Archive for the ‘italian’ Category

The Fern – another notch in Refern’s rebirth of cool


OK, so anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Redfern is the new Surry Hills. Really. Don’t believe me? Just go to the Eat House diner on the end of Chalmers Street, drink with the hipsters in The Norfolk’s groovy courtyard, shop at those amazing vintage furniture stores like Great Dane on Elizabeth Street.

And now it gets further cemented with The Fern, as in shorthand for Redfern, a stunning terrace on a leafy stretch of lower Pitt Street, just off of booming Cleveland Street and the nearly refurbished Prince Alfred Park. First impressions come via a groovy street-facing stone courtyard, set under mature palm trees, with white-painted iron chairs, cushions converting a rendered cement stretch into a long bench seat, and mix-and-match tables. It’s all breezy and tranquil, with the bordering gardens peppered with objects like an old push mover and what looks like a metal chook.

This is sophisticated café, for now, although there are plans to soon get a liquor license and extend trading to dinner. Well, make that food to go with aperitivo, those Italian pre-dinner drinks – chef Massimo Bianchi, who was one the heir apparent at Buon Ricordo and started up Uccello at The Ivy, is on board as consultant chef, and as such, so little wonder the menu has a slight Italian accent. For now that shows up in a breakfast bruschetta with scrambled eggs and smoke provolone, and in lunch fare like nduja (a kind of spicy pork pate) with sourdough and ricotta, and specials like a lamb ragu with housemade fettuccini.

The space is what truly sets The Fern apart, and it’s very much a bespoke effort by operators Julian Serna and Mark Wiley, two barmen who met at Merivale working high-profile venues like The Ivy Pool Bar, Establishment and Uccello – which explains the one degree of separation to chef Bianchi. The two still serve as drinks consultants, and recently worked with Porteno to set up its popular Argentinean-style bar.

The emphasis is on recycling, so menus are set upon vinyl records or their album sleeves, water is served in old glass jugs that used to hold McWilliams port or sherry, the sides of liquor boxes are used to decorate a stairwell, the back section is covered with Julian’s collection of old Mad magazines and “Spy Vs Spy” illustrations, and there are vintage chairs, tables and storage chests about. There’s also a nice collection of antique cocktail shakers on top of the fridge.
The most impressive feature is a colourful wallpaper of street art and graffiti from Melbourne laneways, and it looks so funky, it’s hard to believe the images were happy-snapped on Julian’s Blackberry camera. Mark also has his own wall, featuring his intrepid photographs taken from India, Southeast Asia and beyond.

There’s also an equal focus on comfort foods, such as the tasty and nicely plated huevos rancheros of eggs (they ask how you want them, but it’s all wrong unless you get them fried), refried beans, lemon/limey avocado chunks, and slices of cooked chorizo. It’s quite a satisfying plate, so I decide to forgive them for omitting the tortilla and chilli-tinged salsa that makes huevos rancheros what they are. I’m also intrigues by a ‘Morning Sunrise’ menu offering: a blend of fresh-squeezed OJ, banana yoghurt and honey. “Just a drop of goodness in the morning,” Julian says with a wink.

I later try the lamb ragu, which is appreciable hearty, even if the mince-like texture seems more ‘lamb bol’ than the fall-apart meats I associate with a slow-cooked ragu. If someone told me it was a tweak on a Bolognese I would’ve been very content, what with such nicely al dente fettuccine.

I already love The Fern, and my prediction is that this is Sydney’s next ‘it’ café. And once this place gets its nighttime trade going, it’s really going to be humming, although expect it to be a civil place for a bevvie – it’s surrounded by residential buildings after all. The tip is that the evening food is going to be affordable, maybe even free at times, a great pair to expected drinks like an Aperol cocktail or glass of Peroni. It’s all intended to be in the vein of Italy’s aperitivo, but without the half-price drinks, which would violate NSW licensing laws No matter, it’s close enough, and I’m already looking forward to spending long sessions hiding out here with a coffee from NZ’s Gravity, and maybe sticking around for nice digestivo as the sun goes down.

