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City Suppers: Putting the Community Back into Big City Dining

There is a quiet revolution happening in big-city kitchens. In places like New York, natives and visitors alike are skipping big-name restaurants and gathering in stranger’s apartments for one-of-a-kind culinary experiences that are closer to the family table than a Michelin star restaurant.

Simply eating well isn’t enough anymore; something is missing. People are increasingly hungry for conversations, connections and a welcoming atmosphere with a gourmet meal on the side.

Around 7 p.m. strangers arrived in the tiny Manhattan studio of Marco Maestoso and Dalila Ercolani. Maestoso and Ercolani are one of the many trained culinary professionals and just regular folks who host communal dinners in their homes. This young couple created what they call, the “Casa Maestoso brand,” hosting themed (usually Italian) dinners several times a week.

They use sharing economy apps like Feastly and EatWith to sell tickets, which tend to sell-out as word spreads. Ercolani admits she still gets pleasantly surprised about how many people want to come to their dinners.

“People would email me asking to be squeezed in, so we began to add more and more dinners until we were up to almost six to seven days a week.”

While many Italian chefs are known for their passionate views on keeping Italian food authentic, Meastoso likes to put his own twist on things. He admits that some of their best dishes came about as a result of happy accidents in the kitchen. Like a chocolate fettuccine made on the fly or a lobster dish that came together when the real main course got burned.

“I like to get influences from other cuisines. It’s good to have the basics, it’s good to have rules you can always rely on but the difference, I believe, you can make it only if you can twist it,” said Maestoso, “It’s my cuisine. You may not like it but it’s still my cuisine. For me it makes a difference.”

Warm and spicy aromas greet you before you reach Casa Maestoso. Ercolani opens the door and greets every guest with a big smile, kisses on both cheeks and a “Ciao!”

There was a long communal table set up the middle of the studio and guests were mingling over appetizers and wine. The night’s menu included lasagna, salmon and a deconstructed tiramisu.

While everyone waited for dinner, Ercolani mingled and poured wine. The guest list ranged from a couple of Upper East Side grand madame’s to a fellow food writer from Hong Kong.

”If my husband were alive, we’d do this all the time!” exclaimed one of the Upper East Siders. The crowd eagerly nodded in agreement.

Ercolani answered all of the usual questions. Yes, they both prep and shop or the food. Of course it’s hard but also very rewarding. In the beginning, they bickered over who worked harder but they’ve learned to appreciate each other’s roles. She’s entertains and he concentrates on the food. They can’t imagine doing this alone.

When she said that “we” cooked tonight’s meal, Marco poked his head out of the kitchen and yelled, “What do you mean we?” smiling. She waved her hand in the air, brushing of his teasing remark.

As the first course came and went, the Upper East Side women were the first to get up and help clear the plates. The rest of the us followed suit and helped bring out the second course.

The butternut squash soup was fragrant and light. The vegetarian lasagna was hearty and warm. The salmon with berry sauce was divine, and the deconstructed tiramisu dessert was fluffy and not too sweet. We barely noticed that the wine was switched from white to red.

Between the laughter, the jokes and the glasses of wine we barely noticed that it was nearly midnight. We thanked Maestoso and Ercolani for a wonderful meal and left their apartment, wondering where the night went. Time flies when you’re having fun.

To learn more about Casa Meastoso visit: www.casamaestoso.com

Words and Images by: Aleksandra Bulatskaya

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Burger Breakdown

Pulling Apart the Ramen Burger 

Sometime in the early 1600’s someone from Japan sailed to China. That person tried a soup made with noodles and liked it so much, that they brought the recipe back to their homeland.

From there the dish spread like wildfire and became a staple of Japanese cuisine. Of course we have no way of knowing if that’s exactly how it happened. It could have easily been a Chinese immigrant who brought the dish from his homeland to Japan.

The point is that ramen noodles and soup found a new home because it’s an easy dish to love. The noodles chewy texture and starch base make it the perfect vehicle for richer flavors. That’s probably why people wait for over a half hour to try a Ramen Burger — the trendy burger and brainchild of Chef Keizo Shimamoto – that’s taking Brooklyn’s artisenal food scene.

Most of us remember ramen as the very first dish we made without adult supervision. A little Styrofoam cup filled with dry noodles, flavored powder and ungodly amounts of salt was a lifeline when the parents couldn’t cook. It was delish and laughably easy to make.

