Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rare Holiday Specials at Ornella

Ornella Trattoria (29-17 23rd Ave.. Astoria)

Tired of ordering Chinese take-out on Christmas?  This year, Ornella Trattoria will be open Christmas Eve and Christmas day...

One of my favorite things about Ornella Trattoria is that chef-owner Giusseppe Viterale is almost daily exploring to try out new dishes for his menu.  No text message gets me quite as excited as one from him, inviting me in to sample one of his newest creations.  This past week's dish is one of particular fascination, as it is a pasta of which I have never heard.  Further research has shown that it's a pasta rarely found on any menu (in fact, only one other restaurant in New York City has the tools to make it.)

Corzetti is a pasta made using a two-piece wooden stamp tool, one end of which cuts uniform circles, one end serves as a handle, and the other two ends holding ornate carved decorations used to emboss the pasta rounds with a festive design.  The imprint, while decorative, also helps the pasta hold its sauce.

After explaining this unique pasta to us, Giuseppe offered to let my dear friend, Hayley, have a take at making her own corzetti.  Check out the brief video above...

The final product was a fantastically textured pasta, blanketed with a creamy walnut pesto sauce, asparagus spears, and a drizzle of truffle oil.  Beyond doubt, it stands out as one of my favorite pasta dishes, ever.  The crushed walnuts added a rich earthiness sometimes lacking with pine nuts, and the fragrant basil pesto with decadent truffle oil was truly spectacular.

The award for best winter dish in Astoria has to go to Ornella's pork osso buco, with ridiculously tender pork that falls from the bone in giant, juicy pieces, mounted on a bed of a saffron risotto laced with a creamy blend of cheeses.

Be sure to ask Giuseppe if bottarga is available to garnish your dish.  An Italian delicacy, bottarga is sea salt cured caviar that is sealed in beeswax, then shaved over various dishes to add a unique, salty hint of the ocean, which livens the other flavors in the pasta.  In the dish above, we sampled a red mullet bottarga over a simple linguine tossed in olive oil and crushed garlic cloves, and it was utterly delicious.

Check out the gorgeous red wine sauce on these outrageously tender pork tenderloin medallions.  I have never tasted such juicy, succulent, lean filets of pork in my life.  The secret?  Giuseppe only uses the finest wines for this sauce, not merely cooking wine or table wine.  The result is a slightly sweet, crimson glaze that beautifully compliments this filet mignon of pork.

Ornella has also extended their pasta night specials from Monday through Thursday nights, where all your pasta favorites are just $10.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Free burgers at Zuzie's for military

In honor of the vote to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, Chef Susan of Zuzie's will be offering complimentary burgers to military service men and women (of any sexual preference... all are welcome) tonight and tomorrow, brunch included (Sunday Morning Mimosa performs their hit show during brunch, so reservations are highly recommended).

Zuzie's is located inside Mix Cafe + Lounge on the corner of 41st Street and 30th Avenue.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Astor Bake Shop with beer & wine license now open for dinner

(The Astor burger with applewood smoked bacon is jazzed up with swiss cheese, cole slaw, & garlic-pepper mayo)

Astor Bake Shop (12-23 Astoria Blvd., Astoria)

Bakeries in Astoria are a dime a dozen, scattered as frequently as Starbucks in Manhattan.  But a truly spectacular, gourmet bakery like 2010's hot newcomer, Astor Bake Shop, well... places like this are one in a million.  Tonight, an intimate gathering of friends and patrons assembled at ABS to celebrate the holidays, as well as their recently acquired beer & wine license, extended dinner hours (now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, from 7AM to 9PM weekdays, 8AM to 10PM Saturdays, and 8AM to 9PM Sundays), as well as their A-rating from the Department of Health.

Even sweeter than his stellar baked confections is chef-owner George McKirdy himself,  a superior chef of impressive credentials, having worked in such kitchens as Nobu, TriBeCa Grill, Butter, and Café Boulud prior to opening ABS, his first independent venture under his own direction and vision.

The evening began with a selection of passed small plates, many of which are featured as daily specials alongside the regular menu.  First off were shooters of an exquisitely velvety and robust butternut squash soup, with a tiny dollop of cream, and miniature diced scallions sprinkled like spicy confetti.

