Mohammed Ahmed has been running the West Village newspaper and magazine shop Casa Magazines for 15 years at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street. Casa is a magazine-lover's dream. If what you're looking for is not available, Mohammed will special order it for you. He and his longtime assistant, Syed Khalid-Wasi spoke recently to Walking and Talking and offered a glimpse into the periodical reading habits of West Villagers.
WT: What are your best-selling periodicals?
MA: The New York Times, for newspapers, and for magazines, Vogue, British Vogue, Paris Vogue and Fantastic Man.
WT: What are the most unusual or obscure periodical requests you have fielded?
MA: Zeek (a Jewish journal on thought and culture). I had to special order this. Also Memoir (a bi-annual journal of “memoir and prose, poetry, essay, graphics, lies and more”) and October (an intellectual journal of art, theory, criticism and politics from MIT Press).In order of popular subject matter, it’s fashion first, then design and decorating,, computer and cars, skateboarding, then health and fitness.
WT:What is your bestselling non-periodical item?
SKW: Natural American Spirit tobacco (organically grown in Santa Fe, NM by independent small farmers.) WT:What do you yourself read in the store? SKW: Only Time Out New York. I love my work. I have beautiful customers. They treat me like family. I have a good time here. WT: What music do you play in the store? MA: Always WQXR (105.9, all-classical music)!
So far, from what I can tell Il Cantuccio, the new Italian bakery at 91 Christopher Street near Bleecker, puts a very high premium on chewiness. You have to like mastication in order to take pleasure in its products. Its signature cantucci are super chewy biscotti, which come in chocolate, almond, fig, prune and apricot flavors, and are a welcome change from those over-sized, crown-busting rocks that sit in a glass jar next to your local barista.
The schiacciata flatbread at Il Cantuccio are similar to focaccia, but flatter, with a muscular, elastic texture that puts the wimpy, fluffy texture of Genovese focaccia to shame. These flatbreads are as challenging to the jaws as the cantucci, and come plain or topped with tomato or large cubes of bacon. It is the combination of their austere flavor and their amazing texture that make the schiacciata so weirdly addictive. The brutti-boni (the name means “ugly but good”), are pale lumps of almond paste, egg whites, sugar, flour and salt that are baked at a low temperature to make them crisp on the outside, and –you guessed it—chewy on the inside.
Il Cantuccio also offers pizza on a Tuscan-style flat bread similar to its schiacciata, sandwiches, and various other round, sweet and softer breads baked with raisins, rosemary and chocolate. They are brought to us courtesy of Tuscan bakers and co-owners, Camilla Bottari, Simone Bertini, and Lorenzo Palombo, who came with their recipes from Prato, north of Florence. The bakery traces its roots back to its founder and patron saint of chewiness, Leonardo Santi, who began making his cookies in 1920 in the Besenzio valley’s Migliana.
Bottari notes that all Il Cantuccio’s ingredients are imported from Italy, which perhaps accounts for the intense flavorfulness of the dried fruit. The schiacciata is made from nothing more than flour, yeast, olive oil and salt. The most popular items, she says, are the chocolate and the apricot cantucci. New Yorkers may also be mesmerized by the fact that, in addition to packing a lot of flavor and texture, these cookies are made without butter or oil, consisting of only sugar, flour, eggs and their various fruit or chocolate components.
How do they manage this? Bottari gives away nothing, saying, “It’s been a secret recipe for 50 years.”
Interview with Daniel Shaviro
I highly recommend this hilarious satire, Getting It, by NYU tax law professor Daniel Shaviro. It's about venal law firm associates trying to claw their way to partnership in an '80s era Washington, D.C. firm and it made me laugh at lot. Read my interview with the professor here!
Some time after I wrote about protesting restaurant delivery workers in the West Village for the March issue of WestView, I spoke with David Colodny, senior staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center (UJC), a local non-profit legal and advocacy organization for low-income New York City residents. The center works with street vendors, domestic violence victims, sex workers and other groups that don’t get a lot of legal representation.
