Category Archives: Essays & Rants

The Ham Sandwich

The Ham Sandwich

Rushing home to get on my computer for a one pm meeting, I still had time to stop at the deli and get something to go. I’d mute my mic while I ate and no one would ever know the difference. Glad there was no line when I arrived, I was upset to see Ali the Master Sandwich Maker wasn’t behind the counter. He took pride in his work, as any craftsman should. But he wasn’t there. Instead, a pretty young woman new to the deli stood in his place. Pretty or not, could she fill Ali’s shoes and live up to his excellent sandwich making skills?

“Hi, where’s Ali?”

She smiled but didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t hear me.

I let it go and said, “Ham and Swiss cheese on a roll with mustard and lettuce, please.”

She held up two rolls, one on each side of her cheerful face, sesame on the left and poppy on the right. Now that was something Ali never did. He’d just pick up any old roll and that’s what I got. I pointed to the poppy and started to think that maybe his replacement wasn’t going to be too bad after all.

I got home and to my desk just in time, about two minutes to one. The meeting started and I muted so they couldn’t hear the crinkling of wax paper as I unwrapped my ham and Swiss. It was a good thing they couldn’t hear me because I said something unprintable when I saw orange American cheese instead of the Swiss I had asked for – very disappointing. As I explained some figures on a spread sheet to my associates, I quietly began to peel off the offending American cheese when I almost cursed again – mayo instead of mustard.

That was two strikes against the new sandwich maker. As quickly as I could, I ran to the fridge and grabbed the Gulden’s, reached in a drawer for a knife to spread it and got back to my meeting before anyone missed me. Most of the mayo was on the lettuce so I removed it and scrapped the rest of it off the bread. My desk began to look like a compost heap.

I thought I was finally ready to eat but no, I couldn’t. She might have been pretty, but she didn’t understand the underlying structure of a well-made sandwich. One has to be built, with each item carefully placed to evenly cover the bread to the right thickness, as Ali did. She cut a few slices of ham, folded them over and just laid them there leaving one side higher than the other. And she left bare spots, where a bite would result in a mouthful of bread and nothing else. I had to relocate each slice and by the time I corrected her amateurish mistakes, my keyboard was smeared with mayo and mustard.

American instead of Swiss and mayo instead of mustard.

Could she have sabotaged my sandwich on purpose? She seemed so sweet I couldn’t accept that. The only other explanation was that she didn’t understand English, and not just that, she must have come from a culture that didn’t understand sandwiches. When I made my order, she got “ham” and “cheese” but all the rest seemed to have been guess work on her part.

I half-heartedly ate my sandwich and continued with the meeting but I was distracted. I thought about the time Judge Sol Wachtler was in the news a few years back. Dissatisfied with the way the New York grand jury system worked, he felt it should be done away with. He said prosecutors had so much influence they could always get an indictment. They could even get the jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” If ever a ham sandwich deserved to be indicted, it was the one I had just eaten.


Another meeting, another sandwich – just right this time.


 Click here for updated GALLERY II

Robert Iulo – Writing Site and  Yelp

ACT LIKE A NEW YORKER

Act Like a New Yorker
I want to point out a few simple things that could make a big difference on your next trip to New York City.

Tourism is a big industry in New York. We appreciate your business and, trust me on this, most New Yorkers would actually like tourists if only you tried to be part of our City and not just stand back and watch us as though you were at a zoo.


In winter, don’t dress like you’re going to a ski resort or in summer, a beach resort. This is a city so dress for the city and not a national park. How can you expect a good table in a white table cloth restaurant when you show up wearing sneakers, shorts and a baseball cap?


Manhattan isn’t just Times Square, so be adventurous and go see the neighborhoods. And New York City isn’t just Manhattan. Since you can have authentic Italian espresso in a café in Bensonhurst, Greek coffee in Astoria and café con leche in the South Bronx, why look for a Starbucks where their coffee will be no different than in the Starbucks at home in your local mall? And don’t forget Staten Island.


Skip the Olive Gardens, Burger Kings and other chains you’re used to and go local. With over 40,000 restaurants in New York, you can easily find one that suits your taste. It isn’t necessarily going to be more expensive and might even save you some money.


Explore the City the way natives do, by foot and public transit. It’s easy with a map and some common sense, keeping in mind you shouldn’t stop to look at your map at the top of a flight of subway stairs during rush hour.


New Yorkers move fast and walking too slowly or three abreast is almost as bad as reckless driving on a highway. Navigating the sidewalks of New York is a lot like your driving back home: keep up with the pace of traffic, don’t randomly change lanes and make no unexpected stops. You can cause accidents, traffic jams or at the very least, bad feelings.


