Along a tony stretch of pavement, where Gramercy Park key holders push prams and insulate themselves from the city’s grime, sits Maialino, Danny Meyer’s Roman tribute, where, thanks to the hospitality that pervades all of this restaurateur’s enterprises, you’ll be treated like you, too, live life in the lap of luxury. Yes, you should order the suckling pig, and you should indulge in some pasta: say, the bucatini all’amatriciana, which is bathed in lightly peppery pork-infused tomato sauce and topped with crackling bits of pork skin. But don’t forget to peruse seasonal offerings — the kitchen makes beautiful ingredients shine spectacularly, brilliantly capturing and refining the Italian approach to a meal. And be sure to pair your dishes to wine — each season, the restaurant highlights different Italian oddities not usually seen by the glass. Your server can walk you through unfamiliar grapes, ensuring you find something novel and immensely gratifying.
For decades, Italian cuisine in New York meant red sauce and lots of it. With the opening of Bamonte’s in 1900 and Ferdinando’s Focacceria four years later, tomato-heavy Neapolitan and Sicilian restaurants enjoyed a certain sustained verisimilitude, carrying the torch for their motherland while paving the way for other regional Italian cuisines to follow suit. By contrast, where would Italian dining in 2013 New York be without Apulian burrata? With establishments representing regions from Piedmont to Sicily and everywhere in between, the city’s Italian restaurants offer a fairly well-rounded picture of cooking from all over the boot. Here are the 10 best.
10. MD Kitchen, 1012 East 15th Street, Brooklyn
After huffing and puffing from customers wistful for a taste of Di Fara’s defunct menu of Italian-American dishes–items that were gradually phased out as the Avenue J pizza shop attained Kardashian levels of fame for its pies–the DeMarco family opened this sliver of a takeout spot around the corner from their moneymaker to focus on reviving these flavors for a new audience. Just as Dom Sr. still clips leaves of basil onto his pies, daughter Maggie and her staff display a level of devotion to quality that produces knockout hero sandwiches (including sausage with broccoli rabe and an exceptional shrimp parmigiana), generously-portioned pastas and old-school platters of meatballs, Italian sausage, eggplant parmigiana, and chicken scallopini. Feel like enduring a night of delicious regret? Stop into MD Kitchen before hitting up madhouse Di Fara. The wait for your pizza will melt away like the blistered mozzarella on a plate of parmigiana.
9. Porsena, 21 East Seventh Street
Sara Jenkins’ pasta-centric East Village hideaway is a boon for noodle know-it-alls who think they’ve seen every al dente shape under the Tuscan sun. Inside these brick walls, the chef tosses thick rings of anelloni with spicy lamb sausage and mustard greens. The greens appear again paired with tiny, curled gnochetti pasta slapped with saline anchovies and lifted by chili heat. Composed appetizers and entrees echo the rustic charms of the restaurant’s design, including a roast chicken perfumed with chestnuts and an inventive take on vitello tonnato that replaces the standard veal with gamier lamb. But above all else, what makes Porsena so damned special is Jenkins’ willingness to capitalize on the freedom that comes with owning your own place–specifically, with the experiments taking place next door at Porsena Extra Bar, experiments that have yielded things like “Grilled Kimcheese” and a deservedly popular summer taco pop-up.
8. Dominick’s, 2335 Arthur Avenue, Bronx
A perennial favorite among nostalgic devotees of Italian-American food, Dominick’s has been an Arthur Avenue destination for over 50 years. Although an a la carte menu is now on display, most diners prefer to order the original way–by simply asking their waiter what the kitchen is cooking up that night. Among the cavalcade of items recited, standouts abound, like Linguine all Gianni sporting chunks of chopped shrimp and clams and a skull-sized stuffed artichoke packed with olive oil-soaked breadcrumbs. In fact, channel your future self and order anything stuffed, particularly stuffed peppers and stuffed veal breast. Portions are massive and necessitate at least one other dining partner–dining here alone seems almost masochistic–though be careful. Sharing a platter of pepper-smothered pork pizzaiola studded with sauce-soaked potatoes is as dangerous as sharing a needle. Don’t let the occasional celebrity appearance fool you; this is and always will be a neighborhood joint.
7. Maialino, 2 Lexington Avenue
It seems appropriate that Danny Meyer, emperor of the Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant empire, would choose to focus on the cuisine of Rome. Meyer designs concepts that beg to be franchised, even if he’s only bestowed that honor upon Shake Shack. We’d be willing to bet on cronut-sized crowds should Maialino’s chef Nick Anderer ever decide to open a shop devoted to his brunch-only honey butter pork biscuits. The airy space is gorgeous in the afternoon, when the waning sun illuminates the large bar. Is it nature being prescient? The restaurant offers one of the best happy hours in town, with small plates of gussied-up bar snacks like greaseless pork cracklings perfect for dipping in spicy vinegar.
