Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sami Kader, In Memoriam

I was stunned and saddened to learn that Sami Kader, the owner and culinary guiding light of Le Tableau and Lavagna, two of my favorite restaurants, died in June of this year. I just discovered this as I entered the recently redesigned Le Tableau website and immediately started writing this. I never met Sami Kader, but I feel a great sense of loss.

Kader was born in Egypt (Alexandria, I believe) and grew up in France. He learned the restaurant business on the mangement side of such esteemed establishments as Petrossian, Remi, and La Cote Basque. In 1996 he opened his first restaurant, Le Tableau, the moderately priced East Village bistro whose menu combines the cooking styles and flavors of France with those of the Maghreb and Mashreq. The food has always been inventive and rewarding, never a forced fusion for its own sake. A couple of years later Kader opened Lavagna, on the same block, an equally rewarding Italian place that quickly became a neighborhood favorite.

Sami Kader was not a celebrity chef, but he was as deserving of celebrity as many whose names you all know. Earlier this year I was contacted by Leslie Kelly, food writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Leslie was coming to New York in May for the James Beard Awards, and she wrote me to ask if I could suggest a great new place not yet discovered by the foodie masses. I steered her toward Le Tableau, a not-so-new place, but one that I thought was woefully under the foodie radar. On her blog, Leslie wrote, "Last night, we had a great meal at Le Tableau, a sweet dining room and great prices. ... [T]he chicken roasted under a brick was so juicy, so perfectly seasoned. Loved the chilled tomato/fennel soup and had a swell bottle of Aligote from Washington state grapes."

In a fitting memorial to Kader's impeccable taste, and an interesting coincidence for this blog, Sami's survivors have launched a new website that avoids most of the pitfalls I've railed against. It is tastefully designed, sensibly labeled, easy to navigate, and doesn't resort to cheap tricks.

New Yorkers, if you haven't yet tried Le Tableau or Lavagna, please do so soon.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Eater: The previous post is required reading

Thanks to the folks at Eater, the New York restaurant buzz blog, for this morning's featurette on my restaurant website walkthrough. My rant, they write, "should immediately be considered required reading for anyone even thinking about designing a restaurant website. For casual site visitors, the blog post is therapeutic."

They go on to say that I have provided a "list of the absolute worst restaurant websites in existence." Actually, I haven't done a systematic enough study of restaurant websites to say these are the worst. I just selected a few sites I came across in my everyday eating and blogging activities. I'm sure that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurant sites that are as bad or worse, and which share many of the same flaws. Finding a restaurant site that is both attractively designed and user-friendly is a major challenge.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

When Good Restaurants Do Bad Websites

I've mentioned my frustration and annoyance with certain restaurant websites several times on this blog, but only in passing. This time I'm stopping to survey the landscape.

Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a higher incidence of user-unfriendliness among restaurant sites than on the web (or at least among commercial sites) in general, and I haven't really figured out why, beyond possible attempts to convey "ambience" through (over)design. I'm generally sensitive to interface design, which for me is a corrolary to prose style, something I'm very passionate about. Just as I'm turned off by opaque and obfuscatory prose (which I've consumed in large quantities, given my many years of academic pursuits), bad web design just plain sticks in my craw. I'm even more attuned to web design at the moment, as I'm currently taking a class in Information Architecture and Interaction Design at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science (a mouthful indeed). A brief presentation I gave the other night on a basket-case gelateria site inspired me to write this. Don't worry, I'm not going to get too technical.

First of all, I must say that there's no correlation between the quality of the site and the quality of the food. In fact, the examples I'm going to use are all from restaurants I'm quite fond of.

One of the characteristics that many restaurant sites share is the splash page, basically an introductory screen that gives little information and usually requires you to click somewhere to enter the site. Of course I want to enter the site, dammit. That's why I typed the url or followed a search-engine link. I thought I was turning the key to the door, or at least knocking, but I'm left standing in the cold. Knock, knock, please let me in.

So what happens next? Well, sometimes the site starts playing music you haven't asked for and were totally unprepared for. Let's say you're in your office, goofing off, surfing the web, salivating over tonight's dinner prospects. All of a sudden music starts blasting out of your computer, and you can't figure out how to turn it down. Mr. Spacely, your boss, is startled out of his managerial stupor and rushes into your cubicle, apoplectic. As you're feverishly trying to eradicate the music you hear the boss's words over the din: "You're fired!"

