The world at our doorstep: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

bayridgeMonday was Yom Kippur. Now, I’m not Jewish, but my boyfriend Eli is, and in a show of solidarity, I was all geared up to fast. Eli flatly refused to let me forgo food on the Day of Atonement (I am, admittedly, not very fun to be around when I’m hungry), but we did each have the day off and we wanted to do something special. And so, armed with Zagat’s “Best of Brooklyn 2009” and a desire for at-one-ment with our beloved Brooklyn, we set off for Bay Ridge.

CIMG3891We rode the R train to 86th Street, making our first destination Hinsch’s (8518 Fifth Ave.), a time capsule disguised as an ice cream parlor and diner. The waitresses were brusque and maternal and called everybody “hon.” Eli and I made ourselves comfortable at the counter and surveyed the menu and decor, both of which seem unchanged since at least the 1950s, if not earlier. CIMG3894I found myself humming Tom Waits’s “Eggs & Sausage” while the polyester-clad mavens of Hinsch’s made our drinks: a chocolate malted (mine–with homemade ice cream!) and a chocolate egg cream (Eli’s).

Thus fortified, we continued down Fifth Avenue, one of Bay Ridge’s main drags. Every other storefront, it seemed, was an international food emporium. Greek, Norwegian, and Italian flags stood alongside American ones outside each business, reflecting the neighborhood’s intermingling of cultural pride and American patriotism.

Inside a Greek grocery, I was transfixed by endless rows of imported Greek honey and a refrigerator stocked with an array of phyllo doughs, each of a different thickness. In a Middle Eastern market, gazing at an abundance of chickpeas, split peas, and lentils sold in bulk, I began fantasizing about all the different soups to be made this fall and winter.

CIMG3911We meandered through a Scandinavian deli and I became sentimental when I found Mrs. Olson’s Lefse on the shelves. The women in my family used to make the traditional Norwegian potato flatbread every Christmas. Buttered and sprinkled with sugar, lefse is the taste of my early childhood and is infinitely preferable to lutefisk as a culinary link to my Norwegian heritage.

CIMG3905Our feet were beginning to hurt and rather ominous-looking clouds had begun to appear overhead, so we headed down to Third Avenue. The underrated Verrazano Bridge loomed in the distance as we walked to the charming bistro Cebu (8801 Third Ave.) for a pre-dinner apertif. After a refreshing and reasonably priced ($8) glass of chenin blanc, we made our way to Tuscany Grill (8620 Third Ave.).

We were warmly greeted and led to our table in Tuscany Grill’s spare yet welcoming dining room. Our waiter, Billy, was decorous and friendly, striking the perfect balance of attentiveness and unobtrusiveness. As rain began to fall outside, we dug into a meal perfectly suited for the early evening chill.

CIMG3906CIMG3907Tuscan white beans cooked with pancetta were topped with a sweet Italian sausage, made by the pork experts at Bay Ridge’s Faicco’s Pork Store. A salad of warm red cabbage, pancetta, and walnuts topped with a wedge of Gorgonzola dolce was the essence of Autumn. The sweet-tart quality of the red cabbage provided a nice counterpoint to the mild richness of the white beans and sausage.

CIMG3909For his main course, Eli selected penne baked in a vodka sauce with fresh mozzarella and asparagus. His dish was comforting and hearty, sort of a grown-up, Italian version of macaroni and cheese. The fresh, flavorful asparagus was the star of the dish, enhanced rather than overpowered by the tomato-based sauce and mozzarella.

CIMG3908I, too, opted for pasta. My perfectly al dente penne were tossed in an earthy, rich sauce of wild mushrooms sauteed in Cognac with a touch of cream. A side dish of sauteed escarole, while slightly on the oily side, was flecked with delicious morsels of browned garlic. The slight bitterness of the escarole helped to mitigate the richness of our respective pastas.

When eating rustic Italian food, I like a wine that’s unpretentious and easy-drinking. At just $29 a bottle, our 2007 Geografico Le Mire Sangiovese/Merlot blend more than fit the bill. Raising our glasses, we toasted the delightful neighborhood of Bay Ridge and all its bounties: a thriving immigrant culture, beautifully appointed side streets, and the very best of Old and New Brooklyn.

Stomachs full and horizons broadened, Eli and I reluctantly boarded the R train back to Brooklyn Heights, talking all the while about our next trip to Bay Ridge.

**Hinsch’s sign & Verrazano Bridge photographed by Eli Wolf**

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