Friday, August 27, 2010

Sort of succotash

Give me a few ears of sweet corn, a baguette and a couple sticks of butter and I'm set. (The butter goes on the bread, which is used to apply the creamy goodness to the corn. When the corn is all gone and the butter's melted into the crispy baguette... Get the idea?)

I'm not sure why it took so long but I was well into my thirties before I tasted succotash. It was okay, but I didn't see why the New England-bred cook who presented it to me was so all hopped up over it. Maybe the corn wasn't as sweet as I like, or the beans (limas are traditional, I'm told) too drab and mushy. Who knows? I never sought out the stuff again.

Earlier this summer, though, the corn coming out of Jordon's farm was some of the best I've had — and had. I ate so much of it over a two-week spell that the Jordans and I were wondering if I shouldn't have just purchased a share in their crop this year.

Then one day, whilst shelling some pretty swell borlotti beans from my garden, there on the kitchen counter I see these four ears of, well...

And so I quick-steamed them and shaved off the kernels.

This probably isn't a New Englander's idea of proper, but I sauteed some onion, hot pepper and proscuitto in olive oil.

Then tossed in the corn and some cooked borlottis.

Maybe it's succotash, maybe it isn't.

It tasted good.

I just need to figure out a way to rub it down with a baguette packed with butter.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Don Peppe, King of Queens

Not long ago, while watching my motley Mets get massacred by the Giants on a particularly heinous road trip, I got a frantic call from my friend Jordie, who lives in (of all places) San Francisco. She and her partner Julie were stranded at JFK in New York and were looking at another six hours before the next flight out. She was calling me in Maine to get a restaurant recommendation in Manhattan, rightly calculating that six hours was ample time for a trip into the city and back.
Considering how her Giants were eviscerating my Metropolitans on the field, I briefly considered sending her to the rattiest of rat traps as payback. Instead I opted to act the gentleman I was raised to be and counsel the woman properly.
"Forget Manhattan," I said, emboldened by an Angel Pagan double to right. "How's a five-minute cab ride sound?"
"Maybe you didn't hear me," Jordie barked into her new iPhone. "We've got six hours to kill, Meatball. Getting to the city's not a problem. What about that place you liked so much at De Niro's hotel; you know the one I mean?"
"Locanda Verde. At the Greenwich, in Tribeca. Carmellini's the chef. Yeah, it's real good."
"Right, how about that one?"
"Suit yourself. It's just that if I were in your spot there's only one place I'd even think about going, and it's right outside the JFK fence, in Ozone Park. You could walk it even."
"Ozone What?"
"Park. It's in Queens, Jordie. Just like you are right now, in case you don't know."
Silence greeted me as the top of the inning ended, the Mutts again failing to score. Then, after about a minute, came the soothing sound of an attentive friend who had embraced the notion that I would never lead her astray.
"Okay, Ozone Park it is. Where are we going?"
"Don Peppe," I belted out loudly. "It's on Lefferts Boulevard, literally across the road from the airport. The cabby'll be pissed off because of the crappy low fare, so give him a good tip. And when you get there call me, I'll tell you what to order.
"Oh, and wait, stop at the ATM first. It's cash only. And if you're looking for some company, here's my uncle Dom's number. It's his favorite restaurant. Maybe he'll even take you to the track, Aqueduct's practically next door — and he wins."
Long story short, the ladies did not call Dominic (their loss; he's the best). But they did follow my precise instructions on what to order. The two of them sat in Don Peppe the entire afternoon, they tell me, ate well and in abundance. And they have never once doubted my chow-picking prowess since.
Now it's your turn. I can't give you my uncle's number (Aunt Laura'd kill me) but I can clue you in on the dishes that will never — not once, never, nope, no way, no how, not gonna happen — disappoint. At my all-time-favorite old-school Italian, in Queens.
A couple things up front. Besides being cash only, they don't take reservations at Don Peppe, and there's no bar to sit at should you have to wait for a table, just a glass-enclosed and not terribly inviting vestibule. The dishes here are family style and must be chosen off the large blackboard on the wall, not a printed menu. The guys at the door who greet you can appear intimidating to certain, shall we say, delicate types, but they're okay and so be friendly to them. And the waiters, hardworking men who wear white shirts with neckties and black pants, are old school and helpful. (One of them, Marco, will sing for your table if asked; he once told my brother Joe, who'd expressed concern over his beet-red face and neck following an extended High C, that he has studied singing for years. A proud man, he.)
Oh, and forget about a wine list. Just order the house red or white. They're perfectly serviceable, come in unmarked bottles, and are served at the same temperature — cold.
These are the best baked clams I have ever eaten — small, sweet and very fresh, topped with just the right amount of breadcrumbs, by which I mean not very much at all. They're my favorite way to start a meal at Don Peppe (though my frequent dining companions often insist on the Don Peppe Salad to start and then the clams). Whadda I care, you want the salad, order the salad. It's good, I just prefer getting to the clams first is all.
I know what you're thinking: Clams? Again? All I can say is this: Yes. Clams. Again. In fact, if you order only one thing at Don Peppe, the linguine with white clam sauce is it.
You like garlic, yes? Good. There's a couple heads' worth of beautifully roasted whole cloves on every plate of linguine that comes out of the kitchen. And the pasta is always cooked perfectly al dente. The sauce is generously apportioned and so you'll likely be sopping up whatever is left with bread, which has lately been much better than the bread they used to serve.
I take it you like veal. Of course you do. So get yourself a plate of the Veal Don Peppe and prepare to send me a very lovely thank you note (my email address is
This is a Milanese-style veal dish, made with tender cutlets (waiters cut them with a spoon) that are coated in breadcrumbs and then fried. Piled atop the cutlets is a mixture of diced tomatoes and raw red onions in oil and vinegar. The vinegar and onions aren't at all subtle but they counteract the richness of the veal, which somehow manages to stay crisp until the very end.
Along with the white clam sauce, this is a must-have dish for me. It just doesn't get better.
There's always somebody in the group (nobody I know, but still... ) who insists on eating chicken wherever they go, and here at Don Peppe there's actually a dish that even I crave: the Chicken Scarpariello. It's a whole bunch of chicken pieces, cut up small, simply seasoned the traditional way and baked at high temperature until crispy. But take my advice and order itwith sausage and peppers. It's not on the menu board but, believe me, your waiter won't skip a beat; that's how a lot of regulars order their "chicken scarp." It's the only way I order it.
Oh, and you must get a side of escarole. Yes, you must.
I know what you're thinking. That's a lot of food. So what, you've got friends, don't you? Round them up, it's probably been too long since you all went out for a good meal together anyway.
And if you're stranded at JFK and have to kill a couple hours, odds are you're not the only one, so try reaching out to a like-minded traveler. Many a fine friendship has blossomed over a good meal and a bottle of wine, no?
Here's a listing for Don Peppe. They're open every day but Monday, for lunch right through dinner.
Whenever you go there's a real good chance one of my gang will be sitting close by.
And they'll be eating the same dishes you are.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Meet the Meatballs

