La Commedia è finita!   4 comments

Clueless in Brooklyn.  We began our Year of Living Unwittingly in a time warp.

Two Yuppies beginning life’s adventure together in the mid-1980s in the Big City.  As we shopped around for an apartment, we were told (by some real estate agent) that Carrol Gardens, was the safest neighborhood in New York City.  That’s how we ended up here in this place that at least at that moment, Time seemed to have forgotten.  More likely, Time may have just misplaced it.   

Image DetailSince we were just starting out, the apartment had many desirable qualities.  It was magnificent in certain aspects.  It was on the parlor floor of a Brooklyn brownstone with inlaid parquet wood floors, 14 foot tall corniced ceilings, white alabaster fireplace and a floor to ceiling gilded mirror decorated with cherubs and such along the upper part of the frame– that was just the living room.  That grand VERTICAL scale was a jaw dropper for sure.  Horizontally– that is to say square footage wise?  Well, that was a bit more of a challenge.  The 13 foot christmas tree we put up that first year took up nearly one half of the aforementioned living room.  The apartment also had the smallest full bathroom I had ever seen– a room with the scale of an undersized powder room crammed with toilet, shower stall, a sink the size of a dentist’s spit-bowl and about 2 square feet of floor space in which to stand if the shower stall was ignored.  Forget about counter space– it did not exist, so why talk about it?  But for two kids just starting out the apartment had one more really important feature– it was cheap.  And it was complete bliss.   

Stepping out the front door, to the left and a couple of blocks away, there was the NYC Police Department’s 76th precinct.  But that is hardly the reason the neighborhood was safe.   Turning to the right, and a couple of blocks the other way, at the corner of Union and Court streets, was the medical center for the International Longshoremen’s Union, named at that time after the long dead Anthony “Tough Tony” Anastasio.  He was Vice-president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, head of local 1814 of the ILA in Brooklyn during the 1940s and 1950s and he controlled the Brooklyn Waterfront.  Union HQ was back then, as I recall, located just across the Court Street from the Medical Center.  Anthony Anastasio was also younger brother of notorious Mafia figure Albert Anastasia.  

11 Witnesses and nobody saw nuttin’

Although Anthony officially died of a heart attack in 1963, his brother Albert was, um, less fortunate, having been gunned down in Godfather style while he relaxed in a barber chair, hot towel on face, getting ready for nice shave at his favorite barber shop in the Park Sheraton, a midtown Manhattan hotel, on a late October afternoon in 1957.  The story is told that after being shot in the initial fusillade of bullets, Albert had enough fight in him to mount a counter-attack.  He was not going down easy, but disoriented, he instead lunged at his killers’ reflections in the barber shop’s mirrors. 

 Pictures of the towel-draped Albert– who as head of Murder Incorporated was responsible for 700-100 murders– have always fascinated me.  A shattered mirror in the background and in one photo reflections of the investigators trying to piece together Albert’s last moments.  The last act in a morality spectacle that speaks poignantly of the consequences of crossing the wrong people and letting your guard down.   

Yes, it was a very safe NYC neighborhood.  Although located just 30 minutes via subway from Midtown, many of the local residents had not been to Manhattan in 20 or 30 years.  Why bother?

Sandwiched in between the constabulary encampment and the medical facility, you could find a white stone building with red awnings– an unusual feature in that particular stretch of Union Street– a real restaurant, not a pizza place, a REAL restaurant.

Image DetailOne evening, we decided to have dinner there and upon arrival were greeted by a double-wide refrigerator of a man, dressed in tuxedo.   This was a colossal block of a man.  Impenetrable and cut muscle with a thick neck that rose from squared-off shoulders supporting a substantial medicine ball of a head covered with slicked back hair that framed his dark brown unsmiling eyes.  Aside from the tasteful red awnings, the presence of Signore Musculo was the first sign that maybe this was not such a good idea.  

Formal attire in this homey stretch of Brooklyn was not congruent– this, a place where 3 a.m. arguments usually ended an exchange of  a Brooklyn style Fare-Thee-Well:  “F***, you!”  To which the quick-witted reply, “F*** Me?  No, no, no, F*** YOU!”  You get the picture. 

Too late to reverse course, we let the massive maitre d’ usher us to our table– at the front of the restaurant– by the window, of course.  Typically the best seat in any joint.  But this somehow felt different.

Here was an observation post where we could watch the neighborhood stroll by and COINCIDENTALLY, where we could ourselves be simultaneously kept under the watchful eye of Mr. Large Appliance and the old ladies across.  And being in the front, we would also serve as human shields in any potential drive by shooting.  Did I mention we were Clueless?  Maybe I am imagining this, maybe it was just great service?  Nah!

I’m sure we had some nondescript Chianti out of a carafe.  What was more memorable, née, remarkable, was the incredible rollatini which we ate with relish, though speedy dispatch, once it dawned on us that it would be best to skip dessert that night.  Perfectly cooked eggplant rolls containing a succulent combination of italian cheeses and herbs, covered in a blanket of melted mozzarella and adorned with a just the right amount of tangy-sweet marinara.  Finishing that, do we linger over a couple of espressos? 

I’m thinking that I’ll make coffee at home.  “Check please.”

Leaving the restaurant, we knew we would never eat there again.  That was probably best even if I still remember that it was the best damn rollatini I ever ate.

