Brooklyn Revisited: Zen, Then and Now

When I was a kid (think late 1940’s, early 1950’s) growing up on East 14th Street in Manhattan, Brooklyn was just a subway stop or two away on the Canarsie Line.  It didn’t matter; Brooklyn was another country, another world away.  I used to believe I needed a passport to visit the next borough.

When we did go to Brooklyn, it was for momentous entertainment events with the family — usually to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play, or to Coney Island, for the beach and the rides in the summer.  That’s where the “Zen” came into play: it was one of the few ways to live through a Dodger season, or go swimming with two million other New Yorkers (any of whom could infect us with the dreaded disease – Polio).

I particularly favored the Dodgers, with such colorful players as Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and the inimitable Elwood (Preacher) Roe.  I’ll never forget one game we saw, in which the Dodgers played the perennial doormat of the National League (the Pittsburgh Pirates).  The Pirates had only one weapon — Ralph Kiner — who hit lots of home runs.  But their defense was pitiful, and this particular night, the Dodgers had a field day.  At one point, Roe (who was a fine pitcher, with a record of 22 wins and only 3 losses in 1951) came up to bat with the bases loaded.  From Ash Flat, Arkansas, he was also infamous as a terrible hitter, with a lifetime batting average of .110.  Anyway, Roe bunted and the Pirates misplayed it into a three-base error, with Preacher ending up on third base and all three runners scoring ahead of him.  I’ll bet he told stories about that play for the rest of his life.  The game, incidentally, was halted on account of a curfew at 1:00 AM on Sunday morning, with the Dodgers sporting a 19-12 lead, to be finished at a later date.

Of course, this blog is about food and wine, so with all that as background, we roll the clock forward about 50 years to November 17, 2002 — the “Then” part of this saga.  On that day Amanda Hesser published a recipe in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section entitled “Naked Came the Pasta”, with a story about Malfatti, a sort of inside-out ravioli made by Chef Anna Klinger at her trattoria al di la in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn.  I was intrigued with the recipe, so Barbara and I made it several times, usually with great success, over the last ten years.  Thus was born my desire to taste the original, at the source, a goal which I finally achieved this week.  Here is the original page:

The rest of this post details my brief exploration of this lovely area of the city and a fine meal at a superb restaurant, i.e. “Now”.

Since the restaurant does not take reservations and it opens at 6 PM, I left Manhattan shortly after 5:00 — at the peak of rush hour.  Fortunately, it was an easy ride on the R subway line, with a leisurely walk to the restaurant from the Union Street station.  Both the train ride and the Brooklyn streets in which I arrived were a rich, multicultural experience.

At al di la, I was seated at a perfect table from which to survey the happy diners arriving and to watch the meals emerging from the kitchen.  The room and its outfitting are beautifully done, in a casual and gracious way.  The ceiling was kept from the building’s former tenant (with some clean-up) and charming chandelier was inherited from Anna’s husband and co-owner Emiliano’s grandmother.

The meal was excellent.  For my primo, I chose the Farro Salad, perfectly-made and sporting small pieces of Jerusalem Artichoke, fresh peas, baby spinach leaves and a subtle lemon vinaigrette.  I also ate some of the creamy ricotta salata sprinkled on top, a tradeoff between my vegan tendencies and love of fine cheese.  Then for secondo — the Malfatti.  I asked if the chef would do an olive oil and sage sauce, instead of one with butter.  The ricotta and egg in the pasta were an acceptable concession for the evening for me, and the kitchen graciously agreed to the change in sauce, so all was copasetic.

Wine (of course): a 2010 Burlotto Verduno Pellaverga, which accompanied very nicely.  The contorno choice that appealed to me was grilled swiss chard ribs, but alas they were not available on that Monday night, so instead I tried the grilled escarole.  That did not work so well.  The first time it was overpoweringly smothered in vinegar, and undercooked.  A second pass got the vinegar right, but still required far too much chewing for my taste.

As I was about to leave, I began a conversation with the young couple at the next table about other food attractions in Park Slope.  That devolved to my great pleasure into discussions of food and wine, family and travel, and we shared the rest of my Pellaverga (much easier and more sociable than schlepping it back to my hotel room to finish alone).  Since there is great symmetry in the world at times, you won’t be at all surprised to learn that Trenton and Sarah Beth, the charming and cosmopolitan couple at the next table, are from Arkansas — just like Preacher Roe.

For the record, my parting entry shows the Malfatti with Lobster Sauce that we made on New Year’s Eve ten years ago, just 6 weeks after the recipe was first published:

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