Posted by: lisetta | July 19, 2012

Zeppoli Restaurant

Worpress notifies me that I’ve reached a milestone with 600 posts and shares this quote:

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. – Gustave Flaubert

With that, and a half dozen visits to Zeppoli over the past year, I decided it’s finally the right time to write up a review of my favorite restaurant ever. My first visit to Zeppoli last August was too foodgasmic to capture with words.  On subsequent visits, I composed the perfect reviews in my mind, yet never captured my thoughts in writing. When we visited last month with Francis, I snapped photos but posted none, opting, instead, to ‘like’ the ones that he posted to Facebook. After a week of mediocre food in the Catskills, choosing Zeppoli as our recovery meal was a no-brainer.

Zeppoli embodies the very best of Italian food culture: high quality ingredients, prepared with mastery, served in the most ‘accogliente‘ and unpretentious of venues. What else do real people want?

Chef-owner Joey Baldino is a dedicated artisan, mastering his craft through constant exploration of technique and flavor. Each meal in his restaurant reveals his sophisticated understanding of Italian food culture, where simple ingredients combined with mindful techniques become ethereal.

I first heard of Joey from my neighbor Barry who had met him while studying at Anna Tasca Lanza’s cooking school in Sicily. She came back from that trip with praise for a young chef who had worked at Vetri, the crown jewel of high-end Italian restaurants in Philadelphia. I’d forgotten about Barry’s story until I met Joey in the open kitchen at L’Oca, where he was working for about a year. We struck up an easy conversation about Italian cooking and culture, and when he mentioned that he’d studied Sicilian cooking in Italy, the stories clicked and the friendship began.

Joey’s culinary values began in his Italian family. His Sicilian grandparents owned a restaurant in South Philly, and his mother and aunts inspired him with a lifetime of fabulous family meals. Studying business at Temple, he knew he wanted to be back in the kitchen, so there he went, both working all over the city and beyond, with additional study at the French Culinary Institute and other smaller cooking schools. I admire his focused energy in the kitchen, his attention to detail, his kindness and respect for the other chefs (no matter how crazy they are), and his patience. With all he knows about Italian food, he never boasts nor draws attention to himself. This is why his friends do it for him.

The restaurant: it’s a simple yet elegant storefront on Collings Avenue in Collingswood, New Jersey. I don’t typically like going out to the suburbs, but the 20 minute ride from my place in University City is well worth it:

Inside, it’s only got 10-12 tables, seating 35 or so. When it opens at 5, its simple decor looks like this:

Inside view, from the corner table next to the open kitchen.

The meal starts off with a basket of traditional breads: homemade semolina bread and  foccaccia prepared every morning. He serves it with olives he marinates with lemon and herbs.

Zeppoli bread basket, with rosemary foccaccia.

Zeppoli bread basket, with tomato foccaccia and Blaine’s hand. Note behind the basket the glass of homemade lemonade,  scented with orange blossom water and star anise ~ an homage to the Arab influence on Sicilian cooking.

And then come the appetizers. All are perfect. Yes, I do mean that: Zeppoli’s food is perfect. It took five years of deconstructing and writing about Italian food in this blog to arrive at this moment. Authentic – and unpretentious – Italian food is here. Honestly. Get ready:

Grilled octopus salad, served over arugula.

The antipasto misto, moments before we devoured it (with audible moaning from everyone at the table).

Another angle of the antipasto misto, just in case you did not appreciate its beauty in the previous shot. It really does have over a dozen items on it, and, yes, every item showcases unique flavors and preparation. I cannot get enough of the antipasto misto, which we most recently ate as a meal.

Gamberetti e fagioli — whole shrimp sauteed with garlic, lemon, parsley and chili, served over beans. Joey knows how to use garlic as one ingredient of many, never overpowering. Bravo!

Finocchi salsiccia — house made fennel sausage served over broccoli rabe, an homage to the Italian-American classic. The slightly sweet yet savory sausage contains a perfect ratio of lean and fat, and is paired brilliantly with the bitter rabe (untainted by garlic).

Grilled sardines! Where am I? In a small town in Jersey, or the Mediterranean?

Panzanella Catania – tomato and bread salad with capers and Sicilian white anchovies. Love. He lightly marinates the tomatoes to bring out their natural flavors. The tomatoes in this image were from my garden last summer!

Insalata verde, half portion. Simple mixed greens with a lemon vinaigrette and shaved caciocavallo, a staple of ‘cucina povera’ throughout Southern Italy. It’s hard to describe caciocavallo since its flavor truly varies across regions. It’s best when it is neither salty nor rubbery. Some are fragrant and floral, others are slightly creamy. Joey’s Sicilian version is just right (of course).

