Saturday, February 7, 2009

Culinary Consolation as Market Metric?

Observation: NYC is awash in comfort food. From snazzy mac’n cheese joints to steaming bowls of pork ramen or two-handed chocolate-chip cookies, New York purveyors seem to feel that reassurance is the new luxury in these turbulent times. And people are lining up all over town for varying types of cozy calories.

It occurs to me that one way of plotting the true recovery from this recession may be to watch for the return of fancified cookery. When the ring molds and unpronounceable preparations reappear, they may be chasing revived expense accounts & bonuses burning holes in bespoke pockets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pizza Pilgrimage: Una Pizzeria Napoletana

We’ve heard about Anthony Mangieri’s near-fanatical dedication to the classic Naples-style approach to pizza. Una Pizzeria Napoletana was thus high on our must-try list. On our first night in town, we headed down to the east village only to find the joint closed. We finally got there for a “snack” on day 2 before meeting friends for dinner.

Bottom line up front:
The quality of Mangieri’s few ingredients shines, and his dough is lovely. However, the very oven that is such a focus of the restaurant seems to also be the source of two significant problems with the product. I’m VERY glad that the world has Mangieri uncompromisingly practicing his craft, but it’s hard to justify the price and trip in a town filled with so many worthy competitors.

Only five of the 35 seats were filled when we arrived. We were seated with a view of the small kitchen which is really just a one-man work counter in front of the massive oven. We happily ordered a Margherita to share.

They only offer four pies at Una Pizzeria Napoletana, and any alterations are strictly prohibited. They believe strongly that they know what works and what doesn’t – and in particular that a few superior quality ingredients make for a finer product than a voluminous hodgepodge. Their doctrine shines through in the product.

The pizza that appeared consisted of only of San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, & sea salt. We watched Mangieri build the pie to order in his sparse work space and bake it out with careful attention. It came from the oven to our table and we dug in excitedly. The flavors of the prime quality ingredients shone. The taste of the pie was stellar.

How good? Let's put it this way, for all the noise about his imported mozzarella di bufala and the painstakingly selected olive oil, we found ourselves debating where he got his basil. His freakin BASIL was that splendid! Did he grow it himself? Get it from a trusted source? We were enthralled.

However, even given the restrained portions of ingredients used in constructing the pie, a problem was quickly evident. There was so much excess liquid present that the lovely thin crust was quickly soaked through. While the edges held their chew and body for a while, the middle of the pie was a soggy mess.

But we savored the taste of that first pie and quickly decided to try one more.

The Bianca that soon arrived was just as carefully prepared and beautiful. It also matched both of the problems of the first pie. Both? Oh, yes. Aside from the sogginess, there were the bubbles.

You can see examples of these bubbles in the photo below. They didn’t taste of toasted or caramelized dough. They tasted of ash and carbon. And if they found their way into a bite, they sublimated every other flavor in the pie under their cinders.

I don’t have anything like Mangieri’s experience or expertise, but it seems to me that if each pizza coming out of that oven bears these burnt (not "well-done", they're b-u-r-n-t) parts, perhaps the oven is too hot. A cooler oven might also, it seems to me, allow you to leave the pizza in long enough to steam away more of the liquid inherent in the very fresh mozzarella.
But like I said, I don’t have the technical chops to recommend a better approach. However, a better approach is needed. Because what I got for $21 each were pizzas that were a sodden messes with burnt spots along the edges.

Una Pizzeria Napoletana
349 East 12th Street,
New York, New York 10003
212-477 9950

Finally! - The Burger Joint

In the lobby of the posh Parker Meridien hotel, there’s a little curtained hallway behind the front desk. It looks like an employee entrance to something. Down at the end of the hallway is a little sculpted neon burger. Ignore the looming dudes with earpieces and the disapproving stares of the desk staff. Walk towards the neon. Turn into the doorway on your right, and there it is. The Burger Joint. The secret greasy spoon hidden away in this tower of $350/night single rooms and $28 omelets. I’ve been wanting to eat here for years.

Bottom line up front:

Go. REALLY good burger. Good fries and shake. But the place itself is the draw. It's a wondrously dive-y enclave in the midst of all the glam. EXACTLY the meal you need in mid-town.


Pleen and I arrived about 11:30 and the place was empty. We managed to snag one of the few booths with a view of the door and the kitchen. The guys in suits started filing in around 11:40. By 11:55 there was a line out the door and down the hallway. Things got rolling for the crew behind the counter quickly, but they remained nonplussed - calling orders and scolding slowpokes

Cheeseburger with the works. Fries. Chocolate shake. What more does one need in life?
They make a really good burger. The meat is nothing like the quality of Ray’s Hell Burger, but it’s fresh and flavorful and gently treated. The grill itself delivers significant char flavor. And the cheese actually adds flavor rather than just fat. Although frozen, the fries are good. Long cut Idaho ¼ inchers. They could use a stiff hit of salt & pepper while still glistening next to fry-o-lator before they go in the bag. Their milk shake is the shake of my childhood - just vanilla ice cream, Hershey’s syrup, & milk. I like it a lot. If you have a different point of departure it may strike you as a bit . . . hollow. Pleen, as an example, found it not chocolaty enough compared to the likes of Talyor’s Refresher.

I’m definitely coming back.

Burger Joint
118 W 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Vamoose Virgin

In the world of low cost bus rides between the Washington, DC area and New York City, I was a virgin up until this trip.

Having had the pleasure now of a ride on Vamoose from Rossyln to Penn Station, I’m not sure if I can ever go back. Total time from our front door to our destination was markedly less than with airplane or train – and of course it was vastly cheaper.

The people were cool, the ride was comfortable, and ya can’t beat $25 for a lift to New York. Make mine Vamoose!

Vamoose Express Bus Service
16 Penn Plaza, Suite 514
New York, NY 10001