Things That Make Life Worth Living

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It's impossible to feel poor while eating a well-cured piece of meat. That's because you're tasting the effects of time. Same goes for wine. Scotch. Fine cheeses. With meat the sense of luxury can be especially acute, because it could just as well be enjoyed plain. Liberty to delay gratification is the essence of wealth. Curing is a process of cultural knowledge deftly applied. A good result is not guaranteed, any more than it is when one pays tuition to an expensive school. The triumph one hopes to taste is very much like that of education. It engenders a sense of perspective. A reasoned humility.

If you can afford a few slices of decent prosciutto di Parma, you're comfortable. If you make it a point to do so, you're something of an aristocrat. How simple it can be to partake in the very sweetest fruits of civilization has been the running theme of my criticism?maybe now that gung-ho pursuit of the coarser kind of wealth is less popular, such knowledge will be more in demand. I'm not holding my breath, but will continue to humbly explicate the rewards of scavenged refinement. Much that was secured at great expense is now easily available, and largely ignored. For that reason, cultivating a sense of taste is, today, an exercise of the liberal impulse. We are so free and equitable that everyday crassness constitutes a tyranny. It's necessary to struggle against ignorance of freedom's purpose.

Which brings us to cured ham. The air-drying techniques used in Parma go back to at least the Roman Empire. You can imagine history accordioned into those flat strips, but the truth of prosciutto di Parma is chemical process. The meat's famously extreme depth of flavor concluded from epicurean science experiments. Yet it never tastes like what we know as technology.

I visited the gourmet store at Sapori d'Ischia seeking a box of salt-packed, large Italian anchovies, but at the time I could only find oil-packed jars. Still, the Queens importer (which despite its name doesn't specialize in products from the isle of Ischia) supplies some of Manhattan's top Italian restaurants, so it was impossible to leave emptyhanded. I asked an employee to recommend something, and his confidence in the prosciutto di Parma overwhelmed my ethnic reticence to bring a pork product into my home. I tried a slice outside the store, amid the Korean auto repair and Spanish live-poultry establishments of industrial Woodside. It was like eating raw bacon.

Wrapped around a slice of cantaloupe or sandwiched between leaves of arugula, however, the marbled fat of d'Ischia's prosciutto was a mouth-coating delivery system. The natural seasoning is somewhat subtle for such a rich meat. Even a nibble made a lasting impression, as if the slices carried more weight than showed up on the scale. Cantaloupe cooled the prosciutto's impact and made it easy to absorb, but also neutralized too much of the meat's sweetness. Arugula proved the superior complement?the aged flavor seemed to spill over the leaves' sharp edges, the way the sun's rays do when it's eclipsed by the moon.

I'm not convinced that some New York Italian market I've yet to discover can't match or surpass Sapori d'Ischia's prosciutto. I paid $7.88 for my half-pound, though, and it gave me a lot to think about, so no complaints.

The store has good prices on a lot of canned and bottled goods (Cirio ceci beans for $1.20 per jar, for example), but doesn't stock much that you can't find anywhere else. The cheese section is probably d'Ischia's main attraction, but small blocks are not available. I found a wedge of parmigiano-reggiano that weighed about two pounds, and it came to $12.20. The aging process had left it with a dignified crunchiness, and a smoky note of peach. A pound is a bit much to sprinkle over pasta, but its phantom fruitiness makes d'Ischia's salty parmigiano a good cheese to enjoy as Tuscans do pecorino?with some honey and black pepper.

Sapori d'Ischia, 55-15 37th Ave. (betw. 55th & 56th Sts.), Queens, 718-446-1500.

Bangladeshi-Canadian Al Fresco

The greatest restaurant value I know of is the $6 lamb palow plate at Muhammad Rahman's food cart in midtown. The spot is 6th Ave. at 45th St., and Rahman parks on the southwest corner. His sign says "Kwik Meal." The place is no secret?at lunchtime the queue is lengthy. But Rahman stays open past 8 p.m. most summer evenings. You can visit him for dinner. If all of Rahman's regular customers knew how extraordinarily tender and delicious are his cubes of grilled lamb, there'd be a line in front of his cart every twilight, too. But plenty of folks just stick to his fine falafel and chicken kabobs. And there are plenty of unworldly diners who don't trust street food at all. At least half the people reading this won't believe me about the lamb.

