04/02/14 10:15am
SW-FLETCHERS

A low and slow take on an Italian-American classic.

When I was growing up barbecue was synonymous with cookouts and birthdays. These days I draw the distinction between backyard grilling and low and slow American barbecue. A while back I made a pilgrimage to the whole hog heaven that is North Carolina. Heck, I even have a barbecue alter ego, Joey Deckle. But back in the 70s my birthday was the perfect excuse for the old man to throw a blowout BBQ. Hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken grilled with tomato and garlic were all on the menu, but my favorite was always his sausage and pepper sandwiches. So when I heard Matt Fisher was doing a low and slow take on this Italian-American classic at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue I decided to take a trek out to Gowanus. (more…)

03/19/14 10:02am
VASTEDDA

What’s better than vastedda?

A couple of weeks ago while doing some research for a Brooklyn Chinatown/Italian Bensonhurst food tour I stopped by Gino’s Focacceria for a vastedda. I was saddened to see the shop was for rent. I asked a local merchant where I might I obtain the traditional Sicilian calf spleen sandwich. “Joe’s of Avenue U,” she said.

I forgot all about the offal and cheese sandwich until Friday after leading that food tour. After several hours of eating and talking I often like to decompress with even more eating. So I paid the Gravesend institution a visit for a vastedda. My namesake Sicilian diner still sits beneath the Avenue U stop on the F. The old-school sign has been changed, but the magnificent steam table filled with stuffed artichokes and other Sicilian specialties looks exactly the same. And they still have vastedda ($6.99). (more…)

02/28/14 10:17am
SAMOSA

Surely these are New York City’s only Uzbek-Italian samosas.

Eating a beef or lamb samsa just plucked off the wall of a blazing tandoor oven is one of the pleasures of living down the road from Rokhat Kosher Bakery. The use of the tandoor has always made me suspect a link between Indian foodways and those of Uzbekistan. The other day my suspicion was confirmed—well, sort of—by the discovery of a most unusual samosa.

The package reads “Bon Appetito Samosa.” Despite the name these sugar-dusted treats from the No Regrets Bakery aren’t Italian. Nor are they Indian, or filled with potato. The light and buttery little pastries contain just a touch of sweetened walnut. Rokhat’s owner seemed as puzzled by them as I am. “At first, I thought they were Italian,” he told me.

To submit your delicious finds to Photo Friday simply tag your Instagram photos with #CMSHUNGRY. And while you’re at it, check me out on Instagram, joedistefanoqns.

02/19/14 9:57am
CM-MAMAS

An Italian-American cure for the wintertime blues.

If you’re anything like me you’ve had enough of winter. So today’s Sandwich Wednesday is for you and me, one of my summertime favorites, the Mama’s Special ($7.50) from Leo’s Latticini in Corona. I like to eat it in the backyard of the neighboring cafe, which like most of Queens is still a frozen waste land.

Unlike other Italian combos, which employ an entire deli case of meats, this hero takes a more restrained approach. Three ingredients: Genoa salami, pepper ham, and creamy white mozzarella are tucked into a semolina loaf. You will be asked if you want roasted peppers and marinated mushrooms. It’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse. I’d give my lucky chopsticks to eat one right now and watch Corona’s boys of summer play boccie in nearby Spaghetti Park. And, of course an Italian ice for dessert.

Leo’s Latticini (Mama’s of Corona), 46-02 104th St., Corona, 718-898-6069

01/09/14 9:45am
CASSGANG

Behold, the Sicilian dessert empanada!

At first I thought the small battalion of golden crusted treats were empanadas, but then I remembered I was in an Italian bakery. Then again this Italian bakery, Russo’s, also sells Irish soda bread. I soon found out that cassatine ($2.20) are Sicilian and delicious. The puffy crecent shaped pastry had a lovely fried dough crust filled with ricotta cream. It was denser, but less sweet than a certain more familiar tubular Italian pastry and quite lovely with a cup of coffee. As I was leaving I discovered that the gal seated at a table taking five is from father’s hometown, Castellamare del Golfo. Ma che fortuna!

Russo Bakery, 61-04 Grand Ave., Maspeth, 718-894-4919

12/23/13 9:50am
pannacotta

Best Chinese bakery panna cotta ever!

