Italian Gets Local in Astoria, Queens
On a cold and snowy day in February, I managed to drag one of my oldest friends out of the comfort of her warm home to join me for a special feast all the way out in Astoria, Queens (we're both in Upper Manhattan). Neither of us could have anticipated what was in store of us on the other side of the East River.
One part of my job--the one that everyone's always trying to get in on--includes trying as many restaurants in this great city as I possibly can, whether it's to feature them on one of my tours, or just to keep in my pocket for the very frequent question that I'm asked: "So where should I have dinner when I'm here?" Because of this I'm usually not one to turn down an offer for a meal at a place I've never been before. But I could tell that something would be different about this experience. I had received an email from Alysia Stern. who put together a gathering of food-lovers at a restaurant called Ornella Trattoria, that she felt was just too good to keep to herself. And so I chose to rearrange my weekend, and skip out on brunch with my sister on her birthday so that I could go "work"--don't worry I met up with her later to make up for it. Also, Alysia called me a "food blogger" which I found oddly flattering so I figured I just HAD to be there!
We arrived at the restaurant just before 2pm, which was our invited time and were greeted with smiles from fellow foodies, and our host/owner of the restaurant, Giuseppe. Luckily, the restaurant is just around the corner from the subway, so getting there was not at all difficult; even in such wintry weather! As welcome exchanges were shared, the very prominent Giuseppe kindly handed me a copy of Mimi Shraton's book: 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, which includes, not 1, but 2 of Ornella's unique dishes that display the owners creativity & respect for his ingredients.
Of course, eager to share his passion with the group, he sat us as quickly as possible and offered some vino for the table, then explained for us the food already on the table. We had a lovely cheese plate with imported Italian and Spanish cheeses (pictured above), but as good as the cheese was it was merely a vessel for the real star on that plate which was the homemade marmalades that accompanied them. The onion marmalade was both sweet & smoky, which to me is just as it should be. While the hot pepper delivered on its promise of heat but it complimented the hard cheeses very well. The eggplant marmalade was definitely a first for me, and while I didn't love it on its own--perhaps due to texture, I did enjoy it very much with the spicy cheese that was on offer.
The first course that was brought out to us was, as Giuseppe explained, his take on a New York tradition of a smoked salmon plate. He told us how it reminded him of a dish he would have in Italy. Rather than a bagel and a schmear, he added a freshly made, creamy burrata cheese topped with a basil leaf, with the traditional fixings of capers and red onion over some radicchio leaves for us to put together how we saw fit. As a native New Yorker, I had to try it with some bread to satisfy the lack of bagel, however I enjoyed it even better on it's own. The salmon provided had a perfectly refined fishiness that the bread complicated when combined with the cheese.
As we ate, the passionate Giuseppe regaled us with his philosophies on food, cooking, art and history. And for someone who works as a food tour guide, you can imagine the kind of heaven I was in. One of the many profound statements he made was in regards to his thoughts on celebrity chefdom and his respect for the ingredients that he puts on the plate that often come from his farm upstate. "I don't believe in chefs, nature is the chef." He proclaims in his thick Italian accent. He's not just trying to bring you traditional Italian cuisine, but more importantly the traditional Italian way of life. The kind of life that allows him to share his childhood traditions with his own children. You don't need to go to the store for sausage when you can grab a link from a line in your own kitchen. He'd rather play with the local and seasonal ingredients to give you an experience you didn't even know you were missing out on, than serve you another Chicken Parm, BUT he is a true hospitality professional, so if that is what you would like he will accommodate your wishes. But if you ask me that's just a mistake to ask.
Offered family style, was the next dish to come out of the kitchen: Duck Meatballs. With meatballs having recently been such a trendy food recently I thought I was over yet another offering of a new kind. Birds in general are often a dangerous way to go for meatballs as they can so easily dry out, however with duck they've managed to make the extra fat work in this case, because these meatballs were divine. And as with everything else so far--they were matched with just the perfect sauce which was just the perfect amount of sweet to compliment the saltiness from the meat as well as the cheese stuffed inside these decadent balls of joy. Obviously at this point I figured I should quickly down the white wine I was still drinking (although it did work with this dish which was nearly as rich as I was expecting), so that I could move it over to the red, as a meat course was surely on its way.
But, like the old Pink Floyd song, we couldn't have our meat before we ate our pasta--or something like that. Finally we were presented with our first taste of the food that we must consume before we die, Giuseppe's Pizzocherri, which is a most unique buckwheat pasta paired with cabbage and diced potatoes, things usually reserved for the harsher winters in northern climates--so suited perfectly for this winter that's beating us down in NYC in 2015! My first bite into this dish was unsure, but I found that I just kept wanting more and more. I never would have thought to combine these ingredients into one plate, but it has all of the elements that you're looking for in the colder weather: heartiness, nutiness, and a hint of creamy perfection from not only the texture of the potatoes but also from the sage butter that's used to sauce the pasta.
