While any great macaroni and cheese achieves a balanced mix of components — the right pasta shape, the perfect blend of cheeses, a preferred level of creaminess, and a textured topping situation — agreeing on any of these things is a culinary feat.
One person’s elbows are another person’s spirals. One’s love of sharp white Cheddar is another’s penchant for Fontina or Gruyere. Some macs swim in cheese sauce, while some offer less ooze and more gooey pulls; still others are served casserole style and a little drier. Herbed, buttered bread crumbs, Ritz crackers, or Parmesan shavings — what tops the top of yours? And don’t forget the Velveeta crowd; they also demand a seat at the table.
Early versions of macaroni and cheese can be traced back to the Roman Empire, with the dish popping up across Europe — England, France — in the 14th century. It is said that Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef James Hemings, who studied gastronomy in France, adapted the dish for American palates, introducing the colonies to what has since become a ubiquitous menu staple. The ultimate comfort dish, popularized by the Kraft box version introduced during the Great Depression, enjoyed a trendy, upscale spin across fine dining menus in the '90s — most served in bubbling mini skillets, laden with sharp, expensive cheese combinations, and drizzled with truffle oil — but lately it’s the creative riffs on the classic that are garnering new fans across the Island.
From fast casual counters (hello, Panera Bread) to steakhouses (that's you, Blackstone) many establishments offer a version of macaroni and cheese on their menu. There are even weekend events touting the best cheesy macs, like last month’s mac and cheese crawl in Port Jefferson and the upcoming Mac ‘n Cheese Festival in April in Rockville Centre. But no two are alike, as evidenced by two local darlings of viral social media posts — the oxtail mac and cheese at Coco’s Cuisine in Hempstead and the buttery from-scratch mac that regulars at Robke’s in Northport coo over and top with sliced steak or chicken cutlets.
From mac ‘n cheese balls to bowls, burgers to BBQ, vegan and gluten free versions to mac pies, here are our favorite riffs on the cheesy pasta that move well past the iconic blue box.
Fried mac balls: Street to Table, Merrick
2205 Merrick Rd.
Opened in 2019, this restaurant pays tribute to globally-inspired snacks and street foods, offering a cool vibe, solid pub grub and playful cocktails served in juice pouches. Owner Tejan Arora said the “award-winning pulled pork mac and cheese,” which won top billing at New York’s first-ever Mac & Cheese Festival in 2022 is cheesed up by a Monterey Jack, yellow Cheddar, Swiss and Parm blend. The mac also comes atop a burger, but the must-eat version was inside the decadent mac balls, which are flash-frozen, then dipped in a fryer to crisp up the outside and melt the center. As a finale, chef Romulo Brito drizzles two scoops of housemade Cheddar cheese sauce with a hint of jalapeño over the top, sprinkles with more cheese and serves them with a tangy marinara sauce ($14.99). Consider yourself warned. More info: 516-608-8185, streettotableny.com
The ‘Dirty’ mac burger: Hilltop Kitchen & Bar, Syosset
150 Jericho Tpke.
Messy and loaded, this mac and cheese burger is not for the faint of heart. It starts with their classic burger, which gets a kick from Hilltop’s signature “dirty” spice blend made from cayenne pepper, cumin, allspice, black pepper, and paprika, caramelized with honey. Add some chewy cavatappi, or corkscrew pasta, laced in a thick, slick, peach-colored sauce made from “an American cheese base,” according to chef Ian Russo. All of that goodness sits atop a pretzel bun and every bite is made better by the burger’s jus, which oozes from the meat and soaks into the pretzel. Sure, you can order the mac on its own — and even top it with chicken, steak or lobster — but with this option, why would you? $24. More info: 516-921-7748, hilltopkitchenandbar.com
BBQ pulled pork mac: Smok-Haus, Hicksville and Garden City
7 12th Street, Garden City and 954 South Broadway, Hicksville
Steakhouse lobster mac: Blackstone, Melville
10 Pinelawn Rd.
Steakhouse mac-and-cheese is a category all its own, but the version offered at Blackstone, the clubby, crown jewel in the Scotto empire of Long Island eateries, gets our vote. Served in a large cast iron skillet, the mac comes out sizzling and bubbling with a waiter’s warning “not to touch the vessel.” Piled excessively high is curly cavatappi pasta, smothered in a four-cheese sauce of Cheddar, Fontina, Parm and Gouda. Although there’s a plain option ($18), go for the lobster add-on ($31) and you won’t be disappointed. The amount of lobster is extremely generous, with meaty white knuckles and chunks building this cheesy mountain of goodness even higher. Toasted breadcrumbs add texture to this plate, which is offered as a side, but guarantees leftovers for a delightful day-after. More info: 631-271-7780, blackstonesteakhouse.com
Vegan and gluten free mac: The Purple Elephant, Northport
81b W. Fort Salonga Rd.
The Purple Elephant in Northport is a cozy, welcoming spot that caters to vegans and the gluten-averse in a way that also celebrates those not living the green life. The ‘Mac Attack,’ a deep bowl of casarecce pasta — a long, rolled variety that resembles a scroll — soaks up the soupy, cheesy, melty sauce with each bite. Daiya Cheddar cheese is mixed with tapioca cheese for a sauce so creamy, silky and smooth, even non-vegans won’t be able to resist. Topped with sriracha hot sauce, toasted breadcrumbs and the option to add Beyond sausage or tempeh, it runs $12. (Pro-tip: There’s a non-vegan cheese version on the kid’s menu, also gluten free.) More info: 631-651-5002, thepurpleelephantny.com
Mac Bowls: Prohibition, Port Jefferson
115 Main Street
On a recent Saturday morning at Prohibition, a popular bar and brunch place on the waterfront in Port Jeff, Billy Joel and Sting, Nirvana and Gwen Stefani, all take turns singing in the din as the banquettes that line the slim space fill with diners. Though the neon outlined bicycle declares the word “BOOZY,” on weekends, parents toting oversize baby strollers drink inventive cocktails alongside some pretty great noshes, like the pulled pork mac and cheese egg rolls and the huge bowls ($15) of cheesy mac shells topped with pulled pork, bacon, burger patty ($6) — a total winner — steak or chicken cutlet. What comes out of the kitchen looks like a dry, baked pasta, but once you crack that top shell and mix — what results is a piping hot, creamy, mouthwatering bowl of your creation. American, Cheddar, and a little mozzarella for pull, form the base of this crave-worthy dish. More info: 631-473-0613, prohibitionpj.com
Mac ‘n Cheese Pie: Kerber’s Farm, Huntington
309 W. Pulaski Rd.
Dating back to 1941, this bucolic working farm in Huntington draws raves for its breakfast sandwiches on buttermilk Cheddar biscuits, assortment of seasonal fruit pies, baked goods, and … mac and cheese? Yep; Kerber’s has one of the most hedonistic versions this side of the Atlantic. Fittingly, it's a pie. As Liz Martinez, the farm’s kitchen manager explained, “it’s all about the cheese blend,” for which Kerber’s uses “both white and yellow Cheddar, provolone, mozzarella, and Monterey Jack.” The overnight process of making the pies happens “two to three times per week, and each batch calls for 12 pounds of pasta and eight pounds of cheese.” But it’s the buttermilk Cheddar biscuit that is this mac’s secret weapon. The pie crust is made of Kerber’s famous biscuits. There are two sizes available, large for $28 and individual minis for $13.95. More info: 631-423-4400, kerbersfarm.com