the art of the scoop—morgenstern's, nyc

As a born-and-bred American, it seems there are a few foods that I'm required to like. Peanut butter, first and foremost. Pizza, or anything with melted cheese for that matter. And don't forget the ultimate nostalgic dessert: ice cream. 

Salt + pepper pine nut, szechuan peppercorn chocolate and sesame caramel sauce—Morgenstern's

Yet just as my cravings for peanut butter, pizza and gooey cheese have receded into distant memories, somewhere between my Ben and Jerry's pint for dinner college days and now, I seem to have lost a sweet tooth for this most sacred of sweets. Sure, I've had grown-up flings with "froyo", gelato and vegan coconut ice cream (now a staple in my freezer). But when it comes to the sweet, dairy-heavy scoops that top my friends' favorite cones, my fond memories deceive my taste buds. 

That was, until I met Morgenstern's. This prince of egg-less ice cream may just have developed the quintessential frozen dessert. The texture is light—rich, but not overly indulgent. The flavors skew savory and are all about subtlety. There's not just one vanilla, chocolate, coffee or caramel, but rather, anywhere from three to seven of each on the menu at any time. But most of all, there's the house specialties, including salt and pepper pine nut. 

Oh, salt and pepper pine nut—you may be the most beautiful ice cream creation I've ever witnessed. On a cream-colored, small batch base of lip-tingling pine nut ice cream, the Morgenstern 'creamistas sprinkle coarsely ground pepper, salt and caramelized pine nuts. They cradle these crunchy bits with each flick of the wrist, hiding them inside a hand-carved scoop. It's the tootsie pop of ice cream. 

And yet, returning five times within my first month of meeting Morgenstern's, I've discovered even more unique flavors tolove. The best coffee ice cream I've ever had, swirled around a core of shatteringly crisp honey comb. A szechuan peppercorn chocolate that burns smoky, instead of merely lip-numbing. The gamey combo of black walnut and fernet branca. And the platonic ideal of vanilla—creamy madagascar beans that transport you to a 1950s diner with a single bite.

2 Rivington Street, New York, NY
(212) 209-7684

Off-Season: The Taste and Pace of Puglia

Beyond the grand historic columns of Rome, the romantic waterways of Venice and winding cliff highways of the Amalfi coast lies a stretch of Italy where siestas are still respected, the smoke of charred almond shells fills the air, and the simple ingredients of the earth transform into the most magnificent of multi-course feasts. It’s a place called Puglia, the skinny heel of Italy’s famed boot. And last October, on a whim, I flew to this remote corner of the country, to pursue a tour of the fabled local gastronomy.

Dehydrated figs at the Maglio chocolate factory — Maglie Lecce

When first planning the trip, I had very few resources or guidance. The leads I did find pointed to the ancient, fortified town of Ceglie Messapica as the beating heart of Puglian cuisine. After securing a flat on AirBNB, I reached out to our host for local recommendations. In the overly-generous style of Italian hospitality the flat’s owner, Eleonora, connected us with some of the region’s greatest gastronomes, thus transforming our amateur itinerary into a masterful tour of culinary treasures that I never could have imagined.

Cliffside beach — Polignano a Mare

While it may be best known as summer beach destination, Puglia is also the olive grove and bread basket of Italy, not to mention the purveyor of the country’s most prized produce. Our first night in town, we were invited to dine at the home of Antimo Savese, one of the executive chefs and founders of Ceglie’s recently opened Mediterranean cooking school. While he doesn’t speak much English, Antimo is no stranger to hosting foreigners, running an unmatched bed and breakfast on his stunning property. After touring the gardens and Antimo’s enviable kitchen, we shared a rustic, traditional meal, starting with the region’s famed antipasti

Typical Puglian produce at the greenmarket —Martina Franca.

I’ve enjoyed antipasti before in various parts of Italy, but nowhere has it rivaled the impressive range of small plates that I witnessed in Puglia. Antimo explained that many travelers are overwhelmed by the number of dishes served as part of a restaurant’s antipasti, so he eased us in with just a few elegant offerings. Yet among these seemingly humble dishes of roasted and sautéed vegetables from Antimo’s garden, I discovered a dish of supernaturally sweet and tender peppers—the kind of dish that you know with a single bite will be the best thing you eat all vacation.

