Taking stock of 2015’s “smaller” memories

We’re prone to remembering a specific year as it relates to capital “E” Events: weddings, funerals, new jobs and new homes. For me, this past year was filled with these sorts of moments–the kind of memories that are solid, unshakable, impossible to forget.

When I took mental stock of my year, other memories pulsed too. Floating, fleeting images of beautiful vistas, honest conversations, important realizations and carefree nights out in the city. They were swaying and scattered, but these memories also felt heavy and resonant. They begged for permanence, for me to assign them a degree of importance.

I remembered an intense realization from the fall. It came on suddenly, as I stared absentmindedly out the window of my office after a particularly defeating day. I work in a large downtown skyscraper, and from my perch, I have a view of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and parts of eastern New Jersey. The sun had recently lowered itself behind the horizon, and the sky was an inky blue-black streaked with the remnants of a citrusy sunset. I looked out over the clouds above Newark and saw nearly half a dozen twinkling lights lined up in formation near the city. These were planes waiting to land at Newark airport; I’d seen them dozens of times. Today was different, though. I can’t quite explain why, but the sight of these planes–all perfectly arranged in a row, exhibiting the artistry of the modern ballet that is air travel–felt like a metaphor for the possibility of life. Hundreds of people on those 6 planes alone were coming from cities as divergent as Stockholm and Dubai and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands more were circumnavigating the globe at that exact moment, their airplanes dotting the earth like a swarm of bees around a hive. These travelers were seeing relatives, lovers, flying to new jobs, to vacation destinations, to a new home. They represented movement, and newness, and change, and discovery. They were flying over the North Pole, over treacherous terrain in the Yukon and Siberia–unforgiving landscapes which had bested explorers only a century earlier. 100 years! A yoctosecond in the eyes of the universe, and look how far we’ve come. The planes’ rote lineup took on a sudden miraculousness in my eyes. And did I mention I really REALLY hate to fly?

Granted, this wasn’t a particularly profound realization by any means, but I let the spiritedness of it carry me away. I was a part of this new humanity, this new complexity, and that put an annoying workday into perspective. I know it’s not a wedding or a funeral, but I hope that, many years from now, I can remember that day in the office and what it felt like to be my age, living in this city at this moment in time.

A thought that could have been fleeting was transformed into “memory currency.”

In the spirit of giving weight to these “smaller”, but no-less-important memories, I’ve compiled a list of New York specific-moments that helped shape my year.

Bourbon free-for-all at the closing of Char No. 4: When beloved restaurant Char No. 4 sent out an email that they were closing AND selling off all of their rare and top-shelf bourbon for $6 a pour, the city’s entire bourbon-loving community converged on their bar within the hour. People were sad to see them go, but I’d also never witnessed such earnest giddiness from adults. The bartenders, ready to empty stock, were pouring generously, from bottles that retail for hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars. Customers were ordering 2, 4 pours at a time, sampling bourbon they’d probably never again be able to savor. Everyone was trading tips and calling out favorites, lending the place a sense of intimacy rare for a bar in NYC. “It’s better than Christmas,” the preppy dude next to me and my husband said. He, like everyone else, was grinning like a toddler.

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Perfect summer day in Brooklyn: I’m not sure how one makes a carefree summer Saturday stick out among the rest. It’s just that sometimes, everything falls into place. It helps if you haven’t made elaborate plans with too-high-to-meet expectations. This particular day wasn’t all that unique, but it included a delicious brunch at Rose Water, a relaxing visit to the Brooklyn Museum, a stroll in Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a nighttime rock concert in Prospect Park. Every single destination was within a 10-15 minute walk from our apartment. It’s a cliche to say so in this era of worldwide Brooklyn obsessiveness, but the borough can be pretty fucking incredible.

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Afterwork walks on the water: It’s hard to remember now, in the dead of winter, but there was a time when this city was warm and sunny and when walks in Hudson River Park were an integral part of my commute. If I left work at just the right time, I could see a heavy blazing sun extend out over the river and blanket the city in the softest, most heavenly light. Everything and everyone caught in it looked glowing, hazy, and magical. It was a lovely dichotomy, of which New York has many: the heaviness and grandeur of these tall buildings of industry fronted by the breezy landscape of the light and the water. Soft, sensual edges and a heart of steel and stone.

