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Urbani Truffles

I’m going to use this product review and press event post as a vehicle to deliver unto my readers a comprehensive guide to truffles. Let me begin with the education portion of this post.

What Are Truffles?

You’re probably all somewhat familiar with truffles. You occasionally see them on menus as expensive add-ons to your pasta dishes, and you may see “truffle fries” offered at a higher price than regular French fries at certain restaurants. Shavings per ounce can be quite pricey, especially for white truffles.

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But what exactly is a truffle? It’s a fungus. It’s a tuber-like fungus that grows along the roots of certain trees, like oak, hazelnut and chestnut. They are incredibly aromatic, with an intensely concentrated earthy flavor profile that’s truly unlike anything you’ve ever tasted or smelled before.

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Some people say they’re similar to mushrooms, but that’s like saying Kraft mac and cheese powder packets taste similar to piave vecchio. Not even the same ballpark. Similar to dry aged beef, fermented foods, or smoked and/or aged cheeses, truffles offer that same kind of “umami” sensation for your taste buds.

Size & Shape

They typically range in size from something like a walnut to about the size of a softball. They get to market size overnight, growing very fast, as do other members of the fungi kingdom. However it may take some time for the spore to first germinate properly.

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But just like the saying goes for dicks, “size doesn’t matter.” The same flavors exist in small or large truffles. But preference does matter (just like dicks, I would imagine). The smaller truffles are just as good in terms of quality as the larger ones. They’ll still get you off. Yet, kind of like a director’s preference for big dicks in porn, some restaurants want larger, more uniform shaped truffles so that their shavings look prettier on the plate.

Speaking of which, their shape varies based on the soil in which they grow. Soft, loose soil allows the truffle to grow and expand mostly unhindered into a more spherical shape, while harder, rocky soil will result in more odd-shaped, lumpy truffles.

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Kinds of Truffles

There are (generally) four varieties of truffle: white, black summer, black winter, and bianchetto.

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As you can see from above, there are specific seasons for harvesting each type of truffle (in Italy, that is). The neat thing is that some black truffles are grown in Australia as well, so we have access to them in the reverse seasons as well.

Each style of truffle is suited for its own unique purposes. For example, white truffles are best for shaving directly onto freshly cooked food, like eggs and pasta. Black truffles are better suited for grating and incorporating into sauces. If you see black truffles being offered for sale, per ounce, shaved directly onto a food item, my advice is to skip it. That’s not the ideal way to enjoy a black truffle, and you may not even taste anything.

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Ripeness & Storage

The best way to tell if a truffle is good is to feel it and smell it. They should be firm, but not rock solid, and definitely not mushy. The aroma should be very powerful and fill your nose with an abundance of robust earthiness. In fact it is said that some can detect up to 120 different flavors and aromas from a fresh truffle.

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Here, you can see how the degradation process occurs as a truffle goes from good, fresh and ripe to bad:

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As a truffle begins to go bad, less of those invigorating aromas come through, the truffle gets spongier, and it emits a more ammonia-like scent. Eventually a white truffle will turn more brown, as well.

The shelf-life for a fresh truffle varies from 7-10 days for white truffles, to 15-20 days for black. A truffle is about 90% water, and it will lose 3-5% of its moisture per day, so that’s why it’s so important to use them while they’re fresh. The intense, characteristic flavors and aromas come from the moisture content within the truffle.

Lots of times you see truffles stored in a box filled with rice. This isn’t a good idea, unless your goal is to infuse the rice with the flavor of truffle. The dry rice will leech out all the moisture, and thus the flavor, from the truffle. My opinion: that’s a dumb move, even if your goal is to infuse the rice. Why? Because rice dishes will never sell for or be worth an amount that’s high enough to cover the cost of the truffle you just wasted by storing it that way.

The best way to store a truffle is to individually wrap each in a paper towel, somewhere cool. It should also be put into a wooden box or a glass mason jar; not plastic, as plastic doesn’t breathe the same way. Excess humidity can build up in plastic and ruin the truffle.

