The New York Diet

Mary Ann Esposito: Ciao Marea and Gramercy Tavern

Mary Ann Esposito on the set of <em>Ciao Italia</em>.
Mary Ann Esposito on the set of Ciao Italia. Photo: Paul Lally

Come May, Mary Ann Esposito hosts her 21st season of PBS’s Ciao Italia, the longest-running cooking show in America and the first of its kind to focus on Italian cuisine and traditions. “It kind of put the wheels on the wagon. That’s what Mario Batali always tells me,” says Esposito. When launching the show, Esposito asked Julia Child for advice that may have helped with longevity. No, Child didn’t tell the Italian to use butter, but rather to “get a good lawyer!” In protecting her own interests, Esposito diversifies with cookbooks; she published her eleventh this fall, called Ciao Italia Five-Ingredient Favorites. In adapting old-school tradition to the modern need for fast meals, Esposito aims to keep families cooking at home with a few basic ingredients. Further calling on the old school, she will launch the book in New York on October 30 with an antipasti party at Patsy’s. But it’s not all Italian in this week’s New York Diet; Esposito loves Jean Georges and BLT Fish, too.

Saturday, October 17
Saturday I flew into New York, so I had to leave for Boston early because I live in New Hampshire. I’m an hour and a half away from the airport. So I grabbed a cappuccino and a bran muffin in the airport. I ate that on the plane.

By the time I got to the hotel, I had a bunch of phone calls to answer, so I never got to lunch. I came in anticipation of a book party I’m going to do at Patsy’s because Sal Scognamillo has appeared on my show. Oh my God, I’ve known Sal for six or seven years. It was actually Sal who got ahold of me years ago when he wanted to meet me. I went in and we had our picture taken and he stuck me on the wall with Frank Sinatra and all the others. And we’ve been friends ever since. This year his 12-year-old son also appeared on my show, making Italian cookies. I went to talk to him about what we should have on the menu: a mix of recipes from my book and classics from Patsy’s. This would be an antipasti thing, so I suggested little sopressata tartlets — sopressata is a spicy Italian sausage; fonduta, which is an Italian cheese fondue, because I love that — I had it in the Piedmont not too long ago; a pine-nut–and–prosciutto pizza cut into little square pieces; a fontina-and-fig wrap; and Tuscan chicken-liver pâté on crostini. Whether he does all of those, I don’t know.

Well, I always enjoy eating there and meeting fans, so I stayed and I had calamari salad: marinated calamari rings with some garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, bits of red pepper, capers, and just a hint of vinegar and some parsley. He also makes an escarole Montalcino with garlic, capers, pine nuts, and raisins. Then I had the striped bass just poached with wine and tomatoes. It was really, really good. To drink, I had a Pellegrino. By the time I did all that, it was late in the day; there was no time for dinner because that was actually my dinner, so I called it a day and went back to the hotel.

Sunday, October 18
Everyone told me that I should go to Sarabeth’s at the Whitney. So I went for the brunch and there were huge lines. I had the lemon pancakes that everybody talks about, and they were delicious. I had a few bites of a cheese omelette, you know, nothing major. I had a cappuccino and orange juice. The pancakes were really filling, plus that was a lot of carbs. I wanted to save room for dinner that night at Gramercy Tavern. I go there as often as I can. I like the fact that it’s not pretentious. I feel comfortable. I like the waitstaff. They’re very courteous and helpful.

That night I met my husband at Gramercy Tavern, and I had lobster soup, because I love lobster. Of course, I live in New England, so we get good lobster. Then I had arctic char with a citrus sauce on it. He had the rack of veal with string beans and Sun Gold tomatoes. The reason he picked that was because we have a huge Ciao Italia garden that we do several episodes from each year, and this year I insisted that he grow the Sun Gold tomatoes. Just a little yellow tomato; they’re like candy. After that, I had no room for dessert. I did have a glass of Brunello di Montalcino. By the time we got out of there it was 10:30 or 11 p.m., so we called it a day.

Monday, October 19
I had breakfast at my hotel, the East Side Marriott. I had oatmeal with brown sugar, a cappuccino, and orange juice. I checked out several bookstores carrying my new book and my other titles, then I went to see my agent for an hour, and then I went to Macy’s on Broadway to do some early Christmas shopping.

I didn’t want to go anyplace special for lunch because that night I was going to have dinner at Marea, Michael White’s new restaurant. Well, you’re not going to believe this, but I just ducked into one of those delis and I ordered a ham-and-swiss on rye with spicy mustard. I don’t like mayo. Pretty boring, but I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.