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Christmas Eve in the city: We started with soup dumplings, pork shoulder and lo mein at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe, moved on to a few relaxed beers at Randolph Beer Bar nearby, walked across town to Washington Square Park for holiday revelry and Christmas carols (and a Neil Patrick Harris sighting), and then on to famed piano bar Marie’s Crisis for three hours of Broadway, Disney and Christmas sing-alongs and ended with a mezcal-and-tres-leches-cake nightcap at 24-hour Cuban diner, Coppelia. The city pulsed with a restrained, almost small-town buzz on Christmas Eve. It felt slightly off-kilter, but in way where you feel as though something out of the ordinary might happen. People were out, but they were reveling in the low-keyness of the streets. The city was almost ours that night; most nights we share it with the world. Inside Marie’s Crisis, we and an eclectic cast of characters (off-duty Broadway types, fashion and culture writers, bedecked songstresses) belted out favorites like “Suddenly Seamore” and “Seasons of Love” as though we were all fast friends who’d decided to share one large karaoke room. At Coppelia, an equally eclectic (but in a different way) crowd dug into piles of modern Latin comfort food. Some were having Christmas Eve dinner, others were on dates. The music was blaring. It was past midnight. On the subway home, the car was packed with Orthodox and Hasidic Jews–women included–frayed from a night out. They wore neon-colored club entrance wristbands. The city was theirs for a night too.

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NYC Do’s and Don’ts: A Guide for Visitors

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Do’s

Do: Buy an unlimited ride 7-day MetroCard (good for all subways and non-express busses) if you’re visiting for 4 or more days. At $31 plus a $1 new card fee, it’s more than worth it for ease, convenience, and peace of mind. Check mta.info before you head out so you’re aware of services changes.

Do: Try not to feel flustered if the local subway train starts going express or if your A train starts running on the F line with no prior warning. Being inconvenienced by train troubles unites all of us as New Yorkers. You’re now this much closer to feeling like a local.

Do: Ask strangers for directions. In fact, ask a few people to get a consensus. Some commuters only know their specific route, so they might give inaccurate advice sometimes. I definitely sent a few British tourists to the opposite of where they needed to be my first few weeks in NYC. Whoops, my bad.

Do: Eat a slice of pizza, folded, while standing against a counter. Here are a few places to try.

Do: Get out of Manhattan and visit an ethnic enclave in an outer borough. New York City is composed of 5 distinct boroughs, so make sure to explore outside the postcard-y center of Manhattan in order to see how the city’s 8 million-plus residents really live. Try Asian enclaves in Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn; the Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; or the Himalayan, Indian, and South American section of Jackson Heights, Queens.

Do: Follow subway etiquette. Take off your backpack on a full train (seriously, it hurts when it digs into my back), don’t hog the pole, etc. This is a crowded city so be mindful of everyone’s personal space by trying to take up as little room as possible.

Do: Go on a long walk with no set destination. (Be mindful of your surroundings, obviously.)

Do: Go to a Broadway or an Off-Broadway show. There’s a kinetic energy to the theater scene in New York.

Do: Devote half a day to exploring Central Park, especially if you’re blessed with good weather. It’s the size of a small city, and every section has its own vibe.

Do: Pick a spot to people watch and park yourself there for at least an hour or so. A bench in Washington Square Park or one on the Mall in Central Park are two of my favorite spots.

Do: Find a nice perch for sunset. They may be crowded, but Top of the Rock and One World Observatory offer some of the best views.

Do: Dress up and go out to a nice meal, if it’s in your budget. The dressing up part is key–you’ll feel a part of the only-in-NYC nighttime energy. Here are a few restaurants at which to make a reservation. If a fancy meal is out of reach, try a fancy cocktail at one of these spots.

Do: Chat up your bartender if you’re at a low-key spot. It’s not often easy to engage with strangers in New York (as mentioned above, we’re really into maintaining some semblance of personal space), but there are plenty of moments for connection. These can include a shared smile with a fellow subway rider at something ridiculous, or a quick laugh with your bartender. The latter is why my husband and I love eating at the bar at nice restaurants.

Do: Tip good street performers. NYC is filled with world-class musicians, and you’re by no means obliged to tip, but if you enjoyed the music, why not show your appreciation? Please note that busking on an actual subway car is illegal, so you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty for not tipping there.

Do: Walk with purpose if you’re in a crowded spot like Midtown. You’re allowed to stroll, of course, but if you’re going to walk slowly, please move to the outskirts of the sidewalk.

Do: Keep your eyes open. NYC rewards the observant. There’s a surprise lurking around every corner.

Do: Let yourself fall in love with the city. And you will, I can almost guarantee it. (Unless you’re not a city person, in which case, we’re sorry someone dragged you here.)

Don’ts

Don’t: Take anything that’s offered to you on the street, especially CDs or any kind of “peace” medallions. Better to even ignore those handing out seemingly harmless flyers. The two exceptions are free daily papers and weekly magazines–AM New York is handed out each morning and Time Out New York is distributed on Wednesdays only–and free samples given out by businesses outside their storefronts.

Don’t: Try to see everything that’s on offer at the Met museum in one day. Pick a few sections of particular interest and spend a few hours there. I’m of the mind that no person, unless they’re an aficionado, can look at art for more than three hours or so in a single day without getting art-appreciation fatigue.

Don’t: Assume that ballet or opera tickets are out of reach. I once snagged $10 orchestra seats to a New York City Ballet production. The interiors of the various Lincoln Center theaters are something to behold.

Don’t: Get on an empty subway car on an otherwise crowded train. No, you did not luck out; it’s empty for a reason.