Our main course was also vegetable-centric, a delicate “lasagna” made with thin crepes, rather than pasta. And for dessert, we sampled Antimo’s mother’s crunchy digestivo biscuits and ficchi maritato (married figs)halved, dried fruits re-paired to embrace a single almond.

A vegetarian crepe lasagna at Antimo's home — Ceglie Messapica

A vegetarian crepe lasagna at Antimo's home — Ceglie Messapica

Driving home, I feared that this authentic, homespun meal—the pinnacle of exemplary home cooking—could never be matched by any we experienced thereon after. Yet Antimo’s talents were only the first of many wonders that we would discover.

The next day, we visited the aforementioned culinary school with Antimo and Antonella Millarte, one of the region’s foremost wine writers and culinarians. The location was enough to make any culinary professional abandon his or her current projects and relocate to Ceglie. Housed within a reclaimed convent, the architecture is an endless range of white stucco arches and vaults. It is a space that remains distinctly sacred, embodying the region’s respect for local ingredients and wealth of culinary tradition.

That day we also experienced a modern restaurant’s take on antipasti for the first time. With Antonella, we headed just outside central Ceglie to Ristorante da Gino. For our first course, we were presented with a sort of tasting tree—a tiered iron framework carrying more than a dozen small plates. From knots of fresh mozzarella to a pungent spread of fermented ricotta forte, local charcuterie and fried olives, it was a feast in and of itself. 

Orecchiete and chic pea soup at Ristorante da Gino — Ceglie Messapica

Here we learned why Antimo had cautioned us—the antipasti was only the first of the four traditional Italian courses. For our primi, Antonella requested a deceptively simple bowl the local ear-shaped pasta, orechiette, and chickpeas. Topped with a drizzle of herbaceous local olive oil, each bite was a mix of al dente and the lush texture of a rich purée. The broth was a golden masterpiece, neither subtle nor forward in its flavors. I may have nibbled on the remaining courses of grilled meats and rustic semolina cake, but my mind remained enraptured by that rustic soup.

During our post-lunch passagiatta, Antonella also introduced me to what may be the best kept secret in all of Ceglie—a small, seemingly unremarkable bakery. With no glass window to advertise its wares, you had to follow your nose (and a trail of discarded almond shells) to Panificio Urso Maria. Inside, the air was thick with the perfume of a wood-fired almond shells. Toasted friselle, quince-paste filled “cigars” and fresh-baked foccacia seemed to glow with the smoky, nutty flavor—the essence of terroir. On our last morning in Puglia, as I drove my rental Fiat one last time through the winding streets of town, I couldn’t help but stop and indulge in one breath of the fragrant almond smoke—and hoped that a few bags of taralli would help me carry it home. 

Frisselle at Panificio Urso Maria — Ceglie Messapica

From Ceglie, we traveled south to Lecce, invited to visit with several of Antonella’s friends and colleagues. On a detour through historic Salento, we sampled regional primitivo with the heir to historic winery Duca Carlo Guarini—and fell in love with the family’s wide range of intensely colored pestos and luxurious flavored oils. We explored regional varietals at the award winning Garafano winery in Copertino, enjoying the easy-drinking Girofle rosé and darker, moodier I Censi negromaro.

Chocolate covered mandarins, Maglio chocolate factory — Maglie Lecce

But of all the food purveyors we visited in Puglia, the most memorable was the Maglio chocolate factory. Renowned for a signature process in which local fruits are preserved in maraschino and enrobed in an exquisitely smooth dark chocolate, Maglio’s artisanal fruits—especially their mandarins—remain juicy at first bite. Elevating the local specialty of ficchi maritato, the brand adds the bright contrast of candied lemon peel and complexity of dark chocolate—one of the most elegant chocolate-covered fruits I have ever tasted. Moreover, lovers of Nutella will appreciate Maglio’s amore di nonna, an impossible creamy version of the beloved spread in various shades of intensity. The brand’s current distribution in the United States is limited, but their products have an exceptional shelf-life and are well worth the international shipping costs.

