Tastes of the Week

March 19 to March 26, 2012 It was all-Italian all-the-time last week with three indelible meals. So here’s an homage to pizza, to pizzazz, to posterity, and to the maestri behind the magic:  Antonio, two Frankies, and Pepe.

Last summer in Naples, we forked out a fistful of Euros to a clueless cab driver while searching for the legendary pizzeria named Starita in the twisty-curvy district of Mater Dei. Of course it was closed. But a version of it recently opened on Manhattan’s easy-to-locate West 50th Street, and there he was, Don Antonio Starita himself, overseeing the grand parade of pizzas in and out of his wood burning oven and, oh, yes, his deep fat fryer. I’ll come back to the fried stuff in a moment.

Antonio has partnered with a former student who also runs the pizzeria Keste in New York and the new place is called Don Antonio by Starita.” We were a party of six celebrating dear friend Arthur Schwartz’s birthday, and I can tell you that every dish was its own celebration. We began with a huge platter of angioletti, which are fried puffy strips of dough topped with marinated cherry tomatoes and arugula, and then onto pizzas chosen by Antonio and not necessarily on the menu.

We went nuts over a two-layer affair stuffed with a mix of sautéed escarole, pine nuts, raisins and ricotta, then topped with wafer-thin dough and fresh mozzarella. For dessert there was a pizza slathered with ricotta, honey and almonds.

But in between these pies came Starita’s justly famous fried pizza – called montanara -- invented there about ten years ago where it simply is called pizza fritte. They drop a round of pizza into hot palm oil and it puffs up into an amazingly light disc (light as in texture; caloric like the dickens), which they top with an intense tomato sauce and imported smoked mozzarella di bufala, and slide it into their oven for finishing. You’re looking at a trend here, mark my words.

We all rolled home to sleep off dinner because there was another the following night, celebrating another friend’s birthday…Erica Marcus, former honcho cookbook editor and now ace food reporter for Newsday. That feast took place at Frankies (no apostrophe – there are two guys named Frank) in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens. We sat at two long tables in a romantically refitted old stable behind the restaurant and took our food from huge platters of antipasti; crostini of chicken liver mousse, delectable eggplant caponata, split fresh sardines en saor, followed by platters of  homemade cavetelli and hot sausage in brown butter;  of ethereal meatballs with pine nuts and raisins;  and robust braciola marinara -- all washed down with an infinity of excellent Barbera.

My husband especially liked Frankies’s opening aperitif, made with gin, Cointreau and lemon juice topped off with prosecco. He reminded me the following morning precisely how many he’d had as we got into the car for a two-hour drive to Yale where our daughter will be attending a high school summer program.  I knew he was worse for wear when he popped a couple of Tums on I-95, which he blamed merely on two days of feasting.

Now Yale is in New Haven, and you don’t drive there without stopping either at Sally’s or Pepe’s, both of which are the town’s equivalent of Starita, both of which bake a thin-and-crispy crust in coal-fired ovens. Yale could wait because we had just enough time for a pepperoni pie (pretty good) and for New Haven’s gastro-gift to the world – the white clam pie, which we had at Pepe’s (Sally’s being closed for lunch). This is a fairly affable assemblage of chunks of chewy clams, a sprinkling of cheese, some oregano, copious dousings of olive oil and enough garlic to eradicate all the witches in Transylvania.  It was an ultimate umami assault on our tastebuds, and while some folk make pilgrimages for the white clam pie, I think it is OK just to make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tonight we’re having broccoli.

Food News & Tastes of the Week

Jan. 30 through Feb. 5, 2012 Done!:  Many of you may remember that when Gourmet magazine was abruptly shut down in December of 2009 there remained 3,500 books that had great value as a collection. I was in a unique position to acquire the books and donate them to New York University in honor of my mother. That collection took more than 2 years to catalogue, with funds provided by Les Dames d'Escoffier and Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU. According to Marvin Taylor, Director of Fales, "As of today (1/19/12), we have completed the cataloging of the Gourmet Libary.  The total number of titles was 6,137. (Not the 3,500 we originally thought!)  It turns out there were boxes and boxes of smaller pamphlets that pushed the numbers up."  So proud that my mother, who inspired and nurtured me in so many ways, is "immortalized" in the cookbooks she loved so well.  The collection is now available for research and posterity.

Starbucks & 1-2-3!:   Beginning tomorrow (2/7/12), Starbucks is doing a promotion with my new e-book called The 1-2-3 Collection.  For one week (ending 2/13/12), 900,000 "gift cards" will appear in 8,000 Starbucks for a free give-away of a fabulous recipe collection called  Quick & Easy Recipes 1-2-3. The e-book, featuring 50 exclusive recipes, will be featured as the Pick of the Week.

Opening!: According to food maven, Arthur Schwartz, Starita in Naples, Italy is considered by many to be the best place for pizza in all of Italy (well, certainly Naples!) When we were there last August, we took a $30 cab ride to find it, in a rather obscure neighborhood, only to find it closed! Quite by accident on my way to see "Freud's Last Session," I stumbled upon a new (not yet opened) restaurant called Da Antonio -- which, turns out, is owned by the owners of Starita! Great surprise. It is due to open this week and is located at 309 West 50th Street. The spice man cometh!Lior Lev Sercarz is one of the most interesting guys I've met in awhile. The Israeli-born, French-trained chef is the "artiste" behind a spice shop-cum-gallery in Hell's Kitchen where he roasts, toasts and blends hundreds of worldly spices into magical powders for famous chefs. He will also work with home cooks to develop customized blends as aromatic and personal as Cleopatra's perfume. He is incredibly knowledgeable and clearly onto a new "form" that blends the worlds of culture, craft, and cooking.  His store, La Boite, is located at 724 11th Avenue (bet. 51st and 52nd streets). It is open for viewing, sniffing, consultations and chatting (spice therapy as he called it) from Wednesday through Friday, from 3 to 7 p.m.  Lior spent years in the kitchen of Daniel Boulud and studied under storied chefs in Belgium and France. Louise McCready in Nomad Editions wrote a wonderful, in-depth article about him which I know you will enjoy. I look forward to spending more time with Lior -- the genial Willy Wonka of the spice & biscuit trade.

Great food & it's Kosher!:  Azuri Cafe on West 51st street has an interesting pedigree. Considered a bit of a dump, with only 12 rather rickety seats, it has a "26" rating in Zagat -- only 1 point less than Babbo! I was determined to try it. It is very, very good -- delicious, fun, unexpected. The owner, who has a reputation for surliness, is actually very charming and nice. Born in Israel, his food is authentic and so tasty. Generous portions and great homemade green hot sauce! Recommendations:  Fried cauliflower to begin, bourekas with tahina and hot sauce, a fabulous over-stuffed chicken schwarma pita, and a overflowing platter of ground meat kebab, accompanied by salad, hummus and excellent babaganoush. Many thanks to my friend Steve North who took me there for a rather belated birthday celebration.

A totally new taste!: My first taste of oyster leaf, experienced last week at the world-class Diva at the Met in Vancouver, was startling. Not unlike my first nibble at a fresh shiso leaf, the oyster leaf tastes not only like oysters but like a sip of fresh ocean water to the 10th degree. Oh my gosh. Supposedly these leaves, which look a bit like spinach, made their first appearance at El Bulli in San Sebastian. The verdant leaves, salty as the sea, absorb the salt from the soil to prevent them from freezing. Generally grown in Europe, they will soon pop up on more and more menus in America. Not only a prediction, but a wish.

Tomorrow!:  View the entire menu (with wine pairings) from my remarkable dinner at Diva, and enjoy some snapshots of the "tastes of the week."