Saturday, February 10, 2007

Time and Space Travel in Little Italy

Lately I'm finding myself reminded of how much time I am not spending in New York City. True, I'm on the road at 6:30am every Monday through Friday; my Honda's tires entrenched in the ruts of my daily commute from Park Slope to the Lower East Side. And I faithfully retrace the route after my 10 hours of managing the food fuel for hundreds of corporate drones like myself. That's all metrocentric enough. Then comes Friday night and I pick up the HV (Handsome Venezuelan) at his corporate hive and we're off to the rural bliss of La Casa Amarilla in the Poconos.

Now this decompression time with our forest, fireplace, birds, deer and tree house like deck are as vital to me as oxygen, good living and reasonably priced wine. But, I am sad that I've paid the harsh price of urban disconnect to achieve it. The reality of NYC is this... it takes time, energy and commitment to reap the rewards this town offers, especially given the long work week its economy imposes.

My old job was situated in Long Island City, Queens; so I was hip to all the Pan Asian-Latino doings of Jackson Heights and Woodside as well as the Italo-Greco treasures of Astoria. My current gig allows for up to date info of Chinatown, but that's about it, or so I thought.

Last Friday found Big Mary with time to kill about 4pm, while waiting for the HV to finish up at 7 or so. Despite the significant chill, I set out from work to explore local stores and perhaps pick up some treats for our late night dinner when we arrived in Pennsylvania. I knew I could pick up some great Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches for the car ride(incredibly delicious pork, pate, pickled carrot, daikon and cilantro on warm baguette), but I had hopes of one of those great NYC moments of discovering a store that only exists in the time and place of where you are, NYC. I buttoned up my coat and headed west until I saw neon signs advertising Clam Bars, Caffe and Fresh Mozzarella.

Now, what many of you from west of the Hudson may not realize is that Little Italy doesn't much exist anymore. There is Mulberry Street, loaded with touristic restaurants that send out (for the most part) mediocre Italo-American fare. But the neighborhood has been swallowed by the swelling populace of Chinatown, and one is hard pressed to find many Italian-Americans living there anymore. And with that exodus comes the unavoidable waning of authenticity of experience.

None of this is a concern however, once you pass through the door at DiPalo's of Little Italy. This first thing that confronts you is a red number dispenser urging you to "Take a number, please." Accept this as encouragement that you are in the right place for the real thing. Take your number, and enjoy the down time to peruse the shelves of Italian (and a few vicarious Mediterranean) pleasures. You'll find pasta shapes you've never experienced before, Sandinian Carta di Musica, Italian butters, homemade raviolis, tortellonis, mostardis, Italian crackers and breadsticks, forest honey and more formaggi and salumi than you knew existed.

However, it's the service that sends you directly to Italy, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. It's not exactly timely, and that's the point. Time needs to be allowed for local gossip, news from Italy, suggestions on proper neo-natal care and the relative differences of Proscuitto San Danielle and Proscuitto di Parma. But once your number is called, they are going to spend as much time with you as if you were a true Medici. A request for a cheese's description will not only inform you of the type of milk used and the region where it is made, but a hearty sample proffered on the end of a cheese knife.

That happy Friday I was selecting between five cheeses. A perfectly ripe goat doble crema whose name escapes me, but whose happy goat label I know I'll remember. This was an immediate purchase. Next I tasted a sublime Piave Vechio, cow's milk from the Veneto; often dry and lackluster, but DiPalo's offered a perfect specimen, rich, yielding and slightly nutty. Next a Fontina style Stelvio form Alto Adige, softer and mouth filling. Also a cow's milk cheese I'd never seen before, Crucolo from the Trentino, Morbier like but richer, rounder and fuller in flavor. Finally Pecorino D'Oro from Sardinia which reminded me of Dutch aged Gouda, but uniquely sharp and without the caramel flavors of aged Gouda. Instead it retained its grassy earthy flavors. I limited myself to the Crucolo and the creamy goat disc.

I rounded out our late night picnic with a quarter pound of Proscuitto di Parma, some plump olives and crusty Italian bread. As a real treat I purchased a half pound canister of wood roasted coffee from Sant Eustachio on good faith. Di Palo is the only US store to import this from the renowned caffe near the Pantheon in Rome. My faith turned out to be well placed on Saturday morning.

And so my precious ones, my soul feels a bit renewed, and I am once again reminded of why I work so hard to live where I live. Now I want all of you to find what's special and unique in your market and spend some money there. People like the DiPalo's and their compatriots deserve to reap some rewards for what they do, whether they are at your farmer's market or ethnic enclave, be it Italian, Polish, Portuguese or Filipino.

Contented eating,
Big Mary

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