Yes, We Really Ate All This Food: Family Meals at Campagnola, Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, Bar Americain, Pastis, and a return to The River Cafe

I need a glass case in my apartment with a stomach pump inside and the words “BREAK IN CASE OF PARENTAL VISITATION” printed on the outside. After leaving the car that dropped me off last night after dinner at the River Cafe, I kissed my parents goodbye, made my way into my building, rode the elevator up and sprawled out on my couch and didn’t move for three hours. I was that winded. Eating is hard work!

Last you heard, my brother and I ate Little Italy on Wednesday night and Sarabeth’s for Thursday brunch. After that, I took him to the Central Park Zoo where we hadn’t been since we were kids. I loved it! It’s my new favorite zoo—it has the perfect amount of zoo to sate your desire to see animals. Just when you’re getting bored of sea lions and monkeys, it’s time to go.

But that’s not what you’re here to read about. You came for the food—fine then, let’s get to it.


Our first stop on the Family Feasting Highway is one I feel funny telling you about. Let’s be honest here: we’re all human. As Tolstoy said, “all happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unhappy at dinner especially when the oldest son has a bad attitude because he didn’t get to pick the restaurant and the scene is a little too trendy and crowded and yuppy businessman for his tastes.”

The place, it just so happens, is Campagnola—located on the upper very east side: 1st Ave. and 74th St. What I just discovered, after Googling it, is that people love it. On Menupages the food gets 5 stars and people write effusive things like: “Words do not attempt to reveal how amazing this restaraunt is until you try it” and “This is the pinnacle of eating in NY, wonderful food, exceptional service and a great atmosphere.” Campagnola has its fans.

So maybe I came in with a chip on my shoulder and I was being bratty and not a very admirable gourmet, that I’ll concede. But I need to be honest: I’m not in love with Campagnola. I did love how it started—look at dad with this plate of free antipasto:


That yellowish cheese you see is a huge chunk of Parmesan-Reggiano. I’ve never just bit into Parmesan before, but here I did and it was delicious—especially with a salami chaser. The olives were great as was the bread and olive oil and the white stuff, dried feta.

The table next to us had a huge party—about 15 people—as did the table behind us. The room was buzzing with energy: a youngish/oldish woman played the piano. Waiters bounced in and out of the room with sizzling platters of meat and trays of drinks. We ordered a bottle of wine for the table which was kept in an ice bucket table side. Every gesture was theatrical: big personalities, big plates, big laughs echoing around the room. Campagnola is definitely a scene.

It’s not my kind of scene, but you get that already. For my appetizer I had prosciutto with melon:


It was fine. Melon’s not really in season, I guess, so it wasn’t particularly sweet. The prosciutto was tough, though flavorful. Dad and Michael were more enthusiastic about their Caesar salads: “it has great flavor,” said dad.

For my entree I had veal marsala:


The sauce was fantastic, the veal was very good. I guess when you flatten veal and cook it the way veal is cooked for veal marsala, it’s always going to have a certain lumpy texture. I didn’t love that texture. Mom, dad, and Michael all had lobster fra diavalo and they were all happy.

For dessert, we sang happy birthday to dad (it’s dad’s birthday Tuesday—and as you’ll see, when my family celebrates a birthday it’s a weeklong celebration), paid the check and left. Mom and dad LOVED Campagnola; I merely liked it. So if this sounds like your cup of tea, I say go eat the tea bag!

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…

I had a great idea for Friday. Mom was eating lunch with her best friend from childhood, Robin, and I was left coordinating the day for dad, Michael and I. The great idea was to cross the Brooklyn bridge and eat lunch at Grimaldi’s. This was easy enough. Dad came to my apartment (where Michael was staying) and we took the N/R train down to City Hall, exited, walked around City Hall Park until we came to the bridge and began the crossing.

What a gorgeous day it was! Seriously: if my superpower were weather control, I couldn’t have made it any nicer. Here’s dad and Michael at the start of the bridge:


And here they are at the other side–you can see Manhattan behind them:


Crossing the bridge is a great experience, something every New Yorker should do. You get great views of New York, the Statute of Liberty, the cars passing beneath. Halfway across, you see plaques dedicated to Mrs. Roebling, the wife of the bridge’s designer–a pioneer in the world of suspension bridges (and beyond). And when you get to the end, it’s a simple walk on a path that winds around and splits in two: yield left, go down the stars, exit, turn left, make another left, go to Fulton Ave. (I think that’s it, go double check that) make a right and you’ll see Grimaldi’s green awning up ahead.

My Grimaldi’s pitch made me feel a bit like a used car salesman. I told dad and Michael it was the oldest pizza place in New York, that the coal oven inside is 100 years old. Here they are posing outside:


Actually, though, once inside the menu revealed that this Grimaldi’s opened in 1990. Not quite so old! What is old is the methodology and ideas behind the pizza. It’s the pizza created by Patsy Grimaldi—that’s Patsy of Patsy’s fame—and this coal oven gets up to 800 degrees and makes a pizza frequently voted New York’s best. Here’s the coal oven that makes it:


And here’s the pizza itself:


Check out that crust! It’s such a perfect pizza. We had half mushrooms (dad) and half onions (Michael): I ate from both halves, making me the Great Pizza Unifier. I loved this pizza: a perfect ratio of crust, sauce, cheese and toppings. And that coal-charred crust is better than any crust I’ve ever had. 4 stars!