Next up, the pasta: served in half or full portions, so that you could choose to eat a plate as a first course, as they do in Italy. Joey’s choices include a number of vegetarian options, true to the Sicilian tradition. Here are a few:

Pesto Trapanese – almond-pistachio pesto with a touch of citrus, served with Sicilian-style fusill pasta. The only pasta on Joey’s menu named by its sauce. You’ll know why if you try it. And that empty carafe of lemonade? Mine was the only glass left by the time the pasta course arrived. Try as we might, we always manage to drink it all by the end of the second course.

A sample of Gnocchi alla Argentiera – ricotta and spinach gnocchi served with brown butter sage and shaved caciocavallo. The gnocchi are light yet rich, with neither the spinach nor the ricotta privileged. The ‘buerre noisette’ is actually nutty; not at all slimy like so many ill-executed butter sauces. I’ve been told that the trick to doing this at home is using high quality butter and clarifying it before browning it.

Spaghetti whose name I no longer recall, sadly. It was prepared with bread crumbs and some sort of fish. Don’t let my memory failure stop you from imagining how delicious it was.

Another shot of pesto trapanese, in better light. Note the difference in pasta shape, as if it matters.

In most of our visits to Zeppoli, we’ve ordered appetizers and pasta, but the two entrees I’ve tasted merit mention:

Sicilian Fisherman Stew — mixed seafood with saffron and Moroccan cous cous. You’ll want to drink the broth when you’re through with the fish. Some Italian friends from the north insist that Sicily really isn’t Italy, but Africa … as if there were something wrong with that.

Rabbit! Stewed with tomatoes and served with herb roasted potatoes. So tender and tasty, I forget for a moment that I typically claim to be a vegetarian. The color in this iPhone photo is a bit off; believe me when I tell you that it is perfect in person. If you’ve never tried rabbit, start here.

I’ve tasted almost all of the house-made desserts on the menu, but typically arrive at them when the light is no longer good enough for photographs from the iPhone! Drat. Do I describe with words the light and airy zeppole served with chocolate and hazlenut sauce? or the three cannulicchi whose pastry and filing neither feels fried nor excessively sweet? or the house-made gelato, or the torta di limone he taught me to make years ago? Perhaps I’ll save for the next review more detailed descriptions. For now, behold a teaser:

Zeppoli’s torta with apricot: its vanilla undertones blend brilliantly with the sweet yet tart apricots.

Since I arrived in Philadelphia eleven years ago, I’ve spent much time and energy trying to create a feeling of “home” through writing about Italian food culture. I typically deconstruct with frustration the amateur execution or obscene pretensions of many “Italian” restaurants this city holds dear. Zeppoli illumines the state of consciousness I’d lost touch with yet have been seeking for years. As such, it is both an answer to my koan and a poetic transition to my new home in Manhattan. If you know what Italian food is supposed to taste like, you’ll love Zeppoli. Trust me.

Blaine digs up the rosemary plant from our garden in University City ….

… and transplants it (and thyme) in Zeppoli’s newly constructed raised beds. I can think of no better place for them.

Posted by: lisetta | July 6, 2012

Lil’ Pop Shop

In the eleven years that I’ve lived in University City, Philadelphia, much has changed. Hipsters moved in, small restaurants and food shops have opened, and bikes seem to outnumber cars. There are many things I’ve really grown to love here. The Lil’ Pop Shop is not one of them.

It’s a small – and funky-smelling – storefront hawking “artisanal” popsicles in whimsical flavors like peach rosemary, mango yogurt, blueberry coconut something or other, goat cheese something or other and insert fruit + herb/cream/yogurt here. They sell for $3 and are about 4 inches long and an inch thick. Here’s a quick snapshot of the one I ate (in about ten bites).

The smallest and least flavorful popsicle I’ve ever eaten.

It tasted like pureed canned peaches and weak rosemary essence, no kidding. There was no subtlety, no summertime sweetness, no balance of flavors, and no pleasure beyond the cool mouth feel on a hot evening. The four of us tasted each others’ choices; one of us liked his, one was indifferent, one didn’t like it, and one felt totally ripped off. (That last “one” was me, and I didn’t even pay for it!)

I really do appreciate the spirit of the small business owner here, and do sincerely hope that the shop does well beyond its inaugural season.  They are trying something new to the neighborhood and marketing well to the privileged Penn crowd.

Perhaps my gripe with Lil’ Pop Shop is really a gripe about the neighborhood, which aspires to be trendy with trends copied from elsewhere. The NYT wrote about artisanal popsicles over two years ago, for example. When I first tasted People’s Pops in Chelsea Market a few years ago, I was both enticed and delighted by their creative flavor combinations and their pitch.  Encountering a similar pitch – and far weaker execution – two years later in my own neighborhood holds neither intrigue nor joy.

