The Food Maven Diary
I ate so many good things during my Christmas vacation.
I ate too many good things during my Christmas vacation. My weight is up. I am wearing my fat pants and even they are a bit snug. I have to be, and I am, on a regimen of mainly fish and vegetables and salad, some fruit, a little cheese, skinless poultry, and tons of water, which I sort of gave up for wine and booze the last two weeks. After two days, I already feel like I am deflating, but let's see how long I can keep this up.
Meanwhile, I can only dream of Peasant. It is not only the best restaurant that I ate in during the last month of the year, but one of only a very few I ate in all year that I am aching to get back to this year.
Chef/owner Frank DeCarlo has ensconced himself in a former garage on Elizabeth Street, a neighborhood that the real estate people now call NoLita. Or is it spelled Nolita? It means North Little Italy. I remember that not long ago and for most of my lifetime it was a desolate stretch of a block, a nowheres-ville. Now it has boutiques and cute restaurants. No area of Manhattan is safe from gentrification.
But Peasant isn't cute. It is dead serious. DeCarlo cooks almost everything he serves (except dessert) in either a wood-burning brick oven, on a spit over a wood-burning fire, or on a wood-burning grill. He laid all the bricks himself. (Okay, he had a friend or two working with him.) His methods and his handwork are such a point of pride that the whole kitchen operation is visible from every seat in the place. It's at the far end of the long, narrow room.
The long walls of the old building are also lined with bricks, old bricks. The tables are bare wood. The chairs are those polished aluminum, slat-back numbers that used to be used in corporate cafeterias but are now used in stylish residential lofts, perhaps even in Park Avenue apartments. The large stretches of unframed mirror, which I was particularly taken with, are somehow invisibly attached to the walls so they hang a couple of inches away from them, with lighting behind them so they appear to float on the exposed brick. They are the only decoration.
DeCarlo has a fetish about shopping for his own food. He wheels a hand-truck over to the Sullivan Street Bakery to pick up his bread. He selects the Italian cheeses and cold cuts himself at DiPalo on Grand St. The fresh ricotta he puts on the table to dress the bread, instead of butter or oil, has been mentioned with awe by every restaurant critic. It comes from DiPalo.
The fish comes from nearby Chinatown, examined, sniffed, poked … hand-picked by DeCarlo. I don't know where the meats come from, but don't miss the truly succulent suckling pig. I don't even have to say that. It will be irresistible rotating on the spit at the back of the dining room. If you love osso buco, don't miss that either. And if you love clams (even if you don't), DeCarlo's baked clams made with razor clams are sensational. I have never seen razor clams in Italy, but I am told they are or at least used to be popular on the southern, Adriatic side of the peninsula, in Puglia, which is where DeCarlo's family is from, a heritage that informs his cooking.
Hence, there are delicious pizzas from the wood-burning oven, and great plates of pasta and wonderful gnocchi. DeCarlo also makes a delicious risotto-style dish of faro (spelt, in English), which is a primitive and tender whole wheat kernel that he serves as a side dish or you can order for its own sake. When he can get them there are sepie (cuttlefish), baked in a casserole with tomato and herbs. I haven't tasted the steak yet, but that's on my agenda for my next visit, after I lose some New Year bloat.
It is hard to be specific about dishes because the menu evolves with the seasons, even on a daily basis. No matter when you go, however, I can guarantee you a great meal, an interesting and fairly priced wine list, and a bill that doesn't have to exceed $60 a person.
By the way, Peasant has become a popular restaurant among French chefs. Alain Ducasse, the most be-starred chef in the world, whose controversial New York outpost is on Central Park South, has eaten here often, and I am told that among others, Paul Bocuse favors the Peasant when he is in town.
One warning: The policy of the restaurant is not to seat a party until all members of the party are assembled. I'm going to call and find out why, but I don't know the answer right now.
194 Elizabeth Street,
between Prince & Spring Streets, Manhattan;
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday: 6-9:30 p.m.