Scrumptious Italian Sandwiches in Astoria

Il Bambino
34-08 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11106

My brother recently moved to Astoria in Queens, NY. Being the awesome, amazing and caring big brother that I am, I was helping him move some things into his new apartment, until we got hungry for some lunch. I think Astoria is a great neighborhood, and it’s a super hotspot right now. While it might have once only been known for Greek restaurants—of which there are still many—it is now a haven for artists, musicians, foodies and hipsters. All over Astoria there are gourmet eateries ranging in cuisine from spicy Thai cook shops, to brick oven pizzerias, gourmet grilled cheese, barbecue smokehouses, big beer gardens, Japanese ramen shops, and many, many more.

Photo Jun 20, 1 28 07 PMOne of these unique restaurants is Il Bambino, which opened in 2006. It is a cute, little hole in the wall place on the 31st Avenue block, specializing in old-school panini, and other Italian fare, with a second location in the West Village as well. It has a casual atmosphere with a big selection of panini and crostini, as well as salads, antipasto, and a special brunch menu on the weekends. It has an open kitchen in the front where there are multiple panini presses working at once sending out creative meat, cheese and veggie combinations. They use ciabatta bread that is freshly baked daily, local produce and handmade condiments. There’s also a great meat a mind cheese glossary available for perusal of those that aren’t familiar with some of the selections.

Photo Jun 20, 1 06 03 PMWe got there during the weekend lunch rush and luckily were able to snag a small table near the front. Everything on the menu looked amazing, and even though I was somewhat distracted by the giant salad being eaten by the woman next to me, we decided to save time and each went with a panini.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 47 PMThe Bacon Butty ($12) has a powerful and pungent blue cheese flavor. There is a good amount of moist, chewy bacon—it had the perfect texture and amount of smokiness that have some oomph to the sandwich. The combination of avocado, scrambled eggs and blue cheese made for a great combo, and the creaminess from the spicy mayo added a certain level of unctuousness to the sandwich as well. The hot bread was nice and crusty, with a wonderful crunch as it was bitten into. It was also a pretty big panini—perfect for a filling brunch or lunch.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 40 PMIn contrast to the Bacon Butty, which was slightly more traditional American, the Pass the Hash ($11) was very, very Italian. The eggs were cooked well and not dry at all. The garlic roasted potatoes provided some needed heft and the chorizo bumped up the meatiness of the panini. The whole sandwich had a great truffle flavor from the aioli that also perfumed the filling. The addition of Parmesan made the panini luxurious and really elevated the rather simple ingredients to something special, and tied it all together. The inside of the panini was creamy and contrasted with the crustiness of the grilled bread.Photo Jun 27, 1 27 15 PM

Photo Jun 27, 1 28 35 PMThose two panini were super filling and so delicious that a couple of weeks later we decided to pick up a panini to share as an afternoon snack—alright, I’ll admit…a big snack!—and it was the best takeout ever. The Porchetta ($11) panini was definitely made for the carnivorous at heart. Porchetta is a boneless pork loin that is stuffed with herbs, garlic, then rolled and roasted with the skin still on to keep then meat moist and delicious. In the Porchetta panini, the meaty pork loin was fatty with juice gushing out of the meat. It was topped with a fresh and spicy slaw that was definitely helpful in cutting through the rich, fatty meat. The pickle slaw were a nice surprise hidden in the middle of the panini, and the rosemary aioli also gave the sandwich a nice earthiness and deep woody flavor. The bread soaked up the pork juices and it was mouthwateringly delicious.

Photo Jun 20, 1 27 57 PMIl Bambino is the perfect spot for some lunch, brunch or anything in between. It has a ton of great Italian panini available and great beers and wines to pair with them. While the restaurant might be small in size, it makes up for it with big played and bold flavors. Buon Appetito!

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Restaurant Review: Le Bistro d’à Côté

Le Bistro d’à Côté
1590 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10028

FullSizeRender 11Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, so it is almost required that you have some sort of meal with mom. Some years we get together with cousins for a big BBQ, sometimes we have family over, etc. This year we wanted to something a little more low key, so settled on a nice brunch with just the four of us — me, mom, dad and my brother, Dan.