(A rare and purely personal item, with apologies to food-seeking readers.)

Sorry, Ma. But the lady taught me nearly everything I know about good food.

More important, twenty-five summers ago now, she decided to marry a meatball. Exactly why I do not know for certain. I'm only glad that she did.

She is here with me last fall, at the exact Lat/Lon where vows were spoken and an elopement, hastily concocted as it was, attempted to take hold. I have a picture of her crying back then, too. I don't get tired of looking at her.

I'd imagine there have been times, not so many I hope, when the lady has doubted the decision she made. I wouldn't blame her for this. I haven't always been a good husband to her. Or friend.

I do know she has been convinced, and on too many occasions, that I have doubted the decision I made. Again, that is my fault. But on this point — on this point! — the lady is just wrong.

Summers and this part of the world are good for celebrating, and this week we've been doing some of that. We're riding together up north, in Canada now, along the St Lawrence, in Quebec Province. I love traveling with her. And coming home with her too.

So many of our friends and family live far away. I wish they could be with us when we get home to Maine. The tomatoes have been more than decent this year; I could make meatballs and a big pot of fresh sauce! The lady, the real cook in this duo, would wish the same I'm sure.

Only a virtual gathering is the best I could manage this time. And so it will just have to do.

Happy A, J.

With love.

From us all.

Limerick on the occasion of the
Meatball Silver Anniversary
In Gotham there were once two foodies
An olive prince, a bad girl, both beauties
They eloped while Down East
That their first wedding feast
Might add lobster to their marital duties.
Congratulations to our darling friends — faithful companions on the road, at the table and through life.
—The McTinderdonks of Holy Loch

Twenty-five years as Mr. and Mrs. Meatball. (If I were you I'd have my name changed.)
A lot of good memories in there, I'm sure. As we came along well into your sojourn, we have fewer memories than most. But we will never forget the biker convention in Wildwood, N.J. or the day we went "dry kayaking." Better times have never been had, but surely will be had again. Here's to 25 more. Cheers!
—Bill and Yvonne

An Endless Multi-part Haiku Sort of Thing
In Honor of The Meatballs' Anniversary
When people ask me
(As they do, I don't know why!
The hell do I know?)