Next came a wonderfully light but flavorsome crab salad sandwich, with lump crab meat and chopped winter vegetables, sandwiched on a buttery, light-as-a-feather pastry, almost like a seafood eclair.

Besides slider versions of the deliciously addictive Astor burger (one of Astoria's most underrated burgers, worthy of any "best of" list, in my opinion), we also enjoyed bite-sized shepherd's pie tartlets, a hearty meat ragu on a crisp puff pastry, crowned with whipped sweet potatoes, a beautiful spin on a neighborhood favorite.

An assortment of surprisingly light but outstanding tarte flambee were also enjoyed, one with caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes, this one with salty bits of smoked bacon and white onions, like little french flatbread pizzas.

Although the savory course were genuinely sublime, any guest would be lying to suggest they had come for anything other than George's famous sweets.  You can't stare at pastries like this rustic apple tart all evening (with shaved granny smith apples, walnuts, golden raisins, and a kiss of cocoa powder) and not have a stirring in your sweet tooth.

Flawless classic gingerbread men were studded with crunchy sugar crystals that popped between my teeth, giving way to a buttery, spicy, and moist gingerbread beneath.

His version of a raspberry linzer tart cookie put any other version to utter shame.  Crunchy, spicy, nutty, star-centered cookies sandwich a sweet and tart, luxurious raspberry filling, with a slight powdery dusting of sugar.  Without contest, the most exceptional linzer cookie I have ever enjoyed.  With a glass of eggnog, I could nibble on these all evening.

An array of chewy fudge brownies, pineapple almond cakes, and other sweets circulated the room, but it was this caramel yule log that had caught my eye the moment we walked in.  This holiday treat wins the award for my favorite cake I have tasted in years.  Thin strips of extremely moist vanilla sponge cake are rolled with buttery caramel and fluffy whipped cream, draped in a blanket of even more caramel with chocolate drizzle on top.  Standing guard over this spectacular dessert is a beautiful meringue mushroom, which disappeared as quickly as the cake, like stacked teardrops of crunchy marshmallow giving way to a sweet and chewy middle.  If you go for no other reason, get yourself to the Astor Bake Shop for this dessert alone (a white mocha version is also presently gracing the display case.) 

A DiWine Holiday Party

(DiWine's brick oven Bianca pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, & roasted peppers)

One of the greatest things about Why Leave Astoria, in my opinion, is the fact that a significant amount of the featured articles are actually written by members.  I became a featured writer because I was initially a member who posted to my personal WLA page, which soon led to my posts being featured on the main page.  A website devoted to Astoria with articles and headlines by its readers guarantees that the content is always relevant to its readership.  You wanna see something different?  Post it, and chances are if it gets enough interest, you'll find yourself on the homepage as well.  No shady politics determining which stories make the headlines... No loyalty assumed or demanded from financial backers.  It's a free and honest forum to post news, events, photos, your thoughts, start discussions, network, organize groups with members of a common interest, and even find some killer discounts at local establishments.  So although many of us who contribute would love to see WLA grow big enough to invite us on as paid full-time staff, the simple truth is that we do what we do simply because we love sharing our passions with the community through such a unique forum.

As an unexpected, but pretty spectacular holiday gift, some of the most active writers gathered last night for a holiday party, so very generously hosted by Why Leave Astoria founder, Ran Craycraft, at one of our favorite places, DiWine.  And I am convinced that if the neighborhood truly knew what a sparkling gem this place is, there would undoubtedly be a line around the corner every single night.  It was a simply perfect evening of mouthwatering brick oven pizzas and small plates served by Arman and his impeccable staff, accompanied by some of the most exquisite cocktails in Astoria, shaken up by the uber-talented mixologist, Josh.  I couldn't have asked for better company, as I was finally allowed to put faces to some of the writers I have so genuinely enjoyed reading this past year:  WLA founder Ran Craycraft, food and beverage writer (and real-life chef) Evan LeRoy, effervescent brew guru the Beer Wench, the prolific and eclectic Grace Bello, and fascinating feature writer Brooke Carey.  A special thank you to Ran for organizing, and for everyone else involved for such a memorable evening.

