July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
May 18, 2012
Some people claim that pizza was invented in Greece; others say it hails from southern France. A friend of mine who went to Yale swears it comes from New Haven. Sheesh! Have any of these people been to Naples?
OK, it has never been proven that pizza was first popped into the oven in Napoli, though everyone knows pizza Margherita—a simple classic topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, mimicking the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag—was created by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to celebrate a visit to the city by Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889.
Anyway, who gets the credit for inventing pizza is a moot point when the answer to who makes the best pizza is obvious: Naples, Naples and more Naples. Fie on your Chicago deep-dish, your Roman pizza bianca and especially your mass-produced Domino’s and Pizza Hut. There is simply nothing like Neapolitan pizza made of hand-kneaded dough too fragile to toss, topped with fresh, authentic ingredients and baked fast on the surface of a bell-shaped, wood-burning oven. When the pizza maker (or pizzaiuolo) pulls it out on a paddle and slides it onto a plate, who can wait? The mozzarella is a milky puddle, with a mat of red sauce and a frame of incomparably chewy crust, flexible enough to fold in half and eat like a sandwich on the street. In famous Naples restaurants like Brandi, Da Umberto and Trianon da Ciro, pizza-making is high art, but you’d have to be cursed by the gods to find a bad pie anyplace in town.
Why, then, I have always wondered, is it so hard to find Neapolitan pizza in the U.S.? We’ve got every other celebrated Italian product from olive oil to shoes.
Caporuscio, born into a cheese-making family from Pontinia south of Rome, studied pizza-making in Naples before coming to the U.S., where he serves as ambassador-at-large for the APN. When discussing other types of pizza—for instance, the pies available at longtime pizza favorite John’s just across Bleecker Street—he’s always diplomatic: “It’s not better or worse, just different.”
Asked to comment on New Haven’s claim to the pizza birthplace title, he said, “They invented New Haven pizza there.”
A big bear of a man with palms permanently pink from handling pizza dough, Caporuscio explained that immigrants to America from the Campania region of Italy around Naples were farmers, shoemakers and builders, not pizzaiuoli. “And to make a Neapolitan pizza you need one thing,” he said. “A Neapolitan pizza-maker. Someone who understands all the details, how to stretch and raise the dough to keep it aerated, which is what makes it chewy.”
I had to press him on the delicate matter of the toppings, especially the cheese, because I’m a purist when it comes to mozzarella, which in Naples means mozzarella de bufala, unavailable in the U.S. because it isn’t pasteurized. Caporuscio solves that problem by making his own cow’s milk mozzarella, known as fior de latte, on the premises at Keste; only one pizza there, the Regina Margherita, features the imported buffalo milk version of the cheese.
I got a taste, of course, and it took me straight back to Napoli—which is probably the main reason why I love Neapolitan pizza.
April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.
April 5, 2012
Take a very big pile of shelled, skinned, finely ground almonds and an almost equal amount of sugar. Ecco fatto! There you go! The principle ingredients for Sicilian marzipan cunningly shaped and painted to look like cherries, oranges, plums, prickly pears, tomatoes and the delicate Paschal lambs that fill Sicilian pastry cases at Easter.
The recipes for these and other intensely sweet, almond flour-based Sicilian confections like cassata cakes, lemon-flavored cuscinetti, buccellati twists and egg white-inflated sospiri (which means sighs) aren’t that complicated.
But the fabrication takes a master schooled in a culinary tradition born in the island’s convents, passed down in the hands of nuns who raise it to high art, not unlike the plaster saints and putti that decorate Sicilian Baroque churches.
For over 50 years Grammatico has been giving Erice Paschal lambs for the Good Friday I Misteri procession, when scenes from the Crucifixion are carried around town, ossa dei morti (bones of the dead) biscuits for All Souls’ Day and mini di Virgini spongecake and ricotta custard mounds topped with a cherry so that they look for all the world like bosoms, thus commemorating the February feast day of St. Agatha, martyred in the third century A.D. after having her breasts cut off by Romans.
In Sicily, it seems, there’s always something dark behind even the most colorful traditions.
Grammatico’s own story is a case in point. Forced to enter a Catholic orphanage at age 11, she was taught by nuns how to make pastry, which was sold to townspeople through a revolving portal in the convent door. The rest of her childhood was spent reading her missal and walking behind coffins in a long row of little girls clad in black veils and dresses. When she left the convent in 1962 she took little more than her pastry-making skills with her.
