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MEDITERRANEAN VIA THE UPPER WEST SIDE
By Martin B. Deutsch
February 2, 2012 -- A question of culinary substance arose recently when I was asked whether business travelers staying in hotels in midtown (or lower) Manhattan would venture north to residential neighborhoods like the Upper West Side for a dining experience.
I can't provide any statistical answers, but the neighborhood in question--the area just north of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and west of Central Park--is always jammed with tourists. That leads me to conclude that travelers are indeed trekking uptown to sample restaurants that feature satisfying dining and reasonable prices. At least reasonable compared to the pricey, midtown venues.
There is an abundance of worthy cuisine on the Upper West Side, but, for this column, I've taken my inspiration from one of the world's great dining regions, the Mediterranean. I dropped in on three fine venues--one Italian, one Greek and one Turkish--all of which, I feel compelled to tell you, are also quite close to where I live.
AN AUTHENTIC ITALIAN DELI
Let us begin with Salumeria Rosi Pamacotto on Amsterdam Avenue, one of the Upper West Side's main streets. The moniker is quite a mouthful, but I can guarantee that the mouthfuls you ingest at one of the few tables in this cozy Italian "deli" and restaurant will be more than satisfactory.
For those who haven't had the pleasure of sampling one in Italy, a salumeria is the equivalent of a deli that features specialty cold cuts and cheeses from various Italian provinces. In fact, this place seems to do as much business at the take-out counter as it does in the small dining area. It's a great spot to pick up goodies to go for events and picnics in nearby Central Park during the warmer weather.
Getting down to the food, a friend and I recently stopped by for lunch, starting with a trio of salumi ($17 to $26) and three cheeses ($15). Both were accompanied by hearty breads. The salumi we sampled included Mortadella (cooked pork sausage, a Bolognese staple); Bresaola (air-dried, salted beef from Lombardy); and Guanciale (cured pork jowl, a staple in Lazio and Abruzzo). The overall impression was decidedly favorable, but the next time around I think I'll swap out one of them for my favorite, Prosciutto San Daniele.
The three cheeses included two cow's milk (semi-soft Ubriaco Raboso from the Veneto and classic Parmigiano Reggiano), and a six-month-old sheeps' milk, Pecorino from Tuscany. All three lived up to their fancy pedigrees and worked well with the salumi, but I do have a caveat: I've always felt, or been taught, that quality cheeses should be served at room temperature to bring out their exceptional flavors. These were served quite cold.
For the main course we tried the Pepolino ($13), an artisanal pasta served with pomarola (marinara) sauce, and the $17 pan-seared Agnello, a "T-bone" lamb chop. I'd repeat both choices without hesitation. Beverages include the expected tea, coffee and espresso as well as a selection of liquors and digestives. There's a nice selection of desserts, too, and I'm looking forward to trying the budino di pane (bread pudding) on my next visit.
Keeping in mind that this is a deli with a limited menu, I was nevertheless favorably impressed by the range and quality of the offerings. We had a charming and well-versed waitress, as American as apple pie, who did not seem to clash with this otherwise Italianate venue.
IT'S GREEK NEAR ME
For years, I got my Greek food fix out in Astoria, in the borough of Queens, which, from an Upper West Sider's view, is as far away as Greece. Lately, however, I've satisfied my cravings for Hellenic "home cooking" at Kefi on Columbus Avenue, another of the neighborhood’s main drags.
This 200-seat, multi-floor place has the feel of a rustic taverna with its blue-and-white color palette, stone floors, stucco walls and weathered wooden beams. More important, chef Michael Psilakis' reasonably priced dishes live up to the restaurant's claim of authenticity. (Appetizers are less than $10 and entrees range from $10 to $18.) It's also packed on weekends, a testament to its status as a local favorite. I've eaten here four or five times, both for lunch and dinner, and it's always been enjoyable.
At a recent dinner for three, we started, logically enough, with a Greek salad ($6.75) of shredded lettuce and fennel, tomato, cucumber, olives, peppers, onions and feta cheese. There was also tsoutsoukakia ($6.95), a dish of meatballs with roasted garlic, olives and tomato. How good are they? They were voted the city's Best Meatballs by New York magazine. And while I'm not a fan of squid, I really liked the crispy calamari ($7.50) with a side of pita chips and tzatziki sauce. (Make sure your pita is warm!)
After all those appetizers, we shared two main dishes, the braised lamb shank with orzo ($16.50) and the grilled branzino ($17.95), which were more than enough and really good. One of these days I'm gonna try the widely praised sheep's milk dumplings with tomato, pine nuts and spicy lamb sausage ($13.95).
There's an extensive selection of ouzos and Greek wines and we tried both a white and a red (from $6.50 by the glass). There are also desserts that include chocolate mousse & halva and sesame ice cream ($7.95).
About the service: We've had better waiters, but you can't win them all. If you aren't in the mood for on-site dining--or not up for the noise or crowds--Kefi offers takeout and local delivery, too.
AND FROM THE TURKISH TABLE
With better-than-average regional cuisine and reasonable prices, Pasha is, unsurprisingly, a popular Turkish restaurant for both locals and tourists. Informed and polite service, a welcome parlay, adds to its appeal.
We were recently at the restaurant, just off Columbus Avenue, as a foursome, but I've eaten here more than a half-dozen times. Here are some of the dishes that are both typical and recommended.
Among a generous selection of appetizers ($5.50 to $12), my favorites include Zeytinyagli Enginar (braised artichoke hearts with garden peas, potatoes and carrots); hummus; the Marul Salata (a salad of romaine lettuce, black olives, fresh dill, scallions and feta cheese); and the Tarama (whipped red caviar). I also heartily recommend any of the three appetizer salads.
Among the traditional Turkish entrees, lamb is almost always my choice, with chicken and fish not that far behind. Istim Kebab (braised lamb shank, $18.50), Tavuk Adana (finely chopped chicken grilled on a skewer, $17.95) and Alabalik Tava (boneless brook trout, $18.50) are among my top choices.
There is a selection of global wines and a sprinkling of Turkish vintages, priced from $32 to $58 by the bottle and $8 to $11 by the glass. As for desserts, I'm not a fan of baklava, but I'm told that Pasha's version ($6.50) is excellent. I prefer the delicious Kaymakil Kayisisi (poached apricots with crème fraiche and pistachios, $6.50) and Firinda Sutlac (traditional Turkish rice pudding, $6.50).
Bottom line: All three restaurants are worth a cab (or subway) ride from elsewhere in Manhattan. And reservations are recommended because, after all, this is New York.
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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2012 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.