Think There’s No Good Southern Food Up North? Think Again

When I returned to New Jersey after I first traveled to New Orleans back in 2013, I didn’t want to eat anything.* Nothing tasted the same. Unlike my first bites of gumbo-this and beignet-that in NOLA, which were accompanied by gasps of delight and wide eyed realization that no, I’ve never actually properly tasted good food until that moment, every mouthful I chewed on afterwards was filled with despair because I consciously started comparing everything to the food they serve down South. Apples and oranges; it’s a little unfair, I know. 

Cut to June 6, 2016. Zach and I had just returned to New York City after a week of greedily eating beignets, having one too many Pimm’s cups, searching for the best jambalaya, shucking oysters at the Oyster Festival, and succumbing to a bunch of other gluttonous vices. And yet, soon after arriving back at my apartment to drop off our luggage and freshen up, we wasted no time heading back out in order to make it for lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Jacob’s Pickles. 

Jacob’s Pickles, believe it or not is a Southern restaurant in the Upper West Side, and trust me, I never thought “Southern” and “Upper West Side”  would be in the same sentence either. But our skepticism, we soon realized, was largely unfounded since the meal we were expecting to be let down by, the sausage gravy, fried chicken and biscuit sandwich with a side of cheesy grits, actually turned out to be one of the best things we’d ever eaten (even after eating Southern food in the South). 

The hype is real

The hype is real

People like to remark on a restaurant’s decor and wait service, but Zach and I are of the mind that the food should always be center stage. I’m not trying to imply that Jacob’s Pickles is a restaurant that looks like it’s seen better days, on the contrary it’s styled in that homey, mason-jar-sporting, bygone Americana ambiance that most New York City restaurants now flaunt. No, what I’m trying to say is, even if the hipster-influenced decor irritated me (which it surprisingly doesn’t), I wouldn’t care what it looks like or if the wait service is absolute crap (it’s not). I’ll keep coming back because the food? It’s damn good. 

Bring your appetite, the portions are huge. 

Fried chicken, bacon, and pancakes

Fried chicken, bacon, and pancakes

Fried chicken, sausage gravy and biscuits with a side of cheesy grits

Fried chicken, sausage gravy and biscuits with a side of cheesy grits

Biscuit bread pudding. Zach and I have tried, but you really need 4 people to eat this

Biscuit bread pudding. Zach and I have tried, but you really need 4 people to eat this

Tip: if you order the rice pudding to go, you get a free mason jar. 

*to no one’s surprise, I got over it eventually

Milan: No Carb Left Behind

One day my boyfriend Zach asked me during a video chat what I’d been eating in Milan. “The kind of food a loving grandmother feeds a sad and depressed grandchild,” I replied.

Italian food, and by that I mean food prepared in Italy rather than a country’s local version of it, is more about restraint than extravagance. Instead of getting something that has a triple meat topping and a pepperoni-and-cheese stuffed crust, you’ll get served a pizza dotted sparingly with fresh buffalo mozzarella and a single basil leaf. And rather than fettuccini pasta swimming in Alfredo sauce (which I hear is not an authentic Italian sauce; and also, who is Alfredo?) you get pasta coated with just enough creamy emulsion that not one part of the dish overpowers the other.

Italians understand the value of minimally-processed, and dare I say it, “fresh” ingredients. They don’t need to overload a dish with sauce or sprinkle layers of mozzarella in order for you to taste it. Because when the ingredients are good, you can do with less.

It’s this simplicity that I’m celebrating every time I sit myself down to a nice Italian meal, which almost always happens to be bread-, dough-, rice-, and pasta-based; because when I’m in Italy, why would I eat anything else?

These are the restaurants I’d happily go to again:

Ilia Ristorante (where I ate my first meal in Milan)

Or, my awakening. If there’s any dish that exemplifies, “less is more”, it’s the spaghetti with tomatoes and basil I so greedily devoured.

10 Corso Como Cafe

This little cafe is situated in a roofed garden courtyard adjacent from the Corso Como concept store and art gallery. A walkway surrounded by green flora and vines that rise up the building facades caused me to feel like I was entering some gracious Italian family’s countryside villa. The main wasn’t my most favorite - braised beef with polenta - but the little biscuits they bring out before your meal were delicious. 

Paper Moon

I’ve been told this is a hot spot, so reserve a table! I have fond memories of this place because during on of our Milan workations this was where a bunch of my coworkers and I celebrated our  last night. Befitting a last meal in Italy, we went ham on the antipasti and then struggled to eat our mains because we forgot we ordered them, and yet we still managed to order and finish two desserts.  They’ve got a delicious truffle pizza and one of the best ossobuco alla milanese I’ve ever had. Prior to my visit, I was ignorant of the Italian tradition of eating prosciutto-wrapped melon slices, but I’ve since been schooled. 

Panificio Luini

Sometimes you just want something fatty, cheesy, fried, and QUICK. Panificio Luini near the Duomo is a place lovingly recommended to me by my boyfriend Zach, who’s observed my eating habits long enough to know that fried dough and cheese is always a win. Luini is known for their panzerotti, a warm and delicious mini calzone composed of a light springy dough (a sort of cross between a doughnut and pizza) and your filling of choice. Served sweet or savory, it’s hard to choose just one, but I finally decided on the spinach and ricotta.