Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dorme Bene, il Bagatto

If you have read these pages, my other blog or if you know me personally, then at some point over the last decade you undoubtedly have heard me sing the praises of my dearest friends Julio Pena and his wife Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta and their miraculous gastronomic outpost and labor of love called il Bagatto in Manhattan’s East Village. Il Bagatto vastly precedes my period of patronage. What began as a culinary vanguard in the gritty mid-1990s on East Second street has developed over the last 18 years (an eon for a Manhattan restaurant) into a consistently top rated destination for lovers of true Italian food and wine, a discreet hideout for those avoiding the prying eyes of Page Six, and the erstwhile clubhouse for a rabidly loyal family of regulars of which I proudly count myself a member.

Indeed, my friendship with Julio and Bea and my experiences from the literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of meals at il Bagatto over the last decade were the direct inspiration for the title concept behind EatDrinkSleepWell. When I penned the line above that I “spend my time looking for special places … local haunts that develop a loyal family of patrons seeking wonderful food, drink and fellowship” it was il Bagatto I specifically had in my mind.

As someone who truly loves this type of familiar food and fellowship, I have or have had other restaurants in my life where I was or am a regular. To borrow a phrase, some have changed, some forever not for better, some have gone and some remain. And while all of these places make up pieces of the mosaic of my life’s experience, none has become a central part of me as have Julio and Bea and il Bagatto.

Julio and Bea have treated me and my family, as they genuinely treat each of us who has found our way into their lives and their kitchen, as their family. I use the word family advisedly. My sons literally refer to them as Uncle Julio and Aunt Bea without any sense of honorific or irony. While this may be because they have heard Julio repeatedly introduce me to people as his brother (“from another mother”), it more likely because Julio and Bea have welcomed us into their home and lives as actual family, sharing in our joys and supporting us in our challenges, as we have in theirs.

And it is no exaggeration that il Bagatto has played a more central role in the history of my family than perhaps any other single location. I had my first date and my first kiss with my wife at il Bagatto. I met my future father-in-law there for the first time as my wife met my father for the first time. I got engaged there. We had our rehearsal dinner there. We had my 40th birthday party there — the last my father would ever attend before his premature passing — and then we mourned my father’s passing there. When one of my close relatives was in intensive care in New York with a sudden and life-threatening condition, Julio appeared immediately, and day after day thereafter, with trays of food for the medical staff. “We want them to know how special she is,” he said to me at the time.

Indeed, I can think of no major event or milestone that has passed over the last decade without a meal at il Bagatto, let alone the literally countless meals for more ordinary — but no less special — occasions. I even have tended bar and waited tables at il Bagatto in a pinch. This centrality alone makes il Bagatto unique, far more than simply a restaurant. Like the settings of some of history’s greatest films, it is a location that has taken on its own starring role in my life.

But there is more. Julio and Bea not only have welcomed us into their family but they have given all of us they have welcomed into their family an even greater gift: Through their alchemy, they have casually but methodically introduced us, their many friends and patrons. to each other over the years. And we, in turn, have learned from Julio and Bea to treat one another the same way the same way they treat us, even when we are without them. It is the rare moment that I would walk into il Bagatto and not know at least one full table of patrons, when in fact more likely half of those sitting in the place. I knew them well enough that I often would join their table with my own. I even have done formal pro bono legal work for at least two people who I knew only by sight before I learned of their plight sitting at the bar for brunch.

Those bonds did not end at il Bagatto’s door. I have been to numerous family milestones: christenings, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, promotions and, sadly, more than one funeral of friends that I have met only through Julio and Bea at their remarkable crossroads. And while I’ve rarely stepped back to consider it, that is truly remarkable. How many places in your life, let alone restaurants, have brought to you a community of life-long friends? The answer, unless you know il Bagatto, is almost certainly none.

At some point years ago Bea explained to me that il Bagatto means the Magician from the Italian Tarot deck. Over the last decade, I never focused much on the restaurant’s name. It literally is only now as I sit and write this eulogy that I smile with bewilderment as I am struck by the brilliantly prophetic nature of the eponym Bea and Julio chose for their restaurant. Il Bagatto was indeed the most magical and transformative place I have ever known.

It became official recently that Il Bagatto morphed at the end of this summer, without fanfare, into a new venue called “Stairs.” I was there on what we now understand was that last night of il Bagatto in its former incarnation with my wife and sons, for one last Sunday dinner of calamari and Bea’s lasagna captured in the photos above. I was, and still am taken by many memories and emotions. I am comforted that Julio and Bea have kept their wine bar, il Posto Accanto, right next door at 190 East Second Street so I (and you) can still see them and my extended il Bagatto family (and get my fix of calamari and other il Bagatto specialties). Most of all, I know only that my life would not have been the same without il Bagatto.