6. al di là, 248 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn
The Northern Italian food coming out of chef Anna Klinger’s Park Slope kitchen hasn’t lost any steam since she and husband Emiliano Coppa opened their doors in 1998. Waits are notorious, but once you’re inside, the service shines as bright as the rich, honest cooking. A ceramic crock holding tender wine-braised tripe shielded by a thick slice of grilled country bread is hearty enough to hold you over until tomorrow, but to pass up Klinger’s ethereal pastas would be a mistake. Her casunzei–pillowy, filled dumplings popular in North Eastern Italian provinces like Verona–have been on the menu since day one, and for good reason. Thin hills of dough do their best to conceal a beet and ricotta filling so vibrantly crimson that it can’t help but show through its exterior. The chef balances the beet’s earthy sweetness with a pool of melted butter and poppy seeds. If you’re in the mood for game, al di là’s braised rabbit is one of the city’s great bunny dishes.
5. Rosemary’s, 18 Greenwich Avenue
A melding of modern city dining and Italian tradition, this Italian restaurant from Bobo’s Carlos Suarez is something of a playground for chef Wade Moises. Many of the herbs and vegetables find their way to the plate by way of the restaurant’s rooftop garden, and Moises and his team cure meats in-house as well as make fresh mozzarella daily. Pastas stay relatively tame and affordable (spaghetti pomodoro, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe), but the chef lets loose elsewhere on the menu, like a starter of octopus “salami” as soft and gelatinous as headcheese. Of the various items available to share, the sleeper may be Moises’ carne misti, a cornucopia of animal parts including espresso-glazed pork ribs, smoked lamb shoulder, and chicken brined in mozzarella whey.
4. Il Buco, 47 Bond Street
The older sibling to the more casual Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, Donna Lennard’s rustic Italian restaurant started life as an antiques shop, and the artsy confines–communal tables, copper pots and earthenware–seem curated to remind you of just that. Ingredients are sourced with as much care as the décor, including a series of Umbrian olive oils created specifically for the restaurant and greenmarket finds that make their way into specials on the nightly changing menu. Although chef Joel Hough works wonders with seafood, we love his shatter-crisp porchetta, made with heritage pork from beloved greenmarket purveyor Flying Pigs Farm.
3. Perla, 24 Minetta Lane
West Village impresario Gabe Stulman found his meaty muse in whiz kid Michael Toscano, who commands the wood-fired oven in his open kitchen with a steely composure befitting a chef well beyond his years. All of that drive is focused into over-the-top, often atypical hearty fare like veal tongue terrine, crispy headcheese, and a signature pasta of pappardelle laced with duck ragu hiding under a deluge of shaved foie gras. The protein profusion continues with chicken sided with sweetbreads and a massive veal head meant to split between three people; a bright succotash is the only reprieve from such carnivorous excesses.
2. Del Posto, 85 Tenth Avenue
Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s crown jewel had grand ambitions from the start, and with the help of balls-to-the-wall executive chef Mark Ladner and punk rock pastry man Brooks Headley, the restaurant provides a landmark dining experience all but unparalleled among its contemporaries despite a dining room so enormous that, when seated at certain tables, the space feels like the mahogany and marble-appointed grand concourse of a luxury cruise liner. She’s a beaut nonetheless, and the perfect setting for showcasing Ladner’s brilliance, including a now-legendary 100-layer lasagna and lamb coaxed into tender submission. You’ll pay handsomely for such rewards, but when the cooking is this thoughtful and the service this polished, it’s hard to do anything but open your mouth and take another bite. Have a loose afternoon? $39 gets you a Michelin-starred three-course lunch.
1. Rubirosa, 235 Mulberry Street
In the battle for red sauce supremacy, AJ Pappalardo and Al Di Meglio’s Nolita pizzeria brings a taste of Staten Island to Mulberry Street with addictive thin crust pies–carbon copies of the crisp rounds that have been coming out of AJ’s dad’s ovens at Joe & Pat’s for over fifty years. Pastas are appropriately al dente, but it’s the sausage-heavy lasagna for two that surprises most. A $26 behemoth, it would still be a steal if Di Meglio’s cooking were half as competent. Hefty pasta sheets support layers of cheese strewn with hunks of fennel sausage and mini meatballs enriched with pecorino. Across the street from Torrisi Parm, Rubirosa gives the golden boys a run for their money with stellar chicken parmigiana. While not as grandiose as Carbone’s gargantuan veal chop, the pounded cutlet is sizeable in its own right under a thick blanket of mozzarella and Parmesan.
Walking around Lower Manhattan these past few nights, it is clear that something is in the air. Literally. Take a deep breath in and find your lungs greeted by wave of pine from the tightly wrapped trees that now seem to line every street corner.
By next week, it will be impossible to dodge the holiday reminders. Don’t worry, you still 24 days left to shop. But you don’t have as many left to make dinner reservations for Christmas Eve. Most places will begin taking reservations this Saturday, December 1, so check out our list and plan accordingly.
Ai Fiori – Michael White’s grand palace of pasta will offer a $96 tasting menu featuring signature dishes and a few holiday specials. Reservations are available from 3 p.m. – 9 p.m. 400 5th Avenue. (212) 613-8660</>.
