A spirited event with the Village Voice

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

The Village Voice’s Holiday Spirits Event
Studio Square
35-33 36th Street

Long Island City, Queens

 

Mixing a vat of Tito’s Handmade Vodka

Mixing a vat of Tito’s Handmade Vodka

 

 

The Village Voice hosted its first Holiday Spirits tasting event appropriately, on the night the prohibition act was repealed in 1933.  The event featured some of the best local distilleries in the New York area, most only established in the past two years due to a huge influx in the craft/micro distilling scene.

It is a great time to be a part of this movement and most in the business agree; this is not just a trend.  Representatives from Atsby Vermouth and Greenhook Ginsmiths both agree that the huge inrush of micro distilleries will serve to weed out the weak – whose product just isn’t up to par – making way for a new brand of the hard stuff.  Produced in small batches with quality ingredients and specialized distilling methods, now is a very exciting time in the world of alcohol.  This generation’s version of the bartender, the mixologist (and home cocktail enthusiasts alike) have upped the ante in search of the new and the better (or is it the tried and the true of decades past?), propelling their cocktail making to new heights (there is after all, only so much you can do with well vodka).
Highlights from the Village Voice event included tastings fromAtsby’s Vermouth, Greenhook Ginsmiths, and Dutch’s Spirits, all featuring a new, old-world take on their respective focus.

A festive display of Atsby’s Vermouth

A festive display of Atsby’s Vermouth

Atsby’s Vermouth changed the way I thought about what vermouth is and should be – a well-balanced liquor of fortified wine and botanicals.  Vermouth is no longer a hasty splash in my martini, but instead a drink to be sipped and enjoyed all on its own.  Atsby’s two styles of vermouth, the Amberthorn and the Armadillo Cake provide a pleasing drink, whatever your mood and are a nod to both the grungy underbelly of New York at the turn of the last century (Atsby’s – an acronym for the Assembly Theaters on Broadway) and to the present (and hopefully the future) – a time when the elevated cocktail has a place – something that we can be both proud to serve AND to drink.

Greenhook Ginsmith’s showing off their product

Greenhook Ginsmith’s showing off their product

The Greenhook Ginsmith’s also currently have just two products (and quality products they are); the world’s first beach plum gin (a local riff on England’s Sloe Gin) and an American Dry.  Both, the most fragrant gin I have ever encountered, sweet and inviting, due to a low temperature vacuum distillation process which preserves the aromatics in the alcohol and provides us a purer drink.  The stand out for me in this pair was the American Dry, which has since become a staple in my liquor cabinet (where I also quickly retired my tonic water).  Fragrant, smooth, and full of flavor – yet not for the faint of heart.

Dutch’s Bitters

Dutch’s Bitters

Dutch’s Spirits goes the moonshine and bitters route on the footprint of an age-old moonshine distillery in upstate New York.  Think Northerners are inept in the moonshine department?  Think again.  Dutch’s Sugar Wash Moonshine packs a punch and is quite the versatile drink (check out some recipes here).  I had the opportunity to try each of Dutch’s three styles of bitters with a bit of moonshine, and decided that I could see myself sipping on a cocktail with any of them.  The Colonial, Boomtown, and ProhiBitters each have a distinct flavor profile sure to spruce up your next cocktail.
There were so many more notable distilleries at the event, each with its own unique product – Scorpion Mezcal and Nahmias et Fils, for example – too many to list them all and too many to even try in just one night.  What I was most taken with the event was the passion which filled the room.  This micro-distillery (or whatever you’d like to call it) thing is still new enough that the scantily-clad promo girls aren’t the ones selling the liquor – it’s the men and women who have poured countless hours into crafting what they think is the perfect booze.   It’s their passion and their vision all while possessing the utmost respect for the rich history that comes with the territory.  The roaring 20s have certainly come back with a vengeance (sans the actual act of prohibition) and with it, the idea that we can enjoy the cocktail again.  Cheers.

Relaunch brings good spirits to Long Island City! Review of Crescent Grill Relaunch

BY BETH KAISERMAN

Crescent Grill
38-40 Crescent Street,
Long Island City
Dutch Kills
(718) 729-4040/crescentgrill.com

When a New York City restaurant gets its liquor license, it’s a reason to celebrate!

Crescent Grill in Long Island City, also just added a gallery in the front of the restaurant featuring local artists and welcomed Chef de Cuisine Milton Enriquez.

Chef Shaun Dougherty was in good spirits Thursday night, as he greeted guests and reflected on the journey that brought his 100-seat New American restaurant to a former hair goods shop in Long Island City.

“I want to be able to say ‘I’ve been on this corner since 2013,’” Dougherty said.