But there’s something deeper, too: can copying another’s ideas and pouring liquids into freezer molds really be called “artisanal”? Does ‘artisanal’ no longer imply craft and artistry, but simply “handmade”? Has the word simply become yet another empty marketing trend?

If you seek inspiration from a real artisan, check out Artisanal Pencil Sharpening, by author David Rees, who “considers it a privilege to sharpen pencils for friends and strangers”. I encourage you to buy his book, to click on the video link on his website, or watch his recent performance in Richmond below.

Posted by: lisetta | July 4, 2012

Caffe Roma in Little Italy

Alain had another place he remembered fondly in Little Italy: Caffe Roma. I remember buying a cannoli and a few biscotti there, and thought the aromas were appealing, but the flavors weren’t anything to write about here. I found the vibe there to be a bit depressing. Perhaps we hit it on a slow night?

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New York magazine has a profile on Caffe Roma:

A Little Italy institution, Caffe Roma bakes its sweet-ricotta sfogliatella, biscotti, pignoli cookies and other confections right on the premises. “We’re a strictly Italian pastry shop, not a Starbucks,” says manager Vincent “Buddy” Zeccardi. (His parents own the shop, which has been in the family—and in the same location—since 1891.) If you’re south of Houston and in the mood for Amaretto Italian cheesecake, cassatina sponge cake, or pasticciotto, step inside and breathe a sigh of relief. But consider yourself forewarned: The cannoli are bigger than hotdog buns, and the multi-layered French Napoleon is not for the faint of heart (or clogged of artery). Long countertops, wood cabinets, a green pressed-tin ceiling, and inch-wide black and white hexagonal floor tiles convey an unmistakable old New York feel. That sense of tradition is only heightened around Christmas, Easter, St. Joseph’s Day, and Thanksgiving when the bakery churns out specialty custard cakes and other holiday goodies. Wedding cakes are also available. — Nina Mehta

I also discovered, that, according to a book called Manhattan Mafia Guide: Hits, Homes & Headquarters, by Eric Ferrara and Arthur Nash, Caffe Roma used to be a mob hangout. Fascinating. I know so very little about Italian American culture in that period. Would love to hear from the owners themselves more about the history of the place.

Posted by: lisetta | July 3, 2012

Di Palo’s in Little Italy

Everyone who comes to New York discovers places that resonate. When Alain lived in Chinatown with his girlfriend many years back, he remembered an Italian specialty shop called Di Palo’s. We ventured down there one evening to see if it was still around. Indeed it is, and what a gem …

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We bought sheep’s milk cheese, fresh mozzarella, store-made ravioli, and a jar of chestnut marmalade, then got lost trying to find the subway back up to my place. You never *really* get lost in New York, though. Someone is always on the sidewalk ready to point you in the right direction. In our case, it was a young woman who was also new to New York, but she consulted her iPhone to find the nearest subway stop. As we walked away, Alain asked why I didn’t get out my own iPhone and look it up! Good question, indeed!

Posted by: lisetta | July 2, 2012

The French Frittata

The slow path to cooking in in my borrowed NYC kitchen sped up with a visit from Alain in early March. He came to town for an academic conference, and opted to stay at my place rather than in a hotel. Who knew that living in NYC would come with such benefits? I’ve had almost as many visitors this past year as I’ve had in a decade in Philadelphia.

Below is a short video about Alain’s effort to use up some of the vegetables we had picked up from the local Farmer’s Market. (Can you believe the Farmer’s Market runs year round here?)

Cooking in NYC this past year has been a humbling experiment. At first, I didn’t do very much of it, and blamed it on the lack of accoutrements: no dishwasher, only one pan unscarred by burned meals, and no knife able to cut a tomato. Plates cracked and chipped, silverware oxidized, glasses mismatched … I hadn’t realized I’d become such a bobo!  A few months in, I brought a toaster, knife, cutting board, and an 8-piece set of stainless steel pots I got on an Amazon quick deal for $35. I started doing salads there, occasional pasta and/or ravioli dishes and eggs. That’s about it. Is it any wonder there haven’t been any blog entries to write?

I’m looking forward to moving my real kitchen to New York City, where every ingredient is a short walk or subway ride away. I imagine my food life will become much more interesting.

Posted by: lisetta | July 1, 2012

Paul’s perfect peppers

Looking through my iPhone to remind myself of posts unwritten, I realized that posting the pictures of Paul’s perfect peppers without his narrative would be a sin, so here it is all dressed up with iMovie flourishes:

He narrated this in September, 2011! Where has the year gone?

