Tag Archives: gnocchi

The Upper West Side: A Vast Culinary Wasteland

Citrus

It really saddens me to say this, but my new neighborhood is a vast culinary wasteland.

Sure, I haven’t eaten out nearly as much as I used to. The economy and the fabled NYC cost of living increase has certainly taken their toll. However, the wife and I have tried several eateries in the past month and a half, and we were not impressed.

To wit:

Citrus (photo above)

This restaurant is only a few block from my apartment and boasts “Latin fare with Asian flair.” It’s a fun motto, which is matched by the almost clubby atmosphere of the interior. It’s a modern place, very glossy looking, with the patronage to match.

Unfortunately, the food’s not very good.

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Waldwick’s hidden treasure: Andrea’s Ristorante Italiano

andreas

Looking for an Italian restaurant in North Jersey is like trying to find a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. There’s one on every corner and most of them strive only for mediocrity.

Since moving to Bergen County, my wife and I have tried to choose our Italian meals wisely. There are a ton of options, so finding the really good ones becomes a challenge in itself. Granted, this is an often delicious challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.

The recommendations we’ve received have continually put us in towns to the north and south of our small haven of Waldwick. We’ve tried Italian in Ridgewood, Allentown and Ramapo. Nothing’s been bad, but nothing has really presented itself front and center as the best Italian food around.

And yet, every time we set out on another Italian adventure, we pass a little place in Waldwick called Andrea’s Ristorante Italiano. It sits in the middle of a fairly old-school (and fairly ugly) strip mall and is just about the most unassuming restaurant you could ever come across. I think that’s why we never gave it much thought.

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An Italian Town

As if there was any real doubt, New York is an Italian city.

I know it’s known as the great melting pot, and you can find cuisine from all corners of the globe there. But the standard, go-to food of choice has and always will be Italian.

It’s no surprise, then, that my first two NYC restaurant experiences since returning to the area have been at Italian restaurants. One was surprisingly good, the other… not so much.

CIBO

Located on a nondescript block on 2nd Avenue (near 41st), Cibo would like you to think they serve “contemporary American cuisine with Tuscan-inspired influences.” Really, it’s the other way around.

Not that that’s a bad thing. I love Tuscan food and culture, and appreciate when a chef at least attempts to modernize it. And when the food succeeds under the pressure of a party of more than 20 people, it’s all the more impressive.

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A Tale of Two Italians

I had the not-so-rare opportunity to eat at two Italian restaurants on consecutive nights this past weekend. This is how it went down…


It was Friday night when the wife and I decided to jaunt across the street in the middle of a rain storm to try Le Castagne. You may remember us attempting a similar feat last month around Valentine’s Day, but the restaurant was closed for a private function and we ended up at Mercato.

This time, we were immediately seated in the front of the restaurant. The first thing that struck me was the somewhat odd layout and decor. I’m convinced this space was not originally intended to be a restaurant, as the ceiling was way too high and the furnishings way too portable to only function as an eatery. It gives off more of a gallery or function hall vibe, rather than a destination for intimidate dinner conversation.

Regardless, we took our seats and ordered a couple glasses of wine from the extensive wine list. The bread, freshly baked, was accompanied by a sun dried tomato pesto and was a perfectly chewy way to begin the meal. We decided to share a salad – the insalata alla gorgonzola – which the waiter graciously split between two plates. The standard mix included greens, tomatoes, gorgonzola, candied walnuts and a nicely balanced vinaigrette dressing.

Although the specials sounded delicious, we were both in the mood for pasta and went full force on the carbs. I ordered the pappardelle bolognese and my wife, the gnocchi di patate alla sorrentina. Both were excellently prepared.

We concluded our night without any dessert, but a small sense of accomplishment that we had finally conquered the restaurant mere feet away from our apartment. Le Castagne was a good restaurant, though we still prefer the more intimate (and cheaper) appeals of our neighborhood BYOBs.

“A step up from the Olive Garden” is the way my friend described the White Plains (NY) restaurant Zanaro’s. So I didn’t exactly walk in with much confidence.

