Friday, November 9, 2012 places to eat like a local

A few weeks ago I posted a link to a CNN iReport project with Travel + Leisure magazine.  They are looking for "100 Places to Eat Like a Local."  I couldn’t help but throw into the mix a few of my favorite places to enjoy authenticity.

Hop Kee, New York City – I found this place almost 25 years ago, wandering the streets of NYC’s Chinatown with college friends.  In search of a place to eat, we were saying we didn’t want a place that catered to Americans; we wanted authenticity.  A woman leaned out a second story window and yelled at us in Chinese, pointing at some stairs and a door, mostly unmarked.  We pointed to confirm what appeared to be her directions.  We descended the stairs and entered a large dining room filled with Chinese.  A server quickly sat us and handed us menus – in Chinese.  He swiftly returned, we explained that we had no idea what to eat but were willing to eat anything, could he please choose for us.  He treated us to a feast of incredible flavors and textures.  This was the best Chinese food I had ever had…but I didn’t know the name of the place.  Years, many years, later I was watching Anthony Bordain’s No Reservations.  He was discussing the decline of authentic Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown.  Then he wandered down some stairs into the same simple dining room I had enjoyed this wonderful feast all those years ago…Hop Kee ,, 21 Mott St, (At Mosco St)

Da Tonino, Rome, Italy – Da Tonino is just on the outer fringe of the tourist-plagued regions of ancient Rome, just to the southwest of Piazza Navona.  But odds are you won’t see too many in here.  The restaurant is hardly marked, has no printed menu and seemingly operates without a computer or even a calculator in sight.  Once you are seated in the simple and very intimate dining room a server will tell you what you can eat; maybe they will point out a chalkboard.  When your food arrives prepare to be amazed.  This is authentic, peasant, simple Italian food.  The pasta alla carbonara is the best I have ever had.  Savor each bite, as you will be hard pressed to find food this good at such a price in this city.  When you are done a server will drop by and scribble an amount due on your paper table setting.  You will swear they didn’t charge you for something.  I am not entirely sure this place is a real, legal business.  It has the feel  of an impromptu pop-up, but I know it has been here for years.  The food is worth the trip to Rome.  Via del Governo Vecchio, 18

Ristorante Pizzeria I Monaci, Assisi, Italy  - An Italian friend took me here and said she thought it was the best pizza in Italy.  I thought that was a pretty tall compliment.  After eating at Monaci many, many times I suspect she is right.  In recent years this place seems to have been discovered by daytime tourists in Assisi, but it remains quite accessible and excellent in the evening.  Wood fired in a small oven, your pizza might take a while, but it will be worth it.  La Ghiotta, the Glutton, is one of my favorite pizzas here. This has sausage, prosciutto and an egg dropped in the middle.  Heavenly.  They don’t roll and puncture their dough after spreading it out, so you get bubbles in the crust which add a great texture.  The tomato sauce is just tomatoes….no sugar, no paste, and as far as I can tell, no seasoning or olive oil either.  Maybe, just maybe, some salt.  But I think it’s just straight, authentic, simple, fresh, high-quality tomatoes.  Just a few nice chunks of sausage and all of it covered with gently rippled sheets of delicate prosciutto and a nice glow of a cooking egg sitting in the middle. Pizza Romana is great….perfectly salty, plump capers, generous heaps of anchovies…mmmmmmmm.  But get more than just pizza – salads are great.  Try some spaghetti aglio e olio….garlic and olive oil.  Could not be any simpler nor any better on a hot night.  Followed up with some limoncello….a perfect Italian evening. Via Giuseppe Verdi, 10

Chez Denise, Paris, France (not far from the Louvre) – Walking in at lunch time on a weekday, and I am the only tourist in sight.  Long and narrow, simply furnished with red and white checked table clothes, I am ferried to the back, the last table before the kitchen.  A server swings by with a large chalkboard listing entrees.  Peasant French food…nothing fancy – kidneys, brains, tripe, lamb, foie gras, simple fish dishes.  I go for my first brains.  Dishes arrive and everyone’s looks amazing, with large, hearty helpings.  A large platter of incredible pommes frites is placed on the table.  Everything tastes amazing.  Other diners are slipping out, back to work.  We stay and enjoy a dessert and some Armagnac.  Another Armagnac.  We are the only ones left in the restaurant.  The lights are turned off.  “Should we leave?”  “Non, non….rester ici.”  Another Armagnac.  Finally, after hours of conversation and wonderful food and service it is time to leave.  The bartender has to unlock the door for us.  We have to find a place for dinner.  5 rue Prouvaires

Osteria dei Pazzi, Florence, Italy – I never come to Firenze without a stop to see the Pazzi.  Without fail they have the same gregarious wait staff, the same retired, boisterous, crazy history teacher cooking in the kitchen and the same wonderful, fresh food.  Decorated by incongruous hangings from the ceiling and a row of communist-themed vodkas, you can always count on a good time.  Their pastas are always seasonal, fresh and soul-warming.  Their seafood is among the best I have had.  On my last visit they treated me to a rarity – whole octopus, grilled, still containing organs.  For those who enjoy offal, an octopus head is a treasure.  But don’t stop there… crostini, bruschetta, beef carpaccio, mozzarella buffala, tomatoes, assorted cheeses and cured meats – all wonderful, and just on the edge of the touristy areas of Florence, not far from Santa Croce, so it is convenient, but not mobbed. Via dei Lavatoi, 3

Onesto (Giorgio) Luxembourg Ville, Grand Duchy of Luxembourg – This wonderful Italian spot is well off the tourist routes, but by only a block.  It is small, intimate – in that you will be very, very close to your neighbors – and noisy.  If you are shy or averse to being flirted with, avoid.  You will feel like you are in Rome.  The pastas are excellent, including spaghetti bolognese and amazing pesto.  Pizza is authentic, cooked in a wood-fired oven made by the same pizzaiola for the last 30 years.  And none of it will break the bank.  And it is my second favorite pizza in the world, after Monaci in Assisi.  Rue du Nord 11

Cantina Mayahuel, San Diego, California  - I crave this place every few weeks but sadly get there about once per year.  It is an amazing tequila bar; you will be hard pressed to find a greater selection or more knowledgeable and passionate staff.  And the owner created every bit of the place – the silverware was crafted by him, the bar, seats and table designed by him and each tequila carefully selected by him.  You will feel like you are in rustic Mexico.  Beautiful salsa and mole – fresh, bright flavors you will dream about.  Somewhat ambivalent staff gives a quirky, devil-may-care attitude.  Come if you love tequila and real Mexican food, stay away if you are high maintenance. 2934 Adams Ave. (at 30th St) 

I have a few others, but I won't share them here.  I need to keep them undiscovered.  But I will happily take you.
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