Table for one, please

“Just me,” I said, lifting one finger to the guy behind the counter when he asked how many people I needed a table for. I’m never sure who can hear the muffled voice behind my mask.

About a month ago, I was supposed to be on vacation in Australia for the first time, tagging along on my boyfriend’s trip back home to renew his work visa. As I plopped down alone at a small sidewalk table in SoHo last week, surreptitiously eyeing the tables of twos, threes and even fours around me while I rummaged through my tote for hand sanitizer, I thought about that cancelled trip and my boyfriend almost 10,000 miles away.

So many new normals to get used to.

Thai Diner, from the team behind the recently closed Uncle Boons, a beloved restaurant and a pandemic casualty that actually made me sad, opened just before New York— and really the world— shut down. I’d been excited about eating at the Thai influenced American comfort food diner when I first saw their menu online, already planning how many different things I could try between my boyfriend and me.

All those months after first telling him about it, I finally went, alone one day for lunch in the middle of last week, which I had taken off both to use up some of my vacation days and to reward myself for surviving a move to a new apartment, a hellish August, a global pandemic for six months so far.

With no one to give me a weird face for eating breakfast at 2pm on a Tuesday, I ordered George’s Egg Sandwich, a messy  affair of eggs, cheese, avocado, bok choy, and Thai basil wrapped in crispy roti. I’m not sure who George is, but he has a damn delicious sandwich. Messy sure, with its oozing cheese and bits of scrambled egg falling out between piping hot roti slippery with oil, but very much worth it. All the delicious green in this sandwich, the creamy avocado and dark, leafy bok choy, the kicky, spicy Thai basil, filled it with flavors and textures that set it apart from any breakfast sandwich I’d ever had at a diner before.

While it wasn’t quite the experience I had imagined all those months ago (especially since I didn’t get to split the Thai Tea Babka French Toast with anyone), Thai Diner was just what I needed: different, delicious, and as it so often is with food for me, distracting, transportive, and comforting.

I never thought that with a week off from work the most exotic and adventurous thing I would do was ride the subway into Manhattan to eat a Thai inspired breakfast sandwich, but there I was. I also didn’t think I’d be living in a new apartment with a new roommate instead of my boyfriend, who I wasn’t sure when I’d see again thanks to a global pandemic, but there I also was.

So many new normals to get used to.

When I was done eating, I sat at my table for one, fingers glistening with oil, back of my hands shiny from every time I’d wiped my mouth between bites. I did the quick math in my head, as I so often do throughout the day now, to figure out what 14 hours ahead made it in Australia. Boyfriend would still be sleeping for several more hours so I reached for the hand sanitizer instead, cleaned my greasy hands until I smelled vaguely of cheap grain alcohol, and went on with my day.


The mysterious egg cream

Behold, the egg cream

What first drew me in to the classic soda fountain drink most often associated with New York (or Brooklyn more specifically) was its apparent identity crisis. Called an egg cream, it had neither eggs nor cream. Didn’t seem to right to me, yet people seemed to love it. During an episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network, a woman sitting at an old school counter at a drugstore soda fountain went on and on about how great these drinks were.

I, of course, wanted to form my own opinion so recently, I went in search of one to try. Since I was already taking the subway at Grand Central station, I decided to drop by Junior’s on the dining concourse and grab one to go.

I had done my research and knew it was made with milk, syrup (in this case chocolate) and soda water, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. A big first slurp revealed an unusual taste. Slightly chocolatey with a fizzy, frothy consistency, it reminded me of a Coke float when all the ice cream has melted into the soda. Flaneur didn’t like it but I thought it was interesting. Not particularly great but not too bad either. Nothing involving chocolate can ever really be that bad.

Sometime’s you gotta indulge

This place is not for the indecisive.

I walked in with every intention in the world of only buying one cupcake. It was Friday night and I had just left the office after what felt like one of the longest weeks of my life. Work had been super busy, issues with moving out of my apartment had been annoying, and to top it all off I was dealing with the self-inflicted hell of a particularly nasty all-day hangover. I needed a treat for surviving.

