Tag Archives: food

#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.

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#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.

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#15/52: Pasta Prep at Centro Vinoteca

Summer is officially over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tempted? - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

The other half of the brothers Boljevic - Rizo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early lessons - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Ravioli rules - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

Shaky hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cappellacci class - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proud plating - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#12/52: Raffaele at Palma Restaurant

I’m feeling lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making friends - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#9/52: Bellavitae

I don’t like alot of things.

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

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

1. NYC – anytime, all the time.

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

3. Knowing my neighbors by name.

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

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

These five never fail me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plating it - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy hands - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

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#7/52: Spice Market in Old Delhi, India

I am far from home and a little forlorn about missing out on NYC’s first snowfall of the season. But with each loss comes a gain and so on this past Thursday, I traded in my snow boots, shovel and ski cap to be warmed by India’s winter sun.

India Gate - Delhi, India

 

I arrive at Indira Gandhi International airport in the city of Delhi and I am greeted by a smokey smoggy sky that smells of burning wood. The locals can no longer recognize the scent as it is a part or their everyday existence. It is only recognized by the outsiders – like me. And an outsider I am! Everywhere I go I get looks and stares from the locals as if they have never seen skin so fair or hair so curly. Throughout my stay the staring never ceases and I feel the eyes of all of Delhi – all 14.5 million people – are on me.

I ride along in the car with my driver Nitin to the tune of Cat Stevens playing on the tape deck. I am comforted and humored by the fact that my first Indian driving experience involves the lyrics of Oh Baby its a Wild World playing in the background.

The streets of Delhi are no match for even the most adept NYC cab driver. For miles I can see cars, rickshaws, bicycles, stray dogs, camels, cows and goats all chaotically cruising in and out traffic – and not once do they collide or crash. To my right I see a pedestrian bravely and boldly walking across the street and to my left I see a man on a bicycle transporting 57 small and large hand-woven baskets on his back.

The streets of Old Delhi - India

 

The Market in Old Delhi

 

Outside the car, but not out of harms way, I enter the heart of Old Delhi and wander through Chandni Chowk Road – Delhi’s main thoroughfare. I wind my way through the dirt streets  and into Khari Baoli – Asia’s largest spice market. If I thought my home of Greenwich Village seemed stuck in time, I am in for a shock today. This market dates back to 1650AD when it was an opulent and bustling market. It is still bustling – but no longer retains even an ounce of opulence.

Through the dusty streets I wander on a quest for authentic Indian spices – all the while dodging the aggressive crowds of motorcycles, women walking with jugs of water on their heads and trucks delivering goods to the market. The permanent smog that is suspended in the air is only magnified by the dust from the dirt streets, the smell of incense burning and the scent of hot chili powder as I near the heart of the spice market. I am assaulted by the fragrances and aromas. I walk for 25 minutes on a trek to reach the center – all the while I am coughing and sneezing. I pop a Ricola cough drop in my mouth in attempt to temporarily soothe my dry throat.

Spices & Teas - Old Delhi

 

Spices, nuts and teas

 

There is only one cure for my ailments – my stuffy nose and my congested chest filled with soot and smoke – and that cure is around the next corner. Finally I reach the heart of the spice market – a market which does not service homes and housewives but is intended for retail shops and restaurants.  With so many stalls to choose from, I come upon a smiling older gentleman named Shiva who sits on a thin cushion on the hard dirt floor of his tiny stall.

His spices are kept in small bowls in front of him in a sea of colors as stunning as the saris of the women walking past me in the market. Bright red chilis, yellow mustard seeds, magnificent masalas and colorful curries stand out against the dusty dirt road which lies only inches below these bowls. Tiny twigs of sweet-smelling cloves and pretty packets of star-shaped aniseed complete the picture of perfection. Cardamom, cumin and coriander compound my senses and I am intoxicated. I am also no longer sneezing.

Spices and spice dealer

 

Spice dealer in his stall with his child

 

Woman peeling Ginger while sitting on the street

 

Chilis

 

Shiva rips off a tiny piece of newspaper and uses it as a makeshift spoon and I begin to sample the spices. On first taste I am invincible as my palate bravely bears the burden of the increasing heat. And now, only a few moments into my spice tasting session,  I can no longer feel my tongue as the blend of spices – otherwise known as garam masala or hot mix – attacks my inexperienced taste buds. The heat – enough to melt the 22 inches of snow reported back home in NYC – melts away my ego and my confidence as a spice-lover is shaken. The temperature is only 65 degrees outside but inside – I am boiling.

I wave my white flag and surrender to the spice. After 5 minutes of gasping for cool air and grasping for cold bottled water I notice a distinct result. My cough is gone and my stuffy nose cleared. Even the dirt and dust kicked up by the passing bus can’t penetrate my secret steel wall of spicy protection. The medicinal power of these spices – born of Indian soil –  is in full swing.  And in perfect English Shiva and I discuss their healing energy. Tumeric for treating stomach ailments, burns and bruises. Cardamom to cure colds. Cloves for coping with a toothache.

Beyond that it is believed that my beloved, albeit mouth-burning, spices can even cure cancer – mustard seeds in particular. Shiva instructs me to try some coriander to lower cholesterol and some turmeric to slow Alzheimer’s. And with Shiva’s words, I feel as if I have a secret bit of knowledge that I can tuck away for future use. Heading back to my hotel after a full day at the market and with spice packets in hand, I breath just a little bit easier. While I may have missed the first snow of the winter season – I will come back with a cure for the first cold.

My cough is cured. My nose is cleared. It was worth the trek.

And if you want to have a spice tasting for yourself, 

At the market in Old Delhi

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