The Culinary Roots of the Lower East Side

A disclaimer before you start reading: this post varies a little bit from my usual style/topics, but read on if you’re interested…

When I selected my living arrangements for the summer, I made what I will now admit was not a very well thought out decision. It was late in the summer housing game, so I urgently sought out an apartment or dorm room based on very simple criteria (clean, safe, AC so I wouldn’t fry). All my previous interactions with New York had involved tourist attractions, and the penthouse suite at the Empire State Building was out of my price range, so I found myself entirely clueless about which neighborhood to select. Rather haphazardly, I decided on a dorm building at the intersection of Ludlow and Delancey Streets on the Lower East Side.

So far, I’ve been very satisfied with my selection. Innovative restaurants, bars, and shops line the streets that surround my residence. Cool young people frequent piano bars and hybrid bar/vintage stores (maybe a little trendy/hipstery for my taste, but at least the neighborhood has a unique flavor). After some exploration of the city, it appears that the Lower East Side may be one of the few remaining neighborhoods where local culture has not been significantly overrun by corporate chain stores. I walked to the subway every morning, enjoying my happy accidental existence on the LES.

And I accepted this existence at face value, until my mom recently mentioned to me in passing that my great grandma had lived just down the street from me in a tenement as a child 100 years ago. I’m a person who has (shamefully) not spent nearly enough time exploring my own family history, yet somehow I found myself in walking distance from a place where my great grandma grew up as part of an immigrant family. I decided that I could no longer accept this neighborhood at its face value. I had to explore its history.

I couldn’t ascertain the details of the narrowly packed, fire escape lined streets of the Lower East Side by myself- I needed a guide. Luckily, a guided tour of this neighborhood is one free download and iPod upload away.

The tour began at the elaborately adorned Eldridge Street Synagogue. Prosperous immigrant bankers helped fund the construction of this structure in 1887, but the congregation consisted of the wealthy and the poor sweatshop workers alike. Two doors down, an unadorned façade covers a scantly marked Buddhist temple. I peered in the window, and saw a lone Buddhist monk, seemingly oblivious to the chaos that fills the street just outside the door from his sanctuary.

The tour presents these first two stops as a symbol of the ethnic mishmash of the Lower East Side that began during the 1900s and persists today. The street screams, whispers, and cajoles in seven different languages, a vestige of the Eastern European, Chinese, and German immigrant communities that originally settled in this area. Nowhere is this rich and varied ethnic history more apparent than the food establishments that line Orchard Street. Family owned businesses like Katz’s Deli have existed for decades and still harbor the culinary traditions of their predecessors. Chinese dumpling houses and noodle shacks accurately represent their province of origin. The Essex Street market represents an aggregation and organization of immigrant pushcart vendors who used to hauck their foodstuffs during the Great Depression. Restaurants have come and gone, but the true culinary heroes have fought on and continue to provide pastrami, dim sum, and pickles the way their great grandparents did.

As the tour continued and I walked past former tenement buildings, I wondered how my great grandma lived. I had the chance to get to know her over the last few years of her 99 year life. I knew her as a tough but loving woman. As the tour guide described the hardships of living in cramped tenement buildings and working in horrendous sweatshops, I began to understand where her tough perseverance originated. Jewish children had trouble escaping the sweatshop and living long and successful lives, yet my grandmother persevered. I used to wonder how she had the grit to overcome health problems and live for nearly a century. Suddenly, hearing about her upbringing brought it all into focus.

As I continued on Orchard, inching closer to Houston, I noticed other establishments that the tour carefully omitted. Authentic restaurants bordered with Asian fusion bistros and taco shops that concoct chorizo and quinoa creations. Don’t misunderstand- I love the culinary creativity that underpins these types of restaurants, and I don’t believe that chefs should be necessarily inhibited by the bounds of their ancestry. But I also couldn’t help but wonder if the Lower East Side was beginning the slow but steady slide towards standardization. Authentic establishments beget trendy spots which beget chain stores- if you live in a rapidly changing city neighborhood, you may have already seen this process in action. Now that I understand the history of the Lower East Side, I almost want to freeze it in place, suspend it in air so that there is no chance that its rich history will be papered over with the standard gloss of universalized America.