Dougherty, who said his favorite high school class was Home Ec, hails from Johnstown, Pa. and opened the restaurant with his brother, Daniel, who has lived in Long Island City for 30 years. He considered opening the restaurant near State College, home of Penn State University’s main campus until his brother came aboard with the idea of bringing it to Long Island City.

Dougherty’s focus is on local, fresh food, and he really means it. He’s at the Jackson Heights Greenmarket every Sunday to pick up his goods from farms like Ronnybrook Dairy. He’s been using the same Western Pennsylvania farm to source his meats since 1993. “Farm-to-table” isn’t just a trend for him.

Pan seared Day Divers' Scallops: bean sprouts, Daikon radish, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts with a spicy citrus ginger

Pan seared Day Divers’ Scallops: bean sprouts, Daikon radish, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts with a spicy citrus ginger

duck confit pasta at Crescent Grill resized

Pappardelle Pasta: duck confit, butternut squash, sage, brussels sprouts leaves, Parmigiano-Reggiano

For appetizers, we tried local salmon with citrus creme and a truffled mushroom quiche. For an entree, I indulged in one of my favorite seafoods, pan seared diver’s scallops, which are handpicked by licensed scuba divers. The dish had a shredded Asian-style salad of bean sprouts, Daikon radish, cherry tomatoes and peanuts with a spicy citrus ginger dressing, which was a light and lovely accompaniment to the scallops.

The pappardelle with duck confit and butternut squash was certainly rich and hearty but the portion was just enough that it wasn’t overwhelming. All the flavors were just right and went together perfectly, with the brussels sprouts leaves helping to lighten it up just a touch. It was a hit!

There will soon be a private dining room downstairs, where guests can watch the kitchen staff work their magic.

The Dutch Kills neighborhood is looking good these days. Dutch Kills Centraal is down the street. A former auto-garage is now M. Wells Steakhouse, closer to Queensboro Plaza, but not far from Crescent Grill. New York City staples Murray’s Cheese and Amy’s Bread have outposts near Queensboro Plaza as well. The area has been home to tons of artists and families who’ve lived here for years. Only a few subway stops from Times Square, there are tons of hotels and office buildings nearby. As more businesses keep popping up, it could very well be the next Bushwick.

The energy here is infectious, with people excited and outwardly supportive of new businesses, and warmly welcoming of new visitors to the area. I can’t wait to go back.

Crescent Grill on Urbanspoon

Where Pizza Is Just a Slice of a Northern Italian Flavor Cornucopia – Review of Basil Brick Oven Pizza

BY ELENA MANCINI

28-17 Astoria Blvd.
Astoria
718-204-1205 / basilbrickoven.com/

Astorians are favorably served when it comes to solid brick oven pizza. Places like Tufino’s, Trattoria l’Incontro among a few others see honorably to that. However for those seeking a fine brick oven dining experience that also encompasses fine authentic regional dishes and does not entail any long term injuries on the wallet, Basil is just the place.

 

Basil

To the uninitiated, Basil Brick Oven Pizza is a place where one might expect to have a solid pizza dining experience. I was firmly disabused of this notion thanks to Bradley Hawks of Amuse Bouche and a very fun dinner that he organized for Astoria-based foodie community and beyond, several months ago. In fact the non-pizza items on the menu were so extensive that I was so full that I had to bow out before the pizzas even arrived.

Utterly wowed by Chef Daniele’s creations, I left knowing that I’d be making a return visit for the pizza. I made good on that this summer, and I wasn’t disappointed. Overwhelmed by the selection–the pizza menu alone has over 50 varieties of topping combinations, from the classical to the outlandish–I decided to go for the “Basil” pizza, since the herb lent it name to the restaurant.

The crust was crisp and well done. It did not have the char and tenderness that some Neapolitan pizzaioli pride themselves in, it was a solid crust and held up to the weight of the toppings very well. The basil topping consisted in the ingredients that comprise a traditional Genovese pesto sauce: basil, pine nuts, potatoes (always present in an authentic plate of spaghetti al pesto) olive oil, garlic and grated Parmigiano Reggiano coupled with generous, but not overwhelming slices of melted mozzarella. The fresh flavors and the  quality of the ingredients were emphasized by the first rate extra virgin olive oil drizzled upon the crust. The flavor was intense and added a little pinch to every bite.

Basil2

Sogliola al Forno

My dining companion ordered the Sogliola al Forno (filet of sole in white wine sauce, lemon, capers and black olives). Predictably lean and indisputably fresh, the sole was perfectly cooked and the black olives lent an interesting counter point to the subtle acidity of the  lemon-wine-caper sauce . The portion was generous and thoughtfully paired with white fingerling potatoes and grilled vegetables.

