Staten Island’s Great Napkin Twirl

If you’re traveling to Staten Island for some reason this year,  there are some new, chic shopping locations springing up in the Forgotten Borough, and no shortage of spectacular Italian food for you to sample. While the Island has its rough edges, we have been visiting for years and have always found that the excellent dining options smooth them all out – in fact, I’ve never had a bad meal on Staten Island.

Recently, I visited Patrizia’s, on Amboy Road in SI’s Eltingville neighborhood, and my impression of the Island’s superiority in Italian restaurants was reinforced. This strip mall outlet of the Brooklyn-based, family-owned mini-chain was bursting at the seams already at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, and by the time we left, there were probably 25 more families just waiting for a table. It’s tough to inspire a fan base like that in today’s crowded restaurant market, but our dinner at Patrizia’s proved to be waiting-in-line-worthy.

You’re most likely going to notice two big components of having a good time at Patrizia’s before your first course even arrives at your table. First of all, this restaurant has maybe the coolest, most raucous birthday procedure ever. At least nine times during our meal, a loud birthday song came over the speakers in the dining room, and patrons twirled their napkins in the air at just about every table as the wait staff sung along to the guest of honor. It was incredibly fun and fostered a familial atmosphere in the room. When a patron at a neighboring table thwacked me in the head with his napkin, I even hugged him. Second, that wait staff is almost entirely comprised of charming young men straight from Italy. They speak Italian and have charming accents, and if that doesn’t set the scene for authentic continental fare, I don’t know what does.

As one of the members of our party was a vegetarian, we started our meal with the buffalo mozzarella with caponata and cherry tomatoes. But before that dish even came, we received a big basket of crusty bread with wonderful, seasoned dipping oil and a family style salad made with mixed greens plus red onion, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers so vibrant they may have been rendered in Technicolor. Passing that salad around the table immediately underscored the family feel – what a smart way to have every table feeling the love straight away.

The demi-lunes of buffalo mozzarella on our appetizer plate were achingly fresh and milky, while the caponata – a mix of roasted and marinated red bell peppers, onions, zucchini, and eggplant – was sugary sweet and velvety. Fresh cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper completed the plate and added a different note of both sweetness and acidity. This was a big platter of treats, too, not some skimpy, three slices of cheese and a quarter cup of veg affair. There was plenty of stunning food for all five of us.

After another rousing rendition of the birthday song, our entrees arrived. Among the standouts were the house made potato gnocchi with pesto. Gnocchi are often described as pillows, but these really were ethereal and lighter than air – soft puffs of earthy potato enrobed in a verdant green sauce smacking of fresh basil and anchored by the nuttiness of good parmigiana cheese. Of the dishes we ordered, this one may have been the most simple, but the vegetarian of our group found it ticked all her boxes for a successful dish.

On special the night we dined at Patrizia’s was a squid ink linguine with seafood and olives in a light red sauce. This gorgeous dish was colorful, soulful, and jam-packed with massive shrimp and smaller clams. The seafood was perfectly cooked and bursting with the salinity of the sea, while the tomatoes were bright and acidic and the black and green olives provided earthy flavors. The pasta, house made with squid ink, was jet black and while not fishy at all, underscored the oceanic notes of the dish.

Spaghetti all’ amatriciana is a simple Roman dish comprised of a sauce made with tomatoes, onions, and bacon. I’ve made this sauce myself, which is both hearty and light, as the tomato base tends to be rendered with fresh tomatoes rather than a long-cooked, paste-enriched gravy. This was hands down the best version of it I’ve ever tasted. The sweetness of the onions, the saltiness of the pancetta, and the sweet/sharp flavor of fresh tomatoes all mingled perfectly in the chunky sauce to bathe the al dente spaghetti in huge flavor that hit every taste bud with a punch. I would order this dish time and time again.

We just had to segue straight into the dessert portion of our evening. Our two favorites were the zabaglione, a creamy, cold ice-cream-like dish of custard flavored with marsala wine and topped with raspberry sauce. The zabaglione was light in texture but rich in flavor, and not too sweet – a perfect ending to a decadent meal.

The panna cotta was also very light, but this one was topped with chocolate sauce and powdered sugar. We loved its silken texture and creamy finish on the palate, and it wasn’t too sweet, either – just perfectly balanced between milky and sugary without going overboard into toothache territory.

One of the most spectacular attributes about all our food at Patrizia’s was the visual feast every single dish provided in addition to its taste. The colors were vibrant and alive on each plate – this is no standard red sauce joint. The other commendation was the atmosphere, which was almost electric in feel, but still, somehow, relaxing. Many trendier, big city restaurants have turned the lights way down and the music way up to achieve a night club-esque feel in the name of ambiance, but here, it’s all about family. The dining room was bright and open, and between the birthday celebrations erupting every few minutes and the jovial disposition of every single member of the wait staff who visited our table (there were at least five throughout the meal), we felt welcome. There isn’t much hospitality left in the hospitality business these days, but Patrizia’s, in Staten Island, is serving it up in spades.  


Travel Guide: San Antonio

San Antonio would not normally be high on my vacation list. I visited recently for work, but luckily, they plunked us right in the heart of the tourist district, because the convention center happens to be built right over the river that makes the city's famed Riverwalk possible. It turns out that San Antonio is actually one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and I don't know if that's because the economy is booming while the cost of living is low, or because everybody's obsessed with guacamole, but that growth means many good things for visitors - be they for business or pleasure. 

