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Tuesday
Jan112011

Spiffy Spasso (A review of Spasso restaurant)



This week's review is of Spasso on 551 Hudson Street in the West Village.  We were excited to check this place out - it is brand new, and its opening seemed to be coupled with lots of press, emails, and early signs of support from peeps in the know.  Did it live up to the hype?  I would say that it came close.

The interior is sharp.  A big marble bar greets you upon entry (the bartenders at Spasso make a nice drink - we had a few). Nice hardwood floors and crisp, soaring ceilings outline what is a busy and buzzing atmosphere.  This was a little surprising to me, since it had been billed as some ultimate romantic nook.  Yes, there is dim lighting, but the scene appears far too energetic (chaotic?) to be an ideal date spot.  Not to say it is date atrocious either. I will call it - date doable. Fair? (Elana, no offense)

Sis and I are jammed into a tight (even tight by cozy west village standards) table, having to move it around a bit to navigate our loud, and very near-by neighbors.  Also, we are shouting a bit to communicate, which isn't uncommon in an Italian family, but in this case it's a prerequisite to have a conversation.



Not withstanding the above, all of the food we have was very well made and artfully prepared.  They start us off with some airy, well crusted bread and olive oil; can never go wrong here.  Elana orders a Ribollita soup with pancetta, kale and ricotta.  It's very light, with a sophisticated tang due to the meat.  I order baked cannelloni with some shaved eggplant.  It's served in a small, iron square dish which gives the perimeter of the meal a nice crust.  Sauce is solid here as well, and the pasta is crisped but not too burned.  Nice job.

For a second dish, Elana orders Ricotta Gnocchi in a duck/tomato sauce.  This is tops for the night.  The gnocchi has great consistency, and there appears to be a salty, bacon presence throughout the dish.  I scrape up the remnants of Elana's dish when she is not paying close attention.  I had Pork shoulder which was cooked nice and slow:  the pork fell apart and was tastefully fatty and salty.



For Dessert, Elana had some heavy but wonderful doughnuts, served with a dark chocolate dipping sauce.  I had some coconut panna cotta with sliced pineapple, which was very well done.

The service here was ok. It was not uncommon for the waitress to be grinding up on me a bit when serving our neighbors.  Also, at what seemed like precise, 30 minute intervals, a plume of smoke would migrate from the kitchen area and fog up the entire restaurant.  But Spasso is new, so perhaps a mulligan is appropriate for these faults, as the food was pretty darn good.

As seen below, the bathrooms were pretty nice.  Full length mirrors, crazy artwork, and your own private water closet.  Did I mention full length mirrors?



Overall, Elana and I had a positive experience at Spasso.  It trails a step behind some of the other smarter, edgier Italian joints in the immediate area, such as Dell'Anima - both in the quality of the food and the polish of the atmosphere and staff - but I get the feeling Spasso has not reached its full potential.

Movie Equivalent - Heat
Monday
Jan102011

BYO Bundt – What I Eat After a Night Out



It's 3am and I've just returned home. I'm hungry. Not just hungry, I've worked up the kind of appetite that only results from a night out. I know, I know – how juvenile. Zip it.

The apartment is dark, illuminated only by the refrigerator light. I hear tiny little paw steps – Toby is checking in on me and throws me a reproachful glance as I peer into the depths of the fridge looking for....what is it that I want?

I want cake. More specifically, I want chocolate, pecan, sour cream bundt cake It's Marmo's recipe made with 2 sticks of butter, almost 3 cups of sugar and chunky strata in the middle and along the bottom of bittersweet chocolate chips and chopped pecans.

This is an anytime cake. And by anytime, I mean anytime of day and anytime of year. However, I've eaten it most often in the summertime (I'm fantasizing about warmer weather), down at the Jersey Shore, wandering home at the end of an evening out.

The cake will be sitting on the counter top, loosely tucked in for the night with a piece of tin foil, just allowing me to glimpse a few stray chips and nuts that have freed themselves from the mother cake and are resting helplessly on the platter...waiting...