Don’t: Stare at people doing strange things. If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, let them be.

Don’t: Stay somewhere or near someone next to whom you feel uncomfortable for the sake of being polite. If that same person doing strange things is making you feel at all uneasy, move elsewhere. Trust your instinct, and if the worst that happens is someone thinks you’re rude, that’s a pretty good outcome.

Don’t: Walk in a park after dark. For the larger parks, like Central and Prospect, yes, it’s a safety issue, but for all parks it’s a rats issue. There are so many rats. It’s like that rat crypt scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but seriously, it’s gross.

Don’t: Be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Whether it’s trying lengua (tongue) tacos in the back of a Mexican grocery or belting out musical theater tunes at a piano bar like Marie’s Crisis, this city is the place to break free of your inhibitions.

Don’t: Leave without making plans to come back. We’ll miss you. Don’t be a stranger.

My Most Frequented Pizza Spots

It’s known the world over that New Yorkers love to complain. We love our city, but man, the weather, and the traffic, and those annoying tourists, and is that new upstairs neighbor a saw musician? Get a New Yorker talking about the city’s most famed food and the complaining will quickly be replaced with unabashed bragging. We’re the best at pizza. THE BEST. (NYC! NYC!) Here, it’s pretty much an essential food group. Along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and dairy, a thin, crispy slice of cheese (and sometimes sausage or pepperoni) is part of a well-balanced diet. When you live here, you learn to crave it. I rarely go a week or two without eating at least a slice. Below are the places I crave and frequent most.

1. Prince St. Pizza: Have you seen a more beautiful Sicilian slice in your life? The charred pepperoni, the crispy crust–it makes me want to weep. This perpetually crowded spot is in the heart of Soho, perfect for a quick stop when shopping nearby. It’s by far the slice I crave most. (I’m a little obsessed.)

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2. Williamsburg Pizza: This standout joint with locations in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side features quality ingredients and a showcase crust.

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3. Joe’s Pizza: Everyone knows Joe’s. It’s been the place to go for a standard NYC slice since 1975. It’s STILL the place to go in 2015.

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4. Don Antonio by Starita: The signature lightly deep-fried “Pizze Frette” pie at this Midtown restaurant is outstanding, but the “Pistacchio e Salccisia,” a white pie with pistachio pesto and sausage, is the dish I lust after.

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Pizze Frette at Don Antonio by Starita. Courtesy of Garrett Ziegler, Flickr.com. Made available via Creative Commons license.

5. Giuseppina’s: A sort-of offshoot of the impossible-to-get-into Lucali (it’s run by the Lucali owner’s brother), this spot has the freshest ingredients and a quintessential NYC crust that’s not too crackery.

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6. Franny’s: Manhattan crowds park their fancy cars outside this popular Park Slope spot to sample some of the best Neapolitan pies this side of Naples. I’ve been to nearly every buzzy Neapolitan establishment in the city, and I still think Franny’s, which opened 11 years ago, serves the airiest, most flavorful pizza with the best crust. Do you see the clam juice, garlic, parsley, chiles and olive oil marinating on that pie? So freakin’ delicious.

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7. Barboncino: Featuring large and tasty Neapolitan pies in a festive atmosphere, this Crown Heights restaurant is an ideal destination for a low-key date night.

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8. Totonno’s: This throwback coal oven-baked pie, made from the same recipe for nearly a century, is a near-perfect iteration of a classic NYC pizza.

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How to Enjoy the Last Few Days of Summer

I see you, girl in brand new trench coat, trying to season jump because you’re ready for fall. Listen, just because you want to show off all those chunky sweaters doesn’t mean summer’s over. Chill, okay? Fall doesn’t technically begin until September 23rd. That’s a whole week away! And have you seen the forecast? Sunny skies and 80-plus degree temps for days. It might as well be August! I’m no fool, though. I know these moments are incredibly short-lived. Cherish them, friends. Remember the carefree days of June, when the season held so much promise? Relive those times with warm-weather treats that’ll have you thinking summer will never end.

1. Ice cream sandwich at Genuine Superette: One of the most memorable desserts I’ve eaten recently–I had it twice in three days–this sandwich from the Little Italy roadside-style take out joint is a feat of engineering. I’ve written about the traditional gelato sandwich before, but this is different somehow. Better. The bread is warm, but the ice cream (from Brooklyn-based OddFellows Ice Cream Co.) stays perfectly cold. The texture of the ice cream–which is slightly creamier than milky gelato–seems to work better with the airiness of the brioche. There are toppings, too! The below had toasted coconut and hot fudge and was paired with a chocolate chunk flavor. My favorite, though, was an extra virgin olive oil ice cream, balsamic caramel and strawberry jam concoction.