Where Do They Come From?

In Italy, truffles can be found in a variety of locations, as Italian geography is ideal for producing the right weather conditions that result in truffle growth.

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The coveted white truffles are highly sought after when they come from the Alba, Piedmont area in the northwest, which is similar to our Napa Valley. However the demand for certain wines from that region (Barolo, Barbaresco) has created a situation where the land is being altered by vintners, with trees being removed to make way for grape vines, and chemicals being used in the soil to aid in the grape-growing process. Trees are necessary for the truffles to grow, so Alba truffles are very rare indeed. In fact, less than 3% of the truffles on the market hail from Alba, and most of the truffles from that region stay local. So be aware, if you happen to see a menu flaunting that the truffles are from Alba: it is likely a lie.

Black truffles can be “seeded” with spores and grown in other locations that have the right climate and trees, but white truffles can not. Therefore, white truffles tend to be a fuckload more expensive, as they are much more rare and localized. Think $1,000/lb.

In Italy, much of the land where truffles are hunted is public access, meaning anyone can come by (licensed truffle hunters, typically) and pick up a truffle. In other places, like Australia or the USA, the land can be owned outright so no one else can lawfully snatch up any truffles that might be growing on your tree roots.

Urbani Truffles

Now that you’ve gotten a good first lesson on truffles, I guess I can begin the product and press review portion of the post.

Urbani Truffles began in 1852 and now supplies 70% of the global market with their truffles.

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Urbani Truffles are in the hands of NYC restaurateurs within 36 hours of being dug up by their network of truffle hunters in Italy. Amazing! Truffle hunters go out with their trained sniffing dogs at night, to minimize noise and distractions for the dogs. The next morning, any truffles that were gathered are cleaned and sent to the market or shipped out on airplanes all over the world. Cleaning just requires getting the dirt and blemishes off (like a potato). If needed, some light brushing is done, but cleaners are careful to avoid direct contact with water, as that can harm the truffle.

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Take a look at this Urbani video below, which will help you visualize the entire process.

You probably noticed some truffle products in there, like oils and canned goods. Whatever Urbani doesn’t think is fit for the fresh market, they use to create various other products.

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Like their fresh truffles, these products are all top notch quality. They never use chemicals in their products, so everything is all natural. Chemicals actually taint the flavor of truffle products, and deliver too much truffle flavor and aroma up front.

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All of Urabni’s truffle products will deliver a delayed and longer lasting truffle flavor, due to their rejection of chemicals in the production process.

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I had the pleasure of sampling both their fresh truffles and some of the products they sell when I was invited to their truffle lab on West End Avenue.

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As a matter of fact, I was there while a presentation was being given to six Art Institute / International Culinary School students who were selected as the top of their classes to learn about truffles and to practice cooking with them. Talk about having a great lunch!

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First, we experienced one of the most simple and satisfying ways to enjoy fresh white truffles: shaved directly onto a fried egg.

According to Vittorio, the VP of Urbani Truffles, salt should be sprinkled on after the truffles are shaved onto the egg. Pepper can take away from the truffle flavor and aroma, so skip that.

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Truffle oil goes really nicely with flatbread and pizza. This one we tried really popped, making something as boring as zucchini really exciting for a change.

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We also sampled one of the canned truffle products: white truffle with porcini mushrooms. This was added to a pan of sauteed shallots and butter to make a sauce, which went on top of some polenta.

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This was delicious, and I can totally see this being used to spike something like gravy or even to make a sauce for the top of a filet mignon. Really flavorful – best thing I ever ate from a can.

Another item I tried was their truffle mnustard. I plan to feature this in some recipes in the future, as I think it would be an excellent addition on a cold cut sandwich or a burger.

Finally, we tried some truffle cream cheese spread as well. This, too, was plopped onto some sauteed polenta. I can’t imagine how amazing this would be on lox.

