The date was July 29, 1982. A truck, my best friend’s boyfriend Steve, and myself rolled into New York City. The Big Apple. Life in the fast lane. The next night I went out on the town. I don’t remember anything but the name of it, I was too excited to be here. A Midwesterner does Greenwich Village. Villa Amalfi.
I still get excited being in Greenwich Village, but that’s another story. Since that time I have, however, managed to pop myself back into this long standing Italian eatery enough times to get a handle on the food. The place has a glassed in “porch”, faux marble walls, and a maitre d’ beckoning you in from the street. This looks like a setup for a bad meal, if not a bad movie. Luckily, it’s neither. For classic Italian fare, correctly prepared with minimal tinkering, this is the place to go.
During the summer we sit ourselves down in the little 2-3 table outdoor alcove where we can watch the flow of life in the streets. Unless we’re feeling fancy a round of the house white wine to sip on while we look over the menu is actually a pretty good choice. Sampling the appetizers gives us more time to think about life, liberty, and the pursuit of good dining. Baked clams oreganato are tasty and an occasionally available antipasto platter is good, though a bit hefty. Our favorites lean towards the refreshingly delicious prosciutto and melon, with large slabs of honeydew draped with this salty ham (ask for the aged balsamic vinegar to splash on it rather than the lemon wedges), and the huge platter of fried calamari, perfectly crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and a mild, but zesty, dipping sauce.
The main course selection is exactly what you’d expect by this point in your adventure. Chicken and veal dishes, piccata, marsala, saltimbocca are cooked just the way you want them to be. Light sauces with clean, clear flavors, the meat tender and juicy. Pastas with red sauces, white sauces, cream sauces, and wine sauces. The flavors of herbs permeate the dishes, the pasta cooked just a touch al dente, all arrayed on platters the size of Aunt Sadie’s seder plate. Our favorites are the carbonara, with tiny bits of smoky bacon, fresh peas, and a cream sauce that’s richer than Ross Perot, and a recent night’s special of fusilli with grilled shrimp, sauteed chicken, peas, artichoke hearts and tomatoes, in a light jus created from the juices of all these little delicacies.
The decision must be made midway through the main course. To save room for dessert or not? Villa Amalfi serves up a solid array of New York classics, like cheesecake, fruit tarts, and creme caramel. All are, as might be expected, properly prepared and tasty. It is, however, a shame that there aren’t more classic Italian selections on the menu, except as specials. We often opt for espressos and glasses of grappa or Averna to end the evening. All in all, next time you’re in the mood for good Italian food a definite couple of cuts above the spaghetti and meatballs at your neighborhood pizzeria, make the trip here.
Villa Amalfi, 84-86 7th Avenue (at West 4th Street). Open 7 days a week. All major credit cards. Dinner, $30-35.
For those of you who are regular readers of this column, you know that one of my favorite things to find is a “hole-in-the-wall” kind of place that serves good food at low prices. In this category fall almost, though not quite, all dim sum restaurants. I’ve seen somewhere around two dozen different translations for “dim sum” into English, but my pick of the batch comes out something like “a little bit of the heart.” The tradition of dim sum started in the old Chinese tea house, a place where businessmen came to negotiate and strike deals. You sat down, ordered and paid for a pot of tea. As a courtesy the proprietor would often bring around small plates of snacks whipped up in the kitchen. Of course here in the US of A, we’ve turned it around – we pay for the food and the tea is free.
New York has dozens and dozens of places one can go for dim sum, ranging from cheap to pricey, bad to good, and small to immense (at one place I’ve been the waitstaff actually use walkie talkies to communicate with the maitre d’ and the kitchen). My hands-down favorite though is a little place on lower Mott Street called Sun Hop Shing Tea House. This unassuming little, okay, let’s face it, dive, serves a tasty selection of dim sum, and doesn’t take more than a nibble out of our wallets at the end of it all.
The process of eating dim sum is half the joy of eating it. Waitresses (almost always waitresses, rarely waiters), often motherly looking, wheel carts piled with dishes of generally one to four different dim sum on them. They come and stand next to your table with the cart and start talking very fast in what I’m sure is an obscure dialect of Chinese, meanwhile pointing at the various dishes as I’m sure they’re extolling the virtues of each. If you’re lucky, you can get the words “beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, or vegetable” out of them. You point at the ones that you’re not quite convinced you can’t live without, and they place a plate on your table. You then eat and wait for the next cart and its delicacies. If you have favorites you can ask, and be assured that the next time that cart is available, but not before, they’ll remember you asked for the dish.
Dim sum is generally an early afternoon tradition, and in New York is often limited to weekend lunchtimes. Luckily Sun Hop Shing serves dim sum daily, and usually from mid-morning to late afternoon. Since I know none of the Chinese names for anything you might eat, and each restaurant calls them something different anyway, I’ll describe the gang’s favorites here. There are little rich noodle dumplings, usually called siu mai, that come in absolutely delicious beef and shrimp varieties. Then there are long rich noodle rolls, looking something like an uncooked extra large egg roll, the best of which are the ones stuffed with vegetables and peanuts. Definitely try the taro root cakes, among the best I’ve tried in Chinatown. their beef meatballs with scallions are pretty darn good, and there is a wide variety of deep-fried turnovers and dumplings, especially the chicken ones, that are outstanding. However, the one “must” each time we go are the steamed pork buns. Tender, rich, succulent bits of barbecued roast pork in a steamed, slightly sweet dough (don’t be surprised that it’s not browned), these are not be missed, make sure to ask for them if they don’t come around. There are also some good dim sum desserts, including custard, sweet bean cakes, and “almond” tofu in honey. What more can you ask for than this little bit of heart?
Sun Hop Shing Tea House, 21 Mott Street (at Mosco St.), 267-2729. Open daily, dim sum service roughly mid-morning to mid-afternoon. No reservations. Cash only. Lunch $5-10.
CaB magazine was one of the first publications I ever wrote for. Published by my dear friend Andrew Martin, it covered the Cabaret, Theater, Music and Dining scene in New York City, long before slick publications like Time Out NY and Where NY became popular. We had great fun writing it, and some wonderful writers contributed to its pages. When the magazine folded in the mid-90s, Andrew disappeared from the scene, and rumors had it that he departed from this existence not long after. I was thrilled to find out in mid-October 2005, a decade later, that the rumors were just that. Andrew contacted me after finding my site via that omnipresent force, Google. He’s alive and well and a member of a comedy troupe called Meet the Mistake. Somehow quite fitting!