Occasionally I can be civilized, cut myself a generous slice, locate a fork and sit down at the table to discuss the evening's adventures with a group of friends, neighbors, or who's ever rolled in off the street attracted by the smell of baking butter and chocolate. Sometimes, I've just grabbed chunks off of it with my bare hands, all dignified-like.

It's insanely satisfying: dense (like the hamburger of cakes) with a nice crunch supplied by the pecans and a shot of richness from the chocolate. It's the perfect cake for, well...for drunk eating. There I said it.

It being January, many of us are coming off a long holiday season of liquid indulgences. And those kinds of indulgences frequently lead to me searching in vain for this cake.

What follows is the recipe for Marmo's Chocolate Pecan Sour Cream Bundt Cake. A warning: don't make it too often unless you have either an NFL team or a pack of famished raccoons to feed because you'll eat the whole thing by yourself, with or without impaired judgment.

This cake also freezes well so you can make some for now and save some for 3am...I mean, later.

What You Need:
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups sugar (Note: I actually cut it down to 2 1/2 and it worked for me)
1 cup sour cream (the full-fat stuff)
2 cups chopped pecans
Bittersweet chocolate chips (you can use semi-sweet, milk, or white chocolate if you prefer)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Either a large (3 quart) bundt cake pan or a set of mini ones.

What To Do:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease (with butter) and flour a 3 quart bundt pan.



In a bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and baking soda.

In another bowl with an electric mixer (or you can use a food processor), beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sour cream and vanilla and mix well. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add in the flour mixture until just combined.



Pour about half of the batter into the prepared bundt pan and sprinkle with half of the chocolate chips and half of the pecans. Pour the remaining amount of batter on top of this and sprinkle with the remaining chips and nuts.



Bake in the middle of the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes (smaller bundt pans will require less time), until a tester (like a toothpick) inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan for an hour, and then invert onto a platter. Dust with confectioner's sugar if you like (optional).



* Note: I used mini-bundt cake pans that have a fun pattern etched into them. Makes these little guys look quite dignified (one of us should). Small cakes can also be given away as gifts so you don't eat them all on your own.

Friday
Jan072011

Behold! The Bread Brick and a Successful Pizza!



Those of you following us on Twitter may have noticed frequent updates on my bread starter. You may have read this post where I detailed my grandiose plan to cultivate my own bread baking yeast for making a superior pizza dough...and for world domination. Pizza dough first, though.

So I began. I found some instructions on the web, including Slice's Starter-Along blog series, and I commandeered a Tupperware container festooned with candy canes from my friend Stacey. I mixed my flour and water together and I waited.

....and waited...

And then stuff started to happen. Bubbles mostly. And then some foam. And then both! Take a look at the progress in the images below:



By photo #5, thinks looked like they were really cooking. Not only were there bubbles and foam throughout, but the consistency had changed. It was almost like it had been whipped - less cake-batter-like and more foamy throughout. Fascinating, no? Exactly.

Soliciting no professional opinions but my own (non)sense, I decided it was time to make bread. I harvested some of the yeast for pizza dough, and then another batch for some bread. The pizza dough needed to chill in the fridge for a few days and I was keen to see if this whole thing was going to work, so I jumped right into the bread making process.

Also, if you recall, it snowed about a million and two feet on Sunday the 26th of December into Monday the 27th, and I needed something to do between carrying my dog Toby out to the street to pee (he is too short to climb the snow drifts).

So I made the bread. I used this recipe. Let me just say I've made bread before. Quite successfully, thank you very much. But this was a miserable failure. I'm not blaming the recipe. I blame John. No, I'm kidding, he wasn't even there! In hindsight, one of a few things went wrong:

1. My starter really wasn't ready, even though I thought it was: the bread refused to rise.

2. I didn't weigh my ingredients because I don't have a kitchen scale, so the proportions were incorrect.


3. The planet alignment was all off that day, and I should really try this again when Neptune is in a more favorable house.

Even knowing that something was terribly wrong, I decided to put the non-risen bread in the oven anyway. What resulted was the densest, least attractive brick of a loaf of bread that I have ever seen. It was difficult to cut with a serrated knife. I could have hammered nails with it. The loaf was about 2" high.

I began to laugh. A lot. And then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing because it wasn't very good. How could it be?