But eventually her pasticceria became a landmark in Erice thanks in part to Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, by Sicilian-American writer Mary Taylor Simeti, also the author of the exquisite On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal.
Now Grammatico has two pastry shops in Erice and a coffeehouse, Caffe Maria, where thick, dark espresso further elevates the Sicilian pastry sugar high.
April 4, 2012
You are cordially invited to participate in this imperfect, subjective, thirst-provoking, sure-to-enrage (my editor, for instance, is highly doubtful about the King Cole Bar’s Manhattans) discussion of the best places to enjoy classic libations.
While the history of the cocktail remains obscure, one thing is certain: It has traveled around the world, reappearing in exotic new blends wherever man has found a novel poison. Indeed, the connection between cocktails and geography can hardly be denied. Singapore gave us the Sling, New York City the Manhattan, Havana the Cuba Libre.
The British developed many mixed drinks in their colonial conquest of the world—a taxing pursuit that must have required frequent libation.
Travel, like empire-building, often demands a well-mixed cocktail, which is surely why some of the best drinks are served in bars at grand hotels. Others occupy sightseeing aeries atop skyscrapers or historic old familiars around the corner. The key is to suit the beverage to the locale, or vice versa, an effort to which I am devoted. Wherever I go I try something different. What can I say? Here’s looking at you, kid.
Gin and Tonic
Those thirsty English developed the G&T, laced with malaria-fighting quinine, during the Raj in India, so it’s only correct to order one at the Patiala Peg Bar in New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1931 and was the scene of partition discussions among Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten.
The origin of the Manhattan remains contested; some credit it to Dr. Iain Marshall who supposedly mixed the first one up for a banquet at a stylish New York club around 1870, others to the bartender at a downtown drinking hole on Broadway near Houston. In any event, the quintessential New York cocktail, made of bitters, sweet vermouth and bourbon, is most at home at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, though the house drink is actually the Bloody Mary (formerly known as the Red Snapper). Never mind that, there’s nothing swisher than sipping a Manhattan under the bar mural by Maxfield Parrish.
Ensenada, Tijuana, Juarez and Galveston all claim to be the home of the margarita. I like them best overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Los Cuatro Vientos in the old town of Puerta Vallarta, once favored by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But a connoisseur friend of mine says there’s no surpassing the icy green cocktail at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville bar in Key West, Florida.
I could write a book about this deceptively-simple crown prince of cocktails, made with gin or vodka and a whisper of dry vermouth, then decorated with an olive, pearl onion or lemon twist. Recent tinkering with the recipe has produced fancifully-named martinis in outlandish flavors. But the plain, dry classic is still the best and hardest to mix. I connect them with the mid-century modern America of Mad Men and the Brat Pack which is why I love to sip a dry one in a poolside cabana the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Synonymous with Greek Revival plantation houses, the Kentucky Derby and everything else southern, the mint julep was imported to Washington, D.C., by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who tippled in the Hotel Willard. The historic Round Robin Bar is still there, dispensing its signature mint juleps to politicos and pundits.
These days everyone’s drinking mojitos, a mash of rum, lime juice, sugar cane, sparkling water and mint, thought to have been invented in Cuba. All too often they’re ruinously watered-down, but not at the elegant lobby bar of the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo which serves mojitos in gigantic glass tulips at the Grand Prix price of about $25 a goblet.
Licorice-flavored Pastis is the summer drink of the French working man, served at bar-tabacs in the Midi; try any no-name dive at the harbor in Nice or Marseille. It comes with a carafe of tap water; watch with wonder during dilutions as the liqueur turns milky-green and eminently-drinkable.
A bartender at the legendary Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel invented the sling, but you only have to go as far as New Orleans to get a primo version at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
Spritz con Aperol
Together with Campari and soda, the spritz con Aperol—a bitter-tasting, neon orange aperitivo distilled from plants like gentian and rhubarb—is the cocktail of choice for steamy Italian summers, mixed with white wine and served on ice with a green olive and a slice of orange. It makes a colorful, thirst-slaking concoction at Bar Zanzibar on the Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district of Venice.
Does anyone really drink Tequila Sunrises in the morning? Of course not. Sunset is the right time for them, preferably at the Beach House on the south side of Kauai, Hawaii‘s garden island. But you’ve got to get there at just the right moment to see the fabled “green flash” that lingers briefly after the sun sinks below the western horizon.