Casellula, Maison Kayser & Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria

You may not be surprised to learn that when it comes to what I eat, at any given moment, I can be a bit of a control freak. In fact I have a theory that most food people are control freaks: what better way to control what goes into your body than to become an expert on the subject? It’s rare to find a food person grabbing handfuls of snack food willy-nilly off a snack cart. Give a food person the opportunity to select his or own snack from a larger selection and a careful decision will be rendered. That makes us discerning, but also kind-of obnoxious in terms of going with the flow.

So lately, I’ve been going with the flow. The other night I met my friend Lauren for dinner and when she suggested a restaurant I’d never heard of–Casellula off 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen–I said “sure.” Turns out that’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

I loved the food at Casellula. The place is tiny (it’s really a wine bar with a few tables) but the service is attentive and incredibly knowledgable.

Plus, the menu’s funny. Check out the “Pig’s Ass” sandwich under large plates. We’ll get to that in a moment.


Our meal started with the fava bean crostini, which was punchy and bright and beautifully presented with edible flowers.


These cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped Peppadews may win the award for most flavorful thing you can possibly make with three ingredients.


And then there was the cheese.


Casellula is really well known for its cheese selection. You just tell the server how many cheeses you want and which kinds you like and they make you a plate. Here we had a goat cheese (all the way on the left) paired with green tea white chocolate fudge–a combination that worked brilliantly (it was my favorite one)–and three other cheeses* that were paired with bacon molasses mustard seeds, manzanilla olive tapenade and tomato confit in order from left to right. It was a cheese-lover’s dream come true and I’m not even that much of a cheese lover. But Craig, who is, will love this place…so I plan to go back with him next week since he’s arriving here tonight.

(* We actually had the server highlight the cheeses on a menu that she gave me. Here’s what we had: Sitcoos, River’s Edge Farm; Eden, Sprout Creek Farm; Limburger Cow’s Milk; and Pecorino Paglierino.)

This salad was pretty forgettable:


But the Pig’s Ass sandwich was like an elevated Cuban sandwich, served with a Chipotle aioli for dipping on the side. We ate it so greedily, we looked like pig’s asses ourselves.


The apple dessert with homemade ice cream was nice:


But the star of the show was really the cheese plate, followed by the Pig’s Ass sandwich. Oh and the wine was excellent too (I started with a Riesling and graduated to a red halfway through. I forget which red.)

So that’s Casellula, a new favorite, thanks to my not being a control freak.

Next up with have Maison Kayser, a French bakery with world-class bread that just opened up near where I’m staying on the Upper East Side.


Let me skip to the conclusion about this place and save you some time. Everything about it is totally forgettable except for the bread and the bread is out-of-this-world good. So here’s a man slicing bread in the middle of the dining room:


And here’s the basket they give every table after you place your order.


Hands down, this is easily the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. No question. What made it so good? The crackle of the crust as you bite into it, the tang of dough on the inside. I’m not someone who notices bread when I eat it, really, but this bread made me pay attention. It didn’t even matter that they served it with depressing, diner-style, frozen bricks of butter.


I could’ve eaten that whole basket, the bread was so good.


So good, in fact, that I almost didn’t care that the expensive Salad Nicoisse ($18!) came with three tiny slivers of tuna:


My advice: buy bread at the counter, bring it home, and enjoy it on your own terms. It’s pretty special.

Finally, I joined my friend Charlotte and her parents for dinner at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria last week.


Of all the places I’d been reading about while in L.A., this was the one I was most curious to try (Atera, another one I’m anxious to try, is prohibitively expensive).

The room at Il Buco is festive, possibly because of all the communal tables. You know how I feel about communal tables, but for some reason I didn’t mind so much on this night.

The food at Il Buco is real deal Italian. We started with platters of meat and cheese (oh, and this ties into my original control freak theme because I let Charlotte’s dad do all the ordering and I was happy to eat whatever he selected…it’s one of his favorite restaurants):


This salad of shaved squash and zucchini paired with fresh ricotta cheese was surprisingly flavorful…a testament to using the best ingredients (olive oil, etc.) to enhance the freshest produce.


The fried bacalao was like the world’s best fish stick and Charlotte’s mom went gaga for the octopus.


This shellfish stew was nice, if unnecessary.


The cacio e pepe was expertly made, the noodles almost shockingly al dente…probably how they do it in Italy.


But people, I’ve been kind of killing time up to this point because what I really should’ve been writing about from the very beginning, the reason to go to Il Buco and the reason you won’t stop thinking about it is because of this dish…the short rib.


People have already sung its praises, but dear God in heaven this short rib is sublime. The outside is coated in peppercorns and seared to create a crackling crust; the inside is melt-in-your-mouth tender. It’s topped with grated fresh horseradish and wins the award for best dish I’ve had in New York since arriving here two weeks ago.

A close 2nd is the porchetta, which came beautifully arrayed as you can see here.


The flavors here were delicate but also powerful…potent combinations of garlic and herbs. Il Buco does its meat extraordinarily well.

Excellent homemade condiments (like candied pumpkin and some kind of mostarda) only enhance things.


I loved these roasted carrots:


(Take a lesson from that picture: roast your carrots with the green tops still on. Makes them prettier.)

The desserts didn’t disappoint either. The panna cotta came topped with good, syrupy balsamic vinegar; the peach tart was fresh-tasting and still somewhat seasonal; and the gelato had a clarity and a richness that makes it a serious contender for New York’s best.


So there you are… two meals selected by other people and one meal that really didn’t fit with that theme but I wrote about it anyway because I liked the bread. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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