Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Get your Gelato On

Not to be too patchouli about it, but I’ve got a lot of Karma. Not necessarily bad or good, just a massive steady stream of it—I find $100 bills, but I get stuck in elevators and fall down stairs. I’m that girl—the one with the story.

This summer has brought such a spate of events. (For example, I’m currently down both a state ID and a debit card.) Then I had the best. Weekend. Ever.

To top it off, I think I closed the gap on this farmer’s tan I’ve been fighting all summer long. This is extremely fortunate, because the tourists at the World Trade Center PATH station had begun to follow me with their eyes like a zebra at the zoo.

Anyhoo, the Fresh Mozz and Ms. Posanne spent Saturday exploring some of NYC’s gelato mainstays, and we set out to answer to question: what makes gelato different?

Image credit: Nodame

We started at Grom in the West Village, which feels like the confectionary equivalent of an old-style tiled bar where vested ‘tenders fix egg-white cocktails.

All of the gelati rest in gleaming climate-controlled containers, and our esteemed server doled out samples with effusive pride, as if to say: “No you absolutely MUST try THIS one next.” The optimistic melon and zippity mint were among out favorites, and the slushier “granitas” bloomed with a subtle effervescence.

Federico Grom and Guido Martinetti brought Grom and their particularity for ingredients to the Upper West Side from Torino in 2007, where it broke like Pinkberry—food bloggers marveled at the 30-foot lines outside their West 76th street gelato emporium. They opened their West Village location shortly thereafter.

Let me refine, for a moment: gelato (trans. “frozen”) is an Italian dessert that resembles ice cream but is not ice cream.

The major points of difference? Quality, milkfat, and air.

Ice cream in the fat plastic drums from Dominick’s doesn't use vanilla, I doubt they even use extract. And it tastes like cold wet sand. In contrast, gelato seeks to concentrate and essentialize the best aspect of the flavor, so every ingredient is top drawer: Bronte Sicilian pistachios, Amalfi lemons, Venezuelan chocolate, San Bernardo mineral water from Piedmont. (Grom also uses carob flour). The thickness and density also differ: ice cream primarily uses cream with a 10-18% milkfat content, while gelato holds the fat down to a low roar at around 8%. Since milkfat clouds and overwhelms the flavor of the overall product, a leaner frozen dessert condenses the flavor. Grom has a more upturned take: "Also, in our opinion cream tones down too much the incisiveness of the flavors."

And while you may have guessed that gelato or higher quality ice cream has less air, the number is actually quite surprising—its between a quarter and half, pumped directly into the unfrozen liquid. By contrast, gelato only has 10% air, leading to a creamier end product.

I think we love gelato it because also possesses a mystical quality; it hoodwinks the palate into conjuring the ideal form of a flavor. For a moment, we forget that oranges are round and heavy, almonds and their bite, or coconut’s grainy pieces, and in that second gelato flash mimics the essential character of the flavor in another form. At the same time it surprises with a new dimension to a food you thought you knew well, you thought were well acquainted with. Ms. Posanne put it best when she said, "It's like the Jetsons, it's like a flavor pill from the future."

Il Laboratorio del Gelato does this best. It was started by Jon F. Snyder, who also brought you Ciao Bella gelato and sorbet. After he sold Bella (at the ripe age of 25), he founded Il Lab which produces its mod rectangles of tasty on the Lower East Side. There we found enlightening flavors like Guinness (which I didn’t taste) and ricotta (which I did, and it was one of the most delectable pillowy textures I’ve ever crossed).

It might be a little less traditional, but the new insights into the “ideas” of flavors were provokingly satisfying, and made me reconsider my taste expectations.

To cleanse our palates between tastings, we went to Murray’s cheese shop, which might be heaven on earth.

Throw in some glasses shopping, bocce in the park, and savory waffles and color me happy.

Lastly, I’m working on coming back to Brooklyn. More details, as we say in the business, “t/k.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

Achievement; Defeat

Sorry, project meatless...

After braving the hour+ line at the Shake Shack today, victory was mine. I drank from the chalice of victory...and bought myself the finest hot dog in all the land.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Loving Lemon Pledge

The veneer between persuasive and pushy is both thin and permeable. On good hair days, when the back cowlick of my crown does not resemble Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, I fancy myself “persuasive”…but I do harbor a tendency to foist limoncello onto unsuspecting guests.

I introduce limoncello as highbrow, haute, and an acquired taste for an advanced palate. “Some believe limoncello tastes like lemon Pledge” I’ll condescendingly dismiss, “when it’s actually the nectar of the Sorrentine Peninsula, using the most choice Amalfi lemons.” (Some acquired tastes just need a little push toward the summit of appreciation).

