NYC: My decade with culinary icons

By Danielle Prostrollo

Now that the holidays are over and we are left trying to keep warm it’s a perfect time to start thinking about a summer holiday.

The Memorial library has a huge collection of USA travel guides, but there are other resources that can be quite useful in planning these excursions.  Looking across the library from the travel guides is the cookery collection.  Amongst the recipes and baking advice are books such as the New York food encyclopaedia, Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Every inch of New York food is in this volume, and having spent nearly ten years in the city it brought back lots of memories.  A few “off the beaten path” entries worth mentioning…

Dr. Brown’s Soda
This soda really is everywhere in New York but also not something you really notice.  The Cel-Ray flavour (celery, yes celery) is in the cooler at every bagel shop and deli while black cherry and cream soda are also popular.  The soda is still made in Brooklyn to this day and boasts a logo design that looks like a holdover from the 1970s.

It was several years into my time in New York before I opened a can of Dr. Brown’s.  The retro design of the can (and bottle) was more than a little suspect to this Midwesterner who was used to “hip” fizzy drinks.  I gave it a go, at a friend’s recommendation.  It was a delightfully sweet cream soda paired perfectly with a salty bacon egg and cheese sandwich (pronounced by locals as “a baconeggandcheese”).

Manhattan Special
The full name of the drink is Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda and is a cult favorite among Italian-Americans and New Yorkers in general.  It’s a coffee-flavored soda named for Manhattan Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – not Manhattan Island.  The drink is strong and sweet, made from cane sugar and roasted coffee beans and is an unmistakable staple in the New York food culture.  It, as with Dr. Brown’s, is still made in New York today.

In contrast to my Dr. Brown’s experience, the first bottle of Manhattan Special came from the cold room at Fairway Market.  My (at the time) dyed-in-the-wool New York Italian boyfriend assured me that this was, in fact, the nectar of the gods.  To me, this tasted like a weird cough syrup.  But it isn’t a beloved cultural icon because of my medicine-y opinion.

Eataly is an old-world style food emporium with a massive 7 restaurants inside its walls.  These eateries range from a charcuterie to a vegetarian restaurant.  You can also buy Italian groceries, cakes and pastries, as well and a number of home accessories.  The original Eataly was founded by Oscar Farinetti in Torino and in New York he partnered with Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich to open the Madison Square location.

I once found myself sat at a rooftop table listening to a lovely tribute to Mina (the Italian answer to Barbara Streisand), three people away from Isabella Rossellini and eating food prepared by Mario Batali (he was sat one table behind me).  I definitely didn’t belong amongst the others on the guest list, and if I stopped paying 100% attention to the speakers I was hopelessly lost (my Italian isn’t that great) but the evening was perfectly New York.  You never know where you’ll find yourself on a random Tuesday night.

Caffe Reggio
The café once frequented by the beat poets of New York used to house a coal powered espresso maker (one of the first ever made, possibly the first in the US).  The machine was so novel for its time that the owner, Domenico Parisi, opted to temporarily close the café while he recovered from a surgical operation rather than allow someone else to operate it.  While the coffees are made in more modern machines now, the ambience that worked so well in The Godfather: Part II, Serpico, and recently Inside Llewyn Davis, is still intact.

As a 20-something in New York it was occasionally hard to find “plans” that didn’t revolve around a drink.  It turns out the best way to find a good non-boozy locale is from your amazing punk-rock boss.  The café maintains its popularity because it makes a really good cup of coffee but also because of its history.  Sat amongst the hand carved seats and Renaissance looking paintings it feels pretty good to break with the “cocktail culture” and be a little bit different on a Saturday night. 

The grocery store was started by the Zabar family, ultimately landing on the Upper West Side where it exists today, and featured in You’ve Got Mail, Sex and the City, 30 Rock, Seinfeld, and more.  The store is a multi-level emporium of foods (many that they ship internationally for their global following) that looks like everyone was in a bit of a rush to shelf everything.  As the book notes, it looks “disorganized without being disorganized.”

One of my first adventures north of Greenwich Village (I was 18, don’t be too hard on me) was to Zabar’s.  At that point everything was a little bit terrifying, I’m pretty sure the air felt different up there.  I think we picked the grocery store because it was a landmark – Meg Ryan’s been there!  But the barrels of freshly roasted coffee beans are what got me.  You could scoop your own like a kid in a candy shop.  They also had a pretty great selection of bagel sandwiches in the café (sesame seed toasted with scallion cream cheese, of course). 

BOOK: Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City


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