the grub street diet

Chef Caroline Fidanza Won’t Give Up on Italian Cookies

“I’m aspirationally a homebody, but not truthfully.” Photo: Mark Abramson

If you’re a New Yorker with friends into food, you may have once heard one say something like, “I want to be like Caroline Fidanza when I grow up.” Square foot for square foot, Fidanza & Co.’s Saltie might’ve been New York’s most loved sandwich shop of the last two decades. When its closing was announced late last year, it was met with sold-out Scuttlebutts and eulogies as much for its owners’ “slightly oddball” creations as their integrity. Since then, Fidanza has returned to where she started in Brooklyn, and now oversees the kitchens at Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants, whose first, Diner, she was the opening chef at. These days, she’s still living life as she wants: trying to achieve her homebody aspirations, loving even bad Italian cookies, and refusing to convert to orange wine. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Thursday, July 12
Coffee at 9 a.m. I’m embarrassed to say I buy whatever the generic Foodtown brand is. Well, mostly my boyfriend Doug does. It’s partly because he’s cheap, so he doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on coffee, but it’s a good French roast.

Cottage cheese with mushrooms and toast at noon at Marlow & Sons. This one is made in-house, so it’s a pretty different cottage-cheese experience but still wonderfully satisfying. I love cottage cheese and developed a real habit a couple of years ago. And look, now it’s trending!

I don’t even know why, but on a whim I bought a container and was like, Wow, this is so much better than I remember. I went through a period of eating it every single day. I love it best on Suzie’s quinoa, corn, and sesame rice cakes.

Had a midafternoon snack of a slice of She Wolf sourdough with butter and sea salt, then half a chocolate cookie from Marlow & Sons because there was a stack of at least a dozen of them left at 4 p.m. If they don’t sell, the staff gives them away at the end of the night, so I didn’t feel bad about taking one. Though I try not to eat stuff like that in general. But after eating three slices of Carvel ice-cream cake the night before, for my friend Anna Dunn’s birthday, a cookie didn’t seem like such a big deal. Not that I eat any of that stuff ever.

After, I had a business meeting. We went to Black and White bar. It was a for real business meeting, not an in quotation marks, euphemistic “business meeting.”

I had one Modelo Especial and Liz had a Scotch, and then everyone else was having another, so I did the same. But when I realized there was a plan to go have another elsewhere after the meeting, I decided not to drink the beer. I can really only have two drinks without having a hangover the next day, so I have to be strategic, and it wasn’t worth feeling bad over cheap beer.

We ended up going to Union Square Cafe, as the relocation came up in our meeting. We only intended to have a drink, so I ordered a glass of rosé and then discovered that I was getting shaky with hunger, so we decided to stay and eat. I truly would have never expected to end up eating dinner at Union Square, but there we were. We had chicken-liver toast and split two pastas: one with pork and Castelvetrano olives and another with snow peas, pea shoots, and ricotta. Also, more bread and butter. Then, they sent us some polenta. I’m not and I will never be anti-carb, but that was a lot, even for me. Still, I left feeling pretty good.

I rarely eat out in Manhattan and even more rarely eat out anywhere on the higher end of the restaurant spectrum. Mostly, I eat at home or at one of the restaurants in the Marlow Collective, which makes me feel very fortunate and completely satisfied. I am professionally embarrassed, but not personally so, to say that I just don’t care that much about eating out anymore. I am rarely moved by the experience and I can’t justify the expense. But, of course, I get to eat out at five different restaurants as part of my job, so who knows how I would feel without that.

If I do go out, it’s most likely to Ops — at first, to support friends, but I keep going because it’s delicious — or a local like Taco Chulo or Snacky. I love Snacky as just a great little spot; the woman who owns it is a dynamo. And Taco Chulo’s an old friend, but I also think the food there is really way underrated.

Friday, July 13
Started with two cups of coffee at home, then I had Ronnybrook yogurt with strawberry jam and cherries.

I drove up to Poughkeepsie, where I grew up and where my parent still live, to take care of some stuff with my folks. I arrived and, without being asked if I was hungry, was immediately served lunch. The first order of business is always something to eat.

Lunch with mom and dad was marinated (jarred) roasted red peppers with garlic and basil, fresh mozzarella, and leftover salad from the night before. Both of my parents’ parents were born in Italy, so there’s always this Italian food as the backdrop of our lives. Then my mom went to Italy in 1978, and when she came back she started cooking differently around that time, cooking much more Italian food.

Also, a chocolate-dipped Italian cookie. I love Italian cookies, which are almost always disappointing. The fact that they are disappointing is even part of what I love about them — getting to know which ones are the good ones, which varies from bakery to bakery. But this one was really disappointing.

I’m compelled to buy them or taste them. I feel like I’m in the minority in that I love Italian cookies and don’t like cannoli. I do feel like if there aren’t Italian cookies at every special occasion for my family or extended family, I get very upset. Like there’s really something missing. Even if they’re terrible!

For dinner, I made the salad and my mother made what I thought was going to be the worst meal since 1979: a broiled steak, frozen peas, and tater tots. She said she was going past the tater tots at the supermarket and they called out to her. Some pull of nostalgia. But seriously, she hasn’t made them in modern history.

