You probably have your own favorite harbinger of summer, whether it be the flowering ornamental pear trees in the Village, the opening of Atlantic beaches, or just the first day when you can walk around your neighborhood in shirtsleeves. For me it’s the appearance of hiyashi chuka on the menu at Sapporo (152 West 49th Street, 869-8972). This cold ramen dish arrives impressively heaped with a julienne of ham, pink pickled ginger, cucumbers, chicken, corn, and other prodigal ingredients, with a bowl of dark, sweet broth to moisten the noodles as you suck them down as noisily as possible.
When the mercury soars and the time arrives to apply deodorant with extra care, most of us take a cue from the lemmings and instinctively seek out open spaces and vast stretches of water. My favorite aquatic vista is island-dotted Jamaica Bay. It’s too polluted to go skinny-dipping, but you’ll see plenty of wild creatures. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (Broad Channel, Queens, 718-318-4340) hosts hundreds of species, including Canada geese, redstart warblers, ospreys, oystercatchers, willet, snowy egrets, even great blue herons. The circular trail skirts several habitats, providing stunning skyline views of Manhattan above the waving swamp grasses. You can easily walk there from the Broad Channel stop on the A, and on your way back, overshoot the station to sample Mama’s Ices, picturesquely located in a trailer at the corner of East 9th Road and Cross Bay Boulevard (no phone). My current fave among the water ices is mango, with little frozen chunks of pure fruit. Among the milk ices, I prefer the weird-but-delicious cannoli. Choose from 75 flavors.
Speaking of ices, I bet you thought I was going to recommend Lemon Ice King of Corona for the umpteenth time. Nope. I’m still pissed at them for the cruddy candy apples they sell during the winter, while the ices are paradoxically on vacation. The current best ice in the city is found at Cones (272 Bleecker Street, 414-1795), that elite purveyor of the city’s most expensive frozen treats. The sparkling and alarmingly acidic grapefruit is the only one that’s worth the whopping $9 per pint, and I blush to admit my pint-a-week habit.
Summertime is dessert time, and it’s probably the only season when you can make an entire meal of desserts without suffering popular censure. Nothing is better than sitting in the backyard tenement garden of Gnocco Café (337 East 10th Street, 677-1913), meditatively eating the budino di castagne, a creamy chestnut pudding. The lake of dark chocolate beneath knocks the nutty flavor for a home run. To Italians, this dessert has even greater resonance: During World War II, on the verge of starvation, the population was forced to substitute chestnut flour—the use of which dates back to Roman times—for the unobtainable wheat in their favorite recipes, and in many parts of Italy today, pasta and desserts made with chestnuts evoke a bittersweet nostalgia.
One whiff of barbecue smoke sends most people rocketing back to childhood picnics, where Dad wielded the long tongs and children waited excitedly for the first hot dog or hamburger of summer. Why not mount your own barbecue? You can buy bags of irregular hardwood charcoal at El Gauchito (94-60 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst, Queens, 718-271-8198), then traipse across the street and make your meat selections (pick skirt steak and cuminy blood sausage) at La Esquina Criolla (94-67 Corona Avenue, 718-699-5579), a Uruguayan meat market cum steak house. Afterward, seek out one of the parks where the officials are likely to look the other way while you barbecue, like the East River Park (FDR Drive and 6th Street, 529-7185) or Prospect Park (95 Prospect Park West, 718-965-8951, www.prospectpark.org) near the 9th Street entrance.
Or just go straight to New York’s only real barbecue, Pearson’s Texas Barbecue (71-04 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-779-7715) and grab yourself a mess of pork ribs, beef brisket, hot links, and garlicky Polish sausage, barbecued to perfection over real hardwood the old-fashioned way, with no shortcuts.
For a virtual vacation to Philadelphia, drop by Philly’s Cheesesteaks (724A Seventh Avenue, 974-0524) and sample the nearly authentic Philly cheese steak. Though there’s no bubbling pot of Cheez Whiz on the griddle, the provolone and American cheese function just fine, and don’t forget to ask for extra fried onions. The steak is better quality and sliced a little thicker than you get in the City of Brotherly Love, but who’s gonna complain? There’s even a vegetarian version, substituting mushrooms for meat and nearly as greasy.
Here’s the best sunset outing: Take the N train to Broadway in Astoria, and trek one block west to Cantina da Lina (31-90 30th Street, Astoria, Queens, 718-278-2801). Select your evening picnic from a menu that rotates by day of the week, and includes Brazilian home-style meals like feijoada (Saturday), the shrimp stew bobo de camaro (Sunday), and frango com quiabo, chicken and okra served over polenta (Tuesday). Snacks like empanadas and savory fritters are always available. Proceed westward to Socrates Sculpture Park (Broadway at Vernon Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens, 718-956-1819) on Hallets Cove in the East River, where brilliant sunsets backlight an Upper East Side skyline towering over the lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island.
For a taste of American Graffiti, seek out L.& B. Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street, Brooklyn, 718-449-1230) on a weekend evening, when the action goes far into the night. Girls in polka-dot scarves sit at red picnic tables as boys cruise by in SUVs, and a traffic jam forms with this beloved institution as its focus. There’s lots of dross on the three menus (pizza parlor, spumoni dispensary, sit-down joint), but you can’t go wrong ordering the rectangular Sicilian pie, constructed in the upside-down style with the gooey cheese on the bottom and the bright tomato sauce mottled artistically on top. It’s a beaut! 1/2 tray = 12 slices = $16. Chase it with a spumoni, of course.
Finally, pair a visit to the New York Botanical Garden (200th Street and Kazimiroff Boulevard, Bronx, 718-817-8779) with a southward trek to the Bronx’s famous Albanian neighborhood, Arthur Avenue. I skip the amusement-park attractions at the former, and head right for the undeveloped parkland that adjoins the Bronx River, which features mini-cliffs with some charming river views, an antique snuff mill, and a chance to take a surreptitious wade, away from the prying eyes of park rangers. Leave by the south entrance, skirt Fordham University, and wander south on Arthur Avenue to Restorant Shqiptar (660 East 187th Street, Bronx, 718-562-4700), where you can cop a sidewalk table and enjoy qingj i pjekur (roasted lamb haunch), peshk zgare (grilled sea bream), or sallate turshie, a sharply flavored toss of cucumber, pickled red peppers, and Albanian feta. Wash it down with the beer of choice in this neighborhood—Bud.