Back Forty West- Occupying a cozy corner in Soho, Peter Hoffman’s restaurant gives off the vibe of an elegant farm. They’ll be open for dinner on Christmas Eve and have discussed, but not yet confirmed, plans for a special smoked meats menu. 70 Prince Street. (212) 219-8570.
Big Daddy’s – If all you want for Christmas is a burger, head to any of the ever-so-slightly upscale locations of this classic American diner. The restaurant will be offering their comfort food classics on Christmas day, as well. Multiple locations. bigdaddysnyc.com.
Bouley – There’s a reason people are still clamoring for tables at David Bouley’s Tribeca flagship. And while the space has recently undergone renovations, the charm of this long lasting restaurant is still in full effect. The holiday menu will be feature a 6-course Christmas feast for $195. 163 Duane Street. (212) 964-2525.
Maialino – The swank but cozy Danny Meyer restaurant inside the Gramercy Park Hotel will be open for brunch and dinner on Christmas Eve. Hungry (and willing) guests can order a $200 winter truffle pasta tasting menu, however the regular menu will also be available. 2 Lexington Avenue. (212) 777-2410.
Mile End Deli– The Canadian-Jewish delicatessen will be taking reservations as of December 1 for their annual Chinese Christmas feast. 97A Hoyt Street. (718) 852- 7510.
Pertrossian – Caviar lovers can head to Midtown West for this decidedly decadent meal. On Christmas eve, the restaurant will offer their traditional caviar prix-fixe for $77, as well as other specials like roasted goose. 182 W. 58th Street (212) 245- 2214.
Pulino’s- If you like your pizza with a side of supermodel, this will likely be a good spot for your holiday. The Bowery restaurant has not yet announced the day’s special menu but they will be open for (a no doubt bustling) business. 282 Bowery. (212) 226-1966.
Tenpenny- This unassuming but worthwhile Midtown restaurant will feature a three course menu on Christmas eve. Featured dishes will include foie gras risotto, goose ravioli, wild boar osso buco and spiced apple cobbler. 16 E 46th Street. (212) 490-8300.
At Union Square Café, your meal begins with a bread basket, butter with herbed sea salt, and picholine olives.
As Danny Meyer increasingly focuses his attention on an expanding Shake Shack empire, seeding locations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, you’ve got to wonder, is he still paying attention to his white tablecloth joints? To answer this question, a friend and I returned to his first restaurant, Union Square Café, which celebrated its 27th birthday this month.
The beef sirloin carpaccio (click on image to enlarge).
It was one of the city’s first farm-to-restaurant establishments, showcasing the produce of the farmers’ market at Union Square, then in its infancy. The emphasis was on New American cooking with prominent Italian influences, a mix of styles still popular among new restaurants today. Yet rumors of the restaurant’s decline have been common, as newer places were added to the Meyer portfolio, which includes Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke in several permutations, Maialino, North End Grill, and Untitled.
As we stepped inside the semi-subterranean space at lunchtime, we recognized much of the old decor in a labyrinthine space that includes three dining rooms — one upstairs on a mezzanine — plus a long commodious barroom. The rooms are decorated with vases of flowers, still-life paintings featuring food and flowers, and, in a rear room, a large mural that looks like a Matisse that the artist walked away from and never finished.
At lunch on a Friday the place was mobbed, but we were shown to a nice table near the front window. In lieu of an amuse, a bread basket was brought with a big pat of butter sprinkled with herbed sea salt. What a relief to see the bread basket appear, when most establishments these days stingily withhold it.
Sign of the season: squash soup
An adolescent octopod rides atop the brodetto, flanked by two demi-squares of fried polenta.
We chose three apps, including a beef carpaccio, squash soup, and grilled mackerel. The carpaccio was nearly perfect, thinly sliced sirloin topped with plenty of shaved parmigiano, arugula, and little curls of a woody something we first identified as plantain, but turned out to be artichoke leaf. The soup was pretty much the regular article, but supremely smooth and livened with toasted chestnuts and matchsticks of firm apple. Best of all was the mackerel, which arrived in a crock with a rich tomato-olive-oil sauce, the perfect thing to sop with bread.
The mains set a similarly high standard. Offered in a broad bowl, a brodetto (there’s that Italian influence) bobbed with in-shell Manila clams as a tween octopus lounged on top. Underneath was a small filet of a hake-like fish that pulled away in big planks. The bowl was as busy with flavors as we might have hoped, the broth rich, and the flavor amplified with thinly sliced fennel bulb, making the potage a remote cousin of bouillabaisse. (Thankfully, the chef resisted the impulse to toss in a shot of Pernod, and the dish remained resolutely Italian.)
The best of our two entrées was a magnificently crumbed chicken Milanesa topped with a perfectly dressed heap of salad so large it could have been a main course in itself. Dotted with goaty tasting pecorino, it came in a lively dressing. For dessert, we split a ginger cake with cardamom ice cream. Cutting into it, poached pears tumbled out.