Of course, this feeling is both contradictory and romanticized. If the Lower East Side never changed, I certainly wouldn’t enjoy living there- it was overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous when my great grandma resided there. Yet I can’t help but feel that the neighborhood has reached a perfect but temporary moment in its history- young and vibrant, yet still aware of its past. If you visit soon, you will get to see an endangered species of a neighborhood in rare form. And you will get to sample a spectacular Katz’s Deli mile-high pastrami sandwich.

Dumpling Double Play

My friend Ka Kui and I had something of a dumpling-off in these past few weeks. There are two competing dumpling restaurants within blocks of each other in Chinatown, named Vanessa and Prosperity Dumpling. The two restaurants have strikingly similar menus- straightforward pork and chicken dumplings, sesame pancake sandwiches, and a couple of soups. I decided that I needed to check out both and make an educated choice about where I would be going for terribly unhealthy dumplings for the next two months.

We started with Vanessa’s, since it was the more well-known of the two (and also I’m lazy and Vanessa’s is about two blocks closer). The line was out the door, so I figured I had plenty of time to contemplate my order. Little did I realize that Vanessa’s is powered by tiny, efficient dumpling-making-machine-women, and before I knew it I was at the front of the line in a panic. I quickly ordered the chicken and basil fried dumplings and an order of Peking duck soup. Ka Kui got two varieties of pork dumplings and a sesame pancake sandwich. Each of our totals came to about 7 dollars.

In my rush to order, I had forgotten one fundamental truth about dumplings: always go for the pork. My dumplings were excellent- they had thick wrappers (way better than that thin garbage) and a hint of basil that made them surprising and unusual. But when I tried one of the pork dumplings, with their perfect consistency and chive-infused-goodness, I knew I had erred. The sesame pancake sandwich was also something that I had never tried before. It was like a Chinese response to Bahn Mi- sliced beef, cilantro, and pickled vegetables on two sesame-studded Chinese-style buns. This sandwich seriously needs to be more widespread because it is absolutely awesome. Anyone want to open a food truck with me?

Overall we enjoyed Vanessa’s. Cramped décor but fast service and excellent, unassuming dumplings. I was also extremely pleased with the price- $7 dollars for an extremely filling dinner in New York City. That is, until I went to Prosperity dumpling, and paid $4 dollars for dinner. I thought Vanessa’s was cramped, then I went to Prosperity. This establishment contains four chairs, a counter, and about enough space for five people to stand comfortably. That’s it.

I have never experience a more hole-in-the-wall-y hole-in-the-wall. The man behind the counter rebuffed my first few attempts to order off the extensive menu with a simple “no.” Confused but undaunted, I decided to stick with a pork dumplings and a sesame pancake sandwich.

Vanessa’s may have Prosperity beat slightly on taste, but both options are delicious. But at Prosperity, you can have an entire dinner for how much you would pay in tip and tax at a classier Chinese restaurant, and there’s something to be said for delicious, dirt-cheap food.

The Summer of New York

I was eating a deep fried brussel sprout in Brooklyn when I decided to bring the blog back. It wasn’t so much the brussel sprout itself that made me want to restart my food writing endeavors. Don’t get me wrong- it was a delicious brussel sprout, fried to browned perfection and doused in a sweet chili sauce. But more than the vegetable itself, it was the reminder that food is always surprising and never boring that inspired me to reenter the blogosphere.

How did I end up in Brooklyn eating the world’s most unhealthy vegetable? Let me take a step back. I’m spending the summer in Manhattan on the Lower East Side interning for a non-food-related company. Philly has an expansive, interesting, and growing food scene, but in terms of scale and variety, New York City still has an edge on the Illadelph (that’s difficult for me to say as a Philly lover. Let me qualify that statement- if Philly was as big as New York, our food options would be way better.) Since I’m living in a food mecca, it would be a waste not to document my food adventures this summer.