Once you figure out how to turn the music off the real fun begins. A lot of restaurant sites like to play a game called "let's see if you can figure out how to get any information out of me." Sometimes links to content consist of unnamed icons that do not reveal their identity until you position your mouse over them. Sometimes the names, or labels, are completely inconsistent or confusing. Sometimes the links dance around the page.

Restaurant website designers love to use the infernal Macromedia Flash. The result is websites full of flash and filigree, signifying nothing. Flash sites are the particular bane of food bloggers, since we can't copy and paste quotes or menu descriptions. In addition, they usually take a bit of time to load. Once you finally do get to some meaningful text, plan on getting carpal tunnel from the scrolling you have to do if you want to read more than a few sentences. More often than not I'll find the restaurant's entry in Menupages much more informative and user-friendly than their own website.

Here are some examples. I can't even give links to specific pages in many cases, since Flash-controlled sites don't allow it. For consistency, I'll link to the home page, and you can fiddle around from there.

Roberto Passon

I love this Hell's Kitchen Northern Italian place. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was back there for lunch when my esteemed former coworkers took me out to celebrate my escape from the clutches of the Latke Monster. Roberto Passon's website didn't get me fired, but it could have, since it's one of those sites with startling, uninvited music.

You click "enter" on the do-nothing splash page and the music starts, and it isn't good music either. While you're trying to figure out how to turn off the music, a bunch of yellow shapes start dancing around the blue screen until they turn into a little oval with the restaurant's name. There are several other little ovals in the middle of the page, with labels like "About Us" and "Menus." But if you click on one, the joke's on you. Nada. It turns out that at the bottom of the page are a bunch of teeny-tiny circles with completely illegible microscopic text. Under these circles is the word "NAVIGATION." Aha! Meanwhile, under the navigation menu is a little audio meter that's moving to the music. Hmmm, maybe if I click on that it'll turn the music off. Bingo!

If you place your cursor over one of those little buttons at the bottom, an oval dances to the center of the screen to tell you what the link is for. So that's how it works!

Let me try "Menus." Click. I get to a page with the default "Prix Fixed Lunch Menu." (I must have seen a dozen misrenderings of the French Prix-Fixe in the past year alone, though the most common seems to be Pre-Fix.) When I look at a menu I like to get a global overview, a map from which to make my choices. But on this site, as on many, I have to scroll to read the menu. Off to Menupages I go.


This East Village bistro, whose name is the word for Basque country in the Basque language, is another favorite of mine. It's cozy and unpretentious, with excellent food and an amazing $19.95 three-course early-bird Prix-Fixe. Euzkadi's website, on the other hand, is neither cozy nor unpretentious.

This is another Flash site, and it shares some of the Passon site's problems, though one could make a case that it's much better designed from a graphic, if not usability, standpoint. Once again we come to a big door that we have to click to enter. Granted, we do get a nice picture of the restaurant from its open-front entrance. Next to the "enter" link the site tells us to "Have fun!!!" Uh oh!!!

When we do enter we first get a "loading" message, then the music starts, along with a slide show of photos and review excerpts, but no links to content, only a "skip" option. To tell the truth, if not for the music, I wouldn't mind this second "door," because the food photos are very seductive. But I have to skip ASAP, because there's no way to turn off the music on this page.

When I do skip, I am thankfully given the option to turn the music off. In the middle of the page I now have a group of six semi-inscrutible icons. I'm guessing the first one, which looks like a plate, is the link to the menu. Let's try it. How silly of me to think the plate led to the menu! It's the "About" page. What I get is some difficult-to-read white text on a non-solid, brown photographic background. Since I'm no masochist, I don't try to read it.

I go back to the prior page to try my luck again. Maybe that thing that looks like a frying pan will get me to the menu. No, that gets me to a section called "The Place," and some pictures from a wild and crazy party at the restaurant. And now that the frying pan is bigger, I think it's actually a magnifying glass.

There's also an icon of a wine bottle and a beer mug. That must be the drink menu, right? Actually, it leads to the food and drink menus. Once again I get white text, this time on some very sexy food photos. Couldn't they keep the text and the photos separate? I think I'll try Menupages.

