Chances are, you're not jetting off for a fabulous international vacation this winter. Coronavirus concerns have grounded most nonessential travel for nearly a year. While you may not literally be able cross the border right now to experience the sights, sounds and culture of a far-flung destination right now, there are ways to get a fleeting taste, if only for an afternoon getaway.
Mangia bene in Glen Cove
Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars …
A Frank Sinatra soundtrack and a cooler are both key to this mission, whose pursuit is unearthing the Italian treasures of Glen Cove. A melting pot by almost any measure, Glen Cove has been an Italian-American enclave ever since southern Italian masons and builders — many of them from the Avellino region, near Naples — settled the area in the late 1800s.
Vestiges of that "Little Italy" are still plentiful here, many of them clustered along the artery of Glen Street. Exploring them takes complete commitment to carbohydrates in all forms, starting with the pastry-a-palooza inside bustling St. Rocco’s Bakery. The pandemic has put a temporary kibosh on this charred, puffy pizza for which St. Rocco’s is locally famous, but there is still plenty to carbo-load on, from ciabatta and tomato-topped focaccia to slabs of Sicilian pizza and enough cookies, danishes, cakes, pies and cannoli to send you into a serious sugar high. On the savory front, premade heroes, assorted Parms and other red-sauce creations keep a steady lunch crowd filing through the doors; be mentally prepared for a line, and bring cash.
A wise use of that blood-glucose spike is a shopping spree at A Razzano Salumeria Latticini, for which the term "Italian deli" would be a monumental understatement. Bins of immaculate produce at the front give way to shelves loaded with dried pasta, canned tomatoes, flour, farina, beans, olive oil, and pickled condiments, even Italian-made cleaning products and the misshapen antacid Brioschi. It’s a visual riot for the eyes, one that takes slow adjustment: Over there is a cheese case filled with slabs of young pecorino; behind the counter, a refrigerator with almost every type of cured meat imaginable, plus strings of dried sausage hanging from the ceiling. Are those wheels of Parmigiano against the wall? Yep, and on the hot bar in the back is a heaping bowl of bucatini Amatriciana and petite pizzas layered with fresh tomato slices and tufts of goat cheese. At lunch, many people simply come for the heroes, stuffed to almost physically impossible with cured meats and cheeses in — but they also might leave with groceries they hadn’t intended to buy, such as frozen crabmeat agnolotti or canned sardines.
It’s almost cruel to send you into another baked-good paradiso, but it would be criminal to come this far without a visit to Angela’s Bakery, where owner Angela Mangano might foist samples upon you. She makes sublime cheesecakes and pignoli (pine nut) cookies that seem to melt into your tongue as you snack; on Sunday, the place fills with the aroma of bomboloni, Italian doughnuts she fills with the likes of Nutella or custard.
Who makes has the best pizza in Glen Cove is a hotly contested question — slice shops and pizzeria abound, and each have their impassioned following. For wood-fired, Neopolitan-style goodness, though, find your way behind Cove Vacuums on Glen Street to the tucked-away La Pala, where a wood-fired oven warms the cozy bar and dining room; it also chars thin-crust pies such as the Bufalina ($15), topped with pools of fresh buffalo mozzarella and a bright tomato sauce. Those flames also lend their smokiness to baked clams oreganata ($14), charred octopus with cannellini beans ($18) or red-sauce standards such as lasagna, meatballs or eggplant parm.
The close of day calls for a tonal shift, one found in the elegant, dimly lit rooms of La Ginestra, a longtime Sicilian restaurant where dinner can be as light or filling as you crave. And after the gluttony of the day, lean into La Ginestra’s seafood arsenal — whether a paper-thin salmon carpaccio (while the salmon might not be traditional, the capers-minced red onion-shaved Parmigiano treatment is) or smoky, fire-charred grilled calamari. If you choose to eat in, the poised staff might pamper you as you tuck into a warming zuppa di pesce bursting with clams, shrimp and calamari; it’s served with couscous, a reminder of the thin line between Sicily and its Mediterranean neighbors. — Corin Hirsch
St. Rocco’s Bakery: 4 St. Rocco Place; 516-427-5333
A Razzano Imported Food: 286 Glen St.; 516-676-3745, razzanos.com
Angela’s Bakery: 181 Glen St.; 516-801-4433
La Pala Bar & Restaurant: 246 Glen St.; 516-399-2255, lapalany.com
La Ginestra: 50 Forest Ave.; 516-674-2244, laginestrany.com
Go to Poland — in and around Copiague
For my first journey to Poland — in Copiague — I packed light, just a few essentials and a Rick Steves guide, which warned of the famously unfriendly Poles’ "thick skin that helped these kind people survive the difficult communist times." Capitalism had done little to soften them, I discovered, upon entering the Euro Deli on Great Neck Rd., where the women behind the counter, apparently non-English-speaking, welcomed me with all the hospitality of the six merry murderesses from "Chicago." In their defense, it was lunchtime, when the line for hot takeout by the register often extends the length of the shop, and small wonder, given the seriously appetizing food on offer, a rotating menu that includes pork cutlets, housemade mashed potatoes, mizeria (cucumber salad with dill), multiple soups and crepe-like nalesniki.
