Tag Archives: food

A New York City farewell eating tour

Posting this mostly for my own records.

Next week, I’m moving away from New York. Starting with a pizza tour a few weeks ago, I’m trying to cram in some quality NYC meals in my last stretch as a New Yorker. Some of these are classic places, some are on the list for sentimental reasons. Here’s a summary of where I’ve been in the past few weeks, along with a few places slotted for my remaining 10 days:

First, the pizza joints:


  • Bagels: have been hitting my local, but would like to get a last trip to The Bagel Hole
  • Court Pastry Shop, for the spumoni and maybe a lobster tail
  • White sauce hot sauce – probably won’t make it to my favorite Halal cart (near Queens College), but trying to patronize all my neighborhood stands
  • Some quality pastrami – probably Pastrami Queen, which is near my place and is ridiculous
  • A last slice of the weirdly delicious cheesecake at my favorite diner

Where is the artisan bagel movement in NYC?

Moving to New York, I was excited about two things: pizza and bagels.

Pizza did not disappoint. NYC’s pizza landscape is rich, and has become richer over the last decade. There are overlapping ecosystems for dollar slice joints, traditional slice joints, and hybrid slice/Italian food joints. There’s a stratum of old school NY pizza restaurants: Totonno’s, Arturo’s, Sam’s, etc, as well as the newer places that aspire to a similar aesthetic. And there’s whole class of artisinal, neo-Neopolitan places, where foodies shell out big bucks for bufala. You could eat pizza every day and never hit every place.

The bagel landscape is perhaps equally complex. But it’s bottom-heavy in comparison to pizza. You’ve got the guys in the silver street carts who sell bagels pre-filled with a slice of cream cheese wrapped in wax paper. There’s the bullshit bakery chains, the Panara-Dunkin-ecticut-n-crustys where bagels are an afterthought to other baked goods. And then there are the mainstays, the neighborhood bagel shops. Like neighborhood slice joints, the quality of this category varies widely, from shoulda-had-a-Lenders to the Bagel Hole (the only really outstanding bagel I’ve ever had, in NY or elsewhere).

But where are the artisan bagels? Dom Demarco has people lining up for $5 slices at Di Fara. There’s gotta be a similar market for someone to sell outstanding bagels – small, properly boiled, without preservatives – even if they charge a premium for them. I get that it’s not glamorous: stirring a pot full of boiling bageloids in a dingy kitchen doesn’t have the sex appeal of wielding a peel in candlelit Lucali. And I get that bagel-place-as-destination is hard to fit into the geography and the late-night culture of New York. At the same time, a great bagel can be just as fantastic as a great slice, and IMHO is just as important a part of NY food culture. Where are the hipsters lining up to continue this particular foodways tradition?

Maybe I’m way off here, and there is actually a bagel subculture in NYC that I’ve never stumbled on. I hope someone’ll clue me in.

Grilling pizza for fun and leftover disposal

This summer, my family and I rented a lake house for a few weeks. We were excited to have a grill, and at first, we took serious advantage: burgers, chicken, kebobs, barbecue, etc. But we soon ran up against two problems: meat fatigue and a fridge full of leftovers. Between the two of us, my wife and I have a number of standby techniques for disposing of miscellaneous leftovers, but most (like frittatas and stir fry) require making the house even hotter with a hot stove.

Pizza to the rescue! We got the idea early in our trip to try making pizza on the grill. It turned out so well that we ended up doing it a number of times. Not only was it a good way to get rid of just about any grilled leftovers, but it was legitimately good pizza in its own right – even when some of the ingredients we used were kinda cheap.

Arriving at the best technique was the biggest challenge. I’ve described the process below. We had a propane grill, which was helpful for heat control, but you could do it with charcoal and it’d probably taste better.

Get a dough – We got our doughs from the local pizza joint. You could make it yourself, but it’s a pain to make pizza dough, and so cheap to buy it. I’ve bought doughs from at least a half dozen pizzerias, and I’ve never paid more than $4 for a large one. As long as it’s a non-chain joint that does reasonable business, you know the dough will be fresh, and prepared with more expertise than if you’d done it yourself. (Some grocery stores sell pizza doughs. I’ve never bought one, so I can’t vouch – but I have noticed that they’re generally pretty small. Also, you can buy premade crusts, but is lame, as it takes away the biggest advantage of the grill, namely that it gets hot enough to cook a crust properly.)


Get a large dough from a local pizzeria. Price: $2-4.