So I visited The Alamo, and yes, I remembered it, too. I even did the Riverwalk boat cruise, which takes you the length of this attraction, lined with restaurants, museums, hotels, and more. I did laugh when the guide told us all about how busy the Shops at Rivercenter Mall is, however; I'm a seasoned shopper, and that mall held very few stores of interest for any real retail therapy.

Because my hotel, the Marriott Riverwalk, was right on the body of water for it's named, I spent much of my free time along this picturesque canal. BTW, the hotel is pretty great, if you're looking for a place to stay. The HVAC in my room was a little loud, but the bathroom was clean and modern, the bed was good, and I must say, the heuvos rancheros I had two mornings in a row in the dining room downstairs were very impressive for a hotel restaurant.

The first night in town, my colleague Jess and I visited Casa Rio, the oldest Mexican restaurant along the Riverwalk. It was muggy outside, so even though there's boucoup patio seating, we took shelter within the cool, thick adobo walls for a very authentic Tex-Mex feast.

We were charmed by the mariachi band and the flavorful, mildly spicy queso alike. The fresh tortilla chips were thin and delightfully crispy, and the guacamole was simple but perfectly fresh - no premade dips here. I ordered the Commerce Street Tacos, which were tiny, doubled up corn tortillas filled with piquant, well-seasoned beef picadillo. They were topped with melty, mild cheese and served with pinto beans in a light tomatoey sauce and fluffy rice. This was simple food in a clearly historic setting, and I give it a seven on the BHS scale. 

Night two, we hit up the Iron Cactus, a little more high end on the Riverwalk Mexican eats scale. Iron Cactus is - GASP - a chain in Texas, something I'm usually against, but I'd eaten at the Austin location, and knew it was good. This time, we enjoyed a seat on the patio and enjoyed the somewhat less humid evening.

Our sweet and fun waitress Susie mixed us up one of the more unique tableside guacamoles I've ever had for our appetizer. It had not only lime juice, but also fresh squeezed orange juice in it, plus garlic powder instead of the bite of fresh minced garlic. We absolutely loved it, along with the complimentary hot, roasted chile salsa, and sweeter, cold, fresh salsa and chips.

I ordered the shrimp tacos for dinner, and was pretty damn happy with the sweet, succulent shrimp that weren't overcooked by even a hair, but were savory and topped with crunchy cabbage slaw, bright cilantro, and sharp and creamy lime crema. The black beans were very well seasoned, and if I hadn't eaten so much guac, I may have even eaten a respectable amount of them. As ever, I was underwhelmed by the Mexican rice - I'm always looking for this staple side to be more flavorful, and this, like most, was pretty plain. Honestly, though, I had enough great food to keep my stomach busy with no rice at all. It was a throw-away. I don't typically score chains, but Iron Cactus is a seven in my book. 

The next day, I met my buddy Laura at Rosario's, a San Antonio institution recommended by some of my Skimm'bassador sisters online. Rosario's is not on the Riverwalk, but it IS absolutely crawling with locals, which is just one of the attributes recommending it for your visit. Another? This totally baller posole soup, which is a chile-laced, lip smacking bowl of pork, hominy, and gentle heat that you enrich yourself with a small plate of fixings like fresh chiles, lime wedges, and diced radishes. It was rich, bright, full flavored and absolutely a taste of Mexico you don't find at your run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex spot.

Because I never know when enough is enough, I also demolished the pulled chicken puffy tacos, which are nestled in fresh flour tortillas that are deep fried so they puff up into crispy pillows for a mound of savory, juicy shredded chicken meat bathed in a tomato and chile sauce, with shredded cheese and a shower of lettuce. Refried beans, served on the side, were 100% made with lard and you know what? Praise the pig for that, because they were creamy and earthy and just slightly sweet - the ideal of what beans aspire to be. Roasario's earns a solid eight on my BHS scale.

OK, one last night in town, and one last recommendation for your San Antonio trip. Back on the Riverwalk, I dined alone at Boudro's Texas Bistro, one of the premier restaurants along the river. This elegant gem has an old world, French country feel on this inside, but I braved the intense early evening heat and was spoiled on the patio by my congenial waiter, who never let my icy glass of water (or the one of Grey Goose and soda, for that matter) slip towards empty.

I enjoyed the massive cauldron on shrimp and grits I ordered immensely. Not only were there chunks of smoky bacon in the stunning, savory sauce studded with poblano chiles and scallions, but the shrimp were plump and sweet, and the grits were stone ground and rustic. This was a gorgeous, lovingly crafted dish, and you should get it into your mouth as soon as possible.

For dessert, I shoveled in the toasted nut brittle ice cream with hot fudge. The fudge sauce wasn't too thick nor was there too much of it, so the praline-like brittle was really the star of this dish. Huge, whole cashews, hazelnuts, and pecans were coated in crunchy candy and made for a textural delight with the sweet ice cream. This was a masterful dish. I would give Boudro's a nine on the BHS scale.

San Antonio's Riverwalk is a much more charming experience than I expected. There are waterfalls and nooks all along the route that take you by surprise and bely the hoards of tourists while beckoning you to enjoy yourself and slow down. In addition to all these terrific restaurants, I enjoyed shopping at the Shops at La Villita, a small shopping village located just up the river a bit from Casa Rio. These former Spanish soldiers' huts now house galleries, handmade jewelry studios and really fun little clothing and art shops. I highly recommend this local shopping over what you'll find at the River Center. I hope you find as much to savor in San Antonio as I did! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!