If you have yet to check out DiWine, make it a New Year's resolution to visit frequently in 2011.  But with the knock-out holiday cocktail list, don't wait until then to get started.

The eggnog martini was Christmas in a cup.  Eventually, almost everyone at the table tried one for themselves.  Spiced rum, bourbon, fresh eggnog, and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg make the quintessential holiday drink.  Though we were so graciously hosted by WLA for the evening, when on my own dime DiWine also offers one of WLA's hottest discounts: with a WLA card every second round is free!  Check out the other great concoctions currently available here.

Though their dinner and brunch entrees are equally delicious, my favorite way to enjoy DiWine is with a small group of friends and an assortment of sharing plates.  Pan seared golden sea scallops arrive in a bed of a rich and savory asparagus cream, with a decadent dollop of black truffle puree.

And when it comes to truffles, DiWine serves up a simply fantastic version of truffled mac-n-cheese, with al dente pasta shells tossed in a velvety blend of bechamel and gruyere, with wild mushrooms, truffle oil, and a crown of crispy toasted bread crumbs.

A caper-studded tuna tartare arrives with a light whipped avocado mousse and toast points, the fresh tuna luxuriously sliced in large cubes.

Three large, crispy golden seared crab cakes are loaded with tender seafood, served on a bed mixed field greens with cannellini beans, olives, and a lemon vinaigrette.

Pizza at DiWine is one of the most overlooked versions in Queens, with a pie that rivals most others.  The crust has a beautifully charred, crisp outer crunch that gives way to a wonderfully warm and chewy inner bread.  The capriciossa is garnished with mushrooms, pepperoncini, mozzarella, and a fried quail egg in the center.  This is one of my favorite pizzas, not just in Queens, but anywhere.

Another one of my favorites was the Newtown, with toasted walnuts, whole roasted garlic cloves, spinach, and olive oil infused ricotta.

With a gourmet list of several unique toppings, you can even build your own creation with any three ingredients for just $12.

Ironically, we somewhat neglected one of the greatest features of DiWine... their wine list.  Give a group of thirsty writers an open bar, and I guess sipping on wine doesn't always take priority.  But a carefully edited wine list features glasses for $8 and bottles for $32, so that you can strictly focus on choosing a wine that suits your taste rather than worrying about which bottle is pricier.

With large tables up front and in back that accommodate groups of friends, and intimate booths with sheer curtains giving privacy from the dining room, it truly is a wonderful bar, kitchen, and all around deliciously sexy environment to celebrate with an ensemble or just a special someone.

On behalf of WLA, thanks to the entire DiWine team for the perfect setting for a holiday celebration.  And on behalf of the WLA writers, thank you to Ran and the Why Leave Astoria readers for such a wonderful forum to share our thoughts and musings, and come together as a true community.  We absolutely love reading your comments, and look forward to sharing more in the new year.  Hopefully next year, we'll have to add an extra table at the holiday party to accommodate new members ready to contribute their own voice as featured writers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Moolah for mush: Gina La Fornarina

Gina La Fornarina (279 Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Despite the fact it feels like you're sardine-packed into a party tent for a friend's kid sister's sweet sixteen, with garden furniture crammed so tightly you have to coordinate breathing patterns with the chair behind you, and bubble gum pink curtains that make you feel as though you're peeking up the crinoline of a prom dress from 1987... despite that, the food tastes decent. Marginal, at best. But when a salad, bruschetta, spaghetti with tomato sauce, lasagna, and a cranberry juice stacks up to a $90 lunch for two (that's right... not even a glass of wine), the food and service should certainly be a lot better than it was. It's outrageous considering the competition in the area... $20 less would have gotten us a three-course meal from a four-star kitchen at Nougatine at Jean-Georges just a few blocks down.

Check out the million dollar salad.  Yup, for $18 you can have a pinch of arugula, a few floppy discs of cheese, three slivers of avocado (not even a whole avocado), and a couple wedges of tomato.  

The only apparent reasonable dish in the restaurant is the bread service that arrives in a rustic paper bag.  So cute.  I was actually pretty eager to try the baked tagliolini with prosciutto, and I don't really recall asking the server's advice... but nonetheless, he interjected, "No, don't get that. Get something else..."

