Friday, May 28, 2010

Campagnola: Old School And Proud Of It

Get Your Sinatra On. Tonight.

I use to think I was some sort of Italian restaurant expert here in NYC. I mean, I love this food… cook this food… study this food. I eat out A LOT. I cook at home A LOT. I take suggestions, walk into places I shouldn’t… and my eyes well up when I find perfect pasta dishes.

But the fact is, there are just so many good Italian spots… (well known, and not so well known…) that is not humanly possible to stay on top of all of them. Additionally, many are famous for this or that… not everything.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a spot I had heard about…but had never visited…. Campagnola.

I had heard the following babble:

• this is a good old boys club
• wants to be Rao’s
• is crammed with Upper West Siders with expense accounts
• is crammed with Upper West Siders who don’t care about expense accounts
• can often serve spectacular food
• reeks of Sinatra and sweet tomatoes

Having this opinion, I was off to 74th and 1st Ave for what I was hoping would be a terrific experience.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Campagnola is old school and proud of it. This is a smallish, narrow space that will remind you of about 1000 similar NYC spaces…. tight.

As I entered, I noticed that tucked into the front right corner was a piano… resting across from a tiny narrow bar occupied by neighbor regulars. There was laughing and kissing going on at the door between the owners and his clientele… a good sign. It had all of the makings of a quintessential neighborhood gem.

After a few minutes of people watching… and with a group of 5 or 6, we made our way into the back of the space, squeezed around a 4 top and began to order… and I was glad we did.

Let me pause for a moment to interject one thing…. it takes real balls to charge $45. for veal parm, but this place does it, and gets away with it. You’ve been warned.

The wait staff at Campagnola has been around for many many years, and it shows. Although there is a menu, nearly anything can be ordered, in any combination… as long as you are OK with the creative billing that will come out on the backend. Lucky for me, I was a guest of very gracious hosts… who also had friends in high places at the restaurant. Very lucky for me ☺

There were a bevy of specials on this night, and honestly, I could have ordered just about any of them. From toothy handmade pastas to very fresh fish (on this night Dover Sole), it was all there. After hearing about all of the dishes, we made a few choices and the parade began.

First… perfectly fried Soft Shell Crabs… hot and crispy. Having eaten about 5000 of these in my lifetime, they were honestly about as good as you can get. Somebody in the back really knows what they are doing. Kudos.

Next were a platter of salumi, olives, artichokes and eggplant with cracker breads… perfectly seasoned and arranged, and inhaled by the hungry table in about 90 seconds. Fairly standard stuff, but still, well done.

The entrees began to arrive and I finally began to realize what all of the fuss was about.

The pastas are perfect. Cooked to perfection, and sauced perfectly.

The meats were also cooked to perfection. A grilled baby lamb chop. A steak with cognac and cream. And a veal Milanese… pounded and breaded, fried to perfection and topped with baby arugula.

The Dover Sole lightly crusted and pan sautéed in lemon and butter.

The meal had turned into a feast, and dishes kept coming. Fried zucchini. Chicken with artichokes and prosciutto. Orecchiette with sausage, broccoli, cream and shallots. God help me.

By the time dessert came into play, I was toast. This is the way to eat. And all of it was delicious.

The verdict?

Well, in the end, Campagnola turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be. Classic. Old school. Comfortably snobby. Cramped by cozy. Charming. Serious about cooking.

The best Italian food in New York? Some would argue yes, but I would say no. Certainly worth the trip… but this is traditional Italian eats in the style of Da Umberto… or Il Mulino… not Babbo or SD26. The prices are higher than average for this style of cooking in New York, but you get what you pay for in this city, and the food holds up. Even though it seems that each dish carries a $10 surcharge for enjoying the room… nobody seemed to mind. Kinda like splurging on a double porterhouse for 2 at your favorite NYC steakhouse.

So if you are thinking of going, call now. There is a reason it’s well known. People book reservations.

Next, if you don’t reside in the Upper West, get up there. There are quality restaurants and they need to see you (Felidia, etc… ).

And last, splurge. This isn’t just an Italian restaurant, this is a slice of classic New York. Get out there and enjoy these blessings. There is something special happening at Campagnola... and you should share in what is a special night out.

1382 First Ave., New York, NY 10021
nr. 74th St

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Westside Market: NYC's Greatest Foodshop?

Prepared To Be Blown Away.... Westside Is The Real Deal

It’s almost embarrassing to write this blog post about Westside Market…. what I now consider to be the best gourmet food shop in Manhattan.


Well, I had heard about Westside some time ago… and ignored the hype. With stores like Fairway, Citerella, Balducci’s, Dean and Deluca, Murray’s and Faicco’s (all spectacular mind you)…. well, I just didn’t need yet another grocery store that just did the same old thing.