In the usual Danny Meyer fashion, the service was superb: friendly, attentive, and nearly self-effacing without being omnipresent in the least, setting the perfect tone for a sometimes-rainy Friday afternoon. (Meyer is famous for hiring Midwesterners in the front of the house for their plainness and agreeability.) For my pal and me, this meal was the culinary high point of our week. The original luster of the restaurant remains.
For dessert, gingerbread with poached pears
The front room empties out after the lunch rush.
Union Square Café
21 East 16th Street
The second annual Cookies For Kids’ Cancer Bake Sale will take place tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. outside of the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street.
You’ll find sweets from ABC Kitchen, Maialino, Mondrian SoHo, Blue Smoke, The Modern and Hill Country, and all profits from the sale will go to Cookies For Kids’ Cancer to raise funds for research.
The quintessential New York City breakfast sandwich is, without doubt, a sausage-egg-and-cheese on a roll (like this one). But for those mornings when you need something a bit more decadent, head to Danny Meyer’s Roman trattoria, Maialino, located in the Gramercy Park Hotel, and get the porchetta sandwich.
The $14 sandwich is about 1,000 times pricier than the corner-deli equivalent, but this piggy, eggy delight is worth it. Thinly sliced, herb-coated pork comes topped with arugula and two sunnyside-up eggs. The dish, which is really two small sandwiches in one, is a truly ample serving, and could easily be split between two (then get an order of the ricotta pancakes, solving the eternal sweet-savory dilemma). Break the yolks so they drip over the lusciously tender meat and just ever so slightly wilt the arugula. If this doesn’t put you in a good morning type of mood, clearly nothing will.
For more dining news, head to Fork in the Road, or follow us @ForkintheRoadVV, or me @ldshockey.
Robert Sietsema’s Top 10
1. This doesn’t mean I’m forsaking my first love, Katz’s pastrami, but the smoked-meat sandwich at Mile End is denser, redder, and offered in a sandwich that’s just the right size for one person to eat, which means I don’t have to go around looking for someone to share it with me. Spread mustard on it and add a sour pickle, and I’m in culinary nirvana. The cute and cozy premises of this Boerum Hill newcomer is another plus. 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn, 718-852-7510
2. A haystack of glistening vegetables sat before me: bright green garlic chives, pungent Chinese celery, carrots, woodsy mushrooms, onions, matchsticks of fried purple taro, and onions, all of it surmounted by the snap, crackle, and pop of crispy lo mein noodles. There wasn’t a smidgen of meat, poultry, or fish anywhere to be found in the Farmer Special at Yee Kee H.K. Style. This unreconstructed empire of crunch at once telegraphs not only the poverty of a Chinese farmer’s life, but also its vegetable bounty—in a way I’ve seen nowhere else but the city’s fifth Chinatown. Did I mention it’s supremely delicious? 1232 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-336-2338
3. The restaurant rose like a phoenix after a devastating fire, and the food became better than ever, as if the near-death experience stimulated it to greater efforts. The pan-roasted farm chicken at Annisa from chef Anita Lo’s original menu remains the best thing: a bird—surprisingly plump compared with the desiccated specimens found elsewhere—that has undergone a subdermal stuffing of pig foot, causing the skin to shine like the face of a nervous debutante at her first ball. The bird is scented with white truffles, too, making it hopelessly rich and satisfying. 13 Barrow Street, 212-741-6699
4. One of my favorite things to eat in the world is upma, a South Indian porridge that begins with plain cream of wheat, but then gets mutated like hell by the addition of such things as black mustard seeds, curry leaves, onions, ginger, and pistachios. Imagine my excitement at discovering that upma is incorporated into a dosa at Jersey City’s all-vegetarian, mainly vegan Sapthagiri, with a wrapper made of crushed and fermented moong daal. Woo-hoo! The covering adds a grassy taste to the pesarattu upma, and the whole thing challenges your ideas of what to expect from Indian food. 804 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey, 201-533-840
5. It was a brilliant move on the part of chef Daniel Holzman to take an Italian-American classic, the meatball hero, and make slight improvements to it, instead of transforming the fuck out of it so that it was no longer recognizable. He began by selecting really, really good bread, which yields soon after you chomp down, instead of resisting your teeth and squirting the balls out the end. He also used fresh mozzarella instead of the crap you find in most pizza parlors. The meatball hero at the Meatball Shop is memorably delicious, and enough like the original that it would pass as such with most meatball-hero aficionados—including myself. 84 Stanton Street, New York, 212-982-8895
6. It sails in to oohs and aahs around the table, a wiggly yellow dome composed of egg and cornmeal, dotted with shrimp in a refreshingly light gravy. Really, if someone just set the sautéed egg with egg at Northeast Taste Chinese Food before you at a picnic table in the park, you’d have no idea what country it came from. Take one jiggly bite and you won’t be able to stop yourself—it’s a comfort food par excellence. Northeast Taste, by the way, is my favorite of the Yellow Sea restaurants that have lately invaded Flushing’s southern end. 43-18 Main Street, Queens, 718-539-3061
