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Pasta with… Flying Fish Roe or Sea Urchin

Pasta with… Flying Fish Roe or Sea Urchin

By CAROLINE SHIN

Basta Pasta bustles at the open kitchen and dining room.

Basta Pasta bustles at the open kitchen and dining room.

Toshi Suzuki opened up a replica of his Tokyo-based Italian restaurant, Basta Pasta, about 20 years ago on 17th Street and 5th Avenue. His international response to Japan’s recession at the time, Basta Pasta is now a bustling eatery, busy with chefs at the open kitchen and guests at the dining space cum gallery.

Tall, down-to-business with a pencil mustache, Suzuki, 51, sells two curious dishes: spaghetti with tobiko or flying fish roe and linguine with fresh sea urchin. “The fish roe pasta is the only Japanese-Italian dish we have,” Suzuki said. “Everything else is Italian.” That includes the sea urchin pasta, which is considered a delicacy in Italy.

Italian cuisine is very popular in Japan. Katsuya Nishimori, 50, an artist-turned-florist, came to the U.S. after college 27 years ago, and dines at Basta Pasta regularly. He said, “There are many Italian restaurants in Japan. We love Italian food.”

Spaghetti con uova di pesce or flying fish roe is a signature Japanese-Italian dish at Basta Pasta.

Spaghetti con uova di pesce or flying fish roe is a signature Japanese-Italian dish at Basta Pasta.

The tobiko spaghetti blends both cultures in a delicious colorful dish. Clumps of tiny bright orange bubbles of tobiko sit atop a swirl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, shiso or perilla and shredded basil. The taste is subtly fishy and the texture, complicated. The tobiko lends a soft crunchiness to the smooth pasta, and, by the end, it mixes in with the soupy finish at the bottom of the plate. He sells about 200 units of the $15 dish per month. (His most popular dish, spaghetti churned in a parmesan cheese wheel and topped with parma prosciutto at the table sells 600 units at $16 every month.)

In comparison, Suzuki sells about 400 dishes of the sea urchin pasta monthly at $19. “People know it and love it,” he said. “It’s very popular in Italy and Japan.”

Linguine ai ricci di mare or linguini with sea urchin is an Italian delicacy.

Linguine ai ricci di mare or linguini with sea urchin is an Italian delicacy.

Kyriaki Vlachopoulou, 38, who works at the Greek Consulate, sat at the bar—just two seats from Nishimori—on a recent evening. “I’m the biggest fan of the sea urchin pasta,” she said. “I only get the uni pasta.” The bartender, aware of Vlachopoulou’s three-year commitment to the dish, laughed in agreement. Several thin salmon-colored slabs of sea urchin rest atop linguine sautéed with tomato sauce and Serrano peppers. The light brininess of the sea urchin melds with the savory pasta with each forkful. “It goes down smoothly,” said a contented Vlachopoulou after finishing a plate of the notable dish. “It’s full-flavored. But it’s not very fishy.”

Customer loyalty such as that of Vlachopoulou and Nishimori has helped Suzuki focus on his New York Basta Pasta. He commuted back and forth between the sister restaurants until seven years ago when he closed the Tokyo location. “The market here still is better,” he said.

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Angel Moinas and the American dream

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El Maguey is Angel Moinas's new Mexican restaurant at 142nd and Broadway in Manhattan.

By JON CROWELL

Angel Moinas paid a coyote, a smuggler of illegals, $800 in 1982 for a ride from Tijuana, Mexico, to Los Angeles.  The trip from Ecuador, where he is from, to Mexico had been legal, and he traveled by bus.  This leg of the journey, however, meant four hours lying in the trunk of a car. “Full music in my ears — when I get out in Los Angeles, I can hear nothing,” Moinas recalls.

Once Moinas arrived in Los Angeles it was a simple matter to fly to New York City. In those days, airlines were not overly concerned about the immigration status of their customers.  He soon found work as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Now, Moinas, 47, has a new restaurant, El Maguey, at 142nd and Broadway in Upper Manhattan.  It is  Mexican, family style, with orange walls and seating for 60.  Three flat-screen televisions playing muted action movies are mounted on the walls and Latin music plays softly.

