14 August 2006

A Few Status Reports

In the past, I've withheld my opinion on the old Best Pizza in New York debate that newspaper editors love so much that they turn to it every year. This is mainly because there are huge holes in my knowledge.

Well, I filled in one of those gaping cavities recently, and finally dined at Grimaldi's, the pizza joint on Old Fulton Street that the good folks at Zagat's routinely rank as tops in pies year after year. It's fairly maddened me these many years of living in Brooklyn that I've never been to the place, despite the fact that I can easliy walk there. But the lines are so ghastly on the weekends and evening—the only time I can go.

That line was once again snaking down the sidewalk on a recent Sunday when I dragged wife and kid to see it we breach the entrance. I was actually standing behind a real Italian, who turned to me and asked "Is this normal?" (Don't have to wait for good pizza in Rome—it's everywhere.) We gave up and had a mighty unmemorable meal at the Water Street Restaurant in DUMBO.

But I had the next day, Monday, off, and forged a plan with my wife. We arrived at noon, when Grimaldi's opens, and, sho' nuff, we were quickly escorted to a table. Let the word be spread. Early birders on weekdays will face no crowds! Our pizza arrived in under ten minutes and, yes, it's as good as they say. Crisp thin crust, flavorful sauce, toothsome mozzarella. Though I have to say that Totonno's in Coney Island is still my favorite pie, with extra points for atmosphere.

Later that week, I was wandering aimlessly through Chinatown—a wonderful pastime, and a good reminder that not ALL of Manhattan is gentrified and homogenized. As I swung around Bayard onto Baxter, I made a weird discovery among the many Malaysian and Vietnamese eateries. Chinatown has been slowly encroaching on Little Italy's territory for years, until the goombas are fairly surrounded on their tiny stretches of Mulberry and Kenmare. But here on Baxter was a stubborn holdout I've never heard of: Forlini's. An unfancy place of more than 50 years standing, it has three sections: a bar with booths, a small downstairs dining area and a more plush upstairs level. Apparently the joint, so near to Centre Street, is and always has been popular with judges and district attorneys. And according to every review I've read, the food is not just the usual red-sauce mediocre stuff, but top notch Italian.

You always here about New York's so-called "best kept secrets"—unknown treasures that are actually pretty well known by the time the press writes about them. Well this has got to be one of the real secrets. 18 years in New York and no one's ever said boo about it to me. Never read about in in the Times or Post or any "best of" lists. Zagat's doesn't mention it, even in it's list of old New York restaurants, where it certainly should rank.

Also, just a few doors south, is Paulie's Place, a tiny sandwich shop storefront, with a simple, ancient neon sign, an old green paint job and the look of something Berenice Abbott shot for the WPA back in the 30s. It was closed when I saw it, but a peer inside revealed a counter, a couple tables and a simple menu or heros. Obviously a local haunt. It had the look of a number of NYC places that are legendary for their longevity, modesty, old world ways and "echt" quotient. Yet, who's ever heard of Paulie's Place?

Maybe Baxter Street is where great restaurants go to be left alone.

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