What are my favorite things to eat? Good question. Thanks for asking.
And what are the two foods I loved most in New York that I can’t find now that I live in Denver?
If you ever hear that I’ve moved back east, and I say something like “I want to be closer to my family” or “I miss the racial diversity of New York” or “Denver just can’t compete when it comes to the arts,” don’t believe me. It’s for the bagels. And the mozzarella—the homemade kind, at the Italian delis.
By “bagels” I mean the real thing: big and fat, not those circular pieces of bread sold in a bag, and not the tiny-soft ones sold at chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Einstein’s. It’s gotta have heft. Each half should be the equivalent of four slices of bread. And don’t even talk to me about places that put the salt and garlic and seeds on only one side.
For some reason, it’s tough to make bagels at high altitude, so in Colorado, a good bagel is hard to find. On the other hand, I don’t see too many bakers making much of an effort. Rosenberg’s in Denver is the only place I know of that has succeeded, but it’s a twenty-minute drive, and because I’m so lazy (which, I admit, could have something to do with eating a lot of bread and cheese), I don’t bother. Plus, what I miss about New York is not a particular bagel shop (well, there was the old Waverly Café’ in the East Village, and the guy on the corner of 96th and Central Park West, and Harrison Bagels in my hometown, near the train station), but the pervasiveness of them. A good bagel may be found just about anywhere, and that good ol’ free-market capitalist competition keeps everyone on their toes. Here in Denver, well, there’s Rosenberg’s.
And by “mozzarella” I certainly do not mean the pre-sliced logs sold at Costco or the shredded stuff in bags hanging at grocery stores. That stuff barely qualifies as cheese—we might as well call it “cheese food” for all the preservatives in it. No, I’m talking mozzarella di bufala, baby, made by hand, rolled into balls, dripping with milk. When you cut into it, it oozes milk, divides into juicy shreds, and when you bite into it, it makes your whole mouth happy. I’ve tried the homemade mozzarella at three Italian delis near my house, brought them home with an extra skip in my step, excited to try it, and each time, the disappointment was crushing.
Why do I have such high standards for bagels and mozzarella and yet can otherwise eat (with pleasure) all kinds of crap? It happens that I was spoiled, early in my life, with the very best of these two foods. I distinctly remember, as a boy visiting my family in Italy, biting into my first real mozzarella ball and holding that piece in my mouth, stunned by how delicious it was, feeling my eyes well up with joy. (Since then, every time I visit, my aunts and uncles are sure to provide me with my own baseball-sized ball as an appetizer, from “the shop that makes the best mozzarella in the world”—which, for the record, is the Caseificio La Pagliara in Caianello, Caserta.) As for bagels, not when I was growing up (we were the typical family with Wonder bread in the breadbox and no bagel shop in town), but when I went to graduate school at NYU and lived in the city I enjoyed fresh homemade bagels in the morning with a delicious cup of coffee (certain things go great with coffee, and I need not tell you that an everything bagel with cream cheese is one of them), or as a late-night snack.
Other foods I miss from New York, pervasive there, but hard to find here—the big floppy slices of pizza, matzoh-ball soup, the chicken parm sandwich—I’ve been able to find suitable replacements for, or learned to live without. But as long I remain out here—and it’s been twenty years now—I think that the dearth of good bagels and real mozzarella di bufala (along with, you know, my beautiful family, the vibrancy of Manhattan, the majestic beauty of the Hudson River, and so on) will continue to tug at my heart, my stomach, my very soul.