The Fern, 4 Pitt Street, Redfern
Tel: 0410 705 093
www.thefern.com.au

Who’s Got New York’s Best Pizza? Chew On This

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

The beautifully charred crust of Keste's Margherita pizza

Ok, I admit – I am a pizzaholic, and I’ve been a pizzaholic since I was five years old. We were living in Staten Island back then, having made the then-upgrade from Brooklyn and a few years before we shuffled off to the leafy Jersey burbs. I remember my parents bringing home steaming-hot, whole cheese “pies” to feast at dinner with my baby brother and me. I also remember regular bouts of choking on the cheese, where my dad would drag me (or my brother) to the kitchen sink, put his hands inside my mouth and yank out the offending mozzarella cutting off air to my lungs. Then, as soon as I could breath easily again, I’d plead for another piece. Yes, somehow even the fear of death wasn’t as great as the worry of not having another taste of tomato-ey, chewy bliss.

If you’ve been following Gosstronomy for a while, you’ve probably noticed a disproportionate number of mentions about pizza. I am forever in search of the perfect pizza. Yet, somehow, the more I look and the more I taste, the further away my goal seems to get. Just when I’ve hit all of the legendary New Haven pizza haunts, made the pilgrimage to Brooklyn’s DiFara, devoured tasty slices at Joe’s, shlepped to Grimaldi’s (both the famed branch under the Brooklyn Bridge, plus the Hoboken off-shoot), and scoffed the terrific coal-oven meatball pizza at Arturo’s over and over again, a whole new wave of artisan pizzerias have come onto the scene and ruined it all. It’s like thinking you’ve nearly scaled Everest, only to climb to the top and see the real summit far off into the distance, rising high into the clouds. Hey, it’s the best analogy I can think of – work with me here.

Keste_pizzaoven

What brought extra attention to my pizza-quest affliction was last week’s article in the New York Post about the city’s school chancellor, Joel Klein, being another obsessive pizza type. Klein has spent a lifetime trying to best pizzas throughout the five boroughs and was prompted by the newspaper to supply his list of favourites. He chose Lucali, found in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, and Luzzo’s in the East Village. He then goes onto mention Keste in Greenwich Village, Anselmo’s and Roberta’s in repective Brooklyn neighbourhoods Red Hook and Bushwick. A sidebar also adds Staten Island’s Salvatore of Soho, the Bronx’s Zero Otto Nove and Queens’ Nicks Pizza.

Not to be outdone by Klein (which, to date, I regrettably have), I had already started my own research this summer, and begun to sink my teeth into the new pizza elite. I started off this summer at Una Pizza Napoletana, an artisan wood-fired maker creating much buzz in the East Village. Owner Anthony Mangieri is so strict in his pizza making – limiting the choices to four pizza types and zero substitutions – that he is the doughy equivalent to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. And on a wet and bleak summer’s day (we’ve had lots of those this summer), I went with a friend to check it out. What I found was a broad crust that was the lightest, fluffiest, freshest dough I have ever tasted. That acknowledge, I tried two of the pizzas – a classic Margherita and the white pizza – and while both were good and used quality ingredients, I was disappointed that neither stood out in terms of flavour. I love simplicity, but these were simple to the extent of being bland. It was obvious that both pies were cooked beautifully and with skill and focus, but someone seemed to have forgotten to actually take a bite and see what all of that passion had wrought.

Even so, I did feel a sense of loss when, a few weeks later, Una Pizza announced it was closing. Mangieri is apparently making a lifestyle change to the West Coast, and another – another! – top-ranked newcomer, Motorino, will be taking over the space, expanding from its original home in Williamsburg. Hell, I just got started, and already the pizza landscape is reforming under my feet. As Tony Soprano would say: “Muthaf–kas!” You gotta keep on your toes in this cheesy business.