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2. Frozen negroni at Alta Linea: Creating a frozen version of a beloved cocktail can be a dangerous proposition. One misstep and you’re in spring-break-overly-sweet-frozen-margarita territory. The folks behind High Line Hotel courtyard eatery Alta Linea nailed it. With help from kings of the gourmet slushie, Kelvin Slush Co., they created a frozen drink every bit as nuanced as the over-ice original. It’s all there: the bitterness of the Campari, the refreshing crispness of the gin, the slight sweetness of the red vermouth and tang of the freshly squeezed orange juice.

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3. Oysters at Grand Banks: You only have until the end of October (weather permitting) to sip cocktails and slurp oysters on a gorgeous wooden schooner like you’re inside your very own Grey Goose commercial. Seriously, look at that setup. It’s almost always crowded, but the operation is efficient and the staff, accommodating. Fall sunsets tend to be some of the year’s prettiest, so I’d advise an early evening visit.

Photographed by Doug Lyle Thompson; courtesy of Grand Banks

Photographed by Doug Lyle Thompson; courtesy of Grand Banks

4. Poke at Seamore’s: This airy new Little Italy seafood spot from the guys behind perpetually popular Meatball Shop turns out a refreshing Hawaiian poke (pronounced “okay”) that’s as transportive as it is delicious. Made with a rotating fish–ours was ahi tuna–avocado, peanuts and sesame seeds, tossed with ponzu and served with tortilla chips, this app is quintessential après-beach fare.

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New York City Travel Guide, Summer 2015

Planning a first-ever trip to any city can be daunting. In New York City, especially, the options can seem endless. To make things a tad easier, I’ve highlighted some of the best restaurants, drinks spots, snack destinations and attractions in this manageable guide (updated and reinvented since I last posted in 2013), which can be used as a resource for first-time visitors. It will also probably be useful to those coming for the second, third and fourth time. Have I left off more than a few favorites for the sake of brevity? Absolutely. I’m pretty sure, however, that if you utilize this post–and have at least a few days of sunshine–you’ll enjoy a pretty good, if not a downright amazing time in The Wonder City.

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Totonno’s: Recently named “Best Pizza in America” by The Food Network, this Coney Island family joint has been churning out perfectly charred NYC-style pies for over 90 years. (pictured above)

Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue: This mini chain is great ambassador for the city’s barbecue revolution. The brisket never disappoints.

Ivan Ramen: New-fangled ramen meets a creative apps menu at this Lower East Side restaurant.

Katz’s Delicatessen: Don’t even think about ordering anything other than a pastrami sandwich at this New York institution.

Al di la Trattoria: As popular as ever, this Park Slope, Brooklyn restaurant does rustic Italian right. If the wait is long, check out the sister wine bar next door, which features the same menu.

Comodo: The eclectic menu at this homey-yet-upscale Soho eatery features dishes influenced by the cuisines of Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

Decoy: Snag a reservation at this subterranean West Village restaurant for the best prix fixe Peking duck dinner of your life.

Rose Water: Unlike most eateries, where the brunch menu is an afterthought, this Park Slope, Brooklyn greenmarket-centric restaurant gives the spliced meal the respect it deserves.

Grand Banks: Yes, this boat-restaurant docked at a pier in Lower Manhattan is sceney, but the food and drinks are legit and the vistas can’t be beat.

Pok Pok NY: This popular spot slings authentic, expertly spiced Thai (try the wings!) in Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront District.

J.G. Melon: This pub with plenty of character offers thick, griddle-cooked burgers on the Upper East Side. Though a second recently opened location in the Village has worked hard to translate the original’s charm, it’s still worth it to trek Uptown.

Cherche Midi: The steaks and burger are the stars at this expansive upscale bistro on the Bowery, but save room for equally rich apps and sides like pot de fromage and roasted cauliflower.

Fu Run: Take the 7 train to Flushing, Queens for inventive Northern Chinese cuisine popular with neighborhood locals.

Upland: Fresh California cuisine has made this large, airy restaurant on Park Avenue South the talk of the town.

Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter: Sweet tea-marinated fried chicken satisfies hungry diners on the cheap in the far East Village.

Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna: Eating fresh porgy at this Astoria, Queens taverna is the second-best option to hopping a not-so-quick flight to the Greek Isles.

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Leyenda: An inventive menu of pastel-colored tequila and rum cocktails have made this Cobble Hill, Brooklyn watering hole one of the most hyped bars of the summer.

Hotel Delmano: Mingle with nouveau Brooklyn bohemians at this dimly lit, romantic cocktail bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Met Roof Café and Martini Bar: If you’re already going to be at the Met, take an elevator to the roof for a glass of Cava and a stunning view of the city skyline surrounding Central Park.

Spuyten Duyvil: There’s a serious beer menu at this low-key Williamsburg, Brooklyn bar with expansive backyard.

Maison Premiere: The $1 and $1.25 oyster happy hour here is amazing (get there before 5 p.m. to snag a seat!), as is the lush outdoor garden. The complex cocktails, at a relatively affordable price, make this Williamsburg, Brooklyn spot as a must-try.

