Trillin tour takes bites of Big Apple

Writer leads followers through New York streets on culinary pilgrimage

October 09, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - On a dazzling Sunday morning people stare as Calvin Trillin leads a herd of 40 amateur food anthropologists on a pilgrimage through the winding, funky, teeming, abundant streets of Lower Manhattan.

Trillin, the New Yorker staff writer perhaps best-known for his celebration of real food in three published collections since compiled as the Tummy Trilogy, has drawn a sold-out crowd for Come Hungry, one of the excursions offered as part of the magazine's annual cultural festival.

The group gathers at Bleecker and Carmine streets in Greenwich Village, and will meander south to SoHo, Little Italy and ultimately Chinatown for dim sum at a restaurant where once one could play tick-tack-toe with a caged chicken. "The chicken is gone now," Trillin says.

For Trillin, food is much more than sustanance; consuming the ultimate bagel and lox in New York, the sweetest blue crabs in Baltimore, the best baked duck and dirty rice in New Orleans is a sacrament.

The Come Hungry tour is designed to see Lower Manhattan as Trillin does, a cluster of neighborhoods rich in food lore and tradition, where cultures intertwine and the marketplace is the center of life.

First, Trillin offers a running commentary on Bleecker Street, which is lined with tantalizing shops, including Zito & Sons Bakery, where in 1937, Berenice Abbott took a memorable photograph of Mrs. Zito through a storefront window filled with crusty loaves. Another bakery on the street produces a Portuguese bread "that weighs about 20 pounds a loaf. It's wonderful stuff," Trillin says.

At Bleecker and Cornelia streets, the group passes Murray's Cheese. Murray's gone and things have improved. "They have a panini machine there. When you order a sandwich, they put it in the press which for some reason makes it a lot better," Trillin says. One of his hallmarks as a food writer is a willful ignorance concerning such technical matters.

The group turns on Cornelia, where a wailing baby, carried by an adult, bats a parking meter. "Put a quarter in that, kid. That'll do it," Trillin blithely says.

The first stop is Home, a restaurant owned by a Wisconsin native and his wife, where the group will sample home-made salami. "This is one or two or three of the restaurants in the Village that are really strongly Midwestern," Trillin says. Who would have imagined there was even one?

Plates of chewy, homemade salami with slivers of Pleasant Ridge cheese acquired from Murray's are passed around. "They're pals," Trillin says of the two business owners. For Trillin, the thrill of the hunt is as much about behind-the-scenes intrigue and camaraderie as it is about the food itself.

The group has already left when more salami appears. "Oh, let's go back!" Trillin says. "We're not going to turn anything down!"

This neighborhood of store fronts and former tenements was once the "Italian part of the village." Trillin remembers "two or three Genoese butchers with signs in English, Italian and Genoese dialect." Several local fish stores "were put out of business by one-stop-shop places like Balducci's."

These days, fish is cheapest in Chinatown, where, "If you want a bucket of frogs, it's a good place to go, too." His own observation begs for a follow-up question of Trillin, "What do you look for in a frog?"

On MacDougal Street, Trillin passes the Tiro a Segno sports club, which has a shooting gallery in the basement. He remembers a Cesar Romero-esque waiter at the club, which was "very, very big on the food." The club was a notable exception to Trillin's rule that "You can tell the exclusivity of a club is in reverse proportion to the taste of the food."

Here, a debate raged on whether peanuts should be served at the bar, Trillin says. Some argued for a "better class of nuts." For a morning, in Trillin's company, the fate of mankind hinges on such questions.

Over the next three hours, Trillin's rambling travelogue is as much about social history as it is about culinary quests. He tells of how SoHo artists and galleries migrated to Chelsea as rents soared. How the gourmet store Dean & DeLuca first opened on the ungentrified side of Broadway, paving the way for other high-end shops. And how "really old-fashioned bakeries are now surrounded by Swatch and things like that."

The tour is also about the entree not eaten. For example, at Melampo, a deli on nearby Sullivan Street, Trillin says, you can get a fabulous sandwich translated as a three-colored fat boy, made with mozzarella, basil and tomato on focaccia bread, but only when Jersey tomatoes are in season.

He also speaks of Vesuvio Bakery, on Prince Street, which offers a hard toast with almonds and lard. "Don't eat it if you have any teeth problems," Trillin says. He speaks of the ring bread at Parisi's, the ancient pizza oven at Lombardi's and the Funky Broome Restaurant, a Chinese place, that's "on Broome Street and it's funky."

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