Upon first imbibing, limoncello frequently meets with sour expressions. However, the “lemon pledge effect” wears off after 10 minutes or so, and I notice that deniers usually pour themselves a second splash: I’ve won another patron over to the cause.

For those who are unfamiliar, limoncello is an Italian liqueur that hails from coastal Italy, often Sicily, easily recognized from its arresting neon color and cloudy opacity. Served freezer-chilled in cordial glasses, the dense thickness coats the palate with a robust wallop of lemon flavor. And while I usually engineer the liqueur’s image as “delicacy,” the truth is somewhere closer to “bathtub punch” because of its simple list of ingredients and rustic production process. However, store-bought ‘cello tends to be too syrupy and a little waxy, so I thought I’d try my hand at Italian moonshine.

6 lemons
1 fifth of high-proof vodka or grappa
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 bottles (or mason jars)

Step One:

Peel the zest of all six lemons with a peeler or a box grater, ensuring that you skim only the skin and leave behind the bitter pith. Purists will use Sorrento or Eureka lemons—in our liberal arts version, we used lemons. From a plastic-mesh bag.

Step Two:
Go ahead and add the zest to the high-proof vodka—I used 100 proof Smirnoff—which will draw more of the lemon oil from the rind.

I’ll let Charles Perry from the LA Times do the math for you:

“Using 100-proof Smirnoff 57, the usual recipe will give you a limoncello with the same alcoholic content as commercial varieties: 60 proof. If you use the more common 80-proof vodka, on the other hand, you'll have to steep the peels longer to get as much flavor out of them, and the recipe will give you a 50-proof limoncello.”

Close that mason jar or bottle and leave it out, at room temperature, for a week. (I gave it a little hustle routine about once a day to mix it up.)

Step 3:
Drain the lemon peels from the infused vodka, which should have a deep yellow color at this point. (Note: if you are not using a mason jar, have another receptacle ready for the last step—those lemon peels cling to their former home, and do not easily extract themselves from inside the bottle.)

Step 4:
Stir the sugar and water together over low heat to create the simple syrup, and reduce by half. Let the syrup cool to room temperature.

Step 5:
Pour the simple syrup and lemon infused vodka back into the mason jar or bottle, careful not to fill it to the brim, and stick it in the freezer. The liquid should grow cloudy after 8-9 hours in the ice box, but I left it there for another 4 days.

The result: a far more buoyant, crisp flavor than store-bought ‘cello, and a use for my beloved, physically-challenged cordial glasses.

You can also use different citrus fruit to customize your 'cello--I've seen limecello, orangecello, and I'm told tangelo, blood orange, and grapefruit all make zesty incarnations of this theme.

Photo credit: Shamballah

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bizarre Morning Ritual

In another installment of “Mozzadrella’s Midwestern Manners” I have to note and lament a certain behavior I’ve noticed since venturing Eastward. I find it counterintuitive and gratuitous, bordering on the excessively meticulous.

I am talking about the ritual of carrying to-go coffee in a bag.

Both self-contained and effortlessly portable, paper coffee cups elegantly mesh form and function! Why on earth would someone destabilize a vessel of hot liquid by placing it in a permeable paper sack with little material integrity?

Now the American tic of walking with a hot beverage is a practice I do appreciate—when living abroad, I found it irritating to forcefully “savor” my coffee while seated and immobile. But when asked: “Do you want a bag for that?” as I’m served deli coffee, I can’t restrain my unsightly grimace.

My hypochondriacal nature could interpret this habit as a shielding from others, or preserving the leisurely experience of drinking coffee by waiting to enjoy until arriving at your final destination. Neither rationalization satisfies. Do native New Yorkers have a sense of the reasoning behind this distinct custom?

Image credit: katerw

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fire, Ice, Camp

This week has presented a flurry of baffling and particularly distressing challenges. Early Wednesday morning the fire alarms in my apartment building unleashed their sonic terror, and with my guests I proceeded down to the ground floor, surrounded my murmurs of “I hear it’s real” and “No, it’s not a drill.” In my grandpa pajamas, we waited in the rain for hours, learning in dribs and drabs that yes, the fire was the floor below my apartment, and watching the fire truck posse grow in strength. Once we received the green light to return to the apartment, we found ourselves locked out: the management had stripped out our core lockset to make way for the firemen, and replaced it with the wrong one. I finally reached my bed at 8:30am, damp and depleted.

I decided to take the afternoon off, and hit some of the Jersey City food targets I’d been meaning to visit on the weekends. Sam and I stopped at Taqueria on Grove Street, which has solid enchiladas and tortas (hard to find in New York, where bland Tex-Mex seems to satisfy most appetites) and headed to Erie Street for dessert.