Now, sadly, no, this isn’t going to be a review round-up of the best pizza places in New York City. Rather, I’m sharing my histlist, and all of us who are in New York (or planning to visit) should experiment in unison and compare notes. Doing my part, I made my latest pilgrimage last week to Keste, a newcomer to Greenwich Village, tucked into a narrow space on buzzing Bleeker Street. Time Out and New York magazines both recently awarded Keste as the best pizza maker in city, so I had to find out if the place holds up to the hype.

The low-down? Well, I was solo that day (a bonus, as I made it quickly through the line in 15 minutes, where others in larger groups likely waited up to an hour), so I merely ordered a defacto Margherita, my baseline criteria for a great pizzeria. My philosophy has always been that if you can’t make a decent Margherita, then what’s the use of trying to put lots of fancy ingredients on top of it? And Keste didn’t let me down. The crust was thick, puffy and light – like Una Pizza’s – but here I found that the pizza had more flavour, from its lively tomato sauce to its saltier cheese and dough. It was, indeed, delicious.

But is Keste the best pizza in New York? I was pleased with the pizza, but not exactly shock and awed. Still, I was impressed enough that I’m resolved to go back for more research. A couple next to me ordered the lardo pizza, and the pie smelled of an intriguing rich, buttery scent with a pungent whiff of something not unlike the bent aroma of aged cheese. I was told it was stellar, but best enjoyed in small doses. There are 18 types of pizza available at Keste, using quality ingredients like imported proscuitto (de Parma and grand cru), fresh buffalo mozzarella, Italian rapini, truffle spread and more. Next time I’m going to bring friends – you know, the ‘sharing is caring’ type – and we can sample across the menu together.

Mind you, I’m also trying to get a bit slimmer as I get ready for Australian spring and triathlon season, so I’m trying to moderate my pizzaholism a bit, regulating my pie intake to once a week. But with only six weeks left in New York, and dozens of great pizzerias still to try, that’s gonna be a challenge. So if you see me tucking into a drool-worthy artisan pizza on one of my days off, just look the other way.

Keste, 271 Bleecker St, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, NY, + 1 (212) 243-1500, http://www.kestepizzeria.com

Motorino, 319 Graham Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, +1 (718) 599-8899, www,motorinopizza.com

Help Wanted: Save Mario Batali’s short ribs

I never came across short ribs during my nine years in Australia, but since I’ve been back in New York, I’ve seen them constantly – maybe not as much as sliders, those mini burgers that have spread across NYC faster than swine flu – but they’re up there.

So when I spotted the “Short ribs in Barolo” recipe in Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano cookbook, I was kinda excited to give them a go – besides, I’m reading Heat and Bill Buford just went through these babies in detail in the last chapter. It being Father’s Day on Sunday, I though it was a beaut of a recipe to cook up for Dad.

Batali_FathersDay

I’ve been away for most Father’s Days for the past decade, so I needed to do something special. Plus my mother will only eat her meat well-done, so rather than suffer the indignation of slaughtering beautiful beef to death, a braise seemed like the perfect compromise. But all would not go according to plan…

Shortribs_cooking

So I prepared a home-cooked tomato sauce the day before, then bought a couple of pounds of quality, boneless short ribs from Whole Foods in Chelsea (love these guys – just about every other decent butcher in the city is closed on Sundays), and shlepped it all to my parent’s house in Jersey where I would put it all together. Which was fun, considering I’ve got a crappy electric stove in Hoboken in a claustrophobic kitchen. The folks, in comparison, have a massive six-burner stove with a big granite island in the middle, double ovens and so much storage space I’m constantly exploring cabinets searching for simple things like graters and peelers.

Before I go on to bore you with details, here’s the ingredient list:

  • 6 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lbs boneless beef short ribs, cut into 3-inch cubes
  • 2 Spanish (red) onions, 1 carrot and 2 celery stalks, each cut into 1/2 inch dice
  • 4 oz pancetta, cut into 1/4 inch dice
  • 2 cups Barolo
  • 2 cup basic tomato sauce

Batali_shortribs_pot

The execution was straightforward enough: I browned the meat in a Dutch oven and removed it, then chopped the veggies and sweated them in the pan with the pancetta cubes, added the tomato sauce and the wine (top-notch gamay instead of the overkill of Barolo), and slow-cooked it all for an hour and 45 minutes. The recipe didn’t say whether or not to cover the pot, so I left off the cover, figuring all that the alcohol from the wine had to evaporate somehow.