Get the rest of your ingredients – You’ll need:

  • Sauce – We used cheap jarred sauce. Plain crushed tomatoes would probably be even better. Once we made a pie with leftover pulled pork, and I used a thin layer of barbecue sauce instead.
  • Cheese – We had our best results with Polly-O mozzarella, either grated large or cut into very thin strips/slices. The pre-shredded stuff is a big question mark – could be fine, but could be pretty dry (that is, too dry – good pizza cheese should be a bit dried). You can use another cheese as an accent, like a bit of goat cheese.
  • Toppings – Whatever you have laying around. Once we made something pretty fancy (some chi-chi salami), but usually it was whatever meat and veggies we’d grilled the day before. If it’s a bit limp after sitting in the fridge, give it a quick sauté before using. Fresh herbs are nice too.
  • Oil – We used olive oil at a couple different points in the process, as described below.

Get your mise en place together – I’m typically cavalier about getting stuff in place before cooking, but with grilled pizza it’s crucial. The steps below can be fast and furious, and you won’t have time to stumble drunkenly to the fridge to get ingredients.

Mise en place

Get it together. High Life optional but recommended

Preheat, clean, and oil the grill – Turn it up as high as it goes. The reason why you’re able to make decent pizza on the grill, but not in your oven, is because the grill gets a few hundred degrees hotter. Give it at least 15 minutes to get blazing hot (or more, depending on how your grill works). Make sure it’s clean and well-oiled, or your crust will stick and break.

Stretch the dough – There are lots of ways to turn a ball of dough into something resembling a pizza. My preferred technique is to stretch it to a disc, then hold it vertically by the edge, letting the dough fall downward while stretching the cornicione a little bit. Keep turning and stretching, allowing gravity do most of the work but helping to keep a pretty uniform thickness. Basically, make the crust as big and thin as you can without breaking and without being too big for your grill.

Almost ready to flip

Almost ready to flip

First grilling – It’s time to give a quick sear to what will end up being the top of the pizza. Lay the stretched dough on the grill. (It’s flexible, so now’s the time to make that circularish dough into a rectangularish shape, if that’s how your grill is shaped.) Brush the exposed side of the dough with olive oil. Then close the lid. Let it cook for maybe a minute, then check the upskirt. Once it’s charred to your liking, turn the burners all the way down – this’ll be important in a second. Use a big long spatula to make sure the whole crust is loose from the grill, and then use that same spatula (along with some tongs, or your hands) to flip the crust over.


Upskirt (that’s a technical term)



Top the pizza – You’ve turned the burners way down, but the grates are still very hot. You’ll want to top the pizza as quickly as possible, so you can get the lid closed and the cheese melted before the bottom has a chance to burn. Brush the pie with oil. Then sauce and cheese – if you put the cheese down first, it melts a little better, but it’s harder to then spread the sauce, so experiment to your liking. Then the toppings. It’s helpful to have two people working here, one doing the oil, the other following right behind with sauce, and so on.


Topped and ready for the second cooking

Let it cook – Close the lid and crank the heat up all the way again. Because the grill cooled a lot while you had it open to flip and top (when the heat was turned down), this second cooking will take a bit longer than the first. Check the pizza after two or three minutes. You’re looking for two things: the cheese should be adequately melted, and the bottom of the crust should look adequately done. If it seems like the crust is cooking too fast, turn down the heat.



Remove and dress – Get a platter, and use your big spatula to get the pizza off of the grill. Depending on size and thickness of crust, it should be pretty firm and easy to handle. This is when I like to dress with basil and a drizzling of oil. Some Parmasean or Romano cheese would also be good.

Here are a few of the pies we made over the course of our stay:

Unless you’ve got a special oven made for cooking pizza in your kitchen, the technique described above is likely to get you the best home-cooked pizza you can make. It’s a cheap and delicious way to put leftovers to good use. Hop to it, before grilling season is over!

Eating barbecue is a good way to spend a vacation

I enjoy eating barbecue. And, through a cosmic blessing of fate that I daren’t question, my wife enjoys eating barbecue as much as I do. Our favorite barbecue is of the North Carolina variety. So when a family friend was getting married in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago, we decided to make a vacation of it. That vacation would be focused on barbecue. REALLY focused. Over the course of seven days (really eight, but that includes a Sunday, when all pits were closed), we ate at twenty-one barbecue joints.

Bum's, Ayden, NC

Bum's, Ayden, NC

I’m going to give a recap of some of this barbecue in just a moment. First, I should address the inevitable question: Why? (Side note: I never would have thought that anyone would need a justification for eating a bunch of barbecue; but people ask all the same.) I’ve circled in on a few explanations for our seemingly-insane vacation plans.