HOWEVER! As I was failing miserably in the regular bread department, there was something happenin' in the fridge with the pizza dough. Magic, that's what.

Days later, as instructed by Slice's recipe here, I removed my pizza dough from the fridge and it's olive oil coated Ziploc bag. It was surprisingly easy to stretch out. And the cold from the refrigeration made it easier to handle. It even gave me the ability to stretch it a little thinner without breaking the dough.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. With unnecessary amounts of glee, I ran around the kitchen assembling sauce and collecting toppings (mozzarella cheese and basil). I fired up the ol' oven and pizza stone and made this:



This is, hands down, the crispiest, tastiest crust I have ever managed. In addition to being crispy, the outer crust retained the characteristic chewiness of Neopolitan style pies. And there was flavor! Hot damn and hallelujah!



Why was the pizza dough a success and the sourdough loaf a failure? I have a few educated guesses:

1. Proper planet alignment.

2. The extended rise time of 48 hours (even slowed down due to refrigeration) was actually needed. My starter wasn't broken, it was just slow! It needed some extra time.

3. The additional fermentation time also added flavor, because the yeast was hanging around for a longer period of time (2 days).

A few things to note:

While cold, oiled pizza dough is MUCH easier to handle and shape, it tends to stick to the pizza peel a bit more. I would recommend dusting the bottom of the dough with a little semolina flour and making sure you can easily slide it on and off the peel before assembling everything and then getting it stuck on there. Not that that happened to me or anything...

The cold dough took a bit longer to cook. This just makes sense, but I'm telling you anyway. You could always take your dough ball out of the fridge a few hours beforehand so you can bring it to room temperature. Either way, keep a sharp eye on things while they're cooking.

Here are some detail photos:





A few other tips:

I used La Valle cherry tomatoes for the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar (as instructed by the most recent edition of Cooks Illustrated Magazine). I blended the tomatoes and vinegar in the food processor with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne (for fun). The red wine vinegar gave the sauce that kick that I have been trying to achieve for a while.

For cheese, I used mini mozzarella balls. I cut them in half so they melted into little blobs.

And don't forget the FRESH BASIL!!!

Thursday
Jan062011

A New Kid on the Block (A review of Torrisi Italian Specialties)



For a review this week - I visited Torrisi Italian Specialities on 250 Mulberry Street New York, NY.  Did any of you roll your eyes upon seeing Mulberry Street?  Well, don't.  This is not your typical Mulberry type joint, where the gravy flows like wine, and the macaroni instinctively flock like the salmon of the capistrano. Similar to how Goodfellas stands out among the gazillion commercialized mobster flicks, Torrisi is a tad unique in comparison to it's Italian culinary neighbors.  It's even a little more removed from the hustle and bustle of touristy Mulberry.  And if I'm sounding stuffy, I don't mean to; these are just observations.  A good ol' reliable Mulberry Street restaurant can still hit the spot on many an occasion - for me anyway. (Elana - feelings on a future post to declare Mulberry's most satisfying joint?)

On this night, I am here to celebrate my good friend Mark's engagement.  My other friend meeting us, Justin, is late (typical), however it all works out. There is an hour wait to sit down at Torrisi, so we put our name down and head down the street to the Spring Street Lounge for some cold PBR .  Odd, unconfirmed fact about Pabst - did you know, according to Wikipedia, that it was named  "America’s Best" at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893?  Do you even care?  Well, they seem to still be proud of this fact (see below):



O.K., in to the restaurant.  A slight downer here - Torrisi would not let me use my camera flash inside so I have no raw footage to share with all of you (the photos you see are not ours).  But it's a cool, cozy venue inside with a dimly lit interior and slightly intimate arrangement of small wooden tables and booths.  The walls are a blend of exposed brick with built in, surrounding shelves stacked with olive oil, flour, and other packaged goods - after all, this place does in fact moonlight as a sandwich shop during the daytime (or does it moonlight as a restaurant in the evening? Anyway, you get it).   Above you, are lovely tin ceilings.



