Bellmore on ‘the Island’

The whirlwind randomness of a trip that almost didn’t happen led to one of those windows into American life I’m always happy to see.  And thus began our day on Long Island

A New York institution since 1927

For those unfamiliar, Manhattan is apparently NOT the only island in New York City. Turns out there is Staten Island, which we skipped, and Long Island, which seems more like a big ol’ isthmus than an island, but that’s what they call it, so lets roll with it. We boarded the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station, which was an experience in itself. If I could find a way to surreptitiously video the fun people in the train station I surely would have. Alas, I have no nanny cam in my lapel, so you’re left with my tales

First up is my friend Crazy Larry.  Imagine if Richard Pryor, Richard Simmons and Fat Albert had a love child. Now imagine that child grew up and wore a sweat-stained cut-off gym shirt, one cherry red leg warmer and had a George Jefferson meets Albert Einstein ‘do. Now imagine Crazy Larry talking loudly to, well, everyone.  About his workout routine…and Doritos. I can’t make this stuff up. I lacked the temerity to engage Crazy Larry, so he might have been perfectly normal, just not the snappiest dresser in the world. And this whole scene unfolded in about 30 seconds after we’d hurried into the waiting area for the train.  Then we got on the train and were warmed by the stories from Alice, Flo and Vera.

Alice and Flo had been gut-punched by Hurricane Sandy and were making their way to the local FEMA office to get some of that aid that 47% of Americans who are freeloaders and voted for Obama are always begging for (note: if this is your first time to my site, that last line won’t make sense unless you click the link and read that post–and the links in it). Alice and Flo were strangers to us and each other when they boarded, but apparently they didn’t get the memo that New Yorkers aren’t allowed to be friendly (aside: I did not meet one jerk in New York, which is in stark contrast with almost every convenience store clerk I met in D.C., where being impolite is apparently a bona fide occupational qualification). Vera was another passenger just minding her business until she was moved to offer her volunteer assistance. A little quick-acting on my part–and fast twitter response from my new friend John Fisher–and I was able to give our train do-gooder Vera a link to help some of the more than 500 FDNY folks who lost their homes due to Sandy. The Respect it’s power.

Anyhoo, Alice was this sophisticated 60-something widow whose Long Beach home had been completely wiped away. The warmth with which she abandoned her own concerns to focus on Flo’s story of rental despair and early-pregnancy challenges made me smile (on the inside, or that would’ve been kinda creepy).  For roughly 15 minutes we chatted with Alice and Flo, with Vera occasionally dropping in to ask earnestly how to help, before they got off the train for the aforementioned rendezvous with the FEMA guy. Nice way to start our ‘island’ trek.

The Long Island I saw in Bellmore reminded me of every working-to-middle class community I’ve been in across the country. Families loading up cars or strollers, American flags, kids on bikes (and handlebars, of course) and people holding doors for strangers because, well, that’s what you do.

*wavy time lapse italics to cut ahead in the story past personal wedding and family details*

After the wedding, the highlight of our Long Island trip had to be our pleasant, last-minute stop at the locally famous Iavarone Bros Italian market.  Strolling down the aisles and past the counters in this little market reminded me of more than a few experiences we had in Italy, but with a decidedly American backdrop.  It was like watching a movie set in one country where all the actors were flown in from another.  As I turned one corner this image punched me square in the face.

Let the tiny market fun begin…with meat

Yes, please.  I’ll have one of those for the road.  Actually, we scooped up a Soppressata (it has its own trade group? Really?) that had been cured on site and had it sliced up for the trip back to the City, but that photo was pretty good.  Meandering down the aisles I ran into these tubs, which were quickly translated into fuel for the trip back to the city.

Welcome to the bounty that is an Italian neighborhood market

Iavorone Bros is the genius bit of hard work and family effort born of a need to provide pork to the masses! I’m neither kidding nor making this up for the sake of the story. I swear. Turns out Iavarone Bros, at its original location in Brooklyn, was the first pork shop in the neighborhood. The only pork shop I know in my neighborhood is this one, which cooks the food before you get it. I learned that Pasquale (pictured below on the right in the black jacket) opened up to serve an unmet need.