When you come to an intersection, it’s fine if you don’t want to jay-walk but don’t block our way when we appear to be willing to risk our lives to get to an appointment on time. To New Yorkers, a “don’t walk” sign is just a suggestion. Assume we know what we’re doing after years of practice.


Please don’t  think I’m just another nasty New Yorker, because honest, I’m not. I’d really like you to avoid tourist traps and see the real New York. I want you to feel like you belong here and experience the city the way we do and all you have to do is act like a New Yorker.


Click here for updated GALLERY II

Robert Iulo – Writing Site and  Yelp

An Italian Dinner

An Italian Dinner
You can have things pretty much your way in an Italian restaurant. You are the customer and they’ll try to accommodate you. It’s different when you go to an Italian home for dinner. You don’t want to offend your hosts and you want to be a good guest so here are a few things you should know.
Don’t show up with your hands in your pockets. Bring a little something for your hosts. Flowers or some wine always works. Maybe a box of pastry from a good bakery. Except for pastry, don’t bring any other food. Only certain family members and very close friends should bring an agreed upon dish.

Dress nicely (more formally than you might think). Unless for religious reasons – don’t wear a hat at the table, even if it’s your favorite team.

Expect to start eating at seven or later. You’ll arrive, have a drink, maybe the antipasto served buffet style and then sit down for the main meal to start. The exception to this is that dinner will be served at two or three in the afternoon if you’re invited on a Sunday.

Italians eat a lot over a long period of time and serve multiple courses. Typically, an Italian dinner will include antipasto, pasta, a main plus many side dishes, then coffee, so pace yourself and don’t take more than you can finish. There will always be enough for seconds and thirds.

It’s not a restaurant so don’t expect parmigiana, spaghetti & meatballs or other American dishes. Your hosts might serve you recipes that have been in their family for generations and are probably not typical to American Italian restaurants.

Bread isn’t served as an appetizer to start the meal like it is in a restaurant. It’s on the table throughout the meal. And don’t expect butter. Look at it this way – if your bread needs butter to be edible, maybe you should be buying better bread.

Salad will not  be served as a first course but as a side dish along with the main course. The salad will be dressed simply with salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar.

If your hosts have children, unless they’re babies, they will be at the table. If you have children they’ll be invited too. The kids will be at the table eating the same things you do (not specially prepared PB&Js or chicken nuggets). Italians believe that their children learn social skills by being in social settings.

There will be salt and black pepper and maybe red pepper flakes on the table. Don’t ask for any condiments not already on the table. No mustard for your prosciutto, no butter for your bread, no ketchup or mayo for anything and especially no grated cheese for any seafood dish. In some household that is considered a mortal sin punishable in hell.

Italians don’t drink a lot but a variety of drinks will be served throughout your visit – a cocktail, prosecco, or an aperitif when you arrive, wine with the meal and a cordial or digestif afterwards, so pace yourself.  Adolescents/teenagers will be served wine during the meal.

Dinner will end late and no matter how late it is, coffee will be served. That will be espresso, not decaf, not tea – only espresso (which can be sweetened with sugar or more likely, Anisette). There definitely won’t be any cappuccino. Italians feel that cappuccino is strictly for the morning and drinking it later in the day is like eating corn flakes for dinner.

Dessert isn’t a big part of our tradition. Typically, besides espresso, you’ll find cordials and Asti, perhaps fruit, fresh or dried, possibly in autumn, nuts, or maybe just some biscotti to dip in your coffee. If someone brought pastry it would be served with the coffee.

 “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!”  (Everyone to the table to eat!)

GALLERY II

Robert Iulo – Writing Site and  Yelp

Nick and Nora Glasses

(Nick and Nora with Asta in the middle)


Nick and Nora Glasses

I love going to steak houses. They’re known for big portions and big cocktails glasses. Two drinks and you’re fried. Well, there was a time when glasses weren’t huge and I learned about it in an old movie.

I was always a big fan of “The Thin Man,” with Dick Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a husband and wife detective team. They were stylish, elegant and an all-together classy couple. The story takes place in New York between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. It seems that rather than solve a murder, Nick would prefer to stay mildly drunk.

There’s one scene where Nora tries to catch up with Nick’s drinking. She asks the bartender how many drinks he’s served Nick. When she’s told “six,” she orders six Martinis and says, “Line ’em up.” They’re served in beautiful little cocktail glasses that were popular at the time and are now know as “Nick and Nora Glasses.”