Paul’s peppers really are perfect. Here are my unedited ‘notes to self’, written right after eating lunch:

perfect rice — consistency, neither dry nor wet
pepper has texture, neither mushy nor crunchy, at that perfect point between the two, he’s created the ‘al dente’ of the pepper!
tomato there to flavor, not wetten or overwhelm
the sausage not primary but scents the dish
nice amount of sausage to rice
nice touch to keep the stem on the pepper
adding olive oil works too

I recall perfectly the circumstances that delayed my full review. I was too busy at work to write it up during the daytime, and by the time the evening arrived I was too exhausted from work to remain at a keyboard. This pretty much sums up the past ten months of my life. Let’s hope that it doesn’t foretell the next ten months!

Posted by: lisetta | June 30, 2012

Posts unwritten

I miss writing for pleasure, and I miss fabulous Italian food. I will have an actual blog post tomorrow, but for today, the most I can do is share some images from posts unwritten.

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Posted by: lisetta | June 27, 2012

Happy Anniversary

So they say that a fifth anniversary merits a gift of wood. Would pizza from a wood fired oven count? Perhaps that is a stretch. Given that I haven’t written here for almost a year, celebrating my blog’s fifth anniversary seems a stretch as well, especially since I have no interesting food stories to share!

Blaine and I have been spending the week in a remote area of the Catskills, near Barryville, New York, right on the border with Pennsylvania. The air is remarkably fresh, the birds are constantly singing, and life seems far simpler than it is in the city. There is no cell service and no food culture, but the landscape is truly beautiful. We’ve seen bald eagles and buzzards, and lots of deer. We did eat a mediocre margherita pizza at the local Italian restaurant, Il Castello, but it held no particular pleasures. Here are a few photos of the scenery:

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Posted by: lisetta | August 11, 2011

Eggplant Parm

I’ve never been a huge fan of eggplant parmigiana. When I first ate Paul’s version months ago, I thought my enjoyment might have been a fluke. After all, I was in a honeymoon phase with my dreamy new job in New York City, where everything looked and tasted better than what I had grown used to in Philadelphia. I had never actually experienced an eggplant parmigiana whose flavors blend so brilliantly.

When he shared a few pieces with me this time around, I understood that it was no fluke. What on earth does he do to make it so delicious? Look at it:

Paul’s eggplant parmigiana: the paper plate and plastic cutlery do it no justice.

Paul’s eggplant parmigiana on the second day that I ate it for lunch. I knew that I had already photographed it,  but did so again, in a feeble attempt to remind myself later how delicious life can be no matter what turmoil is spinning around me. 

What *is* Paul’s secret? Hear it for yourself:

Handfuls and handfuls of parmigiano. No wonder. :)

Paul’s eggplant parm right out of the oven … and a picture of him as a boy in the background. :)

Posted by: lisetta | August 7, 2011

Denino’s Pizzeria on Staten Island

My sister tweets to virtual strangers all over the world. She posts a photo of the Florida sunrise each morning and receives thanks and greetings from folks as far away as Indonesia. She writes poetry and received encouragement about her “work”. She also has an entire group of “friends” in Staten Island. They argued amongst themselves about whether we should have lunch at Denino’s or Brother’s, two of Staten Island’s most revered pizzerias. Denino’s won out. I’m glad it did.

Denino’s is an Italian-American, family-run restaurant that’s been in business since 1937.

Though notably nicer than the other buildings in the neighborhood, it didn't look like much from the outside.

As you enter the building, eulogies for Carlo, the deceased patriarch of the tavern, display the love of a community.

Inside, its unpretentious dining room reveals a sense of pride and place. Here, a bit of Staten Island history.

And here, a few awards Denino's has received over the years.

And here, a blurry shot of history ...

The pies arrived without fanfare, appearing to be just like any other pizza you'd find around.

The flavors and textures of this simple slice of pizza margherita, however, were anything but typical.

The crust maintained its crisp, even beneath the weight of the mozzarella and sauce …. and even as the pie cooled. Neither the mozzarella nor the tomato overpowered the pie. It was perfect! If this is typical of the traditional Italian-American pizza pie, I now understand just why it is that native New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the pizza they find anywhere else.

I really love walking in to the Italian immigrant experience, and can’t help but wonder what my own life would be like if I’d been born in to an Italian family business … could women be shoemakers, I wonder? I’m sure the smell of polish and glue would be as sad to me as the fisherman’s nets from Il Postino. :)

Anyway, the trip to Denino’s took about 90-minutes from my place on the Upper West Side … the free ride on the Staten Island ferry was as enjoyable as the pizza and the company:

Leaving Staten Island ... Jersey on the left, Manhattan in the middle and Brooklyn on the right.

Getting closer ... Manhattan, with Governor's Island to the right.

Almost there ... taking the same picture many times, again in a feeble attempt to recall the splendor of the moment.

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