September 18, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

Uncorking Yet Another Vinosnackery


 Centro Chef Anne Burrell brings Iron Chef cred to Centro Vinoteca's kitchen.
 Centro Chef Anne Burrell brings Iron Chef cred to Centro Vinoteca's kitchen. 
 Photo: Steve Richter 


     Wine bar, snackery, trattoria...Centro Vinoteca is yet another permissive outpost letting me eat the way I often feel like eating. A salad, a pasta to share and a couple of little saucers of something – fabulous zucchini and parmigiano fritters or aranchine  -- to go with a smooth red by the glass while we wait for our pizza.


     Designer Thomas Juul-Hansen has provided smart-looking details for an odd pie wedge of a space, with no respect for our ears.  The snappy white tile and full sweep of windows amplify the clatter and make me want to choke the two excessively happy young women cackling at the apex of the bar just steps from our booth’s generous embrace. Chef Anne Burrell is a great decorative touch herself with her blond spike thatch, visible through the pass to the kitchen.


     Is Centro Vinoteca better than Accademia di Vino or even Lupa, with a similarly mix-and-match attitude inspired by Italy? Let’s just say it’s good enough and why not, given Burrell’s stint at Felidia and years on Mario Batali’s Iron Chef team.  And the place is already so hyped and hot from day one that I never could book a table except at 6 p.m. or10 for weeks and finally gave up, sneaking in tonight on the wings of a food world general with entrée everywhere.


      It’s definitely more ear-popping here on the corner of Bleeker and Seventh Avenue South. Accademia is handsome enough, though in a less clever way, but the food is mostly marvelous. I’d be happy with that marvelous grilled pizza and a salad right now for lunch. Anyway, no reason to choose. We need more enotecas in whatever guise uptown and down, we New Yorkers who eat our once or twice a day five or six times a week. We need places that don’t nag or challenge and cater to a whim or a mood.


     You might put together a meal from Vinoteca’s piccolini – little plates priced from $3 for stir-fried marinated olives to $7 for rosemary grissini with prosciutto and arugula.  I can’t say these are the lushest truffled deviled eggs (or the most devilish) but I recommend the fritters in their spicy tomato sauce and gorgonzola dip with grapes and walnuts. Antipasti tempt too: Calamari noodles with fingerling potatoes, black olives and arugula, the salumi misti, goat cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms.

An original take on skate works well.  Photo: Steven Richter


      Since we’re just three tonight, I pass on romaine salad with fried chickpeas, mozzarella, shaved asparagus and crispy proscuitto -- because I can’t resist braised oxtail cakes (actually, one cake) with celery salad and a parmigiano frico crisp. Especially as a grilled pizzetta loaded with stracchino, hot sausage and arugula is already sitting on the table, gift from the kitchen.  Alas, it is not just charred on the bottom but burned.  Pastas fare better: Wildly rich raviolo al’uovo in sage butter with guanciale (good old pig jowl) and  serviceable bucatini all’amatriciana. Crispy skate, though too cooked for my taste, basks in the busyness of “acquapazza” with bay scallops, calamari and rock shrimp.  From entrees $19 to $36, I love pancetta-rosemary-crumbly-crusted baby chicken though so much of it on one $19 plate may be a blatant woo-the-critic ploy. Cappuccino panna cotta, goat cheese cake with roasted figs, Italian plum crostata, and green apple and crystallized ginger in a prosecco ice cream float are $8 dolci.


     I’m not sure I’d want to join the crowd that seems content to stand at the bar sipping and nibbling but I’d be back to taste more if this were my neighborhood ad I could book a table.



74 Seventh Avenue South at Bleeker. 212 367 7470.





Tick Tock Diner Has Its Rolls Royce Moment


 Our appetite astounds Tick Tock's chef. Photo: Steven Richter


     “For those of us by stomach possessed,” I wrote in my memoir Insatiable (hope you don’t mind my quoting myself)… “the great glory of the seventies arrived in April, 1975, with a fifty dollar prix fixe, wines priced for an emperor, cognacs so rare that a sip could cost dollars.”  The Palace had burst on the scene with a case of terminal decadence and I loved it.  The shock of the kitchen’s brilliance took me by surprise.