Behind unassuming refrigerator glass in the back of the store lay Euro Deli’s justly prized pierogies — at least 7 varieties on the day I visited — that I knew my skillet would love, including one stuffed with sauerkraut and mushrooms that tasted roughly 10 times better than it sounded.
The best thing at Rapacki & Sons, a few minutes away in Lindenhurst, was the chunky variety of kielbasa called krajana, a sausage so winning, I totally don’t mind that my entire apartment still smells of garlic. The second best thing was Joanne Rapacki, who didn’t once give me the stink-eye for not speaking Polish. She calls the store a factory outlet — fitting, as there is indeed a sausage factory on the premises, along with ovens for Rapacki’s desserts, babka and chruscik (thin shards of cookie dusted with confectioners sugar) — and while perhaps a bit spare in décor (especially by comparison to Rapacki’s East Meadow location), the meats were all tasty, Polish hot dogs included.
I drew aces yet again at the former Sikorski’s deli in Bethpage, which Ewa Maksimczuk and her cousin Andy Filipkowski took over last year and renamed Polish Eagle Meat Market. "We are famous for our fresh pork butt," Maksimczuk told me, misreading my chuckle as skepticism. "Really. And they say ‘can I have your famous stuffed cabbage, please?’" She subsequently ticked off five other items for which the market is famous, packing many into an Eagle’s greatest hits care package. Back home, their fame seemed earned, and I expect future renown for the breakfast sausage and bigos, a hearty meat and sauerkraut stew that’s a proverbial cure for what ails you, and probably several other maladies besides.
Joe K., a Newsday reader whom I’ve never met but knows me well, had previously emailed news of alleged housemade vodka at Zagloba, a bar-restaurant in Amityville and my final stop. ("But don’t drive home!" he warned.) Tired of doing all the cooking myself and long a fan of the "Warsaw: Vodka and Chopin" episode from Rick Steves’ video period, I crossed Zagloba’s threshold and promptly entered another world. A wall painting of what appeared to be a fur-covered and mustachioed Sasquatch was instead, per the bartender, Zagloba himself, a fictional character who had been in some Polish legend that I promised to wiki just as soon as he brought me some of this vodka I’d heard so much about.
My request was met with the stern look I’d come to expect from the Island’s Poles, then a suspicious stare, then a slow shaking of the head, indicating that either there was no such vodka, or there was no such vodka for me. I would have to make do with a pint of Zywiec and zapiekanka — a baguette-meets-pizza snack with cheese, kielbasa, mustard and Pikantny, a spicy Polish ketchup. But Rick was right. The popular street food really is a perfect accompaniment to any Krakow picnic — in Amityville. — Scott Vogel
Euro Deli: 1650 Great Neck Rd., Copiague; 631-842-5084
Rapacki & Sons: 633 N. Queens Ave., Lindenhurst; 631-884-2060
Polish Eagle Meat Market: 548 Central Ave., Bethpage; 516-935-3938
Zagloba Polish Bar & Restaurant: 700 NY-27A, Amityville; 631-608-0856
Visit China...in Stony Brook
When the State University of New York board of trustees founded Stony Brook University in 1957, the trustees probably didn’t realize what the decision would mean for Chinese food on Long Island. But starting around 2005, the school began to attract students from China; they now comprise about 10% of the enrollment of 27,000.
When those students ventured beyond the dining hall, they had no interest in the local restaurants serving Americanized Chinese dishes such as egg rolls, sesame chicken and orange beef. They wanted real Chinese food, and savvy restaurateurs (not a few of whom were former Seawolves) obliged. Stony Brook is now Long Island’s premier destination for Chinese food, most of it from Sichuan and the regions of China’s Northeast.
The hungry day tripper will find these establishments conveniently grouped into two culinary nexuses, one at the intersection of 347 and Stony Brook Road; the other about 4 miles north, on North Country Road (25A) opposite the Stony Brook LIRR station. Note that most of the restaurants are doing takeout only; make sure you take plenty of napkins for the car.