I also want to explore this city that I previously only experienced in always-too-short day trips that suffered from a combination of poor planning and a tendency to repeat the same activities (Why did my family and I find it necessary to go to the ESPN Zone in times square eight times?) To ensure that I truly utilize this city, I’m going to try to plan food excursions every week in different areas of the city. Food will drag me off the beaten tourist path into odd corners of Manhattan and beyond. Food will bring me to odd situations that I might have previously avoided. Food will push me out of my comfort zone.

Which brings me back to a picnic table in outdoor garden of The Wing Bar in Brooklyn at 9:30 PM on a Tuesday. I decided to go to a Slow Food New York happy hour in order to meet some of the leaders of SFNY*. I started talking with a group of 20something New Yorkers, and, as is natural with a group of people who decided to go to a happy hour dedicated to food, the conversation predictably drifted towards the best New York eateries. These Brooklynites came to a resounding consensus on a simple but compelling food establishment called the Wing Bar- a wing-and-beer joint with an unassuming outdoor seating area.

Before I could even really catch up with what was going on, we were in a cab on the way to this restaurant. We ate chicken wings and delicious deep fried brussel sprouts in a backyard that felt like a friend’s place rather than a business while they made a list of about 25 bars and restaurants I should try in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They had hyped up the chicken wings, which turned out to be just average, but the brussel sprout was definitely the highlight. I went home that night too tired, too full, and excited. Hopefully my summer will turn out like that deep-fried-sweet-chili-covered brussel sprout- unexpected, delicious, and potentially a little unhealthy. Check back for updates.

*For those who don’t know, Slow Food is a non-profit organization that promotes clean, sustainable, and fair food. They are based in Italy but have chapters all over the world, including NYC and Philly.

Amsterdam

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Amsterdam. My stomach has not forgiven me since. Fries with peanut sauce, Mexican food (if you are wondering how Mexican food can be good so far from Mexico, the answer is it can’t), Chinese food, French fries with peanut sauce (again), Chinese food (noticing a trend?), and falafel- the city was a haven for a multitude of fast food, and I satisfied every craving I’ve had over the past few months. Suffice it to say, I did not have any authentic Dutch food. Despite missing out on an authentic food experience, I would still highly recommend the city- absolutely beautiful, friendly, and fun.

Southern Italy- Naples, Capri, Pompeii, Sorrento

Don’t go to Naples, they told me. It’s a dirty, corrupt city. They (whoever they might be) were probably right. But they also forgot that I would go to great lengths for a great pizza. I had heard stories of the steaming discs of goodness that are Neopolitan pizzas, and I decided that I couldn’t call my culinary quest in Italy complete with sampling one. With this mission in mind, we hopped a plane for infamous Napoli.

In addition to my pizza quest, I also wanted to get a literal and figurative taste of Southern Italy. Italy unified in 1861, yet regional identity still infiltrates every aspect of Italian life. In fact, it’s difficult to describe an overarching “Italian culture” because Southern culture is different than Northern culture, which is different than Central culture. This type of regional identity exists in the United States, but it is usually trumped by an overarching American identity. In Italy, these two identities seem to be more or less on par with each other. I’ve sat at dinner with Italian college students and listened while they discussed the differences between their table manners; these two people were from towns no more than twenty minutes from each other. I couldn’t wait to see the differences between cities separated by 695 kilometers.

When our plane touched down in Naples, we had one collective thought: “its time to find pizza.” Within an hour of tarmac-landing gear contact, we were devouring delicious pizzas. We decided to split a plain margherita, a pizza with olives, artichokes, mushrooms, and ham, and a pizza called the “Four Seasons,” which was divided into four sections, each representing a different part of the year. At this restaurant, I relearned something that I’ve discovered numerous times yet often fail to remember: when a pizza is well made, toppings are extraneous. The margherita reinforced this lesson yet again, a perfectly simple pizza with garlicky sauce and gooey cheese. If you’re serious about pizza, come to Naples.

After our pizza adventure, we immediately left Naples and boarded a train for Sorrento, a beautiful beachside town on the Southwestern coast of Italy. Over the course of the weekend, we also visited Capri, an undeniably stunning though heavily-touristed island, and the volcanically preserved ancient remains of Pompeii. These towns provided entertaining sights, and even better food.