To the rest of Chef Daniele’s menu, after having sampled a wide swath of appetizers, salads, primi of pastas and risottos and a number of entrees and experiencing various levels of enjoyment and no disappointments, I will  limit myself to spotlighting my favorites here.

Chef Daniele is from Piedmont and takes great pride in showcasing ingredients typical of cuisine of the northern end of the Italian peninsula and featuring them in ways that best accentuate the distinctive characteristics of items such as speck, radicchio and gorgonzola.

 

Sliced Octopus Salad

Sliced Octopus Salad

A dish that scored the highest points for me for plating, presentation, originality and flavor is the sliced octopus salad. Thin strata of bound octopus, sliced horizontally are stacked tall and then tastefully garnished with fresh microgreens, slices of grape tomatoes and halved lemons. Lightly drizzled in olive oil, salt, pepper and green herbs it is a light fresh appetizer that is festive and pleasing in every way.

Vongole alla Basil

Vongole alla Basil

The Vongole alla Basil is a light and delectable appetizer. The dish features little neck clams sauteed with zucchini in a white wine broth with mint and garlic. Served with thin slices of oregano focaccia which is great both on its own or for sopping up the delicious broth.

Homemade Beef Meatballs

Homemade Beef Meatballs

 Also as satisfying as it is visual appealing are Chef Daniele’s Homemade Meatballs. The dense and hearty sphere of beef are elegantly coated in melted mozzarella and served atop a fresh red tomato sauce and shredded basil. 

Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone

Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone

The Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone is an outstanding dish that really highlights ingredients from Tirol and Piedmont. A toothsome, yet creamy Arborio rice flavored with the deep, rich aromatic flavors of porcini mushrooms, shreds of speck lend it a smoky saltiness and strips of radicchio bestow subtle notes of bitterness and texture. 

Basil Lasagna

Basil Lasagna

Chef Daniele’s Lasagna is another rewarding departure from the lasagna that is typically featured on menus here in the U.S., which are based on Southern Italian variations of lasagna, which is primarily comprised of lasagna noodles, ground beef, grated mozzarella and tomato sauce. The first distinguishing feature of Basil’s lasagna is that there is no trace of tomato sauce in them, save from the decorative streak that is placed on the side of the dish for chromatic effect. Basil’s lasagna rather consists of alternating layers of lasagna noodles, potato slices and pesto sauce. It is topped with a thick layer of melted mozzarella and is in addition to being filling, also delicious. While it may never displace red sauce lasagna for many, it is a genuine Italian culinary contender.

There’s a lot to love about Basil: Portions generous, prices are modest and range in the low $10s for salads and antipasti,  the $10-$15 range for pizzas,  from the  $15 or less to the low $20s (for risotti), most entrees are in the low $20 range.

There is also a nice selections of Italian wines which which to pair the dishes that are also available by the glass. A variety of Northern and Southern Italian as well as American desserts are available on the menu.

The decor is rustic and up-to-date with exposed brick walls and lantern-style chandeliers.

Service is cheerful and eager to please.

Basil is not a joyous addition to the rich and varied Astoria culinary landscape, but an authentic casual and contemporary Northern Italian restaurant, which truly fills a void in Queens.

Basil Brick Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

Sao Mai on Urbanspoon

When in Queens, Dine Like the Romans: Review of Testaccio

BY ELENA MANCINI

47-30 Vernon Blvd.
Long Island City, Queens
718-937-2900 / testacciony.com

Bruschette Assortite at Testaccio, LIC

While there’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in NYC, the majority of them boil down to the cuisines of the northern or southern regions of the Italian peninsula, or the beloved dishes of the Italian-American variety that have become standard New York fare– a side of broccoli rabe with that chicken parm, anyone? Yet, restaurants that purvey the bold yet rustic dishes of the eternal city are indeed somewhat of a rarity in New York City. Manhattan represents with less than a handful of downtown restaurants: Lupa, Cacio e Pepe and the charming Quinto Quarto with its homage to offal. Among this fine company was the recently closed (and short-lived) Sora Lella, named after Elena Fabrizi, sister of the iconic Roman actor,  Aldo Fabrizi. Danny Meyer’s hit Gramercy restaurant, Maialino has also added culinary cache to the cuisine of Rome casting the spotlight on Rome’s beloved iterations of pork: porchetta and guanciale.

At Testaccio, a restaurant favorably situated at a stone’s throw away from the stunning Long Island City waterfront, a wide selection of typical Roman dishes populate the menu alongside dishes that conform to the broader Italian palate.

