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Salumeria Rosi’s Cesare Casella may be playing the mob-favorite Atlantic City restaurateur in Martin Scorsese’s pilot, “Boardwalk Empire” – a bent-nose epic HBO hopes will prove as addictive as “The Sopranos.” After all, prosciutto is just ham by any other name. The exuberant Tuscan import who recently got tweaked by Frank Bruni for what most Casella fans consider a rather charming affectation – sprigs of fresh rosemary he sports in his pocket – had to be persuaded. “Me, be an actor? I wasn’t going to do it,” he confides. “But then I start to like the idea – I even took a coach with me to the audition.” Steve Buscemi will play Nucky Johnson, boss of a liquor distribution ring, in the pilot written by Terrence Winter based on a book about Atlantic City. Given Winter’s 25 “Sopranos” episodes, Scorsese’s genius and Casella’s way with salumi, how can it miss? As the chef left town for a barbecue gig in Texas today, he was still waiting for word. 4/2/2008
After months of heavy-duty cleaning: Keith McNally brand new old Minetta Tavern. Photo: Steven Richter
Surely you didn’t think it would be easy to score a table at Minetta Tavern after that long, feverish obsessed countdown to opening day. As always, it’s who do you know? Keith McNally, of course, proprietor of Balthazar, Pastis, Morandi, Schiller’s Liquor Bar. His partners here in this amazingly light-handed rehab, Balthazar’s longtime co-chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson might have a say. “Everything just had to be cleaned,” manager Arnold Rossman says modestly. Hard to believe it's only the second night as I explore the menu – that creamy mussel classic Billi Bi soup, an unusual tasting of tartare (veal, lamb and beef), roast chicken remarkably juicy and crisp and the luscious Black Label prime burger piled with caramelized onions. From our table with a view, I can wave hello as brother Brian drops in to schmooze familiars. 3/11/09
Why do we love Sirio? “Because he’s NOT French.” So began Daniel Boulud’s ten reasons to love his one-time boss Sirio Maccioni at a Sunday Citymeals-on-Wheels benefit at what was once Le Cirque and is now Restaurant Daniel. Then he went on, laughing:
2. Because he learned the restaurant business from the French.
3. Because he has John Wayne looks and Marcello Mastroianni style.
4. Because he’s kissed the hand of every princess on the Upper East Side.
5. Because he has three incredible sons but still won't give up.
6. Because he invented Pasta Primavera – the only dish at Le Cirque the chefs were forbidden to touch.
7. Because he swears at you in Italian and kisses your ass in English.
8. Because his favorite food is his wife Egi’s gnocchi.
9. Because he is America’s greatest restaurant business hero.
10. Because without Sirio Maccioni I might have been a short order cook.
Maccioni was honored at the event, Blue Jeans, Black Truffles, Burgundy & Blues, which raised almost half a million dollars to help Citymeals feed the homebound elderly, an annual effort by Boulud. 3/9/09
Next move for Flex Mussels is the Upper West Side, I heard Saturday night at dinner. Just opened in November on East 82nd Street where Bobby Shapiro’s Zocalo used to be, and flooded with hungry beach combers, daughter Alexandra says the UWS is next, “once we feel we’re doing our best here.” The spot where Neptune sank on Amsterdam between 84th and 85th looks good right now. But with bruised restaurateurs forseeing more fallout, spaces will be opening up and the Shapiros are counting on rents to soften. 2/23/09
From my porthole overlooking the pounding surf in Lala Land, I see the blogs are all atwitter over New York burgers, the passion that knows no season. The truth is, when I feel the need, I don’t waste my mouth on a trifling low-end generic. I want a proud, compelling burger – caramelized, rare and juicy, like 5 Napkin’s iconic hunk or the Brooklyn Diner’s proud beauty. Fairway Café’s meaty dinner burger, $12 with two toppings – I like well-done bacon and grilled onions – is as low-end as I go. Tales of the Corner Bistro have never drawn me to the West Village and now, with Bruni’s report, I’m even less sure I need to check it out. I tasted the beloved Shake Shack just once. It was fun nibbling it al fresco with fries in lush, leafy Madison Park on a vibrant spring day, but thin, too cooked, and with that pickle tucked in the middle, it tasted like an adolescent White Castle on hormones. Good enough for kids who aren’t ready to grow up. 2/17/09
Every night in my prayers I thank the New York State liquor board gods for withholding licenses for new restaurants, allowing temporary BYO policies and a chance to try a new restaurant without the financial commitment. The Lower East Side’s Fat Hippo (71 Clinton Street at Rivington) is my latest find. This past Saturday night, sitting down at the bar in the storefront where Wylie Dufresne once reigned, my boyfriend and I shop the menu in a hungry hurry for something original and delicious.