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If you’ve got room in your budget for a fresh truffle, I say go for it. Urbani delivers the freshest product I have ever experienced, and they supply big dog restaurants like French Laundry and Del Posto. Whipe up some homemade pasta, cook it, throw the pasta in a pan with some butter, fry a sunny side up egg for the top of the pasta, and shave that delicious truffle right onto it. Perfection.

But even if a fresh truffle isn’t on your to-do list, then I highly recommend picking up some of Urbani’s other products and experimenting with truffle in your own recipes that way. You can’t go wrong. Every product is amazing.

Bustan

Bustan means “garden” or “orchard” in Hebrew, Arabic and ancient Aramaic. The Upper West Side restaurant named as such boasts a pan-Mediterranean menu that features dishes from the shores of Southern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, which are home to those languages. Bustan stands out in New York City’s sea of Mediterranean restaurants with its multicultural approach to food and drink, where diners are encouraged to explore and ask questions about their diverse menu.

My wife and I came in for Sunday brunch at noon and the place was already almost full. But the restaurant is spacious, so you won’t have to throw elbows just to cut your food. You may want to make a reservation, though, because the people who live in this neighborhood obviously know how good the food is at this joint.

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We started with a pair of bloody marys that had Mediterranean spiced rims.

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We enjoyed these. They had the right amount of heat, and the mix was a nice, thick, tomato blend that they must have made in-house, because it was really fresh.

Since I’m on drinks, I may as well mention that they have a really interesting and unique cocktail menu that further highlights Mediterranean flavors. And the bar is a great place to sit and eat as well. There’s a beautiful wide grey marble topper and plenty of seating. They also have a pretty incredible whisky selection as well.

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We snacked on some homemade focaccia bread before our entrees came out. This was spiced with the same stuff from the bloody mary rims, along with some toasted and minced rosemary. Really delicious! And its served warm, with a bowl of olives.

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We also tried these burekahs, which are spiraled rolls of doughy pastry style bread with feta and minced kalamata olives inside. Super tasty!

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I ordered the green shakshouka for my entree.

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Shakshouka is a baked egg dish from the region, often made with tomatoes. This green version featured creamed spinach, artichoke, fior di latte and white truffle oil. It also comes with homemade pita.

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I was half expecting something heavy and salty, given the cheese and cream elements, but this was light and mild. I really loved it, and the addition of truffle oil really brought a wonderful earthiness to the dish. All you people looking for a healthy protein boost, this is the way to go! There had to be about four or five eggs in this baby. You get a lot of satisfying food for your money with this dish ($18).

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My wife went with the potato pancakes entree. A large white plate is covered with one huge, crispy potato pancake, and then topped with two eggs (cooked any style you’d like) and three rolls of really high quality smoked salmon.

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The best way to enjoy this dish is to eat a little bit of everything with each bite, so that the saltiness from the cured salmon seasons the pancake and egg with a its natural brine.

This dish also comes with labaneh, which is a thick, tart, creamy, yogurt-like cheese that almost mimics the cream cheese that us NYC locals might eat with lox or smoked/cured salmon. It is a perfect pairing for this dish.

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But one other savory item that’s a must try here is the hummus.

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This stuff has won awards. In fact, I might as well mention Bustan’s overall awards for best restaurant in the upper west side (2014) and diner’s choice top 100 neighborhood gems in America (2015). This place is no joke.

Anyway, this hummus is super creamy, and the addition of tahini sesame paste gives it a massive flavor boost. I actually recommend getting this as an app for the table to share before diving into those delicious entrees.

But you absolutely MUST save room for dessert, because this next thing is my favorite ice cream dessert that I’ve ever had.

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It’s two scoops of vanilla gelato on a bed of candied pistachio nuts, dates and crisped rice, which is then topped with shaved halvah!

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It’s called the Turkish sundae, and I get really excited when I see halvah used in anything, since I always loved eating it as a kid.