True to the Roman district after which  it is named–Testaccio in Rome is known for championing  restaurants that capture the traditional Roman dining experience–Testaccio menu showcases many of the standard dishes of Roman cuisine, including Carciofi alla Giudea and many of the dishes feature staple ingredients such as guanciale and Pecorino and Cacio cheeses and, Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, Coda alla Vaccinara (Roman oxtail stew) and  The decor at Testaccio is industrial contemporary with many warm and soothing touches including soaring ceilings, spacious seating with banquettes and mood lighting. Ambient music favors conversation and serves to drown out the din. A beautiful pizza oven adorns the center of the dining room like an altar. The restaurant is also equipped with a full service bar and a predominantly Italian and Roman wine list.

Ciccia al Caffe’ at Testaccio, LIC

During my last visit, my dining companion and I started with an order of the Bruschette Assortite ($15). Our savory gourmet toasts came with basil pesto, minced tomatoe and ricotta drizzled with olive oil, and were beautifully arranged to evoke a painter’s palette.

Our entrees of choice for that evening were the Ciccia al Caffe’ (espresso rubbed skirt steak) ($22) and the Salmone alla Senape (salmon with mustard cream) ($23).  A fan of incorporating espresso into main dishes, I opted for the Ciccia al Caffe’. The skirt steak was not as velvet-tender as skirt steak can be, but tender none the less and grilled to achieve just the right balance between smokiness and moisture on the inside. The espresso flavor was subtle and the flavor notes were released in the back part of the palate. A rich red wine reduction both enhanced and tied the flavors together favorably.  The ciccia was paired with cream of spinach and French Fries. The cream of spinach was a good and fresh iteration of an average side. The French Fries were hand cut, crisp and not greasy.

The Salmon alla Senape came elegantly plated with a large juicy chunk of salmon coated in a mustard sauce that bestowed the dense, meaty fish with a creamy and subtle tang. It was generously paired with roasted yellow squash.

As much as we wanted to order dessert, we opted to forgo it as we were satisfied with our generous and filling entrees. However, among the desserts that I’d highly recommend is the Torta di ricotta e visciole (ricotta pie with Roman sour cherries in syrup) ($6).

All in all, Testaccio is a sophisticated restaurant with a pleasing contemporary vibe and a broad menu and reasonably priced menu specializing on head-to-tail Roman cuisine.

 

A discerning New Yorker’s grass-fed of choice – a Review of Bareburger

By Erin Palisin

Various Locations in New York City:

33-21 31st Ave (Astoria)
535 Laguardia Pl. (Greenwich Village)
514 3rd Avenue (Murray Hill)
170 7th Ave. (Park Slope, Brooklyn)

http://www.bareburger.com/

Maui Wowie Burger @ Bareburger

Ask 10 New Yorkers where they go for their favorite burger in the city and you will likely receive 10 different responses. However if you ask this New Yorker, you will only get one: Bareburger. Although a traditional, sloppy beef burger on a regular bun sometimes does the trick, the unique concept and combinations offered at Bareburger are what truly sets it apart from other burger joint competitors.

The Bareburger menu truly offers something for everyone. Diners have the option of choosing from 10 different types of patties: beef, turkey, veggie burger, portabella mushroom, lamb, elk, bison, ostrich, grilled chicken or Cajun spiced chicken. If that weren’t enough, you also have the option of using a multi-grain roll, brioche bun, iceberg lettuce wrap or wheat flour wrap, or a gluten-free tapioca rice bun. After viewing these options, diners can move on to what type of unique burger toppings they want to munch on. Custom designed burgers range from traditional Classic Burger with dill pickle relish, grilled onions and ketchup to the Maui Wowie Burger (pictured below) including smoked mozzarella, grilled pineapple, Canadian bacon, fried onions, roasted red peppers and ranch dressing. Since choosing among these options can be overwhelming, the menu also serves as a suggestion guide. Each type of burger combination comes with a suggestion as to what type of patty would work well. The suggestions have not failed me yet!

 

I am lucky enough to have a Bareburger located only two blocks from my apartment. Since I took my first bite of the Avocado California Burger (with the suggested veggie burger patty and a perfectly buttery brioche bun), I made it a personal goal to try every burger on the menu. I am proud to say I have successfully worked half way to this goal. Although no burger has disappointed, do not miss out on trying the Maui Wowie and Lamb Burger or my first and personal favorite, the Avocado California. In my experience, veggie burgers have been hit or miss; in this case it is a complete hit. It certainly helps that all ingredients are certified organic, fresh and perfectly paired together.  The burgers are a smaller portion, so make sure to order the fresh cut fries and battered onion rings combo (with 4 kinds of dipping sauce, including Bareburger’s own sweet, special sauce); a perfect side to share with your dining companion. Finally, don’t forget to save room for a milkshake made, of course, with certified organic ice cream, milk and fruits. Milkshakes are a thick consistency and contain rich, tasteful flavors. Although you also may leave in a certified food coma, it is certainly one that you won’t forget!