7. Every once in a while, you need to eat something so hot that it blows the top of your head off. So it was with the shrimp pepper soup at Maima’s, the city’s only Liberian restaurant. Sure, the other things are great there—mainly the combinations of such well-kneaded starches as white yam and cassava, paired with rich fish, chicken, and lamb soups. These are relatively spicy, but the pepper soup outdoes them all, brick-red with chilies and bobbing with a clutch of gigundo shrimp—which should be eaten head and all. The crunch distracts you from the spiciness, which then comes charging back at you like a mad bull. 106-47 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, Queens, 718-206-3538
8. We’ve been bombarded by burgers the past couple of years: big, two-fisted ones, tiny sliders, and ones with odd toppings. April Bloomfield’s lamb burger at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room is different in an utterly refreshing sort of way: The meat is pink and juicy, with a faint barnyard scent that you’d never mistake for beef, and the chef has sense enough to do nothing but put it on a puffy bun and provide cumin mayo alongside, in case you want to send it spinning in a Middle Eastern or a Mexican direction. But the burger is so sweet and juicy that it needs no dressing. 20 W. 29th Street, 212-679-1939
9. Chef Saul Bolton succeeded single-handedly in changing our attitudes about French charcuterie in the months after The Vanderbilt opened nearly a year ago via such succulent morsels as cumin-laced blood sausage, an assertively flavored North African merguez, duck rillettes so fresh they’re still quacking, and a house-smoked kielbasy more delicate than the ones found in Greenpoint. King of the hill here is the boudin blanc, a creamy, herbal sausage whose pale color belies a megaton of porky flavor, served with a sumptuous cabbage slaw dotted with mustard seeds. 570 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-623-0570
10. Momokawa has lain unnoticed for a long time, and if a Japanese friend hadn’t enthusiastically recommended it, I might never have eaten there. There’s no sushi, but the restaurant does offer a wealth of dishes like those served in Kyoto, situated 200 miles west of Tokyo, and once the country’s capital. Included are many obanzai, which are the home-style dishes of that city. The homemade fish cake at this Murray Hill sleeper is stunning—a hamburger-size puck of coarse-textured (almost lumpy) sea-going material, carefully browned on the outside and served with a saucer of vinegary soy sauce. You might never go back to whole fish. 157 East 28th Street, 212-684-7830
Sarah DiGregorio’s Top 10
1. Deer were once plentiful in many parts of India, and the pickled venison at newcomer Tamarind Tribeca is a riff on a classic preparation for preserving the meat. In this version, the fat chops emerge sizzling from the tandoor, utterly tender, their lean minerality enhanced by a marinade of tart pickling spices and yogurt. A sprinkle of roasted chickpea flour lends nuttiness and another level of deliciousness. 99 Hudson Street, 212-775-9000
2. It may not be a bargain, but there’s no denying that Fatty ‘Cue serves some of the most exciting, flavor-bombed food of the year. The restaurant’s signature combination of American barbecue technique and Southeast Asian seasonings finds its apotheosis in the smoked duck with red curry dipping sauce. The bird goes blackened and craggy over the fire—like Napoleons of crisp skin, juicy fat, and dark meat—and is sensational dipped in the aromatic, coconut-enriched sauce. 91 S. Sixth Street, Brooklyn,718-599-3090
3. Bhojan means “home-cooked meal,” and the restaurant’s vegetarian Gujarati thali lives up to its moniker. The stainless-steel platter holds a score of little dishes around its circumference, the middle of the plate occupied by a pile of white rice, an airy puri, and a bit of pickle. One bowl is filled with a thin, white potage of warm, spiced yogurt, a dish typical of the region. It has the consistency of water but a tangy, milky, assertive flavor; it’s best poured over rice and eaten, goopily, with your hands. Another holds a wonderful daal dhokli—lentils swimming with chewy homemade noodles. 102 Lexington Avenue, 212-213-9615
4. At Lan Sheng, a relatively new Sichuan spot on 39th Street, the glory of the menu is the Chongqing braised fish. The dish is named after its native home, a municipality near Sichuan province that Fuchsia Dunlop describes as having a “filthy magnificence.” The preparation is staggeringly generous—a huge, bubbling hot pot of chile oil, Sichuan peppercorns, leeks, Napa cabbage cooked down to silk, and delicate pieces of carp, its flesh stained orange with spice. I wish I could eat it every day. 60 West 39th Street, 212-575-8899
5. The namesake suckling pig at Danny Meyer’s new Roman restaurant, Maialino, looks exactly like a huge sheet of fried dough, bubbly-topped and golden, with only the tiny ribs emerging from one side reminding you of its animal origin. The roast is presented to the table before it gets ferried back to the kitchen to be sliced and plated with potatoes limpid with pork fat. It’s a simple meal—the only discernible seasonings are salt, pepper, and rosemary—yet it’s wonderful, one of the best roast pigs in the city, with lush meat hiding under blowsy white fat and skin so crisp you can hear people crunching it across the room. 2 Lexington Avenue, 212-777-2410