Of course, afterwards I walked Michael and dad over to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. I say “of course” as if I’ve done that before and truth be told, I haven’t. But all the Chowhound posts and eGullet posts I read say after eating pizza at Grimaldi’s, you go to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. So here it is—it’s in a lighthouse, right beneath the bridge (and right next to the River Cafe, where we returned to last night):


The ice cream here is of course homemade (I keep saying “of course”! Stop doing that, Adam!) Take a look:


Let’s see: that’s my butter pecan on the bottom, Michael’s chocolate chip at the top and dad’s coffee on the right. It’s certainly very fresh tasting: there’s a very high fat content. I don’t think it’s as strong as contender as the gelato at Cones in terms of freshness (that Cones stuff is hand-cranked) but it’s definitely very good and worth checking out.

Now for a funny story. At the back of the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is a pier where you can wait for a water taxi to take you back to Manhattan. Here’s dad and Michael waiting for it:


We waited, in fact, for 15 minutes. Finally, just when we were about to give up (“Let’s just walk back across the bridge, it’ll be faster”) the water taxi arrived. There was a docking ritual and then a man came down the plank and said: “Anyone for the water taxi?”

“Where does it stop?” we asked and he pointed to a map nailed to a pole. “It stops at all the places on that map.”

Dad and I began reviewing the map.

“It stops on 34th street,” I said, “We could get out there.”

“It also stops at the South Street Seaport,” said dad, “we could go there.”

“Umm,” said Michael, “the boat’s pulling away.”

And sure enough, as we were talking the boat pulled away! We found this very funny. That’s our funny water taxi story.

The best meal of the weekend with a special celebrity guest…

On Friday night, we met my parents’ friends the Reingolds and their children (you met them before at Wolfgang’s) at Bobby Flay’s new restaurant, Bar Americain. Here we are at the table:


Bar Americain is located on 52nd street between 6th and 7th. In Andrea Strong’s rave review last week, she described the “three-deep zinc bar” (complete with an exhibitionist couple); but on our night–a Friday night!–the place was surprisingly not crowded. “What’s going on, it’s a Friday night?” we wondered.

Maybe it’s because it just opened? I’m sure when Frank Bruni comes and gives it two stars (that’s my prediction, two stars) the scene will be buzzing. As it was, there was–we believe–Harry Smith from the CBS Early Show. This seems likely because Bobby Flay makes guest appearances on that show, so why shouldn’t Harry Smith be there?

For my cocktail (and I knew I had to have a cocktail, because Andrea Strong totally sold me on them) I had a dark and stormy:


That’s: Gosling’s black seal rum, fresh lime juice, ginger and a sugared rim. It was a great drink: very strong but very flavorful and fun. Stephanie (Mrs. R) had a Gooseberry drink that was equally outrageous and enjoyable. We were the big cocktail drinkers of the night.

For my first course I (again!) took Ms. Strong’s advice and ordered the (let me consult the web so I get these dishes described correctly)–Crawfish & Dungeness Crab Griddle Cake with basil and red pepper relish:


I’m not sure I shared Andrea’s sentiments exactly (she writes: “This “Griddle Cake” was unreal. I knew I wanted another one after one bite of the first.”) but I really enjoyed it. It was like a really dense, really fresh, really flavorful crabcake with big chunks of crab instead of everything ground up. And the presentation, as you can see, was lovely.

Mom–who still managed to diet at all these meals (she kept her portions small and her dressing on the side) gave me the rest of her appetizer—the raw bar tasting with crab-coconut, shrimp-tomatillo and lobster-avocado:


Who wouldn’t want to gobble all that up? It’s got everything you could want: sweet, savory, crisp, bitter, spicy, fishy, salty, plus complex textures and fantastic presentation. Go Bobby Flay!

Or should I say “Come, Bobby Flay!” That is: Come to our table!

As I was sitting with my back to the kitchen, everyone facing me grew suddenly tense and whispered “Adam, shhh, look” and there was Bobby Flay! He came STRAIGHT to our table from the kitchen. What was going on!?

“Hello,” he said, standing behind my mom.

“Everything is delicious so far,” said my mom.

“Would you mind taking a picture?” I said.

“Sure,” he said, leaning down next to my mom. Here they are!


“That’s my son,” said my mom, “He’s the Amateur Gourmet.”

Ugh! Aggressive Jewish mothers on attack!

“Oh yeah?” said Bobby, “What’s that?”

“It’s a web site, he writes about food,” explained my mom.

“No kidding,” he said, coming over and shaking my hand. “You write about food?”

“Yes I do,” I said nervously, recalling a time I wrote something not so nice about him, although I couldn’t remember exactly what it was.