Tao’s Bakery & Dim Sum started out as a little snack shop but since the owner, Tony Chen, sold his larger restaurant (the groundbreaking Tao’s Fusion in Selden), he has greatly expanded the menu. You can still find the wheat-based street foods of the North, such as jianbing, a griddled crepe topped with egg, smeared with hoisin and chili oil and folded around a giant fried noodle and sprinkled with scallions, or fried buns filled with cumin lamb. But there are also generous stir-fries, congee (rice porridge), hot pots and smoked-on-the-premises Peking duck and pork belly.
A few doors down is Oriental Groceries, founded in 1993, decades before H Mart and other Asian supermarkets started popping up on LI. Even though it’s a fraction of the size of those behemoths, it packs a surprising quantity of Asian (mostly Chinese) groceries from fresh vegetables — this may be the only store in Suffolk County to sell the hybrid vegetable celtuce (celery + lettuce), jarred sauces and condiments, fresh and dried noodles, giant sacks of rice, exotic imported snacks and a great selection of frozen dumplings. Don’t miss the housewares section where I once purchased a Vietnamese straw broom because it was so darn pretty.
Just across Stony Brook Road are two specialist restaurants: Splendid Noodles is the only place on Long Island making hand-pulled noodles, lamien, a specialty of the Gansu province, smack in China’s middle. Since Splendid Noodle is only serving takeout, you won’t be able to see the chef’s masterful folding, stretching and twisting of a length of dough into thousands of strands of identical noodles. Choose from more than a dozen soups, my favorites of which were the roast duck, beef tendon and, for offal aficionados, pork intestines. You can also get any soup with rustic knife-cut noodles rather than hand-pulled. Meanwhile, Red Tiger Dumpling House serves Long Island’s widest variety of dumplings and buns, 32 of them, ranging from the classic (crystal shrimp dumplings, pork-vegetable pot stickers) to the trendy (soup dumplings) to the exotic (pickled cabbage-hot pepper pork-sunflower dumplings) to dessert-worthy sweet green tea-sweet potato cakes.
Head north on Stony Brook Road, make a right on 25A and soon you’ll come to 1089 Noodle House, your best bet around these parts for Cantonese dishes such as lo mein, chow fun, fried rice or big, steaming bowls of noodle soups with roast chicken, roast pork, seafood and / or wontons. Two of the best soups are less familiar: pleasantly sour shredded pork and pickled cabbage noodle soup, and the crazy-savory braised beef noodle soup, the best thing most grandmothers never did with brisket.
This quarter of Stony Brook used to have two Chinese-leaning pan-Asian markets, now it boasts only the mostly Japanese, S2-Mart, a nice stop if you fancy cult Japanese snacks and sodas or toiletries along with a small selection of groceries.
Farther east, our two last restaurants occupy the same building. Green Tea is probably Stony Brook’s most elegant Chinese restaurant — I think of it as a place for the university’s faculty rather than its students — and prices are a bit higher. The far-ranging menu features gutsy Sichuan dishes such as dry-pot chicken or beef (or bullfrog or intestine or cauliflower), succulent Dongpo pork from Hangzhou (near Shanghai), Hong Kong-style wonton noodle soup and what is probably the towns largest selection of seafood dishes, including stir-fried lobster with ginger and scallions.
Green Tea’s neighbor, China Station drills down on Sichuan with what I described in a 2016 review as "blunt force chow." There are more than 20 noodle soups, 10 noodle-less "hot and spicy soups," and three gigantic "sauteed pots," a sort of hot, savory salad where your chosen ingredient (be it beef, chicken or seafood) mingles with lotus root, broccoli, snow peas, rice cakes, chunks of potato, clear noodles and perhaps the odd slice of Spam. There will be whole, dried chili peppers strewed on top, which you should regard as decorative. The food is already spicy enough. It’s also been stir-fried with a healthy dose of Sichuan peppercorn, which will render your lips and tongue pleasantly numb. — Erica Marcus
Tao’s Bakery & Dim Sum: 2460 Nesconset Hwy.; 631-675-6492, taosbakerydimsum.com
Oriental Groceries: 2460 Nesconset Hwy.; 631-689-8787
Splendid Noodles: 1320 Stony Brook Rd.; 631-675-6725
Red Tiger Dumpling House: 1320 Stony Brook Rd.; 631-675-6899, redtigerdumpling.com
1089 Noodle House: 1089 North Country Rd.; 631-689-1089, 1089noodlehouse.com
S2-Mart: 1087 North Country Rd.; 631-751-0545
Green Tea: 1015 North Country Rd.; 631-689-1111, greentearestaurantsb.com
China Station: 1015 North Country Rd.; 631-751-6888
Visit India … in Hicksville
Hicksville is home to one of the largest concentrations of Indian-born Americans in the metropolitan area, and as the population has grown, so has the number and sophistication of the restaurants and shops that serve them.
