Perfect Picnics

Grab some eats, spread a tablecloth, and get lost in the landscape

Picture this: a brilliant day, with a few fleecy clouds scooting across a blue sky. You've got a few hours to blow, and a profound need to escape. An urban adventure beckons—time for a picnic, and no ordinary picnic, either. So grab your sunglasses, strap on your backpack, and follow me . . .


Southern Mountaintop
Manhattan

Love 'em and leave 'em in Staten Island
photo: Kate Lacey
Love 'em and leave 'em in Staten Island

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    The least visited part of CENTRAL PARK is the northwest corner, where the Great Hill rises through a crown of oaks and elms like some fog-shrouded landmark out of Lord of the Rings. Grab a picnic lunch from MISS MAMIE'S SPOONBREAD TOO (366 West 110th Street, 212-865-6744), and approach the hill from Duke Ellington Boulevard (106th Street). Your path lies through the mysterious Strangers' Gate, which proves, at least, that our forebears were prodigious punctuators. The rusticated stone portal leads to a twisting stairway of 77 steps cut into solid rock. At the summit you'll find a shady picnic area with 16 tables and, in the middle of an oval promenade, a sunny greensward with plenty of places to lay a cloth. In the 19th century, the views from this promontory extended to the Hudson River and Long Island Sound; now your view is mainly the distant derriere of St. John the Divine and the pointy château towers of the country's first cancer hospital, founded in 1884 and now a condo.

    Your picnic spread incorporates some of the best Southern cooking in town, including crisp-skin fried chicken dotted with black pepper, beef short ribs glossed with a delicate gravy, and, for lighter eaters, catfish sandwiches garnished with romaine and bright red tomatoes. The sides threaten to upstage the entrées: perfect green beans, macaroni with an orange mantle of cheese so bright it almost hurts your eyes, and cole slaw instead of the too-sweet potato salad. Meal done, you can either sit back and relax or explore the further glories of the Great Hill.

    The Challenge:Find Blockhouse number 1, a fortification built during the War of 1812 to repel a possible British invasion from Long Island.


    Día de los Muertos
    Staten Island

    When you arrive in the hamlet of NEW DORP on the dinky train that runs from the ferry, you'll feel like you've traveled back in time—a pretty line of shops runs along both sides of the sunken tracks like a frontier village, or maybe a resort town in the Catskills. New Dorp is an upper-middle-class enclave that climbs the alpine hills to the west—our eventual destination. Provision yourself at MORELOS GROCERY (134 New Dorp Lane, 718-987-2304), a well-stocked Mexican bodega that gives way to a tiny taqueria, all in the space of 300 square feet. Tortas are the things to get, bulging sandwiches dressed with ripe avocado, black beans, white cheese, jalapeños, and your choice of fillings. My fave is beef milanesa, a razor-thin cutlet something like a Texas chicken-fried steak, although chorizo, chile-sluiced pork, and—somewhat weirdly—hot dogs are also good bets. The tamales also turn out to be cheap and tasty, wonderfully malformed in their corn husk wrappers. For dessert, skip across the tracks to ANDREW AND ALAN'S BAKERY AND CHOCOLATE FACTORY (61-63-65 New Dorp Plaza, 718-667-9696), vestigial evidence of a German presence going back more than a century. One store-front slings streusel-topped fruit pastries, while the other manufactures many types of chocolates. The butter crunch—toffee crusted with pecans and milk chocolate—is especially compelling.

    With the eats packed securely in your satchel, walk four blocks west up New Dorp Lane to the intersection of Richmond Road, then turn right and walk another three blocks, until you arrive at the Moravian Cemetery. Follow the cemetery up Altamont Street—don't worry, no armed bikers, though you might encounter some rolling stones—until it dead-ends in a metal auto barrier. Walk around it and find yourself in High Rock Park. The hills seem Appalachian, and after you enjoy your Mexican repast on one of the knolls overlooking the graveyard, explore the rest of the park.

    The Challenge: Find the decommissioned frame lighthouse and the 1854 German farmhouse.


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    Into the woods
    photo: Kate Lacey
    Black Sea Idyll
    Brooklyn

    The Russian immigrants who perambulate the BRIGHTON BEACH boardwalk like to think of their neighborhood as a resort on the Black Sea, as you can tell by the names of the stores and restaurants. It's easy to imagine that you're shopping in Odessa as you troll the storefronts of Brighton Beach Avenue, admiring the orderly displays of vegetables, pork products, smoked fish, and piroshki—the 60-cent fried turnovers filled with potatoes or cabbage sold warm all along the thoroughfare. Buy a few piroshki, or assemble a more formidable feast at EXCLUSIVE DELI (411 Brighton Beach Avenue, no phone), which bills itself as the "World's Most Exclusive Delicatessen." One counter flaunts dozens of smoked pork sausages—some long and skinny, some fat and curvy. I pointed at a pair of stubby conjoined links and asked the clerk what they were called. "We call those sausages," she replied curtly. Vying with the smoked pork are five kinds of pickled mushrooms, 20 preserved fishes, flattened roast chickens strewn with crushed garlic, and slaws in profusion. New to me was "sour apple"—a golden delicious soaked in brine.

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