March 21st this year is Nowruz, also known as Persian New Year. This festival, whose name means “new day” in Farsi, is tied to the Zoroastrian religion, and is not only celebrated in Iran, but in other parts of central Asia and the Balkans. The holiday represents the arrival of spring, and the Nowruz table is typically filled with festive foods including seven symbolic items, the Haft-Seen. One of the the items that is a must for the Haft-Seen on a Nowruz table is green sprouts known as Sabzeh, and you can even grow your own. Many of the other dishes served on Nowruz are green with fresh herbs, appropriate for green’s springtime connotations. There are several Persian dishes that are emblematic of the holiday including Sabzi polow ba mahi, a heavily herbed green rice topped with fish and Kookoo/Kuku Sabzi, an egg omelette filled with herbs. The LA Times documents a family’s homecooked feast with recipes for Rice with herbs, pan-fried white fish and smoked white fish (sabzi polow ba mahi), Fresh herb kuku (kuku-ye-sabzi), Rice with toasted noodles (reshteh polow) served with lamb. You can find more Nowruz recipes at Whats 4 Eats, Fig and Quince and My Persian Kitchen.
We are heading to New Orleans for two of our favorite only-in-New-Orleans events, St. Joseph’s Day (March 19) and the Sunday closest to it, known as “Super Sunday” (which we can assure you has nothing to do with the Super Bowl). Super Sunday is the day when Mardi Gras Indians parade their finery through the streets, and St. Joseph’s Day is a holiday with origins in Sicily that celebrates the miracle of St. Joseph saving the island from famine (see our previous coverage here). And oddly enough, these two days are related, and Mardi Gras Indians also march on St. Joseph’s night.
Though other areas in the US obviously have Sicilian-American populations, the tradition of the St. Joseph’s Day altar is observed with fervor in New Orleans, owing to its particularly concentrated Sicilian population. St. Joseph’s Day is observed in New Orleans to a much larger degree than it is elsewhere, even Sicily. Every Catholic church and high school in greater New Orleans seems to have an elaborate St. Joseph’s Day altar, and they can range from modest altars in homes to unthinkably huge, sometimes taking up the entire Church community center. The altars, contributed to by parishioners and the community, traditionally have three tiers and are decked out with statues, flowers, photos, candles and food. All of the photos in this post are from altars we visited in 2016.
Typical St. Joseph’s Day altars are decked out with tons of food, including citrus, fanciful breads in shapes representing Joseph’s trade as a carpenter (or even fish or figures), whole fish, dozens of varieties of cookies, fava beans, and more (You may even see a lamb cake or two). And if you visit a church on St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans you will probably be treated to a bowl of Pasta Milanese or other meatless favorites. Pasta Milanese is similar to pasta con sarde, but with tomatoes, and of course you have to top it with breadcrumbs, representing the Joseph’s carpentry sawdust – check out this recipe from Sicilian Girl.
Our favorite St. Joseph’s Day food is probably the fig-filled cuccidati cookie, which are also traditionally made at Christmas. We bought a cookbook on St. Joseph’s Day at one of the churches we visited a few years ago, which now provides us with our go-to cuccidati recipe. The St. Joseph’s Day altars are cookie heaven, and volunteers spend weeks making literally tens of thousands of cookies for some of the larger altars. We also like to seek out some of the unique foods that are probably unseen outside of a single parish, like the amazing, giant, fleur-de-lis crawfish-shaped “Craw-fig” cookie below, that we spotted on an altar in Metairie.
At the end of St. Joseph’s Day, the altar is symbolically broken in the “Tupa tupa” ceremony and the food and donations are distributed to charity. You will probably also get handed a fava bean for luck, and a bag of cookies to take home. And if you manage to steal a lemon from the altar it means you will get married (or have a baby) by the next St. Joseph’s Day. We love to go around New Orleans and the surrounding area on St. Joseph’s Day and visit all of the altars, since no two are alike. For 2018 we found a few guides (Italian American Center, ABC) to all of the St. Joseph’s Day churches in the area.
Happy Pi(e) Day! In honor of this auspicious day, we are revisiting one of our favorite places for pie, Honeypie (2643 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207) in Milwaukee. Our two favorite things about Honeypie are 1. the PIE and 2. the fact that there is something for everyone. The restaurant is decorated with a classic Wisconsin Northwoods theme, with wooden walls, reclaimed wood booths, maps and vintage Wiscoonsin-y items.
Most importantly, there is a dessert case in the back with a variety of pies, biscuits, sweet breads and cupcakes. Over the years, we have sampled a number of Honeypie’s pies, and we have never been let down. Some of our favorites include the black bottom banana cream pie, Milwaukee mud pie, strawberry rhubarb and ginger chai cream. You can order a whole pie in advance ($29 or $32) or by the slice ($6). You can also ship miniature Honeypie pies anywhere in the nation through their Piegram service. To take the pie love to another level, they even host pie-making classes.
There is also a large food menu, with Midwestern classics like mac and cheese ($14), grilled cheese with tomato soup ($11), a classic Friday Fish Fry ($16) and – a treat unique to the upper Midwest – the Cornish pasty ($10). There is also more elevated fare like scallop ceviche ($15) and confit chicken ($24). Honeypie is an all-day restaurant and you can also get brunch or a drink off of their full menu of drinks and local beers. So whether you are in the mood for pie, a Bloody Mary or mac and cheese, you will find just what you want at Honeypie.
When we went to Barcelona we were not expecting to find Bulgarian food, but that is indeed what we got when we stumbled upon Banitsa (Carrer de la Diputació, 188, 08011 Barcelona, Spain), a hole in the wall cafe serving sweet and savory pastries by the same name. Banitsa is truly tiny, and there is no AC, but the friendly service and good food more than made up for it. The menu basically consists of either sweet or savory varieties of Banitsa (€3). So what exactly IS as Banitsa? It is a filo dough pastry coiled around a filling, similar to a small version of borek, and is popularly eaten as a breakfast food in Bulgaria.
The banitsa offered in Barcelona are a bit more avante-garde and contain fillings you are unlikely to see in Sofia: mint and pear, chocolate and orange, pumpkin and blue cheese and coconut milk curry. There are many vegetarian and vegan options, and even a gluten-free banitsa. The pastry case also contained some tempting-looking cakes including the classic Medovnik honey layer cake. To round out your meal, you can also get coffee, lemonade, tea, yogurt and hearty soups. There is also a small selection of Bulgarian groceries. We sampled chocolate and sesame seed and cheese varieties, both of which were excellent, and we loved the mini-burek format. if you are looking to get off the tourist track and try something new in Barcelona we heartily recommend Banitsa.
One of the main things we miss since we move away from Chicago was its proliferation of amazing Mexican pandarias and their huge assortment of pan dulce – Mexican sweet breads and cookies. When we went to LA we knew we would be able to get our fix. One of our friends tipped us off to a place in particular – La Monarca, which is an upscale pan dulce (traditional Mexican sweet breads and pastries) shop with espresso drinks and light bites. La Monarca is a small but flourishing chain of cafes with about a dozen locations in the LA Metro area – think Mexican-tinged Starbucks, but with better everything. We visited the Santa Monica location (1300 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403). The cafe was bright and airy, and was filled with a combination of people on their laptops, students and patrons grabbing a quick coffee and pastry before work.
Once you enter, on the left is the traditional case of pan dulce – you grab a tray and a set of tongs and load up the tray with whatever you want. Of course there are conchas, orejas (palmiers) and puerquitos, but also a few more unusual options like cuernitos (croissants) filled with dulce de leche, chocolate, cream cheese or guava and dulce de leche bread pudding. You can also go a bit more savory with bollilo bread rolls, baguettes or cornbread. We selected a mini cinnamon sugar concha, a puerquito and a a dulce de leche croissant, which had been particularly recommended to us. Of course we had our eye on the drink menu, which boasted single-origin Oaxacan coffee alongside cafe de olla (hot or cold coffee brewed with brown sugar and cinnamon), Mexican hot chocolate and champurrado (a sweetened chocolate elote drink). We get champurrado whenever we can find it, so we were extremely excited!
The refrigerated case is also full of other tempting looking cakes including tres leches, flan, dulce de leche and tiramisu. For heartier appetites they have salads, quiches, molletes (open faced sandwiches), and breakfast tacos, all with a Mexican twist including options with chorizo, huevos rancheros, chicken mole and salsa verde. We snagged an extra yogurt parfait for some protein. Everything at La Monarca was delicious (if a little pricey), and we enjoyed their modern twist on the traditional Mexican panaderia. We could definitely see ourselves becoming regulars if we lived closer!
Holi is one of our favorite holidays, not only for the food, but for the COLORS. Holi, celebrated in India and Indian diasporic communities is a traditional Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Spring, and is a time of happiness and merriment. Holi is also known as the “Festival of Colo(u)rs,” and only a few glances at Holi pictures and you will understand why – it is tradition to douse everyone with colored water or thrown powder on Holi. This amazing Holi photo above was taken at the Holi celebration of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah. Of course, Holi also a time of feasting, and there are plethora of delicious dishes and chaat (snacks) that are associated Holi. One popular Holi snack is Gujiya, a deep-fried empanada-like pastry filled with mawa, a typical fresh milk cheese. However, this is barely even scratching the surface: here are slew of Holi recipes from Cooking with Manali, Indianfoodforever.com, Simply Vegetarian 777, and the Times of India.
Nigeria is competing for the first time this year in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, with a bobsled team composed of Nigerian-Americans. Though bobsledding may not get a lot of press in Nigeria, we wanted to highlight this country and its food. So what is the most representative Nigerian national dish? A poll conducted this year by Pulse Magazine had readers selecting Jollof rice, whereas a poll done previously by CNN had them selecting Egusi soup. Well, we are definitely not informed enough to weigh in, so we figured we’d highlight each of these national dish rivals.
Jollof rice is a rice-based dish made with tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, hot peppers and spices, usually served with some kind of protein. Popular throughout West Africa, the recipe for Jollof Rice varies wildly depending on where you are. And of course, each country thinks that they have the best Jollof rice, and it has inspired years of heated debate (and even a rap song). In Nigeria, the dish is also typically accompanies by fried plantains and moin moin, a spicy side made from black eyed peas. You can find recipes for Jollof rice from All Nigerian Recipes, Sisi Jemimah and Ev’s Eats.
Egusi soup doesn’t have as wide of a range in Africa, and is made from the ground seeds of Egusi melon, palm oil, dried fish, and leafy greens (in many cases bitterleaf). Unlike Jollof rice, Egusi may be a little harder to find, unless you live by a Nigerian market, but thank goodness for the internet. Egusi soup is usually served with fufu (boiled and pounded cassava) that helps sop up the soup. You can find recipes for Egusi soup at Demand Africa, All Nigerian Recipes, and All Nigerian Foods. Though we have tried both of these dishes, our hearts are with Jollof rice, one of our favorite West African dishes, yum! Of course, Nigerian cuisine is is full of delicious dishes, so don’t stop with just these two.
It’s was Lunar New Year this weekend AND the start of the 2nd week of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, so naturally we have Korean food on the brain. One of the most important foods for the Lunar New Year – called Seollal in Korea – is Yaksik. Yaksik is a sweet rice dessert studded with jujubes, honey and chestnuts. Not only is the dessert tasty, but it is touted for its medicinal properties. The name “Yaksik” translates to “medicinal food,” (“Yak” meaning medicine, “Sik” meaning food). Think of it as a fruitier, healthier version of rice pudding. Here are recipes for Yaksik from Kimchimari (seen below) and Maangchi.
It’s always intriguing to find out about celebrities’ secret recipes. Well of course they probably eat (or ate) like we do, but it is sort of charming to think of them actually cooking for themselves or friends. Such is the case with Katherine Hepburn, who apparently made a mean batch of brownies. This recipe was published first by the New York Times after her death in 2003, and purportedly makes a delightful, fudgy brownie. Looking at the recipe, it seems like this chocolaty dessert might be perfect for Valentine’s Day. And if you are looking for a perfect Valentine’s movie pairing, I also recommend one of my favorite Hepburn romantic comedies (which also just happens to star Cary Grant) 1938’s Holiday (seen above).
Cleveland has a huge amount of Slovenian culture and Slovenian descendants, so it it perhaps not surprising that Cleveland is home to a local celebration of Slovenian Mardi Gras – Kurentovanje. The emblem of Kurentovanje are the Kurents, big fuzzy beasts who romp through town during Mardi Gras (called Pust in Slovenia), ringing bells loudly. The Kurents are rumored to have the power to chase away winter with their ruckus. For Slovenian Mardi Gras, a traditional food is Krofi – or doughnuts. Doughnuts are a popular choice for Mardi Gras celebrations around the world, since they would use up some of the ingredients that would then be forbidden in Lent: sugar, butter, and oil! Slovenian krofi are simple to make, and mirror the other Mardi Gras fried sweet fritters found worldwide like Paczki, Malasadas, Semla and Chiacchiere. Here are recipes from homemade krofi from E-Slovenie and Homemade Slovenian food. Though krofi looks delicious, we are more intrigued by the Kurents!
We think Venezuelan arepas are one of the most perfect foods: a carb-y masa shell, perfectly handheld, filled to the brim with tasty fillings (often including cheese!). Due to this perfect formula, it is no surprise then that arepas are increasingly popular worldwide. We even had arepas in Porto, Portugal (not to mention a few times in Chicago and Cleveland). One of my favorite arepa joints is located off the beaten path in Astoria, Queens, Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106). Lucky for me, Arepas Cafe is located conveniently near my cousin’s place, so I get to go there whenever I visit NYC.
Arepas Cafe is a humble storefront that does a brisk takeout business. We started out our lunch with my favorite Venezuelan drink, the limeade-like, Papelón con limón ($3.50), which is like the best, sweetest version of lemonade you have ever had (or the Brazilian “Swiss lemonade”). For appetizers you can get mini versions of arepas, empanadas, and cachapas (fresh corn pancakes) or the classic fried yucca ($5 for any). Though the arepas are the main draw, you can also get heartier meat entrees including the Venezuelan national dish Pabellón Criollo ($13) – shredded beef, white rice, black beans, cheese and fried sweet plantains.
The bulk of the menu is made up of arepa varieties (All of the arepas are $8 or less). There are combos for vegetarians and meat eaters alike – and we really enjoyed the Arepa Pabellón Pernil – roast pork with black beans, white cheddar and fried sweet plantains and the Guayanesa Tropical – Guyanese cheese (white fresh cheese), fried sweet plantains and avocado (pictured above). The pernil was tender and juicy and the sweet platanos maduros complemented the fresh cheese particularly well. Beyond our favorites, you can also get arepas filled with cheese, mushrooms, black beans, tuna, shrimp, chicken and more (I included my favorite arepa infographic above to give you some potential combination ideas). Arepas Cafe’s arepas are generously sized and delicious, and we have never been disappointed by our selections. Arepas Cafe is an absolute steal for NYC, and is the perfect place for a quick, hearty lunch.
There is nothing better than enjoying a meal at a rooftop cafe in beautiful weather. However, sometimes that beautiful view also comes with hype and inflated prices, but not so at Cantina das Frieras (Travessa do Ferragial 1, Lisbon), located at the foot of the Chiado district in Liscon. In fact, this is actually a barebones cafeteria run by nuns that just happens to have some of the best views in Lisbon. The Cantina is only open weekdays for lunch, so plan ahead, and if it is raining, visit on another day, because you are going to want to sit outside. It is a bit difficult to figure out how to get into the Cantina, and the nondescript entrance in the side of the brick building advertises the organization with only a small sign for the A.C.I.S.J.F. (Associação Católica Internacional ao Serviço da Juventude Feminina / International Catholic Association for Women’s Youth Service), the organization that runs the Cantina. Though it is a bit of an open secret nowadays, there is still an air of mystery around the place.
To reach the Cantina you climb the steep stairs to the top floor, where you will find yourself in front of a tiny coffee bar (feel free to order a coffee or tea), and beyond that a simple dining room. Going through the dining room you will reach the Cantina itself. This is really a “canteen” in the truest sense of the word, you take a cafeteria tray and let the nuns behind the counter know what you would like (it is Portuguese only but you will be able to make yourself understood). The menu is limited but includes hearty Portuguese classics like cod fritters, baked fish, ham and cheese sandwiches as well as lighter options like veggie lasagna, minestrone soup and salads. To round out the meal you can get an array of bottled drinks, fresh fruits, and dessert including cheesecake and puddings. You can even get wine! The menu changes daily, so you don’t know exactly what you will get on any given visit. However, the prices are insanely reasonable – we are not actually sure how much any of the unlabeled items cost – but for less than 10 Euros for both of us had a huge 3-course meal.
Now for the REALLY good part – the view. After ordering and paying, you can take your tray out to the rooftop terrace where there are probably about 10 plastic tables with umbrellas. Out on the terrace you have a beautiful view of the Tagus river and the red tiled rooftops of Chiado. We enjoyed our simple hearty meal shoulder to shoulder with students, local office workers and a handful of other foreigners. This is really the perfect place for lunch – cheap, tasty and with an amazing view! If we lived in the area we can see ourselves eating there every day. If you are looking for a real slice of Portuguese home cooking with a view you definitely have to go to the Cantina. Psssst…. keep it a secret!
Valentine’s Day is on the horizon, which led me to wondering – other than chocolate – are there really any desserts associated with Valentine’s Day (I couldn’t find any)? This search led me further afield to the intriguingly named “Wife Cake” (aka Sweetheart Cake). Wife cake is a traditional Chinese cake, made with a flaky pastry surrounding a sweet, candied winter melon center. I have seen a ton of different names for this same cake, but according to Wikipedia, the literal translation from the Cantonese lou po beng is “Old lady cake” with “old lady” being used in the sense of “wife” (get it!?). Winter melon (despite the name) is actually a squash and can be prepared in both sweet and savory ways. Candied winter melon alone is a popular snack around Lunar New Year and you should be able to find it in a well-stocked Asian grocery. Since these cake are filled with winter melon, it is no surprise that they are also particularly popular around Lunar New Year – which is coincidentally 2 days after Valentine’s Day in 2018. If you are looking for a treat to celebrate Valentine’s Day OR Lunar New Year, here are recipes for Wife Cake from My Kitchen Snippets, Gwai Shu Shu and More than bread.
When we told our friends we were going to Los Angeles and asked around for recommendations, one restaurant that kept coming up was Guelaguetza (3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006). Located on the edge of Koreatown in central LA, Guelaguetza is a long-running restaurant, founded by the Lopez family in 1994. Guelaguetza was named after the Oaxacan festival of the same name, and the cuisine of Oaxaca is on display. The moles at Guelaguetza, in particular, have gained a following over the years (you may even notice that their website is ilovemole.com), and in 2015 they even won a James Beard award. The restaurant’s unmissable orange exterior is decorated with murals on the outside and though its boxy exterior masks it – the inside of the restaurant is gigantic, with several large rooms, and it even houses a stage (with live music on most nights).
The menu at Guelaguetza is extensive, though the Oaxacan specialties seemed the most intriguing: as a mark of a real Oaxacan restaurant, you can get evem an order of chapulines (fried grasshoppers – $14.50) one of M’s favorites. Guelaguetza is also known for their tlayudas ($14.50) – large tortillas covered in re-fried beans and a variety of other toppings like mole, mushrooms, cactus, cheese and/or chorizo. Other Oaxacan dishes included goat barbacoa tacos ($14.50), Oaxacan-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves ($12.50) and a variety of preparations of tasajo (thin grilled sliced beef) and pork cecina (smoked and dried). While perusing the menu we decided to sample some drinks we had never seen before: horchata with prickly pear and agua de chilacayote. We had certainly have had horchata before (Mexican rice water with cinnamon) but the bright pink prickly pear added another element. The other drink tasted almost like a pumpkin spice late – chilacayote is actually squash – but this surprising drink was both refreshing and very sweet, thanks to the addition of the piloncillo sugar.
One thing we absolutely had to order was the mole – however we were a little overwhelmed at the options. We counted no less than 6 moles! When we sat down to the table, the first thing we were offered was a plate of chips with coloradito mole, giving us an idea of what was in store. The rusty red coloradito mole was rich, complex, salty, savory and sweet all at once (the secret ingredient to coloradito is plantain). We saw the The “Festival of Moles” sampler which served two ($29), and we figured that was our best way to sample the mole universe. The sampler included portions of four moles: Mole Negro, Mole Rojo, Mole Coloradito, Mole Estofado. Each little pot of mole was topped off with shredded chicken, was served with rice and (extra-large) handmade tortilla was there to sop up the sauce. The mole negro (aka mole Oaxaqueño), is the most complex mole, the darkest in color, and spiced with a hint of chocolate. This one was L’s favorite. The mole rojo, a slightly spicier, peppery sauce was M’s favorite, and far surpassed any version he had ever had in the states. The mole coloradito that we had sampled as an appetizer was just as delicious in entree portion. The most unusual mole was the briny estofado, which is made from olives. The salty, puckery taste was one we had never tried before – not even in Mexico.