Delicious, maybe. Look elsewhere for novelty. Instead, you get lime and jalapeno-spiked shrimp ceviche ($9), beet and goat cheese tart ($7), a crab cake (“almost no breading,” $14) and mac ‘n’ cheese (comes with the crab cake or as a side for $4). And let me not overlook the ubiquitous sliders. These come in sets of seven, dippers for cheese fondue, a ridiculous gimmick that excites bloggers and that every table loves to order – except mine ($12).
Once you abandon hope of a freshly-minted menu epiphany, the food can be fabulous. The trailer park chicken sampler in its crunchy, almost chewy coat is a hit ($15). Faintly smoked thigh doesn’t overwhelm the al dente julienned collard greens it sits on, and a beer-can roasted breast is even better, oozing juice, the best thing all night.
Though we asked for medium-rare, the pork chop ($13) arrives well done but I, who cooks her chicken medium, don’t mind as much as I should. The pulled pork stuffing is overkill, but Brussels sprouts emerge sweet and greasy, just bitter enough to still taste like the sturdy veggie they are. Gently slow-roasted tomatoes can't save the hideous unseasoned pan-fried mozzarella balls ($6). I suspect they sat around too long after being cooked.
Fat Hippo tries for hipness – or is it just inept? The guy at the front was on the phone when we walked in and made no attempt to shorten his call or greet us. But our Amazonian waitress was so down-home and caring I didn’t go ballistic when it took forty-five minutes to deliver our food. It was annoying that we had to ask three times for our check, though when it finally arrived, my gloom lifted. The toll, including our $15 wine, with tax and tip, was a sane $65. 2/16/09 — Talia Berman
Am I a bitch? Am I snide? Will I be kissing asses? You’ll know soon when Bravo launches its new series, "Top Chef Masters," with me as a judge, taping now even as I write. It’s been old home week on the downtown Los Angeles set with Kelly Choi of NYC-TV's "Eat Out NY," sylph-like and towering on five-inch heels as host, and Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland as a sharp-tongued fellow judge. British journalist Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, who styles himself a “food TV whore,” flew in from London to make it a trio. Twenty-four “Master” chefs, some of them now global restaurant moguls who rarely cook these days, compete in a quickfire challenge to warm up, then move on to an elimination round. Why, you might wonder, would a star chef risk flubbing up with a curdled sauce or a blubbery fish? Self-confidence reigns. And it’s a chance to win a big bundle for their favorite charity. 2/11/09
I am definitely a Frank Bruni stalker. Got to know right away if we agree. I was surprised he didn’t love Michael Huynh’s Vietnamese fusion at BarBao enough to forgive the chef for recycling his best dishes from earlier gigs. Following Huynh after the joyous discovery of his Vietnamese vision at Bao111 on to Mai House with Drew Nieporent and then at Bun/Soho before this Upper West Side migration, I’ve been tough on Hunyh for leaving so many broken hearts in his wake. But the pleasure of revisiting his Daikon duck hash, the sweetbreads with pickled peach and our favorite yame soup just a short hike from my own digs is a joy for me. So thanks Frank, it won’t always be booked when we call. As for the Diner Journal’s measured approval of Salumeria Rosi – it is definitely cramped at a two-top squished so close to the next table and so far, I’ve not been stuck on a bench in the window as perhaps Frank was. But my guy and I slip in for dinner at least once a week, splitting a zuppe de ferro and the pasta amatriciana or whatever new dish Cesare Casella dreams up. Dinner for two, $65. And it’s my new favorite business lunch spot, too. Lukewarm notices from Bruni means it won’t be impossible to book our tables. 2/2/09
It’s unsettling, even scary, to see the sharks of the internet so eager to rip into Alice Waters. “Has the locavore Taliban finally been checked?” Josh Ozersky asks on The Feedbag this morning. “There is something about the priggishness and sanctimony of these Bay Area matrons...” he goes on. Ageist, sexist and geopolitical all in one big gulp. Maybe Alice was a bit presumptuous and a dash self-promoting in urging a kitchen revolution on the Obamas not knowing that the White House already skews organic and does indeed have its own vegetable garden. Ex-White House chef Walter Scheib and Anthony Bourdain both pounced at the chance to air their outrage. And now Todd Kliman — food and wine editor of the Washingtonian — dirties the water at NPR by slamming the whole sustainable movement and damning Waters as no longer a food hero but rather, the food police. Misogynists all. Granted, the woman did not invent haricots verts but she has been an inspiration to chefs for decades and her zeal for her Edible Schoolyard program is admirable. And I salute her dedication to Citymeals-on-Wheels for more than twenty years of star appearances dishing up exquisite ice cream or James Beard’s spring onion sandwiches as a star chef at our annual Garden Party in Rockefeller Center. I wonder if Mother Teresa suffered such rage and rancor.