It is a Wednesday night, October 21st, and El Maguey has only been open for six days.  So far, business has been slow, but he is not concerned.  He doesn’t have a liquor license yet, and he expects that when he is able to sell alcohol his business will improve dramatically.

Moinas has good reason to believe that a liquor license will improve business at El Maguey — his other restaurant, La Posada, is literally a block away at 143rd and Broadway and is doing well with its liquor license.  La Posada is less suited to family dining and feels more like a bar, but the establishments are similar enough that Moinas expects to be able to replicate La Posada’s success.

Becoming a restaurateur was not a speedy process for Moinas.  His first obstacle was his immigration status.  Fortunately for Moinas, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act on November 6, 1986.  The act allowed certain illegal immigrants to apply for amnesty, and Moinas made the cut.  As a result, he is now a U.S. citizen.

The second obstacle for Moinas was money.  He didn’t make much as a dishwasher, but soon worked his way up to becoming a cook and then a sous-chef.  He worked long days, saved fastidiously, and after about 12 years had acquired enough money to return to Ecuador and open a restaurant.  A year and a half later, however, Ecuador converted its currency from the sucre to the dollar. The U.S. dollars Moinas had saved had gone a long way when converted to sucre, but didn’t seem to stretch as far once the currency converted. The cost of running his restaurant rose, but his revenue didn’t keep up. Eventually, he went broke.

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Moinas relaxes in his new restaurant.

Moinas returned to New York in 2000 to start over. This time he started as a “black car driver” for a company that chauffeured corporate executives.  He worked long hours for four years to save money.  On some days he would start an afternoon shift at 3 p.m. and not return home until 8 the next morning.  He had a new wife and baby daughter at home, but he needed to earn enough money to pull ahead.  Finally, in 2004, Moinas took the plunge again and opened La Posada with two friends.

Owning a restaurant did not make Moinas rich. He couldn’t afford enough staff to run the place, so he worked as a cook himself, often putting in 14-hour days.  After a year he bought out one of his partners and a year later he bought out the other.  The buyouts only put Moinas in debt, however.  He  needed $50,000 and the only way he could get it was through loans from friends and family in the Ecuadorean community.  Those loans came with exorbitant interest rates.  On a $5,000 loan, for instance, he would have to make payments of $250 per month in interest until he had paid off the principal, a rate which is approximately 60 percent annually.

Moinas has had to fight and pay for everything he has acquired in life.  Now that he is the sole owner of La Posada and has paid off his debts he still isn’t in the clear — his landlord has not yet renewed his lease, which expires in two months, so Moinas is on tenterhooks again.  He has opened El Maguey partly as a hedge against the possibility that his lease for La Posada will not be renewed.

Operating two restaurants means that Moinas must pay $14,000 a month in rent.  Asked if he was rich, he laughed.  “I have too many bills,” Moinas said.  “It’s crazy.”  In fact, Moinas and his wife, Janet, both still work full time.  La Posada stays open until 4 a.m., which means that Moinas often doesn’t get home until almost six in the morning.  As a result, he says, he rarely sees his daughter, Hailey, who is now 8.  He is asleep when she gets up to go to school and she is asleep when he gets home.

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Tongue tacos in Manhattan

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK

Walk down a street in any given Mexican city and you will find many taco stands, the good ones before the bad ones.  The aroma of spicy meat and vegetables will guide your feet to the perfect stand.  Most have meat or pork tacos, but every once in a while you might run into one that serves lengua, Spanish for tongue.

While Manhattan doesn’t have the stands on every corner, you can find tongue in Harlem at the brick and mortar hotel, Cinco De Mayo  Restaurant at 1028 Amsterdam Ave. has them.  No such aroma on the sidewalk, but you’ll know to go in by it’s big Red, Green and white canopy on the west side of the street.

