Arthur Schwartz: The Food Maven Arthur Schwartz: The Food Maven
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The Food Maven Diary


Entry: On New York City Restaurants, Part One

I have to say I am a very good Italian cook. But you knew that. So, with the exception of pizza, I hardly ever think of leaving the house to eat Italian. As you must have heard me say many times, I would certainly never leave the house for just a bowl of pasta. I can make pretty good pizza, too, but not as good as a good pizzaiolo (a professional pizza maker) in his professional oven -- wood-burning, brick, whatever.

It is, therefore, quite something for me to say that I recently ate a fabulous Italian meal in a New York restaurant. Actually, I always eat well at Bianca, which is at 5 Bleecker St., between Bowery and Elizabeth St. It was no surprise. That's why I had the nerve to take Italians there, my houseful of visitors -- Baronessa Cecilia and her rather large entourage.

By the way, have you seen what is becoming of the Bowery? High-rise luxury condos and rental buildings are going up. Former flop houses, where homeless men used to sleep for 50 cents a night (I am showing my age.), are being renovated into chic residential buildings. Where once there were drunks lying on the street (We called them Bowery Bums. Remember?), there are now trendy bars where cocktails cost $15 a pop.

Bianca actually predates the boom on Bowery. You might say the owners saw it coming and snatched this storefront before the rents went berserk, which is one reason they can afford to charge such modest prices for such good food. It is also cash only, and no reservations, which helps the bottom line. They didn't spend millions on décor either. It is charming, however, with exposed brick a flea market mirror and shelving painted white, with homey bric-a-brac, and an open kitchen at the back. By way of warning, I should add that it is tightly packed with tables and can get noisy after 7:30. But, as I have been saying for years now, a quiet restaurant is the ultimate luxury in New York these days. You need to spend a small fortune at the Four Seasons or San Domenico, places of that alta ilk, to find quiet. Get to Bianca for an early dinner, say at 5:30 or 6, and you'll merely overlap with the noise. You'll be up to dessert by the time the place gets packed.

Bianca's menu is more or less Bolognese, or, I should say Emiliano-Romagnoli, food from Emilia-Romagna, which is the region around Bologna. The chef-owner is my friend Giancarlo Quadalti, who is from Ravenna, on the coast of Emilia-Romagna, and he is also the chef-owner of the excellent Teodora, at 141 E. 57th St., between Third and Lexington, and chef-partner at Celeste, the more or less Neapolitan pizzeria-trattoria on Amsterdam Ave. and 84th St. Even if Giancarlo was not my friend, I would be impressed with him. He is an extremely hard-working, diligent person, some might say a micromanager and control freak, which is how he can have three restaurants with consistently high quality.

At Bianca, the antipasti are $7.50 to $8.50, the pastas are mostly under $10, and the secondi – the main courses – are $14 and $15, the cost of an appetizer at way too many Manhattan restaurants.

My ideal meal here is to start with the gnocco fritto with salumi -- cold cuts in English. Gnocco fritto have no relation to the gnocchi you know. They are hollow puffs of fried pastry. They come with either the salumi I love, a platter of mortadella, capocollo and salami, or with stracchino, a very creamy cheese. They drizzle the stracchino with truffle oil, which I don't care for, but you can ask for the truffle oil to be left off. (I don't like truffle oil. I love real truffles, but, well, I won't go into my truffle oil tirade here. Let's say that's just my taste.)

The next course, the pasta course, is tough. I love the tagliatelle with Bolognese ragu, the classic ground meat sauce. Giancarlo's tagliatelle, the narrow egg pasta ribbons that you might know better by their Roman name, fettuccine, are sublimely delicate, his sauce robust. But I could also easily go for the large ravioli stuffed with ricotta and dressed with butter and sage. If there is anything better than pasta, it's stuffed pasta. Then there's gramigna, pasta squiggles in a crumbled sausage sauce. And, on a particularly indulgent day, I might take the lasagna, Bolognese style with ragu and béchamel.

After the pasta, there is no question: There is chicken, veal and fish to choose from, but I always order the straccetti, a word that means "rags" in Italian and in this case refers to thin slices of beef, cooked very quickly in garlic and rosemary scented olive oil, served rare, and with roasted potatoes that are amazingly crisp outside and creamy inside. I make this dish myself these days. In fact, I will be teaching it in my King's Cooking Studio classes in New Jersey (see Maven's Appearances) next month and in February. Even though I learned how to make this from Giancarlo, I still enjoy his more.

I rarely have room for dessert, or even care about it, but you may want to save space. There is always something tempting.

Last, but hardly least, the wine prices are so reasonable I might drink too much.

Speaking of eating pizza, my niece, Rachel, is visiting from St. Louis and she has been craving New York-style pizza. We were headed to Totonno in Coney Island – to me, the ultimate New York pizza -- but it was a good thing I called before we left. Since I usually go there in late afternoon, I didn't realize this landmark pizzeria closes as early as 8 p.m. and won't serve you at a table if you arrive after 7:15. We ended up going to Anthony's, at 426A Seventh Ave., near 14th St., near my apartment in Park Slope. The pizza is more Neapolitan than New York style, but it is good pizza, and I knew the experience would be pleasant.

It was actually much more than pleasant. This is one of those places that even if the food was not good – which it is – you'd enjoy it because the service staff is so charming, and the room is so energized with good vibes – not just noise. It seems impossible to escape music in restaurants these days, which is not my favorite thing, but here, at least, the music is tuneful Neapolitan pop. I love it. Anthony's is related to the wonderful Nick's pizzeria in Rockville Center, Long Island, but whereas Nick's is cavernous and bright, Anthony's is a small, romantically lighted storefront with a small service bar in the front, the pizza oven at the back, and black and white photos of Italy on the brick walls. Let me say upfront that they know me, and go out of their way to please me, but I can see how they treat everyone, which is superbly.

We started off with a plate of "Josephine's eggplant," $8, which is nothing more or less than four creamy slices of fried eggplant in good tomato sauce. The garlicky breadcrumb-stuffed mushrooms are delicious, too, and a generous portion for $7, enough for four to share. The Caesar salad, $7, could use improvement. The dressing is a little too mayonnaise-like. But the so-called "Tri-Color", $6, is a fine plate of well-dressed greens. I have eaten pasta here before and enjoyed the spaghetti marinara, $12, and the penne with broccoli rabe and sausage, $12, but as I said at the top, I would never leave home for just a bowl of pasta. We were here for the pizza. The Margherita is $11. With an extra topping from the list of 11 possibilities – we took the excellent sausage – it's $13. The pies are not individually sized, as they are in Naples, but they are not New York super-sized either. Two pizzas were more than enough for the four of us. We ate too much and still left over a slice.

Good thing, too. The tiramisu is not only extraordinarily well done, but the cannoli is filled with a particularly light ricotta cream, and comes in a rolled pizzelle, which is a very welcome change from the traditional fried shell. I say this from the perspective of someone who abhors most cannoli in New York because the cream is too sweet and too pasty, and the shells are too greasy and/or soggy.

I suppose I can quibble about Anthony's pizza dough. The crust lacks the deep flavor of the best Neapolitan pies. But the toppings are terrific, beautifully done, and all the charm and good will of the place certainly compensates, even for me with my way too picky pizza standards, standards that I have to admit are rarely met in New York.

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