When you try the ramen burger, it’s clear these noodles aren’t cut from the same cloth. A friendly gentleman manning the Ramen Burger stand told us that the burger patty is made with hand cut noodles made by the Sun Noodle Company. On the website CEO, Hidehito Uki said that “noodles will be accepted anywhere in the world as long as they’re delicious”, and the noodle burger bun of the Ramen Burger is more proof that he was right.

Biting into the noodles you quickly realize that it’s the ramen, and not the meat patty that make this burger. The texture of the noodles allows you to taste the sauce and the patty in a whole new way. The ingredients are together, yet they are separate.

Real ramen noodles are handmade and their history in Japan seems to be a mystery even to the Japanese. It can be traced back to a Chinese soup somewhere between the 1600’s and the early 1900’s, according to Men’s Journal. Nobody knows how exactly or even when, but at some point the noodles migrated from China to Japan.

Historically, Japan has been very protective of their culinary and cultural traditions. This means that many of your favorite Japanese foods are likely the same dishes that people have been enjoying for thousands of years. So by Japanese standards, a dish that’s four centuries old is still a recent addition.

For a new dish to become so ingrained in Japanese cuisine is a big deal. The answer as to why this happened goes back to the mission statement of Sun Noodle’s CEO. Noodles are a simple dish that tastes really good and people like good food.

Of course, we can’t forget about the burger patty. Adding the burger to the noodles marks a new chapter in the evolution of ramen. This time, it’s a turn towards the west with an American and Japanese hybrid.

When you consider the American cultural influences in Japan (Japanese baseball, anyone?), a dish that takes an American favorite and fuses it with a Japanese favorite was only a matter of time.

Written by: Aleksandra Bulatskaya

Photos: Victoria Felicity Elizondo

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In the Kitchen, Everything Old is New Again

Cooking appliances that looked like they belonged in a laboratory rather than a kitchen, sat on the gleaming counters of the Michelin Star restaurant where Victoria and I came to interview the head chef about modern cuisine. Chef TJ couldn’t be more different from an immigrant grandmother’s kitchen but as we would later discover, it was the first thing we both thought of while its Chef, Joey Elenterio explained that these machines can change the molecular structure of food in minutes. We had just gotten back from a local farmers market where Elenterio bought an armful of fresh produce. His Sous Chef followed with a bouquet of freshly picked lavender from the restaurant’s garden, which was used to grow herbs and other seasonal produce. At the time, he was the young, 25-year-old chef who presided over one of the oldest, and, at that time one of the only, molecular cuisine restaurants in the Silicon Valley. When we asked him about the new and innovative techniques of molecular cuisine – by name alone, it sounded more like a project fit for a physicist rather than a chef – he gave credit to hundred-year-old traditions and not the fancy equipment. He explained that all the technology didn’t matter if the ingredients weren’t right. The freshest, local in-season produce was the star of the show. The invention of molecular cuisine seemed to relate more closely to old world techniques than modern cooking. As Americans, we tend to complicate food in order to simplify it or make it “better.” Growing up in an immigrant home, most recipes followed a similar guideline: buy fresh ingredients, don’t mess them up (while cooking), add some herbs, and enjoy. I still remember my grandmother sending my grandfather to the market with a shopping list. He would come back with the day’s catch of fresh fish and if it was really fresh, it was still be breathing (seriously). Both Victoria and I come from immigrant families, so we naturally talked a lot about the culinary traditions we saw at home. We loved the new foodie trend as much as anyone, but every new trend always seemed to come to back to cooking principles we both experienced in our families kitchens. To us, it seemed that cultures from all over the world are the ones that have always known the secret to good food. What appeared to separate a good chef from a great one, like Elenterio, was a deep respect for these traditions. Here was the hottest chef in town, cooking the most refined type of cuisine and he seemed to see himself as less of an innovator and more of a vehicle for these ancient practices. This assignment got us thinking about what this meant for every other new food trend. Why was it that culinary fads seemed to get closer and closer to old world traditions? We weren’t sure, but it looked like we were all searching for something in these foods, something deeper, almost primal and instinctive. It’s the reason Victoria’s grandmother still makes hand made tamales, and the reason my mother makes an Uzbek rice called plof — in a pot brought over from the Ukraine, no less. This is what inspired us to start this exploration. We are excited for you to join us on this journey as we discover more cultural tidbits, secret family recipes and the personal experiences of the artisans who make this food possible. XOXO, Alex and Victoria