They charge $2.95 a taco, which isn’t too bad.  In Northern Mexico they go for about a dollar each.  The tongue isn’t made directly from the meat.  It’s boiled, peeled then sautéed, normally with tomatoes and onions.  Then it’s topped off with cilantro in true Mexican fashion.  And to make it even more authentic, you have to squeeze a little lime on it, preferably from your cold Corona.

It’s most common to eat them with corn tortillas.  You might need two, because the tongue tends to be somewhat watery.   A normal person will probably be satisfied with about six tacos.  The beauty in that is to vary them.  If you’re not feeling bold, have a couple steak tacos, maybe some head-meat tacos.  Once you have tongue, you can graduate to tacos made from head muscles.  And that’s the gateway drug for entering the adventurously delicious world of brain and tripe tacos.

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Controversy calms for Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza restaurant

Controversy calms for Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza restaurant

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Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza in Harlem renamed its restaurant after President Obama after he was elected. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

By VADIM LAVRUSIK

The bright red signs reading “Obama Fried Chicken & Pizza” still hang proudly atop the fried chicken store in Harlem, while inside, the new name is written on tape covering the original name,  “Kennedy Fried Chicken.”

For those not from the neighborhood, it’s still a sight to see, said Mamadou Diallo, manager of the store at 116 Street and Nicholas Avenue.

“Tourists driving by always stop to take pictures in front of the restaurant,” the 32-year-old said.

But after causing a stir last spring by renaming the fried chicken restaurant after the first black president, people in the neighborhood have gotten used to the new name and questions of cultural identity have faded away.

“Things are pretty quiet now,” Diallo said.

After President Obama was inaugurated, several New York City establishments renamed or began naming products to pay homage to him. In Brooklyn, a shop opened named Obama Beauty Supply; the Sixpoint Craft Ales brewery named a beer after Obama; and then came Obama Fried Chicken in Harlem and Brownsville.

The Harlem restaurant was tied into an uproar with community leaders in Brooklyn, including Councilman Charles Barron and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who held rallies protesting the name as being stereotypical and degrading toward African-Americans.

Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken, which operates under a separate owner from the Brooklyn location on Rutland Road, took its signs down for about a month, said Diallo. Then other members of the community complained, he said. But after checking into possible legal issues with having the name, the signs went back up. The Brooklyn owner kept his signs up because they cost $5,000, according to a New York Times report. Diallo said his signs cost only $500.

“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” Diallo said.

Apparently, many who were offended by the signage at first have warmed up to it.

Stopping into the restaurant recently, Ebony Brown, 26,  said she thought the name was ridiculous at first.

Though the signage outside the restaurant have been updated, inside the old "Kennedy" in Kennedy Chicken is taped over. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

Though the signs outside the restaurant have been updated, inside the old “Kennedy” in Kennedy Fried Chicken is taped over. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

“Everyone was excited with Obama’s win, naming their kids after him and all sorts of stuff. But when I saw this, you know, naming a chicken spot after Obama just reinforces stereotypes of us black people,” said Brown, who lives in Harlem. “It’s passing by now, though.”

In a New York Daily News poll, readers were asked whether the shops should be allowed to use Obama’s name. A 68 percent majority selected the option: “Sure, it’s capitalism.” Others are indifferent. For Calvin Bowers, good food is good food, he said. Bowers works as a super across the street from Obama Fried Chicken and said he’s been going there “for five months straight, every day.”

Bowers said that as a black man, it doesn’t make a difference to him who it’s named after and what stereotypes people think it puts off.

“I am just trying to get something to eat,” he said. “You can’t beat it.”

Some African-American cultural sensitivities aren’t always as obvious to business owners from other parts of the world. Diallo, who emigrated from Guinea, Western Africa, in 2000, said the owner simply liked the new president because of his African heritage. As far as connecting fried chicken and a black president, Diallo said in his country many tribes are associated with different foods. His tribe, for example, is associated with eating lots of yam.

