Due to business or laziness, I've not talked about the time I spent in Astoria, Queens while I visited New York. I hate to neglect this sweet little city though -- it was just so kind and affectionate to me. There seem to be two very different demographics to Astoria, but everyone is so damn nice that they coexist quite peacefully, and together they make a visit there as warm and comfy as a big hug.
I got a whiff of the first demographic the moment I stepped onto the street from the elevated train station at Broadway Avenue. The whole of Astoria smells like food. If you are of Greek descent, your grandma probably lives here. Your uncle might own the taverna on the corner where a couple old men are sitting at a table on the patio -- plastic chairs and blue checked tablecloth -- laughing over thick, bitter frappe. Seriously, there is a distinct savory aroma that permeates the whole town. A little bit lentil soup, a little bit moussaka. Even as you walk past Omonia's pastries, where, in the window they have a poster proudly stating to passersby that they made the wedding cake for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you still get the feeling you're in someone's living room, waiting for dinner to be served. It's a homey feeling: it just makes Astoria seem cuddly.
The second group has a bit more edge, but not that much more. Astoria has a substantial population of thirtysomethings (give or take a year). It's an interesting group -- not unlike our local hipster variety, they are into music, the arts, and their community. But somehow, they just seem nicer. They also appear to have the highest blog population density of any city ever. Their headquarters is the Freeze Peach, a local coffeehouse that actively contributes to the community. Residents seem to run into people they know everywhere, and, as far as my hosts were concerned, they knew the proprietors of every shop they frequented.
My perfect Astoria Sunday went like this: My warm, gracious hosts, Annie and Eric, who fall smack in the middle of the second group, started me off with a tiny apple cider donut. It should be noted that every item of food that comes into their home is special, and if it isn't, they will turn it into something special. This little nugget was no exception. Once we overcame the groggy inertia of Sunday morning, we got ourselves out of the house. Homemade dinner was in the works, so our first stop was Gary's. Or as non-regulars know it, D&F's Italian deli. So much cheese in one space. Wow. Then to the Brooklyn Bagel Company for a bagel and scallion cream cheese (yes, they really do know some things about bagels in these parts).
The main event of the day was the twentieth anniversary of the Socrates Sculpture Park. The Park started out as an illegal landfill, and 20 years ago, a group of artists and community members turned it into an expansive park that hosts rotating exhibitions of large-scale artwork. The anniversary celebration meant live music, kids running around with beautifully-painted faces, and catering from Opa! (one of a bajillion local Greek restaurants) and a local Punjabi eatery. I felt like one of those kids as we frolicked around from installation to installation with the sun shining down on us. So far, so perfect.
A little more walking, a little more grocery shopping, then on to the day's real main event: dinner. On the walk home, we ran into a chef friend, who, when he learned I was visiting Annie and Eric, said, "You'll be eating well." No doubt. We got home and got to work. Annie was on kale duty, Eric was slicing potatoes, the cats were high on the nip, and me, I was logging it all from the 2-seater diner booth in their kitchen, sipping on bright Lambic cassis (I know, lazy, but someone has to document these moments!).
Finally time to eat. Eric had made a perfectly spiced potato and shiitake mushroom gratin, and Annie had sauteed some kale with pancetta, and chicken sausages we had picked up at Gary's. As if the food wasn't treat enough, we got to watch 3 hours of cable! Travel channel at that! Really these people spoiled me rotten. It feels so great to be with friends you miss, and to be reminded that there are people across the country that are on the same page as you. After binging on food and fine television programming, we went up on the roof for a breath of fresh air and a view of nighttime in their cozy little city. We came downstairs and had dessert: chocolate chipotle ice cream, homemade by Eric. Yeah, wow.
Astoria, thanks for your warm welcome -- give yourself a big squeezy Greek grandma hug for me!