Staten Island Pizza Tour Part 1

Denino's Pizzeria & Tavern on Urbanspoon

Brother's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Before leaving for the Miss New York Pageant weekend this year, I did a little research on good pizza places on Staten Island, because we're often really crunched for time down there, attending two preliminary pageants plus the big show in just two days, and making sure we're there for our titleholders when they need us. Luckily, I found a cool Thrillist article complete with pics running down SI's 11 best pie houses.

Prior to this, our go-to joint has been a slightly cruddy storefront in a strip mall right by Trader Joe's, with only OK slices but terrific, meat and pea-stuffed rice balls. Oh yeah, in Staten Island, all good pizza restaurants also feature arancini, or fried risotto balls, which makes the prospect of pizza all that much more decadent and cheesy. But this article lead us to an even tastier path, specifically Port Richmond Ave., where Denino's and Brothers preside over the pizza works.

Brothers is at the slightly sketchier end of the street, but has the bigger parking lot. If you've never traversed Staten Island in a motor vehicle, please understand that the streets are narrow, lined on both sides with uninterrupted parades of parked cars, and there are fire trucks blocking the remaining space about every fifth street, presumably because people are packed in so tightly on much of the island that they just burst into flames spontaneously. So a parking lot is like sweet, sweet Heaven when you're hungry and your eyes are about to fall out of your head from the sheer stress of battling the complex traffic. To further alleviate your rattled nerves, there are a cadre of cuties behind the counter just inside. Do flirt with them whilst ordering your dinner, if you're of the inclination. They will flirt back, and it will improve your experience immensely.

Not that your experience will be bad, because this pie is good. That's fresh mozzarella you're seeing there, not pre-shredded, part skim nonsense like I use at home. The tomato sauce is very light and fresh tasting, I'm guessing it's encumbered by minimal tomato paste. And the basil is the star - shouting sweetness and light licorice flavor from the rafters. The crust is thin, but chewy, the gluten developed to the perfect state to lend some personality and provide a sturdy base for all that creamy luscious cheese and perky herbaceousness.

Mom and Dad went for the grandma's slices, which seems to translate into Sicilian, or thicker crust pizza. I didn't taste theirs, but it looked savory and quite yummy. There was a tiny bit of fresh garlic piled into each corner of the crust, roasted and sweet, which they raved about. It was like the buried treasure of pizza.

But in my opinion, the rice balls at Brothers trump the pie. These were not simply fried balls of rice with ground beef or a cube of cheese inside, but true arancini - creamy, ooey, savory nuggets of tight, al dente rissotto breaded, lightly fried, and served with that punchy, acidic marinara.

These rice balls are telling a story the frenzy outside is trying its damnedest to keep a neighborhood secret - the brothers at Brothers are Italian ninjas! I'm pretty sure that's not even a thing, but I'm declaring it anyway. Later, a nice girl at Renato's Bakery, just down the block, told us that the potato croquettes are even better than the rice balls. I'm not sure that's possible, but I can tell you I'll be back to find out.

Before I share with you the pizza perfection we experienced at Denino's, up the street, can I just brag on my titleholders, and what utter rock stars they were at Miss New York and Miss New York's Outstanding Teen? Our Olivia sang a version of Roar that should school Katy Perry on why she needs voice lessons for the next 20 years, plus she exuded style, Grace, cooperation, and kindness that was noticed by all.

Joelle, with whom we've had the privilege to work since she was 10, blew us away with her maturity, beauty, infectious laughter, and stunning stage presence. She has worked incredibly hard this year to improve, and our hearts about exploded, we were so proud of her.

Ok, we now return you to our scheduled pizza and Port Richmond Ave. We came back two days after our excellent dinner at Brother's for lunch at Denino's, which we were informed makes parking slightly less impossible. Deninos has a parking lot, too, but with about five spots, it's likely to be full. We parked a few blocks up and made the trek with our entourage of forever Miss Thousand Islands, an attention-attracting sight in this part of town, all decked out for that afternoon' steen pageant.

Denino's reminded me of Kelly's (Endicott) or Art's Jug (Watertown) inside: a familial, slightly outdated, but cozy interior. The brown Naugahyde and metal chairs are ones this NNY girl has been parking her butt in since they were created in the 70s. We quickly ordered two pies: a margharita and a garbage pizza. We had a vegetarian and a picky eater at the table, so we left the plain cheese and basil to them, and I chowed down on the more elaborate pizza, crammed with sausage, pepperoni, onions, meatballs, and mushrooms.

