Where do I start? My hometown is simply the best place to eat. Some people don't think of New York City as really American, but I think it's the most American place there is. The whole city is a bubbling, spicy melting pot that never stops, with new ingredients added to the pot all the time. The only question is, what are you in the mood for?
If it's Greek food, you're in luck: Astoria, Queens, is packed with tavernas, some leaning toward spit-roasted meats, others toward expertly grilled sh. At Uncle George's, a popular place with great roast lamb and eggplant, the cook told me his secret: lots of lemon in everything.
If it's Latin American home cooking, you're in luck again: There's a great Colombian restaurant that happens to be run by a Czech-Russian guy and a Greek-American woman. They make killer batidos, frothy glasses of milk whipped with fabulous tropical fruits like mango, guava and papaya (and some I couldn't pick out of a lineup: lulo, guanabana and mora). The proper accompaniment to a batido is a bandeja campesina, the Colombian national dish of rice with avocado, red beans, a slab of bacon and a fried egg -- sometimes with a steak alongside too! And then there are the great dishes you see all around Latin America and the Caribbean: sancocho, a stew of chicken with every starch you can think of and some you've never even heard of, including sweet potato, taro, corn, yuca, malanga and ñame; camarones al ajillo, shrimp braised in oil and more garlic than you can imagine; and tamales and empanadas. When you order an empanada in New York's Latin restaurants, you might be asked: Mexican, Dominican or Ecuadoran?
Spin the globe or hop on the subway, and you're in the Middle East, forking up Lebanese tabouli salad flavored with sumac, an ancient spice, at El Manara; savoring the weird but delicious Chinese pork with bitter melon at Golden Monkey; sniffing the vat of sugar syrup at Shaheen Sweets and watching the Indian treats called jelabi, pretzel-like cookies flavored with saffron, soak up the sweetness.
The raw materials for all this great stuff come through a single, central produce market, the Hunts Point Terminal in the Bronx. It's closed to the public and located in a pretty forbidding neighborhood, but once you're in, it's dazzling. Each year 150 million boxes of produce flow in and out of the market and every cook in the city can find what he or she needs here: sugarcane, all kinds of chile peppers, Thai vegetables, lichee nuts from Israel, ginger grown in Colombia and Hawaii, and tomatoes from every warm spot on the globe. A vendor I talked to told me that when he started, broccoli was considered an exotic Italian vegetable! It reminded me of trying to find fresh cilantro when I was just starting out with Southwestern cooking.
Some of the city's best restaurants, of course, don't even serve vegetables. Manhattan's steakhouses are where I learned to eat, and to this day nothing makes me prouder to be a New Yorker than a rare porterhouse at Peter Luger. It takes nerve to serve a steak the way they do -- with a sauce of melted beef fat and butter! And then there are the yellow pepper grits at this little place called Mesa Grill ... I can't even begin to talk about all the great chefs in New York, or all the great dishes at the city's fine dining restaurants -- there are just too many.
So I'm going to talk about pizza instead. New York City thin-crust pizza is addictive stuff: Once you've grown up on it, you can't eat any other kind. But I do make an exception for the pizza my friend Ciro Verdi makes in his 700-degree pizza oven at Da Ciro. He uses only the finest flour, lets his pizza dough ferment for three days to make it tender and flavorful, then brushes it with extra-virgin olive oil and imported, creamy Italian Robiola cheese. It might be my very favorite dish in New York City -- even a little better than a plain slice at the neighborhood pizzeria I love, Mimi's. There's no place like home!