The best meal I had on the weekend wasn’t the signature meal (or the most expensive), but was from the Food and Wine list of the country’s best pizzerias, which I’m working my way through as travel allows. Ribalta, located near Union Square in the space formerly occupied by Piola, is one of the newest restaurants on the list, and is known for a style of pizza called pizza in pala, where a very high-hydration dough is prepared on a long wooden paddle and cooked directly on the floor of the oven, producing maximum oven spring and a very crunchy exterior, similar to pain a l’ancienne. Ribalta cooks theirs twice, which I assume means once without the toppings and then again with toppings, although they didn’t specify – and, in an odd detail, they don’t use wood- or coal-fired ovens, but use gas and electric. But the results, especially on the pizza in pala, are superb – you get subtle hints of the caramelization of the sugars that have started to appear in the dough around the exterior crust, and it’s strong enough to support a healthy (but not excessive) load of toppings, such as the pancetta and porcini mushrooms on the pizza we ordered. The traditional pizza napoletana we ordered, the “DOC” (a margherita by another name), wasn’t as crispy or strong, and the crust didn’t have as much air in it, but the tomatoes were incredibly bright and fresh and the buffalo mozzarella was creamy and smooth (but there wasn’t quite enough of it). The brussels sprouts starter with, of course, pancetta (i.e., bacon) and pecorino romano was solid-average, but could have used a little more color on the halved sprouts. It’s all about the pizza in pala, people.
Sunday night after the Futures Game, I went to Momofuku Ssäm Bar with a slew of other writers and a few folks from outside the business for a group dinner where we all got the prix fixe bossam menu, built mostly around pork. I was completely fired up to try a David Chang restaurant for the first time, but may have created the unfortunate situation where I was disappointed with a 65 because I expected an 80. Some dishes on the prix fixe menu were amazing – the bark on the giant roast Niman Ranch pork shoulder, served with lettuce for making wraps, was among the best things I have ever eaten, caramelized and crunchy with no off notes that would come from overcooking it – while others were just solid, and the dessert, a cake made of pancakes layered together with raspberry jam as a filling and served with bacon and melted black pepper butter, was disappointing, far too dense and heavy to be edible after such a huge meal. (Or after any meal – pancakes do not keep well at all, and served cold, they have the texture of a used tire.) The pork belly buns, riffing on the Chinese baozi but serving them in the style of a Venezuelan arepa, were superb if a bit messy, and the striped bass sashimi with spicy candied kumquats was bright and fresh with a great balance of acid and heat. It’s an excellent culinary experience, just not a Hall of Fame meal.
On the recommendation of reader Stan, who works in the business, I stopped by a Stumptown coffee shop on Monday morning to get an espresso and some whole beans to bring home. Their roasts are relatively light, not quite as light as Intelligentsia’s (where they don’t even heat the beans, they just show them pictures of warm places) but light enough that you taste the bean first and the roast a distant second. That produced an espresso with a lot of vibrant, fruity notes like tart cherry and blackberry, but with a little bitterness underneath that always reminds me of cocoa. Their beans are quite expensive, again in relative terms, but you’re paying for quality as well as sourcing, as most of their offerings are single-estate, and the results so far have been solid even on my cheap Gaggia machine.
I actually didn’t get to Shake Shack before the Futures Game, but for a great reason – so many of you came out to say hi to me that, by the time we were done, it was just 20 minutes till first pitch. So I took the recommendation of several readers and tried Blue Smoke, whose Carolina pulled pork sandwich turned out to be excellent, in part because it’s about as Carolina as molasses (that is, there’s little or no vinegar flavor). The meat was actually smoked, and came without sauce, so you could see and taste that the pork had actually been smoked rather than braised or boiled or God knows what else they do to make “pulled pork” at most ballparks.
The final stop (actually the first, chronologically) on my New York trip was actually in Port Chester, NY, where I visited Tarry Lodge, a Mario Batali/Lidia Bastianich endeavor that includes an Italian market as well as a pizzeria with a full menu of pastas and entrees, yet another entry on that Food and Wine list. I tried the pizza with prosciutto and arugula, maybe my favorite toppings for an authentic Italian-style pizza, but overall found it just good, not great, with a crust that had a little char on the exterior but was overall very soft. The toppings resulted in an overly salty pizza, although I get that anything with prosciutto will end up salty – this was just too far in that direction. Port Chester’s main drag is cute, and there seem to be a lot of good restaurants there, but it’s far enough off the highway (factoring in traffic and parking) that it’s not an ideal stopping point, especially with Tarry Lodge’s pizza grading out as a 55.