On the first night, we were too tired to venture far from our hostel, so we went to a small restaurant in the town of San Agnello where we were staying. After risking our lives on narrow, wet streets populated by speeding drivers, we heaved a deep breath of relief when we were safely seated at a corner table. As soon as I opened the menu, I was incredibly pleased; for the first time in Italy, the antipasti and main dishes resembled the Italian food that I grew up with (in restaurants, not at home. I’m not actually Italian, I only wish I was). Italian immigrants to the United States came almost entirely from Southern Italy (and brought their food with them), so Little Italy in New York would more appropriately be called Little Specific Regions of Italy (catchy, right?). I have loved the Northern and Central Italian food that I’ve been eating all semester, but I was excited to try more authentic versions of the Italian-American dishes I have always loved. After a few minutes of deliberation, I decided on fresh pasta with seafood and eggplant parmigiana. The pasta was served with clams and mussels and topped with a garlic infused tomato sauce- absolutely delicious. The eggplant came layered with the same tomato sauce; the eggplant was baked instead of deep-fried, which made it lighter than many versions of the dish.

I so thoroughly enjoyed this meal in San Agnello that I decided to order nearly the same exact thing the next night in Sorrento. We went to a place recommended by Let’s Go (my travel bible) called Ristorante e Pizzeria Giardiniello. We were hesitant to go in when we saw that the menu showed pictures of the food (usually a red flag), but LG has rarely let me down. After ordering and being served free bruschetta, I gorged myself yet again on seafood and tomato pasta. This version was even better- the dish included squid and prawns in addition to clams and mussels, and the sauce was a little bit spicy and even more delicious. Emily and I split this dish and pasta with pesto, but the pesto was mediocre at best. Note to self- do not get a Northern specialty like pesto in the South. Stick with Southern Italian favorites and you’re bound to be satisfied.

Note: Photos by Rebecca Blackwell

Tuscany- The Italian Food you aren’t Expecting

I’m a few weeks behind on blogging, so I’m going to combine my two trips to Tuscany (first to Siena and San Gimignano, second to Florence and Pisa) into one post.

Italian American food is full of lively flavors- strong tones of garlic intermingling with the crispy sweetness of fresh tomatoes. However, if you are expecting this type of vibrant cuisine when you visit Florence and Siena, you might as well board a train to Southern Italy as fast as you can. Tuscan food can be properly characterized with one word- hearty. As Bill Buford said in his book Heat, while the plates in other Italian regions overflow with color, Tuscan plates tend to be full of various shades of brown. Tuscan specialties? Steak, bean and bread soup, and wild boar ragu. Noticing a chromatic theme? In Tuscany, Brown is Beautiful.

San Gimignano, our first destination represents pretty much everything I could want in a tourist destination. The streets are lined with small wine, cheese, and meat shops that are willing to let tourists sample Tuscan specialties free of charge. Since it’s a perfectly preserved medieval walled town, the town itself is a beautiful setting for this type of food exploration. Many of the wines we sampled, including strong chianti reds and a light, white San Gimignano specialty called Vernaccia, were made with grapes from vineyards that we drove past on our way into town. We also sampled some cheeses, including pecorino made with cheese from the milk of locally grown sheep. If all of Italy cares about food freshness, then Tuscans can be considered freshness fanatics.

As we continued our amble, a boar’s head posted on the entryway of a small butcher shop beckoned us like mindless pigeons chasing a stray crumb. Inside, we found a plethora of cured meats, including boar prosciutto and boar sausage with truffle. The prosciutto was fun for the novelty, but its pork-based cousin tastes much better. However, the truffle salami correctly balanced the sometimes-overwhelming flavor of truffles with the saltiness of the wild boar. Usually, in these posts, I focus on the food and make small mentions of my other activities as an aside. In San Gimignano, food was the one and only activity. Go there. Seriously.