Weather Up: An upscale Prospect Heights, Brooklyn cocktail den that somehow manages to be as cozy as any neighborhood bar. (pictured above)

Mayahuel: Mezcal is the star at this moody East Village duplex bar.

Marshall Stack: A no-frills Lower East Side drinks spot with a varied beer selection and tasty bites.

International Bar: An often-crowded East Village institution where people from all walks of life mingle over cheap drinks.

June: A perfect date night post, this Cobble Hill, Brooklyn natural wine bar offers eclectic pours and small plates in a beautiful setting.

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Russ & Daughters: This Lower East Side temple to appetizing has been churning out the best smoked fish in NYC for 100 years.

Absolute Bagels: A perfect crust and a chewy interior make the bagels at this Morningside Heights joint the best in the city. (pictured above)

Gray’s Papaya: Cheap grilled hot dogs with plenty of snap and fresh papaya drinks are the draw at this all-night Upper West Side institution.

El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette: This Lower East Side spot is the place to catch model-types filling up on healthy-but-inovative dishes like charred radicchio with ricotta, hazelnut and mint.

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream: A draw for adventurous dessert eaters, this Lower East Side ice cream bar features flavors like durian banana and Black Strap rum.

Joe’s Pizza: This quintessential New York slice at this no-frills West Village stomping ground is beloved by celebrities and locals alike.

Taïm: The falafel at this West Village matchbook-size shop is amazing, but so is the sabich sandwich–a pita filled with charred eggplant, hard boiled egg, Israeli salad and other healthful toppings. A second location in SoHo offers the same menu.

Sullivan St. Bakery: Fresh sandwiches, salads, breads, pizzas and delicious desserts (get a bombolino!) keep the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen locations hopping all day long.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Drool-inducing pie flavors like strawberry balsamic and chocolate chess make this super popular Gowanus, Brooklyn destination a believe-the-hype kind of spot.

Doughnut Plant: I’ve written plenty about these doughnuts because they really are that good. The crème brûlée-filled doughseed and the peanut butter-and-banana cream yeast doughnut are a few of my favorites at the Lower East Side flagship.

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One World Observatory: The recently opened One World Trade Center skyscraper features the city’s newest observatory, where you can marvel at the country’s most impressive skyline from tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Central Park: Manicured lawns, rolling hills, sun-strewn vistas–you could spend an entire day wandering around this urban oasis. (pictured above)

Whitney: The museum’s inaugural exhibit at its new Meatpacking District location features a survey of their permanent America art collection, and is not to be missed. The outdoor spaces on each level provide bird’s-eye views of the neighborhood and the harbor.

Coney Island: It’s not summer without at least one visit to this historic urban beach in Brooklyn, which features great people watching, boardwalk eats, an amusement park and minor league baseball.

Broadway show: Seeing a show is a quintessential NYC experience. Hamilton is the production of the season, if you’re able to score tickets.

Colin Huggins at Washington Square Park: If you’re a piano lover, you shouldn’t miss busker Colin Huggins’ free performances of classical piano pieces on an east-side walkway in Washington Square Park. He’s there most weekends. Tip generously!

MoMA or Met: These NYC museums (in Midtown and on the Upper East Side, respectively) are world class. If you’re here for a short visit, pick one–are you a classics person or a modern art person?–and explore for at least two hours.

The High Line: One of my favorite places in NYC, this far west Chelsea train track-turned-elevated park is perfect for an evening stroll. Some of the best examples of modern architecture surround the walkway, and more gawk-worthy buildings have sprouted since the park’s first section opened in 2009.

Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge Park: Gazing at the skylines of both Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn as you meander across the Brooklyn Bridge has been a guidebook must-do for a long time. (For obvious reasons). Pair the walk with a visit to Brooklyn’s expansive and impressive new park on the East River.

East River Ferry or New York Water Taxi: You haven’t seen this city until you’ve seen it from the water. The former lets you zip from Midtown East to Long Island City, Queens to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn and finally, to Wall Street as you take in the views and topography of the city. The latter lets you cruise around Lower Manhattan and to a few stops in Brooklyn. Hop on and hop off for a self-guided food tour; stellar eats can be had just a few blocks from each of the stops.

Yankees or Mets game: Cheer on the boys of summer in the Bronx or Queens. Both stadiums are relatively new and feature updated amenities and next-level dining options.

Tenement Museum: Relive the harrowing stories and tight living quarters of 19th- and turn-of-the-20th century immigrants through guided tours and recreated apartments at this unique Lower East Side museum.

Hudson River Park: I’m rarely more in love with NYC than when I’m strolling along the varied waterfront that makes up this diverse park. For a true adventure, start at 59th St. and walk all the way to Battery Park at the tip of the island.

(Check out my archived New York posts for more ideas!)