A Nick and Nora is about 3 ounces, compared to the steak house 8 – 10 ounces. In a smaller glass your drink stays cold until you finish it and if you want more, simply order another one or maybe another six.


If you’d like to see “The Thin Man,” you can get it on Netflix .

Just Google NICK & NORA GLASS if you’d like to get some.


Click here for updated GALLERY II

Robert Iulo at Yelp

AN ITALIAN-AMERICAN’S THANKSGIVING

AN ITALIAN-AMERICAN’S THANKSGIVING
 I grew up wanting a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. I wanted friends and relatives to come and visit our house with its pumpkins on the porch and autumn leaves on the lawn and hear their car tires crunching on our gravel driveway as they arrived. I wanted them to admire the turkey and pumpkin pie my mother made for dinner. But I didn’t get that kind of Thanksgiving growing up Italian-American in an apartment in Manhattan. To start with, there was no porch or lawn.
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My mother made turkey but dinner began with an elaborate antipasto, then, because it was a holiday, ravioli with all kinds of meat simmered in a Sunday-style gravy, and if you were still hungry there was turkey. She also made pumpkin pie for dessert, but it was served along with espresso, anisette, cannoli and sfogliatelle. She had about a thousand Napolitano recipes in her head, but when it came to turkey and the trimmings, she relied on Betty Crocker. This wasn’t Norman Rockwell at all, and as much as I tried to push my family in that direction, they just weren’t interested.
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When I was older, I met Rebecca whose heritage was Protestant, American, and Anglo-Saxon before that. Thanksgiving was in her blood. She suggested we spend the holiday at an inn in Connecticut that specialized in a traditional Thanksgiving. It seemed like a terrific idea so we made reservations and arranged to meet her cousin William and his fiancé Barbsie there.

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We arrived early in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day. The inn was a sprawling wooden building and on the National Register of Historic Places. We unpacked and went to wait for William and Barbsie at the bar. A fireplace in the lobby had a large iron pan on its hearth filled with chestnuts. It didn’t take me long to realize I was actually witnessing “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” This was a great start to the Thanksgiving I had always dreamed of.

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William and Barbsie arrived and after introductions suggested we order their family’s “traditional” start to a Thanksgiving dinner, Martinis. It wasn’t my tradition, and I was sure the Pilgrims didn’t drink them but what the hell, when in Rome…
I wore a three-piece suit, white shirt, and tie while William was dressed in khakis, a pink polo shirt, worn blazer and Topsiders without socks. I felt overdressed, and I supposed this dressing down might have been another tradition I wasn’t familiar with.
Barbsie admired my suit but then said, “It looks like something Al Capone might have worn.”

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The bartender served us a platter of crackers with American cheeses, all in varying shades of orange. After her second Martini, Barbsie said she was glad there were no Italian selections on the plate because “their cheese making standards aren’t very high.”
Hmm,” I thought, “Barbsie seems to have an issue with my ‘Italianness’

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When we got to our table, after one look at the menu, my spirits brightened. I could see the chef understood the Rockwell Thanksgiving concept thoroughly. There were lots of things on the menu I’m sure the Pilgrims ate when they invented the holiday, and there was no pasta in sight. As tradition dictates, the center of the meal was turkey, and it would be served with very American sides like acorn squash, corn bread, and sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows – something my mother would never have considered.
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After we ordered, Barbsie mentioned there was something in the news recently about a body being found in the trunk of a car, and it was a suspected mob hit.
She turned to me with a smirk and said, “So Robert, aren’t you Italian? You must have the inside story on this.”
Rebecca cringed, but I forced a smile and replied, “I guess those pesky Mafiosi are at it again.”
Barbsie caught the sarcasm and didn’t speak to me for a while after that. I tried to shrug it off, but I was unable to keep from being offended. My mood turned dark, and the already bland food lost whatever flavor it had.
spice
I couldn’t stop myself and asked Barbsie, “Do you suppose they purposely don’t use the spices associated with the ethnic groups they don’t want to come here?”
She replied in a huff, “Well, everyone we know thinks the food at the inn is excellent.”
Our Thanksgiving dinner continued going downhill, and conversation became strained. Rebecca and her cousin William caught up on family news with forced cheerfulness as I silently picked at my food. It became more and more uncomfortable, and with each drink, Barbsie’s rudeness got worse. I stopped responding to her and hardly responded to William or Rebecca.

ravioli

I thought about the festive chaos of my family’s Thanksgiving with kids laughing and playing and the adults all talking at once. It was loud and confused with an abundanza of great food, and I missed it. Our disagreeable dinner at the inn eventually came to an end. We said goodnight and William and Barbsie drove home since they lived nearby. Rebecca apologized to me for Barbsie’s behavior, and I apologized to her for responding as I did.
We drove back to the city the next morning, and after I had dropped off Rebecca, I went to see my parents. I was hoping my mother might have some left over ravioli.