And the result? Well I’d love to say that it was the best Father’s Day meal ever, but what came out of the braise were fairly chewy short ribs: the meat was far from being fall-apart, and there was so much fat present, we had to perform surgery to get to the meat. I figured much of the fat on the short ribs would render during the long cooking time, but it just wouldn’t go away. Someone call Jenny Craig.

Batali_shortribs

So I’m asking any of you keen home chefs or culinary pros reading Gosstronomy: where did I go wrong? I followed the recipe verbatim, with the exception of the wine, which shouldn’t matter too much, as long as it was a quality red (besides, in Heat,  Buford says Babbo uses a cheap merlot anyway). What’s the best call for getting fall-apart, beautiful, non-lardy short ribs? If not for the beautiful crusty bread from Wholefoods, the can’t fail parmiggiano mash potatoes, sauteed spring asparagus, and a good bottle of Chianti, I would’ve been sunk.

One hunch may be the cooking method. I spotted a different version of the same dish from the Babbo cookbook, which puts the ribs in the oven for two hours instead of into the stovetop Dutch oven. Another difference is that the Babbo recipe also calls for ribs on the bone, and adds chicken stock for more liquid. That may make a different, but I’m curious if any Gosstronomy readers have tried similar long braises and have their own thoughts and advice.

So got erudite recommendations to share? Post it in the comments, let’s fix this recipe by community and enter yourself into the Gosstronomy Cunlinary Hall of Fame.

Possibly.

To Di Fara, With Love – NYC’s must-make pizza pilgrimage

How do I love thee, Dom DeMarco.? Let me count the ways. I love it how you tenderly shred your whole pieces of fresh buffalo mozzarella and scatter them with care around the pizza base. I love the way you unselfishly take out a whole, large bunch of fresh basil and scissor large leaf-cuts over the pie with the utmost generosity. I love how you manhandle your Grana Padano by freshly grating it and scattering over your bubbling masterpieces. And I love how you drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over your precious pies, and how you take your time to produce your genius, so that all around you wait in eager anticipation.

DiFara_basil

Yes, I have a man-crush on Domenico “Dom” DeMarco, the 72-year-old Italian-born owner and pizza-maestro of Di Fara, the no-frills pizzeria on Avenue J, a stone’s throw from the M train in the deep, dark Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood – an Italian needle in a haystack of Orthodox Jewish enterprises.

DiFara_sauce

‘Real’ New York pizza is a dying breed in this pie-crazed city, and how much tradition we’ve lost is rarely apparent until you make a pilgrimage to the likes of this legendary NYC pizza joint, whose lore grows ever year. And as DeMarco widens an ever-growing gap from what should have been retirement age, his followers continually dread the day that he can no longer perform his solo act in front of his gas ovens.

DiFara_exterior

And yes, I said gas. As I discover over and over again, from Naples to Sydney to New York, you don’t have to have wood fires or coal ovens to make some of the world’s best pizza. As DeMarco illustrates, you just need a blazing hot heat source (reported to be 750F/400C), the willingness to use the freshest ingredients, and the know-how to make the most of both. And maybe a last ingredient – time – a rarity in today’s go-go-go culture.

According to plan, our car-full of six eataholics – foodie friend Alex, New York Slop blogger Laura, sommelier-in-training Mark, chauffeur Justine, and Aussie Mark, from music duo The Hipstones – got there on a Friday at 2.30pm with the hopes of avoiding the lunch crowds and being a day ahead of the weekend hordes that round the block. As anticipated, there was no line at Di Fara, but that still didn’t stop us from earnestly waiting an hour for our two pies (yes, this is New York, we call them pies, get over it): one round of New York thinnish-crust pizza, and the other a tray of square Sicilian. If we were here on a Saturday, we would likely be waiting up to three hours as Dom prepares his works, as he always does: one at a time. They take as long as they take.

