(Truffled egg salad with speck crostini)
Il Bambino (34-08 31st Ave., Astoria)
I often receive several text messages a day from friends asking for interesting food recommendations that range from "I am at 76th and Columbus and just need good pizza..." to "I am with a lactose intolerant vegetarian friend who also doesn't eat bread, citrus, or anything green, and we need something under $15 in SoHo." But I would have to say that if one were to archive all of my bizarre text messages, one of my most frequently recommended suggestions is Il Bambino in Astoria. It is not at all uncommon after recommending it to a friend for me to receive a message the following week saying, "oh my, I have eaten there four times in the past seven days... wow."
If you have been, then you already know what makes it great. If you haven't, then you really are missing out on something special. Think paninoteca wuzzled with a tapas bar that also offers a fantastic selection of affordable wines. The outdoor space is cozy (enjoy it while the weather permits), and long hours allow for everything from a hearty brunch with lots of friends to a cheese plate with preserves and wine with someone special in the evening (open until at least 10pm; midnight on weekends).
(smoked bacon, goat cheese, & spicy mayo crostini)
The seasonal menu recently changed, leaving some of the classics, bringing back old-time favorites, and introducing some new ones. The crostini come two to a plate, which makes them ideal for choosing a few different ones for sharing. The panini are absolutely enormous, and perfect for splitting, as well. And trust me, you will want to share a variety of plates here; entree envy can be extremely intense, because everything served is beautifully delicious and deliciously beautiful.
The best news? Brunch is now three days a week: Friday, Saturday, & Sunday from 10:30am - 3:30pm. Brunch features a special menu of hilarious titles that actually make you want to read the full menu: Piggy Got Back, Sir Oink-a-lot, Sweet Ass (prosciutto & fig), The Fun Guy (with mushrooms... get it? Funghi!) Pictured above is the Notorious P.I.G. with scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, artisan cheddar, and truffle spread.
One of the newest panini additions features smoked bacon, garlic roasted potatoes, truffle aioli, and parmesan. Other exciting ingredients appearing throughout the menu include cappa ham, piquillo peppers, BBQ creamed onions, fried eggplant, rosemary ricotta, and apricot butter.
The bread is made exclusively for Il Bambino at Gian Piero Bakery, and cannot be purchased outside of the store. It grills to the best outside crunch giving way to a wonderfully chewy and moist inside. A greater selection of gourmet panini would be difficult to find. All ingredients are sourced locally (cheese from Murray's on the Lower East Side), or made fresh on the premises.
Besides the panini, you can create your own antipasti selection, or choose from tapas and salads. Something I order every single time I take someone for their first visit is this potato salad, with sliced fingerlings tossed in truffle mayo, with fried shallots, a drizzle of basil pesto, and a snowfall of pecorino. It is the best potato salad I have ever enjoyed, without any contest.
The new menu also brings the return of one of my old favorites, the smothered tomato, a hollowed tomato stuffed with tuna confit blended with marie rose with preserved lemon. A delicious, light, but filling meal all by itself.
You won't find them on the menu, but be sure to ask about the homemade desserts. The red velvet cakes in the showcase are tempting (and that frosting is insanely wonderful), but the panna cotta has me dreaming about it. The flavors vary, but a most exquisitely creamy and delicate panna cotta (vanilla bean, above) sits in a pool of homemade strawberry sauce, with chilled cornflake clusters dipped in chocolate. Even if you think you are full, trust me, these are worth it. Even the peanut butter rice crispie treats coated in chocolate are fantastic.
The staff is one of the best in the neighborhood. Each table has a small glossary on it, making unfamiliar cheese and charcuterie accessible while avoiding the embarrassment of asking, "what's this???" Il Bambino delivers. I also call ahead on my way into work to place an order, swing by and grab it, and then watch my Manhattan friends drool at the gourmet goods as they all enviously ask where I got it. "Astoria," I smile.
* * * * *
Insider's tip: don't forget the spreads are available on the side for $1. The basil pesto is killer. When I order for delivery, I sometimes even ask for two sides of it that I use the next day to toss into my pasta or spread on a sandwich.
Monday nights any wine bottle of $35 or more is 1/2 off with food purchase of $15.