We travel so we can eat well and eat often. Especially when we go to New York, it’s all about the food. We always visit a museum or two and we strut our stuff along Madison Avenue shopping til we drop. And we see a few shows as well. But mostly we eat.
We were going to Babbo, Chef Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s (son of the famous Chef Lydia Bastianich) first restaurant, well before it was cool and certainly before any of our friends who live in the city were going there.
Actually, we have a list of restaurants we recommend when friends visit the city, so if you want it, just email me and I’m happy to share. I am proud to say that this list does not include a single tourist trap restaurant. In fact, David was born in Manhattan, so it’s a real “local list” and features many places only frequented by those who live there.
It includes cheap eats, too, like where to get the best hot dog, falafel, ice cream, pastrami sandwich and hamburger. But it also includes one of our favorite yet not-so-cheap-eat haunts, Esca.
This Mario Batali owned and influenced restaurant is just outside the theater district in what used to be known as Hell’s Kitchen and has the best seafood in the city. Le Bernadin is on a different playing field than Esca (and we love Eric Ripert and his restaurant, too), but it’s like comparing apples to oranges or Italy to France, which just isn’t fair.
Dave Pasternack is a co-owner and the chef extraordinaire at Esca and this guy knows fish. Actually, he catches much of what he serves and if he didn’t catch it, he knows who did, where they caught it and when they caught it.
He is amazing and as true as it gets. You can feel the passion he has for his craft of both fishing and cooking.
Every time we’re at Esca, Pasternack comes up from the kitchen and gets David and takes him down to the kitchen to see the fish. I don’t mind sitting by myself for a little while. It’s something I’ve gotten used to because anytime David can go check out a restaurant kitchen, he’s there.
When they come back upstairs to the restaurant level, they are talking vivaciously, exchanging stories and talking recipes about how to fix this and what to do with that fish and where you can catch it. And then Dave goes back downstairs and gets to work.
A bit later a plate of something unbelievable arrives at our table. The first time Dave awed us was with his spectacular tuna meatballs and pappardelle.
OMG. It was so good, I think we both almost cried when we had eaten it all. Fortunately, Dave gave us the recipe that night and we have been making it ever since. (Plus, it’s now in his cookbook The Young Man and the Sea, which is beloved in our house.)
Lucky for you, I’m passing on the magic in the hopes that you, too, will fall in love and begin making these at home. If you are not a meat eater, these are a great substitute, although David thinks they may be even better than “meat” balls.
For the meatballs:
- ¾ cup bread crumbs from a stale baguette or ½ cup store-bought breadcrumbs
- ½ cup whole milk if using store-bought breadcrumbs, use ¼ cup milk or just enough to create a nice paste
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic diced
- 1 ½ pounds tuna cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 1/2 ounces pancetta chopped
- 1 large egg lightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley chopped
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 cups basic tomato sauce see recipe
- 1 pound dried spaghetti or polenta
For the basic tomato sauce:
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
- ½ onion finely diced (about ½ cup)
- 1 carrot finely diced (about ½ cup)
- 1 celery stalk finely diced (about ½ cup)
- 1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole-peeled tomatoes and their juices
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves chopped, with stems reserved
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt plus more to taste, if needed
- Freshly ground black pepper
To make the tomato sauce:
Heat olive oil in a 4-6 quart pot over medium-low flame until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and cook until soft and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook another 12 minutes or so, until veggies are soft, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes and their juice. Use a fork or a whisk to break them up into chunks. Add the basil stems and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are soft and the sauce has thickened, about 45 minutes.
Stir in the chopped basil and add a little salt and pepper. Remove from the flame and remove the basil stems. Either use the sauce immediately or let cool and store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
To make the tuna meatballs:
Place the work bowl and blade of a food processor in the freezer. Soak the cubed bread in the milk for 30 minutes.
In a 9-inch sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over a medium flame. Add the garlic and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Set the pan aside to cool.
Squeeze the bread in your clean hands to remove excess milk, then transfer to the chilled work bowl. Add the chunked tuna and chopped pancetta.
Pulse until coarsely ground and combined. Place the work bowl in the refrigerator briefly to cool the tuna mixture.
Add the sautéed garlic and its oil to the chilled tuna-pancetta-bread mixture. Add egg, parsley and red pepper flakes. Season with a little salt (1/4 teaspoon) and a few turns of the pepper grinder. Use your hands to lightly but thoroughly mix the ingredients until combined.
Over a low flame, heat the tomato sauce in a 6-qt. pot.
Form the tuna mixture into 20 meatballs, each about 1-¼ inches in diameter, or weighing about 1 ¼ ounces (see Note).
Over a medium-high heat, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil (in the same pan that was used to sauté the garlic) until hot but not smoking. Cook the meatballs in three batches until well browned all around, about 6-8 minutes.
As they finish cooking, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the simmering tomato sauce.
When all of the meatballs have been transferred, partially cover the pot and gently simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, carefully stirring occasionally.
Serve with pasta, polenta or, for sheer unadulterated pleasure, eat the meatballs and the sauce by themselves. These balls are best eaten the day they are made.
Before forming the entire batch into meatballs, make one, sauté it, and then taste it to correct the seasonings for the rest of the batch. This saves you from cooking all of the tuna and wishing it had more salt or more red pepper flakes. As always when making meatballs, the key to a light and fluffy meatball is damp hands.