In the Neighborhood: A Taste of History in Greenwich Village

Bellavitae is a stopping point for an interesting walking food tour of the Central Village and SoHo that’s hosted by Foods of New York Tours.  Freelance writer John Bancroft recently took part in the tour and wrote about it in yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times.  He had this to say about Bellavitae:

“We walked on up MacDougal, turning into quiet Minetta Lane and detouring briefly into even quieter Minetta Street, where Serpico lived, both in the movie and in real life, on our way to Bellavitae, a trattoria famed for its astonishing pantry and its celestial wine list.  There, as a battery of cooks prepped for the evening meal, we tucked into a cheesecake like no other: a ricotta dream with the texture of a fine, soft Brie and the savor of a creamy slice of heaven.  I liked the place so much I returned later that day for dinner and thus added a new favorite to my short list of Manhattan restaurants.”

Other stops on the tour include: 

  • Camaje – Seated tasting at a French-American Bistro (Est. 1997)
  • Monte’s Trattoria – Seated tasting at a classic Italian restaurant (Est. 1918)
  • Cuba Restaurant – Seated tasting at an authentic Cuban restaurant (Est. 2002)
  • Joe’s Dairy – Outdoor tasting at an old-fashioned dairy/cheese shop (Est. 1953)
  • Once Upon a Tart – Outdoor tasting at a charming French cafe/bakery (Est. 1994) 

We always hear great feedback from folks who have taken the tours.  Associated with the tour group is Amy Bandolik’s blog, Delicious Thursdays.  She recently wrote about an evening she spent at Bellavitae behind the Chef’s Bar.

Check it out.


Now playing: “666″ at the Minetta Lane Theatre – UPDATE

The reviews for Yllana’s “666” are in:

Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times calls the show’s timing “exquisite and the presentation so startling that the oldest joke in the world . . . is a comic high point.”

New York Post’s Frank Scheck says it “exhibits such superb comic timing and physicality under David Ottone’s precise direction.”

Genzlinger correctly warns that what “they convey is pretty vulgar; if you have a low tolerance for such stuff, don’t go.”  However, The New Yorker counters by saying, “The elegance and brilliance of the pantomime save this show, directed by David Ottone, from being too offensive to sit through.”

Now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre, next door to Bellavitae.  Check it out.


On the menu: Mozzarella di Bufala

Every Thursday afternoon, fresh buffalo mozzarella and ricotta arrive at our door, direct from Campania.  The cheese is made on Tuesday afternoon from water buffalo that are milked that morning.  It’s a pleasure many of our customers look forward to each week.  What’s the big deal?  Let me explain:

Mozzarella di bufala is a very fresh (unripened) pulled cheese made from the full-fat milk of water buffalo.  Mozzarella has an interesting history, and like many Italian foods, is somewhat misunderstood.

Cheese made from cow’s milk is technically fior di latte [milk flower], but is many times also referred to as mozzarella.  The taste is very different from buffalo mozzarella, more delicate and less rich, but its shelf life is much longer.

We consider genuine mozzarella di bufala a luxury product, but its roots stem from once underprivileged and rural southern Italy, where water buffalo lived in the unhealthy swampy regions near rivers and lagoons, and the countrymen who herded them suffered from malaria.

Historians trace Italy’s water buffalo back to twelfth century Campania, when monks at the San Lorenzo Monastery in Capua offered a mozza o provatura and a piece of bread to pilgrims visiting the church.  The term mozzarella first appeared in the 16th century in a cookbook written by Vatican Chef Bartolomeo Scappi titled Opera dell’arte del cucinare.

There are many theories on the origins of water buffalo in Italy, but according to the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, the mostly likely is that during the tenth century, the Norman kings brought them into southern Italy from Sicily, where they had been introduced by the Arabs.  Others believe the buffalo are indigenous to Italy, based on fossils found in the countryside surrounding Rome, as well as from results of recent studies that demonstrate that Italian buffalo have a different phylogeny than Indian buffalo.

Today, Italian water buffalo are raised in fenced-off fields and either graze or are fed locally produced hay or feed.  The animals enjoy pools and showers to keep them cool (they have no sweat glands) and live an average of 15 to 20 years.  Females give birth to one calf each year and give about two gallons of milk a day.

Although the cheese is produced in several areas from Abruzzo to Lazio to Campania, the best is arguably from around Naples, in the district between Caserta and Salerno.  There are many dairies scattered about in this area, both small and large, where you can watch the mozzarella being made; a very fast process.

The milk is brought in, curdled, then drained to eliminate the whey.  The curd is then cut into small pieces and ground up in a mill.  The crumbly curd is placed into a mold and immersed in hot water, where it is stirred until it becomes rubbery.  It is then kneaded, much like bread dough, until a smooth, shiny paste is reached, at which time the cheese maker pulls out and lops off a piece of cheese (mozzare in Italian means to lop off).

