro. And I am fascinated, by both the chiseled features and high cheek bones of the Green Goblin as well as the process of smoking mozzarella – something I have yet to see. It is nearing 2PM and after an hour of my continual questions, Luis finally decides to give my curiosity a rest. The two of us retreat downstairs to make some smoke.

Luis and I crawl through the cellar doors and into the dark, deserted alleyway between the apartment buildings. It is here that we smoke our fresh mozzarella by hand – no machines, no chemicals involved. Luis climbs up the exterior stairway and Vincent passes the mozzarella balls out through the window. Back down the stairs Luis and I tie one ball of fresh mozzarella on either end of a short brown cord and hang the cords over a long stick. That stick then rests on the top of a large metal barrel. Luis lets me light the bottom of the barrel on fire and the flames fly free for about two to three minutes until the mozzarella is smoked to perfection. Together Luis an I untie the cord from each ball of mozzarella ball – It feels like christmas-time with a sea of just tied presents all waiting to be unwrapped. The newly smoked mozzarella balls are sent back upstairs, through the window to be washed and sold – all but one. Luis removes his gloves and with his bare hands he rips off a salty, smokey slice and it melts in my mouth. I am a ruined woman. I will never eat from a supermarket cheese section again.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I grew up in a household where the only mozzarella I knew came from a plastic package, had a rectangular shape and was hard – inside and out. This mozzarella is a world away from my early cheese-eating years. After a morning of stretching, pulling, molding and reshaping the mozzarella I start to think about that cheese quiz I took earlier this morning. I think about those mozzarella characteristics – pliable, soft, flexible and changeable. And I am beginning to see some of those traits of mozzarella in me.

I, like most New Yorkers, am always moving from apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship and job to job. I sway with the wind and adapt to each new crisis – quickly and easily. When I crumble – just like those shreds of cheese curd – I swiftly swirl myself back together into a stable and solid object and continue to create the next chapter. But as I think about Luis – tailoring, tucking and tying off the ends of the mozzarella – and as I watched Anthony toss one pounders into the cool water – I start to think about that polished and shiny surface of the mozzarella. All that shaping, kneading and dipping yields a firm outer layer which protects the milky softness inside. This firmness is a quality I have come to appreciate.

In a changing world – it is quite nice to create a sense of stability, solidity and to feel firm in your footsteps. I am moving next week – to my very own studio apartment about a block away from where I am now living with a roommate. The place is small, with fickle heating and it is up 4 flights of stairs. But most importantly… it is mine. It is mine to make a mess – and mine to clean. It is mine to grow basil in the courtyard garden, mine to chop pesto in the kitchen and mine to wash the dishes when the meal is done. As I place my key in and unlock the door to my new empty apartment – and just like that mozzarella after is has had a swim in the salt – I create a firmness, an outer layer of strength and a stability to my surface. 

So maybe I am not blue after all. Maybe I am indeed quite like the mozzarella that I spent my day alongside. Maybe I am soft and pliable and flexible on the inside – but firm and solid and strong as well. If you are wondering what kind of person you are – go ahead and take the cheese quiz. And if you’d like to be converted, like me, and come over to the supple side of the mozzarella – stop by Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan. One bite and you will never look back.

Happy days at Joe's Dairy - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

Frank, Anthony & Vincent's Father - keeping an eye on the shop

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

#5/52: The Milk Pail Farm & Orchard

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

Almost ready...

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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The 1st Thursday – Dinner at home

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

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

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

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!

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 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

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. 

Just as the song says:

Sitting pretty: Is dinner ready yet?

Sitting pretty: Is dinner ready yet?

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized