New York is the only city in the world where you can get run down on the sidewalk by a pedestrian.
— Russell Baker
If you've ever been to New York City, you've probably noticed that we're an impatient lot. We walk at a slow jog, we talk like an auctioneer with a bad case of Tourette's, we fold our pizza for maximum eat-on-the-run efficiency, and we expect everybody to get with the program. That Chinese delivery guy better be buzzing our apartment before we've even hung up the phone, and our taxi driver better weave through traffic like a lead-footed drunk wearing a blindfold, while we holler from the backseat, "Yo, I'm kinda in a hurry here!"
Amid all of this hustle and bustle, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of what possessed us to make New York our home in the first place. Which is why, when out-of-town guests arrive, armed with their to-do lists of landmarks and restaurants and shows, we are reminded that we live in one of the greatest cites in the world. We recall why we moved here and why we are now completely unsuited to ever live anywhere else.
When company comes, we actually get a chance to stop and smell the roses. Or, you know, the garbage. Whatever.
And for this particular visit, we weren't hosting just any houseguests. We were hosting a tiny, tattooed terror otherwise known as my sister Trina, and her boyfriend Scott, a brave soul who agreed to fly to NYC to meet a couple of strangers and spend two nights on a sofabed in the middle of their living room in a masochistic mash-up of Airbnb and "Meet the Parents."
Adding to the excitement of squeezing four adults into an apartment the size of a Port-a-Potty was the fact that a Nor'easter decided that this would be the perfect weekend to blow into town and blow all of our outdoor plans to smithereens. But Trina, who with good reason refers to herself the Good Weather Fairy, wasn't the least bit worried. When, at the last minute, the forecast changed from three days of chilly temps and pouring rain to three days of warm, glorious sunshine, Trina took all the credit, explaining, "I just put Mother Nature in a headlock and stuck my fingers in her nostrils." Oh.
Trina and Scott left me in charge of our agenda, which is a lot like leaving a monkey in charge of all the bananas. And so our weekend began, as so many of my weekends do, with a food tour. None of us were particularly interested in an organized tour -- we dislike being on other people's schedules almost as much as we dislike other people -- so I made up one of my own, with double the carbs, triple the fat, and quadruple the calories of a typical organized tour, minus those annoying admonitions about pacing yourself.
With approximately 500 eclectic restaurants in an area that would fit easily inside Central Park, Greenwich Village was the perfect place for us to begin.
Abandoning the formal grid structure that defines the city north of 14th Street, Greenwich Village is a mish-mash of narrow streets made for meandering, and the area's low-rise buildings allow more sunshine to reach the street.
We began our tour at Joe's Pizza, a Village institution that many famous people have said they would choose for their last meal on earth. Sure, the pizza at Joe's is pretty good, but if your last meal fails to include things like bacon, cheeseburgers, and bacon cheeseburgers, you obviously need to spend more time watching "Locked Up Abroad" and planning ahead.
Next up, we made a stop at Grom, a gelato shop based in Turin, Italy, and renowned for its rich, creamy gelato and refreshing granita, which is a coarse, Italian-style slushie.
You can make granita at home, of course, but I can tell you from experience that nailing the exact consistency between "water" and "frozen block of ice" requires a degree of scientific skill that could probably be put to better use doing something useful, like curing cancer or cooking meth, instead of hacking away at an ice floe with the tines of a fork.
Next, we made a few quick stops for cheese, pasta, bacon brittle, and cookies that were bigger than Trina's head. Then again, even regular-sized cookies are bigger than her head.
Then it was on to Bantam Bagels, which, like taco shells made out of Doritos and cronuts, are one of those things that I really wish I'd thought of first.
Bantams are round, donut-hole-style mini bagels stuffed with whatever you'd normally spread on top, in creative flavors like the Cinnamonster (cinnamon-raisin bagels filled with sweet walnut cream cheese), the Bleecker Street (a pizza-dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese), and the Hangover (a cheddar cheese and egg bagel filled with bacon cheddar cream cheese and a drizzle of maple syrup).
We scarfed down half a dozen, which was a really good idea after pizza, and then lugged our leaden bellies around to take in the sights.
Some of which were more unusual than others.
Along the way we encountered a number of homeowners ready for Halloween . . . or just desperate to keep nosy tourists off their property.
These jack o'lanterns are so wildly creative that I bet it's no accident that a few of them look just like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
Eventually we made our way over to the Meatball Shop, a polpette-y playground of balls, sliders, and heroes, plus Jell-O shots, ice cream sandwiches, floats, and fun cocktails.
The naked balls can be mixed and matched with various sauces and come four-of-one-kind to an order, but luckily there were four of us, so we got to try a little bit of everything, including the classic beef balls with tomato sauce, chicken balls with creamy parmesan sauce, spicy pork balls with mushroom gravy, and the day's special ball and sauce, bratwurst balls paired with beer and cheddar sauce.
Oh, and a side of rigatoni, a side of Brussels sprouts with chorizo, a round of Jell-O shots, and some cocktails, including a Moscow Mule for Trina that was served in a traditional copper mug. Yeah, that's alot of food, but walking off pizza and bagels takes a lot out of you.
Which is why we had to order a walnut brownie (or, as Trina called it, a Bronut), and a scoop of heavenly brown-sugar ice cream, for dessert.
I wasn't sure if the Meatball Shop could live up to all the hype, but the balls were meaty, tender, and delicious, and the sauces were "I could eat this like soup" good. Throw in some interesting cocktails, crazy ice cream flavors, and the fantastically awesome Whiskey Grid -- and magic markers to mark up your menu, so you don't have to talk with your mouth full when it's time to order more stuff -- and you can see why I am petitioning them to let me move my bed in there.
Post-balls, we spent a little more time walking off the damage, also known as "preparing for more damage to come."
Eventually we headed back uptown to show Trina and Scott around our neighborhood in midtown, which we like for its mix of towering skyscrapers, historic walk-ups, and charming pocket parks.
Oh, and this. You didn't really think we picked this neighborhood at random, did you?
Just as running a marathon leads to vomiting, walking around leads to drinking, and so we ended up at Vero, a small wine bar near our apartment where we could sit outside and enjoy the warm weather.
A quick nap and change of clothes later, it was time to head downtown for dinner.
New York City has more Italian restaurants than the Pope has pointy hats, and the more tiny, quaint, and candlelit the spot, the better I like it. And so we made a beeline for Chelsea and one of our regular haunts, Cola's, a postage stamp-sized storefront complete with tiny topiaries, exposed brick walls, a pressed-tin ceiling, and warm, caring service.
Oh, and a lion's head! Nothing says Italy like la testa de un leone.
Meals at Cola's begin with crusty Italian bread served with a large dollop of fresh ricotta swimming in extra-virgin olive oil and topped with ribbons of fresh basil, all served gratis. In a town where a bowl of chicken soup can set you back $25, some free ricotta is as close to winning the Lotto as you're likely to get.
The guys both ordered the homemade pappardelle with wild boar ragu, while I decided on the pork loin with cremini mushrooms, fresh sage, and dry Marsala.
Trina went all vegetarian on us with the penne topped with eggplant and goat cheese, so no picture for her.
New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience — if they did, they would live elsewhere.
— E.B. White
The next morning we headed down to SoHo for brunch at a popular spot called Jane.
Angel and I used to be regulars here, or at least we were until an ill-fated dinner with friends last year, when the restaurant kept us waiting for over an hour despite a reservation, then seated us near the kitchen at a table for five . . . even though there were six of us. I swore that I'd never return, but the location was good for the rest of the day's plans with Trina and Scott, and what were the chances of yet another hour-long wait?
Pretty good, it turns out, as our wait at the crowded bar dragged on toward 40 minutes . . . despite again having a reservation. At least they had the decency to send over some free homemade donuts with hot chocolate and creme Anglaise dipping sauces this time.
We soothed our irritation with a round of brunch cocktails -- tart apple-Champagne cocktails and a passionfruit Screwdriver -- plus a Concord-grape margarita, which was insanely delicious. If grape juice had tasted like this when I was a kid, I might not have thrown such a fit about going to church on Sundays.
Then it was on to the kinds of dishes that keep me coming back to this place despite the abuse: Poached eggs with maple chicken sausage, corn pancakes, and roasted tomato hollandaise for Trina; scrambled eggs with smoked ham, gruyère, and caramelized onions for Angel; the vanilla-bean French toast with crème brûlée batter for Scott; and scrambled eggs with cheddar grits, ham steak, and a flaky buttermilk biscuit for me.
After lunch, the guys wanted to catch the end of the Steelers-Jets game, so they headed over to Milady's, a knock-'em-back, rack-'em-up dive bar that has somehow managed to survive SoHo's transformation from "starving artist" to "wealthy artiste" with its outer-borough prices still intact.
That left me and Trina free to scour the neighborhood for everything from jewelry and bath products to sweaters and shoes.
On Prince Street, we saw these guys setting up a piano and a set of drums in the middle of the street while a crowd began to gather.
Soon they began to play, and the guy on the piano was into it, white-guy-jazz-face and all. As for Trina, she was into poking a little fun at him.
After that it was time for a little snack, so we stopped at Marie Belle, whose tiny, jewel-like chocolates come in eclectic flavors like dulce de leche, jasmine, caipirinha, saffron, and cardamom.
Later we stopped in front of a real estate office, where we spotted this apartment with a shoeboxed-sized living room for the bargain price of $22,500 . . . per month.
Eventually we stumbled upon Novecento, a cute Argentinian bistro on West Broadway. We put our names on the list for one of the four Parisian-style cafe tables fronting the sidewalk, then waited on a bench out front while staring at the people hogging the prime tables in an effort to get them to move along.
Once seated, we decided to take advantage of the two-for-one Happy Hour deal. We settled on a glass of sangria for Trina and a cachaça-spiked mojito for me, which might have been a good deal if the "one" hadn't cost $14. I mean, you'd think they'd cut the locals some slack, seeing as how they're already shelling out $22,500 a month for their apartments.
We met the guys back home and then got ready for dinner at Naya, a cool, cleverly designed Lebanese restaurant around the corner from our apartment.
One of the many reasons we love Naya is because they serve kibbe, which are addictive little fried meatballs fattened up with bulgur wheat, minced onions, and pine nuts.
I know you are wondering how I manage to live so close to unlimited meatballs and still have time to hold down a full-time job, but it's really not that hard: When my colleagues duck outside for a smoke break, I take a meatball break.
Angel insists on calling these little Lebanese balls of bliss "kippe," which is what they are called in the Dominican Republic. The day you find yourself arguing over the correct pronounciation of a food that most Americans have never even heard of is the day you become a true New Yorker.
In addition to the kibbe, we ordered shrimp in a spicy red sauce; pita stuffed with minced lamb, onion, and parsley; hummus with ground sirloin and pine nuts; potatoes sauteed with garlic and fresh coriander; falafel with tahini sauce; pickled baby eggplant with walnuts and garlic; Lebanese rice; and muhammara, a spicy red pepper dip with walnuts, pomegranate, molasses, and cumin.
What was our favorite dish? That’s like asking someone to pick their favorite child. Then again, my parents did, so what the hell. While everything was delicious as usual, one of the dishes Scott chose that we hadn't tried before -- the hummus blended with ground sirloin and pine nuts -- was so good that eventually we dispensed with the pita bread and just spread it directly onto our tongues.
After dinner we jumped in the car and headed upstate -- a geographic area that New Yorkers understand to encompass everything from the northern Bronx to the Canadian border -- to the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze.
You might remember that Angel and I visited this flaming free-for-all last year, and we couldn't wait to return this year to share it with Trina and Scott. Bundled into cozy sweaters on a crisp, clear fall evening, we enjoyed the addition of some new displays, dinosaurs, dragons, and Venus fly traps among them . . .
Along with even more stunning, intricately carved works of art than last time.
Best of all, none of us managed to accidentally set ourselves on fire. That's two years and counting!
New York is where you can get the best cheap meal and the lousiest expensive meal in the country.
-- Robert C. Weaver
Our last morning was shaping up to be warm and sunny yet again, so we headed down to Alphabet City, an edgy, bohemian enclave in the East Village, to celebrate Columbus' discovery of America . . . with Mexican food.
El Camion, which means "the bus," serves up inexpensive, authentic Mexican fare and Herradura margaritas in fun flavors like hibiscus, tamarind, ginger (for Trina), and blood orange (for me), along with grilled corn on the cob with chipotle-lime mayo and cotija cheese (for everyone who brought dental floss).
The restaurant was serving brunch instead of lunch since Monday was a holiday, so Trina went with the organic poached eggs served on a habanero-corn muffin with carnitas and served with a umami-rific chipotle hollandaise, while Scott kept it simple with scrambled eggs and bacon. Angel had the steak & egg dobladas, which were served enchilada style with red rice, black beans, guacamole, and salsa fresca, while I went straight for lunch, settling on the messy-but-delicious Coca-Cola carnitas with onion-cilantro salsa and the aforementioned grilled corn.
After lunch we wandered around the East Village, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the funky vibe.
Of course, this is the East Village, so we did run into some weirdos along the way.
Soon we found ourselves in Tompkins Square Park. Once a haven for drug dealers and the homeless known as "Needle Park" in the late 80s and early 90s, Tompkins Square has since been cleaned up.
Today, the park even has a dog run, which is the surest sign of gentrification short of a Starbucks . . . and guys wearing snap shirts.
Since we were in the neighborhood, I wanted to show Trina one of my favorite wine bars in the city, Il Posto Accanto, and by "show" I of course mean settle in with a bottle of wine (in this case, a Supertuscan from the Maremma region).
Il Posto holds a special place in my heart because Angel and I spent many hours there while I was studying for the bar exam, sipping wine and running through flash cards. Oh, you're not supposed to study for the bar at a bar? I object.
We walked a bit more, exhorted at every turn to get drunk, get cozy, or get lost.
But just when you start to think that New Yorkers are hard-hearted and soulless, a cooing crowd will form around a couple of sparrows happily splashing about in a tiny makeshift birdbath on the sidewalk. Awwww.
Too soon, it was time to take Trina and Scott back to the airport for their flight home. We said our goodbyes, then sped away toward Hoboken and Leo's Grandevous, a legendary Frank Sinatra hangout and red-sauce pasta joint that has served Hoboken for the last 72 years.
After all, it had been 24 hours since I'd last had some meatballs.
Fall is houseguest season in New York, but we'll be back on the road for a 10-day trip to the British Virgin Islands in December. Can it get any more exciting than boating around the Abacos?
We sure hope not.