The Sweet Life in Rome

The past in Rome is like a living organism tethered to the city. It’s literally ever-present. Hidden behind nearly every turn is a thousands-year-old monument, a visual testament to the city’s eternal grandeur and complicated legacy. It’s easy to marvel at the feats of the ancient engineers of the Colosseum, but then you remember the bloodshed and the horror. You envision the fear in the gladiators’ eyes, the murderous glee in those of the spectators. But “it’s so beautiful,” you think, and so inescapably modern. There are grand lessons to be learned from this, I’m sure. Something about humanity’s dual nature. Why were we–still are–capable of such violence? Big questions. Complicated answers. The city is more than a history lesson, though. There’s life here. It pulses through every winding curve and swims among the cobblestones. It’s alive in the Romans themselves, whose passion for their city informs everything about it. There’s a magic here that’s hard to put into words. It’s most evident at night, when the bright green ivy bristles on the ochre stucco of the ancient neighborhoods and the fountains glow holy in the piazzas. The wine is cheap, the food indulgent and unpretentious. It hooks you. After we returned from our trip, a relative, now in her eighties, said the following wonderfully poignant thing: “We thought we’d see the world, but we kept going back to Rome.”

There are imperfections, too. Rome doesn’t have the picturesque elegance of Paris or the renovated facade of Madrid. It’s just a tad rough around the edges, especially outside the touristy areas. Locals complain about basic services. Pedestrians fight with Fiats and Vespas for street dominance. But the undeniable beauty of Rome, my god. And the permanence afforded to it by its history. It feels truly eternal. A place that was, is, will forever be.

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From top: Chicory fettuccine and bucatini all’amatriciana; the Pantheon at night; the streets of Trastevere; the Colosseum; the Roman Forum; rigatoni carbonara at Perilli in Testaccio; ruins and Il Vittoriano; a view of Il Vittoriano from the American Bar at the Hotel Forum; steep steps; the Spanish Steps from above; charcuterie and wine dinner near Piazza Navona; Campo d’Fiori; anchovy and zucchini blossom pizza at Dar Poeta in Trastevere; Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere; a Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto; beautiful streets; cheese and anchovy-stuffed fried zucchini blossoms in the Jewish Ghetto; the Great Synagogue; the Pantheon oculus; Villa Borghese, Rome’s main park; drinking wine on our roof; the view from our rooftop; cheap, delicious gelato all over Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the gardens of the Vatican; Roman streetscape; Pizzarium near the Vatican; a bookstore with an amazing selection of vintage Italian posters, around the corner from Pizza Navona; the lovely, winding streets of Rome

An Ode to the Tourist

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Image via THOR, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license

What do you get when you distill travel to its essence? Is it experiencing new cultures? Or, getting outside of yourself and your routine? Or maybe, is it, at its core, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes? Travel can be life-affirming in the best possible way: sweeping vistas and exotic foods–a new breeze under a new sun. Those are the ideals of travel. The reality, while often still pleasurable and picturesque, can also be frustrating and rage-inducing. It’s trying to figure out what a gate agent is saying when there’s been a flight delay or accidentally ending up in the wrong part of the city after you’ve misread a map. (Actually, the latter can be quite serendipitous if you don’t have elsewhere to be.) It’s tempting to think it’s just us Americans who stick out so prominently when abroad. But everyone, no matter how cultured or worldly, is a tourist when they’re away from home.

The idea of tourism as shared experience is heartening and can be, at times, liberating. Once you realize you’re in the same boat as all other travelers, your insecurities can melt away. On a recent trip to Italy I saw a group of hip young French girls eating at a cozy trattoria, a supersize Lonely Planet guide unabashedly propped on their table. I often try to read guidebooks inconspicuously so my husband and I aren’t branded *TOURISTS* without being given a chance to adapt to the local culture, but seeing theirs so prominently displayed made me say “who cares?” On a day trip to Florence, we spotted another young French traveler who was flummoxed by the Italian word for “check.” She had thought she said it correctly, but the waiter was confused. I felt for her as I had, on our first day in the country, said muy bueno (“very good” in Spanish) instead of molto bene (“very good” in Italian) when asked how a certain dish tasted. It was a slip of the tongue for which I have no explanation. This is what travel is, though–it’s bumbling, self-effacing, humbling. So much of travel writing is devoted to telling us how to blend in with the locals, either by way of what we’re wearing or how we speak or which places we choose to dine. But this “blending in” tends to be ineffective no matter how hard we try. Every expertly pronounced request to a taxi driver to take us to, say, Trastevere (pronounced tras-TEH-ve-ray) or Termini (pronounced TAIR-mee-nee) was coupled with a sense of pride followed by an immediate reality check when he inevitably followed up with an Italian phrase I couldn’t quite decipher.

My husband and I are American; we’re not, nor will we probably ever be, Italian (or French or Spanish). We’re respectful and we’re kind and we’re curious when we travel, but no matter how polished our demeanor, we’ll eventually be found out as tourists (is it the shoes? the haircuts? our excessive smiling?). We are visitors, after all. And it’s okay if they know. Maybe better, even. At a cozy charcuterie spot near Piazza Navona in Rome we met a waitress who was enamored of New York City. She visited once a year and told us about all of her favorite spots. I was thankful she had asked where were from and we were able to answer honestly.