To be fair, there really is no such thing as "Indian food." The area of the Indian subcontinent is about equal to that of Western Europe, the population, speaking 22 different languages, is more than three times greater. The cuisines are, accordingly, wildly diverse.
You could spend months exploring Hicksville, but for this initial excursion we’re going to stick to the stretch of South Broadway that extends about a mile south of Old Country Road. And we’re going to concentrate on places whose fare goes beyond the chicken tikka masala and saag paneer served by every Indian restaurant in Nassau and Suffolk.
Start your day at Bengali Sweet Shop for a cup of masala chai (spiced tea) or coffee or a mango lassi (refreshing yogurt drink). Not surprisingly, the shop specializes in the Bengali, Punjabi and Gujarati sweets of India’s north — tray upon tray of jewel-toned confections, fragrant puddings and falooda, a kind of sweet noodle parfait — but you can also get savory snacks (fried "samosa" turnovers, filled and griddled "parantha" flatbreads), sandwiches and other light vegetarian meals.
There’s an even better way to familiarize yourself with a country’s foods than eating: grocery shopping. Hicksville boasts three large Indian supermarkets, Patel, Apna Bazar, and the newest, Maharaja Farmers Market. Stroll up and down the aisles and make the acquaintance of the spikey-skinned karela melon, 50-pound sacks of basmati rice, arcane spices and herbs and such vestiges of India’s colonial past with British staples like Marmite.
Maharaja’s shopping center houses the sleek and spacious Saravanaa Bhavan, which serves the vegetarian cuisine of Chennai, on India’s southeastern coast. First timers should consider the South Indian thali ("thali" is Hindi for "plate"), a daily selection of about a dozen dishes including curries (on one occasion, cauliflower, eggplant, tomato), chutneys, pickles and sweets. In the dining room, these will be served in little metal bowls, ringed around a pot of short-grain rice and covered with a papad (crisp bean wafer) and a chapati (wheat flatbread), but every component of the meal can also be packaged for takeout.
Another South Indian vegetarian stalwart is House of Dosas, founded in 1999 by Jay Jeyasri, a native of Madurai, at the southern tip of India. Here’s a quick dosa cheatsheet: A dosa is a manhole-cover-sized crepe, served rolled up or folded, that is usually made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils. Paper dosas are super thin and even bigger; the underside of a Mysore dosa is brushed with a spicy chutney; rava dosas are made with a wheat-rice batter that is not spread evenly onto the griddle but drizzled on, Jackson Pollock style. Any dosa described as "masala" is folded around a big blob of silken potatoes mashed with onions and warm spices. The dosa’s cousin, uthappam, made from a batter of rice and lentil, more closely approximates the size of a dinner plate and, while it’s crispy on the bottom, the top is tender and spongy. The flavorings are embedded in this tender top surface.
Bordering the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir to the east, Afghanistan to the north and Iran to the west, Pakistan’s cuisine overlaps with all of them. Meat is central here, and that’s what you’ll find at Kababjees, whose name means "Mr. Kebab" in Urdu. You might start your exploration with the seekh kebabs, minced spiced meat wrapped around a skewer and grilled. If tandoori-roasted meat is your thing, get the chicken tikka kebab (go for bone-in), russet, yogurt-marinated hunks of spicy gnaw-worthy goodness. Many of the kebabs can also be had rolled up in puri paratha, deep-fried, paper-thin flatbread and I’ll single out the Bihari chutney roll, which encircles grilled chicken, red onions and a spicy-sweet chutney. Beyond kebabs, don’t miss the chicken karahi, an intensely savory — though not terribly spicy — dish that takes its name from the cast-iron pot ("karahi") in which it is cooked.