Marea, first of all, is just a fabulous-looking place. It’s very warm, with yellow tones. The menu is very interesting, too. He has a very novel way of making a statement on a plate. Everything I had was delicious. I love chickpeas, so I decided to have the seaweed, shrimp, and chickpeas. Then I had the wild-mushroom risotto. I always tell people this: Eat in season. So it’s mushroom season, it’s fall, and I felt that it would be a good complement to my welcoming fall. And I make very good risotto, so I wanted to see if it would be good; it was delicious. The risotto had a nice bite to it. It was, as the Venetians would say, all’onda, “on the wave.” In other words, it flowed off your spoon. They had halibut on the menu, and I’m a sucker for halibut. So I had that, marinated with, again, seaweed, clams, and sweet corn. My husband had the same thing because he’s another halibut lover. And then we broke down and ordered dessert, which was a panna cotta with lemon and verbena sauce. It was light and the texture was very velvety.

Tuesday, October 20
I was still in the hotel, so I had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and cappuccino because I was saving up calories for a business lunch at Jean Georges. I had eaten lunch at Jean Georges before and I really loved it. His presentations are fabulous to look at. They’re works of art. But they’re also not huge, so I wanted to make sure that I was able to eat a bunch of things while I was there.

I’m a sucker for crab cakes, so I had the Peekytoe crab cakes with pickled apple. I would never have thought of putting crab cakes with pickled apple, but it was very good. I’ve been eating so many rich things while I was in New York, so I decided I was just going to go for the glazed short ribs. Real comfort food. They were falling off the bone. I didn’t really try the bread basket because I wanted to watch it on the carbs. It can be hard, because bread is so much a part of the Italian table. You would never have a meal without bread. It would be like walking around without your clothes on. That’s why they have a cover charge for bread in Italy. Bread is revered. It’s not wasted. They even have an expression for bread in Italy: “Buono come il pane; ” You say that when you think someone’s really a good person. He or she is as good as bread, because you can always count on bread. That bread will always be there, so that person will always be there for you. For dessert, I shared an apple-crisp tart with honey ice cream. The lunch lasted about three hours. I was watching the clock, because I had tickets to see Ragtime at the Neil Simon and I had to get back to the hotel so I could get ready.

I loved the show. I try to always get tickets for something when I’m in New York; I saw South Pacific the last time, I’ve seen Phantom of the Opera several times, I’ve seen The Lion King. Why go to New York if you’re not going to take advantage of the theater scene? Jean Georges was actually my dinner. After Ragtime I did have a treat. I had cheesecake at the Carnegie Deli. But I didn’t eat the whole thing. I’ve been to the Carnegie Deli many times, so I knew what to expect. You’re gonna get a whole cheesecake in front of you. Oh my God that thing was huge.

Wednesday, October 21
I had a whole-wheat bagel and a cappuccino. After the darn cheesecake, that was all I could manage. I had another lunch meeting that day, and I suggested that we go to La Masseria because I had been once before and it was very good. I had loved the chef there because they had a very regional approach to the food — real soulful food. Then when we walked in, there was really no one in there yet. I was thinking, “Well, the recession is really hitting these places” but later on people started to come in. I had artichoke hearts with warm Taleggio cheese, which is a nice melting cow’s milk cheese. I had just gotten back from the Amalfi Coast in Sorrento. Every year I take a group to Italy for a cooking tour. My husband does the wine program; I do the cooking classes, take them to markets. I saw they had gnocchi alla Sorrentina, so I ordered them so that I could compare them to the ones we made in class. They were very light in texture, very good. After that I had a chicken that was just braised with leeks, and then for dessert, I split a ricotta cheesecake, which was also very nice and light. They didn’t rush us but that was a lot to eat, because that night I wanted to go back to BLT Fish.

I had taken my children two years ago and that was the last time I had eaten there. Upstairs, not downstairs. It’s very noisy downstairs. It’s a very happening place. I like it because, again, it’s food without airs or pretension. They had grilled-octopus salad on the menu. I’m a big fish eater. I don’t eat a lot of meat. In general, if someone put grilled octopus and then a steak in front of me, I’d take the octopus. It is very difficult to do if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can taste like rubber bands. So it was very tender, and then my husband and I decided we’d have something else. So I had a light dover sole, a really delicate piece that was served with lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. Because when something is good and fresh like that, you don’t fool around with it. The integrity of the food speaks for itself. It’s not fusion or confusion food. You don’t have to top it with fifteen different ingredients to say, “Here’s a dish.”

Mary Ann Esposito: Ciao Marea and Gramercy Tavern