Tag Archives: love

#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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#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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#6/52: Joe’s Dairy

 

I am blue.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Vincent - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Fresh mozzarella - Photo by Sandy Hechtman - sandyhechtman.com

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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