6. These are the days of a pork bun in every pot, but they’re not all created equal. This year, Eddie Huang’s Taiwanese gua bao joint Baohaus gained a following for its outrageously delicious signature steamed snacks. The best of the bunch is the Chairman Bao, which harbors a tender, sticky, thick slab of pork belly, evenly striated with lean and fat. It’s sprinkled with coarse Taiwanese red sugar, crushed peanuts, and pickled vegetable relish, and tucked into a spongy mantou wrapper. 137 Rivington Street, 646-684-3835
7. There are all sorts of oyster pancakes—eggy renditions popular in some parts of China and Southeast Asia, and the jiggly, potato-starch Taiwanese versions—but the fried Fujianese oyster pancakes are harder to find, despite the proliferation of Fujianese restaurants. So I was excited to stumble upon Red Apple Fast Food, where not only do they serve the UFO-shaped rice-flour fritters, but they also do them right, stuffed with oysters, scallions, and ground pork, and fried crisp with peanuts embedded in the crust. Grab a wax-paper bag and help yourself to as many oyster cakes as you can eat before they get cold. (They’re best straight from the fryer, and with a dollop of Sriracha.) For only 70 cents each, there’s no better snack in Sunset Park. 4817 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-853-8811
8. A good po’boy is no longer hard to find in New York. For one of the best, head over to Cheeky Sandwiches and order the Half-and-Half: That’s half fried shrimp, half fried oysters. While you wait, listen to the sweet sound of cornmeal-battered seafood hitting hot oil. Once fried, it’s tucked into a squishy but resilient white roll with mayo, tart Louisiana-style hot sauce, pickle slices, lettuce, and tomatoes. The seafood is crusty and warm against the cool lettuce and mayo; the hot sauce and pickles give the sandwich a welcome lift. But the fat, minerally oysters and sweet shrimp dominate, as they should. It’s a superior sandwich in a year of excellent sandwiches. 35 Orchard Street
9. Cooking savory proteins in sweet caramel sauce is a common technique in Vietnam, and at Co Ba it results in the clay-pot caramel pork belly, one of the richest, most luscious dishes I’ve eaten in a long time. Chef and restaurateur Steven Duong first marinates the pork belly in fish sauce and pepper, then braises it in young coconut water, and combines it with daikon and tiny quail eggs in a simple caramel sauce. Finally, he simmers it gently for hours until the sauce is reduced to a dark, intensely flavorful sludge and the pork belly is tender and sticky. If you’re sick of pork belly, this is the antidote. 110 Ninth Avenue, 212-414-2700
10. Oddly enough, Laut is actually a good Malaysian restaurant masquerading as a screechy pan-Asian joint. So ignore Usher panting loudly over the speakers and skip over the superfluous sushi and Thai stuff in favor of the curry laksa—a rich coconut-based soup, creamy orange in color, the chile-oil-stippled surface hiding a generous pile of yellow egg noodles underneath. The pungent base of chilies, lemongrass, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), and shallots balances the sweetness of the coconut. Cubes of fried tofu sponge up the broth, while shrimp and half of a boiled egg bob alongside. 15 East 17th Street, 212-206-8989
Rebecca Marx’s Top 10
1. At first glance, the bakalao al pil pil at Txikito is just an unassuming hunk of Basque salt cod, with about the same dimensions and pearlescent hue of a bar of soap. But the simplicity of its presentation makes it that much easier to focus on what’s really important here, which is the way the fish’s buttery flesh (poached in olive oil) yields effortlessly to the fork’s slightest provocation and then slides down the throat, leaving the taste of olive oil and the sea in its wake. Salt cod has been subjected to countless preparations, but rarely has it been rendered so sensually: It’s less sea creature than sex on a plate. 240 9th Avenue, 212-242-4730
2. With his General Tso’s tofu, No. 7 Sub‘s Tyler Kord has done more to promote vegetarianism than PETA could ever dream of. Deep-fried slabs of tofu are layered with julienned carrots, arugula, broccoli mayonnaise, and caramelized onions. The crunchy-creamy tofu is more reminiscent of a controlled substance than soybeans, and it harmonizes beautifully with the sweet onions and silky mayonnaise. It’s all barely contained by a soft, almost ethereal roll that falls somewhere between a hot dog bun and a baguette. Taken together, the ingredients add up to one of the city’s best vegetarian sandwiches—actually, one of its best sandwiches, period. 1188 Broadway, 212-532-1680
3. At a time when chefs are racing to revamp beloved yet unpedigreed childhood classics, Bouchon Bakery‘s take on the Nutter Butter still occupies a class of its own. Two peanut butter cookies the diameter of a CD enclose a prodigious serving of butter, peanut butter, and confectioner’s sugar that’s been whipped together to satiny perfection. The cookies straddle the crisp-chewy divide and are embedded with oats and peanuts that lend an appealing, salty crunch. The whole thing is less sandwich cookie than a portal to long-suppressed memories of what it was like to believe the world was a good and just place. 10 Columbus Circle, 212-823-9366