Rahman is a very personable guy. He's from Bangladesh but went to cooking school in Toronto. He worked for a while at the late Russian Tea Room (which, the food-cart-phobic should note, had a reputation among kitchen workers as unsanitary). His technique involves a combination of Mediterranean marinade techniques?splash of lime, infusion of vinegar?with the South Asian arsenal of spices. In his chicken it comes off as a lively sizzle. The Tiger Shrimp ($6.75) are more complex, galvanized as they are by the presence of chopped jalapenos.

And the lamb is off the map. The astounding tenderness is achieved, Rahman says, by soaking the meat in the blended white fruit of unripe papayas. The pampered lamb ends up absorbing the chef's unique sauces (which he applies via generic squeeze bottles) better than his fresh shrimps, even. You end up with red meat as delicate as seafood, delivering a seasoning strategy that merges the best of both hemispheres. Be sure to eat near a hydrant or something in case you need to sit down.

Kwik Meal, 6th Ave. (45th St.), no phone.

Smoked Fish Bonanza

There is a large smoked fish factory in Greenpoint that, five hours per week, sells its products to the public for significantly less than normal retail prices. It's a casual operation. Stroll into the loading area of Acme Smoked Fish on a Friday between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., and go through the double doors to your right. You'll see slabs of filleted smoked salmon and sable laid out on long tables. Acme employees will cut any size hunk you want. There're also cardboard boxes full of whole smoked whitefish and trout, and packages of sliced nova, ready to go out to grocery middlemen if you don't snag them first.

It's quality stuff, and factory freshness is a major bonus. Sable (smoked black cod) has begun to disintegrate by the time you buy it anywhere besides pricey Zabar's or its Upper East Side spinoff, Sable's. Acme's product was pure, solid, oil-moistened fish silk. Like a more precious scallop, it was. The nova had a pillowy consistency, luxurious in the mouth. You could tear a slice and get no strings?it actually breaks at the ridges, as grilled salmon would. Acme didn't have Scottish smoked salmon at the time, but I'd put their just-smoked nova up against most importers' Scottish any day.

The whitefish was also exemplary?an appetizing partner to our lox. Only of the trout can I say I've had much better. The freshwater fish must require more fragile treatment than Acme is equipped to provide, because it tasted oversmoked. Considering what we paid, and what else we got, this was hardly a disappointment. Look for me at Acme wielding an entire side of nova, ready to impress friends with busted NASDAQs at a brunch party far less extravagant than it tastes.

Acme Smoked Fish, 30 Gem St. (betw. N. 15th St. & Meserole Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-383-8585.

Japanese Grocery

Morning to Midnight doesn't fit in the theme of this column except in that it's retail, and it gives me occasion to mention the premier takeout-sushi deal in Manhattan. The brand-new Japanese grocery store occupies that East Village corner near the Sony Theater where a jeans store was "Going Out of Business" for the last several years. It's a sizable, interesting market, very clean.

Stop in to peruse the array of Japanese and Korean frozen items, noodles, sauces, soups, beverages, magazines and snacks. The store's employees are friendly and helpful, and M2M's managers made other smart business moves: offering free samples, stocking cakes from nearby Black Hound bakery and providing an eating area with a microwave, where you can watch street traffic while enjoying pre-packed sushi or a bibimbop tv dinner. Opening-week specials were well-priced (two-for-one edamame, for example), but on the whole M2M doesn't seem out to undercut its neighbor and rival, Sunrise Market. The older store's takeout sushi remains a cut above the competition. If you don't live nearby, however, you have to dine on the sidewalk.

Morning to Midnight, 55 3rd Ave. (11th St.), 353-2698.

Sunrise Market, 4 Stuyvesant St. (near 3rd Ave. & E. 9th St.), 2nd fl., 598-3040.

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