One of the artisanal workers at Maglio crafting ficchi maritato — Maglie Lecce

Between tastings of chocolate or wine, we drove to the coast, admiring the stunning jagged cliffs of Puglia’s coastline. We explored the rambling landscape of the historic trulli (traditional stone huts with conical roofs), indulged in a rainbow of produce and charcuterie at the weekly market in Martina Franca and admired the craft of intricate ceramics in Grottaglie. Late at night, we lost ourselves in the maze-like staircases of Ostuni and pursued the imaginary ghosts of pirates on the island of Gallipoli. 

Over nine days, we gained an appreciation not just for the taste, but for the pace of place. Most dramatically, our departure from Ceglie was stopped to allow for the passage of a funeral procession. As we pulled our car to the side of the road, the mourners progressed in a weary, other-worldly march. I couldn’t help but be moved by this elegant act of defiance, a proclamation that the future can wait, to remember the past and to honor the present. 

Lunch with my intrepid partner in edible European adventures, Jérémie — Otranto

I left Puglia with an appreciation not just for the region’s exceptional produce and artisans, but for these fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moments. For, like that funeral procession, what truly is a meal if not a scheduled interruption in our normal programming—a physical necessity that, transformed by tradition, becomes a celebration of daily life.

No Frills Thai That Packs a Punch—Larb Ubol

Ever since Andy Ricker’s PokPok touched down in New York City, the conversation surrounding Thai food has increasingly been one about “authenticity.” As with any cuisine, this concept is a heated and elusive one, all the harder to grasp if you’ve never personally traveled to Thailand. And yet there are restaurants where one can glimpse a certain freshness, an intensity of spice or uncompromising flavor that qualifies as “real” Thai, or at the very least, Thai that doesn’t bow down to the desires of its customers.

Crunchy duck larb

Crunchy duck larb

On an unexpected stretch of Ninth Avenue in the thirties, I discovered my most recent glimpse of that defiant declaration— “this is Thai.” At Larb Ubol, you’re more likely to see customers eating fried whole fish than twirling a mountain of pad thai onto their fork. The spice is assertive; the Thai iced tea unapologetically sweet. The decor is just charming enough, but really, you’re here for the food.

Green papaya salad with "bbq pork"

Green papaya salad with "bbq pork"

 As a fan of green papaya salad, I was pleased to see that Larb Ubol offers several spins on the classic equation of shredded papaya with lime and crumbled peanuts. From pickled fish to Thai eggplant, dried shrimp, salted egg or long beans, the mix-ins range as widely as those at a frozen yogurt bar. The wide-ranging options applies to the restaurant’s namesake “larb” as well, offering protein options from the common ground pork to mussels and even liver. Our waiter pointed us in the direction of papaya salad with “bbq pork” (chicharrones) and a crunchy duck larb—the latter of which he felt was “most authentic.”

Waiting for these dishes—and our personal pick, a shrimp goong curry—we sipped on Thai tea. Served with the signature mix of sweetened condensed milk, it had us anticipating some spice, and boy was the heat coming.

 In a reversal of expectations, the curry was served first and was the most mild of the dishes. A tomato-based sauce flavored with basil and clusters of green peppercorn, it was deeply, addictively flavorful and the heat was, surprisingly, far from aggressive. Served with a side of Larb’s must-have ginger rice, it was more complex and satisfying than the flavors often found in cream-based curries.

Shrimp Goong Curry

Shrimp Goong Curry

Then arrived the crunchy duck larb—which our server noted as the most authentic pick—offering just a touch more crunch and gristle than you’d get with the standard pork. It was gamey, a little funky and definitely packed enough heat for thrill-seeking fans of Thai food.

But the most unexpected twist was the green papaya salad, loaded with enough firepower to require its own personal iced tea. Far from the refreshing salad we know, it was a truly vibrant, no-holds-barred Thai dish. The chicharrones and long beans also amped up the texture profile with a layer of extra crunch.

Coconut ice cream

Coconut ice cream

For dessert, we were craving something cool and creamy, and the coconut ice cream did just the trick. Paired with fresh, sweet corn and chewy jellies, it was a playful—but not overly sweet—take on the sundae.

Far be it for me to claim that I’m an authority on “authentic” Thai cuisine. But within our city limits, I can heartily recommend Larb Ubol to diners who crave more than your average pile of takeout noodles. Dive into the spice and don’t forget the curries. Just remember you’re going to need an extra order of that tea.

Larb Ubol
480 9th Ave
New York, NY