Sunday, March 23, 2008

Getaway Weekend: Catskills

Deciding to take a weekend trip is easy. Deciding on what kind of trip you and your travel companion want to take is another. And then, choosing the perfect location for your trip.... well, that’s usually the hardest part. J and I were facing this issue Easter weekend, when we cam up with the perfect plan.

After moving to NYC almost 4 years ago, I realized how little of the East Coast I've climbed up, driven by, bussed past or barreled down. Some of my favorite getaways in California were to local state parks and beaches. The redwood trees in Northern California provided the perfect canopy for a car camping trip and the bonfires out at Bolinas Beach allowed for daylong retreats that felt like a full week of relaxation. So, when I checked out the map for a good Easter retreat in NYC city the first thing that caught my eye was the state parks.

I've always wanted to visit the Adirondacks, which I've driven by a number of times on my trips up north for leaf peeping and similar adventures. But, understanding that a 5-hour drive was not in the cards for me last Easter weekend, I looked a bit further down on the map and found the Catskills Park. It looked like a large enough section of green on the one-dimensional map to satisfy my outdoor craving. And it appeared to have plenty of hiking and skiing options for the adventurer at heart. So, the Catskills it was...

We headed up Friday night, and including a 1-hour detour where we cursed the Garden State Parkway up-down-and-sideways for not providing ample on-ramps we made it to the Catskills Lodge in Windham by midnight. The lodge, which I choose based on their basic, but sweet Website, the kind voice of the woman who called me to confirm my reservation and the stellar Trip Advisor traveler reviews. Although our room was fairly small, it proved just large enough for us to get dressed in the morning and fall into bed at night, which is pretty much all we used it for. The ground floor was fairly nice, with a fireplace, pull down projector screen, large dinning table and but wouldn't have made much of an impression if the brothers hadn’t been there.

Three brothers run the Catskills Lodge and welcome their guests with such kindness and generosity it really feels like home. During our stay, over Easter weekend, we dyed eyes during the Lodge’s regularly evening happy hour and finished off 3 litters of wine with our group of 12 while chatting about our day. At night, we leisurely headed over to the recommended restaurants in neighboring towns like Woodstock and Jackson and dined on fancy fare like grilled cheese and turkey dinners.

Saturday was really the highlight of the trip. J and I are always out, which usually institutes some form of wandering the streets of Harlem, LES, West Village or lately Park Slope. But, as city-mice (my mom's term) we don't get much time to triumphantly dash up a mountain or slide down a slippery bed on a mission to find a waterfall. So, Saturday we set out to hike a mountain, walk completely around a lake we couldn’t see the other side of and embrace nature. Thanks to the chilly weather we ended up sliding up a frozen path to the base of a frozen waterfall, skidding around a frozen lake and almost falling through the thin ice, and downing cold beer to cool down the frost burn that had taken over most of my face. It was such a perfect reminder of why J and I are so happy together, no matter how icy the path gets.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Field Trip: Arthur Ave., Bronx

As a lover of Italian food, and past resident of Firenze, I’ve been eager to visit NYC’s ‘Real Little Italy’ since I first heard about it. Finding Italian ingredients at most major grocery stores seems simplistic, but uncovering the freshest most flavorful ingredients is another story. The single year I lived in Italy opened my eyes to what fresh veggies, herbs, and pastas can become when selected and combined together properly. Over a year, I fell in love with cooking, particularly Italian cooking.

The historic shopping area of Arthur Ave. was about a 15-minute walk from the train station (D, Fordham Road) and did not disappoint. My friend Risa and I started off with lunch at Emilia's on Arthur Ave. just down from 187th Street. They offered affordable lunch specials and great house red wine, which we tested (it still counts as testing if you drink a ½ litter in my book.) Although everything was good from the small ricotta raviolis to the hot antipasti but Risa’s gnocchi alla ragu won top honors at our table.

After we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant we headed across the street to the closed-air market, which offers everything from Italian cigars to fresh veggies for a price. We found tomatoes that actually smelled like tomatoes and basil that you could sniff from over a foot away. We chatted it up with the butchers at Mike’s Deli and treated ourselves to some sliced imported proscuttio de Parma (for a mere $6.)