Image DetailWalking the one and one-half block stroll back home that night, I am certain that we were kept under the knowing and curious eyes of the “Neighborhood Watch”– those aging ladies perched on their window sills, including Exhibit A, the gravel-voiced Rose, sister of our landlady, Mary.  Sharing her raspy observations and social commentary with her sister:

“Mare, didja getaloada auwlla dat gauwbage dey was pullin’ outta dat movin’ trook acrauws da’ street?”   

[Translation: Mary, did you take a gander at the substandard furnishings that our new neighbors across the way were having unloaded from the moving van?”]

Her’s was not a subtle patois.  But, it was typical for this venue.

We were aliens.  Just passing through.  They knew it.  We eventually figured that out.  And so, they kept a respectful distance– we were short-timers on a short fuse.  Most of the people there had some connection (blood relation, employment, etc.) to the fellas who though typically unseen, really ran the neighborhood.  And the ones you did see– the sandpaper-throated Rose and her ilk– you would not want to mess with them either.  Yes, it was the safest neighborhood in New York City.

But that eggplant!  Now I’m not saying these rollatini taste like the ones we ate that night in the red awninged establishment– they do not.  But it’s a good start and you should not face any mortal danger as you eat these.

Union Street Rollatini

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
  • 3 Eggplants (no need to peel, cut lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices)
  • 1 Egg
  • 24 oz. of Ricotta Cheese
  • 1 lb. Mozzarella Cheese (coarsely grated)
  • 1 cup Parmesano Reggiano (finely grated)
  • 3 Tbsps. of toasted Pignoli (Pine Nuts)
  • 1 cup of Fresh Basil Chiffonade (cut into long, thin strips)
  • Kosher Salt

Directions

  1. Preheat Oven to 350 DEGREES F.
  2. Spread the Eggplant slices out on racks or in a colander and generously salt.  Set aside for 15 minutes and let brown liquid (which can add bitterness to eggplant) drain away.  While this is happening, get yourself a nice glass of Italian red wine, put your feet up and enjoy life a bit.
  3. Pat the Eggplant slices dry with a paper towel.  Brush the Eggplant slices with EVOO and roast in the oven for 20 minutes, checking to make sure that the eggplant does not burn. 
  4. While the egg-plant is roasting, beat the Egg and combine with Ricotta, 1/2 of the Mozzarella and 1/2 of the Pecorino (save 1/2 of the latter two cheeses for use in up for Step 8, below).
  5. Mix in the Pignoli.
  6. Gently fold in the Fresh Basil (do not over work the cheese mixture) and set aside.
  7. Once the Eggplant is cool enough to handle, place a healthy dollop of the Cheese mixture at the wider end of the cooked Eggplant and tightly roll, trying not to squeeze out the Cheese mixture.  Place in baking dish so they all touch each other with the end of the roll facing downward.
  8. Season with salt and sprinkle with remaining Mozzarella and Parmesano (from Step 4, above).
  9. Place in the preheated oven and bake until cheese bubbles into a golden brown– about 20-25 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare the Mob Marinara (see recipe below).  You may need to finish for a few minutes under a broiler to get the desired golden brown color on the cheese.
  10. Remove the Cannelloni from the oven and set aside for 10 minutes or so to let the cheese set.  

Mob Marinara

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
  • 1 medium-sized White Onion
  • 2 Garlic Cloves (crushed and minced)
  • 1 32 oz. Can of San Marzano Tomatoes (crushed in a bowl by hand)
  • 1 cup of Fresh Basil Leaves torn by hand
  • Kosher Salt

Directions

  1. Warm up the EVOO and cook the garlic and onion.  Cook over medium heat until softened and translucent.
  2. Add San Marzano Tomatoes bring to mild boil and reduce to simmer.  Cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Taste for seasoning and add Salt to taste.

Simple cuisine calls for a wine that’s understandable, if not simple.  These are not simple wines; yet they bang the drum, Pagliacci style, for cuisine from the motherland– or at least certain parts of Brooklyn.  They will pop with pasta, tomato sauces and Italian cheeses.  They will dance with vitello tonnato and sparkle against prosciutto di Parma.  And with today’s eggplant dish they might inspire you to believe in the magic of memory.

We have come a long way from nondescript Chianti.

Ettore Germano Langhe Nebbiolo 2010 ($21).  Pale in color but not flavor.  Juicy red fruit, suitable acidity and fine tannins.  A great wine to drink while you’re waiting for your Barolos to mature.  Rated ***

Ferrero Rosso de Montalcino 2009 ($21).  Ferrero’s Sangiovese vineyards sit between Banfi’s Poggio all’Oro Riserva vineyard and Argiano in the southwest corner of Montalcino.  Built of 100% Sangiovese, this has energetic cranberry-referenced red fruit that is almost Pinot Noir like.  With bright acidity and soft tannins., this is not meant for aging– it is for today. Rated **1/2

 

La Commedia è finita!

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Posted June 4, 2012 by Sybarite Sauvage in Food-Wine-Love

4 responses to “La Commedia è finita!

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  1. On our monthly trips to NYC, we stay at a friend’s place in Brooklyn near Grand Army Plaza, – very, very gentrified Yuppieland, and a far cry from the mobster-laden neighborhood of your youth…

    • Well, not exacly mobster-laden, it’s not like we were on the set of Goodfellas or somethig like that. Truthfully, notwithstanding Signore Musculo, we never felt threatened in any way, though our excursion to the local eating desination clearly had some interesting aspects to it.

      And yes, a some parts Brooklyn, especially Park Slope and B Heights, are clearly gentrified.

      Grand Army Plaza– I was nearly arrested there once– but THAT is another story…

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