"Kitty, what say you:
Do marriages ever work?"
I pause. I frown. Then....

"Yes!" I say, beaming.
"I have these friends--J and R
'The Meatballs,' they're called.

"They've been married for
hundreds of years. And I think--
No, I know--get this--

they love each other."
"Oh come on," people sputter.
For realz? I don't buy..."

"True story," says I.
"They're like those schistosoma
mansoni worms--or

"you know, swans, gibbons,
bald eagles. Mated for life!
It's so romantic."

People say, "Kitty,
have you ever said that word--

"No," says I. "It's just...
those Meatballs--they make me all--
verklempt!" (dabs her eyes)

Happy anniversary, guys.


Congratulations to both of you. I did not lose a daughter, I gained a wonderful son.
I have such good memories: too many and too varied to pick one. I remember many happy outings with the two of you and Dad: reviewing restaurants in N.J., a weekend in Montauk, a gastronomic weekend in N.Y.C. Then there were the cruises on the Ocean Islander (1988) and the QE2 (1991), and our 30th anniversary at La Cremaillere in Bedford, N.Y., where you surprised us with pre-ordered champagne, and our 35th at Chanterelle in N.Y.C. (the night of the '89 San Francisco earthquake) where we left Mr. M at the table to settle the check that Dave had already taken care of. Then after 2002, the outings were just the three of us. Thank you both.

Seems you guys have the perfect recipe for a happy marriage:
*2 people perfectly blended together
*a large quantity of love and affection
*seasoned freely with laughter and joy
*add spice to taste
*just a dash of bitters to appreciate the sweetness of life
*stir in a generous amount of fun and excitement
A perfect combination for .....LOVE
We love you both
—Susie & John

A quarter century is no small feat
By seven years you have us beat
With pasta, and vino, and herbs galore
In a kitchen with hundreds of pans and more
Be it on a motorcycle or in a boat magnifique
The happy couple has kept the mystique
Is tres romantique
—Clarke and Amy

We never thought it would last this long.
Much love,
—Laura and Dom

Congratulations on your 25th anniversary. Among the many new things I've experienced with both of you are: having lobster on a Maine dock; your expert ordering of Chinese breakfast; sharing gourmet Italian grocery stores; and your wonderful company at our Christmas Eve dinners.
All I can say is "thank you."
Love always,
—Aunt Anna

It's been a "delicious," fun and educational time with both of you. You made making 25 years of marriage into a joyride.
Loads of love.
All from the heart, dear ones.

Mrs. M
Our friendship began in Rutherford and traveled through the years. Really love our telephone chats. You are a good listener and friend.
Happy anniversary and birthday,
—Andrea and Carl

25 years -- say it ain't so! Congratulations, Mrs. M, on your tenacity in putting up with this colorful family.
Got to reminiscing and remembered our first intro was over dinner at La Spaghetteria in the East Village; we thought you were smart, funny -- an all around good egg! Not much has changed over the years. You both are such gracious and generous hosts; we look forward to our annual trek to "Casa Abundanza."
Love always,
—Shabile, Shebeck and the Kids
P.S. Your gift is not in the mail -- what can we say, you already have six of everything!!!

25 years married to a meatball.
How did you do it?

Happy birthday.

We'll never forget all our great adventures together, culinary and otherwise. We shared possibly the world's best breakfast ever at La Boqueria in Barcelona.

Then there was that weekend we spent as castaways off the coast of Maine. Luckily Mrs. M. had us provisioned with some very fine vittles. And we've welcomed in many new years--sometimes conscious, sometimes not.

Wishing you ¡Salud, dinero, y amor y el tiempo para disfrutarlos! To health, wealth, and love and the time to enjoy them!

—Tom and Beth

The words that come to mind are "stalwart," "nurturing" and "loving" -- I mean to me, but I think maybe you've made it to the 25-year mark because that's what you've been to each other as well. To know you is to know your kitchen. I've told you before but--sorry guys, I could tell the story forever--I will remember all of my life the night that John and I drove over to your place for dinner, too tired and sick at heart even to talk in the car on the way over (Yes! John quiet for 15 minutes!) and we sat on your kitchen stools and drank wine and did absolutely nothing except watch Mister M mix up a dough for fresh pasta, and roll sheets of it over and over through some sort of pasta contraption, catching them gently as they fed through and feeding them in again. The sheets got thinner and thinner until a kind of light shone through them, and Mrs. M bustled in the background making delectable other things, and the kitchen filled with talk and steam and wonderful smells, and somehow, miraculously, suddenly we weren't tired and sick at heart any more but for those few hours, filled with a sense of well-being and even happiness. You are two of my favorite people in the universe. Long may you run. Happy 25th. Much love,