These individual balls are placed in cold water, and then are soaked in brine.  Mozzarella prepared in the evening is ready the next morning.

But you don’t have to go to Campania to watch mozzarella being made.  They make the cow’s milk variety at Joe’s Dairy, in New York’s SoHo; the process was recently documented by Amy Bandolik on her blog Delicious Thursdays.

Buffalo milk is not for drinking and is used exclusively for making mozzarella.  It is much more concentrated than cow’s milk and would probably prove very difficult to digest in liquid form.  Rich in calcium, high in protein and lactic flora substances, and with a high vitamin content, mozzarella di bufala is highly nutritional.  There are only 270 calories in 100 grams of the cheese.

Italians will tell you that mozzarella di bufala should be eaten within a few days of its production – but better yet, a few hours!  Fresh mozzarella should be elastic, the surface tight, smooth, and humid.  There should be no yellowish marks or spots.  When you press it with a finger, the texture shouldn’t be soft or rubbery.  Inside it should have a grainy surface and composed of many layers, like an onion, especially near the surface.

Pearls of milky whey should seep out when you cut into the cheese and you will notice liquid separating from the solid, as if it had been soaked in milk.  Get to know your cheese vendor and ask when the mozzarella is delivered.  That’s the day you should buy it!

Fresh mozzarella di bufala, in our view, should be enjoyed by itself; we simply pour on some delicate extra virgin olive oil and add some coarse salt and a little black pepper.  For our Insalata Caprese, we use fior di latte, which we believe provides a better balance to fresh tomato and basil.  If you use fresh mozzarella on pizza, it’s best to drain it for several hours in a colander in the refrigerator to remove some of the moisture, otherwise you will get a soggy crust.

One of the byproducts of making mozzarella is ricotta, which means “recooked”.  Ricotta is actually not a cheese at all, but is made by heating the whey from another cooked cheese, in this case, buffalo mozzarella.  It is slightly grainy, white, moist, and has a slightly sweet flavor.  And like mozzarella, we do very little to this luxurious ingredient, other than form into small bite-sized balls, or bocconcini, give them a quick egg wash, then flash fry.  The result in the palate is cloud-like heaven.

Our regulars know that our mozzarella di bufala arrives on Thursday directly from Campania, and we only bring enough to last through the weekend.  Sometimes we sell out in one night.  It’s a bit of an extravagance, but once you’ve tasted freshly-made mozzarella di bufala, Thursdays will always mean a trip to Bellavitae.


Just Published: Jay McInerney at the Wall Street Journal

Jay McInerney marks his debut as wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal today.  Jay is the author of seven novels, including his 1984 bestseller Bright Lights, Big City.  His wine columns for House & Garden are collected in Bacchus and Me and A Hedonist in the Cellar.  He will be writing the column alternately with Lettie Teague, the former Executive Editor of Food & Wine.  They also are co-blogging for the Journal’s On Wine.   

No one who knows Jay will be surprised to hear that he devotes his first column to rosé champagne, specifically Moët & Chandon’s 1990 Dom Pérignon Œnothèque Rosé.   

Until now, there’s never been an Œnothèque rosé, and collectors and geeks have been buzzing in anticipation of this one.  It is really spectacular, one of the greatest rosés I’ve ever tasted, richer and more voluptuous than the 2000.   

Dom Pérignon was a Benedictine monk and an important quality pioneer for champagne.  Contrary to popular belief, he did not discover the champagne method for making sparkling wines.  The first vintage of Dom Pérignon was 1921, released for sale in 1936, and, as Jay points out, probably the first prestige cuvée.   

If you have a chance to visit the winery you should.  It’s a magical place full of history.  I had the opportunity to take a private tour a few years ago and taste some wonderful vintages.   

Jay talks about “the chalk tunnels of the Moët & Chandon cellars deep under the town of Épernay.”  I snapped a picture of them while I was there:    

Say what you want about the French, but they make the world’s best sparkling wine.  I’ve always been tempted to add champagne to our all-Italian wine list, but never have.  Most restaurants in Italy will offer at least one champagne.   

Jay has a special way with words when telling a story.  Combine that with an acutely perceptive palate for food and wine, and you get a fascinating wine column.  It’s always fun and interesting when Jay visits Bellavitae.   

I’m sure he’ll occasionally write about Italian wines and I heartily recommend his new column in the Weekend Edition of The Wall Street Journal as well as the blog.


Just Published: Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking by Mario Batali

Mario dined at Bellavitae a couple of weeks ago with his family and in-laws, so we had a chance to catch up.  His new book, Molto Gusto, comes out today:

The bestselling author of Italian Grill and Molto Italiano delivers a gorgeous collection of mouthwatering recipes to bring some Italian favorites home.

