NEW YORK – There’s Mario Batali leading a New York Jets cheer in his trademark orange sneakers. Oh, look, it’s Giada Laurentiis and her nuclear powered smile. And, BAM, there’s Emeril Lagasse boiling up some southern-style magic in front of a high-powered crowd.
The city that never sleeps doesn’t do things on a small scale. They recently staged a truly massive New York City Wine and Food Festival that took up acres of empty piers on the Hudson River and featured hundreds of events with some of the biggest names in the biz, including Rachel Ray, Michael Symon and actor Chazz Palminteri, who posed with visitors alongside the stand for his BiVi brand of Sicilian vodka.
It’s not all about celebrities, of course. Regular folks are welcome to plunk down a few bucks for the right to nosh away all night and day at a huge range of events. Among the listings this year were hot dog tastings, a Giada de Laurentiis Italian night, a “Jets and Chefs” tailgate party with New York Jets cheerleaders and sushi making exhibitions, not to mention a “cigars and spirits” event and a Bloody Mary Brunch.
Over the course of three days I wolfed down parts of four or five gourmet burgers; burgers with arugula and blue cheese, burgers with caramelized onions and mustard and burgers with more burgers on top and extra cheese and double pickles. I had tasty meatballs slathered in perfect Pomodoro sauce and chowed down on ribs and brisket and more tacos than you’d find at a Cinco de Mayo party. Just for good measure, and in the interest of journalism and science, I sampled hot, fluffy donuts doused in cinnamon, sipped locally produced ginger liqueur and tried two types of gin, two styles of New York City-made rye whisky and a bit of California wine.
Being a good Canadian and all, one of my favourite dishes were the steaming hot donuts from Fresco by Scotto in midtown Manhattan, served in a brown paper, cone-shaped container by a family of donut-crazy New Yorkers.
“Our secret is that they’re gluten-free,” Anthony Scotto Jr. told me as he dished out his desserts alongside his wife and daughter. “Anyone can make a donut. But ours are delicious and gluten-free.”
Not far away someone was serving up lemon ricotta gelato with crunchy almonds, while another booth featured tiny cupcakes made with Coca-Cola. Just in case, you know, the donuts weren’t enough.
Around the corner at the spirits portion of the event, Josh Morton and Eve Alintuck were serving up samples of Barrow’s Intense, a homemade ginger liqueur distilled in Brooklyn.
“Josh and I became friends when we were in elementary school because we were both geeky nerds,” Alintuck tells me with a smile.
She explains how they go through 200 pounds of fresh ginger for each batch of liquid, and how everything is done by hand, including bottling and labelling. I ask about the name. Alintuck says the liqueur is named Barrow because that’s the street Morton lives on in Greenwich Village. You only have to take a sip to know why it has the word “intense” on it, as this baby packs a punch. Still, it’s excellent stuff. I sip a bit on its own but also enjoy their take on a Manhattan, with Barrow’s Intense, Angostura bitters, orange bitters, brandied cherries and Punt E Mes Vermouth.
Nearby is the New York Distilling Company, which makes a couple styles of rye and two types of gin. One of the gins – Perry’s Tot Navy Strength – has a real juniper snap to it and would be perfect in a Gin and Tonic. The other is softer and more floral and is called Dorothy Parker, in honour of the famous New York bon vivant.
It’s a softer style gin than most but still has enough bite to remind me of the famous Dorothy Parker quote about martinis: “I like to have a martini, two at the most. Three I’m under the table, four I’m under the host.”
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IF YOU GO
Tickets for the festival range in price from a few dollars to $300 or more, depending on the event you attend. Proceeds go to the Food Bank for New York City and the No Kid Hungry campaign, so it’s a worthy cause. www.nycwff.org.
For a look at great (and many free) things to do in New York, visit www.nycgo.com.
ARRIVING Porter Airlines flies directly from the Toronto Island Airport (check out the new pedestrian tunnel) to Newark International Airport in New Jersey. It’s a short train ride from Newark to Manhattan.
OTHER DINING OPTIONS
You don’t have to attend the festival to find sensational food options in the city that never sleeps. And never stops eating.
Brooklyn has a popular weekend event called Smorgasburg. It’s bigger in summer than this time of year, but you’ll find several dozen food and drink tables, many with locally produced fruits and vegetables or other products.
Queens is getting a ton of international attention for its ethnic food; everything from crispy, spicy samosas to Korean tacos.
The Bronx is home to Arthur Avenue, which is more like the Little Italy you might expect. Great cannoli, fresh bread and fantastic meats and cheeses can be found at cafes and shops on the street or in the Arthur Avenue Market.
Manhattan hotels are sometimes overlooked in favour of trendy new spots, but they do a fantastic lobster risotto at The stunning Peninsula Hotel in midtown. The nearby Parker Le Meridien is famous for its breakfasts at Norma’s, where I had luscious French toast with berries and bananas. The cool and modern Conrad Hotel in Battery Park has a talented chef and a lovely main restaurant called Atrio. Their Loopy Doopy Bar on the roof has perhaps the most inventive drink I’ve ever tried; Prosecco with liquor-infused “ice pops” made in Brooklyn (they’re basically Popsicles but can’t be called that because of trademark rules). Fantastic.