4. While sausages and goulash predominate at Café Katja, equally satisfying sustenance can be found in the tiny Austrian restaurant’s herring salad. The cool flesh of the fish, which is pickled in-house, is chopped into fat pieces, swaddled in sour cream and dill, piled onto a bed of thinly sliced new potatoes, and crowned with a little clump of pickled purple onions. The whole thing is wonderfully fatty, in a rich-in-omega-3s kind of way, given nuance and clarity by the clean pop of the dill and onions. Served with a few wedges of thick, chewy rye toast, it’s not only a salad but a paean to the humble beauty of a criminally underrated fish. 79 Orchard Street, 212-219-9545
5. The ruthlessly hot summer of 2010 spawned many an ice cream sandwich, but almost none so wonderful as the strawberry-gingersnap ice cream sandwich found at the Little Buddy Biscuit Company. It’s distinguished, simply, by perfect ice cream–cookie alchemy. The sweet-spicy cookies, pebbled with chunks of crystallized ginger, are chewy but soft enough to prevent ice cream from squirting out with each bite. The strawberry ice cream, from Jane’s, in Kingston, New York, tastes like fresh cream and real fruit. Best of all, the South Slope bakery has somehow figured out how to freeze the sandwich so that both ice cream and cookie thaw at the same speed, making it both a dessert and a miracle. 635 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-369-6355
6. Given all the hype accompanying Ben Sargent’s not-so-secret lobster roll delivery service, it’s easy to forget what made people get worked up about the Underground Lobster Pound in the first place. Until, that is, you eat one of the lobster rolls. Sargent, a/k/a Dr. Claw, gets all of the details exactly right: He butters and toasts his Pepperidge Farm bun and then does nothing but cram it full with crustacean, season it with Old Bay, and anoint it with a bit of Hellmann’s. The freckled meat is impeccably fresh, the bun shines with butter, and the whole thing is so wonderful that it may make you forget that you’re not on a stretch of Maine coastline, but in Greenpoint. 917-667-2152, Brooklyn
7. Gabrielle Hamilton’s cold spicy eggplant at Prune illustrates one of her great strengths as a chef, which is to get the hell out of the way and let the ingredients do the talking. Here, the nightshade is engaged in deep conversation with nuggets of fried salt cod and a lone hard-boiled egg. Piled onto a long plank of flatbread, the eggplant speaks of cool, silken pulp; the fish answers with savory crunch; and the eggs just go along for the ride, happy to mediate between the two. The flatbread does its part, too, providing an able vehicle for getting it all into your mouth. 54 East First Street, 212-677-6221
8. Though Mimi’s Hummus is known primarily for the magic it works on chickpeas, it also serves a kickass rendition of shakshuka, the Moroccan tomato stew with sunny-side-up eggs. At Mimi’s, it’s served in a scorching-hot cast-iron skillet, which makes the stew bubble and hiss mellifluously as you attempt to get it in your mouth. The tomato stew is spicy and fragrant with cinnamon, and the egg yolks are liquid sunshine. Mashed together and sopped up with pieces of fluffy pita, the whole thing renders the invention of eggs Benedict completely irrelevant. Plus, it’s served with a cold cucumber and tomato salad—just the thing to put out the fire. 1209 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn,718-284-4444
9. Saganaki is another way of saying “baked or fried cheese,” which is another way of saying “inherently delicious.” At Astoria’s Agnanti Meze, the saganaki are about the size of softballs and come three to a plate, surprisingly wrapped in phyllo dough, making them one of the city’s most unapologetic gutbombs. But their brawniness belies a surprising delicacy: The dough falls away in crisp, buttery flakes, revealing an oozing core of wonderfully salty, bracingly fresh cheese. It tastes of happiness and weight gain, and is a testament to the enduring powers of hot, protein-stuffed carbohydrates. 19-06 Ditmars Boulevard, Queens, 718-545-4554
10. Sometimes the most memorable dishes are the simplest. But while Fort Defiance‘s deviled eggs may be short on menu descriptors, they’re certainly not lacking in thoughtful preparation. In addition to using the usual mayo, chef Bobby Duncan whips his yolks with Greek yogurt, which makes them even creamier and bestows a subtle tang. They’re further adulterated with Old Bay, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper, and then showered with cured mustard seeds. The crunch of the seeds provides invigorating contrast to the silky yolks, which rise from their whites like billowing storm clouds. All told, they’re eggs worth selling your soul for. 365 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, 347-453-6672
The suckling pig looked like a huge sheet of fried dough, bubbly-topped and golden, with only the tiny ribs emerging from one side reminding you of its animal origin. The roast is presented to the table before it gets ferried back to the kitchen to be sliced and plated with pork-fat–roasted potatoes. It’s a simple meal—the only discernible seasonings are salt, pepper, and rosemary—yet it’s wonderful, one of the best roast pigs in the city, with lush meat hiding under blowsy white fat and skin so crisp you can hear people crunching it across the room. The rosy flesh is as tender as baby food—actually, it is baby food, made from an infant pig, and it’s the namesake dish of Maialino, Danny Meyer’s new spot in the Gramercy Park Hotel.