DiFara_gang

There are toppings at Di Fara, but in my mind, they’re a waste of the experience. There is so much flavour in the mozzarella (Domenico combines buffalo mozzarella shreds with slices of cow’s milk mozzarella), the flame-singed crust, the parmesan, the housemade sauce with chunks from whole Salerno tomatoes, the olive oil, and especially the vibrant basil (from Israel, says Epicurious, but I’ve also read that he grows his own in window boxes), that anything else would distract from the pure expression of perfectionism. And to say that the thin-crust pizza is better than the Sicilian is true, but it’s a matter of degrees. The Sicilian is more unique – it’s harder find this style done right amid the over-thick, bready imitators. But why choose? The luxury of enjoying the flavors and textures of both pizza types makes for a better, more varied experience.

DiFara_sicilian

Dom wasn’t easy to engage, as he worked patiently but ever-diligently, but I finally managed to mention to him that some of us had come from Australia and that knew about him from the other side of the world. He flashed me a rare smile, pleased that his work was being appreciated from so very far.

Of course, the big question about Di Fara is obvious. Within hours I was already asked: Is Di Fara the best pizza in New York? (Or in the US, or the world?) Well I haven’t been to Totonno’s in Coney Island or the original Patsy’s in East Harlem. Or to all of the new breed of pizza-crazed makers that have popped up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or to every pizza-mad city on this planet.

DiFara_Michael_smelly

But I can say this: I’ve been to a disproportionate number of pizzerias in my time, from many edges of the world, and Dom DeMarco’s effort ranks among the very best, even if my recollections place him just a notch behind a mind-blowing pizza in Naples and my all-time favourites in New Haven, Connecticut. And Steven Shaw of eGullet might be right in saying the Di Fara’s may not be the best New York pizza, but rather the best example of what was once a common New York style that is now steadily becoming a lost art.

DiFara_sweeps

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never come across anyone who seems to care about their product as deeply, gives so much to his craft and has been maintaining that level of perfectionism for so long. Di Fara opened in 1964, the same year the Beatles broke it big in the US, “Dr Strangelove” appeared on movie screens, and Jackie O made her first public appearance after JFK’s assassination. I also don’t know anyone who continually defies the health department so that he can continue to use his bare hands to create… and has been shut down briefly a number of times for doing so. He was told to wear a hat, and gloves, but I saw neither on the day. DeMarco seems to suggest, “My art is my art and I won’t compromise for anything less.” And for that, Domenico DeMarco is deserving of his legendary status.

“I don’t intend to retire. But I want my kids to take over the place,” DeMarco told the New York Times in an interview a few years back. “Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast, it’s no good.”

Di Fara, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NYC, +1 (718) 258-1367
DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

A Tavola with Joanna Savill

A Tavola Setting“So this is the price I pay to dine with you,” says Joanna Savill, as she sits across from me along the 28-odd communal table at A Tavola, the newest eatery along Darlinghurst’s Victoria Street. I’ve just snapped a photo of Joanna, who’s here for a relaxed dinner, while I’m still in full-on work mode. That becomes extra apparent the moment I take out my notebook and begin scribbling in full view, to Joanna’s horror. She notices the kitchen suddenly staring at us through the open-window that peers into the dining room, and the diners next to us get inquisitive about who we’re writing for.

She’s probably used to being a bit less conspicuous, even though I’m sure she gets recognised often in restaurants. It’s hard not to when you’re the co-editor of the SMH Good Food Guide, a contributing writer to the Herald’s Good Living section, the co-author of the SBS Eating Guide to Sydney and the co-host of the SBS Food Lover’s Guide to Australia series. Yes, Joanna is a food diva, but what makes her most impressive is that she rarely acts like one.

