A Free Day

What would you do if suddenly someone gave you a free day to spend in one of America’s most exciting cities?  Here’s what happened to me when I discovered an excursion to visit the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, organized for Les Dames d’Escoffier—the preeminent, international organization for women leaders in the food, wine and hospitality industry—had been cancelled. Why?  Because of the area’s first snow storm.

I found myself at 8:00 AM leisurely enjoying a cappuccino and cinnamon swirl in Grand Central Station’s Great Northern Food Hall. Scrolling through my emails, I discovered the cancellation email—which had arrived after I’d gone to bed the night before. Given the precarious weather conditions, I should have checked for messages before heading out early that morning. However, rather than be upset, I elected to look at the situation as a gift: A full day to explore the city of New York.

What was I going to do? After my train tickets were reimbursed, I walked outside to 42nd Street.  Uptown? Downtown?  I decided to work my way down to the Whitney Museum in Lower Manhattan allowing the city’s traffic lights to guide my path. It was not yet 9:00 AM and actually too early to do anything other than go to work!  I discovered this walking up the steps of the New York Public Library. To begin my free day in Manhattan, I envisioned reading the editorial pages of the NYTimes in the historic Rose Main Reading Room.  But it wasn’t going to happen before 10 AM when the library opened.  So, I continued towards the Meatpacking District where the Whitney is located.  

Strolling down Fifth Avenue, a week before Thanksgiving, I wondered if there might be a few early Christmas decorations to see.  The closest department store was Lord & Taylor.  I spied their row of American flags fluttering overhead and headed in their direction.  Closer, I noticed Lord & Taylor’s going-out-of-business signs, yet another victim of Amazon and on-line shopping.  Alas, it was too early to partake in the “Everything for Sale” as advertised on the display windows.  Onward I went.  

At Fifth Avenue and 29th Street I passed in front of The Marble Collegiate Church and recalled attending a sermon there back in the 1980’s when Norman Vincent Peale was the pastor.  His sermon that Sunday contained large doses of his theory of positive thinking, his claim to fame.  Then I remembered that this was also the church where Donald Trump married his first wife, Ivana! Yes, indeed.  Positive thinking for a long-lasting marriage.

Following the green lights, I continued strolling down Fifth Avenue paying careful attention to whatever serendipitously crossed my path.  At 400 Fifth Avenue Ai Fiore’s menu hanging in the window of the Langham Place Hotel caught my eye. It was white truffle season and Chef Michael White’s Michelin-starred establishment was making the most of it.  The restaurant was featuring a seven-course dinner with Prunotto’s Piedmontese wines at $750 per person. My mouth was watering just thinking about the earthy, musky smell of the tartuffi. I giggled to myself remembering once reading that Italian white truffles have the same odor as a male pig in rut at the peak of breeding season.

Meandering further down Fifth Avenue at 24th Street I arrived at Madison Square Park.  Not that long ago, the park was infested with drifters and cocaine dealers.  Now, thanks to the effort of Danny Meyer and the other members of the park’s association, it is home to a colorful playground for children, revolving art installations, and Danny’s much-beloved Shake Shack.

I met Danny when he first opened Union Square Café in the mid-80’s. This was his first foray into New York’s restaurant scene.  Looking at Shake Shack’s low structure—which was not yet opened! —I thought about Danny’s well-earned success.  As a self-proclaimed DM groupie, I admire not only for his business acumen at the helm of the Union Square Hospitality Group but also his work philosophy. Ironically, both of us used the same central tenet to run our respective businesses:  Take care of your employees first and they, in turn, will take care of your customers. 

As I was wandering through the slush looking for the park’s latest art installation, my cell phone rang.  It was Ann Stratte, the president of Les Dames Escoffier  International, who had come in from Annapolis for the CIA excursion.  As her train home was not until 3 PM that day she asked, “Are you free for lunch?  I have time to kill.” How fortuitous.  Me too. “Come join me for a free day in New York. Let’s play tourists,” I responded enthusiastically.

We arranged to meet outside Eataly NYC Flatiron at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street at 10:30 AM. With 45 minutes to kill, I ducked into Eataly just as it opened.  I had the whole store to myself.  This allowed me to slowly walk through each department and carefully observe and admire Lidia Bastianich and her son, Joesph’s marketing genius. 