The founder of this family jewel – on the right – as told to me by his great grandson Chris, who was working the night of our visit

And at some point, the family moved out here to ‘the island’ and became an Italian backbone to this community.  What struck me as I bounced from olives to hanging meat was how colorful and exotic everything seemed. Exotic may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Italian market, but there were these

Which I tried, in vain, to make part of our purchase. And these

Which I tried, and succeeded, in making part of our train ride back to the city. There were fresh flowers

And random cans of imported tomatoes

And even a few items like this one that I suspect only real Italians (or their recent immigrant descendants) actually know about.

While in the market we experienced the familiar sounds of repeat orders from customers who’d been coming for years and the kind smiles of strangers looking for, of all things, this

One of those bottles probably looks familiar to some of you.

The Blue Point Brewing IPA I bought wasn’t in this photo, and I don’t want to gratuitously show the photo I did take, but if you are ever in New York I recommend this beer. It was a mildly hopped version that Wife even (who is not a fan of the IPA) found drinkable. And in addition to being a tasty beer, it had the advantage of being brewed by people who care about their craft AND the environment AND the community in which they brew. I’m tellin you, people, the way to get more businesses like this is to be sure to support and promote the ones who do it. The other ones will adapt or die. No excess legislation necessary. Read Blue Point’s very cool Sustainability Report.

Long Island was great, an interesting contrast from my last post about The Village. We ended up back in the city having a nearly very good meal at Artisanal Bistro, which I’ll sum up in two lines.  The fondue, the server and the Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout were all very, very good. The $23 burger, cooked exactly as I asked, was not. Okay, I can’t let this one slide, I take back the ‘two-sentence’ fiscal cliff in favor of a more detailed explanation. Call it a bonus review section.  First, the photo

Thanks to the new Optimus LG, this is nearly the last crappy photo I will have using my tired Evo.  But here is the burger.

In general, I don’t believe a burger has to be pricy to be sourced from a sustainable producer of meat like Niman Ranch. Just to level-set, I believe an exceptional burger should not cost more than $12-17. If you pay your servers well, I am happy to pay at the $17 end, but any place without table service should be able to source, cook, and deliver a burger to my plate for $12-ish dollars. All this to say, I had very high expectations for my Artisanal burger. Expectations were made higher by the supremely good two types of melty cheese in our fondue appetizer round.  Our server, who I’ll call Fred, was a charming Turkish man with an unbelievable memory and great stage presence (yes, stage presence). He remembered all of the many disjointed things we ordered–except the bacon for my burger–and delivered his service with panache.  Come to think of it, this clearly professional server, like the fondue, probably raised my expectation of the burger.  It was, in a word, mediocre.  Don’t get me wrong, Wife LOVED her food (her palate is more discerning than mine, by the way). In-laws also enjoyed theirs. So I’m not suggesting that Artisanal is bad as a general matter.  Just that I don’t advise ordering the burger.

The problem is twofold. First, it set unrealistically high expectations for itself by having such a high pricetag for its burger. They didn’t have to be Edwin Moses or anything, but this was going to be a tough hurdle. If you are going to have an absurdly high price for ground beef, you really need to nail it. Second, well, the burger was just, I don’t know, meh.  The bun seemed to me to be an underwhelming, though thankfully well-proportioned bit of enriched white flour (“over-bunning” a burger is just an awful sin). The basic accoutrements were, as they are on any other burger, just fine. The blue cheese was, pleasantly, a nice surprise of very high quality pungent goodness. But the meat was borderline flavorless, had no discernible hint of seasoning and was just slightly too done for my tastes. All these somewhat negative comments about the burger notwithstanding, the place was packed and the fondue was delicious. So go check it out, just caveat emptor on the burger is all.  Thanks for reading

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