Tag Archives: restaurants

Go For the Food: Yes, you can do brunch in Rome

The Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Rome is a sightseer’s dream, and for many visitors, indulging in authentic Italian cuisine is one of the biggest draws.

But for non-locals, the first meal of the day can be a bit of a letdown. Breakfast in Italy is a stand-up affair: You crowd at the bar, scarf down a stale pastry and a shot of espresso, and in five minutes flat, the day has begun. Tourists quickly learn that if they dare to plop down at a table in the center of Rome, they may be slapped with an extra “table service” charge and ushered out once when they’ve finished.

Long family lunches on Sundays are an established tradition in Italy, but a casual cross between breakfast-and-lunch with friends is almost a foreign concept.

But escaping from the hurried morning routine may be why weekends at Necci, a bohemian outpost in Rome’s edgy Pigneto neighborhood, have become something of an institution to the artists and creative types who live nearby.[Full Story]

Guacamole Enters the Scene

Well, look what I found in Madrid! A Chipotle copycat, right near Puerta del Sol.

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For those of you who know me, one of my personal interests is exploring the European relationship with…guacamole. I believe that they (or at least Italians, who I know the best) just don’t get enough of the delicious green mixture in their lives, which is a shame…and also a mystery. Why don’t people eat more avocados?

When I first made guacamole for Luca’s family, his mom told me that long ago she had bought an avocado out of curiosity – but she couldn’t figure out how to peel it. And I don’t think she’s unique in having little experience with avocados. Many of my Italian friends admit to going years without eating it, and I’ve often caught them awkwardly dipping into their guacamole with – gasp – potato chips instead of tortilla chips! These people need help!

Well, looks like a group of Spaniards who spent time in California have beaten me to my dream of opening up an avocado mix-and-match fast food spot, at least in Spain. Their place, open for a year, is called Aguacate Grill, and seems geared mainly to attract tourists, with an English menu and located around the corner from one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares.

Here’s my critical assessment: I thought the loud cartoonish décor and cramped seating area were pretty ugly. With dark yellow lighting and absence of a frenzied fast-moving assembly line, the ingredients didn’t look very fresh and the uncomfortable stools next to the counters weren’t very inviting. The rules on toppings were complicated and I could only get one topping with my quesadilla, which doesn’t seem the best way to entice customers unfamiliar with Mexican food (though perhaps Spanish customers are more familiar with it). The identity even seems confused – who ever heard of California Tex-Mex? I tried the guacamole. It was passable – but it’s got nothing on my dad’s recipe!

I think there could still be room for a Guacamole Girls restaurant to enter the scene…

Balsamic Culture Clash

This past week I’ve been frantically trying to get in some last minute preparations before leaving for my trip to Europe, but I got a good taste of what I’m probably going to encounter when I get there- right around the corner in the Lower East Side!

Luca and I decided to eat lunch at a very authentic Italian spot owned by a woman from Milan. It’s so authentic that they aren’t open on Sundays and close every weekday at 7 PM on the dot – a reason that we rarely visit even though it’s only three blocks away.

I decided to order a simple mozzarella-tomato-basil panino, and as our waitress was setting down the food, I asked if she could bring me a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

A few minutes later the owner was towering over our table.

“Who asked for balsamic? What are you going to do it with it?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

“Oh, I’d just like to add some to my panino,” I replied, smiling politely.

“We don’t change our recipe,” she said, clearly very offended.

Of course I tried to reason with her, to explain that I was not asking her to change anything, merely to give me the option of balsamic vinegar on the side. Even Luca jumped in on my behalf, but his friendly Torinese accent was of no use. She would not budge on the principle that her recipe was her recipe, and no one was allowed to change or pollute it.

Naturally, I stewed in American-customer self righteousness after her refusal. Didn’t she understand that the customer is always right? I threatened loudly to Luca that I’d just go home and grab a bottle of balsamic and bring it back. I told him, “Well, if they are going to be so Italian, let’s be Italian too and not leave a tip!” Of course Luca was surprised that he had been caught off guard byt the owner’s reaction. Back when he lived in Italy he never would have thought that asking for something extra was normal.

I’ve always said that the biggest negative I experience in my travels to Europe- and specifically Italy, where I’ve traveled the most- is the customer service. Waiters and restaurant owners are frequently crabby and act like they are doing you a favor to let you sit in their restaurant and eat their food. They raise their eyebrows and make fun of you if you ask to add an extra topping to a pizza or want to bring home leftovers. They make you pay extra for sitting down instead of standing at the counter. And don’t even mention the word vegetarian, which is normally greeted with confusion, scorn, or both.