“If you go to a Hispanic area of town, you’re going to see a lot of tortillas, and that sort of thing,” Diallo said. “Well, then what’s the big deal?”

A lot of the criticism also came from people saying the restaurants were exploiting Obama’s name for profit. But Diallo said the Harlem business has stayed the same.

He also points to the many other products that took on the Obama name after he was elected, like Change Hot Sauce, which bears a drawing of Obama and was made as a limited product by Garden Row Foods in Illinois. The company sent the restaurant a sample, saying it could make more if the restaurant wanted to buy it.

"Change" hot sauce was send to Obama Fried Chicken and Pizza after they renamed. The company would not say whether they have sold the product or not. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

“Change” hot sauce was sent to Obama Fried Chicken & Pizza. The company would not say whether it has sold more of the product. (Photo: Vadim Lavrusik)

A worker at that company, who would not give his name, said Garden Row makes lots of different hot sauces for different occasions and this was no exception. He would not disclose whether they had sold any of the Change hot sauces or not.

But even though Diallo said business is the same, it at least draws some new customers.

Amin Nuani, 32, came into Harlem’s Obama Fried Chicken after seeing the name.

“Wow, it was the first time we saw something with Obama’s name on it like that,” Nuani said. “I think something with his name on it will definitely draw people in, especially in Harlem. But why not, he is our president.”

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Day of the Dead starts at the bakery

Day of the Dead starts at the bakery

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK AND NUSHIN RASHIDIAN

Mexican bakeries all over New York City are preparing pan de muerto, Spanish for bread of the dead, for the Day of the Dead celebration on Nov. 1. But Panaderia Caotzingo on 76-11 Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is anything but dead during the week before the holiday as customers bustle in and load trays with pan de muerto fresh from the oven. Baker Sergio Rodriguez, 22, makes 270 pieces of dome-shaped ‘’dead bread’’ each day, sized as small as the palm of a hand for $1.50, or bigger than a grown man’s face for $12. The sweet, cinnamon-infused bread is decorated with bits of cooked dough shaped like bones.

Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) has been celebrated by Mexican Indians for centuries. To them, it is the day the dead come back to visit the living–friends, relatives, and loved ones. Often, Catholic families make offerings at the graves of their loved ones, leaving them their favorite food, or even their favorite vice, be it cigarettes or alcohol. But they always leave pan de muerto, says bakery worker Yessica Rodriguez, 23, who is originally from the 300-person Southern Mexican town of San Jose Chilipa.. Rodriquez’s grandmother on her mother’s side died six years ago; each year, her family back home takes the 25-minute walk to the local cemetery.

When they arrive at the cemetery, located between mango trees and a cornfield, they make a velvet shrine and lay offerings of bean and chicken tamales, chocolates and purple flowers—any kind, as long as they’re purple. Her late grandfather gets a single Marlboro Red cigarette. When Rodriguez dies, she says she would like to have an offering of bean and chicken tamales, just like her grandmother. But she’s too busy to think about death right now—she must finish a sale to Cristian Moran, 26, from Guerrero, another state in Southern Mexico.

Moran has lived in the United States for six years. His grandfather died one month ago, but instead of going to Mexico, he sent $200 to relatives back home. He said people don’t celebrate Day of the Dead in New York City as much as they did in his hometown.

Bakery manager Sergio Najera, 54, agrees. Most Mexicans who die in New York City have their remains sent home, he says, so there is little reason to celebrate in local cemeteries. Adults tend to honor the dead privately, and children have another tradition to enjoy: Halloween.

Zeltzin Rosendo, 10, is excited for the 31st of October.

“They give you candy on Halloween and you get to get dressed up,” she says, standing next to the window displays that shows off piles of pan de muerto to people who walk past. She is not a fan of putting food on graves.

“That kind of creeps me out a bit,” she says.

Her brother died in the womb this past year, and this will be the first time they lay an offering to him. They will leave him pan de muerto.

Some people prefer neither Halloween nor a Day of the Dead in America. Queens resident Enrique Jimenez remembers his childhood experience with pan de muerto as he makes a quick visit to the bakery.