Unfortunately, the place more than lived up to its reputation with a typical assortment of Italian-American cliches in menu, decor and service.

But before I get to bashing the place, I will first say that we had a great time. It was my friend’s 30th birthday party and it wouldn’t have mattered if we were at the real Olive Garden. We ate, we drank and we were merry… that is, when we weren’t fending off a waiter that was aggressively up-selling us at every turn.

Honestly, I think it was the waiter more than any other factor that dragged this place down. The food was decent – as good as can be expected from a place that is proud to serve “the finest Barilla pasta” – if uninspired and the prices were surprisingly low for the prime real estate the restaurant was eating up. But, man, that waiter!

Let’s begin with the bottled water. I know that offering a choice of bottled or tap water is the latest rage in bilking customers for every penny, but this was just obnoxious. Not only did the guy not offer tap water, he approached the first of us with a big bottle, readying his knife to cut away the plastic covering. When my friend wisely spoke up to reject the bottle, the waiter gave her the nastiest look I’ve seen in a while. As we all chimed up for tap water, his face melted into confusion.

Our wine selection was accompanied by further amazement. While we did order a Merlot, he brought a more expensive bottle than we ordered, and then claimed ignorance when we confronted him. Instead of apologizing, he retorted that we would like this wine better. Since it was only a few bucks more, I acquiesced, but it made me feel like dirt.

I felt even worse when I got back to Philly. It turned out that my wife had gotten the same bottle of wine while I was away. Her price – $9. Our price – $33.

Is that considered a mark-up or straight robbery? Because I’m achingly suspicious that it’s the latter.

Who knew I had to go all the way to one of the richest counties in the US to get robbed?

Il Portico (Tappan, NY)

The occasion was my grandma’s 90th birthday and the scene was Il Portico Ristorante in the small town of Tappan, NY. The cousins (save one) were in attendance, the boomer generation was in full force, and, of course, the guest of honor beamed among her friends. It was a fantastic afternoon of memories, tributes, and good humor, as only a grandma could inspire.

But what about the food? Did it live up to the occasion or dampen the celebration? The answer was decidedly mixed.

Appetizer – Grilled Shrimp with Italian White Bean Salad

We had a choice from among four appetizers, including this one, a tomato & mozzarella salad, a scallop entree and beef carpaggio. I didn’t see the carpaggio, but the scallops looked great. The tomato & mozzarella salad was a little underwhelming (this dish is one of my favorites but should be reserved for the late summer when beefsteak tomatoes are at their peak) and my plate was just ok. The shrimp were a little tough, but the beans were comfortably filling.

Entree – Ricotta Gnocchi with Mushrooms, Peas and Prosciutto in a Marsala Cream Sauce

I can’t remember the other entrees in detail, but there was a salmon, a chicken and something else. I went with the pasta (as I usually do at Italian restaurants) and was slightly disappointed. The gnocchi had the right consistency but the flavors, which should have really worked together, didn’t come together the way I was expecting. I hate to say it, but the dish was fairly bland; I had to add plenty of salt and pepper, even on top of the sprinkle of Parmesan. With such an all-star list of agreeable ingredients, this should have been a more satisfying dish. A bit more spice might have helped.

Dessert – Midnight Chocolate Cake & Chocolate Mousse Pie

Oh. My. God. The chocolate cake (if you even want to call it that, considering it tasted like a slice of dark chocolate itself) was amazing. I’m not sure if they made the desserts on premises, but kudos to whomever put that concoction together. Naturally, my opinion is biased since I’m a (not interested in recovering) chocoholic, but this was one of the better heart-stopping artery-cloggers I’ve had in a while. On the other side of the plate was a slice of grandma’s birthday cake, which just couldn’t stand up, literally. While structurally deficient, the chocolate mousse was fluffy, light and sweet. A nice complement to the sinful dark stuff.

Other desserts included a raspberry tort, a lemon cheesecake and some other things that were not chocolate.

In summary, the restaurant has work to do on some food elements, but I’d definitely go again. The wine was great, the service was awesome, and you can’t beat the small town ambiance. Seek it out if you can.