South Broadway is punctuated by dress and jewelry shops. One of the loveliest is just north of Kababjees: Golden Zari by Zainab. You may not be in the market for a $3,800 hand-beaded formal gown, but the apparel here, much of it from Lahore, Pakistan, is exquisite. There are also lots of reasonably priced cotton pieces and cases full of bejeweled earrings and evening bags that elevate any dressy ensemble. — Erica Marcus
Bengali Sweet Shop: 343 S. Broadway; 516-935-3391, bengalisweetshicksville.com
Maharaja Farmers Market: 265 S. Broadway / Delco Plaza; 516-822-6060
Saravanaa Bhavan: 285 S. Broadway; 516-261-7755
House of Dosas: 416 S. Broadway; 516-938-7517, houseofdosas.com
Kababjees: 495-18 S. Broadway; 516-597-5777, kababjeesny.net
Golden Zari by Zainab: 495 S. Broadway; 646-919-3015
Mexico beckons — in Riverhead
In Mexico City, eating on the street, or in a market, is a constant of daily life. Food kiosks (and cooks and chefs who run them) cluster at practically every corner, feeding passerby from dawn until midnight. A simple walk from point A to point B can be interrupted by distractions such as pork shaved from spinning trompos (for al pastor tacos), fresh-squeezed juices, pinto-bean-smeared huaraches or every kind of ceviche imaginable.
While Riverhead isn’t Mexico City, its high density of people of Mexican descent has given rise to some of Long Island’s choicest tacos and other Mexican eats, all packed into a relatively tight area. Since you can’t really walk them off in between stops, pacing is key; rudimentary Spanish, helpful although not necessary.
Get your rise and shine on at De Jesus Deli Taqueria, a place of quiet culinary majesty, and a few tables, tucked into an unassuming T.J. Maxx-anchored strip mall. The breakfast menu runs deep, from almost lavish chilaquiles ($10) — fried eggs with fried, salsa-cover tortillas and a pool of refried beans — to breakfast quesadillas ($6.99) of scrambled eggs and melted queso. Chase either with a hot cup of champurrado ($1.75), a corn-based breakfast drink enriched with molten chocolate and spices.
After that, you might not be hungry for awhile, so perhaps take a walk in the Peconic Riverfront Park before a lunch of birria tacos, lush marvels of stewed, shredded beef packed into a corn tortillas, fried in drippings until crisp, and then dipped again by you into a small potlet of smoky, hot salsa. Taco Bout It, a vibrant spot found down a Riverhead alley, was one of the first to serve them on Long Island, and chef Alejandro "Chicki" Ramirez’ birria is super-velvety. Get it in either a stacked sandwich called a pambazo ($14) or as tacos ($14.25 for three), which are almost sinfully rich. Just bring cash, as credit cards don’t work here.
A hop, skip, and jump across the street brings you to another of Riverhead’s must-visit taquerias, Taqueria Cielito Lindo, a comfy spot owned by fellow chef-owners Jasmin and Edgar Diaz-Leal. Fresh house tortillas deliver tacos that are across-the-board excellent; however, at this juncture in the day, it’s sopes ($11 for three) which can really refresh your palate. These thick, crisp, fried masa patties are layered with your protein of choice — say, tender carne asada — then finished with shredded iceberg lettuce, crumbled queso fresco and a drizzle of crema. These are technically antojitos, or snacks, but are so substantial they could serve as a light lunch. (Especially after birria tacos).
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. A few blocks outside of the downtown core is a bustling little strip mall with another necessary stop, Taqueria Mexico, a nearly 20-year-old taqueria where the al pastor tacos, brightened with diced pineapple, are especially on point. As you wait on your order, perhaps wander into the Mexico Lindo market next door, Mexico Lindo, for some treasures, such as bags of blue-corn tortillas (made in Ronkonkoma), tamale wrappers or bags of dried hibiscus, called jamaica, that can render Mexico’s signature tart-sweet iced tea. There’s also an entire display of dried chiles in cartons, from fruity ancho to earthier pasilla chiles to smoky guajillo and slender, fiery arbol.
To wrap this action-packed day, a Mexican cocktail is in order. How about a blackberry margarita? You can find one at Little Lucharitos in nearby Aquebogue, the chef-driven, fusion-y take on Mexican and Tex-Mex — nachos, lobster guacamole, smoked-duck quesadillas — bolster the festive, freewheeling atmosphere. — Corin Hirsch
De Jesus Deli Taqueria: 1106 Old County Rd.; 631-591-2700, dejesus-taqueria.business.site
Taco Bout it: 40b E. Main St.; 631-574-8787, tacoboutitny.com
Taqueria Cielito Lindo: 29 E. Main St.; 631-591-0732
Taqueria Mexico: 709 E. Main St.; 631-208-2902
Mexico Lindo: 713 E. Main St.; 631-591-2380
Little Lucharitos: 487 Main Rd.; 631-779-3681, lucharitos.com