Tag Archives: Love story

#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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#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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#4/52: Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck

The best single food item I ever ate was a knee-buckling, life-altering, chocolate crepe from a street vendor on the Boulevard du Montparnasse on the left bank of Paris.

Maybe it was so good because I was cold and it was warm. Or maybe it was because I was 25 and it was Paris. But maybe – just maybe – it was so downright delicious because it was so unexpected, something I just happened upon while wandering down the street on my very first night in the city of lights.

I never found that crepe stand again. And that too was part of the allure.

The search and the find – and sometimes even the loss – makes the treat that much more desired. Crepe stands are a dime a dozen on the boulevards of Paris. The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck is a touch harder to track down.

I spent my Thursday in confined quarters alongside gallons of all-natural artisan ice cream, meltingly delicious Michel Cluizel hot chocolate and perfectly brewed Intelligentsia coffee.  I also got cozy with jumper cables and power cords – proving that the life of a Food Trucker is truly a challenging one.

I am up before the sun at 4:30 in the morning. I take a drowsy shower and pray that the scalding hot water snaps me out of my sleeping state. No such luck. I travel deep into an unknown, unexplored and undesirable part of Brooklyn. By 6AM it is still dark and I am still cold. I am standing on a street corner in an industrial section of Bushwick. I am alone, with the exception of a few hooded locals who brush me by. This is not the friendliest neighborhood. But granted – it’s early.

Finally, I set my eyes on two welcoming sites moving speedily in my direction. The first is Mandi, a 5 foot 9 inch, slender, graceful, willowy, blond-haired former model turned college student. She wears no makeup but is simply and naturally stunning. With peaches & cream skin and strawberry lips – she’s as delightful as the ice cream she will be serving later today. To call her beautiful is an understatement. I prefer the word angelic. Trust me – if you see Mandi in the window of the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, you would definitely want to buy a scoop from her. Maybe even two. Even in the cold.

Mandi Nadel - ice cream girl - http://theothericecreamman.tumblr.com/ - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

The other site I see is equally as alluring: The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck. She is a former postal truck with a gorgeous makeover. Your typically ugly duckling turn swan story. Not only is her exterior striking – she’s got the goods inside as well.

The Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Mandi and I unplug the truck from its power source and stock her full of treats. It’s going to be a rocky ride so we lock everything – from cups to cones – in place in an effort to avoid showering the streets of Brooklyn with ice cream and hot fudge. Although, I can think of worse things.

The garage door raises and the first streaks of sunlight begin to appear. We drive, Mandi at the wheel and me in the passenger seat, over the Williamsburg Bridge and up 1st Avenue. We steal a series of snapshots of the Manhattan skyline at sunrise, along the way. It’s a bumpy and loud ride with lots of rattling in the back but Mandi takes the corners quite smoothly. I’m just thankful I’m not driving.

(Great song. Not an accurate account of our car ride. Just a great song)

A shaky shot of Manhattan at sunrise with me at right - photo NOT by Sandy Hechtman

The last time I found myself behind the wheel of a truck was in 2004 when I drove a 16 foot Penske for 24 hours straight. I drove –  75 miles an hour and full speed ahead – desperate to arrive back home in New York after five years of South Florida living. I handled the road with much less grace than Mandi. I have a vague recollection of visiting a gas station in New Jersey and taking its roof with me when I left. I also got lost 10 minutes from my parent’s house in Hampton Bays – a town I had lived in for 25 years. Lets just say that if I was driving in place of Mandi, the world might not have gotten their ice cream.

We park on the corner of 19th Street and 6th Avenue and like any fancy lady standing on a street corner before 8am, the truck seems to attract alot of attention. She is dressed in a soft, pale, buttery yellow with delicate drawings of vanilla beans, ginger and mint leaves dotted throughout her exterior. Large open windows fill the truck with light and confirm that her ingredients have no secrets: Ice creams filled with Sicilian pistachios, pure organic peppermint, Hudson Valley red currants and fair trade coffee beans.

Open for business - Placing the sign on the sidewalk - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Before we have even turned off the lights up front, we have a customer standing at the window in back. It is only 7AM and she has already begun to sing her siren song. As customers walk up to the truck I listen closely to their conversations. I notice bursts of excitement and shouts of glee as they round the corner and set their eyes upon this truck full of treats.”Oh there she is” and “cool, we found it” litter the pavement as they approach. Coffee-deprived customers come to the window and tell us how they have been searching for us all along the stretch of 23rd Street until they finally discovered us here. This is the nature of our business. The truck moves from block to block – never wearing out her welcome and never staying too long in one place –  like a lover playing hard to get. Now that they’ve found her – I can see relief in their eyes.