FullSizeRender 5Dad ordered the Soupe a l’Oignon ($11), or French Onion soup. The broth was very rich and aromatic with a great onion flavor. It wasn’t too sweet, and still had a solid alcohol flavor, which probably came from red wine. It might’ve been cognac though. The swiss cheese gratin crust was thick and delicious, with the classic, nutty flavor that comes from using Gruyere cheese. Plus, the cheese passed the all-important stretch test. The croutons in the soup were soft and soaked up a good amount of the flavorful broth.

FullSizeRender 8FullSizeRender 2While dad opted for the soup, mom, Dan and I split the Le Croustillant De Chèvre Chaud ($15) appetizer, which featured warm goat cheese and spinach wrapped in phyllo over mixed greens. The greens were dressed lightly, and the dried cranberries popped with flavor. They were a little sour, having absorbed some of the vinaigrette, which was a nice burst of acidity to cut through the richness of the dish. The goat cheese itself was so creamy and the phyllo paper delicately thin. The sliced baguette bread that came to the table was hot and crisp on the outside, but perfectly fluffy in the middle. I loved the crunch as I bit into the baguette—it was great for scooping up some of the goat cheese.

FullSizeRender 6Mom ordered the Oeufs Nordique ($15), a delicious, bistro version of smoked salmon Benedict, served with roasted potatoes and mixed greens. The smoked salmon was chewy, slightly salty, meaty and surprisingly creamy. The eggs were perfectly cooked, and the english muffin was soft and absorbed the yolk well. The hollandaise over the top of the Benedict was textbook in its richness, but was also wonderfully light.

FullSizeRender 10The Oeufs Florentine ($13), or eggs florentine, was also tasty. The spinach was still nice and crisp underneath the eggs, and the diner staple of feta cheese wasn’t missed. Again, the eggs were beautifully cooked, and tasted great with a sprinkle of salt. The salmon Benedict didn’t need any salt because of the inherent saltiness of the smoked salmon. My only critique was that the potatoes were not very hot when the dish came to the table.

FullSizeRender 9I opted for a Croque Madame ($13.50), which is simply a French spin on a ham and cheese sandwich, covered with a Béchamel white sauce and broiled. The difference between a Croque Madame and a Croque Monsieur is that the Madame has a fried egg on top as well. I ordered mine with no ham, and was slightly worried that it would be dry, but my worries were unfounded. The dish wasn’t wet and also not dry, but rather got softer and somewhat creamy as I went inward. The egg on top was (again) cooked well with perfectly runny yolk. The fries were crisp and hot, and tasted great with some Dijon mustard—very French. The greens were dressed with some simple oil and were a great vehicle for a sprinkle of the sea salt on the table.

FullSizeRenderThe final dish of the meal was the Risotto aux Champignons des Bois ($19), or wild mushroom risotto. The risotto was in a word: delectable. The rice was cooked al dente and wasn’t too creamy, but very hearty. The dish was very earthy, and had a wonderful deep flavor from the mushrooms, as well as the black truffle oil. It was garnished with small strips of shaved parmesan over the top. The risotto was actually perfect for brunch since it had at the appearance of a bowl of oatmeal.

FullSizeRender 4The restaurant presents itself in a simple, French bistro style with exposed brick, redone hardwood floors, and a narrow but still spacious dining room on one side and a bar on the other. There was relaxing jazz music playing—they actually have live jazz on Sunday nights. Large wine cabinets in the bar and restaurant areas were prevalent, with a simple table setup in the dining room.

FullSizeRender 3I usually avoid talking about any major negatives, but I have to point out that the restaurant’s website indicated that Sunday brunch came with a mimosa, Bloody Mary, juice or coffee if a brunch item was ordered. When we asked about this, the waitress said at first that it was only for their “hangover brunch,” which was a choice between two specific items only (2 eggs any style or a ham and cheese croissant). When she finally came back when plates were cleared away, we asked again and were told that it was for their brunch, but not on holidays. In actuality there was no special Mother’s Day menu. To me, that was false representation and slightly marred the experience.