Magnolia Bakery, which had been high on my to-do list pretty much ever since I moved to NY last summer, is only nine blocks away from my office.  I had skipped the gym twice this week so I thought an extra 18 blocks added to my walk home was only fair.

I am only getting ONE cupcake. Nothing more. Just one. I’ll bring it home and split it with Flaneur and that will be enough. One cupcake. One. One. One.

And then I opened the door. The warmth from the ovens as they churned out trays of cookies, cakes and brownies and the sugary, buttery aroma wafting in the air all wrapped themselves around me like the warm, comforting hug I had needed all day.

Magnolia was packed with people milling about like ants at a picnic. I couldn’t see the cupcakes or where they were listed but I squeezed into the line figuring I’d just wait till I was closer. Then something happened. I looked to my left at the refrigerated glass case next to me: cheesecakes, all sorts of wonderful cheesecakes. Big ones, little ones, chocolate swirled and whipped cream topped ones. The guy behind the counter saw me ogling them and craned toward me.

Who knew so much happiness could fit in the palm of your hand?

“Hi,” he chirped. “Can I get you anything?”

“Uhm, yea,” I blurted without thinking. “Can I have one of these, please?” I pointed down at the mini pumpkin pecan cheesecake with ginger snap crust.

Next thing I knew I was back to waiting in line, except now I had a small white Magnolia box in hand, one unnecessary mini cheesecake stored safely inside.

Dammit. So much for my plan.

The line inched up and I was now next to a case full of brownies and cookies. My eye caught one particularly chunky looking brownie topped with white chocolate. I quickly turned my back to the case and decided that the cheesecake had won, but in the battle against the brownie, I would prevail.

Luckily the people in front of me shuffled along and I found myself in front of the cupcake case and another young guy waiting to take my order. I scanned the several rows of cupcakes, some of them neatly placed on a shelf on the case, others still sitting on waxy baking sheets. I decided I had already broken my “one cupcake only” rule so I might as well just throw out the whole idea and get two cupcakes. Choosing one would be too hard right now anyway, and I wasn’t in the mood for tough decision-making.

Red velvet goodness

Another minute later and I was at the cash register, paying for my mini-cheesecake and two cupcakes: one red velvet with whipped vanilla icing and one caramel with caramel meringue buttercream and caramel drizzle.

When I walked into my apartment I waved the white plastic bag at Flaneur.

“Looky what I got!”

We decided that all three things would be too much (even by my standards) to eat before dinner, so we went to work on just the cupcakes. The red velvet was unbelievably delicious and soft, with icing so creamy and sweet that you can’t help but close your eyes and say, “Mmmmmm.” The icing, in particular, tasted simple and home made, not chemical or artificial in its sweetness.

Caramel on caramel action.

Caramel on caramel action.

The caramel cupcake was great too, definitely sweeter and stickier than the red velvet though. The meringue added a slightly crispy texture in between the moist, soft cupcake and the smooth buttercream icing.

Flaneur summarized the experience best when he let out a satisfied sigh and said, “Oh my God, I think I have diabetes now.”

Saturday morning as I stretched in bed and thought about what to eat for breakfast I was struck with a delicious reminder: the mini-cheesecake. With Flaneur still curled under the covers enjoying his last minutes of sleep, I crawled out of bed and went to the fridge. I came back with the small white box and two forks in hand and nudged Flaneur to wake up. It was breakfast time.

Let me say this: If everyone started their mornings with such a delicious treat, the world, especially New York, would be a much happier place. Maybe fatter, but definitely happier. The mini cheesecake had a firmer consistency than pumpkin pie but had the same spicy sweet smoothness as that Thanksgiving favorite of mine. Crushed pecans and a dollop of whipped cream added varying textures and made for wonderful mouthfuls of delicious cheesecake.

Magnolia had lured me into buying three treats, not one, and spending about four times what I had planned on spending, but every bit of it was worth it. Sometimes the best way to welcome the weekend after five exhausting work days, is to treat yourself to something (or in my case three somethings) sweet.

Space snacks

No gelato for this guy.