“That’s great,” he said. There was an awkward pause.

“I’ve been watching Iron Chef America,” I said, “How’s that going?”

“Good good,” he said, “we just finished a bunch of tapings.” He turned back towards the kitchen. “Well, enjoy your meal,” he said and exited.

What was that! Why did Bobby Flay come straight to our table, linger, and leave? What was going on?!

That answer will come momentarily. But alas, our lamb has arrived:


That’s Lamb Porterhouse Chops with green peas and mint, double baked sweet potatoes. Let me tell you right now: those sweet potatoes were outrageous. Buttery, sweet and rich and everything I could want in a side dish. I love sweet potatoes and these did sweet potatoes proud.

As for the lamb, it was also terrific. It’s a great study in the different cooking techniques of Flay and Batali (who went up against each other on an Iron Chef America recently; Flay winning, I believe); especially because I had lamb last time I went to Babbo. Between the two, I feel like Batali’s was more tender but that Flay’s was more flavorful. And Flay’s overall presentation–with the mint and the peas and the sweet potatoes–has a slight edge on Batali. HOWEVER, if I were to only eat one dish again for the rest of my life it might be Batali’s because even though Flay’s was more flavorful, the tenderness of Batali’s was extraordinary and in many ways heaven on a plate.

Finally, there was dessert. Another Happy Birthday song for dad:


Happy Birthday Dad! And then some more desserts:


That’s a pineapple carrot cake on the bottom and whiskey eclairs in the middle and deep dish chocolate cake with the candle in it. I have to say, I’m something of a dessert maven and I didn’t kvell over these desserts. The whiskey eclairs were the ones I most looked forward to (again, it’s Andrea’s fault!) but no one at the table seemed to love them. The big winner was the deep dish chocolate cake: mom and Stephanie guiltily scraped the bowl clean (though mom swears this was her only transgression in a weekend of Weight Watcheriffic eating).

And that was our meal. We all loved it: “That was a great meal!” said mom and Stephanie. Dad, though, doesn’t like unfamiliar food so this wasn’t his favorite meal; but dad aside, Bar Americain was a big winner. Two stars, I tell you, two stars!

But Adam, tell us about Bobby Flay…why did he come to your table?

Well yesterday (Saturday) I went with mom to the West Village and we were walking around and shopping. “That was strange,” I said, “How Bobby Flay came straight to our table, as if he knew one of us or something?”

“Well,” said mom, “I didn’t tell you this, but when we came in I asked the hostess if Bobby Flay was cooking tonight and she said yes. And I may have told her that someone VERY important was at our table and that he should come say hello. I guess it worked!”

Look out Mama Rose, Mama Gourmet’s in town! (“And if it wasn’t for me / then where would you be / Mister Amateur G?”)

God, Adam, this post is so long…are you really going to write about your other meals?

I’m getting a little burnt out myself. For lunch yesterday, before the big Flay revelation, mom and I went to Pasti’s in the meatpacking district. (Michael and dad snuck off to Katz’s deli, even though you can’t spell pastrami without Pastis (or at least Pasti).)

If I started this review complaining about the scene at Campagnola, it’s fitting to end it complaining about the scene at Pasti’s. What a circus! It’s like everything I hate about L.A. crammed into one little restaurant. Tables are teeming with celebrities and wannabe celebrities and those who want to sit near wannabe celebrities. We wanted a table outside, they said it would take 30 minutes, so we accepted a dingy table in the corner.

And the food? The food was great, in many ways exemplary. Like check out this French Onion soup which you can click to make larger:


And check out this steak frites which you can also click to make larger:


They were both terrific. The soup was robust and fruity, fun and flavorful; the steak was seasoned and cooked perfectly, the Bernaise sauce a wickedly sinful accompaniment. Mom had a seared tuna salad that was presented beautifully, though dressingless (as per mom’s request). [Sidenote: Last week mom grossed me out by sprinkling Splenda on her salad. So yesterday when she offered me a bite of her salad, which she’d dressed herself with just balsamic vinegar, I did so and said, “Mmm, it’s very good.” “See!” she said, “I tricked you! There was Splenda sprinkled on it!” “BLECH!”]

So anyway, in conclusion, Pastis has great food but the scene is tough, if unbearable, and I’m not sure it’s worth the effort or the money to eat there. Those are my thoughts.

Oh, and the River Cafe? My parents love this place and I can’t complain: the food is pretty great and the view is tremendous. (Read my review from last time!) This time I tried, for the first time in my life, steak tartare which had me at hello, with its quail egg broken on top and perfectly arrayed condiments like mustard, olives, capers, etc. For my entree I had the duck and it was very good.

As you can see by the length of this post and sheer volume of pictures and food, I must fast this week and spend 80 hours at the gym. No, just kidding, I’m not like that (like I had to tell you!) I already went with friends to the Burger Joint where I pigged out on burgers and fries and then afterwards we went to Cafe Europa and had Tarte Tatin. Does the eating ever end?! Perhaps I’ll break that glass case now…

Until next time,

A very important person.

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