Pam Real Thai

One of the better Manhattan Thai restaurants, one of the worst websites ever. First of all, it's ugly in a way I imagine could have only been imagined by someone with an obscure form of schizophrenia. The navigation is truly perverse. Basically, you move your mouse over this weird pattern, and different sections of the menu are revealed. But you can't move your mouse away, or you'll lose your place.

What kind of person would design such a web page? When I checked the page's properties, I learned that it was hosted by It's the site of a 25-year-old freelance web designer, originally from Thailand. So it wasn't designed by a schizophrenic after all, just a 25-year-old.

Capogiro Gelato

This is the basket-case website I mentioned earlier. Capogiro is an excellent gelateria in Philadelphia that I visited a couple of weeks ago (my Philly report is coming soon). Having been there on a prior trip to Philly, I wanted to get the address of the one near the Reading Terminal Market. Their site is rather pretty, but good luck if you want to find out where their shops are.

I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that the first page you get is a splash page that you have to click in order to enter the site proper. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that it's a Flash site that takes a fair amount of time to load with a high-speed connection (I pity the poor foodie with dialup).

Maybe I'm weird, but I think it would be nice if businesses could display their addresses prominently. Capogiro does not list the store addresses on its main page. Luckily, there is a link called "Where To Buy." Luckily? Not quite. That lists vendors of their packaged products, not their shops. "How to Order" is for online ordering of packaged products. Let me try "Contact Us." I'm worried, though, because sometimes that launches Outlook Express to send an email. Oh, good, I get a page that lists "Our Locations." If the main menu had listed "Our Locations" in the first place I wouldn't have had to fish around.

The main page also has a link to "Flavors of the Day," which lists all the current offerings of gelato and sorbetto at their shops, some of the flavors quite interesting and audacious. But something's wrong with this picture. It is an alphabetical list, with no distinction between the gelati and the sorbetti. Imagine a wine list that looked like this:

Cabernet Sauvignon
Chenin Blanc
Pinot Blanc
Pinot Grigio
Pinot Noir

You get the idea.

There are plenty of other problems with the site. See how many you can find.

Ali Baba

[Note: Ali Baba's website has changed since this was written. PC 8/17/08.]

Well, there has to be an exception that proves the rule, right? As much as I hate splash pages, this one tickles me every time I go there, and I always sit through the whole catchy little ditty and look at the slide show. I especially like the fact that the owner has made sure that we get to see his mug several times. One good turn deserves another.

Update: I came across another excellent article on restaurant website design that covers many of the same points I have here, The Pitfalls of Restaurant Websites.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Back to Di Fara, Haiku Version

Time and tide must wait
For a quirky pizza man.
Time is my square slice.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Two New Haven Legends

My trip to New Haven was months in the making. I was to hook up with Jimmy Cantiello, my Connecticut food guide (and, it turns out, fixer) for visits to two of New Haven's legendary eateries, Louis Lunch and Pepe's Pizza. We had finally settled on a date of September 16.

My real-world friendship with Jimmy grew out of a cyber-friendship on several jazz discussion forums, first the now-defunct Jazz Central Station, then Jazz Corner. For the trip to New Haven I was joined by Brian Olewnick, another Jazz Corner habitué. The train ride up was enlivened by Brian's chance reunion in our car with an old friend, Nancy, a lapsed pastry chef. The three of us had a delightful chat, much of it about food, throughout the two-hour ride. Jimmy met us at New Haven's Union Station

Have It Our Way

Waiting for Louis, Olewnick (l) and Cantiello (r)

Our first destination was Louis Lunch, where the hamburger sandwich was supposedly invented. According to the authorized version, "One day in the year 1900 a man dashed into a small New Haven luncheonette and asked for a quick meal that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen, the establishment's owner, hurriedly sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the customer on his way, so the story goes, with America's first hamburger." Beware, however, that there are other claimants to burger origination.

The establishment is now run by Louis' grandson Ken. The place takes a fundamentalist approach, with burgers prepared and served just as they were in the beginning. Burgers are broiled in a the original vertical, cast-iron grill, which allows much of the fat to drip away, leaving an uncharacteristically lean burger. All burgers are served on white toast, because that was the way Louis, the creator, made them. No ketchup is served, because Louis didn't serve his burgers with ketchup (or mustard or mayo, for that matter). To put ketchup on one's burger is, in fact, a mortal sin.