Back when I was 11 years old, what feels like 5 lifetimes ago, I went to Washington D.C. for a Safety Patrol end-of-the-year fieldtrip. (Yes, I was a Safety Patrol, complete with a fluorescent orange across-the-chest belt with a big, shiny badge. I was a raging dork and it was awesome.)

Of all the things I saw that blew my young, impressionable mind, it was something at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum‘s gift shop that excited me the most: astronaut food.

The package said it was exactly like what the real astronauts ate in space, and I was sold. $3 later I ate dehydrated strawberries thinking they were the coolest thing ever.

Fastforward to almost 14 years later… strolling through the American Museum of Natural History’s space gift shop after seeing a show at the Hayden Planeterium, I saw a familiar, over-priced, edible souvenir: astronaut food!

There's no substitute for real ice cream.

$4.34 later, I left the museum and gift shop with a dehydrated ice cream sandwich alla astronaut, just as excited as I was the first time I tried this gimmicky space food.

Later that night, I tore it open and Flaneur and I bit into respective chunks of crunchy, dry, almost dusty ice cream sandwich. Yes, it looked like an ice cream sandwich, and sure it kind of tasted like one, but in no way was it as good as a real, cold, creamy-on-the-inside, soft-cookie-on-the-outside ice cream sandwich. We ate it none the less, and I for one was glad I never became an astronaut. Sure, space is cool and all, but chalky, dry ice cream sandwiches? No thanks. I’ll stay here on Earth with the creamy, delicious cold stuff.

I’m a good fork. Or so I’ve been told.

“O Angie, sei proprio una buona forchetta,” says Rita, with a slight snicker as she nibbles on a piece of bread.

Empty fork frozen mid-air, chipmunk-like full cheeks, one eyebrow raised, I stare up at her.

“Huh?” I’m a good fork? The hell does that mean?

I look at my boyfriend, the only other English speaker at a table full of Italians.

“It means you’re a good eater,” he says with a smile, and a look that says, “Be nice, Angie. It’s just a joke.”

The fork clinks against the plate as I drop it and hastily swallow my mouthful. I look at Rita, who’s still smiling at this new Italian idiom she’s taught me.  She, like many of my other Italian girlfriends in Florence, is tiny. Although she was born, raised and still lives in the paradise of carbs we call Italy, she maintains a flat stomach, toned arms and not so much as a hint of a cellulite dimple.  She’s also not anorexic or bulimic. She’s just Italian.

Hours later, we finish dinner at  The Crazy Train, a no-frills restaurant (with a dumb name) on a dark road between Florence and Empoli. Cigarettes are smoked (by the Italians of course), goodbyes and double kisses are passed out in rounds.

Dinner was ok, but after being told I was a buona forchetta, I just couldn’t enjoy my food with the same zest.

“I mean, what does that really mean?” I rant in the car, as my non-confrontational boyfriend drives quietly back to Florence. “Was she saying I’m fat? Is that what it is, I’m the fat American? You guys all think I’m a Mcdonald’s loving fatty, huh?”

We ride back in silence as I stew in my resentment.

Days later I think about the incident, and decide to Google the phrase. Translation sites, language message boards, and dictionaries all tell me more or less the same thing. Una buona forchetta: someone who enjoys eating, and does so with gusto; a foodie, gourmand.

Hmmm. A gourmand, huh? Well that’s not so bad. Sounds kinda fancy.

I read more, and before I know it I’ve gone off on an internet tangent and find myself reading recipes, online restaurant reviews and local food blogs.

Eating, it’s what I do.

And that’s when I realize: I really am a buona forchetta.  Who was I kidding feeling so indignant? I love to eat. And anyone who’s ever eaten with me or heard me describe a meal afterwards, knows I do so with passion.

And so from that now-favorite idiom of mine, I’ve made this blog, a place for me to write about food. Usually not anything that I myself have made, because while I love to eat, I was not gifted with the same enthusiasm for the process of preparing food, but instead a place to write about meals had, snacks shared and new places discovered. Living in Manhattan after two years in Italy, I figure I have plenty to work with here.

That being said, I hope you’ll come back and see what I’ve been grubbing on and where my gluttonous adventures take me. Buon appetito!