We love you so much and really wish we could spend this day with you. Well done, Mrs. M! How did you manage to keep up with Mister Meatball so many years? A special recipe for that dish?
This pic was taken just a few days ago. Since we couldn't enjoy your cooking we went for sushi around the corner!
—Biancamaria, Massimo and Delfina

Happy Anniversary Mrs. and Mr. Meatball.
Congratulations on 25 years of rolling in the sauce together.
—Jordie and Julie

Who would have thought that Mister Meatball's "meat"ball and chain would be none other than my good friend of 22 years? I have known her almost as long as she's been married to Mister Meathead (er, I mean Mister Meatball). This same woman and I have spent countless hours savoring tapas, cuttlefish, absinthe, eye drops and lens cleaner. (Don't ask.) Happy 25th anniversary. Wishing you both nothing but good things for the next 50. Hugs and kisses.

—Mary Ann

Happy Happy Anniversary!
Not to gag you with sweetness, but I would like to say that spending time in your kitchen is one of my most cherished memories. Most especially because of the caring way you dealt with my brother's illness and very special character.
You two were meant to be together in cooking and in loving.
I will raise a glass to you both on the 12th.
You are the perfect recipe.

We rode all day across the coolest (and hottest) part of Texas, rafted the mighty Rio Grande though its deepest canyons and climbed the highest peaks in the southwest (TX) with you guys. Still, you were the best part of the trip. We might-otta try that again sometime. 'Till then, Happy Trails and best wishes to you on your anniversary. Happy, birthday, too, Mrs. M!


—Jeff and Marla

Happy Anniversary guys. I'm glad that Mister M has finally introduced the world to the Mrs. Though I really think of Mrs. more as a slice of pate'! Or a platter of delicious homemade potato salad. Or manchego cheese and spicy peanuts. Or an assortment of horrifying and inedible things in Chinese restaurants. Or...well, it is a long list!

I guess that is because while you, Mrs., have been busy being married to fabulous Mister, I have been busy enjoying your friendship. And it has been and continues to be a wonderful friendship. For the blogosphere, Mrs. and I speak every Thursday at 5:30 a.m. (6:00 a.m. during the summer) MY TIME -- which shows you that a conversation with her is not to be missed. Some of my vivid Mrs. memories: My first day at Bill Communications, when you and Mr. were kindly showing me the ropes and thinking, "will she still be here in a month?" And dining with Mrs. in Gramercy Park as Mr. walked circles around Manhattan. And later, walking with dignity to our rented car in Barcelona, covered with seagull guano. And our couples vacations: flying in a broken plane over Encinada trying not to panic while Steve acted like nothing was happening. Sailing off Catalina and dining on a fabulous meal seasoned with fennel we had collected from the hills -- before I read that wild fennel is indistinguishable from hemlock. And our idyllic sailing trip on the Sea of Cortez before Spirit turned into the vomitorium from H--L, and we all ended up being tracked by the US health department. All I can say is that I hope your motorcycle trip with Mr. Meatball lives up to these high standards!

I miss you both.

XXOO and Happy Birthday too,


Monday, August 2, 2010

You call that cacio e pepe?

Never underestimate the power of a good wine buzz. It can lead you to interesting places.

Take the fava bean-inspired concoction you are about to witness. Never woulda happened had the vino not first been swigged.

But swigged it was and so here we be.

See, I'd been planning to make a nice bowl of cacio e pepe the other evening (a simple Roman pasta dish made with cheese and ground pepper). But I got a phone call early in the prep stage, during which a very respectable bottle of Nero d'Avola managed to become uncorked.

Next thing you know I'm shelling the favas that I'd fetched from the garden that afternoon. And by the time I was off the phone there were a bunch ready for eating, but no plan on what to do with them.

So I did what seemed reasonable. I poured another glass of the Nero, stepped outside on the back porch with the dog and pondered the strategic blunder I'd made by getting involved with those damned (er, lovely) favas in the first place.

Soon enough, as happens often and without warning to me (regular readers know this) my mind traveled to (where else?) the chunk of mortadella in the fridge.

And so I chopped me up some of that.

And commenced to making the cacio e pepe — only with two pretty major additions that I do not think the Romans (that means you, Massimo!) would approve of.

You got your freshly grated Pecorino Romano.

And ground black peppercorns.

A pack of spaghetti alla chitarra.

And there you go.

Here's a recipe for cacio e pepe from Saveur (they use two different cheeses, but using the pecorino alone is fine). As for the favas and mortadella, I tossed them in at the last minute.

Just as I was polishing off the first bottle of wine.