We used every last bit of rice and the giant homemade tortilla to sop up the mole sauce – this was definitely some of the best mole we have ever had – both inside of Oaxaca and out. For dessert there was of course flan, but we were happy to also see nicuatole ($8.50) – a flan-esque pudding made with corn. We last tried nicuatole at our cooking class in Oaxaca – and it is great! There is also a little shop in the front of the restaurant that sells Mexican jewelry, bags, molinillos, and most importantly, jars of official Guelaguetza mole and chocolate to take home. Sadly, we couldn’t bring the jars of mole home in our carry-ons, but we certainly will be ordering some soon. We were really impressed by the food at Guelaguetza, especially the mole, which will be really hard to beat!
In any Ghanaian kitchen or restaurant there will be Shito – a super-spicy black pepper sauce that is virtually essential to any sort of Ghanaian cooking. “Shito” is the word for pepper in the Ga language but has come to refer also to the black pepper sauce itself. Along with peppers, the sauce contain tomatoes, onions, garlic and fish or shrimp paste to give a bit of essential umami. I have seen recipes calling for 30 habanero peppers – so this sauce is definitely not for the faint of heart. Here are a few recipes: from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (see below), Homemade by TZ, The African Gourmet, and Nigerian Lazy Chef. You can also buy shito in pre-made form at many African grocers or online.
Though it has faded from memory a bit – 12th Night – occurring on January 5th and 6th was once a major holiday celebration in the UK. It marked the end of the holiday season, and the Epiphany, which in Christian tradition is the day when the three wise men arrived to see the newborn Jesus and bestow gifts upon him. Occurring 12 days after Christmas, Twelfth Night was one last night of feasting and merriment before the Christmas season was officially over.
One of the key treats of 12th Night is Wassail, a warm alcoholic punch with fortified wine, apples and warm holiday spices. Some recipes even include eggs, in the manner of eggnog. Wassailing also refers to the tradition of roving door to door and singing carols, including of course “Here we come A-Wassailing.” You can find a variety of recipes at Lavender and Lovage, Nourished Kitchen, or a more modern take at LA Weekly.
A Twelfth Cake is also a traditional food of the holiday – it is a basically a fruitcake with a dried in it – much like the trinket found in a Rosca des Reyes or Galette des Rois. The person who found the bean was then the king or queen for the day. Though the shape and form of the cake is not as codified as in some other cultures, 12th night cakes were increasingly elaborate by the end of the 19th century. Here are some historical 12th Night Cake recipes from the 1800s and an updated version from English Heritage.
When we were in Rome for our honeymoon years ago, we stopped by a little walk-up pizza counter near the Vatican, the Pizzerium, run by renowned pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci. The pizza was delicious, and served al taglio – by the piece – which in the case of Roman-style pizza means cut by scissors and priced by weight. Roman style pizza is served on a somewhat thick crust with the texture of focaccia bread, with an abundance of topping varieties. We never expected to have Bonci pizza again (short of taking another trip to Rome) so we were floored when we heard that Bonci himself was opening his first overseas location in Chicago. Bonci himself supervised the opening of the Chicago shop, the eponymous Bonci (161 N Sangamon St. Chicago, IL) over the summer of 2017, and by the time we arrived in December, it seemed to be a well-oiled machine.
The Chicago Bonci location was similar to the Roman one – except supersized. The concept is the same – you peruse the pizzas on display and get slices to order, which are then, cut, weighed, heated up and brought out to you. When we were at Bonci there were at least a dozen pizzas on display. They varied by weight but most were $10.99 – $14.99 a pound. You can get any size you want, but we went with the smallest samples possible so we could try many varieties (which ran us about $3.50). The flavor combos ranged from classic margherita, to spicy meatball to salmon, and there is something for every taste. We started out with 3 varieties, but then went back for 2 more.