I’ve been immersed in Pino Lungo’s juicy and revealing new memoir, Dirty Dishes: A Restaurateur’s Story of Passion, Pain and Pasta (Bloomsbury USA). As immersed as an overcommitted workaholic blogger can be, that is. I’ve been reading it in the tub, on the subway, in taxis, and when I take a break to eat my salad between postings.
It seems I sold restaurateur Pino Luongo short for years. From his early days at Il Cantinori, I remember him gesturing to the fabulous march of antipasti reminiscent of antipasti thrills in Rome. I thought of him as “that cocky waiter.” And later the cocky maitre d’. Then at Le Madri and Coco Pazzo, that crafty showbizzy restaurateur. Since I am admittedly as full of myself as Pino is, and always assume what I believe to be the only truth, I just never gave him his due. The book, Luongo’s version of his life and his role in the Italian dining revolution, sets me straight.
Did you know that Pino Luongo brought regional cooking to New York? It wasn’t Tony May at his Italian Festivals in the Rainbow Room. And it wasn’t Sylvano Marchetto at Da Silvano where Pino, newly arrived in New York without any English, pulled himself out of a homesick funk to work as a busboy. No credit for that darling Alfredo Viazzi who died much too young leaving memories of garlicky soppresetta and the marvelous cacciuco that drew James Beard to lunch at Trattoria da’Alfredo’s front window table.
So I really owe the guy a big apology or half an apology. It was his ideas, his menu, at times, even his cooking. He really was there, nursing our appetite for robbiolo cheese stuffed into a split focaccia and puntarella alla romana, juggling celebrities at Sapori di Mare and daring to sell tableware and Tuscan soap at Tuscan Square. His story is convincing. Co-author Andrew Friedman has done a brilliant job of getting the basically defensive man to reveal the inner Pino, the insecurities, the missteps, the prickly defenses that defeated his analyst. You might not exactly fall in love with him or swallow the tomato whole – he’s too Me Generation for that, but in the end when he’s lost almost everything, you do actually care. Meanwhile it’s a saucy and spicy read. And you definitely should visit him at Centolire where I recently rediscovered the man as expansive host, visibly humbled (or maybe just mellowed), and his famous rigatoni alla buttera with sausage and peas. 1/8/09
It’s not exactly Bulgari but hoity-toity little Amaranth Café moving into the old P&G Bar space seals the deal on optimistic gentrification of spottily gussied up Amsterdam at 73rd Street. Salumeria Rosi next door, cheek to cheek with pioneer settler Jacques Torres, had right of first refusal when the 66-year-old saloon opted to move six blocks uptown because of a painful rent increase. “My partner, he want yes,” Cesare Casella confided, “but I want to open more in other neighborhoods.” Clubby Amaranth, anything but a food destination at 62nd Street off Fifth Avenue, will be bringing its Mediterranean menu and popular robbiolo-stuffed foccacia to a neighborhood where eye candy is not a currency. Will it be full of its usual sugar daddies with long legged blondes? And will devoted Eurotarts be able to find the Upper West Side? Drat. I did so long to see Bulgari on Amsterdam. 1/6/09
Guiseppe Bruno, who tends his 25-year-old Sistina with a notoriously fierce perfectionism, plans to open Caravaggio in May at Coco Pazzo, where Pino Luongo once indulged music world glitterati and self-entitled A-listers. Luongo gave up the ghost at 23 East 74th last summer in a dispute with the landlord – and ghostly it was – desperately in need of a total revamp, he says. Bruni has recruited Cosimo, youngest of his three brothers who run San Pietro in midtown, to learn the drill at Sistina freeing him to nurse the new baby. “The room is a jewel,” Bruno says. “Do you remember that ceiling?” Artist Donald Baechler and architect Pietro Cicognani will do the rehab. Tired of people asking “Is your food north Italian or South Italian?” Bruno plans to serve his favorite foods from everywhere in Italy. “I love Milanese food but I am from the Amalfi cost. Calf’s liver Veneziana can be great if presented the right way.”
