March 24, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

The Bountiful Bronx and Peeves Galore 

 Riccardo, the charismatic pizzaiolo, also has time for flirtation. Photo: Steven Richter.
 Riccardo, the charismatic pizzaiolo, also has time for flirtation. Photo: Steven Richter.

        I read about Arthur Schwartz’ favorite New York pizza in his newsletter and I just had to taste it, yes, even if that instant craving meant a trek to the Bronx.  I have nothing against the Bronx.  The man I live with was born near the Grand Concourse and some of my best (and cleverest) friends grew up there. In that way the Bronx has deeply enriched my life.  It’s just that it seems remote, unknown and a little Bonfire of the Vanities to me.  Anyway, I wanted to go with The Food Maven. You don’t know the Food Maven? Intimate, confessional, a loyal friend, impassioned about Italy, Arthur can be rude and cantankerous, loving and loyal.  What he doesn’t know about food may not be worth knowing.  That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree about a pizza that requires all of us to leave many carbon footprints on the West Side Highway.

        Whizzing north from our Upper West Side pad with Francesco, a friend who knows the boroughs, takes barely 15 minutes and five to stalk a parking space.  I am anticipating a worthy pizza.  I am not expecting Trattoria Zero Otto Nove, one man’s love affair with Salerno. We stroll past the deserted bar into a narrow corridor with doors on either side, doors that don’t open that I later realize are meant to suggest the narrow streets of Salerno leading into a glorious piazza…and yes, here we are in a soaring space, like a stage set for “The Rose Tatoo,” skylight overhead, with the pizza oven and a movie star handsome pizzaiola juggling pies with a long-handled paddle and flirting with the female customers…a trompe l’oeil street on one wall, a balcony with chandeliers and tables above and our table in the corner. “Arturo, Francesco!” cries padrone Roberto Paciullo, Michelangelo of this fantasy al fresco illusion, summoned, from his Roberto’s down the street, hugging and kissing our guides like long lost cousins.  Asked about the ambitious architecture, he shrugs. “I was an artist when I was a kid,” he says. “I used to mix the paints and get the exact color of skin.  But I worked for my father as a carpenter too so I know both the art and the building…and that’s how I did this. There was no plan.  No drawing.  Just every morning I would tell the workmen what we gonna do today.”

In the fantasy of a piazza in Salerno at Zero Otto Nove. Photo: Steven Richter.

        It is decided that we should start with a sparkling red, a Gragnano, as if we were in a Salerno pizzeria. Nothing I need to sample again, let me note.  And once we’ve bowed to regional custom with a few gulps, Francesco switches to a serious red he’s brought along.

        Arturo orders, determined that we shall have the full gut-challenging experience of Salerno cocina: baby octopus smothered in a very good tomato sauce, fusilli al forno with amazingly light meatballs, soppressata, ricotta, mozzarella, sliced egg and more of that tomato sauce. A heavenly depth charge in a baking dish.  “Should she taste the pasta e fagioli too?” Arthur asks Roberto. “It’s different,” he adds, “Not the soup you knew.  It’s baked dry in Salerno.”

        “Certo. Certainly,” Roberto eggs him on.  “In Italy they have lasagna. In Salerno we have pasta e fagioli.” Another heavy weapon. I love it too.

        “How about a salad?” I ask.  “Insalata di arugola,” I read from the menu.

        “Are you crazy?” Arthur asks.  “You don’t come to the Bronx for a salad.”

        He laughs when the eggplant parmigiana arrives in an elegant crepe-like layering. “It’s a downtown parmigiana,” he cries. And in a cultural aside to me: “In Brooklyn we say we’re going to the city when we’re going to Manhattan. But in the Bronx, they call it downtown.”   The uncharacteristically demure eggplant layering is barely enough for four tiny bites and we’re five. “Steven can finish the octopus,” he suggests.

Arturo, the Food Maven, approves the pizza marinara. Photo: Steven Richter. 

        As for the pizzas that lured us here, Arthur is right. They are a model of brick oven pies. The crust has appealing flavor though it’s not crisp like my favorites at Celeste.  The splendid buffalo mozzarella shows best on the Margherita with San Marzano tomatoes, though the Marinara with capers, anchovies and pitted olives is admirable too.  And I love the untraditional pie with sliced potatoes, sausage and smoked mozzarella, as one would an unruly child.

        Arthur, leaving the next day on the publicity tour for his newest book, “Jewish Home Cooking,” confides his goal of elevating
 Click here to buy this book
Yiddish recipes. “Mario Batali, who practically made his career serving cheek meat has nothing on the Lubovitch Hassidic women of Crown Heights,” he tells us.  “They’ve been cooking cheeks for generations. And my grandmother was rubbing chickens before Bobby Flay’s parents were born.”  He turns to Francesco, “Did you ever realize that kreplach are actually meat-stuffed tortelloni?   Okay, call them agnolotti. Chinese people think of them as Jewish wontons. I like to say that to make Jewish food contemporary, all you have to do is add broccoli.” He scoops up the last of the baked fusilli.