Click here for updated GALLERY II

Robert Iulo – Writing Site and  Yelp

Anisette

Anisette

I grew up with Marie Brizard. That was my father’s go-to brand of anisette. The bottle was on the table  after every dinner to sweeten our expresso. It was a low enough  proof so I got to use some in my coffee too. I don’t remember too many people drinking it straight. Anisette is very sweet. Maybe an old lady who needed a drink for a toast and didn’t want anything too strong would have some. Sometimes I’d get a sip of it in a cordial glass if I had a cough or sore throat.

 

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Although some people think it’s main ingredient is liquorice root, anisette is made by macerating the seeds of the anis plant in a neutral spirit. I have an anis hyssop on my balcony (see the heading photo) but I’ve never tried to gather the seeds. A friend recently suggested that I can make a passable anisette using its leaves by filling a jar have full with them, then filling it with vodka. Strain it after a month, and add sugar syrup to taste. I may try that when my plant is bigger toward the end of the summer.

Anis Seeds
Anis Seeds

My Aunt Lena use to make her own anisette with anis essence she’d get from a local pastry shop. That’s a main ingredient in anisette biscotti so all the pastry shops had it. The essence would be added to black market grain alcohol and sugar syrup. She’d mix it in a big pot on her kitchen table. I remember being small enough to stand on the table to stir it with a long wooden spoon.

Anise Biscotti
Anisette Biscotti

When I was growing up, the only time I ever saw sambuca was if someone brought a bottle back from Italy. It wasn’t imported to the US back then. And as much as it tastes like anisette, sambuca is made from the elder berry plant. It’s a higher proof and is now much more common here than anisette.

anisette and coffee

I still generally use Marie Brizard but when it’s available I buy Anis del Mono, a Spanish brand. I like the monkey on the label. There are other anis flavored liquors made around the Mediterranean: Pernod, raki, ouzo and anazone but anisette is the best for sweetening expresso.

 

anisette bottles

Click here for updated GALLERY II

Caffé Roma

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I grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy and was fortunate enough to be able to walk to two very good pastry shops – Ferrara on Grand St. and Caffé Roma on Broome St. Caffé Roma was a little more homey but I liked them both.

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A few years ago, when Easter was approaching I stopped into Ferrara to see if they had started making pizza con grana*, an Easter specialty.

I asked the manager, “Do you have pizza con grana yet?”

He replied, “If you want a slice, go to the pizzeria across the street.”

I lost my temper and said “What’s wrong with you? Do I look like somebody who would go to a pasticcera for a slice of pizza? I asked for pizza con grana.”

“Senor, I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. We don’t make that any more.” As he indicated the crowds of tourists eating pastry with their early evening cappuccino** he said, “These people who come here don’t know what that is.”

So they decided to cater to their tourist customer’s pedestrian tastes instead of attempting to show them something different and traditionally Italian that they might like. That was the last time I ever went to Ferrara.

I left and walked up a block to Caffé Roma, which still hasn’t been Disneyfied with the rest of Little Italy. They had some of their tables pushed together and covered with freshly baked pizza con grana. They also still have zeppole di San Giuseppe around his feast day in March and struffoli at Christmas. They remain old school.

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Caffé Roma is a classic so don’t order like you’re in Starbucks. They serve excellent espresso, tea and even hot chocolate. For cold drinks they have the standard Italian sodas and orzata: gelato too. But it’s the pastry & biscotti you should go for, baked daily and right there. It’s been run by the same family since 1881 and I hope they keep going.counter 2

They’re located in what’s left of Little Italy at 385 Broome St. on the corner of Mulberry.

* Pizza con grana – a sweet pie made from wheat berries, ricotta and orange flower water, traditionally served at Easter time.

** from Wikipedia – cappuccino is consumed only up to 11 a.m., and Italians consider it very “strange” to ask for a cappuccino after that hour.  Espresso with milk is for little kids and breakfast. I suppose you can drink it any time, just like you can have corn flakes for dinner if that’s what you want.