Louis Lunch Burger, Exposed

In addition to my burger with tomato I had a pretty decent potato salad. Though I'm not a burger aficionado, Louis makes quite a good one, lean and tasty. One complaint that the three of us shared, however, was that although a sign proclaimed that all burgers are served medium-rare unless otherwise requested, ours were all medium-well. To be honest, I would have preferred it with ketchup. I also would have preferred a decent hamburger bun, or even better a crusty roll. Still, I think there is something to be said for the preservation of historical culinary accuracy. After all, it's the history and ritual that keeps the customers coming, some from pretty far away.

Jimmy Snags a Table

After lunch we drove to Jimmy's house for coffee and grappa, sipped to the strains of Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. I was glad that I hadn't eaten heavily at Louis, because we were planning on an early dinner at Pepe's.

I think I had first heard about Pepe's, several years ago, through the kvells of the Sterns of the Road Food guide, who claim it's the "best pizza on earth." Michael Stern writes, "When the warden asks us what we want for our last meal, this is it: Pepe's white clam pizza." At about the same time I had invited both Jimmy and Melissa Rachleff, also originally from Connecticut, to a Chinatown crab feast. We got on the subject of pizza, and they both insisted that New Haven pizza is superior to New York pizza (though Melissa is a partisan of Sally's Apizza). You could call that a gauntlet.

While we were hanging out at his house Jimmy mentioned that he had arranged for us to bypass the long line one always finds at Pepe's. Jimmy had put a call in to his nephew, Frankie D'Andrea, a friend of the owners. He had explained that a couple of friends were coming up from New York, and he was hoping Frankie could use his pull to avoid a long wait. Frankie promised he'd try, and shortly thereafter he called Jimmy back and said, "Everything's been taken care of." Actually, he might not have said that at all, but everything was taken care of. Jimmy was to go inside Pepe's and speak to a certain waitress. He'd mention Frankie's name and she'd give further instructions. The rest of us were to wait outside. "You might all have to go in through the back way," Frankie had told Jimmy.

So Jimmy went inside and the rest of us waited in the parking lot next to the restaurant. Several minutes later Jimmy came out and told us the deal. We were to go inside, through the front door, and wait at the bar. They'd seat us at the first available table.

Within ten minutes we had a table, saving us at least a half hour. Jimmy has been a Pepe's regular for years, so we let him take command of the pizza order. Jimmy ordered two large pies for the four of us (Jimmy's wife Joanne had joined us for dinner), one white clam and one cheese with sausage.

Perhaps I was prejudiced by New York pride, but to tell the truth, while both pies were quite good, I was not bowled over. The crust was a bit thicker and denser than most good New York pizza, and I found it to be overly substantial. The pies are baked in the original coal-fired brick oven, and the crust does get an impressive char, I must admit. While the sausage pie was quite tasty, there was an overabundance of cheese. Proportion is, of course, a matter of taste, but there really was no need for so much cheese. Sometimes less is indeed more. The pies have an irregular shape, which is no problem at all, but the completely irregular and incomplete slicing, as if done with a dull jigsaw, was not something I found charming.

Pepe's White Clam Pie

The white clam pie is a Pepe's innovation, though certain other places, including New York's Lombardi's, have adopted it. It consists of a pizza crust with a topping of little neck clams with olive oil, garlic, a little oregano and a touch of grated parmesan. I think the clam pie is indeed the raison d'être of a Pepe's visit, and I won't deny it was excellent. However, at the risk of heresy, I think the version at Lombardi's is a formidable rival.

While I was somewhat disappointed, it was probably inevitable after the buildup. I certainly haven't written off New Haven pizza. Next year at Sally's!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bites, August 2006

Once again, I offer a few crumbs that didn’t fit into other posts.

* * *

The block of 58th Street between 2nd & 3rd Avenue is home to at least four Indian restaurants, the stalwart Dawat being the oldest of the group. The buffet lunch I had at Chola last month was far superior to my recent Dawat dinner. Chola is a multiregional restaurant, and the $13.95 lunch buffet is copious. In addition to the self-serve items, the waiters bring freshly cooked tandoori chicken, dosas, naan and chickpea-onion pakodas to the table. They likely vary the buffet table items daily, but there were about four or five each of vegetarian and non-veg (as they say in India). Among the most interesting items were a Kerala-style fish dish and pau bhajee, a Mumbai street specialty of spiced mashed potatoes and lentils traditionally served on western-style buns slathered with ghee. I passed on the buns and the ghee.