No cute pizza boys will flirt with you at Denino's, but this ultra savory, even thinner pie will make you smile, I guarantee. This richer, saltier dish is crisper of crust, with a more cooked down sauce, and a drier mozzarella. I say the crust was crisp, but that crunch was confined to the well-done, high heat-rendered edges, while the center maintained that gooey softness for which thin crust NY pizza is famous.

It's not as much of a looker as the Brother's slice, but I actually preferred its flavor. Whereas the basil elevated the more delicate Brother's 'za, this "garbage" pie was down, dirty, filling, and packed with flavor. For the visual, here's Denino's margharita:

The natives had taken their slices before I could even snap a pic. Looks like the mozz was fresh on this version, so I'm betting this, too, was more mild than the garbage pizza. In any event, while I liked the pizza at Denino's better, the rice balls at Brother's will bring me back. And next time we're on the Island, I'm chasing down Patrizia's and Pat and Joe's for the next installment of our tour. Think the April timeframe. And if you wanna meet me there for a slice, let me know!

Meantime, I'm headed up to the Northcountry this weekend for yet more pageant hoopla and catching brunch at Skewed Brewing on Sunday. I'm also impatiently anticipating the re-opening of the TI Inn in Clayton later this summer, with new ownership and Gabe Aubertine in the kitchen, and I just heard that Chroma Cafe, in Binghamton, has moved and expanded its space, so I'm eager to check that out. In addition, Big Hungry Melinda and I returned a couple weeks back to Loft at 99 in Binghamton and were very pleased with the appetizers and cocktails there as well as the service, which was excellent. So lots of closer-to-home happenings are cooking up for your gustatory pleasure now that the weather's turned sunny and we can all escape the icy confines of our houses. So get out here and support your local restaurants! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


Big Hungry TV

I had two pretty exciting blog developments today, which is extra thrilling since it's also a Monday and I'm not chained to my desk! I love a holiday Monday!

The package I filmed last week with Newschannel 34 in Binghamton is finally up online and aired tonight on the evening news. You can check the vid out here.

I'm typing this on my iPad and frantically trying to make sure that URL hyperlinks, but if not, just go to bignhamtonhomepage.com and you'll see it.

This was such a cool opportunity, and I hope Newschannel 34 gets a bunch of hits on the story and finds it was worthwhile to film. Special thanks to Jim Ehmke for covering my little corner of the blogosphere, and Las Chicas Tacqueria for buying us lunch and providing a tasty backdrop for the story!

As if a news story about this "local foodie," wasn't gratification enough for today, an Instagram photo of mine also was featured on Immaculate Infatuation, a very cool NYC blog I've followed for some time. Thanks for the shout out, guys!

The photo was of the lobster rolls I enjoyed over the weekend in Staten Island, at our favorite South Fin Grill. They were picture perfect, bursting with cool, buttery lobster, and a perfect start of summer treat.

Check out this cool blog on immaculateinfatuation.com
And by all means, DO make a stop at South Fin Grill for swanky seafood the next time you're on the island called Staten.

It's almost too exciting to be receiving this recognition for my little passion project. Of course, there's a small voice in my head pushing me to leverage the media in some way,  as a catapult to escape the forty hour a week desk job and pursue a food career. But how to do it? I'm not sure. In the meantime, I'm loving life, living my foodie fantasies, and more inspired than ever to share Upstate New York's bounty of really good cuisine with you all. I hope you keep reading, and follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well! For now, I'm yours, bacon! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


Big Hungry Televised Shelby

I might be a little overexcited this week, Big Hungries. Not only will my parents and venture down to Staten Island tomorrow to support our girls Olivia Grant, Joelle Leek, Julia Garvin, and Reese Widrick as they grace the Miss New York stage,  but today, I was interviewed by Newschannel 34's Jim Ehmke for a story on BHS for tomorrow night's evening news! 

That's right, my loves, I'm going big time. As of right now, I haven't seen the footage, so I'm pretty busy imagining exactly how disgusting I'll look in it, but I tried to get the main messages across to Jim of what Big Hungry Shelby is all about: supporting family-run, local restaurants and Upstate New York's culinary bounty. Talking with Jim and telling him what I do with my blog was fun, and sharing my foodie point of view is something I usually do more in writing than out loud, so I hope I communicated effectively. I'll post the link to Facebook as soon as I see it up on the station's website, and I beg you to give me feedback.