Click here for updated GALLERY

 

Katz’s Delicatessen

Katz's

Bridget and I went to lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen a few weeks ago on a Sunday. Bad idea – it’s way too crowded on Sunday. Besides being crowded, we noticed two tour buses parked outside so the crowd included more than the usual amount of tourists. They didn’t understand how the lines worked so instead of going to the confusion at the counters we got a table. We sat next to two women from Maryland who were on a food tour. They’d just come from Ferrara on Grand St.

When they ordered two chili dogs the waiter said, “Do you think you’re at a county fair? I’ll give you some more time to think about it and come back.”

Chili dogs may have been on the menu but the waiter knew better. We ordered frankfurters with sauerkraut, pastrami on rye and Doctor Brown’s – that got a smile of approval from of the waiter.

Maybe you saw “Annie Hall.” Diane Keaton ordered a pastrami on white with lettuce tomato and mayonnaise. The waiter almost had a heart attack.

menu

OK, it’s not cheap. If you want cheap you don’t have to go to Katz’s. But if you want to have a good laugh, look at the Yelp reviews of Katz’s. Most are 5 Star but you can sort them “lowest rated” first. The 1 Star reviews are ridiculous –

  • it was a mediocre tuna sandwich
  • they didn’t have whole wheat toast
  • it hasn’t been redecorated since the 70s
  • the man who made my turkey sandwich sent me to another counter for lettuce and tomato

Would you expect a  French restaurant to serve you sushi just because they have raw fish in the kitchen? No, it’s not what they do.

Katz's tables
Lots of free seats just before noon
Musée Cinéma et Miniature
Musée Cinéma et Miniature

One more word about mayo – Milton Berle said “Everytime someone puts mayo on pastrami, a Jew dies.”

You either got this post or you didn’t. Don’t be offended and maybe you can learn something you can use next time you go to a real deli.

click here for updated GALLERY

 

Espresso

Espresso

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When I was growing up the standard after dinner question was, “Who wants brown or black?” Brown being American coffee, usually Maxwell House and black was espresso. Our brand was Medaglia D’Oro and I still use it. We started drinking coffee very young. I remember my little China cup filled with half coffee and half milk and some sugar. Kids were allowed milk in espresso. Adults used Anisette.

Not long ago we offered espresso to some guests and one said, “Oh, you have an espresso machine.” I told him we didn’t have an espresso machine but we didn’t need one because we had a Napoletana Macchinetta. Macchinetta actually means ‘little machine.’

Fill the top with water, put the coffee grounds in the screw in filter and place the pot on the stove upside down. When you hear it boil, turn it right side up. A vacuum is created that forces the hot water through the grounds making a rich brew.

It’s not the only type of espresso maker. I have some others.

Copper machinetta, red mocha and a Vesuviana
Copper machinetta, red mocha and a Vesuviana

 

If I ever get a full-sized espresso machine, I’d like one like this –

Café Reggio
Café Reggio

 

 

New York City Diners

 

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New York City Diners

There are some places that want to be perceived as diners and others that are intrinsically and naturally diners. The latter, which are usually family run, can be recognized by very large menus, a few traditional Greek dishes on those menus, a huge selection of Danish, muffins and elaborate cakes displayed on and behind the counter and never letting your coffee cup get less than half full. They serve breakfast twenty-four hours a day and fast service is provided by people who are professional waiters and waitresses. Their coffee-to-go is usually in a blue and white paper cup with, “It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You,” framed by two Ionic columns.

 

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City Diner – Upper West Side

 

Lately, in New York City, mostly Manhattan, a new type of chain diner has been opening. They try for a 1950’s retro style featuring Doo Wop interior design with old signs and maybe some muscle car parts hanging on the walls. Their menus list items with cute names that they want us to believe mythical Eisenhower-era Americans lived on; burgers, shakes and sundaes. Was there ever a “Malt Shop” in New York City? Maybe there was in television land where the Nelson boys and Donna Reed’s kids hung out after school but no, not New York. No matter how hard I try, I can’t imagine Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” sipping coffee in any of these Disneyfied places. There’s something contrived about the “new” diners that I would hate to see catch on.

I hope tourists don’t have a BLT at one of these theatre sets and think, “Wow, I’ve eaten in a New York City diner!” because they haven’t.

Some of the old favorites are gone now; the Market, Munson and Cheyenne, but there are enough of the originals left to easily give anyone who wants it, a genuine diner experience.

A handful of them still have waitresses with teased blond hair who will ask you, “What’cha havin’, hon?”

How could anyone give that up for a second-rate copy?

 

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Neptune Diner – Astoria