Then we set out to find all the ingredients for our evening feast. We started our food journey at Calabria Pork Store for some Italian sausage, panchetta, and salami. The meat market was full of cured, and fresh meats alongside bins of olives and fresh mozzarella. One taste of the salami assured us that our dinner was going to be a hit. Our next stop, for our linguini and clam entrée was Randazzo's, right across the street. The little neck clams were beautiful and priced at just $4 a pound. After stopping for a quick coffee break, which included a debate with the café manager over Benicio Del Toro’s sexiness we moved on to Mt. Carmel for some wine to accompany our meal. We found some of my old favorites from Italy and packed up our purses.

Once along 187th Street we found the famous pasta house Borgatti, which cuts pasta to your preference for $2 a pound. We bought over 4 pounds of fresh pasta and 100 spinach and meat ravioli’s, which taste like little pillows of heaven. Then we speed down the street to Casa Della Mozzarella on the corner of 187 and Arthur, which sells 1.5 pound balls of fresh mozzarella for around $6 per pound. We picked up some parsley at a corner store and ciabatta, provolone bread and canola at Madonia Bread Store on our way home before we hiked back up to the subway station. The walk back was quite a bit more tedious than the walk there but was still quite rewarding.

Our dinner was a success and made me want to book a monthly shopping trip to Arthur Ave. Perhaps my next trip will be in spring when I can hit up the NY Botanical Gardens as well.

All the information I found to lead me to these wonderful places along Arthur Ave. were online at Chowhound (my favorite),, and of course

Feild Trip: Astoria

As the snow melted last weekend J and I decided to take a field trip to Queens.

Friday, after hiking around through the snow for the better part of the day (see post 'Winter...' below) I picked J up at work and headed off to dinner. Since J and I keep such different schedules, I knew J would not be up for a mellow dinner in the neighborhood or take-out at a friend’s house. So, we decided to do what we’ve been meaning to do for the past 2 years in this city….experience the Greek food in Astoria. Really, who hasn’t heard about the amazing Indian food in the East Village, the fabulous Pizza in Brooklyn, or the incredible Greek food in Astoria?

An amazing woman I had the joy of working with last year grew up in Queens and recommended her local favorite on Ditmars Ave., Aganti. I remember my friend mentioning it’s close proximity to the subway station, and didn’t second guess heading out there on a snowy night with tired legs. After a half-mile stroll from the subway station, searching for the restaurant I reconsidered my decision. But, J pushed on and we found the cozy, brick-walled eatery on the comer of 19th and Ditmars.

After a 20-minte wait, in which our pain was eased with a complimentary glass of wine we were seated among the Greek movie stars hanging from the walls. We were happily stunned when they seated us (on a busy Friday night) at a 4-top in a cozy corner of the restaurant. It’s funny to get used to being cramped but apparently I’ve grown comfortable eating off the lap of the stranger next to me.

The food was AMAZING and the prices were somewhere around what I’d expect in Philly (ok, really anywhere outside of Manhattan). Their Tzatziki holds the key to the perfect amount of dill and cumber citrus to the bitterness of Greek yogurt. The Moussaka, which I like to order as my measure of authenticity, certainly passed the test. And the Greek salad was the closest to the one I had in Athens that I’ve been working to recreate for 6 years. The sausage and mushroom phyllo pockets were fairly standard but I can’t wait to come back in the summer and try some of their seafood dishes.

The only disappointment was the service, which can ruin any dining experience. We were seated at the same time as another couple, which I later decided must have been Greek royalty. The two waiters and three busboys stopped by their table 5 times before they asked us if we’d like tap or bottled water. Sadly, half of our meal was spent trying to get a waiter’s attention without being rude (I suggested throwing forks but J protested) and took away from our amazing meal.

After our tummies were full of Greek goodies we headed out in search of a local bar to grab a drink. As we neared the subway station (N, Ditmars) J spotted a dark looking bar with a Guinness sign dangling in front of its sturdy wooden door. We entered the long bar around 10:30 and were met with a few unusual stares but thought nothing of it and took a seat at the bar. As the bar began to fill up we noticed the unique clientele was, from young women with bleach blond hair and TIGHT short dresses to older gentleman who spoke in whispered tones with heavy Greek accents. After 3 drinks we concluded that we must have stumbled into a Greek mafia bar and soaked in the experience.