Saturday, December 22, 2012

New Dishes at Locale

Almond brownie with peanut butter and marshmallow topping with a dollop of vanilla ice cream
Locale | 22-02 34th Ave, Long Island City | (718) 729-9080 |

Don't arrive in a hurry.  Not because the service is lax.  To the contrary, it is rather attentive and refreshingly sincere.  Just plan to take your time ordering.  Ask to see the desserts first, because you will want to save room for a strawberry napoleon or the almond-studded brownie topped with a creamy pillow of homemade peanut butter, then draped with a blanket of whipped marshmallow that has been brulee-torched for a thin, crispy outer coating.

Passion fruit martini
Also allow yourself a few moments to drink up the beverage options.  Passion and pumpkin martinis incorporate luscious purees, but someone at the table should try Rosemary's Garden, a classic-style martini (and first course all on its own) with rosemary-dill infused vodka and a floater of crisp sauvignon blanc, garnished, of course, with a blue-cheese stuffed olive.  After you've determined the opening and finale of your meal, then debate over a colorful menu of starters and entrees worthy of multiple repeat visits until you try them all.  If you haven't sampled the new additions to the menu at Locale, I would highly recommend adding it to your to-do list this holiday season... and with a high priority.

Jumbo lump crab cakes with melted leeks and chipotle creme fraiche

At Locale, owner Johnny Koljenovic aspires to offer “a taste of the city without having to travel there.” With the expertise of Executive Chef and culinary visionary Jesse Davis (who returned to Locale after the unfortunate closing of Lucas Steakhouse), the team at Locale is achieving just that… and much more. “Families come for brunch, take the kids home, and then bring friends back for an elegant dinner,” smiles Kolyenovic.

By day, sunlight floods in through two floor-to-ceiling windows creating a cheerful openness.  By night, the glow of candles lights the entire street corner like a giant, serene luminary.  The restaurant is one of those rare chameleons that appeals to nearly every demographic, offering intimacy at window-side tables for two, communal space for larger parties, a vibrant bar for solo supping, and an elevated split-level lounge with sprawling banquettes for groups of friends.  A popular spot with nearby professionals of the film and television industry (Kaufman Astoria Studios is just around the corner), Nurse Jackie has filmed several episodes at Locale, and Life on Mars hosted its wrap party here.

Take just one bite of any of Chef Davis’s dishes, and it’s no secret why the stars and locals keep coming back again and again. Delicately balancing artistry with fresh flavors, the menu features gorgeous plates using only organic, locally sourced ingredients. Blackened Mayan Shrimp is served like a Jenga tower over a log cabin of yucca fries and a moat of tangy creole purée.

The cartoonishly plump thumb-sized homemade gnocchi get dollops of creamy fresh ricotta and a slathering of robust herb-roasted tomato ragu with a sprinkling of salty, crisped shallots and shaved cheese ribbons.

Pan-seared organic salmon with chive whipped potato and pinot noir reduction

The platings are as beautiful as they are delicious. But the most beautiful part? Unlike dining in the city, there is no waiting for a train or cab for the trek home after.

Locale on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 17, 2012

Exclusive First Look: Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana Opens Tomorrow

Tufino's Margherita pie, with organic Italian tomatoes, fior di latte, parmigiano reggiano, and basil
This is an expanded version of my post earlier today on Grub Street for New York Magazine.

Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana | 36-08 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria | (718) 278-4800 |

Ever since 1905, when Lombardi's applied to the city for the first license to make and sell pizza in the U.S., New York has been synonymous with some of the best rounds, squares, rectangles, and slices in the country.  Although the Big Apple has been longtime associated with its own thin-crust version, a recent surge in pizzerias devoted to the original style born in Naples has led to a revitalized fanaticism for classic, artisan pizzas.

The oven warms up to over 1,000 degree Fahrenheit, cooking pies in under two minutes.
While Brooklyn and the Village seem to boast the most popular concentration of brick oven Neapolitan pizza joints (Motorino, Keste, Franny's, and the late Una Pizza Napoletana are personal favorites) , the past year has seen a notable change on the pizza front in Astoria, Queens.  Neighborhood staples Rizzo's and the coal-fired brick oven pies at Sac's Place have been recently joined by Antika, Via Trenta, and most notably Basil Brick Oven, whose Northern Italian style pizzas have garnered much well-deserved recognition--though no pizzerias serve a pie in the authentic Neapolitan style.