* * *

New York has many regional and specialty Japanese restaurants, but Katsu-Hama claims to be the only dedicated katsu (cutlet) restaurant. I was steered there by Donna, whose home-team advantage is a Japanese husband. Variety is nice, but there’s something to be said for a place that specializes. Though there are a few departures, the menu is almost exclusively katsu in various preparations, from straight-up to curry. Katsu-Hama is part of the Matsuya International restaurant group, which also runs Menchanko-Tei, one of my favorite noodle shops.

I had the pork cutlet lunch (pork can probably be called the ur-katsu), which was served with rice, pickles, shredded cabbage and a miso soup of the day. Instead of a standard, everyday white or red miso, they serve a different augmented soup each day; I had a delicious egg and onion miso. Katsu-Hama boasts of their gourmet pork, organic eggs, fresh-baked breadcrumbs and quality oils. The result was indeed a cut above any other katsu I’ve had in New York.

There is a fun ritual involved in the katsu meal. One is served a bowl of roasted sesame seeds with a pestle. You ground the seeds and add the tonkatsu sauce to the bowl, then dip the slices of cutlet in the mix. Also on every table is a big bottle of delicious homemade carrot-sesame dressing for the shredded cabbage.

* * *

I succumbed too often in August to the pleasures of the excellent gelato sold from a cart in front of Osteria del Circo on West 55th Street. They bring the cart out every summer and rotate the gelato and sorbetto flavors on a daily basis. I was especially taken with the gianduja (chocolate/hazelnut) and caramel gelati. It’s very authentic Italian gelato, and to my taste superior to Mario Batali’s much vaunted product.

* * *

Last month I wrote about the turkey with wild mushroom and Cognac sausages from Trois Petits Cochons. Since then I’ve also tried the chicken sausage with apple and Calvados and the duck sausage with confit and port wine. All the sausages are delicious, and each has a very distinctive flavor. More kudos to the pigs.

* * *

Incidentally, I learned that Raga, which I so enjoyed attacking, closed this Summer, only a few months after my grand pan. I'm sure my piece had nothing to do with it, and I do wish all the folks involved good luck with their next endeavors.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Two Hidden Gems Above the Diamonds

New York City's diamond district, centered on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, is home to a number of semi-secret kosher eateries serving the largely orthodox merchant community. At the end of August I had back-to-back lunches at two of these places, Diamond Dairy and Taam Tov, both in upstairs spaces, above the diamond exchanges and jeweler's shops.

* * *

Diamond Dairy, in the National Jeweler's Exchange, at 4 W. 47th St., has no signage on the street; you just have to know. As a matter of fact, my friend Howard, who was supposed to meet me downstairs, was convinced I had given him the wrong address when he arrived before me. Silly Howard. He should have known that I knew.

You walk into the jeweler's exchange, and at the back wall, above the merchants' stalls, you see a picture window on the mezzanine level. Behind the window is the Diamond Dairy, looking like a fish tank from the floor below. You ascend a flight of stairs at the side of the main floor and enter a narrow place with a long, snaking lunch counter and some tables. Once upon a time, when New York had dozens of bustling kosher dairy restaurants, the Diamond Dairy occupied the entire main floor of 4 W. 47th. It was relegated to the mezzanine in 1950.

The restaurant has a classic Jewish dairy menu, as well as kosher Chinese and Italian dishes (which I have no intention of sampling). Some of the items, such as blintzes, are offered in small and large sizes, small comprising two pieces, large three. Howard and I shared three items: small orders of cheese blintzes, potato pancakes and noodles and cabbage.

The blintzes were long and thin, with a fairly light wrapper, a bit crispy at the edges, somewhat different from the squat blintzes with thick, chewy wrappers I remember from my youth. They were excellent, as were the potato pancakes, which were relatively light as far as latkes go, very flavorful and much better than the greasy heavy artillery favored by my former boss, whom I now think of as the Latke Monster.