On our first trip we sampled ricotta, zucchini and lemon; anchovy and zucchini; and arrabiata (red sauce and spicy pepper). We followed up with potato and rosemary, and arugula and prosciutto. As we waited for our order to be heated up, we grabbed some stools behind the counter and watched the pizzaiolos do their thing – pressing the dough into rectangular pans and sprinkling toppings across the surface. One of the great things was that in less than 20 minutes, there were already some new pizza varieties to try on our second trip. We really enjoyed all of the pizzas, and we appreciated the attention to detail in the chewy, flavorful crust and all of the super-fresh toppings. Most of the pizzas did not come with red sauce, and all of the cheeses were fresh and delicate. Our favorite slice of the day was the ricotta with lemon, which was light, fresh and bright – and we felt like we could eat a whole pizza!
The service at Bonci was also excellent, and when the GM noticed that our slices did not have enough arugula, he brought some over himself. If you are thirsty, there is still and fizzy water on tap along with a selection of Italian soft drinks, single-serve wines and beers. Unlike the Rome location, there are counters along the wall to sit, though a good deal of the patrons were taking their pizzas to go. All told, we were stuffed with top-notch pizza for less than $20. If you like high-quality pizza, we highly recommend that you give Bonci a try – it is a little slice of Rome right here in Chicago.
Over the years we have discovered that one of the most universally beloved foods is the fried dough ball. In the Netherlands, fried dough balls are a traditional New Year’s food called Oliebollen (which translates to “oil balls” – the singular is oliebol). They have been variously known in the US as “Dutch doughnuts” and are called smoutebollen and croustillons in Belgium. Oliebollen have a long history in the Netherlands and were part of Germanic Yule celebrations, and the first written recipes date from the 1660s. The painting below, “Meid met oliebollen,” by Aelbert Cuyp is from 1652.
The legend behind Oliebollen is actually more morbid than I was expecting. According to Paste Magazine:
Eating oliebollen was considered a surefire way to ward off the whims of a cruel pagan goddess named Perchta. Her Teutonic name meant bright or glorious, but she was not always friendly. During the 12 Days of Christmas the goddess was said to fly around with evil spirits looking for something to eat. In her quest she might even use her sword to slice open the stomachs of those who’d already eaten to get at their food. Tradition said that eating oliebollen protected you because the fat absorbed from the cooking oil made Perchta’s sword slide off of her victims.
Oliebollen doesn’t stick to its fearsome origins anymore, and is mostly sold on the streets, accompanied by fireworks! There are tons of recipes for Oliebollen online including The Dutch Baker’s Daughter, Allrecipes and The Dutch Table.
We were lucky enough to get Hamilton tickets in NYC this year, which brought us to the age old question – where in the worlds are we going to eat? The key to pre-theater food is that it has be quick and close to the theater – it’s a bonus if it is any good (this is harder than it may seem). Fortunately, we think we have cracked the code for pre-theater dining in NYC – ramen! Turns out there is a pocket of great ramen joints pretty near NYC’s theater district. One of the best places to go is Totto Ramen (366 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019), or Totto Ramen Next Door (366 W 52nd St. – same address…but next door) if that is a bit too busy! The best rumored ramen in the area is Ippudo (321 W 51st St, New York, NY 10019), and you might also try your hand at getting a spot there, but we heard that the line could be epic.
The name of the game at each of these places is ramen, and each is basically a walk-in. Regardless, there may be a line, even at Totto Ramen, and we had better luck going “Next Door” on a Thursday night. The menu at Totto Ramen Next Door is an abbreviated version of Totto Ramen – but all of the ramen greatest hits are there. You can order a piping-hot bowl of vegetable ramen (regular $9 or spicy $10), richer pork tonkatsu ramen, available with both shoyu or shio broths in both regular or spicy varieties ($12-14). The tonkatsu is the specialty of the house, so we knew we had to try it for ourselves. If you are really feeling peckish you can get a “Mega char siu tonkatsu” with a larger bowl and an extra helping of char siu pork ($16-17). It may have not been the most amazing ramen we have ever tried, but it was rich and flavorful, and the veggie ramen was some of the freshest and most colorful we have ever had. Plus, it may have just been the quickest and cheapest thing in the theater district aside from fast food. We walked right to our show after grabbing a bite, which took less than 45 minutes, all told. So do away with all of the fuss and expensive pre-dinner packages and just get yourself some ramen!