Non posso ringraziarvi abbastanza, Bea e Julio. E dorma bene il Bagatto, mi mancherai.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Return of a lost spirit: Tanqueray Malacca

From 1997 until 2001 -- prior to the mainstreaming of the traditional cocktail resurgence spearheaded by people like my friend Sasha Petraske --- the kind folks at Diageo released a "wetter" (read sweeter and more citrusy) gin ostensibly crafted from an 1839 recipe.

I remember well when another good friend Jonathan Prince introduced it to me at a bar in Washington, D.C. (not coincidently Jonathan introduced me to Sasha a couple of years later). Malacca had and has a very distinctive taste, to me more ginny than gin. In fact, if you'll forgive the loan from my brother -- the eidos of gin. As a martini drinker, it was a perfect discovery,  made even more delicious because it was a bit of a secret (and you all know I can't resist a secret).

I recall being saddened when I heard it was discontinued a few years later. As is often observed when writing about Malacca, Diageo was ahead of its time.  And I am not a regular enough gin drinker and apparently neither were its other adherents. Or perhaps it was too well-guarded a secret.

And then, in late 2004 I saw what I thought was a ghost: a nearly-full bottle of Malacca behind the bar at Blue Ribbon Bakery in the West Village. My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I had an extraordinary and chaotic, free-form Friday night meal of a dozen or so appetizers and some Malacca martinis served by Pete, perhaps the best waiter we've ever befriended. We pledged to come back the following Friday. Which we did weekly for over the next year. During those meals we happily finished what I thought was my taste of Malacca.

I didn't give it much thought after that, until a couple of years ago when Esquire's Big Black Book ran a piece on three extinct breeds of liquor that had become the rare quarry of certain spirit hunters. Malacca was one of them.

I started looking for the odd forgotton bottle on the dusty bottom shelves in the occasional liquor store, but to no avail. It then occurred to me to try from time to time, with similarly unfulfilling results.

That is until last week. I was thumbing through my old Esquire BBB's and saw the article about rare spirits, and realized I hadn't looked in quite some time, so I did a quick search on my iphone.

I was stunned by the results: the long-lost Malacca had popped up over and over again - including at my old neighborhood liquor store Astor Wines. Some quick research led me to uncover that Diageo has re-released a "limited edition" of 16,000 cases of Malacca as of February of this year. What a pleasant surprise.

So, if you are a gin drinker, I highly recommend that you try it while it lasts. Though you'll have to go somewhere other than Astor Wines -- I bought every bottle they had.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Volle Nolle - something wonderful in Boston's North End

We found oursleves in Boston last week, and more specifically in the North End three days in a row, because of my older son's (and, candidly, my own) current fascination with Paul Revere. As a disciple of Little Italys - to the point of having lived on New York's Mulberry Street a decade ago - I was encouraged to see that the North End appears to be not to what most American Little Italys have devolved: a strip of mediocre red sauce joints with no other identifiable component of an Italian American enclave. Instead, the North End is bustling with side street businesses catering to the multi-generations of Italian-Americans who still inhabit the beautiful, if crowded, brick residences therein. I also was interested by the unusual volume of high Zagat food ratings that popped up when I did my iphone search of restaurants within a half mile.

Over three trips back to the North End, I kept trying to get us there during a mealtime. A place called Sareceno had caught my eye promising cucina Napoletana. That was not to be, as we instead found ourselves there at lunch time. After a quick scan of Zagat, what beckoned was Volle Nolle at 351 Hanover Street, with its 26 foox rating for "unforgettable sandwiches and addictive chocolate chip cookies" served by a woman who apparently is "the nicest."

I am happy to report that all of those characterizations are understatements.

For starters, that "woman" is co-owner Torri Crowell, who greets you into the archetypal EDSW spot that she has created with a warmth and knowing familiarity akin to the greatest I know in the business, like Julio Pena and Bea Tosti of il Bagatto, or Frank Pellegrino at Rao's.

The small shop is elegantly decorated, and the daily menu emblazoned on the chalkboard on the right wall. It is comprised of simple salads and sandwiches made with fresh and delicious components.

We had three sanwiches: a pressed cubano, a chicken milanesa, and a grilled chicken breast sandwich with mozzarella, roasted peppers and carmelized onions. Each one was wonderful. This meal was accompanied by glasses of great italian wine from their excellent selection. For dessert, the aforementioned chocolate chip cookies are the only option they serve, and with good reason. Anything else would seem absurdly inadequate bycomparison Truly, they might be the best I've ever had, even surpassing Levain bakery of New York's Upper West Side. They are crunchy, packed densely with bitter dark chocolate, and accented with a palpable amount of salt. They are the chocolate-covered pretzel of chocolate chip cookies. Truly spectacular.

As I was on vacation, dessert also allowed me to indulge my interest in their impressive array of amari. The Amaro Nonnino I ordered arrived in a remarkably cool and appropriate short glass.