When I go home I always count on having pasta or my mother’s famous two-hour baked chicken, which is always perfect. So when she pulled out the steak I was already disappointed, but then the rest was nearly devastating to me. But, you know, we all ate it and quite enjoyed it, especially my dad, who hasn’t been eating much lately. He clearly appreciated the change of pace, loved those peas, and ate a lot of the salty tater tots. Go figure. I think even if it’s not the meal of your dreams, a home-cooked meal is always going to be good.

For dessert, we had Friendly’s Neapolitan ice cream and a chocolate Stella D’oro Margherite cookie. I think my parents are one of the ten households keeping Stella D’oro in business. I am not one of those households. They use those softeners, and it makes them taste different. I’m one of those people who’s like, “I can’t buy cookies and leave them at home,” because I don’t want to eat cookies at home.

Saturday, July 14
Two cups of coffee, again, and Ronnybrook drinkable yogurt, peach flavor.

Drove out to the Tarlows’ house in Brookhaven. It’s their 20th anniversary and they celebrate their anniversaries by making bouillabaisse. Andrew started a fire and put a cast-iron plancha with legs over the coals to heat up two large Staubs of rich fish stock in which he poached wild striped bass, red snapper, and mussels. He also cooked zucchini and the kids toasted bread on the plancha. I made rouille, getting busted by Andrew for making it in the Cuisinart instead of by hand. I thought he was safely working the grill outside when he walked in on me. Andrew does it in a mortar and pestle, pounds the garlic and then adds the olive oil drip by drip by drip, and I was just not about to do that this weekend.

There was also a fennel, carrot, and cucumber salad and boiled potatoes from HOG Farm. We ate those as they were and put them in the soup, too. We drank lots of rosé and then later sat around the fire and ate homemade strawberry ice cream with “herb crumble” that Sean the farmer makes. It’s basically herbs that were probably processed in the Cuisinart as well with sugar and butter. It was spectacular.

Sunday, July 15
Bottled iced coffee from the fridge and then hot coffee from It’s Only Natural, a health-food store in Bellport.

I had the most amazing ceviche I have ever eaten. It was at a friend of Andrew and Kate’s who lives by them in Brookhaven. He’s from Ecuador and was hosting a World Cup–final viewing at his house. Doug and I decided not to watch the game and went to see Bellport with Kate instead, but we were lucky enough to be saved some ceviche. It was perfect: shrimp, a little white onion finely diced, a little cilantro but not too much, and salt and lime juice with a crumble of plantain chips on top. Exquisite.

On the way home, Doug and I went to Hahm Ji Bach in Flushing. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Flushing; Andrew and Kate recommended it. Every once in a while, I’ll go to one of these neighborhoods and try to figure out where to eat — but then I get overwhelmed. You have to know where you’re going.

We had the spicy octopus and lamb hot pot. Among the little dishes that come out before the meal were sardines that I just loved. There were two whole ones in a deep, rich sauce with a yamlike vegetable. I could have eaten just that and been happy, but then there was everything else to eat. My other favorite was the salty fried peanuts with dried little fish.

Later, I ate some pineapple.

Monday, July 16
In Red Hook at our events space, I had yogurt with peaches, blueberries, honey, and granola.

I was prepping, which usually means tasting a lot. But I didn’t eat as much as I usually do: a dozen or so almonds. A few green olives. A lot of marinated beets as they got prepped.

I used to be a nibbler. At Saltie, I would eat 100 different things throughout the day. Now that I don’t work in a kitchen, I find that it’s so weird to not be nibbling all day after doing it for so many years. For the first time in decades, my meals are far more defined. But I still always get hungry before dinner is ready, so there’s usually a snack in the afternoon.

At the end of the day, I went to Diner and sat down at the bar to a dinner of grilled trout with new potatoes, string beans, Sun Gold tomatoes, basil, and pimentón aïoli. Two glasses of rosé, give or take. I go for white over red, but rosé, pretty much, is the easy go-to in the summer. I continue to be committed to rosé over orange wine, I’m not switching!

Tuesday, July 17
Farm trip. Had a cup of coffee at home, an iced green tea at Marlow, and took a piece of coffee cake for the road.

When we arrived at the farm, they gave us cherries. After the farm tour, during which we ate cherry tomatoes out of the field, we had a lunch of sandwiches we brought with many different varieties of potato chips. I had the egg sandwich with tomato achar, pickled onion, and lettuce on a brioche roll. Delicious.

On the ride home, everyone got snacks at the gas station. I ate some Good & Plenty’s; I love licorice.

For dinner, Doug made cranberry beans and Uncle Ben’s basmati rice, which he admits is terrible, and Goya salsa verde. This is one of his go-to dinners. He loves rice and beans, which is probably one of my least favorite classic combinations. It’s partly a throwback to his college days, despite the fact that they are long gone.

Nonetheless, over the years he’s become a capable cook who can pull together a good and satisfying dinner with less than excellent ingredients. I’m not going to give him a hard time. But sometimes he still makes purchasing mistakes, like with the Uncle Ben’s.

I was so happy to be home. I’m not usually away as much as I was this week, so I was deeply content to have dinner with Doug in our crummy apartment. I’m aspirationally a homebody, but not truthfully. I’ve worked in restaurants for 25 years at this point and much of that time, with the exception of Saltie, was night work. The nature of it means that you’re never going home as much as you might choose to.

Caroline Fidanza’s Grub Street Diet