Restaurants

25 Places Where Two Can Eat for $25

The East Village plays host to more types of ethnic food than one can easily enumerate, and the selection runs from Indonesian to Israeli to Greek to Australian. Now we even have an Australian ice cream parlor. But closest to the food of Middle America, and bedrock of cheap dining in the neighborhood, are the sainted Polish and Ukrainian places, which were here before piercings became de rigueur and every third person carried a guitar case. Even though TERESA'S (103 First Avenue, 212-228-0604) is slightly upscale as far as this cuisine goes, a pair of veal cutlets sided with potatoes and green beans, or a plate of butter-soaked pierogi for two, will set you back less than $25.

Like a Brooklyn Italian hero shop on steroids, MANGANARO'S HEROBOY(494 Ninth Avenue, 212-947-7325) which made its reputation peddling six-foot heroes to midtown office parties—has swollen to include a mile-long serving line and a pair of spacious dining rooms. The heart of the menu remains the massive hot and cold heroes, rather than the pastas and single-plate meals that have been added to the menu as an afterthought. Dig the chewy veal parmesan hero, the breaded cutlets nearly eclipsed by their mantle of cheese, or the off-the-menu "Mile High Special," which heaps on the cheese and cold cuts, then knocks the flavor into orbit with pickled red peppers.

For some real heirloom eating (the conscious consumption of ancient, now dwindling cuisines), check out DIAMOND DAIRY RESTAURANT(4 West 47th Street, 212-719-2694), located on a balcony overlooking the trading floor of the National Jewelry Exchange, a rabbit warren of independent jewelry jobbers. The blintzes are some of the best in town, thin tubular pancakes stuffed with sweetened pot cheese, while the egg salad sandwich beats any other—including ones you make yourself. The egg is finely chopped, then flavored with raw onion and lots of salt and black pepper. Open only for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Sometimes you need a belt-busting feed. No better place than the Indian steam tables of Jackson Heights, a series of off-price eateries that feature tandooris, curries, breads, and parti-colored basmati rice in all-you-can-eat buffets displayed right in the windows. The price varies by a dollar or two between lunch and dinner, but either way, you'll pay no more than $7.95. Most expensive is the venerable Jackson Diner, but the better value, and invariably featuring a dish that contains lamb or goat in addition to the blizzard of chicken selections, is ASHOKA (74-14 37th Avenue, Queens, 718-898-5088). Laudably, half the offerings are Mughal vegetarian dishes, and dessert is included.

Maybe you first became familiar with the OLD TOWN BAR (45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732)—founded in 1892 as a German bar and assuming its current identity in 1933—while watching the introduction to Late Night With David Letterman, in which a drunken camera careens past dark wooden booths and a marble-topped bar. Besides the fixtures, the walk-in porcelain urinals are another "must see," especially if you "must pee." The lush burgers and the tuna melt are justifiably celebrated, but my favorite thing on the menu is the Buffalo wings, served with enough celery to erase the resultant cholesterol from your veins. A big plate of wings and a beer makes a sublime dinner.

Saint Cono looks down from the china cabinet at VALDIANO (659 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-1707), identifying the restaurant as hailing from the hilltop town of Teggiano. And while many of the old southern Italian joints of Brooklyn, such as Frost and Bamonte's, are too expensive to be mentioned here, five-year-old Valdiano easily fits within our price constraints and serves food in a similar vein. The pasta fagioli soup is exceptional, as is the penne arrabiata, made with an unusual sauce rife with the fresh green chiles favored in Campania. The vegetarian selections are especially noteworthy, including the deep-fried cheese sandwich called mozzarella in carozza ("in a carriage") and involtini di melanzana, a roll-up of eggplant and ricotta.

Midtown and neighborhoods to the north have long had their off-price pasta mills, where you can get a big plate of, say, rigatoni sluiced with a variety of sauces for around $10. Unfortunately, these places are generally awful. Also concentrating on pastas, PEPE VERDE (559 Hudson Street, 212-255-2221) performs the same feat, only the product is scrumptious, and the modest surroundings make you feel like you're sitting in the living room of your rent-stabilized apartment. As I'm writing this, I'm poking around in the generous servings of two of my favorites—fettuccine with a pink porcini sauce and papardelle with spicy sausage—and wishing someone were here to share it with me . . .

Tiny 'INO (21 Bedford Street, 212-989-5769) took its cue from Milanese panini shops, creating delicate and deeply delicious Italian sandwiches and plates of charcuterie and cheese using only a sandwich press, toaster oven, and deli slicer. Look ma, no kitchen! The panini and tramezzini remain the best in town in spite of all the higher priced imitators. My favorites include the crustless tramezzini called the Italian BLT, with cubed pancetta standing in for bacon, and the mozzarella and pesto panini, annealed in the warm embrace of the sandwich press. Most devastating of all is the truffled egg toast, which features a runny egg yolk in a hollowed-out toast topped with oozing fontina cheese and truffle oil—Italian toad-in-the-hole.

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