The truck is like that partner in relationship that always keeps his distance and then decides to re-appear out of nowhere with a bright and smiling face. I lived in Florida for a few years – a brief blip – and I dated a computer science professor named Khaled – also a brief blip. We met in the cafeteria of the college campus where I worked as a counselor. At the time I had fantasies about becoming a ‘university couple’ and the charming half-French/half-Turkish Dr. Deeb fit the bill. Like the truck, Khaled was deeply attractive and darkly elusive – always one step away from my grasp. Khaled was the kind of guy that would call 3 times a day – and then not call for 3 days straight – and then he would repeat the cycle. At that time in my life, there was something exciting about the rush: glancing at my ringing phone, praying his name would pop up on my caller ID and being disappointed when it didn’t. I became like a detective trying to figure out his formula; What was he doing? When would he call next? And when would I not-so-accidentally bump into him in the college cafeteria? The wondering, the waiting, the searching and the finding all drew me into his spell. Later I found out he had several other girlfriends – all of them also eating in that college cafeteria. I can’t help you keep tabs on your man – but here’s how to track down your truck: http://twitter.com/VLAIC

The line forms - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

We are nestled close to the curb on 6th Avenue with a McDonald’s to our South and Cosi sandwich shop to the North. I can see Staples on my left and Burlington Coat Factory up ahead. In a sea of sameness and chain store monotony, this little truck stands out as different. And different we are. Our front door is a window. Our welcome mat is the curb. Our address is wherever we can find a spot. The weather is both friend and foe. We stand in danger of getting side swiped and losing a mirror and when the street sweeper rides by, he rattles our little shop of meals on wheels. Lots of things can happen that most store front shops never think about. We might even lose our generator power or leave the headlights on too long and burn out the battery – which, unfortunately, we did.

In an attempt to move the truck from 6th Avenue and head to 23rd Street we discover a dead battery. I think this is the truck’s attempt to show us who calls the shots in this relationship. She will not be taken for granted.

Surrendering to her power, Mandi and I hop out with jumper cables in hand and attempt to flag down anyone who might give us jump. We stand there, helpless, for about 10 minutes. We offer everything from ice cream to a steaming cup of hot chocolate. We get many rejections. Finally a NYC taxi pulls over with Sharif at the wheel. It takes quite a while to get enough juice to turn the engine over and Sharif patiently waits with us until we have success. In Arabic Sharif means honest and noble – and I think he was.

The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik

The truck, the taxi & Sharif - Photo by Amy Bandolik

The truck, the taxi & Mandi - Photo by Amy Bandolik

Jump started and ready to roll, Mandi and I round the corner to 23rd Street near 5th Avenue. As soon as we park, and before we are even ready to serve, the line forms as if we are The Beatles and the fans have been chasing us from 4 blocks away for an autograph. Granted, Mandi is a former model, but this time it’s the ice cream they are after.

“You moved. Why did you move?” they ask, feeling deserted by their dessert. But just like Khaled, we make up for it by plying them with sweetness: pear ginger muffins with brown sugar on top, hazelnut brown butter cakes with mascarpone, and bowls of ice cream in ginger and giandujia (pronounced jahn-doo-yah) and my favorite – Affogato al Caffè – Vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso – perfect for a chilly day.

Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Working - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Serving it up - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Working the ice cream truck is nothing new in my family. In the summer of 1960, at the age of 18, my father was employed as an ice cream man for the Freezer Fresh truck. He was stationed in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn and he was required to work every day as long as it wasn’t raining. Weather permitting, he would work from 10AM until midnight – quite a long shift. Unfortunately for him, he happened to start working during a particularly dry stretch of summer – not a cloud in the sky. He lasted only two weeks – considering himself more of a beach bum than an ice cream man. It all worked out quite nicely though. After only three weeks my father found himself hanging out on Manhattan Beach and sharing a beach blanket with a lovely girl named June. I guess she didn’t think he was such a beach bum.  They have been married for 42 years.

It’s afternoon and Mandi and I are a little worn down from our battle with the battery. She’s off to study for an exam and I’m off to sleep. Working on a food truck is not simply about the food – it’s about the truck too. She needs to be tended to and taken care of. After all, she is a highly coveted sight on the streets of NYC. She is also an independent and mobile creature, who doesn’t wait around for someone else to come calling. She goes where she wants to go and does what she wants to do – and if you’re lucky enough to find her – you will indeed be rewarded. And if you happen to make your way to the streets of Paris and you find a fantastic chocolate crepe somewhere on the left bank – say hello for me.

A girl and her truck (for the day) - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

Enjoy a little Eddie Murphy – watch with caution – some cursing. 😉

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