A sign on the Ditmars Blvd storefront announces an official opening Tuesday, December 18th. 
All of that change's tomorrow when Tufino Pizzeria Napoletana opens its doors to the public.  On-line community boards have been abuzz since August, and it seemed as though the opening was perpetually prolonged.  Momentarily thwarted by plumbing woes, Astoria’s hottest new oven has cleared its pipes and is now ready to sing on Ditmars.

Co-Owner and pizzaiolo Stephen Menna pulls a pizza from the wood-fired oven.
I was beyond excited when owner and pizzaiolo Stephen Menna (a vet of Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, he co-owns the pizzeria with is wife, Maria) allowed me an exclusive first look (and taste) at the place and its pies.

A nod to the Greek neighborhood, the kalamata-studded Il Greco gets a squeeze of fresh lemon after baking.
Boasting a menu of 18 different pizzas, each pie bears a personal story. The Nonna features his grandmother’s meatball recipe; the Pistachianco—with the aforementioned green Sicilian nuts, fior di latte, and ricotta—is a shout-out to Chris Bianco. Another is named after his neighbor, who suggested adding raisins to a prosciutto pie, which ended up making the cut.

Menna describes the San Gennaro as "a sausage and pepper hero on a pie" -- the drizzle of picante honey is a nice touch
 “We will have weekly specials… I probably have around forty different pies in my head right now,” smiles Menna… all of which will be browned to bubbling bronze beauty in a Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven born from the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius.  Pizzas range from $9 to $16 per 12-inch personal pie, which which aligns the cost with Queens prices fairly well (Margherita pizza = $11 at Tufino and $10 at Basil versus $13 at Keste and $15 at Motorino).

Husband and wife co-owners Maria and Stephen Menna
Coincidentally, Menna is the fifth generation Stephen (or Stefano) in his family, which traces back to the town of Tufino (population 3,400) in Naples. It was a visit there in 2006 with cousin (and fellow pizzaiolo) Stefano, that sparked his passion to make Neapolitan pies. The fiery oven, which must warm up to around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, bears the mosaic moniker ‘di Maria’ in tribute to Menna’s wife, who built him his first pizza oven in their backyard as an anniversary gift.

Storefront window art also identifies the pizzeria as a 'frigittoria', which means they will be crisping up some fried treats—or ‘dolci fritti’—including arancini, prosciutto croquettes, and deep-fried calzones.  The opening menu is just a teaser, as other treats are planned down the road, including a dish that uses hand-scooped spheres of chilled angel hair and a blend of cheeses, rolled in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried with a crispy golden coating.  Beverage service will include a carefully edited selection of craft beers, along with 7 red and 7 white “pizza wines.” Ciabatta and crostini for the sandwiches come from neighborhood favorite, Gianpiero Bakery.

The Trio of Cannoli dessert
Desserts are the handiwork of family friend, Pastry Chef Savva Ioannou, of The Garden City Hotel in Long Island, who will be at Tufino personally preparing the sweets three days a week.

Tirami Choux and espresso
'Dolci' will include a fresh seasonal fruit tart (a pear tart will be offered currently), a cannoli sampler, the "Tirami Choux' (a cocoa pastry puff with Kahlua mascarpone cream), as well as Menna's take on a Nutella pizza.

So how is the pizza, you wonder?  It's not just good.  It's phenomenal, achieving what many of the city's neapolitan nooks cannot...  The sourdough is leavened naturally... a 200 year old technique that takes nearly two days.  Menna is an admitted admirer of Una Pizza Napoletana's Anthony Mangieri.  Like Mangieri, Menna counts the baking time in seconds, rather than minutes, with most pies averaging around 90.

So an exquisite dough is gently hand-stretched like a dopey dwarf cap that falls loosely down the pizzaiolo's forearms as it twirls.  A shallow layer of choice toppings are meticulously applied (Menna places mozzarella crumbles as if setting jewels in a crown).  He then gently places the pie in the flickering dome opposite the embers in indirect heat, and the flames and pie have a staredown.  The pie rises slowly as if posturing, then gently blisters in the heat, as charred bubbles of condensed flavor arise on the outer crust.  And then just before succumbing completely to the heat, Menna retrieves the pie at its most vulnerable stage, carefully checking its underside with a long wooden peel before sliding it onto a metal disc to serve steaming to the table.

Do you see those edges, the flaky and chewy bubbles filling the puffy end crust, in contrast with a flatter, crisp inner crust?  After you eat the tip, you rip the edges as steam escapes, to dip the salty spongy sourdough in the spilled cheeses and olive oil.  The pies are served with a knife--unsliced--to avoid compromising the crust as toppings and sauces escape under the pizzas.  This also allows the guest to rip and tear at the gourmet rounds at their own pace.