“I would buy the bread when I was little, or my mom baked it, but not too much anymore,” he says.

This year he will gather with his cousins and his brother, who is bringing pan de muerto from Mexico.

“This bread has a different flavor,” he says. “The original flavor is from Mexico.”

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Kolache: The ‘next bagel’ hits New York

Kolache: The ‘next bagel’ hits New York

 Into this boom-and-bust cycle steps Kolache Mama. Mama who? The mother of Czech baked goods

Kolache Mama offers the mother of Czech baked goods in flavors mom never thought of. (Photo: Richard Saler)

By BESSIE KING

Empanada Joes has come and gone, Krispy Kreme has almost disappeared and Tasty Delight could face a freeze in sales once fans of frozen yogurt welcome winter. Into this boom-and-bust cycle steps Kolache Mama. Mama who?

Kolache, the mother of Czech baked goods (pronounced co-LAH-chee) was originally a sweet dessert, but not exactly a pastry. Over the years Czech communities in America began making kolache in areas with large European populations. The buttery yet light dough was filled with traditional fruit fillings, like raspberry or apricot, and cheeses before being tried with heartier options, like hams or eggs, around Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska or Minnesota. Kolache became a snack or breakfast option.

But now a Houston entrepreneur has decided to introduce the kolache to New Yorkers, hoping to make it the next bagel.

“Bagels started with an ethnicity group and are now across the board,” said Richard Saler, CEO and director of Kolache Mama, the franchise that will sell kolache. “We feel we can popularize the kolache like bagels because people don’t know what it is, we have so many options to eat them and alone are only 25 calories.” As for appealing to a New York audience, he said, “We chose New York to start the business because if you make it here, you’ve made it.”

Pronounced co-LAH-chee, it was originally only a sweet desert but not exactly a pastry.

Originally only a sweet dessert, kolache are now offered in savory versions as well. (Photo: Richard Saler)

Saler, who was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Houston for several years, tried kolache in a small Texas shop when his son-in-law suggested them. After tasting the hard-to-describe treat, he was hooked. He noticed that even if vendors tested different fillings kolache were still seen as a breakfast or dessert-only food.

For two years, he did research and development to see if there could be a market outside of Czech communities and invested over $150,000 to develop a business plan. On Sept. 30 the first New York Kolache Mama store opened at 45 E. 45 St., and others are planned for 34th Street, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

“Our products are fresh and we have vegetarian, lunch, snack and other options at an accessible price,” Saler said. “We are not selling kolache as the new ethnic food but a new food option, and we’re not selling it as just a breakfast item either.”

With little over 8,000 Czechs in New York City, Saler will definitely have to appeal to people who know nothing of his product and can judge it on its taste alone. During the store opening, the hot pink logo and the smell of baked bread reeled a few of them in. When presented with a hand-sized baked something filled with one of the more than 20 options for $2.99, their taste buds and price-conscious minds seemed to like what Kolache Mama offers.

“It was thrilling to have my first kolache,” said Annie Hu, who tried the food on opening day.  “The dough is delicious and the fillings were tasty. For under $5 you can get a kolache and a cup of coffee. It’s worth the price.”

Saler recruited a “culinary team” to develop a menu for his kolache, including Christopher Lampo, a 1989 honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America; David James, chef de cuisine; Jocelyn Jones, a pastry chef; and Christine Campbell. The business will also offer catering and has partnered with City Harvest, a city food bank, to pick up unsold food each day and to receive a donated percentage of sales.

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Mooncakes in Manhattan

Mooncakes in Manhattan

By SONYA REHMAN

On a drizzly Friday night in early October, with no moon showing in New York, one bar here opened its doors in celebration of the Mooncake Festival.

In China, families traditionally get together at home to observe the moon when it is full, round and chubby, and eat mooncakes, round and chubby.  And in China, the festival fell the following day, but that was inconvenient in New York.