Having grown up in a totally assimilated Jewish household I was unfamiliar with noodles and cabbage. Howard, on the other hand, whose parents came from the old country, grew up with the stuff. At Diamond Dairy the dish is made with bowtie noodles cooked pleasantly (and somewhat surprisingly) al dente, topped with sautéed chopped cabbage and black pepper. Satisfyingly simple.

Our silver-haired waitress was a sweetheart. Attentive and chatty, she was like the "nice" Jewish mother I never had.

The place is a trip. The secret nature is part of the charm, but the food and the service are what ultimately count. This speakeasy of starch and milk fat goes straight to the top of my "places to take visitors" list.

* * *

Taam Tov, which means "Good Taste" in Hebrew, is a kosher Uzbek restaurant. Rego Park, in Queens, is now home to a large community of Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan and surrounding former Soviet republics. I haven't been out to that neighborhood, but several diamond district restaurants serve Bukharian food, which has many intersections with other Silk Road cuisines. Between the two Diamond District Bukharian restaurants I've been to there is no contest. Aron's, on 48th St., is one of the worst restaurants I've tried in recent months. Taam Tov is excellent.

Taam Tov is in an upstairs space at 41 W. 47th. One enters the building at street level and ascends two flights of stairs to the third floor; there is no elevator. Taam Tov moved to this location, formerly home of the legendary Gotham Book Mart, fairly recently from a building across the street. The Gotham Book Mart's motto was "wise men fish here." If you want to fish at Taam Tov there's something on the menu called "sea boss kebab."

Four of us had a copious lunch feast, most of which I ordered for the table. We had a basket of lepeshka, the wonderful, hearty home-baked Bukharian bread, and ate it with the most unSilkRoadlike dish, an avocado salad that was basically a mild guacamole (this was the one item that somebody else requested). The samsa—baked, knish-like meat pies with chopped meat and onions, redolent of cumin and other spices, were fabulous, one of the highlights of the meal. We shared several kinds of kebabs, which are ordered a la carte. The lamb shish kebab was wonderfully tender and tasty, and the lula kebab, a cigar-shaped spiced chopped meat kebab (I believe with lamb and beef), was excellent too. Lula kebab is similar to a number of chopped meat kebabs from around the world: Indian seekh kebab, Turkish and Middle Eastern kofte/kefta, and Serbian cevapcici.

The plov, an Uzbek pilaf with stewed meat and carrots was pretty good—moderately greasy and a bit sweet from the carrots. The manty, steamed meat dumplings, had an interesting sweet onion presence and a nice, delicate skin. It cost us $50 with a tip for the four of us, and they had to roll us down the stairs.

I wonder if Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, knows about these places.

* * *

Postscript: A Sue Story

One of my Taam Tov lunch companions asked if I was going to mention her in the blog. I told her I would only if I could tell this story. She said OK.

Sue was my manager at my first IT job, in the '80s. One of the programming languages we used was a simple utility called Quikjob. One day I was in Sue's cubicle going over a Quikjob program when she got a call from a non-techie colleague. "I can't really talk now," Sue said. "Pete's in my cubicle giving me a Quikjob." I don't know what the other party said, but I can guess. Sue turned beet red and started laughing. "It's a programming language!" she protested into the phone.

Diamond Dairy on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Self-Inflicted Beef Stew Curse

When I was a little kid we had a neighbor in our apartment building who used to take care of me when my widowed mom would go out on a date. This woman was very nice, but she was a lousy cook. One of the first times she watched me–I was probably about 4 at the time–she made beef stew. It was really vile, but I forced myself to eat it. This was way before I stopped being polite. When she asked me how it was, I said, “Very good, thank you.” That was a big mistake.

After that, almost every time she cooked for me she made beef stew because she thought I liked it so much. I’d eat it, swallowing quickly, trying my best not to taste it or betray my disgust. Sometimes I’d eat just a little and claim that I wasn’t very hungry, waiting until I could go back to my own apartment and snack. This went on for several years. Every once in a while she’d vary the menu with some equally bad baked ziti which, for some reason, she called “zita.”

If you’re a pre-adolescent kid reading this, remember: honesty is the best policy and politeness will get you nowhere.

Note: The only worse beef stew I've ever had was at an odd Sudanese-Dominican restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The dish was billed as a Sudanese specialty, but it tasted like a can of Dinty Moore that had been seasoned with iodine.