Back in the day, while attending high school in Rhode Island, I could frequently be found at a friend’s house, particularly in its general kitchen area.
You see, at the time I was living with just my dad, and neither he nor I have been gifted with much culinary talent. However, I seemed to have a knack for finding friends who – or whose parents – loved to cook and loved to feed the skinny little Russian girl. This talent turned me into a mini-scavenger as dinner and sleepover invitations came in.
One such wonderfully welcoming family happened to be Italian, and so my love of bread and pasta blessed them with my company especially often. Yet there was one person who was not particularly happy with my head constantly in the D’Amico fridge, and that was my friend’s little brother.
Inspired by a recently released cinematic gem and summoning all his pre-teen wit, the little punk dubbed me ‘Ivana Eatalot.’
He wasn’t entirely off-base.
You see, I love food. I love hearty, delicious, filling food. Homey and exotic. Sweet and spicy. Italian, Japanese, French, Russian, Thai. One of my favorite things about the US, particularly New York, is its variety of food options to satisfy any taste. And while I appreciate Moscow’s creative interpretation of the global cuisine, there are, sadly, plenty of culinary voids that I have not been able to fill since moving back to this lovely place.
On that account, each trip to the US is an opportunity to make up for lost time and calories. This fine morning is just such an occasion.
In a few hours I will be on a plane to New York City – the land of the best pizza and the home of my favorite restaurant – armed with a culinary itinerary. It is important to be prepared, given the plentitude of options and constraints of time. Below are some highlights of my Must Eat & Drink list.
Let us start with the drinks.
Although Russia does not suffer a shortage of booze options, upon my move here I was heartbroken to discove the total absence of my most favorite beer. I am talking, of course, about Bud Light*. Apparently the Russian beer drinker is allergic to its sweet taste of Freedom, as Anheuser-Busch terminated its Bud Light imports into Russia in 2010 due to dismal sales. They should have waited around for me.
Another drink that’s hard to come by? A proper martini cocktail. Personally, I am partial to a dry vodka martini with a twist and an extra squeeze of lemon, but this really isn’t about execution. For most Russians a martini isn’t a cocktail but a type of liquor, and if you order a martini without detailed instructions, 90% of Moscow bars** will serve up sweet vermouth on the rocks.
Most likely the bartender won’t even know that it’s a vermouth, instead taking Martini – which really is just a brand name – to mean a kind of alcohol. If you order with instructions (“2 parts vodka and 1 part dry vermouth shaken with ice, wedge of lemon in a martini glass”) they will look at you like you are a crazy person and then will serve you the same Martini sweet vermouth on the rocks and a shot of vodka on the side. True story on three separate occasions at three different establishments.
Energy-flavor Vitamin Water, skim milk and Blue Moon – a beer which, as far as I know, has not yet made it into Russia – round out my hydration options for the trip.
My Must Eat list (I literally have a Word doc list to which I add items throughout the year) is rather long, and there are some things on it that I miss more than others, dictating my selection of dining establishments during a Stateside visit.
Thai restaurants are usually at the top of my list as there are few dishes I miss more than Chicken Pad Thai. Although noodle bars are very popular in Moscow, usually the noodles come in a soup form and lean more Japanese than Thai. I’ll add some scallion pancakes to my order while I’m at it. On my last visit those came as little cubes at Beet, a cute Thai joint in Brooklyn’s South Slope.
Next on my list is sushi. Russia’s obsession with crazy rolls has been steadily making me into a sushi purist, but even in my New York days there were not many things I enjoyed more than a plate of thick-cut, extra-fresh salmon sashimi. Yuko, in my old neighborhood, is as unpretentious as a sushi restaurant gets, and one of my favorite spots in the city.
When I have the benefit of a little extra time and advance activities planning, I try to get a reservation at my all-time favorite restaurant – Mario Batali’s Babbo.
Babbo’s Italian fare is a great mix of classic and innovative, and the tasting menu is the best way to sample of its most famous dishes in one sitting. In recent years the place has become a bit of a tourist hangout, but the staff is welcoming, the is just dressy enough to feel fancy but not stuffy, and on the many occasions that I have dined there, I have never had a single bad plate, let alone a bad meal.
One of my sorely missed New York rituals is Sunday Brunch. The tradition of spending a couple of early afternoon hours drowning your hangover in Bloody Marys has not yet caught on in Russia, as far as I can tell. My favorite brunch dish is Salmon Eggs Benedict, which I am yet to see on any Moscow menu.
Since arriving in Moscow I have noticed a growing popularity of avocado as a cooking ingredient. Twenty years ago most Russians probably could not even describe one; today avocados pop up constantly on cooking shows and are available at most large grocery stores. Yet a proper guacamole is just as hard to come by as a proper martini, which earns this dish a pretty high spot on my Must East list.
For dessert I head over to Crumbs Cupcakes – Magnolia is for Sex And The City obsessives willing to spend 45 minutes in line just to choose between vanilla and chocolate. But Crumbs, like the New York City itself, is a treasure chest of delicious options.
Crumbs has the most insane variety of flavors. For example, The Bambino is chocolate cake mixed with peanuts and chocolate chips filled with peanut butter cream cheese and topped with caramel cream cheese edged with peanuts and chocolate chips and Babe Ruth pieces in the center. PB&J cupcake is peanut butter cake filled with strawberry preserves topped with peanut butter cream cheese frosting swirled with strawberry preserves and edged with toasted peanut pieces. And so forth for about 30 more options to pick from.
Lastly, no trip to NYC is complete without grabbing a New York slice. My favorite no-frills pizza comes from Delizia Pizza Kitchen on the Upper East Side but this time around I am keen on trying out something more adventurous, inspired by GrubStreet’s list of 101 Awesome American Pies.
The Hellboy, with fior di latte, tomatoes, hot sopressata, Parmigiano Reggiano, and spicy honey, sounds particularly delicious.
Let the feast begin!
**The remaining 10% are posh expat bars.