Rings and Fries - Bareburger Combo

As explained on their website, Bareburger prides itself in only using organic ingredients for three reasons: It’s better for you, It’s tastier, and It’s better for the planet. Bareburger certainly proves that all three of these values are not only better for the restaurant’s concept, but better for their customers as well. Enjoy!

*Bareburger has been previously reviewed by Holly Hagan in 2009.
Click here to read her review on The Gotham Palate.

 

 

 

Tasty, rib-sticking convivality in Astoria – Review of Ovelia Psistaria

BY ELENA MANCINI

Ovelia’s Psistaria
34-01 30th Ave, Astoria, NY 11103
718.721.7217 / ovelia-nyc.com/


Sesame Coated Feta Cubes – Photo courtesy of Judith Klein-Rich

 

Barbequed Ribs - Photo courtesy of Judith Klein-Rich

At a recent blog-relaunch event in honor of Fooditka.com (formerly Foodista), I had the pleasure of feasting on inventive Greek-inspired dishes with four smart, food-savvy women at Ovelia’s and falling in a lit bit more in love with Astoria. The woman of the evening was Judith Klein-Rich, Founder and Editor of Fooditka. Fooditka is a dynamic food blog that features many of Judith’s recipes, cooking experiments, Astoria-centered restaurant reviews and a variety of food-centered stories.   The blog’s new name is a playful homage to Slovakia, where Judith was born and spent part of her childhood. I was thrilled to be on her guest list, and my attendance at her Ovelia Psistaria event was a great opportunity for me to enjoy some modern Greek flavors in NYC’s flagship Greek neighborhood of  Astoria, and to commune with fellow food bloggers, in physical real-time. How nice it feels to write about a social experience that cannot be preceded by the adjective “virtual!” As a result, my new foodie friends include Erin of Gluten-Free Fun, Lindsay of TheLunchBelle.com and Meg of Harmonious Bellies. Meg is also a regular contributor to We heart Astoria along with Judith.

 THE VENUE:

“Ovelia Psistaria,” as its web site instructs, connotes the ritual of cooking lamb on a spit on an open flame and the type of place in which such food is served. Despite its traditional sounding name, however, Ovelia’s offers a contemporary spin on Greek cuisine fused with local New York flair and flavors. It features a happening bar scene in the front of the establishment, seasonal patio dining and the dining area champions a hip, contemporary decor that meshes classic Modernism with with funky kitsch: think murals evocative of Braque and Dali flanked by Patricia-Field-inspired sculptures. It’s odd, but it works with Ovelia’s fun and energetic vibe.  Its extensive menu encompasses brunch, lunch and dinner and includes classic casseroles as well as fish and meat options. Dinner entrees range roughly from $15 – $32, lunch items are mostly below the $15 range. The restaurant offers vegetarian and vegan options as well as gluten-free alternatives. Gracious chef and co-owner, Peter Giannakas, was quick in providing ready gluten-free substitutions for Erin of Gluten Free Fun, which included cucumber slices instead of pita and ribs dressed in gluten-free barbeque sauce.


THE MEAL:

A round of dry rosé wine sangria kicked off an evening of hearty grazing and foodie-pow-wowing and information sharing. The sangria, made with a dry, yet pleasingly light rosé stood out for its confetti-like sprinklings of freshly cut kiwi and strawberry. Each sip of it delivered a lively  burst of summer freshness to the palate. Next came an abundant spread of Greek and American appetizers.  There was grilled halloumi on a bed of prosciutto, kafteri poppers, which consisted of feta and grilled jalapeno, fried, semolina-coated calamari  feta cubes coated in black-and-white sesame seeds and a hint of honey, grilled loukaniko, a delicious house-made sausage flavored with fennel, savory seasonings and orange zest. The loukaniko is a Giannakas family recipe, and prepared by chef and co-owner, Peter Giannaka’s parents, Ioannis and Evangelia. The loukaniko was also used for the generous appetizer serving of corn dog buttons. Ensconced in a savory coating of fried cornmeal, and in dainty coin size servings,  these were the most gourmet corn dogs that I have ever seen or tasted.  There was a plate of warm, slightly tangy pita bread and an addictive pretzel bread made by The loukaniko and the sesame-coated feta cubes were my favorites. The loukaniko, my Astoria friends enthusiastically informed me, is also a beloved fixture on Ovelia’s weekend brunch menu. It also bears noting here that Ovelia’s appetizer options includes many traditional Greek mezes including taramosalata, eggplant salad.