Full disclosure: I prefer the savory to the sweet. I’d much rather have camembert than cannoli (heresy, I know!). To a person with this disposition, get thee to Torico’s homemade ice cream parlor. Torico’s (the name stems from a contraction of “all good,” “todo”+“rico”) has opened every spring for the past 38 years, and is known for its unconventional and innovative flavors.

From top left: Poundcake, Ube, Green Tea, Lychee, Jackfruit, Ginger. I know, I need to refine my photo-taking skills, I just butcher it.

Torico’s makes ice cream every day, all day, and gets ideas from both divine inspiration and customer requests. They were very obliging, encouraging us to taste the guava, the coconut cream, the pumpkin. Most intriguing was the Mamey fruit flavor, which had a curious blend of strawberry and nutty essences.

(Mamey fruit: a.k.a. San Domingo apricot or South American apricot)

On its face, the mamey is not an especially alluring fruit—let me assure you it’s a delicious, subtle experience. After much dithering, Sam ordered the avocado, which also possessed a delicate, understated refreshingness—an exceptional translation into the realm of confection.

(Sam being encouraged to stop vacillating between flavors and pick one already.)

As you can see from the photograph, Sam was in dire need of a haircut, so we stopped at Balance, the salon-cum-vintage clothing retailer next to the ice cream shop.

The interior of the shop features a rich, overstimulating décor—vibrant stuff, kooky stuff, in a retired-costume-designer sort of a way.
Hats, scarves and other props line the stylists’ stations, as if they just might burst into “I Feel Pretty” from overexposure to perm fumes.

We couldn’t track down a stylist that afternoon, but I plan on giving the salon a shot after my hair grows another ¼ inch.

Torico’s: 20 Erie St, Jersey City
Balance Salon: 18 Erie St, Jersey City

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mozzadrella on the Move: Bensonhurst

Bensonhurst is fecund terrain for both d-list fame and hardscrabble scandal. Joey Fatone grew up here. So did Marissa Tomei. Solidly Italian for the past century, in the 80’s the area came to notoriety through a link to “the Teflon Don” John Gotti—a car bomb exploded on 86th street with Gotti as the intended mark. In the early 90s, the Reverend Al Sharpton was attacked and stabbed in the chest while he was leading a protest through the neighborhood.

Like Arthur Ave., Bensonhurst prevails as one of the last distinctly Italian regions in the city. Unlike other touristy areas, this neighborhood performs strictly for itself—rich in a sort of earnest pride, undiluted by irony, fully embracing its garishness. Flags on the sidewalks wave brazen and brash, serve as gatekeepers for record stores, pastry shops, and ravioli artisans.

SAS Italian Records makes its presence known blocks away. It sounds like a parade mixed with a tornado drill siren on a loop. SAS acts as part cultural embassy (it imports countless records and tapes, in addition to Italian shave creams and body washes) part kitchen supply resale shop, part bocce uniform outfitter. Looking over the sparkly porcelain masks and cherubic Jesus mini-statues, I instantly understood my Grandmother’s early adoption of Precious Moments figurines. There is literally no accounting for (or, perhaps, genetic resistance to) taste.

One wall of the store is completely covered in little horns—as keychains, as necklaces, as review-mirror ornaments. Yes, little horns, also known as cornicello (or corno, or cornuto) symbolize virility in Italian and Italian-American culture. Originally linked to the horns of pagan moon goddesses, and later the Virgin Mary, the cornicello is the epitome of Italian bling culture. According to lore, these horns protect against the “evil eye” which harms “nursing mothers and their babies, bearing fruit trees, milking animals, and the sperm of men -- the forces of generation.” My father, I am told, proudly donned a cornuto ‘neath, or entwined with, his tufts of chest hair in the open-collared 70s.

On closer appraisal:

Elena identified with the wooden soldiers (we think?) featured in the window.

At Queen Anne’s Ravioli Shop, I finally uncovered the mystery of the home-ripened fetus-looking cheese!

“Scamozza” is a dried mozzarella, with a more robust flavor, and a slightly harder tooth. After drying for about 24 hours, the cheese resembles the low-moisture part-skim mozz we might find in the grocery store, thereafter, the cheese comes closer to percorino or parmesan in texture.

Off for sweets. Villabate Alba Bakery has marzipan down to an art form: the craftsmanship looked more like model planes than sugar and ground almonds.

We acquired a neopolitan crème, cannolli, pignolli and fennel-seed “S” biscuits, and hunkered down with cappuccino at Bensonhurst’s old man social club. There we overhead resigned husbands trade horror stories about their wives, challenge each other to pugnacious rounds of bocce later in the afternoon.

Bensonhurst is roughly bordered by 13th-20th avenues, 63rd-86th streets in South Brooklyn near Coney Island.