Don't get me wrong. The spaghetti pomodoro was tasty, but I don't care how you arrange boxed pasta, tomatoes, and a sprig of basil... $16 is never justifiable for such a simple dish... especially with such a puddle of pasta water sitting on the bottom of the plate.

The lasagna noodles were overcooked, and the plate was drowning in a rather bland bechamel... not a hint of red to be found. Almost like a saltless, butterless approximation of alfredo sauce blanketing two sheets of mushy pasta and a sauceless sloppy joe.

Bottom line: There are just too many great restaurants in the area to dine here again, unless you just want to throw your money into the wind.  And if that's the case, you can donate to this blog via the PayPal link on the right.

Gina La Fornarina on Urbanspoon

Max: A taste of a dream

(A decadently buttery potato pancetta gratin accompanies Mamma's meatloaf at Max)

Max Restaurant (51 Avenue B, East Village)

There is nothing quite like a dream so vivid and lush you can almost taste it.  At Max Restaurant, the delightfully cozy, wallet-thrifty (the average entree is $10-$15), drool-inducing homestyle Italian restaurant inconspicuously tucked into Alphabet City just a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park, you quite literally can...

From your first step in the door, you feel instantly at home... exposed brick walls, chianti-colored ceilings, textured cream-colored antique wallpaper that almost begs to be touched, paper napkins waiting to be dabbed with excess sauce, framed black-and-whites from Naples and Rome, and vintage chalkboards scribbled with the daily specials.  It's inviting, intimate, and promises to be every bit as scrumptious as it looks.

It is all primarily the reverie of chef-owner Luigi Iasilli, who as a young boy in Italy dreamt for years of moving to America.  When at age 29 he finally transplanted to New York City, and a few years later opened Max in Manhattan's lower east side, he thought it only fitting to name the restaurant after the Italian magazine through which he had attained many of his initial impressions of life in America.  "It seemed like ninety percent of the stories [in Max] were about America," Luigi reflects with a nostalgic smile, "and then probably ninety percent of those were about New York City."  And so a dream was born.

In a commitment to uphold the quality of culinary tradition in which he was raised, Luigi has several ingredients imported directly from Italy.  To prove it, he pops open an enormous can of plump ruby tomatoes at the table, inviting us to take our forks to the star at the foundation of most of his sauces, which are completely organic and are sourced from Tuscany.  They are astoundingly sweet and delicious, and it's merely a tantalizing foreplay.

A surprisingly light, creamy, fresh mozzarella is imported, as well, from the water buffalo of southern Salerno.  With a sprig of basil and a fragrant drizzle of glistening extra virgin olive oil made exclusively for the restaurant, it's the perfect introduction to the meal.

Complimentary bread service is accompanied by a bowl of a rather unique house salsetta, a dipping sauce of tomato and olive oil laced with specks of oregano and tiny bits of lemon and orange zest.  The bread is sourced from Il Forno bakery in the Bronx, and almost everything that doesn't come direct from Italy is sourced locally.

Melanzane a funghetto is thusly named because the diced cubes of fried eggplant have been rendered so tender and meaty, they could quite easily be mistaken for sauteed mushrooms.  No frills or gimmicks, just quality ingredients, and we realize we are in for quite a treat.

Crostino toscano is next, a toasted bread point with warm chicken liver pate slathered atop.  The surprisingly creamy and rich spread is cut ever so slightly with a hint of anchovy, adding a welcome saltiness.

Though the pasta dough is also sourced locally due to a lack of preparation space (with the exception of the gnocchi, which are made in-house), the pastas are all shaped and filled at Max.  And nothing can quite get my mouth watering like the heavenly scent of truffle oil in the air as we are presented with the ravioli di porcini in crema tartufata, just one of the daily ravioli specials.  Shimmery half-moon pockets are stuffed to bursting with finely chopped woodland mushrooms, all blanketed in a refreshingly light truffle-kissed cream sauce, the mushroom bits so tiny that the earthy, decadent pasta pillows remain the star.

Lasagna fatta in casa is generously stacked with ribbons of perfectly al dente pasta, concealing meat so tender it blends harmoniously with the creamy cheeses and bechamel, all jazzed up by a few surprise spices and herbs (I swore not to reveal the secret ingredient, but think grated holiday spices that add a wonderfully subtle zip).  The sweet and tangy tomato sauce on top beautifully cuts the richness, all dusted with a salty little flurry of parmesan flakes.

