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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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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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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A Centennial of Beer, Atmosphere and Ethnicities – Review of Bohemian Beer Hall

BY BETH KAISERMAN

There are many ways to spend a relaxing spring evening. Sipping suds in New York City’s oldest beer garden is one of the most refreshing options.

Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, 29-19 24th Ave. in Astoria, boasts a huge outdoor beer garden, refreshing beer pitchers and authentic Czech food. While no beer games are allowed, competitive souls can meet at the ping pong tables in the back of the beer hall.

Those who prefer sitting can plop down at a picnic table outside, where we enjoyed some Friday night jazz. My companion and I both ordered the baked palacinka, baked crepes with melted munster cheese, spinach and mushrooms. You have the option of chicken or vegetable, and I went for the chicken. We paired the meal with an ice-cold pitcher of Staropramen, a crisp and light Czech beer.

Palacinka at Bohemian Beer Hall
Palacinka at Bohemian Beer Hall

I wanted to try something completely different from what I normally eat, and achieved that by ordering this dish. It was creamy and rich, covered in a light, gravy-type sauce.

A downside of the dish was the lack of mushrooms; it only had two and would’ve been really tasty with more. The spinach was very flavorful throughout, so the dish is ideal for spinach fans.

The other drawback was it wasn’t that filling.

It would definitely be fun to go back and share some foods to get a variety of tastes. I’d especially like to try the schnitzel and pierogi, which I loved as a kid in Pittsburgh.

For the beer, you can get a half-liter mug for $5, but it’s more worthwhile to split a pitcher for $15. Beer options include choices from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Germany and the U.S. There are also Czech cocktails and drinks, such as Slivovice, the traditional Czech plum brandy.

The garden celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year. The beer hall hosts a variety of events reflecting Astoria’s diverse ethnicities, and it’s a great place to hang out with friends when the weather is nice. It got a bit too cold after a while, but I can’t wait to go back to chill out once the warm weather returns.

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Aegean Cove – Review by Seth S.

Review of Aegean Cove by Seth S.

Aegean Cove
20-01 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY
aegeancove.com

Grilled whole fish

Grilled whole fish

Greek restaurants in Astoria are like Starbucks in Manhattan; you seem to find on just about every block.   With that said, there are many very good or great Greek restaurants in this area.  There are bunches I haven’t yet been to, and there are also a few that I have named as my favorite at any given moment.  There is the most well known and most highly acclaimed Taverna Kyclades, Bahari Estiatorio (formerly Stamatis…same owner, different name), and fan favorite Agnanti.  Not to mention my favorite gyro joint, BZ Grill (to be discussed at a later date and time).  I could probably name about a dozen more, but for the sake of getting to the point the restaurant that is my current favorite would be Aegean Cove.

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Forgiving the gimmick – Bare Burger

“Forgiving the gimmick” – Review of Bare Burger

BY HOLLY HAGAN

Bareburger , 33-21 31st Ave.
Astoria, Queens
718-777-7011 –
bareburger.com

When an organic burger joint opened in my neighborhood, I was skeptical.  It seemed gimmicky, so I avoided BareBurger as long as I could.  Every time I walked by, it was hopping, so I shelved my suspicion and sampled my first all natural burger.

Big blue bacon mushroom onion burger with ostrich

Big blue bacon mushroom onion burger with ostrich

BareBurger sits on a corner of a quiet, leafy stretch of Astoria that is dotted with cafes, bistros and boutiques.  The floor-to-ceiling windows open onto the sidewalk, and we snagged the last petrified wood-topped table.

Our server came over and asked if this was our first time to BareBurger.  We nodded that, yes, it was.  She launched into an awkward speech.  I figured it would be about the burgers, but instead she told us how everything in the restaurant was recycled or organic.  The floors are made of bamboo, the tabletops are from trees destroyed in hurricanes, and the to-go containers are made from corn and sugar cane fibers.

“We don’t use any products or materials that hurt the environment,” she said.  “Like our menus are printed on recycled paper.”

I nodded encouragingly.  I was starving, and I wanted her to hand me an environmentally friendly menu.

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