And then I went.

My first trip was really nearly by mistake. I was headed to Williams-Sonoma in Chelsea for a list of goodies when the 1 train dropped me at 14th Street. Needing to walk a quick 2 block to the store, I passed in front of Westside Market and thought… why not?

I wasn’t ready for what was waiting for me inside.

To call this place the Disneyland of prepared foods would be a gross understatement.

What Westside has done is really hard to put into words. It is the quintessential neighborhood market… but really much much more….it’s a tourist destination.

The main difference with this market compared to others is the quality and care put into each and every item they sell. They are simply no mediocre choices.

Hungry for hummus? Thinking of choosing from a few varieties? Try 50. Garlic hummus, lemon hummus, asparagus hummus, hot olive hummus… the list goes on. All freshly made. Wow.

Salads? 100 varieties. Tuna and caperberry. Salmon. Egg. Endless. Each flavor more appealing than the last.

They have a cheese counter with hundreds of choices… that rivals Murray’s Cheese Shop in the Village. A hot deli with fresh lasagna, roasted chickens and turkey, and 30 other fresh dishes.

A small but extraordinary coffee section with fresh roasted blends as well as the finest Illy and Lavazza brands in the world.

A sandwich counter that makes handmade artisan sandwiches to go. I watched a chef pull a fresh roasted turkey breast from the oven and begin to slice it for a customer on fresh bread. Shut up.

An affordable produce section that carries the finest organic and local produce in the city.

A special seafood counter with fresh fresh fish and gulf wild white shrimp (the only kind I will buy... and you for that matter).

And groceries? The Italian isle carried San Marzano tomato brands I had never seen (this is saying something)… specialty pastas, spreads and pesto to make you want to cry. Sea salts. European cookies. Teas. Quality frozen selections. Every special soda known to man.

As a food lover, my feeling is this.

If you are going to run a store of this quality, with a commitment to your products this great, I am going to give you my business. Period.

So here I am, now professing my love for Westside Market… what I consider the most exciting and well rounded food store in New York City… and one of my new favorite haunts. 3 locations in Manhattan to serve you.

Did I mention the Upper West Side store is open 24 hours?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Greatest Butcher in New York

If It Came From Pat LaFrieda... You Are Eating The Best

Pat LaFrieda is kinda a hero of mine.

Sure, some guys worship Mickey Mantle. Some guys worship Neil Armstrong. My guy grinds hamburger.

This is likely why I was so excited to step inside of Pat’s Magic Kingdom last night at the invitation of a friend who was on business.

At first meeting, Pat is exactly what I imagined him to be. Personable, genuine, authentic…. and passionate about his work. He is a third generation butcher who understands hard, hard work…. and is now reaping the benefits of those efforts as provider of Manhattan’s finest meat.

Let me repeat. This guy is the best meat purveyor in the greatest restaurant city in the world.

But make no mistake about it… the hard work for Pat is not over. It’s just beginning.

Walking through his brand-spanking new meat processing facility was an out-of-body experience for me, being a former restaurant owner and chef, as well as a general meat enthusiast. From his cold storage room (the size of a basketball gym) to his grinding room (that sounds dirty)… to his dry-aged steak room… Pat LaFrieda was beaming at the glorious cuts of meat that are the core of his empire. The strong smell of beef was a different kind of smell I had been use to visiting butcher shops in the past. This smell was rich and fresh. This was quality stuff.

Pat LaFrieda is quality… and will never compromise.

I won’t give you a step by step account of my evening, but I can tell you the highlight was watching his room of skillful butchers carve and craft every cut of beef imaginable, for the greatest restaurants in the city.

“These veal chops are headed to Babbo”, Pat remarked as he lifted the box already tagged Babbo. “These steaks, Quality Meats. These… to the New York Yankees”.

That’s when I began to tear up. Holy crap, this guy is sending steaks to Yankee Stadium.

The evening ended soon after as Pat needed to get back to work to begin to fill the 500+ orders that would soon depart the facility in trucks… to the likes of Marea, Minetta Tavern and Shake Shack. But not before I could make one joking remark that I still can’t believe came out of my mouth.

“No parting gifts, huh? Like a Black Label burger?”, I joked.

“You need some beef? I got you covered!”, he responded.

Within 60 seconds, from the back cooler, emerged a case of signature Pat LaFrieda burgers… headed for my arms

Very rarely am I caught speechless, but a case of LaFrieda meat has this effect on me.

I soon vanished into the night, burgers in tow… and thought to myself how lucky I was to see the master at work… doing his thing.

This wasn’t a visit to just any meat house… cutting simple cuts of beef.

It was Pat LaFrieda…. the greatest butcher in New York.