Clearly I loved that dessert, but I’ll be back in very soon to try the sticky toffee pudding, which consists of dates, walnuts, banana and tiramisu gelato. In fact several items on their dessert menu are really interesting, as are the entrees. Bustan is truly breaking the mold for Mediterranean fare and offering up lots of dishes that celebrate the entire region’s diverse food culture. Get up here ASAP and eat!

Note: I was invited to dine as a guest of this establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review; all opinions expressed are my own.

BUSTAN
487 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024

Via Vai

Located right at the end of the N/Q in Astoria is an amazing Italian joint called Via Vai (translation: Coming and Going).

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I was invited here for a free press dinner, but I can tell you honestly that this is some of the best Italian food around – especially the pizza. The flavors are not hidden with grated cheese or pepper on top at this place. You’re dealing with naked and natural dishes made from top quality ingredients. Everything comes to the table already nicely seasoned, and with great cooking technique there is no need for extra grated cheese or cracked pepper.

The first thing I noticed was that the staff can all speak Italian. In fact both people we met were from Italy. Valentina was from Genoa, and Manuel was from Rome. The crowd was good too; a full house by 7:30pm. Lots of neighborhood regulars were coming in, and the staff was eager to greet them. They even waved to people walking by on the streets – more neighborhood regulars that they know by name and sight. In fact the people next to us had clearly been there before, based on the conversation I overheard. They also spoke constantly about how great their pasta, shrimp and grilled veggies were. It seems like they had a great meal just like we did.

We started with some drinks: a Picus red wine, which was a nice blend of sangiovese and montepulciano. Very smooth. We also had a Staten Island hefeweizen from Flagship. It was the filtered wheat style: good flavor.

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The first thing that our lovely waitress Valentina brought to us was this plate of warm flatbread foccacia, which was like a pizza crust that was ever-so-lightly salted. It was served with olive oil that had a garlic clove and a rosemary sprig in it. Light. Perfect. I could eat this shit all day.

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Next up was a pizza, fresh from the brick oven:

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While I’m more of a traditional margherita pizza guy, this shit was so fucking good that I could see myself having this shit at least two or three times a week. A light, airy dough is made in house and allowed to rise for 48 hours. It gets crispy, soft, fluffy and absolutely perfect in terms of texture. This particular pie was topped with a fig marmalade, prosciutto, gorgonzola, truffle oil and arugula. This was Valentina’s favorite pizza on the menu, and Manuel told us that this is how he used to eat pizza in Rome.

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Next up was polpette (meatballs). The sauce was chunky and fresh, nicely seasoned. The balls were very soft, and made from all beef, which I like. Lots of times the pork, veal and beef mixtures can get too dense. I tend to be a picky meatball guy and I really liked these. I still like my mom’s better because she fries them in a pan first to give them a crispy crust before plopping them in the sauce – so you get crispy outside and soft inside.

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Then we got to try this really interesting gnocchi special. The purple color is from the beet and ricotta based pasta dough (all pasta is made fresh in house). The sauces on top were twofold: parmesan fondue porcini mushroom. The dish was then finished with some truffle oil and crushed hazelnuts. This was unique and very different, and stunningly gorgeous to see in person. They were like pasta bubble gum balls. I didn’t really taste any beet, but the flavor was really good.

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Last, we had some kickass desserts. The absolute best panna cotta I’ve ever had. It was insane. Realllllly smooth and creamy consistency. The texture was flawless. Not overcooked at all. It was like creme brulee but not as eggy, not too sweet.

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Last was tiramisu. This was super light and whipped, with cocoa sprinkled on top. There were thin layers of cake between the ricotta, and there was just a light hint of coffee flavor, which I appreciated (I’m not into heavy coffee flavors in dessert).

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Clean bathroom too – that is always important!

UPDATE 4/3/16

My wife and I came back here to try out their brunch/lunch options. They offer a great deal where you get two entrees/items and a dessert for $28. This is probably enough to split between two people, but my wife and I each did our own to maximize the items we wanted to try out.