When I complimented Torri on the glass, she went unprompted into the back and emerged with a case of them, urging that I photograph the model label so I could buy my own.

While we enjoyed our meal, countless regulars came and went. One dropping off a small gift, another group descending en masse to occupy most of the restaurant on that sarurday afternoon. As I sat, enjoying my complimentary top-off of amaro, I realized that I wished I could do the same every Saturday. Thank you, Torri, for having built such a special place. For the rest of you, go visit her before the word gets out even more.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

13th and Wolf's Florence week

I suspect many of you have found me through my brother's blog 13th & Wolf. For those of you who don't know 13th & Wolf yet, it is a superlative vision of men's style. This week, he branches out a bit with a very thoughtful series of posts regarding eating and art in Florence, Italy in honor of the fact that so many of his friends are making their first visit to our shared favorite city fr Pitti Uomo. His choices will be familliar to readers of this page, as tastes run very similar is our family. However, his choice of images and prose is worth a look if you long for a brief virtual holiday, or you happen to be in Florence right now. If you're in the latter category, I am supremely jealous.

In a related vein, today would've been my Dad's 69th birthday. In honor of that, and of the focus on Florence, I want to sing the praises of Trattoria Cammillo, 57R Borgo San Jacopo in the Oltrarno, just a quick right turn and a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio.

I raise it both because it is an excellent example of a true Trattoria frequented by fiorentini, and because it's where I had the last meal my Dad and I ever ate in Italy. I was in Florence for work (rough life) and he was similarly at a Board meeting in Rome, but -- true to form -- took the train up to spend the day with me. It was a Sunday, which meant finding a restaurant open for lunch was tough. After a couple of strikeouts, we walked past Cammillo. I had eaten there once before about ten years earlier, and remembered it as very good, if a bit pricey.

After scanning the menu, we both settled on the questionably named tagliatelle fresca con sugo di castrato. It turned out it was a ragu made from a neutered lamb, and hence much sweeter than traditional lamb ragu. It was absolutely delicious. Man, did my dad love his pasta. So guys, if you're stuck for lunch this Sunday, try Camillo.

Happy birthday, pop.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower is red, white and blue tonight. It's quite moving.

Location:Ground Zero

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rao's part two

I feel spoiled.

I got a call two weeks ago today:

"Would you like _______'s table at Rao's next Wednesday?".

I said yes without checking my calendar, without calling my wife to see if we could get a babysitter. When asked that question, there's only one possible answer.

I knew I had four seats, so we had room for one other couple. Lots of contenders, but only one Obvious choice if he was in town. My brother and his wife. A treat like this has to shared first with family.

I didn't tell him where we were going until that morning. Awesome.

We got there promptly at 7, and sat down. A round of cocktails at the table from Nick the Vest, and then we started eating. The food, as you'll see from last review, was good to great the last time. I'd say almost the same this time, except more of it was truly great. The seafood salad and the mixed salad didn't disappoint. The mixed salad in particular was exactly how my grandmother's used to taste. We followed this with penne a la vodka, and lingune with white clam sauce. Now, I have to tell you that the ONLY kind of pasta I generally don't like is linguine -- the texture just doesn't work for me. But this linguine was stupendous. As I remembered From my last visit, their dried pasta dishes were perfectly al dente. The vodka sauce was the savory, tomatoey, vaguely cheesy way that vodka sauce is supposed to be. The clam sauce was garlicky with some pepperoncino, the perfect amount of heat, and a combination of whole and chopped clams. It was awesome. This course came with the requisite four meatballs. I ate two of them. Even better than last time. You can taste the percorino in them. They manage to be crusty on the outside and medium rare on the inside. They are divine.

For entrees we ended up randomly ordering the same two as my last visit. This time, I had the opposite reaction. The chicken scarpariello which was the most memorable part of my first visit, was good, but the chicken was a little bit dry and the peppers weren't hot enough. The shrimp oreganata, however, was superb. Large, moist shrimp in an intensely garlic and oregano sauce. Unbelievable. We also had a side on sauteed escarole, in honor of my Dad. He loved escarole, and used o always say that the Romans called it the "green of life." He might have made that up. The escarole was not very popular at our table, though I liked it.

This time we had dessert, the famous cheesecake and the coffee ice cream, both of which were unusually delicious for staple items. Three bottles of really excellnt chianti, and some after dinner drinks, and we rolled out full and happy, as the photo below documents.

I can't say enough about this place. The hype about the exclusivity aside, they do everything right. The service was great, as was the atmosphere. Less sceney this visit, it felt like every table were old time regulars, not celebrities. Maybe it's so good because with only a clientele of regulars, they can't ever let anything slip. I think it probably has more to do with the perfectionism of the hosts, who really make you feel at home.

What a special place.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Lightning Strikes, Not Once, But Twice...

The end of a fantastic evening, courtesy of Mr. Pellegrino and the crew at 455 East 114th.