In New York, the Mooncake Festival is a meet-and-mingle at Ainsworth, on 26th St., a wood-paneled bar with  few echoes of the old country but  a lot of introductions.

While one portion of the bar was comprised of youngsters cradling drinks and watching  baseball on numerous flat-screen TV’s, the other portion consisted of a large, cozy bunch of people, most of them Chinese, engaged in conversation amidst drinks and mooncakes.

‘Mooncake Madness’ was put together by ‘Mandarin Mondays’ – a group of over a thousand Mandarin-speaking members based in New York City – and organized by ‘ConnectionZ Promotions’, an event-management company that aims at promoting peace through cross-cultural understanding.

In addition to  Chinese Americans who were present, a sprinkle of individuals from other ethnic backgrounds was also present – all mingling busily.

“This is more of a meet-up,” said Peter Hong, a  smiling, middle-aged man. “It’s a gathering of people just to practice their English and Mandarin. It does help me re-connect with my roots because in America the Asian holidays are rarely celebrated – so this is one chance for Asians to get together and remember their own holidays without getting lost in the US.”

In New York the Mooncake Festival is a meet-and-mingle (Photo: Sonya Rehman)

In New York the Mooncake Festival is a meet-and-mingle (Photo: Sonya Rehman)

Biting into a small slice of mooncake (a pastry filled with lotus seed paste), Stephanie Bechtale was pretty candid; “This event is a little different from what I thought because I thought, ‘okay they’re going to celebrate the Mooncake Festival and we’re gonna watch the moon.’ But this event is more like just to make friends.”

And lowering her voice, she added; “I also heard that most of the people here are single and are enjoying making friends. Probably this isn’t right for me! I’m not single but I came here because it’s a holiday.”

Lee Abbey, an American doctor who has lived in New York his entire life, has been a non-Chinese member of Mandarin Mondays for four years and believes that through events like this, one gets to meet Chinese people and learn Chinese. “Every Monday we have a meet-up in a restaurant and the first Monday of the week it’s usually a large group, and there’s a buffet. The other Mondays, it’s a smaller group and we all share dinner together. It’s basically a mixture of people of all levels of Chinese and people who’ve either lived in China or studied there. And we come together to discuss our experiences and get to know each other.”

Scott Chan, a Chinese American who has been living in New York for 20 years, thinks that it’s refreshing to be able to meet with other Mandarin speaking people through events like the Mooncake Festival.  “Also, as you can see”, he says gesturing towards the crowd of people, “There are not only Chinese people here…”

Having moved to America with his family when he was only 4-years- old, Kevin Yeung goes to school in Manhattan and has lived in Queens all his life. He thinks that the event tonight has its flaws, “But the very fact that we’re organizing this festival and celebrating it, yes, it does somewhat help me to get in touch with my culture, but in my opinion if you really wanna be connected to Chinese culture, you would actually have to get into the culture! Because right now it’s being held inside a bar – an American bar! And a Chinese cultural event being held in a bar seems to me, very foreign.”

Amidst the loud, blaring music, the clink of glasses and beer bottles, the flow of conversation and occasional outbursts of cheers from the other side of the room when a home-run was hit, the Mooncake Festival at Ainsworth was celebrated a bit differently from how it would look the next day, in China.

Mooncake recipe:

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • Filling:
  • 1 pound red azuki beans
  • Water
  • 3/4 cup lard or oil
  • 1-3/4 cups sugar
  • Water-Shortening Dough:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 5 tablespoons lard
  • 10 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Flaky Dough:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 5 tablespoons lard
  • red food coloring for design

Preparation:

Filling Instructions: Soak red beans in water to cover 2 hours. Drain and discard the water. Cover with 8 cups fresh water and bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat 1-1/2 hours or until skins open. Strain the beans and discard the skins. Place the strained beans in several layers of cheesecloth and squeeze out any excess water.
Place in a saucepan with the lard or oil and the sugar. Cook, stirring continuously, until almost all the moisture has evaporated. Let cool.