Our “starters” were a spinach and egg pizza, and a spinach and asparagus crepe. The pizza was great, once again. The egg really brought home the breakfast feel, and Manuel even drizzled some truffle oil over the top to give it an earthy punch.

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The crepe was light and fluffy, and thicker than one might expect when hearing the word “crepe.” It was somewhere between an omelette and a crepe, I would say. It was covered with a light tomato sauce and filled with cheese, spinach and asparagus. Beautiful to look at, and even better to eat. This was a perfect brunch item.

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We tried two pasta dishes for the “entrees.” First was this bucatini carbonara. Bucatini, if you don’t know, is a thick spaghetti that has a hole through the center, like a straw. The sauce was nice and creamy without being too heavy. The portion size was great for the price, and the onion, pancetta and seasonings were all top notch.

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The other pasta dish was a rigatoni alla grecia, which was similar to the carbonara but without the creaminess. This ate much lighter, but both dishes contained perfectly cooked pasta that was just the right amount of al dente.

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By then we were full, so we brought some of the pasta home with us, but we couldn’t pass up on the dessert. We shared the panna cotta, which we knew that we loved from our earlier visit. I had forgotten how smooth and creamy this was. Just perfect. This time the plating was a bit nicer too, with some orange slices and pistachios.

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I highly recommend this place, especially for the pizza and pasta.

VIA VAI
31-09 23rd Ave.
New York, NY 11105

Mentoku

This joint just opened up a month ago on 9th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets.

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Some things that caught my eye were that they served Hakata style ramen, which I am generally a fan of (thick, pork bone soup), and they also offer a matcha ramen, which sounded really unique. My wife and I tried them both.

First the green tea matcha ramen:

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My wife got the lunch special deal for $12, which comes with a side of flavored rice (or extra noodles). This is the wasabi rice, with dried bonito flakes:

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Watch them wiggle!!!

Anyway back to the ramen. This was very light (vegetarian), but it had an interesting, savory green tea flavor to it.

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Very good for those looking to get a ramen fix but cut the calories in the process. It came topped with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, scallions and what I think was some kind of bready, fried tofu cake.

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The flat, straight noodles were excellent. That goes for both bowls, too. However the Hakata style ramen was a bit too thin for my liking, despite the mushrooms being nice.

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You choose bamboo shoots or mushrooms, for some reason. To get both is extra, like the egg.

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Egg was perfect, but the pork was just one slice and very chewy. Bummer there.

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There was still one other ramen bowl that I wanted to try, with a yuzu paste involved, so I’ll be back, for sure. I just don’t think this broth is thick enough for my Hakata, tonkotsu fix.

MENTOKU
744 9th Ave
New York, NY 10019

Spaghetti Pie

This shit was a staple in my household when I was growing up. It’s really easy to make, and it’s something not many people have eaten. My mom used to make it with just the cheese, spices, eggs and spaghetti, but I decided to take it to the next level with some other shit. Here’s how it goes:

SHIT YOU NEED (Mom’s Way)

  • 1 Pound of Spaghetti
  • 1 Dozen Eggs
  • 6oz Grated Parmesan cheese
  • Basic Seasonings (salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, crushed red pepper, etc)
  • Half Stick of Butter

SHIT YOU MAY WANT TO ADD (My Way)

  • 1 Bag of Baby Spinach
  • 8oz Imitation Crab Meat (or the real deal if it’s in the budget)
  • 6oz Mozzarella Cheese

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Smear the half stick of butter all over the inside of a pyrex pan. Whatever extra you have can be melted and added into the bowl in the next step.

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3. Crack your eggs into a bowl and whisk together with the grated parmesan cheese and seasonings until thoroughly mixed.

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4. Boil your spaghetti, then strain (or leftovers are fine, too).

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5. Cook the baby spinach, then strain or squeeze dry (optional).