After more wine tasting, we forged through some heavy rain (while making terrible jokes about Under the Tuscan Sun) to our selected restaurant. The signed posted on Trattoria Chiribiri boasted in English that they were open “no-stop,” and poor English usually translates to authentic Italian food, so I had a good feeling about this place. Kristen and I decided to order the Florentine steak, which is legendary for its tenderness and extra-beefy flavor. A few minutes after our waiter removed our menus, a slab of raw meat was presented to our table from Kristen and I to approve. After our nods of approval (were we really going to say no?), the woman brought the slab of beef back to kitchen, where (I can only assume) it was cooked briefly. When she brought it back to the table, the steak had a nice brown color outside, but the color of the middle closely resembled the raw hunk we had seen minutes ago. Harboring some American neuroticism, I was tentative about this t-bone: I’ve eaten rare meat before, but this was, as Italians call it, al sangue (with blood). After tasting the meat, I quickly forgot all the propaganda I’ve ever seen about mad cow disease. By the end of dinner, I was gnawing on the bone fiendishly to salvage any tasty specks.

This individual entrée represents a larger cultural difference between Italian and American food preservation. In America, we have an obsession with refrigeration- meat has to be vacuum packed, spiked with preservatives, and constantly kept at a steady temperature. In Italy, meat makes its way onto a plate much more quickly in most cases thanks to the slow food movement and the Italian culinary tradition. Therefore, meat that has spent some time outside of a refrigerator or that has only been slightly cooked does not make Italians squirm.

Subsequent visits to Florence and Siena did not yield the same type of culinary bliss as my day in San Gimignano, but they were both great destinations for other reasons. Some of the highlights include Il Campo, a giant shell-shaped piazza in Siena, and the Synagogue of Florence, a magnificent structure that rivals many of the churches I’ve seen. In Florence, I also got to satiate one of my biggest food cravings- I finally got a burrito. Unsurprisingly, Mexican food options are scant in Italy, so I’ve been exhorting my sister to mail me a burrito to no avail. My burrito in Florence from Eby’s Latin Bar did not closely resemble a Chipotle creation, but it will certainly tide me over until I return to the US.

Another thing I can’t fail to mention: the gelato in Tuscany. The fact that I haven’t discussed Italian ice cream yet is actually hilarious, considering I eat it many times a week (I try to avoid consecutive days, but I’m not perfect). People say that gelato in its current form originated in Florence, so I had to sample what Tuscany had to offer in the way of frozen treats. In San Gimignano, we went to Pluripremiata Gelateria , which was a finalist in the World Gelato Championships (yes, its real). The cinnamon flavor there absolutely blew my mind (Elena wanted to go back for a cone with 3 scoops of only cinammon). In Florence, my host Setz recommended a place called La Carraia, which was way better than any gelato I’ve tried up North. In particular, the yogurt and nutella flavor was streaked with giant clumps of real nutella. I’m starting a dream team gelato cone- so far it consists of Kanella (cinnamon) from Pluripremiata and Yogurt e Nutella from La Carraia.

The lesson learned from this trip? Florence and Siena, the big cities of Tuscany, are great places to absorb the abundant art and architecture of Tuscany. If you want to sample the many browns of Tuscan cuisine, you would be better served to leave the city and check out smaller towns like San Gimignano.

Paris- Apparently countries other than Italy have good food, too

A couple of weeks ago, I hopped on a Ryanair budget flight and headed for Paris. As much as I had been enjoying Italian food and culture, I was excited to get some variety. Before this Parisian respite, I had been developing some food issues in Italy. Previously, I thought I could eat pasta everyday and not grow tired of stuffing my stomach with semolina spaghetti (probably an excessive alliteration but you get the point). In practice, Italy is a constant carb overload. Sure, Italy loves its meat, vegetables, and seafood, but Italians always make sure to surround their animal and plant products with bread, rice, pasta, polenta, and just about every other carbohydrate imaginable. After a month of constant pasta and pizza, I was ready for some dietary variety. My other gripe related to the lack of Asian food here. With the exception of a couple of mediocre Japanese places and one decent Chinese restaurant, Padova is devoid of good Asian options. I was sure that Paris would provide me with multitudinous ethnic choices.