UJC also works with immigrant Chinese restaurant workers. Colodny filed a February 2008 U.S. District Court lawsuit on behalf of several deliverymen against their employer, Kawa Sushi, alleging minimum wage and overtime labor law violation and retaliation for organizing.
The UJC lawyer says 10- to 12-hour shifts are typical for restaurant delivery workers. Their work day begins in the morning, before the restaurant opens. They might deliver menus throughout the neighborhood, clean the sidewalk, or cut cardboard for delivery bags. In the afternoon, their “side work” continues with chores such as filling plastic sauce containers, chopping vegetables, and more cleaning.
“They’re treated as someone who’s going to make a lot of money earning tips, but at the end of the day, when you figure it out, these are not lucrative jobs by any stretch of the imagination,” says Colodny. “They can also be very physically demanding; working in really cold or hot weather lack of breaks, no sick leaves and difficult working conditions.” The minimum wage for tip-earning workers is $4.60 per hour, compared to the non-tip earning minimum in New York State of $7.25 per hour. The workers I spoke to were not even getting that; they were earning between $1.90 and $3 an hour and working over 70 hours per week.
Unspoken in this debate is the immigration status of the workers who have tried to unionize, and the possibility that their status makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by restaurant owners. “From a legal standpoint, everyone who works is entitled to be paid,” says Colodny, who adds, “The common factor in these cases is employers preying upon immigrants who don’t speak English, often are not aware of their rights, and are not in a position to assert them. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this kind of abuse that goes on.”
How many of us think about these things when we open our door to a member of the city's vast network of deliverymen, the runners and cyclists who travel our streets carrying white plastic bags and insulated plastic pizza box holders? If America runs on Dunkin', New York runs on food delivery. So next time you go to your door in happy anticipation of your pizza/Thai/Chinese/Japanese food, try to imagine the kind of day the man holding the bag has had.
Just as I was mourning the closing of the gorgeous Fifth Avenue branch of the Japanese department store Takashimaya, a beautiful and mouth-watering book arrived on my desk. Titled Food Saké Tokyo, it is written by a former Takashimaya depachika (food hall) employee, Japanese-American chef, sommelier and journalist Yukari Sakamoto.
As I flipped through the book, nostalgic memories of our satellite Takashimaya, with its once-delicious Tea Box restaurant, tea counter, Yokumoku cookies and raffiné Japanese ceramics began to seem paltry compared to Sakamoto’s dissection of the real thing: the Tokyo depachika. A combination of the words depā-to (department store) and chika (basement), these underground food extravaganzas are a something like a cross between Chelsea Market and Bergdorf’s, but with many more specialty food shops—pickles, saké, Japanese and western confections, meat, chocolate, to name just a few—representing the best edible and potables the country and world have to offer.
There are many other pleasures to be found in this handy guidebook, which is part of The Little Bookroom’s Terroir series (other volumes in the series include food and drink guides to Burgundy, Rome and Budapest). Filled with hunger-inducing photos, Food Saké Tokyo is aimed at the gastro-tourist who wants to know where to find the best, whether it is miso, senbei crackers, kaiseki (a style of dining composed of an artful parade of small plates) or an inexpensive bowl of ramen. It also includes useful tips on dining etiquette (never let your companion’s beer or saké glass go empty), primers on the Japanese vocabulary of food and drink and listings by neighborhood.
I loved the page that defines food and drink-related giongo and gitaigo, onomatopoeic double words that meld taste, feel, sound and language into a sensory-descriptive whole that English utterly lacks. For example, a bowl of hot, steaming rice is hoka hoka; koto koto is the sound a bubbling pot makes and the stickiness of natto (fermented soybeans) is neba neba.
It’s been years since I lived and worked in Japan and regularly trawled the depachika for unusual foods. When I return for a visit next year, Food Saké Tokyo will be in my suitcase, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of where and what I’ll be eating.