Here are some reasons I went on a barbecue vacation

  1. Barbecue tastes good · Very, very good. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this factor.
  2. Midwestern earnestness and work ethic · Maybe it’s just the way I was raised, but I figure that if I’m going to do something, I ought to do it right. Which means doing it [ahem] whole hog [hold for laughter]. To spend a week in a part of the world with great food, yet wasting some of my meals by not eating that food, is to display a sort of transcendental ingratitude toward my good fortune.
  3. Obsessiveness · When I decide that I like something, I generally get really into it. To spend a vacation indulging this tendency is actually pretty fun. Some people go on tours through the Civil War South because they’re history buffs. I go on tours through the Barbecue South because I’m a barbecue buff. I don’t see much of a difference. (I have a theory, which I’ll blog about one day now that I’m free, about optimizing the number of things one is “good at”, with respect to the number of hours one has in a lifetime to devote to such things. This theory dovetails with the “obsessiveness” point to some extent, as North Carolina barbecue has emerged as one of the things I’ve chosen to be good at.)
  4. Flavor · See #1.
  5. Cultural carpetbagging · I grew up in Wisconsin, which has its fair share of indiginous culture. But there’s pleasure to be found in trying on a culture that is not your own, if only for a while. (What do you think powers academic history and the tourism industry?) Barbecue in North Carolina has a history, a dictionary of codewords, a set of conventional practices all its own. By immersing myself in this for a while, I’m certainly not going to pass myself off as a native – but it does enable a kind of empathy and connection with natives that might not otherwise be possible.

Is that reason enough for us to devote our vacation to barbecue?

Talk about the barbecue already

Fine, sheesh. ‘Barbecue’ generally refers to the slow cooking of meat via low, indirect heat, typically using smoke. In North Carolina, ‘barbecue’ almost always means pork, which is almost always chopped/pulled and served with a thin, vinegar-based sauce. In NC, you typically order either a sandwich (a scoop of meat on a cheap supermarket hamburger bun) or a platter, which is a larger helping of meat. Both usually come with cole slaw. Hushpuppies, or some other fried-corn delicacy, are often available.

Kepley's, High Point, NC

Kepley's, High Point, NC

In the eastern part of North Carolina, whole hogs are smoked overnight. The meat is chopped and dressed with a very simple sauce (cider vinegar, Texas Pete hot sauce or red pepper, a bit of sugar and salt). In the better places, the skin is thrown back onto the smoker and dried out, after which it’s chopped into small pieces called cracklings and mixed into the meat itself. The cole slaw in ENC is generally cabbage and carrots, and dressed with mostly vinegar and just a bit of mayo to bring it together.

In western NC, the style of barbecue is called “Lexington”, after the small town containing what must be the highest per-capita number of barbecue joints on God’s green earth. Lexington barbecue is pork shoulder rather than whole hog. This means no cracklins. But the tradeoff is the caramalized “brown” or “bark” that forms as the shoulders smoke. Lexington-style sauce is similar to ENC sauce, though generally with ketchup added and less hot sauce, making for a much sweeter sauce. Most Lexington places serve two different kinds of slaw: one made with mayonnaise, and the other made with the same barbecue sauce that goes on the meat (called “red slaw” or “barbecue slaw”). Hushpuppies are a fixture on this side of the state.

The styles aren’t radically different, though each has its die-hard proponents. Rebecca and I are fairly solidly in the Eastern camp, though there are great places in Lexington too.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow of every place we went. If you’re curious, you can check out my pictures collected throughout the week. But I will give a few recommendations (links go to my pictures):

For better or for worse, the best places in Eastern NC are way off of the beaten track. But they are really, really worth the trip.

If you want learn more about NC barbecue, here are a few resources that we used on this trip, as well as previous NC barbecue trips (yeah, this wasn’t our first, you wanna fight about it?):

As a Social Web Professional, I have some thoughts about starting a more authoritative site for the collection of barbecue knowledge. But I am also a humble Northerner, so I probably won’t do it.

Totonno’s burns, Boone mourns

I just read some terrible news: My favorite pizzeria, Totonno’s in Coney Island, has suffered major damage from a fire this morning. I’ve had a lot of great pizza in New York, but Totonno’s was, at its best, the best in the city, and it’s also the most consistent of the great joints. I might go so far as to say that Totonno’s is my favorite restaurant, period. Needless to say, I feel awful about the whole thing.

Here are some links to articles about the fire. Each has a little different take on how bad the damage is, but they all agree that the place won’t be up and running anytime soon.

Here’s a picture from my birthday, when I ended up eating a whole pie. Whoops.

Get well soon, Totonno's

Get well soon, Totonno's

Come back soon, Totonno’s!