This normally frustrates me because it seems not only rude, but also like purely bad business practice that weakens Italian/European businesses and puts them at a disadvantage compared to the more flexible American model. Why not let people sit down for free if it’s not busy (and it rarely is)? They might linger and buy more from your cafe. If you allow customers a bit of freedom to choose toppings or get something on the side, the dish might be more to their liking and they’d return to eat more often. At the very least, a pleasurable dining experience wouldn’t drive customers away.

But, the reason I found the balsamic incident so interesting is because it also frames a sort of hypocritical impulse surrounding Italian business in general. On the one hand, we value Italy so highly for its supposed steadfast adherence to long-held traditions and its vaunted attention to quality and technique. It’s what millions of visitors look forward to when they plan a trip there or even when foreigners buy Italian products likes clothing and food at home. So, on one side, the impulse is to promote tradition and authenticity as the soul of Italian industry, a strength upon which Italians can draw from to bolster their economy.

But what happens when tradition seems to be simply bad business practice? Many political commentators push to propel Italy into the 21st century, recommending it streamline regulations, get rid of inefficient practices, and follow examples from other countries that would free Italian business and tourism to shine. But the problem is, many of the irregularities in Italian business may be just what protects that valued tradition.

How to disentangle it? To me, the owner’s reaction to my request for balsamic was simply bad business. Why should I return to her restaurant if I could get balsamic happily handed to me at any other place in New York? To her, she was protecting her tradition and the quality of the product she had prepared.Who was I to mess with her perfectly calibrated sandwich?

So, what about when I bit into my panino? Well, I can’t say I wouldn’t have relished soaking it in a tub of balsamic vinegar like a greedy American anyway – ha ha. But, yes, it was truly delicious just the way her recipe had ordained it.

Does the Italian way of doing business have something to teach us after all? Was I in some way polluting it by suggesting to change the recipe? Do some of the recommendations for Italians to ‘get with the program’ even represent a threat to Italian tradition and quality – and could thus undermine it?

Let me know your thoughts! And also, because I’d love to commiserate, tell me about  your worst dining experience in Europe!

SLA Nixes Rum at Latin Bistro, Handing LES Dwellers Another Victory

The Local East Village

The State Liquor Authority has denied a full liquor license to an East Villager hoping to open a Latin bistro on the Lower East Side, handing another victory to a group fighting rampant nightlife in the neighborhood.

About 30 people appeared at the liquor authority’s Harlem offices today to support Jose Rodriguez and Robert Payne, whose seven-month struggle to score hard liquor for their establishment at 106 Rivington Street — currently called 106 on the LES — at one point touched off accusations of racism. Their attorney, Donald Bernstein, tried to argue that a Latin establishment serving rum was culturally important for the 40,000 Latinos living around the Lower East Side and that it would change a dilapidated storefront into a commercial space that late-night partiers would be less likely to vandalize. [Full Story]

Rizzo’s Fine Pizza Bringing a Slice of Queens to LES

The Local East Village

An Astoria favorite is aiming to expand into the space that held Frankies 17 and later Francesca’s. The Local spotted the owners of Rizzo’s Fine Pizza at 17 Clinton Street last night, drumming up signatures in support of a beer and wine license

Rizzo’s is a popular family-run operation that specializes in thin-crust pies. The original location, opened in 1959, still stands at 30-13 Steinway Street and there’s an offshoot on the Upper East Side at 1426 Lexington Avenue. [Full Story]

Nevermind the Nor’easter: ‘Summer’ On Clinton Street Tonight

The Local East Village

Forget the impending snow storm: tonight on Clinton Street, it’ll be “Summer.” That’s the name of a multi-venue exhibition of paintings by Leah Tinari, owner of neighborhood hangout Fatta Cuckoo. Her art — along with food, drinks, and music by DJ Vlad & DJ Cles — will be showcased at her restaurant as well as at Kupersmith, and at shops JnrlStr and Blake Scotland. [Full Story]

Best Of: Vegetarian Restaurants

The Columbia Spectator

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With meat-heavy prix-fixe menus dominating Restaurant Week, vegetarian foodies may feel a bit underwhelmed. Luckily, New York is home to tons of eateries that cater exclusively to vegetarian and vegan diners, offering creative approaches to meat-free cuisine sure to satisfy herbivores and carnivores alike. [Full Story]