Dough Instructions: You will need 2 cups of filling for the mooncakes. Divide this into 20 portions and shape into balls. Mix ingredients for the water-shortening dough and the flaky dough separately until smooth. Divide each dough into 20 equal portions.
Wrap one portion of flaky dough inside each portion of water-shortening dough. Roll out each piece of dough, and then fold in thirds to form three layers. Roll out again, and once more fold in thirds to form three layers.

Flatten each piece of dough with the palm of your hand to form a 3″ circle. Place one portion of filling in the center. Gather the edges to enclose the filling and pinch to seal. Place the filled packet in the mold, gently pressing to fit. Invert and remove the mold.
Dilute red food coloring with water and pour onto a damp paper towel on a plate. Take some food coloring onto the cookie-design stamp, then press on top of the mooncake.
Repeat process for remaining mooncakes. Arrange mooncakes on a baking sheet.

Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool before serving.

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New Yorkers get a taste of Italy at the Feast of San Gennaro

New Yorkers get a taste of Italy at the Feast of San Gennaro

By DANIEL WOOLFOLK

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007.  Bonnie Natko via Flickr.

The Feast of San Gennaro in 2007. (Photo: Bonnie Natko/Flickr under Creative Commons license)

The famous Mulberry Street is full of games, rides and especially food this week.  There’s even a clown in a dunk tank who, if he doesn’t insult you, might insult your mother.  If your anger and aim holds you through, you can drop him into the water tank.

This is part of the 82nd annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy’s Mulberry Street between Canal and Houston Streets.

More than 1.5 million people are expected to show up during the 10 days of the festival, said Mort Berkowitz, who is running the event.  He estimates about 20,000 people could be at the event at any given time.

One of those people was Anne Grardi. She has white hair and a cane.  She was dancing on the sidewalk on Sunday night with some of her friends to an oldies cover band, Johnny and the Raybands. She was no Fred Astaire with that cane, but she really enjoyed the music at the festival. “We saw a nice little Spanish guy do Frank Sinatra,” she said. “He had the whole crowd standing.”

She had eaten sausage and peppers as well as zeppoles at Sofia’s on Mulberry Street and said the restaurant was surprisingly empty this year — it was standing room only last year.  And even though she noted seeing fewer people, she said she still gets to do one of her favorite festival activities: people watching.

People have been watching people since it began since it began in its first feast in 1926. It had been only a one-day event until 1996, said Chick Pallotta, who has been showing a 10-minute video explaining the history of San Gennaro at the Most Precious Blood Church.  The church has a shrine to San Gennaro,  who served as Bishop of Naples in the second cenury A.D.

And it is just as much about food as it has ever been.

Vincent “Cuzzin Vinny” Patuto sells braciole at the festival and, with his loud raspy voice, makes sure anyone within earshot of his stand knows it.  He said there were about the same amount of people as other years, but fewer people buying his braciole because of the economy.  He should know: he started attending the event about 56 years ago as an 8-year-old and started as a vendor 15 years ago.  He also sells sausages but makes his money selling the bracioles.

“We have not been declared the king of the sausage,” he said. “But we have been declared the king of the braciole.”

He said he’s OK with not being the king of the sausage.

Nick Gennaro Petronella didn’t have either, but the skinny high-school junior did have calzones, potato croquetes, mozzerella pies “and, of course, I had  zeppoles,” he said.

And he wasn’t much of a picky eater.

“I had everything I could find,” he said. “Everything was slamming.”

Julian Armstrong was a little more selective.  The seventh-grader had been there an hour and had a funnel cake, which he said was “good and sweet and fluffy and very appetizing.”

Julian wanted to try brisket, but his mom didn’t let him.

“We had enough to eat already previously before we came here,” she said.

Food wasn’t Julian’s sole objective at the festival.  He had played some of the games and had won a small white teddy bear keychain.  He wasn’t sure if he was going to try his hand with any more game tickets.

“It’s all up to my mom if she wants to buy me any,” he said with a smirk, making sure to check her reaction.

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