In Max's version of an Italian-American seafood classic, spaghetti del marinaio, the tomato sauce is zipped up several notches with zesty peppers to resemble a fra diavolo sauce.  Tender noodles colored black with squid ink offer a briny richness that enhances the heat, offset by a generous toss-in of sweet, plump, juicy shrimp.

Perhaps my favorite showcase for the vibrant tomato sauce was the fettuccine al sugo toscano, where just a hint of cream has been added to create an extremely hearty bolognese sauce that warms you to your extremities, an ideal dish for the bitter New York winter weather.  This is classic, old school Italian-American at its very best, and at $10.95 it would be difficult to find a tastier fork-twirl of pasta anywhere else.

The spaghetti alla chitarra al ragu d'agnello is a simple and savory red sauce loaded with lean crumbles of tender lamb, which adds a contrasting richness to the acidity of the tomatoes.  Again, very simple, basic, quality ingredients without any masking shine beautifully to create an extremely satisfying bowl of pasta.

The gnocchi alla sorrentina, however, may be the reason I return.  Many an Italian restaurant boasts gnocchi dishes, though they quite often severely miss the mark.  At Max, these incredible pasta clouds are made in house, and boiled to perfection, quite literally dissolving in your mouth.  As you stab clusters of these little guys, melted fresh mozzarella strings from your fork, with basil-speckled streams of tomato sauce swirling in the cheese like an edible Van Gogh painting.

For those seeking something lighter, I would highly recommend the filetto di baccala al forno.  Extremely tender pan-seared cod falls into flaky pieces with the prodding of a fork, a crispy golden coating giving way to a buttery, moist, shimmery filet of fish.  A generous dollop of whipped potatoes laced with truffle oil are the perfect compliment.  While it would be a crime to dine at Max without sampling at least one variation of the tomato sauce, this would be a justifiable reason to stray.

Someone at your table absolutely has to order Mamma's Meatloaf.  Upon cutting open the enormous polpettone the size of a nerf football, melted cheese slowly flows from within, where thin slivers of ham penetrate the entire loaf with a savory hint that elevates this dish to addictive wonder.  Like a meatball cordon bleu in a red velvet cloak of tomato sauce, the dish is served with a heaping stack of the potato pancetta gratin (pictured at the heading), which I could ravenously devour plates of all by itself.  The egg-bound delicate meats with melted ribbons of cheese paired with an incomparable potato gratin is actually one of my favorite comfort dishes I have tried in all of New York City.

Mysteriously, a French favorite, creme brulee, makes a cameo on the dessert menu, though it is extremely welcomed.  Perfectly executed in its classic form, a window of caramel-crystallized sugar shatters to reveal a creamy, sweet vanilla custard.

Served in a glass chalice, the tiramisu is surprisingly light, the ladyfinger sponge cake pieces still fluffy.  So many versions are drowned and soggy, but this dessert at Max is a refreshingly airy take on an Italian-American favorite.

A towering panna cotta arrives, almost the size of an upturned pint glass.  Yet again, Max offers a unique spin on this sweet finale, with a panna cotta significantly denser than most.  But after such a phenomenal homestyle Italian dinner, who wants a wimpy and flimsy mound of gelatinous cream?  This thick, decadent version, garnished with sliced strawberries and swimming in a moat of golden sauce, is more like a creme caramel, and downright fantastic.

This casual little gem is cash only, and open daily from 5PM to 11:30PM (midnight on Friday and Saturday).  From what I have witnessed and heard, it is quite often rather packed, as the three dining rooms can only accommodate forty to sixty patrons depending on whether the closed in patio is in service, so reservations are certainly recommended.  During the summer, an outdoor garden dressed like an Italian piazza adds seating for up to 50 more guests.  A full service bar in the middle dining room offers a well-edited selection of small estate Italian wines, as well as Peroni and Moretti, though I highly recommend a glass of aglianico to compliment the tomato sauce, and a glass of moscato d'asti with dessert.

A second location in Tribeca also serves lunch.

Max on Urbanspoon
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