When All Else Fails, Cook It At Home!
Without question, moving to New York has reintroduced me to what is likely my favorite ethnic cuisine... Italian food. Louisiana, although rich with Italian immigrants and history, is not known for it’s authentic Italian fare. With the Gulf of Mexico in your backyard, who can you blame?
So, most folks in the south do their italian cooking at home. The cooking and sauces tend to be very “sicilian” in nature, with thick, rich meat sauces that cook for hours.
Homemade meatballs abound in South Louisiana.... not always headed for a gravy, but often for a meatball poboy, on fresh french bread.
I’ve said before that my simple corner Italian restaurant here in my Upper West Side neighborhood is better than the best Italian restaurant in Baton Rouge... so the quality of New York Italian restaurants should start becoming evident to you.... we are talking unreal. Outside of Italy (and sometimes inside) New York has the best Italian food in the world.
I guess my favorite part of choosing an Italian restaurant in New York is actually having the ability to choose the regional flare in which the restaurant will represent. Do they cook in a light Milanese style, or a Venetian way? Are the meats prepared in a Tuscan tradition or Florentine? Or do we look for a true Roman meal?.... or and age-old Sicilian dive?
Of course, in my restaurant world, it’s all about stealing. Yes, I steal daily from great restaurants... ideas, recipes, presentation, wine pairings, you name it. After all, they got it from someone, too... changed it, made it their own... much like what I’ll do.
I’m not into taking all the credit (although it would be fun) but we do share with our guests where the ideas were lifted.
Like a few weekends ago, when we entertained a few couples here at the apartment. We had a nice spread with various vegetables and spreads, a terrific artichoke and onion crostini appetizer with boursin cheese (I stole that one years ago) and a large plate of fresh hard Italian cheeses with dipping sauces... a dish I experience at Mario Batali’s “Otto” in the Village (I review Otto somewhere down the page, a few months back). Topped off with a few bottles of good wine.... dinner didn’t seem like such a life and death proposition.... we were enjoying the snacking.
That too is something we do a lot of here, “appetizing”. We simply load up a platter of veggies, cheeses, crackers, salami, etc.... pop open a bottle of wine... and, well, dinner is served. If we are able to clear the platter and finish the wine, dinner seems to be an afterthought.
So, if you are needing Italian “goodies”.... I mean, fantastic stuff to make your own trays and platters, I’d like to share with you my favorite haunts in New York. Even if you don’t live here, put them on your list for when you visit. You’ll be the envy of the plane on your way home.
I’ll follow my list with a wonderful, home-cooked meat ragu, that has become a staple at our house. I love his sauce, and really really love it the next day.
André’s Favorite Italian Markets and Food Shops
155 W. 66th Street
Yes, I miss the Village mecca this once was, but it’s back and fighting for culinary supremacy with the others in town who took advantage of their absence. This store is still terrific, and continues to bottle their specialty sauces that originally put them on the map. The 8th Ave at 14th locale is now open as well.
632 E. 187th, Bronx
It’s a hike, but it may be the best homemade ravioli in the city. Mr. Borgatti has been making the little gems (along with egg noodles) since 1930. Folks in the Bronx line up for them, and I can’t blame them.
Garden of Eden Market
7. E. 14th Street, others....
It’s not a hard core Italian dive, but the fare here is so fresh and so good, I have to mention it. This is a spot where you can find “hard to find” stuff... Lavazza and Illy coffee blends, great cheeses, quality meats, and your favorite european crackers and cookies. Sure you’ll drop $100 here, but you smile all the way home.
270 Bleeker St.
So, it’s not a market exactly, but I just had to include it, because you can take it home with you.... I have always liked risotto, but when I found this place, with over 50 risotto’s on the menu, I flipped. They are all made to order, and are fantastic. If you are headed for the subway, they’ll pack it up for the trip home.
Russo Mozzarella and Pasta
344 E. 11th Street
Yes, the pasta is terrific, but it’s the mozzarella that has had customers returning for nearly 100 years. They have other goodies here as well, including some fine sauces for that pile of fresh linguine you just bought.
254 Bleeker Street
It truly is my very favorite cheese shop in New York City, although I am sure there may be better. There is just something about the place that pushes my buttons... perhaps it’s the cheese vault at the rear of the store? Or maybe the t-shirts they sell that say “You Have A Friend in Cheeses”? For whatever reason, it’s the real deal, and you can likely find what you are looking for here... and a lot of what you’re not.
Faicco’s Pork Store
260 Bleeker Street
Thank god for Faicco’s. Sure, they have been open for 65 years, and yes, the cuts of meat and pork are superb.... but forget all of it. Open the door, walk to the back, and order a bag full of rice balls (arancini). The lightly fried room-temp rice balls are golf ball sized gifts from god. The creamy rice is blended with a mild goat cheese and herbs, making for an “Italian Boudin” ball I adore. I have tried to get these home without eating them all, and have failed miserably. Four times.
AND THE GET IT ALL STAND BYS
We all know about Zabar’s, the mecca of all things wonderful. From fresh roasted coffees, to jewish delights, to fresh meats and pastas, to pierogies... well, you name it, they got it. Not to mention an upstairs of kitchen gadgets that will make a home cook break down and weep. Put aside a good hour, you’ll need it.
2135 Broadway, 424 Sixth Ave, 1313 Third Ave, etc......
It didn’t take long after Balducci’s closes their legendary Village outpost for Citarella to become king of all things expensive and italian... and they did. What is left is one of the finest prepared grocery stores in America, with everything imaginable under one roof. The gourmet stuff here is not to be believed, but what I love about Citarella is the stuff you just can’t find anywhere else... like imported tomatoes (San Marzano brands I never knew existed). The fish counter is loaded with great stuff as well... enjoy.
So, planning an Italian night in your own humble abode? Here is a sauce that will make your guests sing. Adapted from a recipe I found several years ago.
André’s Favorite Meat Ragu
2 lbs. lean ground beef
2 tbls. olive oil
1 lb. ground pork or 1 medium pkg. of pork spareribs
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1 cup chopped bell pepper
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. Italian link sausage (I like the spicy here, but sweet works well, too)
2 (6-oz.) cans tomato paste
2 (6-oz.) cans tomato sauce
2 (10-oz.) cans tomato purée (San Marzano if you can swing it)
1 (10-oz.) can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies
4 tbls. dark brown sugar
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano, crushed
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary, crushed
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 tsp. Tony Chachere's Original Seasoning
(or your favorite cajun seasoning)
1 tsp. kosher salt
4 cups water (use some to rinse out tomato paste cans before adding water to pot)
6 cups chicken stock or broth
1/2 bunch fresh chopped curly parsley
1. In a large Dutch oven, stew pot or Le Creset pot, brown ground beef in olive oil. Remove browned meat from pot and set aside. If using ground pork, brown in same pot. Remove from pot and set aside.
2. Add onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic and sauté until transparent.
3. While the meats are browning and vegetables are sautéing, cut sausage into 1/2-inch pieces and cook in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Drain oil and set aside.
4. Add tomato paste to the Dutch oven (my large le cruset pot is perfect!) with the sautéed vegetables. If using spareribs, also add at this time. Stir and blend for 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to let the tomato paste burn or stick.
5. Add the tomato sauce, tomato purée, all seasonings and Rotel tomatoes and cook on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring gently to keep mixture from sticking. Add fresh chopped parsley, simmer on low for an additional hour. Add chicken broth to get the gravy the right thickness... the way you like it!