Maybe the essence of travel has something to do with cross-cultural pollination; them learning as much from you as you are from them. As we fumbled through our interactions in Italy, we discovered a lot more about this place we chose to call home for just a little while. We let the ancient Roman ruins and the swaying ivy seep into our bones, the memories settle into our brains as a catalog of our lives. At the end, we were still tourists, yes, but we were more at ease with the city; it was now an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger.

On our last day in Rome I spotted a young American family standing on a bridge on the Tiber river. The mom was wearing a cute sundress, while the dad was outfitted like an American traveler caricature–safari hat, cargo shorts, tube socks and white running shoes. Their bright-eyed children were smiling widely at the dad’s pointed camera. When he was done taking pictures, the dad looked out over the rooftops of the Eternal City. The day was bright and bursting with potential. His contentment was palpable. Here he was, on the trip of a lifetime, with a wife and kids who were just excited as he was. Does it get any better? Were they going to be dining at the grimy, off-the-beaten-path trattorias or spending time with working class locals at suburban markets? Probably not. But they were away from home. And there was beauty to experience. And for them, I think that was enough.

Best Spots for Backyard Cocktails

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Though I’m fairly confident in my NYC expert status, I do have a blind spot: bars. I’m not a big bar hopper. I’m not always aware of the coolest dive bar with the just-surly-enough bartenders or the latest microbrewery bar with the 3 dozen beer taps. I do love well-made cocktails, though. And, I love drinking them outdoors in snazzy backyards come summertime. It’s a quintessential New York warm weather experience. Below, a list of places to check out.

Weather Up: A moody upscale bar in Prospect Heights with delicious, well-priced cocktails. The drinks take a while (a good sign, I think?), but you can wait in the string bulb-lit, verdant backyard, which has ample seating. Thanks to the vegetation and the Brooklyn humidity, it can get muggy back here. Take advantage of the bug spray at the yard’s entrance!

June: This Cobble Hill newcomer is winning fans all over the city. The thoughtful interior is downright beautiful, the small plates are delicious, and the natural wines are unique. The cocktails, which feature uncommon ingredients (just ask and the waitress will explain), are strong and tasty. Did I mention the prices are reasonable? The backyard, which wasn’t completed when things first started to warm up, is now ready for the spotlight.

Leyenda: Cobble Hill seems like the place to drink this summer. This new bar on Smith Street from cocktail maven Julie Rainer and aptly named partner and rising star Ivy Mix, has all the makings of a summer hotspot: an extensive list of creative Latin American-inspired cocktails and punches, tasty small plates from acclaimed chef Sue Torres, and a bare-bones, but pretty backyard perfect for a friend date.

Blueprint: A cozy, low-key place to grab a backyard cocktail in Park Slope. There’s a varied cocktail list with agreeable prices and small plates for soaking up the booze. A comfortable, dates-heavy garden space makes this a very adult, very 30-something place to imbibe. (Park Slope dope!)

Tooker Alley: They take their drinks very seriously at this Prospect Heights watering hole (binder menu, orchid garnishes), but the bar, especially on weekdays is void of pretension. The retro outdoor space with green plastic chair and twinkling lights amps up the casual factor.

Huckleberry Bar: The lush yard at this East Williamsburg cocktail bar is a haven in a not-very-tree-filled part of Brooklyn. They’ve been open for 8 years, so they’ve had some time to hone their craft. Unlike similar establishments that close their yards before midnight, this yard stays open until 1 a.m.

The Raines Law Room: This Flatiron destination is best avoided on weekends, when waits can be cruel. Weekday evenings, though, it’s great for an expertly made, albeit very pricey, cocktail with a friend or date. The back garden is teeny, but lovely.

Maison Premiere: With unique cocktails and the most extensive $1 oyster happy hour in the city, this Williamsburg bar/restaurant fills up fast on weekday afternoons. Get here early, by 5 p.m., to guarantee a spot. The outdoor space, with its pergolas, greenery and white wrought iron tables and chairs is transportive. (Fair warning: mosquitos abound.)

Lavender Lake: Ah, the Gowanus–the polluted waterway that’s attracting loads of development along its banks (only in New York?). What the area does provide is space, and there’s loads of it at this chill, expansive bar. Come early to snag a table with an umbrella and wile away the afternoon with a refreshing cocktail and some fried brussels sprouts.

Mulberry Project: If Maison Premiere transports you to seaside France, the backyard (named La Isla Escondida) at this Little Italy lounge makes you feel as though you’ve hopped a super quick flight to coastal Mexico. Graphic murals, bright green artificial turf, multicolored tile and straw thatch couple with fuchsia and lime-hued cocktails to create a vibe that’s anywhere but NYC.