So, I came into the weekend with three food-related goals- satisfy my Asian food cravings, sample some of the famous Parisian cuisine, and, to prevent the onset of scurvy, eat some fruits and vegetables.

As soon as I arrived, my gracious host for the weekend Nate picked me up at the bus station. Within twenty minutes, we were already at a bar, and I was already starting to love Paris. By 4 AM, we were ready to eat after hours of imbibing, catching up, and meeting some interesting characters. According to Nate, Paris is surprisingly devoid of late-night food options (socialism definitely has some downsides), but we stumbled upon a 24-hour café. So what was my first Parisian meal? A croquette madame with French ham and cheese? Something smeared with Foie Gras? Instead of these logical choices, I opted for a giant hamburger surrounded by a heaping pile of fries. That massive plate of food did not achieve to any of my food objectives, but it might have been the most delicious late-night meal I’ve ever had (then again, I’ve thought the same thing about crispy spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s before). I demolished the massive plate of fries and huge burger, slathered with healthy scoops of French mayo, which, like Italian mayo, is infinitely tastier than American mayo because of the higher quality eggs. So much for eating healthy in Paris.

The next day, Nate and I felt an explosive combination of beer, meat, and French mayonnaise bubbling in our stomachs. We needed a restorative meal, so Nate suggested his favorite falafel place, which was in the Marais, a Jewish neighborhood in Paris. Eager to make Falafel Quest an international endeavor, I readily consented. The falafel sandwich was one on of the most delicious I’ve had (I seem to be saying that a lot. Maybe there’s a reason Paris is famous for its food). The concoction came topped with creamy tahini and a sweet and spicy asian-style red chili sauce. Sitting on the curb and devouring my message falafel, I was suddenly recharged.

We spent the day doing the famous church route (Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur). Of course, we then had to go get Thai food, because what goes together like Pad Thai and Christianity? (Confused? Me too.)  The thai food was so-so, but I loved it anyway because I needed some Asian food in my life.

After a night involving a less refined form of wine tasting by the banks of the Seine (read: no spitting the wine out), we set forth or another day of sightseeing. This time, we did a more art-oriented route, passing by the Louvre and touring the Musee d’Orsay. Late in the afternoon, Nate told me that he wanted me to sample the most French meal of all, so he took me to a little bakery and purchased each of us an entire baguette, a bottle of wine, and a block of camembert. We proceeded to polish off the entire thing, and proceeded on a goofy walk around the Eiffel Tower. That meal left a brick in my stomach that set up shop and did not move for days. But it was well worth it because the best parts about French cuisine are definitely the simple aspects. Like Italy, France has amazing ingredients- delicious ham, cheese, bread, and wine. The best way to sample these foods is in their simplest form. This experience certainly contradicted with my previous image of snooty, 4-star French restaurants.

After a nap and a night boat ride on the Seine River (side note: this is one of the best tourist things you can do in Paris. Its 12 Euro for amazing views of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and other famous Paris sights), we were ready to eat again. Nate introduced me to Paris’ finest street food- the crepe. Due to my love of Nutella, I was tempted to get a sweet crepe, but upon Nate’s urging, I ordered an egg, ham, and cheese crepe. I knew that Nate’s advice had been correct when I saw the crepe maker forming a crust of crispy cheese on the edges of my crepe. My Parisian pancake was essentially an amazing French breakfast sandwich. It’s also the cheapest way to get a filling dinner in Paris.

That night was Nuit Blanche, an all night yearly arts festival in Paris. We were up until 6 am drinking wine by the banks of the Seine and participating in impromptu dance parties on the street with strange French guys. Naturally, we needed a refueling at 4 am. We decided to get our second crepe in seven hours, and this time I eschewed the savory for the sweet. My Nutella-Banana crepe was perfectly satisfying, although I would still recommend going the savory route.

I may or not have achieved my weekend food goals for Paris, but I certainly had a spectacular time. If you go to Paris, you don’t need to eat in a fancy restaurant. Just eat the street food (preferably at 4 am).