The next pasta on the plate was Imbustata, which may not be in a book by Mimi Sheraton, but it's listed by Bradley Hawks as one of their 100 Favorite Dishes at The Village Voice. And I could easily see why. The envelope of pasta will remind you of a lasagna, but it's so much more. Rather than a red meat addition, this bite includes some earthier elements like roasted chickens and mushrooms. The array of textures that are offered to your mouth will have you wishing there were more. And luckily for me, there was.
The pasta di castagna may not have been specifically mentioned in the official foodie bucket list book, but the star ingredient of this pasta: the chestnut, is. On the menu at Ornella, its listed with the vegetarian items and served with arugula, cherry tomatoes, garlic and oil. But, if you ask him nicely, I recommend you have it as I did; bathed in a creamy and unctuous pesto that for my palate was not too heavy and combined with such a special ingredient as the chestnut pasta worked magic on my tongue. As I'd consumed so much already I was very grateful to have such defined flavors to keep me excited for even more!
Now, I wish that my pictures were doing the food justice, but just as Giuseppe is not shackled by the desire to make the plates look like a masterpiece to forgo flavor and quality, I am much better at giving you the flavors I tasted through my words, and if I take too much time to worry about the precision of my photos, then I will not taste the food at the correct temperatures as intended by the restaurant. So, with a full glass of red wine in my glass I dug in to the final savory dish before me.
With great pleasure I found the short ribs to be perfectly tender and falling off of the bone for me to sop up with the beautiful Madeira sauce that was the perfect balance of sweet and acidic for the meat. The lovely gnocchi that comes with the dish was a great pairing for the sauce of the beef, and the heartiness of the pork. And while I don't think I would make the trek out for the gnocchi alone, it was a great buttery texture with just the right amount of bite for my liking.
Possibly because I had just eaten so much food at this point (I cleaned all my plates up until this point), but the pork chop was my least favorite dish we'd consumed that day. It's a very rich dish, stuffed with mushrooms, prosciutto and cheese, so I think for such a grand tasting that it was a bit off-putting just based on that alone. But I also think that it did suffer the fate that most cooked-prosciutto plates do, which is an unappealing dryness that is not very forgiving, especially for a smaller portion. However, the flavors were still there and as pronounced as ever, which is quite a skill given the ingredients.
For a list of food that you should eat before death, it doesn't get much bloodier than this. The 2nd and last item listed by Sheraton as a must-have in her book, is called Sanguinaccio, which of course for all you Latin-heads out there comes from blood. Yes, blood. There are many cultures that use blood in their cooking, including my father's own, the British who like to call their blood sausages black pudding, which can be a deceitful name if you're a child. And from my mother's side, the Argentinians enjoy a similar sausage which they refer to as morcilla--commonly found on a parillada plate--but that's for another restaurant, another time. Because this sweet dessert provides a very different take on an ingredient that adds an interesting textural component that you will not find in your typical chocolate pudding snack. Not only are you treated to a richer texture, but the flavors of the chocolate and citrus that are added to the mix are more enhanced than you could imagine. And the simple toasted pastry dough brought me back to my childhood when baking pies with my mother and she'd bake the leftover crusts and top them with sugar. This, more than anything I had all day was the most transformative plate of food. And the perfect way to end such a meal. Especially as it was served with a coffee dessert better than your average affogato.
At the end of any meal a nice bit of espresso is always a welcome treat, and especially to top this one off, after eating so much! But this is not just any espresso. Nor is it the familiar Italian coffee/ice cream combo. This is a special treat made with coffee and real snow from upstate New York (promised by our guide Giuseppe that he would not serve us dirty city snow!). The coffee was beautiful and even more so was the treat of eating snow again--as I did as a kid in upstate New York or nearby Connecticut the few times that we did brave the white for an escape from Urbania! The perfect complement to a fantastic meal that left my guest in a coma, but certainly rid of the hangover she had started this party with!
The event was such an experience that it wasn't even just about the food. It was an afternoon where a bunch of like-minded people came together OVER food, which is why so many of us enter this crazy business. Not JUST for our love of the tastes, the sights, the smells and the sounds that the food itself brings to us, but also for the love of connecting with others who are sharing the experience with you. It was certainly and honor and a pleasure to be dining at Giuseppe's table, and I highly recommend you do the same some day. But is was also a great joy to be in the company of the many talented foodies I was surrounded by. So a special thanks again to Alysia Stern, and a shout out to the great company I kept for hopefully not one singular afternoon: Richard-Rumith F. Mumith of Local Finds Queens Food Tours, Angel Rodriguez of NYCTalking.com, Rebecca Berman of Under the Blue Suburban Sky, Joe DiStefano of Chopsticks and Marrow, Jeff Orlick of Jeffrey Tastes, Sinclair Jones & Olivia Rahim of Social Lifestyle Magazine, and lastly my friend and dining companion Ms Kay Barte!
Thanks to all and I look forward to the next dining adventure!