Lidia is also a fellow Dame and friend.  As with Danny, I’ve enjoyed watching Lidia build her empire over the years starting with Felidia.  In my opinion, Eataly is at the zenith of her success with five stores now in the U.S. Yes, it was done in partnership with the Farinetti family—who launched the original Italian Food Hall concept in Torino— but it has Lidia’s imprint all over it. 

For Lidia it is all about education and the celebration of Italian cuisine. Like the other Eataly’s, her mid-town store is divided into departments: fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, cheese, breads/pastas, pastries and confections, and other packaged gourmet items.  Each one has either a mini restaurant or food counter where the specialty is prepared for people to taste. Everything carries a detailed shelf taker with information on the product’s regional origin in Italy, the specific variety, and official quality designation.  Hanging from the ceiling are signs giving additional information about the product category and its production methods.  For Italian foodies, knowing which variety of olive is used for a mono-culture oil, for example, as well as where and how it is produced increases the overall appreciation of the item.

Right before leaving the store to meet up with Ann, I discovered a “Build your own Cannolo Bar.”  What a stroke of luck.  The recipe under development that week for TarteTatinTales’ “Dessert” section was for Cannoli.  I made a mental note to circle back later that day to pick a Cannolo.  A taste test was in the making!

Ann was waiting outside chatting on her cell phone. Tall, thin, fashionably attired with her signature Donald Pliner Vivver cowboy boots, Ann was ready to tackle the sidewalks of New York.  We accessed the High Line at 23rd street and 10th Avenue and headed south towards the Whitney.  Having been on the High Line many times, I put on my local tour guide hat. I explained to Ann that this was a special project of two doggedly-committed men who in 2009 saved the historic, elevated freight rail from demolition.  It is now a public park and one of New York’s most popular tourist destinations.  Considering our late fall visit, we missed seeing the High Line’s lush and colorful landscape which is planted exclusively with trees and flowers indigenous to the region.  But, we were able to appreciate some of the City’s most exquisite modern architecture including Frank Gehry’s stunning IAC Building. What surprised us, however, was the massive amount of new construction sandwiching in the High Line, almost like the canyons of Wall Street.  Would this ultimately shut off the importance source of light for the HIgh Line’s garden, we wondered?

Walking under the Standard Hotel, I shared with Ann its reputation for exhibitionist-friendly guests who liked to pose naked in front of their transparent floor-to-ceiling windows.  A free peep show, if you will!  I also recounted how a local clothing designer had once staged a fashion show there by putting his models in the windows of the hotel instead of on a traditional cat walk.

We descended the walkway at the southern tip at Gansevoort and headed to the Whitney.  The block-buster Andy Warhol exhibit had just opened, and we were in for a treat even if the Whitney’s audio system was malfunctioning. Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell Soup cans, Jackie Kennedy and Mao were all there. Ann and I reveled in the opportunity to spend time admiring the works of one of America’s most inventive and influential artists.

After a quick lunch at the café on the Whitney’s top floor, with its drop-dead view of lower Manhattan, Ann and I headed back to Eataly.  We picked up our mini shopping carts and went to town.  I loaded up while Ann—who was taking the train home—was a bit less ambitious.  My two shopping bags were stuffed with sliced mortadella and bresaola, homemade mozzarella, a large container of green Castelvetrano olives, a bottle of Saba, olive oil flavored with orange peels (on sale!), all sorts of fancifully-shaped dried pasta,  Modica chocolate bars from Sicily,  and one large Cannolo with classic ricotta filling.

Ann headed to Penn Station and I trudged home via the subway.  Both of us had had a marvelous time playing tourists.  I particularly appreciated the chance to get to know Ann better and to discover the many things we shared in common. Spending uninterrupted time with one another allowed us to fast-track our friendship.  Now I wished Ann didn’t live so far away as I sincerely got a kick out of her irreverent sense of humor and refreshing, light-hearted spirit.

Later that evening, I gave my husband and a dinner guest samples of the professionally-made Cannolo from Eataly and of mine, both tasted blind.  To my surprise, the homemade version was preferred.  I suspect it was because I had cut the amount of sugar in half (the recipe indicated “or to taste”) which produced a much lighter filling. 

Give it a try yourself at https://bit.ly/2TNEK1w. The recipe is from Italian Holiday Cooking, one of my favorite cookbooks written by yet another fellow Dame, Michelle Scicolone.  Then, pick up a Cannolo (from an Italian restaurant or bakery) and see which one you like best.  We encourage you to post a comment on the blog to let us know how you made out.






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