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

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Low-key vibe and inventive drinks at Leyenda

A retro feel at Tookey Alley

A throwback feel at Tookey Alley

Courtesy of Maison Premiere

Lush greenery at Maison Premiere; courtesy of Maison Premiere

Courtesy of Mulberry Project

An eternal summer vibe at La Isla Escondida; Courtesy of Mulberry Project

Tried and True: Doughnut Plant

In a city that seems obsessed with chasing all that is new and buzzy, a long-running, successful business is almost an anomaly. A business that has been around a while but manages to stay relevant and innovative is nothing short of a miracle. Doughnut Plant Founder Mark Israel first started delivering doughnuts inspired by his grandfather’s recipe to coffee shops around town in 1994. Back then, the doughnuts were made in the middle of the night in a basement bakery and delivered by bicycle, but Mark’s vision was clear: use natural, high quality ingredients to elevate the lowly doughnut to new heights. His burgeoning company became one of the pioneers of the ingredient-obsessed food movement that engulfed NYC in the aughts. (Think: Smorgasburg, food trucks selling natural slushies, fancy hot dogs and nearly every single doughnut place that’s opened since.) The first brick-and-mortar store opened in 2000 on the Lower East Side to long lines and media acclaim. There were no Technicolor glazes or saccharine sprinkles. Mark used fresh fruit sourced from Union Square’s greenmarket and elsewhere, which resulted in unique, artfully prepared doughnuts, like a yeast doughnut smothered in a soft pink glaze made from fresh raspberries, with no artificial colors or flavors. You can actually see chunks of the fruit in the glaze.

Many doughnuts are seasonal, like the strawberry, which is only available for a little while longer while strawberries are still in season. What’s amazing is how well Doughnut Plant is able to execute both yeast and cake doughnuts–two very different pastries that happen to share the same name and well, shape. The Brooklyn Blackout cake doughnut, for example, manages to be both dense and incredibly moist while maintaining a deep, nuanced dark chocolate flavor. It’s filled with fresh chocolate pudding and topped with a heavy hand of chocolate crumbs. On the yeast end of things, the square PB&J doughnut is filled with freshly made jam and coated in a glaze that incorporates large chunks of salty peanuts. The creme brûlée yeast doughnut, the shop’s best-seller, has a vanilla bean cream center and a crackling sugar shell overlaid on a fluffy yeast doughnut hole. You can see the care and thought with which these doughnuts were developed and made. In a sea of copycats and “next best things,” Doughnut Plant is surging forward, with new locations and envelope-pushing innovation (um, hello mole chocolate doughnut). Never change, Doughnut Plant. Never change.

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Courtesy of Doughnut Plant

Favorite Things Lately, Volume 8

1 Stick With Me bonbons: They say when you eat, you engage all of your senses. Prepare for your vision to kick into overdrive. These glossy creations from the pocket Soho confectionary run by a Per Se pastry alum are painted and splattered like mini Jackson Pollocks (if Pollock preferred pastels and skewed toward minimalism). Flavors like crème fraîche strawberry and speculoos s’more ensure your taste buds don’t feel left out. The treats are packaged in adorable book-like boxes. At $3.40 per bonbon, they’re an I-really-REALLY-like-you-so-money’s-no-object gift idea. (Thanks, Kev!)

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2. This ricotta gnocchi recipe: Time-consuming weeknight dinners are for Type A perfectionists and masochists. The rest of us want something simple-ish, fairly healthy, and if possible, delicious. Enter this indulgent ricotta gnocchi recipe from Serious Eats that’s fit for a Sunday feast, but quick enough for a Tuesday night. It takes longer than the 10 minutes touted by the website; it took us about 35 minutes from start to sitting down, bowls in hand. Still, it was a fairly quick prep considering the caliber of the dish. The resulting gnocchi is dreamy–like tasty, buoyant little clouds. The sauce is a key element, so spring for the good stuff, like Rao’s. There you go: simple, delicious, and uh…not super unhealthy? “Not super unhealthy” is my personal food philosophy anyway.

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3. Carpe Donut cider doughnuts: We all know the deal with apple cider doughnuts. You pick them up at the farmer’s market when you want something sweet, and they’re usually tasty but never revelatory. I was prepared for more of the same when I grabbed one of these around 4 p.m. as I felt some “hanger” pangs coming on. Forget everything you thought you knew! These fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts are moist and chewy–an amazing accomplishment considering the perpetual dryness and crumbliness of most cake doughnuts. The outside has an appealing crispness, putting the limp, soggy exterior of most cider doughnuts to shame.

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4. Spring!: It’s here! It’s finally here. And I’m so happy. The trees have turned the most intensely pigmented shade of lemony green. The cherry blossom trees have flowered and blanketed the pavement in romantic little petals. Did I mention that the temperature has been perfect? Mid-70s with clear skies and light winds. I realize these days are fleeting, that before I know it, the penetrating heat and throat-clogging humidity will descend like a dense fog. For now, though, let’s enjoy it, this minuscule, short-lived little season that, for a few brief weeks, turns NYC into the most beautiful city in the world.

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