More than happily sated on this course alone, little did I know that the evening still held voluminous platters of ribs and grilled meats and rich sides in store for us. There were heaping trays of succulent bbq’ed ribs seductively dressed in barbeque sauce. The smoky-flavored meat was so tender it slid right off the bone, and was not the least bit fatty. There was chicken: deep fried and grilled. I savored both. The fried chicken had a crisp and non-greasy pepper-seasoned buttermilk crust and was cooked to perfection. The grilled variety was tender lemon-flavored juiciness buried under a thin coat of rewarding blistered char. The sides included many a nod to Fourth of July and Thanksgiving goodness with mac-n-cheese, mashed potatoes with gravy, and sweet potatoes sprinkled with marshmellows and a side of Greek style sauteed spinach and lemon potatoes for good ethnic measure. Needless to say, the collective state of food-induced coma that ensued after this delicious feast would not even allow for the word dessert to be uttered. Unspoken consensus turned the word into table taboo.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

The company and the food made me feel instantly rewarded for having attended the Fooditka event. The fare, pricing and vibe at Ovelia clearly warrant returning to there. As for the neighborhood it’s located it in–an Astoria artery that is lined with the nostalgically priced fish-mongers, green grocers, Greek cafeterias– it made me heart Astoria even more than before. And I will be sure to explore the area that Harmonious Bellies’ Meg Cotner, referred to as the “food nexus of Astoria,” that is to say neighboring block of 31st Ave. and 34th. St.

This post is participating in the Astoria Blog Carnival, hosted by We Heart Astoria.

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Ovelia on Urbanspoon

Soulful Italian for the Adventuresome and Non – Review of Ornella Trattoria

BY ELENA MANCINI

2917 23rd Avenue
Astoria, Queens
(718) 777-9477 / ornellatrattoria.com/

You’d never guess it from its humble exterior on a nondescript, sundry-shop-populated block of Astoria, Queens, but this warm and cheerful, family-run trattoria reserves genuine gastronomic treats for both the lover of traditional Italian comfort dishes and the adventurous foodie. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend and fellow blogger, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both sides of Ornella’s.

The menu bears the exciting distinction of featuring dishes from the Cilento region of Salerno, Italy–a region that does not get much air time on menus outside of Italy– from where Executive Chef and Owner Giuseppe Viterale and his wife and restaurant’s namesake, Ornella, hail. Thus, dishes like imbustata, a rich oven-baked dished consisting of envelope shaped pasta stuffed with roasted veal, chicken, mushrooms and mozzarella and homemade pastas made with buckwheat flour, chickpea flour and chestnut flour. These are simply wonderful, and Ornella’s is particularly adept at making these since Giuseppe’s father ran a flour mill in Rofrano, a town in the Salerno province of, Italy.  That said, Italian-American classics, such as Chicken Scarpariello and Veal Parmigiana  are also faithfully represented on the menu. Despite these seemingly clear culinary coordinates, many of the dishes served at Ornella’s can be hard to peg, regionally that is. This is because Giuseppe Viterale is a restless epicurean. He is continuously experimenting with ingredients and techniques, recombining flavors and even occasionally breaking some of the cardinal rules of Italian cooking. From speaking with him, I got the sense that he takes great pleasure in playing maverick in the kitchen, particularly when the results are gratifying.

Rigatoni alla Carbonara with Little Neck Clams and Blue Mussels

One such instance is with his rendition of pasta carbonara pictured above. Here, Viterale adds Little Neck clams and Blue Mussels to a creamy and deliciously savory, pecorino-laced Carbornara sauce, breaking the Italian culinary taboo of combining fish with cheese. While I admire bold combinations, I had my reservations about this dish. I was happily surprised at how well the flavors harmonized. The clams and mussels lent a subtle briny fresh dimension to the earthy Carbonara. I doubt the dish would have worked with a heavier, oiler seafood , but with clams and mussels, it worked beautifully.

On with a tour of more atypical Italian dishes. Since I was in the company of some daring diners, Viterale had us sample some authentic dishes and delicacies from his hometown– happily, a number of these dishes could be worthy contenders for an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

Sheep Salad at Ornella Trattoria

The meal started with something that I’d never even heard of before: sheep salad. It consisted of cool strips of marinated lamb, a side of arugula salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, and mozzarella burrata. I enjoyed both the aesthetic and flavor composition of this dish. The bold gaminess of the lamb combined with the bitterness of the arugula and the light, mild creaminess of the burrata made for an interesting and texture-rich assemble-your-own-bite experience.

