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The best of the wurst and more great New York City street meat

Harry Rolnick

July 2011

Alfredo Giovanni di Frescobaldi is your typical New York wiseguy for nine months of the year. But at the end of the June, Alfredo dons a halo, helps older ladies and stoned gentlemen across the street, and shortens his name.

“Call me Al,” he says. “Al Fresco.”

Al Fresco has only one proscription for visitors from Montreal. Never, never spend any time inside.

“My pal AC is not really cool. He just wants to waste your time. New York gotta be outside, else it ain’t New York in the summer.”

Hey wait, I tell him, Montreal is a gourmet town. You don’t expect to eat hot dogs all day long, do you?

Al looks like I’m Lazarus, just arose from the dead.

“Hot dogs? Dat’s ancient history. Outdoor New York vends food you couldn’t imagine. Up around the Plaza Hotel you can pick the best of the wurst! “A guy named Wolfgang (no relation to the composer) hoists real Austrian sausages on a real Viennese roll. Up a few blocks to 62nd St., for charcoal-grilled chicken better than the barbecue in Memphis.

“Ya want Chinese? None of dat Cantonese stuff, which is as old-fashioned as hot dogs. Get real Hunan rice noodles cut to size over at Grand St. And just nearby is Moslem Chinese food from Xianjiang (I call it the Allah Cart!), and some pancakes nearby. Ya look for the cart, then ya nosh!

A South Indian vendor cooks up a feast in New York City.

“What ya do—or what New Yorkers do, cause I don’t see any tourists—is pick up a whole meal made while you wait, then walk over to Hester St. for the best handball games in the world.”

And your favourite cart, Al?

“Sullivan St. near Washington Square, Monday through Friday. Go outside Washington Square and pick up some South Indian food. They got everything from masalas to vegetable curries and dosas. A few bucks, but ya gotta compete with millionaires and students and Ceylonese. You buy a meal, walk over to Washington Square, sit down and watch the freaks at play.

“By the way, head over to the West Village for your ice cream. New York sells it all (they even have ‘gay ice cream’), but the ultra is the Café Cluny ice cream cart on the corner of West 12th and West 4th Sts., one block east of 8th Ave. I hear that Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg buys his ice cream only here. But dat’s a rumour.”

Al Fresco licks his lips and then gets onto outdoor “kulcha.”

To some of us, kulcha is Indian ice cream. To Al, it means da “tee-atra.” Since nobody can afford tickets to the indoor theatres, get it free outdoors with Shakespeare in the Park.

“Nah, don’t gimme that Montreal park Shakespeare in the Park. Hey, New York started free Shakespeare. Ya gotta line up for tickets, and that can take hours. But well worth it to see All’s Well Dat Ends Well and Measure for Measure. The professors call that a comedy, but we call it black and bleak. Plus you get to see all Central Park beforehand.”

Don’t ever start talking about music with Al Fresco.

“Buy a meal, walk over to Washington Square, sit down and watch the freaks at play.”

He’ll drive you crazy with River to River.

“East River vs. Hudson River, every single night. Now get this! Patti Smith and her band! Laurie Anderson and Bill Laswell! The Bang on a Can Marathon with the best avant-garde stuff anywhere. And more singers, more bands, and if you get there early, you sit down by the river and you get music coming out of your ears.” Which, I tell him, is the opposite direction music should go. But he isn’t listening. “Anyhow that’s downtown. The uptown guys got it different You know Lincoln Centre, right? All those symphonies and operas and violins? Well, this summer take another gander. Outside!”

Al is talking about something called Midsummer Night Swing.

“Dis,” he says, “is where even Canadians can feel at home. I happen to be ignorant of samba and tango, and waltzes and Parisian ElectroSwing, but the crème de la crème (that’s rich uptown guys and girls) love it. So who am I to criticize?” Al Fresco and I have now walked from West Village to East Village.

We wander through a street fair (every weekend at different places), and through the dogwood trees and dog-runs of Thomson Square Park, where Charlie Parker used to live and the original Beatniks used to hang out.

Al and I have started in the morning with some uptown bialies, have journeyed through Midtown, where huge swaths of Fifth Ave. and Sixth Ave. are clear of cars all the way down to 34th St., where you can sit and watch the crowds, then down to Chinatown and food, and up again.

“Ya notice somep’n?” Al asks. “We got sun and moon and music and food … and it’s cost us hardly a shekel.

“Not bad for ‘pricey New York,’ huh? And we ain’t seen Brooklyn or Queens neither. But lemme tell ya about the Brooklyn Bridge Festival this summer …” Al goes off in a dream, adjusting his halo. Wintertime, he’s complaining like any New Yorker.

But summertime in New York can have an unimaginable and unmistakable Manhattan magic.

The great bagel wars

New York wouldn’t be New York without grousing. So here’s mine.

Will you please stop telling New Yorkers that Montreal has the best bagels in the world? Salmon, yes (it’s called “Nova” here, for the Scotian imports). But Montreal bagels have the same cachet as Champagne grapes raised in the Yukon.

Everywhere in New York there is food and music. Here, a man plays piano at the foot of Fifth Ave. Photo: Coco T. Dawg

You won’t find crispier or wheatier or more golden-hued bagels than at Ess-a-Bagel (the Upper West Side favourite), or the wonderful hole-in-the-wall Kosar’s on the Lower East Side, where you see the bagels being made.

Brooklyn has 10,000 bagel shops vying for attention, but anywhere in Manhattan should offer memorable tastes.

My own absolute favourite is Russ & Daughters, serving the most delicious lox, cream cheese (many varieties), whitefish, caviar, herring—and bagels—since before the Great War. They opened in 1914, when Houston St. (rhymes with “roustin’”) was filled with pushcarts, and are still going strong. (Don’t even think of entering the famous, fattier Katz’s a block away.)

The moral? The next time you brag about Montreal bagels, and a New Yorker tells you, “Oh, crepe!” we’re not cussin’.

We’re simply describing your epicene offerings. My advice: Put your bagels in the cellar and make certain they’re loxed up tight!



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