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6. Pull apart the crab meat and chop or dice coarsely (optional).

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7. Coarsely chop or dice the mozzarella cheese (optional).

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8. Add spaghetti (and the other optional ingredients) into the egg and grated cheese bowl, and mix with your (clean) hands until everything is evenly distributed.

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9. Pour the mixture into the buttered pyrex pan and spread it around so it is flat and evenly distributed.

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10. Bake until you see butter bubbles coming up from the bottom of the pyrex, or until you can poke it with a toothpick and not have any slime or ooze come up when you remove the toothpick. Typically the edges will start to get some brown happening when it is finished, and the top of the pie will start to develop some dry, crispy, semi-burnt spaghetti bits.

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Eggs cook pretty quickly, and that’s really all that needs to get cooked at this point. They’re probably halfway cooked anyway since the hot spaghetti likely hit the egg and started the cooking process already before the pyrex went into the oven. I’m thinking this is usually around 30-45 minutes for me, but I honestly never look at the time. It’s all eyeballs for me.

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Once it’s finished cooking, take it out of the oven and let it set/rest for a while before cutting into squares/cubes.

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In the meantime, you can make a nice dipping sauce out of some canned or jarred tomatoes, if you have them sitting around collecting dust. I like to use a small can of Contadina tomato sauce, hit it in a small sauté pan with some olive oil, spices, herbs and a bit of chili paste or chili flakes. You can pour it on top of your piece of pie, or dip into it with each bite.

Some people eat by hand, and others use a fork and knife.

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It really all depends on the density and consistency of the final product. If you want a more dense pie, use fewer eggs and add in all of the goodies I suggested. If you want a fluffier pie, use more eggs and fewer extras.

Flame

My wife and I popped in here for a quick breakfast and we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, and the cheapness ($4.65 for two eggs any style with toast and hash browns). My lumberjack meal (pictured) was only $7.45 for two eggs any style, ham, bacon or sausage, and pancakes. It is standard diner fare, but the poached eggs were perfect. I had a small shell bit right on top, but other than that it was perfect.

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Pancakes were good too.

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Looking forward to trying their burger next.

UPDATE MAY 2015

So I finally got back in to try the burger. It’s very basic, nothing too crazy to write about. The bun is toasted, which I hate, and I think the burger patty was probably frozen. But at $9.75 for the deluxe, which comes with battered fries, lettuce and tomato, its not a bad buy.

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FLAME
893 9th Ave.
New York, NY 10019

El Colmado Butchery

My wife and I strolled into this joint after reading about some of the stuff they had going on. We had already just eaten lunch, so we only dabbled into some snack items. However, it is worth writing up because they offer a lot of really awesome deals and humble items for such an overpriced and pretentious area of the city (Meatpacking). When we walked up at about 4pm, there was actually a bouncer from Brass Monkey preventing people in line from blocking the El Colmado door. That’s a bit early to be queueing up on a Saturday…

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Check it out. We tried the “bone broth,” which technically should be called a stock since it is made from bones and not just meat. Since this item is becoming a big food trend lately, I really hope that people learn the lingo and stop calling it a “bone broth.” If bones are used, it’s a fuckin’ stock.

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It was pretty tasty. A bit salty, perhaps over-reduced or too concentrated, but the flavors were reminiscent of pho because of some of the spices used, like clove or perhaps cinnamon.

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Next we had a pair of smoked deviled eggs. I thought it was okay, but my wife wasn’t a fan of the texture and consistency. These were $2 a piece (pictured below are two pieces, one full egg – $4).

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The coolest part of eating here was that our seats at the counter were placed in front of the glass case of butcher style offerings. Take a look at what we were sitting above:

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el colmado duck

el colmado lamb

el colmado pancetta

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The counter top has all sorts of savory candies in jars too, like jerky and olives:

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I certainly need to get back down here when I have a bigger appetite.

EL COLMADO BUTCHERY IS CLOSED