Fettucine di Castagne - Image from Ornella Trattoria

The next couple of courses were pasta dishes. First came the Fettucine di Castagne, or fettucine made with chestnut flour. These handmade noodles had a tender, velvet-like texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that held up well against the other flavors with which it was combined.  Topped with a light sauce made with olive oil, sauteed spinach, tomatoes and shrimp, the dish showcases an elegant balance of flavors and is very tasty as well.

Pasta al Latte

The second pasta dish was Pasta al Latte, a dish that is traditionally eaten on the Catholic holiday of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption in Viterano’s home town of Rofrano. The method of preparing this dish is astoundingly simple and extremely unorthox for veteran pasta cookers: it is made of fresh pappardelle, or in any case a wide pasta noodle, boiled in milk instead of water. The milk then coagulates and forms a thick flavorful cream around the noodles. The pasta is then seasoned with grated pecorino and black pepper. It tasted delicious and almost decadent in its simplicity. While I didn’t get the story as to why it is that precisely this dish  gets eaten on this religious holiday. I speculate that perhaps the milk, one of the base and central ingredients of the dish, stands for purity. But who knows, that’s just my guess. In any case, when I shared the story behind this dish with my mother, a born-and-bred Neapolitan, to see if she had any similar culinary reference points, since Naples is part of the same region as Salerno, she told me that she’d never heard of it prepared for the Assumption in her hometown, but she recalled from her youth that pasta al latte was a dish especially prepared for young children–without the black pepper, of course

Sweetbreads in Truffle

The meat course was composed of lamb sweetbreads. It was presented with a generous side of homemade mashed potatoes and spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil. I am generally not very fond of offal, but I enjoyed Ornella’s tender and juicy rendition of it and the truffle oil sauce mitigated any hint of gaminess.

Sanguinaccio

Sanguinaccio, Italian Blood Pudding

Dessert was a real doozy. Viterale served us his last batch of sanguinaccio, Italian for pig blood pudding. While I’d never tried this dessert before, I’d been acquainted with it through my some of my Neapolitan relatives’ accounts, usually with  a dollop of bravado about how they eat lamb brain or vixen and to highlight the culinary wimpiness of  the subsequent, US-born generation that has either never been exposed or well-disposed toward eating such rustic delicacies. I’ll admit, I’d always been squeamish, yet curious about eating sanguinaccio, so after sampling so many enjoyable strange foods at Ornella’s, I leapt at the opportunity to sample it. I also appreciate the fact that this dessert adopts the principal of allowing no part of the slaughtered pig to go to waste. The texture was very creamy, and the dark chocolate, citrusy flavor was strong and not too sweet, but very dense. I could not taste the blood, but somehow I felt animal flavor notes in my nose. Perhaps it was psychological suggestion, but I must confess that it did interfere with my ability to enjoy it fully. I’d really be curious to see if I’d have had the same response, had I not known that it was sanguinaccio. All I can say for now is that conscious sanguinaccio consumption is not for everyone, but boy did I enjoy this riveting initiation into the unique culinary traditions of Salerno.

Based on my experience of the inspired dishes sampled at Ornella’s, the warm and hospitable ambiance, the prices–salads and appetizers are all under $10, pasta courses under $20 and entree courses in the $20 range– and commitment to fresh, quality ingredients, I’d heartily recommend Ornella’s for a laid back dinner among friends or an enjoyable family dinner.

 

 

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Wunderbar! A wonderful Bierhaus in Long Island City.

BY MICHELLE WAHLERS

37-10 11th Street.
Long
Island City
718-937-2337 / wunderbarlic.com/#self

Last Saturday the rain and wind in New York made trekking outside seem down right foolish. However, I couldn’t  bear to ask the delivery guy to bring my order of sesame chicken without feeling terrible, so my friends and I packed into a car and headed to Long Island City to Wunderbar, a German grill and Bierhaus.

Photo by Michelle Wahlers

We took a seat in the corner, away from the long wooden tables that made up the rest of the seating area. Large groups of people were laughing and knocking back beers in huge bier steins. We ordered a few pitchers and began looking through the extensive and authentic menu. Each item had a brief description for those not fluent in German. We started with the vegetable platter, which was comprised of a delicious potato salad, tomatoes, pickles and a string bean salad. The potato salad went very quickly, and was a terrific and encouraging way to start the meal. It was made with red potatoes, with the skin wisely left on which gave the salad an earthy texture, not just a mushy mess. It was made simply, with no unnecessary spices or add ins such as celery.   The atmosphere was welcoming, with charming waitresses skipping around, and playing chess with their little brothers on their breaks. We decided on the Roulade (beef stuffed with bacon, onion and pickle) , the brat burger, the “Wunderbar Wunderbar” which consisted of two wurst of your choice, cabbage and string bean salad and the Schweinebraten (pork loin marinated in beer).


