I’ve always believed that, when it comes to dining out, Manhattan towers above the rest of the boroughs. We’ve all heard of the big, bold and beautiful; the paparazzi have done a number on them already. But the truth is that this town also has a few lesser-known gems beyond those of the Theater District and Madison Square Garden. I’m hoping these eateries and the great neighborhoods they call home can pique your curiosity during your next outing west. They will be worth the trip.
Gina La Fornarina Upper West Side
Say you’re in town and you’re going to see a show at The Beacon. You’re on a date or catching up with an old friend, and you’re looking to get a bite before the first note plays. You’re not in the mood for any five-star deluxe extravaganzas and, because you haven’t made reservations, you’re probably in store for a long wait if you opt for one. The diner across the street is not an option either right now. You’re looking for something good and small but big on personality. Something that will deliver (in the figurative sense).
These were the circumstances in which I bumped into a sweet little spot on the Upper West Side called Gina La Fornarina. Gina is tiny, but she is the perfect complement to a certain kind of night. There’s a lot of pink going on in the aesthetic, which might make lunch/brunch too cute, perhaps, for its own good, but for dinner and drinks in dim lighting, all is good. The bartender/magician? He’s all good. The slightly slow service with a smile? All good. The kind of pricey bill? What do you expect? You’re in Manhattan. The sandwiches, salads and pasta dishes are delicious, and there are enough wine options to satisfy both imagined and true connoisseurs alike. Oh yes, and the outdoor seating? Limited, but, again, all good. And if, perchance, you’re with children on an outing to this corner of Manhattan, fret not—Gina likes kids. Our nephew had the salmon and he said it was “all good.”
It’s often the almost-overlooked that remain with us. The sassy and the snazzy slide away into fuzzy ambiguity, and the forgettable are, well, forgettable. If you weren’t looking for Gina La Fornarina, you might pass her by and probably drop in on Levain Bakery or Jacques Torres Chocolate (two nice after-dinner excursions, mind you) instead. But if you’re keen to these types of discoveries, if you’re the type of person who likes to stop and listen to street music every once in while in order to experience a little bit of sudden and random magic, Gina may be the lady for you. Get there quick. You have a show to catch. gina-lafornarina.com.
Risotteria West Village
This place is in the heart of it. The Blue Note is not too far away and neither is world-class jazz, experimental black box theater, award-winning film and a gorgeous little river called Hudson. Then there’s the Stonewall history, Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment, Blue Man Group…the list goes on. Nestled in a corner on Bleeker Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the world famous West Village is a delightful little unpretentious eatery called Risotteria. It’s my newest favorite indulgence, which is kind of strange because Risotteria is as healthy as it is tasty. Let me explain.
Before visiting Risotteria, I never knew gluten-free eating could taste so good. Sure, I had friends who were on strict gluten-free diets and learned to adjust, celiacs who took a considerable amount of time to order, avoided most breads, etc. But I imagined their worlds to be bereft of the good stuff, a life imprisoned by a genetic blip that would mean bland meals three times a day and no dessert. Don’t smile while you’re eating either if you know what’s good for you, mister.
After Risotteria, I believe that anything is possible. I’m not sure how it’s done, but the gluten-free breadsticks taste better than just about any pre-meal basket offering I’ve ever tried (oil or no oil). And then there are the enormous salads, the Neapolitan pizza, and trays and trays of baked goods that are all gluten-free delicious as well. Of course, the crown jewel—the crème de la crème—of Risotteria is the risotto. And there is a lot of it. Try the arugula, shrimp and hot pepper risotto, or, if you’re in a fungi mood, go for the porcini. Northern Italy’s creamy rice dishes never tasted so good. Mix and match. Inquire about pairings. Bring some home for lunch tomorrow. Friends at work will gasp and shriek with joy. It will be an olfactory paradise. And you can tell them all about the gluten-free part too…how it’s actually better for your overall digestive health and how you will feel less sluggish but eternally satisfied.
Kids at NYU? Take them to Risotteria for dinner. Like the occasional independent film? Visit the Film Forum afterwards. Or go for a stroll through the diagonals of the lovely and charming quieter elements of West Village. It is, after all, a neighborhood adorned with cute shops and cobblestone streets and plenty of cool little spaces to stare at and dream. You might even stop by to visit palm reading instructor Ellen Goldberg. You could look her up or just head over to Risotteria. Since its maximum capacity cannot exceed twenty persons, there’s a good chance that, if she’s there, you might get an explanation for why your stomach line looks like a happy face all of a sudden and your heart line has grown exponentially. risotteria.com.
Katz’s Deli Lower East Side
Everyone knows that the coolest place in New York City (sorry, Williamsburg) is The Lower East Side. Before being a hotbed for NYC punk rock, LES was a haven for Jewish culture and home to various other immigrant working class communities. Even though gentrification happened and CBGB turned into a high-end fashion store, Joey Ramone’s energy still punks out the sidewalks and the Bowery Ballroom is one of the best rooms to see and hear live music. This neighborhood transforms itself to suit the times, but always keeps it real.
When I was young and full of proms, there was really only one question to satiate the hunger: To go to Katz’s Deli or to not go to Katz’s Deli (and perhaps end up at 2nd Avenue Deli)? Twenty years later, the question still looms when heading downtown for a night of imbibing in the scene, bar hopping, or checking out my favorite new music on Ludlow Street. And now that 2nd Avenue Deli has lost its allure (and isn’t even on 2nd Avenue anymore, for God’s sake), the answer is easy. Sort of.
If it’s gigantic portions of the most delicious corned beef and/or pastrami you’re looking for, then the answer yes. Go to Katz’s Deli. If you want to slurp up your matzo ball soup in between bites of the tastiest knishes this side of the Atlantic, then the answer is yes. If you want to have what Meg Ryan was having in When Harry Met Sally, then yes, yes, and more yes. (Yup, that was Katz’s Deli). If you want to be a balobotishe boychik and learn Yiddish, look closely at the menu. If you want a slice of the real New York City, then there’s no doubt about it—Katz’s Deli is the place. It still serves up meals the way it did, for the most part, when a Russian immigrant family who wanted to recreate “the flavors of the Old World” established it in 1888. It’s a bit of a time machine.
But if you want a snazzy deli with modern machinery, minimalist décor and state of the art refrigeration practices, do not go to Katz’s Deli. If you want to feed the kids for less during your visit to Manhattan, try again. If you want a homogenous crowd, cold stares and fine, intimate dining, Katz’s Deli may not be the place for you. If you want romance, then look elsewhere. Unless, of course, your definition of romance involves standing on a line holding hands with your honey while deliberating on what kind of sandwich fits this specific mood on this specific night surrounded by folks from every walk of life doing the same thing in this, the most magnificent city in the world. katzsdelicatessen.com.