And of course, what I'm not-so-secretly wishing into the Universe is that this spot starts a journey that ultimately takes what I've started here to a new level. Hi, Travel Channel. This is Shelby. I'm loud and hungry, and I want my own show!

We shot the piece at Las Chicas Tacqueria in Owego, because the post I wrote about this great little gem has the most hits of all the posts I've written in four years. Y'all like your tacos, man! As do I. As do I. They were so gracious about letting us shoot there, and even gave us lunch for free! The only thing better than a chile verde carnitas taco is a free chile verde carnitas taco, that's for sure.

So, to recap: beauty queens, Newschannel 34, Thursday evening news, tacos, Travel Channel. Any questions? My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


A Second Piece (of Sin City)

In the second portion of our Vegas trip, Melinda and I really settled into the Sin City vibe and did some damage. Some culinary, some alcoholic, and some retail related. And it's allll good, baby.

Our first morning after arrival, we woke up way earlier than Vegas standards due to a bit of jet lag-adjacent restlessness, so we decided to really get it going with a hearty breakfast. I've been wanting to dine at Hash House A-Go-Go since around 2009, and this was my chance. There are three or four Hash Houses in LV, and the closest for us with in The Quad, right on the strip. Not wishing to waste the opportunity for gluttony, I placed my bet on a house mimosa and a farm Benedict comprised of fried chicken, biscuits, eggs, tomato, bacon, spinach, mashed potatoes, griddled mozzarella and chipotle cream. Don't freak out, I only managed to put about a third of this bad bitch down. It was fantastic, with the fresh tomatoes and spinach doing their best to offset all those carbs and the richness of the chicken and the sauce. Weak points: the bacon, which got lost in here, and the mashed potatoes, which were frankly just too much - even for Vegas! But that griddled, salty mozzarella and the scrambled eggs were so lovely and breakfasts, and having fried chicken in the morning such an indulgence - I loved it.

And then, a little sun and relaxation at Atia's divine pool:

Followed by the most fun evening ever, at Britney's Piece of Me show. I'm not kidding - go see her. But as if that wasn't already fun enough, the next day, we made the wise choice to do an honest to God Vegas pool party. And it was good.

This is my speed of "clubbing," for sure: sun, tunes, and ultra luxe service. We didn't lift a finger at that pool, and people watching while grooving to great music and having friendly waitresses sashaying around in bikinis and bringing us vodka-laced lemonades was not a bad way to spend the bulk of the day. Our dinner reservation was at Jose Andreas' China Poblano - a Chinese Mexican fusion joint in the Cosmopolitan that I was really looking forward to. However, after a day of sun and vodka, this meal was sunk before it began. I very much enjoyed the lamb potstickers, which were all interwoven and crispy on thebottom, a result of some pan fried trickery - but they were all I managed in my state. We Cohens are not known for dealing well with heat - and partying hard all day killed ye olde appetite. But Jose, mark my words! I shall return to enjoy your delicious cuisine at a later date.

Next day, we slept in and leisurely packed our things, stowing them with the well organized and kind bell hops at Aria, and moseyed down to the Bellagio and Todd English's Olives for a breathtaking fountain-front view, but pretty standard fare.

The fountain show was completely exhilarating, and the food was not. I've eaten at Olives in New York and loved my meal! but my Greek steak sandwich was a mess! with chunks of rather chewy beef falling out of it all over the place! and very little of the tatziki flavor promised on the menu. Sad face.

Let's forget that uninspiring sandwich, and look at these again, shall we?

And then we did something totally touristy, and really fun: the gondola ride at The Venetian. I highly recommend this bit of fun, complete with serenading Italian gondolier:

Oh, we also had a frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity 3, which WAS just as good as NYC's version. A worthy pit stop on a hot day walking along The Strip (they have a walk-up window). And the final good eat of my Vegas trip was found, again, right in Aria, and I'm sad I don't have a photo. But if you need a late night bite, do make your way to the Five50 pizza place at the rear of the casino floor. It was good, shockingly good, and is the pizza project of the chef at the resort's hoity toity Sage Restaurant. We didn't eat there, but that pizza pretty much saved my life after the Britney show.