Where to begin! The plates come in large portions, and we quickly began dividing the meals since we we overwhelmed by the sizes of the servings, and basically wanted to sample everything on the menu. The brat burger was slathered in a delicious sweet sauce, almost like a curry barbecue sauce. It was a bit messy, but throw a pickle on it and I’m sold. The Roulade was perhaps a bit dry, however the moisture from the onions compensated for that. The “Wunderbar Wunderbar” (my dish!) was exactly what I expected from a place boasting authenticity.. I chose the Bauernwurst and the Spicy Kaisewurst, which was beef and pork and cheddar cheese. The cheese was overwhelming and very, very rich. But the Bauernwurst….spicy and juicy, and when eaten with a scoop of sauerkraut it was exactly what I was hoping for. (Note: I went into this evening not liking sauerkraut, my tune is quite different now!) The Schweinebraten perhaps “won” the evening. The pork was cooked perfectly, and the bier flavor was definitely present. It practically melts in your mouth and is packed with flavor, but not over seasoned. It is a basic (and fantastic) display of pork and beer.

Wunderbar Wunderbar Platter at Wunderbar, NYC - Photo by Michelle Wahlers

For dessert we ordered a hot pretzel, mostly because I had forgotten to order one at dinner, and I could not leave without trying one. It was served piping hot, speckled with huge salt crystals and dipping mustard on the side. A great end to a feast! The prices run from $5 (cold sandwiches) to $45 (the Wunderbar Haus special which is essentially a sample plate of everything on the menu).

The overall feeling throughout our evening was “When are we coming back?”; it was such fun and although they played “99 Luftballoons” three times while we were there, the music was catchy and everyone was upbeat. The service was great, and the food is exceptional. Needless to say, I am glad I gave the delivery guy a night off.

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Locally Grown in Astoria – A review of Sweet Afton

BY MICHELLE WAHLERS

Sweet Afton at 30-09 34th Street
Astoria, Queens
718-777-2570/ http://www.sweetaftonbar.com/

Photo by Michelle Wahlers

Photo by Michelle Wahlers

Astoria, Queens is not up and coming, it is happening right now. Local food, farmers markets, and neighborhood bars with a present and supportive community are sprouting up like dandelions. Sweet Afton (“The Astoria Local”) is quickly making a name for itself as the hub of trendy,  conscious and excellent eating and drinking.

I went Sunday night for some pre-Oscar cocktails and the place was packed to the gills. We got the last table in the house which is impressive and telling for a Sunday. Sweet Afton was incredibly welcoming with dim lighting and a great soundtrack, a perfect place to rehash the weekend’s debauchery and fuel up for the upcoming week. The menu is chocked full of comfort food made methodically with local ingredients. McClures pickles (made in Brooklyn) are featured prominently here, offering fried pickles and a pickle martini, winning over this pickle enthusiast. I ordered the salt and pepper rubbed ribs, the aforementioned pickle martini and a side of fried pickles. The ribs were tender and well cooked, but you are getting exactly what you ask for, no frills. Heavily seasoned with salt and pepper with no other accoutrement,  the emphasis is all on the pork, so poorly cooked meat has nowhere to hide. This is a nice change from ribs swimming in sauce with no consideration for the meat under it. The fried pickles were beer battered and served piping hot. The batter was almost like pastry dough, soft and chewy, even faintly moist. I washed it all down with the pickle martini which is (as the name suggests) a glass full of Titos vodka and pickle juice. As mentioned earlier I am a pretty fanatical pickle consumer so this is just what the boozy doctor ordered.

My boyfriend got the Sweet Afton burger with cheddar cheese and, oh my lord….it was excellent. Extremely juicy, perfectly melted cheese, strategically placed pickles (of course!) on a toasted bun. It really was what a burger should be; messy, sinful, and perfectly crafted. He got a Rye Root Beer, which is the kind of sneaky drink that crawls up on you and before you know it you’ve guzzled 3 glasses. What I’m saying is, don’t forget there is rye in that mug of homemade root beer.

We finished the evening with another drink, a Lagunita for him and a Miller’s martini for me. Although I’m more of a beer or whiskey kind of girl, this elegant cocktail was delicious and served almost as a dessert. Made with elderflower liquor, Millers gin, strawberry puree and garnished with a slice of cucumber, this “girly” drink was delicate and a bit dangerous. Tinged with a light pink hue, the Miller’s martini was an excellent end to a great night at a neighborhood hot spot in the making.

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