Monday, September 25, 2006

Two Kinds of Italy on the Lower East Side

In a single day in Manhattan, I managed to get two very different tastes of the city's imported Italian culture. I spent the last few days of my trip to New York with the Millers: Annie, my dear friend from college, and her husband Eric, a New York native and consummate culinary enthusiast. Obviously a stellar combination. They are truly great hosts: it seems they are tourists in their own city. They are on top of all the goings on across the five bourroughs, and as summer sends everyone outdoors with festivals, concerts, and other excuses to frolic in the sun, Annie and Eric are there, camera and flip-flops in tow.

Sometimes it's a protest, sometimes it's a pickle festival. On Saturday, it was the Feast of San Gennaro. This was the kitschy, deep-fried, yelling-at-you side of Italy. Blocks and blocks of Little Italy's Mulberry Street were lined with food stands, rickety carnival games, and shops selling T-shirts (and underpants) with snide phrases. To the soundtrack of pounding reggae and Italian-American classics, we tracked past grill after grill with winding spirals of sausages, greasy piles of peppers and onions, and broccoli rabe (who knew sausage and broccoli rabe sandwiches were a thing?), alternated with deep-fat-fryers sizzling over with fried Oreos (a little-known Italian delicacy?), zeppele (balls of fried dough generously caked with powdered sugar -- a messy, unrefined ball of joy that should only exist at street fairs), and giant blocks of nougat waiting to be hacked into chunks small enough to carry around this carless town all day.

Sizzling sausages and dancing regular people

Slightly encrusted in powdered sugar ourselves, we made a stop at Mulberry's sacred foothold: the Most Precious Blood Church. It wasn't a solemn godliness that ran through this place, though. Next to the Virgin Mary statue in front of the church, an oom-pah band in silly red, white, and green hats blasted out "Zooma Zooma" as a woman 'of a certain age', just a visitor herself, boldly danced around the courtyard. And inside, the decor of the place was more than a little bit Atlantic City, and the saints were festooned in ribbons of dollar bills. Joyful noise indeed.

So, not the most refined face of Italian culture. But this was all about to change. Once we had had our fill of the deliciously tacky merrymaking of the feast we headed east just a few blocks to Soho. By the time we approached 'inoteca, the vibe on the streets had changed considerably. Overweight tourists in shorts and BluBlockers gave way to immaculately appointed fashionistas in skinny pants and tony haircuts. The peoplewatching was divine. We watched as our sidewalk table (one of only two! what luck!) cleared of its occupants: finished with their understatedly urbane dinner at the dark wood table, the parents put a tiny white helmet on their young daughter's head before helping her board the family Vespa.

Truffled Egg Toast: Behold the Glory

And then there was our waitress: flanked by a ridiculously handsome waiter-in-training, Susan was a force to be reckoned with. I feel like waitress is too slight a word to describe her; this woman was our table's master of ceremonies. A petite fifty-something with magenta hair and designer reading glasses, this saucy character won us over when she announced the night's lone special. She announced it as if she was announcing the arrival of the Queen of England: the last of the heirloom tomatoes. Of course we ordered that, along with a sloppy slew of salads and panini, which she gracefully organized into courses for us. We learned as we went: the bresaola in our arugula salad is thinly sliced salt-cured beef; the bottarga atop the rich, heady truffled egg toast is the dried roe of mullet. When we asked her to recommend a full-bodied red for around thirty-five dollars, she looked at us incredulously over the rim of her glasses and said, "Where do you live?" Ah, vintage NYC snark. Nonetheless she found us a great contender (within budget), and we enjoyed glass after oversized glass with our selections. She didn't let us down: the heirlooms were sweet and juicy, and the mozzarella served alongside was the best I've ever tasted: creamy and soft, remarkably fresh. While she wasn't one to hover, she did mention that she'd be spending the next 2 months in Greece. She'd be island-hopping with her brother who teaches ballet there. Who are these fantastic people!

After all this, she led us through a cheese course and a bottle of prosecco. To the last bite, everything continued to be delicious, though at this point, my tipsy tastebuds grew a bit duller as my sentiment grew more and more jovial. We contentedly toasted our good times, swooned over a glut of amazing flavors, and watched trendy Soho pass us by as city lights took over for the waning sunlight. Summer in the city, refined Italian style. Hot damn.

'inoteca is at 98 Rivington St. (at Ludlow).

1 comment:

  1. Let us not forget the real hallmark having eaten splendidly: food-drunkeness so profound that you leave your newly-purchased chapeau behind (along with the torrone!) in a paper sack under the table-- only to realize the next morning! We heart 'inoteca for more reasons than I can count.