The addition of fontina to the Greek added an earthiness I loved, with those tangy (and pitted, thank goodness!) kalamata olives, but the sprinkle of oregano with the chilled mist of lemon juice added post-oven really makes the pie special, with flavors that pop.  On the San Gennaro, the drizzle of a playfully spicy picante honey makes the pie particularly special.  It's like what the street festival in Little Italy might taste like in a dream.  But there is always something to be said about an excellent margherita, which is the standard by which I gauge any pizzeria.  Although I now feel compelled to return until I have tried several other pies, I will most likely intermittently order the excellent margherita--whose simple, bright, satisfying flavors and scents are what we think of as pizza when we crave it most.

Stephen Menna, Junior and Senior
Menna, who makes his own dough each morning, has every intention of making pizza as long as he can.  "Detail is everything... and staying true to what I believe in," which is something he's been doing his whole life.  "My dad and I have been making pizzas together since I was born."

Lunch and dinner will be served Tuesday through Sunday beginning at noon daily.  Tufino is closed on Mondays.  Welcome to the neighborhood, Stephen (Junior and Senior), Maria, and the whole Tufino crew!

Tufino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 13, 2012

First Look at The Thirsty Koala Menu

Indigenous Australian artifacts like boomerangs and didgeridoo (a long woodwind instrument) adorn the dining room.
The Thirsty Koala (35-12 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria)

As I mentioned earlier this week on Grub Street, the highly-anticipated new Aussie restaurant, The Thirsty Koala, is poised and ready to bring some Queensland to Queens, following their final hearing with the liquor authority this week—which could potentially mean an opening as soon as next week (fingers crossed).  Adorned with boomerangs and didgeridoo amongst vibrantly lit blonde onyx and pinewood-planked walls, the new eatery is the collaboration of three Astoria mates, Katherine Fuchs (former FDNY Chief turned Executive Chef), Alex Styponias (Astoria-born mixologist, raised in Greece), and Christine Chellos (Aussie native, and financial advisor).

According to Fuchs, the opening menu will feature “dishes that are familiar, but with an Australian flare” which she describes as “international… often British… with some Asian influences” including lamb lollies over caramelized pumpkin (meats will be sourced from Australia), ginger beer-battered fish ‘n chips, boomerang tacos with grilled prawns (fish and seafood arrive via the Fulton Fish Market at Hunts Point), “crostis” (crostini) with house-made chevre, jaffles (Australian pressed sandwiches), a beet-and-pineapple-topped Aussie burger,  a few vegan and gluten-free options including a black bean and edamame “Earth Chili,” and Aussie desserts like pavlova, lamingtons, and a Tim-Tam tiramisu.  Here is the very first look at some of the dishes planned for the opening menu.

Herb-crusted lamb lollies (chops) with caramelized pumpkin and pomegranate citrus salad... delicious and gluten-free.
Coopers and Fosters will be served on tap, headlining a beverage program of Australian and New Zealand wines and craft beer.  Aussie-inspired cocktails created by Styponias will include a Hooly Dooly caipirinha and the Gabba—a gin and honey blend named after the Brisbane Cricket Ground.  All in all, this sounds like a bloody welcome newcomer to Ditmars Boulevard.  Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for official updates on their opening.  To whet your appetite in the meantime, here's a preview of a few more dishes guests can look forward to trying.

The vegan 'Earth Chili' is loaded with edamame and black beans in a thick, piquant tomato stew with the perfect amount of spice to warm you but not set you running to the fire hydrant.  It's genuinely one of the most delicious bowls of chili I have enjoyed recently...

The tangy cream sauce is a house secret, but it perfectly draws together the sweet and succulent jumbo prawns, shredded cabbage, and avo (Aussie for avocado) salsa on a giant grilled tortilla in these open-faced, California-style 'Boomerang Tacos'.

Not only are Tim-Tams fantastic for dipping in their 'flat whites' (Australian-style coffee with microfoam), but these popular Aussie cookies are also the base for the Triple T dessert--the Tim-Tam tiramisu--which adds a playful crunch and extra chocolate beneath velvety smooth cocoa-dusted creme.

Executive Chef & Co-Owner Katherine Fuchs
Stay tuned for even more sneak peeks at the exciting new menu coming your way.  I thinks it's fair to say you will be hearing a lot more about this soon-to-be neighborhood favorite in the upcoming months.

The Thirsty Koala on Urbanspoon
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