     “Frank Valenza himself was wowed by his creation. He stood tall in black velvet, back arched elegantly, one too-long shirt cuff hanging out.  His ingenuousness was actually appealing; his passion for perfection remarkable.”


     Most of our town’s serious foodies and Gault Millau as well were seduced by the mad and marvelous excess of the Palace. Then came a wrenching and brutal downfall. (To read more, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess is available in paperback in stores and on line…I promise to post the original review of The Palace, “How They Ate in Pompeii before the Lava Flowed,” soon in Vintage Articles.)


     I wanted to explain why I have always been so fond of the exiled court chamberlain and follow his doings as he makes his consultant rounds plotting a royal comeback. That’s the preamble to my dinner Saturday night at Tick Tock Diner & Grill.  The architect Arnold Syrop took on the task of restyling the ten year-old diner planted on the downtown hip of the New Yorker Hotel.  By contract with the hotel, the Greek family owners were required to stay open 24 hours a day during reconstruction. 


     Loyal customers endured, eating breakfast at any hour of the day, stuffing themselves with overstuffed sandwiches, guzzling the house’s homemade, obsessively cinnamoned rice pudding, as workmen ripped up floors, refinished walls, installed new lighting. It was a construction coup, or maybe a culinary coup…or maybe neither. It was Syrop who recommended the Greek family of Tick Tock bring in Valenza to add class to the menu.  What perfect casting.

 Frank Valenza inhabits the menu at Tick Tock Diner. Photo: Steven Richter


      Well, Frank did his best. He dropped the menu photos and came up with snappy contemporary typography and taxi cab checkered borders. The shadow of a Rolls Royce coming at you head-on lurks underneath the type (shades of the Palace). He renamed many items, “34th Street Traffic Jam Potato Pancake,”  his poetry, and added the smoked salmon benedict, a healthy granola option and the Kobe breakfast burger…Indeed, he slipped in Kobe sliders too. Unlike most that are scarily soft, this Kobe burger gives you something to chew on.


     I can’t put my finger on all his touches.  His Tick Tock chili mac ‘n’cheese with salsa, cheddar and guacamole has a certain appeal to my inner glutton though it’s not in the same zip code with my mom Saralee’s crusty macaroni. Even the penne primavera is better than one expects in a room this brightly lit. I’m sure the battered onion rings come frozen out of a box but it’s impossible to stop eating them.  Frank finally took pity on me and made the waiter take them away. 


     The sweet potato fries are sort of good too. Valenza chose the spiffy chrome server they arrive in.  The pizza is not “ultra thin” as promised but for those who can’t ever get enough cheese on their pie, it’s the gorgeously goppy answer. I see Valenza’s fine hand in the panini department too.  I can’t remember ever tasting a Cuban sandwich this good.  I wish I were close enough for room service.


     I’m not about to become a Tick Tock regular though I admire the architect’s blue glass and chrome ceiling, the comfy booths, and, as a congenital penny pincher, I do appreciate the prices. Perhaps if Spike Lee invites me to the Garden, I’ll treat him here beforehand for dinner.


 481 Eighth Ave., entrance on NW corner of 34th Street. 212 268 8444.




Confessions of Not Cooking for One


     When Jenni Ferrari Adler asked me to contribute an essay to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (Riverhead Press), I thought about it a while.  I wanted to say “yes.”  But I never cook when I’m alone.  I carry in or I eat ice cream or I call a friend I haven’t seen for a while and hope he is not offended by the last minute invitation. As my gifted and beloved therapist Mildred Newman always said, “You’re not good to yourself, Gael.”


     But I was procrastinating this week and picked the book up.  I read Paula Wolfert’s sensuous confession and the evocative essay by Marcella Hazan.  So very revealing. 


     Be good to yourself and buy it.




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