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July 20, 2011

Weekend in New York--Eat, Walk, Repeat

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It's been far, far too long since Larry and I have had the opportunity to just enjoy being in the city. We were able to use my parent's apartment this weekend while they were away. In return for dogsitting we saved having to fork out the horrific cost of a New York hotel room. We had few firm plans, really just wanted to wander around on a warm weekend, see a few people, and eat well. We had wanted to get tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, the free plays produced by the Public Theater in Central Park. You either need to stand in line all day; or take your chances in an online lottery. We elected to enter the lottery, where you enter your name and are told after 1 pm if you've scored two tickets for that evening's performance.

We headed down Friday morning, making excellent time. Larry loves New York on Summer weekends because he can find a parking space easily, as he thinks paying for parking is for wimps. After settling in to the apartment, we wandered around my parent's Upper East Side neighborhood. For the most part this isn't the fur coat and chauffeur part of the East Side, (in spite of the fancy new apartment tower that perches on the corner, kitty-corner from the local palm reader's storefront) more the young couples putting 3/4 of their income into co-op payments, older women in sensible shoes hanging onto their rent-controlled apartments, entry-level professionals squeezed into walk-up studios. Things were fairly quiet, as those who could had fled the city for a hopefully cooler locale. Bob the Bum, a fixture on 2nd Ave was still cheerfully hanging out in front of the pizza parlor. I noticed some turnover in the local restaurants, but our favorites were still there--Cafe Mingala the Burmese place on 2nd, the Afghan Kabab House a few doors down, and my parent's favored Middle Eastern takeout place Pyramid opened in a larger space with actual tables. As we wandered down 73rd, we noticed that the old Czech social hall (dating from when Yorkville was a eastern-european neighborhood) had been remarkably spruced up, and there was a fancy restaurant/beer pub inside called Hospida. Looks intriguing, and I'd love to check it out.

I had read that one of the owners of Gran Gusto in Cambridge had teamed up with another Italian guy to open a small place in the neighborhood, so we thought we'd give them a try for lunch. By this time it was quite hot, so it was great to stop into the air conditioned, brick-walled coolness. Tiella (First Ave, between 60 and 61) is cozy and charming. The menu is small but very appealing. We opted for the Restaurant Week lunch special. A "tiella" is an Italian pan, which this place uses to make little pizzalike appetizers. I had one topped with smoked mozzerella, eggplant and cherry tomatoes which was very tasty.

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Following that (which I could not finish!) I had orate which was crusted in potato slices, with a light lemon sauce. The fish was fantastically fresh, the potato crust nice and crispy. Larry started with a light salad of nicely cured salmon with peppery microgreens, and then went with spaghetti with tiny clams. In a nod to the Americans, the pasta had a scattering of freshly grated cheese on top, which we thought worked with the briny clams. The wine list had some unusual wines by the glass, and we really enjoyed the choices the waiter helped us with. Dessert was really special. The Lemon Delizia cake was an amazingly light cake with lemony filling; and the Pistachio cake crunchy and fragrant with real Sicilian nuts. Service by one of the owners was terrific, and it was a treat for Larry to have a little conversation in Italian.
At lunchtime they do pizzas, but not at dinner, when you can get the tiellas for a first course. We really enjoyed this place, and will definitely return.

Oh well, we didn't win the ticket lottery. Us and probably 10,000 other people.

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We needed to walk off lunch, so walked over to Central Park, and then wandered through the park for a good hour. Kids, tourists, people on lunch break, people doing business with laptops and cellphones on benches; we saw one suited gentleman who had taken off his shoes and socks as he carefully sat on a folded newspaper in the shade under a tree. I was amused that the playground we used to call the "Don't Knock Out Your Teeth" playground when our kids were small had new cushiony pads where there used to be concrete. The Falcon Watchers were set up by the boat pond with their huge lenses and telescopes to watch the falcons up on the neighboring buildings, plenty of kids sailing boats, exhausted tourists looking for the Zoo. A great place to park on a bench and watch the world go by. Oh, I had to revisit the Alice in Wonderland statue.

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By this time it was late afternoon, time to pick up my parent's shitz-tsu Mei-Mei. She had spent the day at dog playgroup, owned by a lovely couple who used to be in the fashion handbag business. (In spite of the economic times, the dog-service industry seems to be doing very well, judging by the number of vets, dogwalkers with six dogs on leashes, dog supply stores, and doggy daycares peppered around Manhattan) She greeted me with much excitement, promptly peeing on the sidewalk. Whoops. (And yes, she has one brown and one blue eye. I joke that my parents got her from the discount rack, which isn't too far from the truth)

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After resting at the apartment, throwing toys for Mei-Mei and having a drink at a local bar where the ginger martini (I know, my own fault, I should stick to the classic) was too sweet (happily the waitress snuck back to the bar and slipped more vodka into it) we headed downtown. The Lower East Side isn't your grandmother's neighborhood any more--it's become uber trendy and filled with restaurants, galleries and overly expensive twee shops. We wandered around for a bit, then found Bacaro, in an alleylike street off Canal, (161 Division St) in between a bike shop and a mysterious Chinese wholesale shop.

We really wanted to love this place. The first floor is small, but down a steep stairway you enter into brick and stone small dining rooms lit by candles. Very romantic and pretty. The wine list is good although pricey, and you can get pours in various sizes so you can mix and match wines throughout your meal. The menu is a collection of small plates and entrees so you can assemble a small or large meal. Prices are fair for new York. Some tables are nicely spaced, but the tables for two so crammed together that you might as well be sharing a table for four.

Our waitress was friendly at first, then cooled off considerably. Our first issue was that we wanted to put in an order of two small plates; and then decide if we wanted to go for entrees or more small plates. We were told rudely that the house policy is that the kitchen will only take full orders. So much for a nice relaxed meal. We elected to go with two entrees. Our first order came out, a special of fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta. The coating was much heavier than you'd find in Italy, but they were still tasty. We had ordered the crab salad on a polenta cake, which I had assumed would be prepared as in Italy, dressed simply with lemon and oil. Instead, the crab was engulfed in so much mayonnaise that the crab taste and texture was lost. One entree was excellent, the long-cooked pork shank over creamy polenta. However, the pasta with duck sauce arrived with pasta so undercooked it was crunchy. We politely told our waitress, she responded with a long-suffering "OK", and then whisked the plate away without another word. A replacement was brought a few minutes later, perfectly cooked and very tasty. We decided to not stay for dessert, as the room was filling up and the table next to us was so close it was uncomfortable having a conversation. I'd give this place another try, but would go midweek and not on a weekend; and hold out for a better table.

We took a cab home, with Larry (who is a fearless NYC driver) clutching the seat and muttering "I'm just not going to look."

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