Chef Mario Batali’s zest for life infuses the casual Italian fare that has made his restaurant Otto Enoteca Pizzeria a perennially popular New York City destination. Now you can have the flavors of Otto at home, with Molto Gusto, a collection of recipes for everyone’s favorites, from pizza, pasta, and antipasti to gelati and sorbetti.

Mario has written the definitive book on great pizza making for the amateur, the novice, the foodie, and the gourmet cook, teaching how to make really great pizza at home without any fancy equipment. Here too are recipes for classic pizza, Otto’s special pizzas, and even kids’ pizzas.

Looking for something a little lighter? Try the antipasti. Based on seasonal vegetables, with a few recipes showcasing seafood and meat, these dishes can make up an entire, healthy meal. Also included are many of Mario’s favorite simple pasta dishes, and to finish it all off, fantastic recipes for gelati, sorbetti, and copette.

Filled with Mario’s infectious personality and love of robust flavors, and illustrated with luscious full-color photos, Molto Gusto makes it easy to spend a night on the town without leaving home.

My favorite at Otto?  The olive oil gelato.  Check it out for yourself.


On the menu: Costolette d’Agnello a Scottadito

Courtesy Denver Magazine


Grilled Colorado Lamb Chops

In its March issue, Denver magazine had a terrific article on Colorado lamb:

“Is there a more innocent, idyllic creature than the spring lamb?  It’s been a symbol of purity and, by extension, rebirth for millennia — morphing from Aries, the first sign of the zodiac (today more commonly depicted in adult form as a ram), into a Judeo-Christian icon of sacrifice and resurrection that, in turn, manifests as an Easter supper centerpiece and Passover Seder ceremonial offering.”

I’ve tasted lamb from different parts of the U.S., as well as from Australia and New Zealand.  None has the flavor or the texture of Colorado’s grass-fed lamb.

The state saw its cattle and sheep industry take off in the late 1800s, when New Zealand and Australia controlled the international wool market.  However, these farmers fed and bred their sheep to optimize wool production.  In Colorado, the opposite was – and still is – true:  the focus is on meat quality, with wool being of secondary consideration.

The animals feed on bromegrass, orchardgrass, and perennial rye, all of which thrive in Colorado’s mountain climate.  In the winter they eat alfalfa hay.  And I love this quote:

“Oogie McGuire, owner of the Desert Weyr farm, says, “Terroir is not just a word that describes cheese or fine wine.”  If she’s right, then all those mountain springs and lush valleys in the marketing materials of Colorado lamb promoters aren’t just for show — they’re what’s for dinner. “

According to the American Lamb Board, domestic lamb is of higher quality because it “travels up to 10,000 fewer miles and about 30 days less than imported lamb.”  Another advantage:  the ribeye of an American lamb rib chop provides 38% more meat than Australia and New Zealand rib chops.

The quality is so good that we do as little as possible to interfere with this beautiful piece of meat.  We simply rub a garlic clove on the meat and place it on the hot grill, adding rosemary and some coarse salt.

By the way, scottadito translates to burn with heat [scottare] and finger [dito], or burned finger.  Pick up a hot Colorado lamb chop by its bone and you’ll understand.  We never frown on guests eating with their fingers, we encourage it!

Buona Pasqua!

Further Reading: 


On the menu: Crostini al Carciofi e Pomodori Secchi

Crostini with baby Artichokes and sun-dried Tomatoes

Crostini are a great way to get creative.  Just an ingredient or two on toasted or grilled bread.  How Italian is that?

In this dish, we spread sliced baby artichokes on crostini and top that with chopped sun-dried tomatoes for the perfect refreshment on a spring evening.

Both ingredients are grown by Francesco Vastola, whose land is located in Campania’s Alta Valle del Sele area near the Cilento National Park and the archaeological ruins at Paestum.  Francesco grows vegetables of the highest quality.  Combining innovation and tradition, he takes his just-picked vegetables and turns them into sott’olio using the excellent extra virgin olive oil from Cilento.

The baby artichokes we use are carciofi di Paestum, which are prized throughout Italy. They are famous for their small round heads, spineless stems, and beautiful purple color.  Picked only between February and May, they are unusually tender, but still firm to the bite.

Artichokes are notoriously difficult to preserve.  Their flavor is subtle.  If an artichoke of little flavor is combined with poor quality olive oil, the results are disappointing.

Valle del Sele’s artichokes were first mentioned in statistics published in 1811, when the region was known as the Kingdom of Naples.  Eventually, the artichoke of Castellammare became known as carciofo tondo di Paestum, or “round artichoke of Paestum.”

Francesco uses perfectly ripe, sun-drenched tomatoes for his pomodori secchi [sun-dried tomatoes].  He sprinkles them with salt and dries them in the fields.  Wine vinegar, oregano, capers, and chili peppers add balance and an extra punch of flavor.

When Francesco’s pomodori secchi are combined with his carciofi di Paestum, a perfect flavor balance emerges, showing that sometimes one plus one equals three.