Friday, March 09, 2007

A Tale of Two Rice Balls (and a Bowl of Pho)

A while back I mentioned a Sicilian focacceria within a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. Unfortunately, Rancho El Girasol has closed, and Vinnie Bondi's Palermitano treats are gone with it. The traditional Sicilian focacceria is a dying phenomenon in New York, so I decided I'd better seek out several of Brooklyn's survivors before it's too late.

I started at Ferdinando's, in Carroll Gardens. Ferdinando's opened in 1904, and atmosphere is one of the place's greatest strengths. Outside you're on the less gentrified side of Union Street, just west of the expressway, but inside you're transported to a typical neighborhood joint in Palermo. If only the food had the same charm. Granted I only tried two things, the Sicilian focacceria staples arancine (rice balls) and panelle (chickpea fritters). Both were disappointing. The rice balls were overly mushy, and the traditional chopped beef and peas stuffing was lacking in flavor. The pannelle were limp, mushy and tasteless, and I suspect they had been microwaved instead of freshly fried. Still, because it's within walking distance of my apartment and because I did love the interior, I'll probably pay Ferdinando's another visit.

The following week I went out to Gravesend, another traditionally Italian Brooklyn neighborhood, to try the same two items at Joe's of Avenue U. Overall, I think Joe's has the better reputation of the two places. The pannelle were quite different from those at Ferdinando's. These had a slightly crisp, thin outer coating and a silky-smooth interior. I do remember, however, that the pannelle I had in Palermo were more boldly spiced. The arancina was quite good, with a moist, flavorful filling. One could taste the slight saffron accent in the rice that was not apparent in the rice ball at Ferdinando's. The atomosphere at Joe's, however, can't compare with Ferdinando's, as it is basically a diner. The menu, on the paper placemats, has the names of the items in English and Sicilian dialect (breaded chicken cutlet, for instance, is Cutuletti ri Pullu nPanati). Much of the menu (and the food on display at the front of the restaurant) is quite appealing, and prices are extremely reasonable (a premium item like swordfish goes for $14). I'd have liked to have tried more than a rice ball and some pannelle, but I had just eaten some Vietnamese food a half hour earlier.

I was trying to maximize my visit to this part of "deep Brooklyn." I had heard that one of the city's better Vietnamese places, Pho Tay Ho, was in Bath Beach. Bath Beach, near Gravesend, is another traditionally Italian neighborhood. But all these adjoining neighborhoods−Gravesend, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst−have become particularly multiethnic of late. Asian and Russian businesses are especially prominent throughout the area.

At Pho Tay Ho I of course ate Pho. This beef and rice-noodle soup is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine, and it is commonly eaten for breakfast. Beef is used widely in Vietnamese cuisine, but when I traveled in Vietnam I learned early on that the beef there is generally of poor quaility, and ended up sticking mainly to seafood. In any Vietnamese restaurant the pho would be a benchmark dish, just as rice balls are in Sicilian focaccerias.

I ordered pho tai gau, the last two words referring to cuts of beef. Tai gau is generally my favorite way to eat pho. Tai is fresh eye of round. The thinly sliced raw meat cooks in the soup. Gau is brisket. The secret to pho, as with any soup, really, is the broth, and it's not easy to find a great pho in New York. Tay Ho's is indeed one of the better ones. The broth is rich and flavorful, slightly sweet with a noticable hint of star anise. It has much more character than the watery stock at many local Pho places. The meats were excellent. It is common to dip the slices of beef in a small dish of hoisin sauce on the side, and this I how I like it (I don't pour the sauce directly in the soup). It's important to eat the eye of round first, so it doesn't overcook. I have generally found the tai to be of similar quality at most NY pho restaurants. The brisket, however, shone at Tay Ho. The slices were robust without being overly fatty, and the meat must have been precooked in some way that made it much more flavorful than most gau I've encountered.

I also had a couple of cha gio, Vietnamese spring rolls. These were rather disappointing. The meat stuffing had a rubbery consistency and a slightly fishy taste, which leads me to think there might have been some fish in the mixture. I much prefer the cha gio at Pho Viet Huong in Chinatown and Gia Lam in Sunset Park.

The quality of the pho at Tay Ho bodes well, and I hope to return with a group to sample the rest of the menu.


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