        “You won’t want to eat this,” says Roberto, presenting a plate of rabbit cacciatore rather tentatively, with what I can only guess is Salernoesque humility. “It’s more olive oil than tomato.”  Of course we want it, even though waistbands are already straining. The sauce-smothered rabbit is even better than it looks - that rarity, juicy rabbit.

        I’d like to say that in a lucid moment we decide to skip dessert.  But there is no lucid moment.  The Road Food warrior has his usual sensible lemon sorbetto. But Francesco manages to put away two big slices of Nutella pizza with such gusto you might have thought that’s why he came.  I pride myself on not being susceptible to Nutella (I have enough junk food cravings for one lifetime), but of course I have to taste. It’s my job. Hmmm. Perhaps I have underrated Nutella? It’s no worse than rather ordinary fudge.

2357 Arthur Avenue. Bronx. 718 220 1027. No reservations. Monday – Thursday, Noon - 10 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Noon - 11 p.m. Sunday 1 - 9 p.m.


More Peeves: Stop Leaning on My Chair.

        No surprise at all. Restaurant peeves keep coming in.  I’ve even had emails from two restaurateurs wanting copies of all the peeves to discuss at a staff meeting to possibly incorporate in training sessions.  At least we’re not just crying into the wind.

        Weinoo is unhappy about:
Servers and bussers that do not understand that food is served from the left and bussed from the right.
Wine and water - poured from the right.
Servers and bussers that reach across your face while doing their jobs.
Gloppy Chinese food.
Soggy French fries. Please, how hard is it to cook a French fry properly - in a restaurant kitchen with a fryolator?

The waiter clearing away your wine glass when there's a bit left in it.  If I'm paying $12 and up for a glass of wine, I want to finish it even it there's only one sip left.

All they have to do is ask if you're finished.

Same with your plate. You don't dare place your fork and knife on your plate to rest for a bit for fear they'll whisk away your plate with half of the entree left. Again - all they have to do is ask if you're finished. 

        Naomi wants salt and pepper on the table and a sauce spoon with a saucey dish. She writes: “As much as I hate being asked if everything is “alright,” I resent not being asked if I leave most of the food on my plate uneaten.

I also hate to see so much food on the plate that it looks like the kitchen doubled my order or au contraire: one of the items (usually the sauce) indicated on the menu as part of the dish turns out to be three or four little dots or tiny dribbles for decoration. It’s even worse if it enhances the dish but is gone after one or two bites.

Also: loud music the house turns up louder as the patrons up their own decibels trying to converse over the noise.
Also: specials that are offered verbally without the price stated – especially if it’s out of the general price range.”

        Vicki finds that fashionable deep bowl to be an annoying affectation when she can’t get the knife at an angle to cut the fish.

I suppose now that everyone is saving money by dispensing with table cloths it’s not so disgusting to set the knife on the table rather than watch it slide into the sauce when set on the edge of the latest sculptural plate.

        From Pat Weaver:
“Ah, yes, my latest peeve is to order my usual Bombay Sapphire Martini, straight up, with olives and have the cocktail waiter/waitress (server?) ask me what vodka I would like to order. Last, but not least, is our local steakhouse.  "Chuck" comes to the table and then drops to his knees to take the order.There's something very comforting about looking at the menu, never making eye contact with a server who is standing tall next to the table and to have no interchange with that person.  When you hear from the stratosphere the words ‘will that be all?’ and you answer ‘yes,’ that should be the end of it until ‘May I clear?’ instead of ‘Are you still workin' on that?’  The French may be many things but they still don't try to turn their tables every 45 minutes and if I need a new best friend it certainly isn't going to be Chuck.

Ah, that felt good.”

        Back at Fiore in Williamsburg this past weekend, I am delighted to see that desserts, buried in white flurries the week before, have lost their cloying confectioner’s sugar blanket in response to my exasperation in last week’s newsletter, Fork Play.   “I like comments from my customers,” Chef-owner Roberto Aita assures me, stepping out of the kitchen after the press of the dinner rush. (My former husband, the bemused DHF, used to call that “quenelle power.”)

        But I’m not going to give up the rant yet.

        When I ask for New York water, don’t respond “Fizzy or flat?” as if your brain has been removed.

        Stop apologizing when you set a plate down from the proper direction.  It’s only when the server’s arm crosses in front of my face to reach a diner in an inaccessible corner that I’d like an unobtrusive “excuse me, please.”  These days everyone in the restaurant takes up too much space.

        I’m also philosophically opposed to marshmallows scattered around my venison. Cute but annoying.

        And if I seem a little upset, don’t pat my arm.  Yes, that’s fox on my jacket.  Stop stroking it please.

        What are your least favorite words in a restaurant?  Mine are, “we can’t seat you till all your party is here.”

        Email me your restaurant peeves.  Somebody is reading!