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Overall, the service wasn’t very enthusiastic, mostly from the waitress, however the food and prices were very good. It reminded me very much of a cafe or bistro in Paris. Solid place to get some traditional bistro fare, and hopefully a glass of wine next time. Ah oui!

Recipe: Bagels and Lox Pizza

I’m home this weekend for the Passover holiday aka “no carb week,” and many of my memories revolve around food. Since I grew up in New York City, Sunday mornings in our house usually consisted of bagels, lox, cream cheese, whitefish and more appetizing if company was coming. I was inspired to share my recipe for a modern twist one the classic bagel and lox sandwich.

 Lox is simply smoked salmon that has also been cured. It’s usually salty, and is a New York classic. My pizza recipe will help you stretch your lox farther, and this is a great dish to entertain with. Your guests will be so impressed with your creativity! 😉 Salmon, dill, lemon and creme fraiche come together to form an elegant dish that’s great for brunch, dinner or any time of the day!

Ingredients:

1 ball of pizza dough – you can make your own dough, but I find it easier to buy premade dough from the grocery store. You can also ask your local pizza place for a ball of dough, if you really love their crust. Most will sell it to you with no problem

1 container of crème fraiche

1 large lemon

2 tablespoons of capers, drained

1 medium to large shallot, chopped

 

 4-6oz of smoked salmon, roughly chopped

Fresh dill, chopped

Sesame seeds

Granulated garlic or garlic powder

To Make the Pizza:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and if using a pizza stone, place it in the oven
  2. Grease your pizza pan with cooking spray all over
  3. In the meantime, stretch the dough by hand. Slowly start pulling the dough outward
  4. After it is stretched a bit, then use both hand and pass the dough through your hands, and slowly pull it a bit as you pass it through. It might feel like it will break, but the dough is strong, just keep going until its much wider
  5. Once the dough is very stretched, place it on your pizza pan and stretch it out to the edge. If it springs back, then use your fingers to push into the dough all over to keep it steady. In addition, poke it all over with a fork to stop it from rising too much in the oven. You want pizza, not bread!
  6. Once the dough is stretched to the edge of the pan, pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil over the top and make sure the whole top of the pizza has a light coating of oil
  7. Sprinkle the dough with garlic—use as much as you want, but I don’t recommend any more than a fine layer all over since it will overpower the salmon
  8. (Optional) On the outer edge of the dough, where the crust forms, sprinkle a layer of sesame seeds–this step is optional, but it’s a nod to the bagel inspiration behind this pizza. I like sesame bagels, but this would be great with some poppy seeds, and delicious with some eveeything seasoning if your local bagelry will part with some 
  9. Pop the dough into the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes  
  10. Remove the pizza crust and allow it to cool for at least 15-20 minutes. You might want to put it in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes if you’re in a rush  
  11. Once the crust has cooled, zest the lemon and add it to the crème fraiche. Mix well to evenly distribute  
  12. Spread the crème fraiche mixture all over the crust, leaving the sesame seed lined crust as a border of the pizza
  13. Sprinkle the pizza with some salt and a good amount of freshly ground black pepper  
  14. Allow the crème fraiche to set, and then spread your pieces of smoked salmon around the pizza. A nice single layer is best and will make sure your crust can hold all of the ingredients  
  15. Drain the capers, and sprinkle around the pizza—they will most likely fall into the crevices between the salmon pieces  
  16. Repeat this process with the chopped shallots—I like shallots since they’re not as strong as onions in terms of flavor, but give a nice onion-y flavor to the pizza. If you want a more mild onion taste, then chopped scallions are a good substitute. If you want something with a little more of a bite, then red onion is always great as well—just remember, raw onion is not as sweet or mild as cooked
  17. Scatter the dill all over the pizza. If some pieces are smaller or larger than others, that’s fine. I like my pizza a little more rustic, since it shows that it’s homemade!
  18. Add another pinch of black pepper and squeeze the juice of ½ of the lemon over the top  
  19. Use a pizza cutter, or a very sharp chef’s knife, to cut the pizza into 8 pieces    

Serve garnished with the other ½ of the lemon cut into wedges. Enjoy!