Luckily for me, it’s still an enjoyable meal, and Joanna gets a kick out of my mint Vespa GT200 that’s parked out front. She’s married to an Italian, so I’d like to think there’s an extra level of appreciation. Having another food expert on hard with a deep knowledge of Italian culture also makes for a nice angle when reviewing this warm and inviting new Italian food destination, a groovy little room that seems to be a cross between Vini and Il Baretto. It has the warmth and cosiness of the former, and the simplicity and pasta focus of the latter. As always, it’s good to see a restaurant with focus.

Joanna Savill And like Vini, the menu is postcard-sized, with far more specials available on dual chalkboards. The long, narrow room is in the space formerly occupied by another Italian mainstay, Tasso, although the similarities end at the square footage. The interior is highlighted by bulbous copper hanging lamps, a wall of black glass mirrors, and a 28-odd composite table that looks like a hazel marble punctuated with lightning strikes of cream and mocha. At the end of the table are splays of dried pastas, put out for obvious design aesthetic, but looking like they could be gathered up and thrown into a massive stockpot for a family feast (and I later read that they’re freshly made and laid out on the table to dry). The same goes for three horizontally hung wooden poles, strewn with strands of pasta, one on top of the other, and creating an edible veil over the window peering into the kitchen.

A Tavola Blackboard Running the kitchen at A Tavola is Eugenio Maiale, who built up a reputation in Adelaide at restaurants Citrus and Auge. We decide to start off with his stuffed Sicilian olives, filled with veal and deep-fried, and they are a lovely way to pass the time while we wait for our pasta mains to arrive. The meal gets off to a good start even prior to that, where crispy and fresh focaccia immediately arrives with a small bowl of green chilli oil. The oil has a strong kick to it, but I’m a big fan of heat.

The mains are notably absent of protein tonight, even though I later come across mentions of another night featuring blue-eye and osso buco dishes (via my old work haunt, yourRestaurants.com). Regardless, the menu looks enticing, and neither Joanna nor I are on the Atkins diet. She orders the stracci, which arrives as an appetising plate of handmade sheets of pasta, paired with luminescent-green broad beans, white asparagus and thinly sliced zucchini in a light tomato sauce. The sheets stick together somewhat, but other than that, the plate is a satisfying dose of hearty food that strikes a balance between skilled kitchen and home cooking.

I get the cigare al ragu, with pasta shaped like anorexic ziti, and which apparently get its name from a similarity to the shape of cigarettes (Google translates it as ‘cigars’, so I’m still clarifying). They’re made from dried pasta imported from Italy, or at least we assume they are, noting all of the boxes of imported pastas that sit on the wall behind Joanna. There’s a little bit of disappointment in the pasta not being handmade like the stracci, but the ragu still manages to lift the dish, coming to life with spice that is highlighted by what I guess is nutmeg, even as Joanna conjures up cinammon. Either way, the flavours add an extra layer of what’s a step above the usual meat sauce. We greedily down each of our dishes, each enjoying a glass of Italian wine from the small but pleasant selection. While the selection is nowhere near as involved as, say, Vini, I secure a pour of a fruity montepulciano that’s just the right fit for the rustic fare and relaxed neighbourhood vibe.

A Tavola dishesHiccups mainly arrive with the service, where there’s no immediate greeting at the door, and, more notably, our bill processing takes ages. It also arrives with a fee for using Amex, and when Joanna asks to switch cards, the waitress says, a bit flippantly, that it’s ‘only a dollar’. We proceed, and then added insult comes when the bill arrives with a $3 Amex surcharge.

It’s a shame to end on a sour note, but such things happen at new restaurants. It’s a hope that things sharpen up as the floor staff settle in, and we do notice on departure a sign in the window looking for a quality front-of-house person. The food’s good enough that I’ll come back for another go, especially as I’m always a fan of small, familiar venues. Next time, I’ll also make sure to save enough room for the variety of desserts, which ranged on the night from an affogato with hazelnut ice-cream, a passionfruit and mandarin tart, tiramisu and an intricate rotolo. The cheese platter also looked promising, especially a variety with shaved truffles. But for tonight, it’s buona notte with a stomach full of pasta that has me ready for a good sleep.

A Tavola on Urbanspoon