Friday, May 11, 2012

Dispatches from the American Wilderness

Author's Note: I found this looking at poorly-labeled old word documents in search of a writing sample. This was meant to be a guest entry for another blog, written when its usual author was very busy; as it turns out, too busy to post guest entries. As such, I present it to you now, as a look at what I was up to way back in August of last year. Exciting times!

I am a notoriously terrible tourist.

This is the first time I’ve ever been in New York City. When friends asked what my plans were in the city, my response was always the same: food. Are you planning to see the Museum of Such-And-Such? they would ask me; Be sure to get photos of the Big Important Building! they would instruct me.

My response: today, I took the train from my hotel near Times Square (which I visited entirely by accident) in order to visit La Villita, a small Mexican bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that appears to have had the same sloping, sunburnt cakes on display in their front window since the 1980s (yet produces surprisingly good - and cheap - pastries). Yesterday, I had travelled even further afield to Bushwick in order to go to Roberta’s, a restaurant smack dab in the middle of apparently nothing, with only the vaguest hint of a sign above the door and a kitchen that produces some of the best pizza in America.

No, really. I’m of the firm belief that you can judge a pizza kitchen by the quality of their margherita, and I’ve been unimpressed and heartbroken more often than not in my culinary travels. The plain pie, it turns out, is deceptively difficult to get right precisely by virtue of its simplicity. The key - and Roberta’s understands this well - is to use very good ingredients very sparingly. A thin crust - at once delicately chewy and with just the right amount of charred bits - is topped with a thin layer of fresh tomato sauce, accentuated with fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. The cheese is not applied with a heavy enough hand as weigh the slices down or render them greasy and soggy; the basil is plentiful enough as to actually have an influence over the flavour without overpowering the mild cheese or the bright acidity of the tomato. The balance of flavours is truly impeccable. It amazes me that people would moan about having to schlep all the way out to Bushwick for a pizza, as I would happily trek across the Okavango Delta on a unicyle for a pie this good.

Because why? Because life is too short to eat bad food. Passing through Times Square this morning, it struck me that there are people there, visiting one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in the world, eating at any number of chain restaurants where the bland fare is indistinguishable from any other branch of the franchise anywhere else in the world. What’s the point? Maybe not everyone is so devoted as to plan their entire holiday around where to eat (like I did, admittedly) but with a little research and a little openness to adventure, you might find something truly special.

Since I’m staying near the theatre district, many people have asked if I planned to see a Broadway show during my stay. Nope, but tomorrow I’m venturing to the east village just so I can blow everyone’s mind by having ice cream for breakfast.

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