We just got in a mood for Italian today. Dawn wanted Italian ice and I had a hankering for Italian beef so we hied ourselves down to Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, a place so justifiably famous that there are always lines down the block. Fortunately, in spite of there being at least fifty people ahead of us, the line moved really fast, and it took at most fifteen minutes to get into the building to make our orders. And once we did, we found out why the line moves so fast. Cash only, barked orders and an absolute army of workers grinding out maybe half a dozen different food items with the sort of offhand efficiency that comes from years of doing the same things over and over again for ten or twelve hours a day. We each got beef sandwiches, fries and Italian lemonade, and while no single item was the absolute best I’ve ever tasted, it was a damn good lunch, not even marred by the glare I got from the guy at the table where we decided to sit. Yeah dude, you had to share. Next time you might want to put up a sign that says that you and your unfriendly girlfriend own that table. Oh wait… you don’t! Sucks to be you, doesn’t it?
When we left there we went in search of some vaguely Italianate store that would provide us with fresh mozzarella, pastries for breakfast on Sunday and something to bring out our inner Italians. Actually mine came out the other day when Charles struck up a conversation with a darkly thuggish, sweaty man outside my house. They were talking cars, I watched from inside the house, overheating. Turns out he’s a cop who lives in the neighborhood, and is kind of sexy in a Chris Keller sort of way, though he’s one of those guys who doesn’t actually talk to women except to observe the niceties. So, nice from a distance in a humid Italian style. But I digress. The the point was we wanted to shop Italian. So we headed back up Harlem, and lo there was Palermo Bakery like a beacon, luring us with the promise of fresh pastry, fresh arancini and Italian roast coffee at little tables outside. Never mind that the sun was beating down on the concrete as if it was the Sun’s Anvil (Shoutout to all you Lawrence of Arabia fans.) and sitting out there with a cup of hot coffee was tantamount to inviting the kind of heat stroke that would permanently fry bits of your brain right inside your skull.
Still, we were tempted in, and I’m glad we were. The first thing to catch my eye was something called “Sfogliatelle,” a crisp-looking layered pastry. I asked the counter girl what it was and she explained that it was pretty much just what you saw, layers of crispy pastry. But I decided I had to try one anyway and into the bag it went along with a pound of cookies, a loaf of bread, a small chocolate bundt-style cake and two pastries called “Genovese,” which are a short-crust pastry filled with cannoli cream.
Well I have to tell you that this is some of the best pastry I’ve had in a long time. The cookies are satisfying without being particularly sweet, the semolina bread is delicious, the genovese were predictably delicious because how could anything stuffed with cannoli cream not be good? You could stuff a dirty sock with cannoli cream and still have people falling all over themselves at how delicious the socks are. And the sfogliatelle? Well the girl didn’t describe it too well. It’s actually filled with ricotta and semolina, spices, vanilla and candied orange, and it’s just delicious. Everything was super fresh, too. (Okay, haven’t tried the cake yet, but I’m going to assume it’s as fresh as the rest of the pastries.) The price for all this fresh, flaky goodness? $18 and change. Now I’m not gonna mention any names here but I regularly buy baked goods at a couple of yuppified places which I do like, and at one of them the pound of cookies alone would have come out close to $18. There’s a reason why people shop at small, local and often ethnic stores.
We didn’t find anything else too exciting on the way up to the pet store so we decided to go back down Harlem to Caputo’s which is in a brand new home on Harlem and Grand. Boy, was that the right choice! The new store is miles bigger than the old one and it’s about 70% fresh market with the other 30% or so just overflowing with all sorts of amazing ethnic food; mostly Italian of course but there was a very nice little selection of Indian, Chinese and Japanese frozen food. The guy who took care of us at the deli counter couldn’t have been nicer. He answered all my questions, let me taste things I wasn’t sure about, and when one of the salads looked kind of ancient, he put the spoon down and went into the back to get some fresh. I just found out that I can order from them online and get it delivered so even though we’re still carless (we got an iGo today) we can shop there. Why is that super cool? Because their prices are some of the best I’ve ever seen. We got fresh mozzarella fresh ricotta, prosciutto di parma, a really nice dry salami, some Polish ham, a couple of salads, some San Pellegrino, two loaves of bread, blueberries and blackberries, fresh figs and a bunch of condiments (I am the Condiment Queen!) for around $50. Again, pretty darn amazing.
Tonight we ended up barbecuing the rib eyes, which I didn’t like this time around, and eating them with the semolina bread and a caprese salad with the fresh mozzarella, some campari tomatoes and basil from our garden. Later we made iced coffee and ate cookies while the sun went down. Then we sat outside until almost eleven. About ten-fifteen one of our neighbors brought his guitar outside and began to play. It was what I would classify as “a moment.” Very much the sort you like to read about or see in a movie.
Sometimes the day is just… Right.