He’s importing two chefs from the Boot, one from the North, one from the South, and a pastry cook from Sicily. Caravaggio will be less expensive than Sistena with, guess what? small plates. “People up here don’t want to eat a lot,” he says. Bruno is not daunted by the economic slump. “I got a good deal from the landlord and a 15 year lease. The board turned down two people before me. They seem happy with me. I have the Golden Apple, you know.” That’s the Health Department's medal of honor for passing two inspections in a row without a single violation. “You can shave using my pots as a mirror, I keep them so clean,” he boasts. 1/6/09
Chef Christophe Bellanca, forced out of Le Cirque in October weeks after winning three stars from the Times’ Frank Bruni, is now BLT Restaurants' corporate chef for Laurent Tourondel. “Laurent is a very good chef and a very good businessman. He knows what the people want. I will learn a lot for opening my own restaurant,” said the French transplant who won his cred at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles. Bellanca, who regrets he did not have time to finish his job at Le Cirque (“the food was getting better every day”), will travel and troubleshoot for the ambitious expanding BLT empire and is already working on Tourondel’s new venture in Atlanta. “I interviewed 100 chefs for Atlanta in the new W Hotel.”
Aimless, unemployed, refusing to discuss what happened in the kitchen that prompted Sirio Maccioni to say adieu, Bellanca has been dining out all over town since he and Sirio parted. “Every night, I learn so much. I eat everywhere. Daniel. Adour. Jean Georges. Per Se, of course. It was Thomas Keller who got me the job at Le Cirque. We speak all the time on the phone. I go to Café Boulud. Picholine. I love the Gotham Bar and Grill. For me the food is perfect. I love the restaurants of New York. And I love the street food. Pastrami. We eat better here than in France. Corton, I love it. I eat probably the best pork in my life. I learn a lot.” 12/18/08
Long red robes make 230 Fifth's Rooftop bar look graduation day at Hogwart's.
Shut down the rooftop bar just because it’s chilly? Never. Winter can’t conquer the unquenchable Steven Greenberg, clever host of the 22,000 square feet panoramic roof and penthouse at 230 Fifth (212 725 4300). He’s encircled an après-ski like area with tall heaters and fuels the crowd with “Hot, Hot Winter Imbibes” – a dozen fruit ciders spiked with matching fruit vodkas, hot coffee with Kahlua, Bailey’s or Amaretto, and “Triple Hot Chocolate” with Godiva liqueurs. Drinks in 18 ounce glasses keep hands warm. And on nights when a stiff hot drink and torrid flirting aren’t enough inner heat, rooftop-goers get hooded red robes. Greenberg started out last year with a few hundred robes ordered on-line and when they all disappeared, he ordered 300 more. It seems robes walk out the door in attaché cases and giant tote bags. It’s only mildly annoying since the robes come from China, cheaper by the 1000, and if you’ve downed a couple of hot strawberry ciders with Stoli Razberi Vodka, he’s covered. 12/16/2008