The last place one would expect to find panna cotta would be a Chinese bakery in Queens. Nevertheless there it was in the case at Morning Glory Bakery, raspberry peach panna cotta, $3.25. Morning Glory’s Chinese buns—particularly the chicken and pork buns with mustard greens and chili are excellent—but what really sets this Rego Park bakery apart from others are items like this panna cotta. (more…)

10/14/13 2:00pm

Punjabi chana daal over Italian cavatappi pasta. Photo by Anne Noyes Saini.

I first learned to cook during the year I studied in England. University students there typically fend for themselves in dorm kitchens, rather than relying on meal plans.

With little free time and even less money, most of us took to dumping readymade soups or canned beans over toast or pasta. If we were feeling fancy (or starved for protein), we crowned these starchy, carby meals with a fried egg.

That experience left me with an abiding kernel of culinary wisdom: Any light dish can be transformed into a stomach-filling meal simply by adding pasta.

Enter my Punjabi mother-in-law, who re-educated me in the kitchen and taught me Indian home cooking. Thanks to her, I can whip up a full meal from my usual pantry staples (i.e., lentils, rice, spices, garlic, and ginger) and a few stray vegetables (e.g., onion, tomato, potato, carrot). If only she’d been there, in England, to save me from British student food (and my own culinary incompetence). (more…)

09/26/13 10:13am

CHI-UJ4

Ever wonder what goes on at night inside the neon squiggle festooned former diner that is Flushing’s Lake Pavilion? Well, wonder no more. The Cantonese banquet hall is the subject of a two-star review in this weeks’ New York Times. Gotta give Pete Wells props for trying goose webs and screw clam, which is not a clam, but rather an organ extracted from a sea cucumber.

In case you’ve got a forequarter of beef lying around that you’d like to turn into pastrami this video might come in handy.

I’ve always been fascinated with Rocco’s Calamari in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Now Eating in Translation helps me understand why. Rocco is Calabrese, just like my dear old Ma. (more…)

09/24/13 9:45am
DIMSUMJURY

Dim sum at East Ocean Palace will lift your spirits if you are on jury duty.

“A food writer?” Judge Ira H. Margulis asked as I squirmed in my seat hoping not to be picked.”Well, what’s good to eat around here?” “With the exception of Dani’s House of Pizza it all stinks,” I replied. As a reward for my culinary candor both the defense attorney and the assistant district attorney deemed me fit to sit on a jury. The case was expected to take a week or less. It wound up taking 10 days.

In those 10 days I found only two things that were truly delicious. One was the dim sum at East Ocean Palace (113-09 Queens Boulevard, Forest Hills), a short walk from Queens Borough Hall. If only I’d served in Manhattan, then I could have undertaken a survey of the neighborhoods Vietnamese sandwiches, Cantonese roast meats, or eaten myself silly at Xi’an Famous Foods. Alas I was serving my time in Kew Gardens, where East Ocean Palace is the only game in town for good Chinese. The dim sum—shrimp in rice noodle, flaky pork pies, and dumplings—was quite nice, but one juror can only eat so much dim sum. (more…)

09/02/13 12:39pm
MIKEPASTA

Maspeth’s most decadent veal ravioli sings with the flavors of sage and speck.

My buddy Josh Ozersky likes to say I’ve forsaken my Italian heritage to eat weird Chinese food in dodgy Flushing basements. He’s only partially right. I grew up in a home where soy sauce and hoisin were as common as Sunday gravy and the hunk of Pecorino we called “grating cheese.” Now and then I am turned on to a dish that makes me proud of my Italian heritage. Most recently it was the pasta—specifically the ravioli di vitello burro, salvia e speck ($13.95)—at the newish Osteria Italiana in Maspeth, a neighborhood that’s more Polish than Italian. Of all people it was my adopted Jewish mother, Times Ledger food critic Suzanne Parker, who turned me on to this lovely dish. Perfectly al dente triangles are filled with veal and sauced with butter and sage. Salty, smoky bits of speck top it all off. Buttery and decadent, it’s nothing like my Italian mother’s pillowy red sauce ravioli, but every bit as good.

Osteria Italiana, 57-57 61st St., Maspeth, 718-894-4391