We had mixed eats in Vegas. One restaurant that was very hyped online , Simon at Palm Place, was so ordinary and overpriced, I'm not going to waste your time describing it. And then there was the $5 slice at Five50, acting like it was being served in a fabulous NY wine bar with its thin, chewy crust and basil-forward flavor. And that's a bit of what Vegas is overall - a city of surprises. I found it to be less seedy than I expected, but then again, we also saw a bum beating up another bum not 100 ft. from a Louis Vuitton store. I'm not sure I have the words to put it any way other than this: juxtaposition. But we had an utterly wonderful time there, and were more than happy to leave on that red eye Friday, just as all the rowdies were flying into town. That's all I have, folks. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!Hash House A Go Go on Urbanspoon


A Piece of Sin (City)

Bar Masa on Urbanspoon

I travel a lot, in case you hadn't noticed. I travel enough that, were someone at work to tell me I was grounded for the rest of 2014, I would be totally down with that. Enough that, were all Miss NY activities arranged in such a perimeter of my house that I need not spend another night in a hotel this pageant season, I would rejoice. But sometimes, even the travel-weary, airport-jaded among us need to partake of a particular brand of travel that's much more palatable: VACATION!

Big Hungry Melinda and I have mused about a girls vacation in Vegas for years. As in, in our twenties, we thought we'd bachelorette there, and then when Bette Midler did her residency, we said we should go...sooner or later, you have to stop musing and you just have to start livin', man. (I may have watched too many Matthew McConaughey vehicles lately. I apologize.)

But we needed an impetus, which came in the unlikely form of Ms. Britney Jean Spears, now in residency at Planet Hollywood with her Piece of Me show. Britney is a weak singer and a bit of a train wreck of a young woman, but dang, can sister entertain. We've maintained a sort of a tongue-in-cheek fondness for Britney for a long time now, extolling the virtues we could both bestow upon Brit Brit if only we could bring her to Upstate New York, teach her to do a bit of laundry and maybe cook dinner. She just needs a dose of reality, y'all!

And of course, with a trip to Vegas, come eats. I wanted to find a balance of celebrity chef spots, which accounts for this really decadent, buttery, rich mini lobster roll trio, with ok chips and surprisingly clean, sweet, refreshing slaw, from Todd English's P.U.B. at Aria, where we stayed. The butter was literally dripping off those toasted buns, folks. Now THAT is what Sin City is all about.

On the other side from the celebrity restaurants, I researched somewhat lesser-known spots with lots of cred, and found BarMASA, also in Aria, for a big blowout sushi feast our first night in town. We had the best service of the trip there, from perky and knowledgeable Bonnie, and I (finally) tasted toro, in the form of the Masa toro toro roll. I was so excited for the fatty tuna belly, and this dish, while pricey, delivered. The fish was impeccable, silky, utterly luscious, and most extravagantly buttery. It dissolved in the mouth and made me make faces funny enough for Melinda to photograph, and me to forbid her from using.

Another BarMASA highlight was the kanpachi jalapeƱo sotomaki roll with julienned, fried potatoes. We loved the chile-forward punch and the satisfying crunch of potato threads as you bit down into each roll. The fresh, clean fish juxtaposed with the considerable heat of the jalapeƱos and the earthy salt of the fried spuds made for perfection on the palate. This dish was all about balance and was one of the more exciting sushi rolls I've ever tasted.

Ok, indulge me for one more: Peking duck and foie gras in moo shu skins. Basically, funky, livery, sweet duck tacos. The moo shu of your dreams, lacquered in syrupy hoisin sauce countered by salty, unctuous foie. The chunks of duck breast were chewy, but tender, and the shards of green onion provided much-needed sharpness to this rich affair.

Dinner at BarMASA was NOT one of those affordable Las Vegas meals you read about. This is probably the most I'll spend on a meal this year. Hell, the splits of sparkling sake, Ho Ho Shu, we were sharing were $60 a pop. But none of the fish at Masa has been out of the water in which it swam for more than 24 hours - this is your favorite weekend indulgence elevated. It's vacation! It's worth it.

Another don't miss experience in this new section of The Strip is The Chandelier Bar at The Cosmopolitan. Get this, you can have a fancy cocktail inside a massive crystal chandelier. And they're terrific drinks, at that! My favorite was the kafir the reaper - a tasty, tart and sweet mix of kafir lime leaf, ginger ale, vodka, and some of that Vegas sparkle.

I'll have more treats and pics from Vegas next week for you, Big Hungries. For now, I'm going to watch the season finale of The Mindy Project, and reflect on how much fun I was having one week ago tonight, knowing Britney Spears and a pool day lay ahead of us. Vacation is the best thing ever, and I miss it already! Kisses! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!