I woke up early this past Sunday but decided not to have breakfast. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to skip breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day, yadda, yadda, yadda. But this particular Sunday I was headed to not one but two block parties hosted by serious chefs in conjunction with the James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the chef and restaurant world. My first stop was Cafe Boulud (on East 76th Street), formerly Daniel. There I found a crowd of chefs and food writers milling about in the street, sipping champagne and noshing on food that was street fare from the gods. There was nary a bad sausage sandwich or cold funnel cake in sight. The pressed hamburger patties that come preformed in boxes of 12 were nowhere to be found. Instead, I found myself gorging on superb Italian charcuterie and merguez (lamb sausages) supplied by, among others, Biancardi’s, the incomparable Italian butcher from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
But for chef-owner Daniel Boulud, the sausages and the cheeses were just the warm-up. Out came lobster risotto, scallop seviche, Boulud’s short ribs, which are perfectly crunchy and caramelized on the outside, and meltingly tender on the inside, barbecued pork belly with red beans (imagine the greatest fresh bacon imaginable), roast suckling pig with lentils, pissaladière (the thin-crusted Provençal pizza) with caramelized onions and olives, a multi-layered asparagus clafouti, and white bean soup with fennel pesto that was so smooth it must have been strained for days before it was served. There was even a legitimate breakfast item: eggs Brouillade and fresh morels served in a tiny brioche cup. Nobody has ever had food in the streets of New York that was as good as this. I vowed never to eat another watery smoothie, or dry chicken kabob, or curlicue fry (standard dishes at New York’s street fairs and block parties) ever again.
I was making a pig of myself, but I couldn’t help myself. I was not alone in my piggishness. Famous chefs from all over the country were fighting over the plates of freshly carved suckling pig coming out of the kitchen. After two hours of nonstop eating, I was ready to move on to dessert. Then a friend came over and said, “How about those fried clams?” “What fried clams?” I replied. Toto, Daniel Boulud’s chief aide de camp, overheard this conversation, dashed into the kitchen, and arrived two minutes later with a plate of fried clams nestled in a cloth napkin with a plate of house-made tartar sauce. There is no more quintessentially American dish than fried clams, but somehow the kitchen manned by Frenchman Boulud managed to turn out some of the greatest fried clams I have ever had. They were perfectly crisp, greaseless, sweet, and oh-so-nutty. I ate a dozen clams in about a minute, had a plate of vanilla ice cream with cherry sauce for dessert (I actually had two, if you’re counting), and headed home to pick up my son to take him to the second block party. This one was in Brooklyn at the home of chef Don Pintabona of the Tribeca Grill. Pintabona lives in Carroll Gardens, a solidly southern-Italian enclave just across the river from lower Manhattan.
Carroll Gardens is one of my favorite food neighborhoods in the city. Pintabona has lived there his entire life, and knows it intimately. When we arrived, we were immediately confronted by platters of grilled sweet and hot sausages from Esposito’s Pork Store. Next to the sausages were platters of grilled vegetables, soppressata, Italian cookies (never my favorites), and a two-foot-by-four-foot rectangle of cheesecake from Monteleone’s, one of the local Italian bakeries. I had never had this cheesecake, but one bite into my slice, I knew I was tasting something very special. This was moist and creamy ricotta cheesecake, nothing like the dryish, coarse fillings of the thousands of Italian cheesecakes I’ve tasted. I asked a friend what was in the cake that made it so moist and creamy. “Cool Whip,” he said without missing a beat. “And I’m not kidding.”
I had three slices of cheesecake before proceeding down the steps to Pintabona’s house. My son and I walked through the kitchen and arrived at a tiny patio filled with tables covered with pizza toppings: tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, smoked ham, pepperoni, anchovies. Will filled his round of dough with so much cheese and meat (vegetables were verboten, of course) I knew it would not bake properly in Pintabona’s wood-burning pizza oven (which he had shipped over from Italy). “The shipping cost more than the oven,” Pintabona said with a laugh. So, the ever-enterprising Will took another piece of dough and put it on top of his pizza. Ah, I thought to myself, this is how calzones were invented. Will’s calzone was the hit of the party. The French chefs in attendance marveled at Will’s inventiveness, the Italians chefs laughed at his good fortune, and me, I ate half of the calzone.