To eat at a Meyer restaurant is to be reminded of how pleasant dining can be when every logistic of service has been worked out. If you are waiting at the bar when your table opens up, there will be no fumbling around to settle the tab. Your glass of wine will be carried to your seat, the bill transferred without a word. There is no pretentious speechifying about the chef, or tedious explanations of the menu. Simply: “Do you have any questions?” Salt and pepper are on the table. The servers are friendly and at ease, yet completely efficient. They do not fawn or hover. Wine glasses are filled when they ought to be, not a moment before. If you can’t finish your suckling pig, the leftovers will be wrapped up and spirited away to the coat-check closet, where you can snap it up on the way out. Our doggie bag seemed heavy—inside, we found two Sullivan Street ciabatta loaves, the better to make sandwiches with the leftovers.
When a woman at a nearby table couldn’t decide between the lamb chops and the oxtail, her server debated the issue with her before explaining, “The oxtail is like Dinty Moore.” The woman gasped in delight and ordered it. On another occasion, a diner requested Sancerre, which isn’t on the restaurant’s all-Italian wine list, so her server offered a taste of a Soave. You feel like you could ask one of the waitstaff about which subway line to take home, or what color curtains to buy, and they would calmly steer you in the right direction.
These things sound elementary, but you’d be surprised how many expensive restaurants get them wrong. And if you’re going to spend $72 on a plate of pork (which, to be fair, feeds three), the experience ought to be comfortable and seamless.
Maialino styles itself as a Roman-style trattoria, with a menu divided into charcuterie, antipasti, primi (first course: pastas), secondi (main course: meat and fish), and contori (vegetable sides). Many of the dishes are simple Roman specialties, like spaghetti alla’Amatriciana and trippa alla trasteverina, braised tripe in the style of Trastevere, a Rome neighborhood. Suckling pig, “maialino” in Italian, shows up in several guises, including a fried-pig-foot salad, and pasta tossed with swabs of the meat and arugula. But the name of the restaurant turns out to be more about the restaurateur than the pig: When Meyer was a 20-year-old working as a tour guide in Rome, his boss affectionately called him “Meyerino.” But when the boss noticed how often Meyer ate pork, he changed the nickname to “Maialino”—or “little pig.”
Antipasti are mainly stellar, generously portioned and priced ($9–$15). Deeply burnished fried artichokes are similar to the ancient Roman Jewish dish, the small, nutty-tasting vegetables served with a creamy sauce that’s like hollandaise spiked with anchovies. For trippa alla trasteverina, executive chef Nick Anderer braises the spongy stomach lining into tender submission, the honeycombed nooks and crannies of the offal sponging up the simple tomato sauce, zested with mint and a salty snow of Pecorino, the sheep’s-milk cheese that’s more sharp and salty than rich. The menu reaches south to Sicily and west to Sardinia for a salad of bottarga—salt-cured gray mullet roe—which is shaved over greens and celery root, as lemon-yellow as pollen or citrus zest but tasting like the sea smacked you across the face. A gooey soft-boiled egg provides richness.
The pastas ($13–$17) aren’t trying to knock your socks off, but they do. I particularly loved tonnarelli cacio e pepe—an ultra-simple dish of square-edged spaghetti with copious grindings of black pepper and Pecorino. The bucatini all’Amatriciana—named after the town of Amatrice, in the same province as Rome—arrives in a neat pile, the hollow bucatini so al dente that the pasta barely curls around a fork. The texture of the pasta acts as a pleasant backdrop for the onion-and-guanciale tomato sauce, elevated by vinegar and chilies. Then there’s the malfatti al maialino, fluttery squares of egg pasta with arugula and a generous portion of braised suckling pig leg, brightened with a vibrant, lemony sauce. Anderer has a knack for balancing rich, heavy ingredients with light, acidic flavors, keeping fatty monotony at bay.
If you wish to split a pasta course, the kitchen will portion it into two separate bowls, saving you from dragging bucatini all over the table. This is a good idea if you are aiming for both the traditional multi-course meal and some semblance of affordability—share an antipasta, split a pasta, and still have room and dollars left for a secondi.
Good choices for a secondi include that amazing suckling pig and a comforting braised lamb neck in Frascati wine and rosemary. But some of the secondi come up against the same challenge as they do at Marea: The antipasti and pastas are hard acts to follow. The braised oxtails, a trio of them lined up in a tart tomato sauce, were slightly oversalted and underwhelming in their one-notedness.
Still, this restaurant is worth your time for many reasons. Although it’s possible, even easy, to spend a lot of money at Maialino, a big tab is not inevitable—choose carefully (pastas are good values) and share courses. There are also quartinos of wine—that’s a quarter of a liter, most priced $10 to $16—for those who want more than a glass but don’t want to shell out for a bottle. Maialino is thoughtful like that.