Every night, Torrisi offers a set menu.  Tonight features a 5 course meal for 50 bones - the details of which are written on a centrally located chalkboard for all to view.  According to their website, "Our nightly menu is our only offering for the table; there are no menu substitutions available for vegetarians, children, or dietary restrictions."  Talking the talk for sure.  Walking the walk?  Also, affirmative.



For the table of 3, they present a healthy glob of their homemade mozzarella in a bowl filled with davero olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt.  The homemade mozzarella is still warm, extremely fresh, and delicious.  The three amigos methodically stab at it until it is gone, plunging the complimentary bread into the remnants of the davero.

Next is a pile of thinly sliced cucumbers in a vinegar/mustard type sauce that have a wonderfully bitter, salty and sweet taste - all in one.  Roughly simultaneous to the serving of the cucumbers is some corned lamb's tongue, with radish cole slaw.  My buddy Mark was a tad uncomfortable taking down the ol' lamb's tongue, yet neither myself nor Justin were crazy about it either.

Next up was a crispy shrimp salad which is very well done.  True to its name, it is indeed crispy.  The small baby shrimps are mixed with white corn and chillies.  Altogether, it makes for an ingenious tag team of salt and spice.  The crowd went wild for this one.

For a pasta dish, Torrisi prepares Fusilli with "dirty" duck ragu.  This, too, is very good.  The spiraled Fusilli locks in the sauce; an oily, meaty, slightly spicy and sausage tasting goop of glory.  I'm impressed, as is the group.

There are two choices for an entree.  The married and soon-to-be married guys chose Skate Francese, a lightly breaded fillet of fish with chives, in a garlic and lemon sauce with a nice, kicking aftertaste.  A hint, just a hint, of cream too.  Very good.  I chose the Barbeque Lamb with corona beans and celery.  This is the better meal of the two (the boys agree).  It's fantastic.  The lamb is tastily fatty and rare, with a wonderful vinegar based barbeque sauce.

A dessert dish is finally passed around; cannolis, tricolored cookies, and miniature cheesecakes.  All very good and, perhaps thankfully, of modest portion.

The bathroom, like the inside, was tight but workable.  Nice wallpaper, and some (autographed perhaps?) pictures of Enrico Caruso, to keep you company should you feel lonely.



They also have a nice wine and beer list.  Overall, Torrisi receives high marks for ingenuity, originality and taste.  A slightly tight, but character-rich interior, with dishes that should satisfy those looking for a smart, satisfying-without-having-to-unbutton-your-pants, experience.

Movie Equivalent - Heat

Here is a link to photos of Torrisi specialties via Foodspotting

Top photos of Torrisi from nymag.com
Wednesday
Jan052011

Cooking with Daniela



A new year means new beginnings and fresh starts for many.  We are not immune to this trend.  So, after a few months of this blogging thing, we figured we needed to step it up and try our hand at cooking classes.  No, not us doing the actual cooking - although Elana has threatened me to make this a reality quite soon.  Instead, we are kidnapping someone a tad more qualified at the moment: Daniela del Balzo.

Daniela runs her own cooking school in Rome.  I first met Daniela on one of my mother's culinary excursions throughout Italy, where Daniela took our entire group to the Testaccio Markets to shop for ingredients, and then up into the neighborhoods of Rome into her beautiful home.   Patiently, she spent time with each and every one of us as we prepared the afternoon's meal.  I had done cooking classes previous to this, but Daniela's was different.  She creates the perfect balance between hands on instruction and hands off demonstration, which is somewhat important considering everyone eats what they make: personally, my favorite part of the class.  And the meals, while expertly prepared and presented, are simple to make.  I had no problem replicating these dishes upon arriving back home.

If anyone is curious as to how they can participate in a cooking class with Daniela short of flying to Italy, Elana and I have arranged for Daniela to come to Elana's apartment in Hoboken on the 29th and the 30th of January.  As of now, there are only 3 slots open for the day of the 30th, as the 29th has already been fully booked.  Please contact either Elana or myself if you are interested (john[dot]iaciofano[at]gmail[dot]com or elana[dot]iaciofano[at]gmail[dot]com).  The cost is $150 per person which includes a full meal, dessert and wine for a cooking class of no more than 6 people.  The tentative menu for the 30th is listed below: