Michael Musto has been the Voice‘s resident chronicler of New York’s famous and profane since 1984, when he started penning his weekly La Dolce Musto column. He’s also a sometime actor and TV commentator, year-round bicyclist, and the author of three books, including the forthcoming Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, which will be published in February. Musto, who grew up in Bensonhurst and lives in Murray Hill, spoke with us about childhood trips to Spumoni Gardens, his love of Walgreen’s Spice Drops, and why he won’t be getting on a train to eat in Brooklyn anytime soon.
What’s in your refrigerator?
Oh my gosh, let me look. I have some bagels which I keep cold so they don’t go bad, three jars of jam, two bags of apples, some milk, light syrup for waffles that are in the freezer, Clear ‘n’ Natural flavored sparkling water in kiwi lime, kiwi strawberry, and peach apricot, lemon juice, and and ketchup.
Do you cook?
Basically I can boil noodles and open a can of sardines. That’s really all I need. I can prepare a lovely little 99 cent meals.
Where do you live, and where in your neighborhood do you like to eat?
I live in Murray Hill. There aren’t that many eating opportunities here that are up my alley, though there is Jackson Hole — they do a pretty good sloppy Joe-style burger. When I’m at the Voice, I eat at Virage, which I find ambient and reasonable and pretty tasty. I usually get the three-egg omelet with two items, salmon and mushrooms. It comes with coffee and toast; it’s dangerously veering on on brunch, and I’m anti-brunch. I also like the Ukranian Home, which I prefer over Veselka: is cozy and very reasonable, with large portions of good stuff.
Sometimes I’ll go to scene-y restaurants, like Indochine. The last time I was there I saw Moby, who was looking to hook up with some old high school friends. He said, ‘I hope they recognize me, because I had hair in high school.’ It was kind of sweet that he thought they wouldn’t recognize him. But the food there is really good — I love the sticky rice, the spring rolls, and the soups: just bring it on. You still see celebrities and interesting people there; those are two separate things.
But basically my tastes run to the not-flashy — I’m from Brooklyn. When I was growing up, our big deal was going for Combination Dish No. 2: very basic Chinese. Occasionally we would go to Spumoni Gardens. We’d have to get in the car to go there — it was my Disneyland. But I like very basic places, some dumpy places, like the Big Enchilada, or Curry in a Hurry, which is not that fast, ironically enough.
Which meal is the most important of your day?
I don’t really have a full breakfast; I just toast a bagel and have coffee or microwave some waffles with light syrup. Lunch is major, especially on a day like today because I’m going to a promotional lunch for A Serious Man at the Monkey Bar; I get to combine a meal with reporting for my column.
Have you been to Monkey Bar before?
Yes. I thought it was gorgeous. I was a fish out of water — I so don’t belong there. But I like being a fish out of water. The other day I went to a lunch for Up in the Air at 21; I stuck out like a sore thumb. They served heart attack food, with big baskets of French fries at the table. French fries accompany everything these days: upscale, downscale, uptown, downtown, everything comes with fries. I usually don’t have dessert but couldn’t resist — I had three lumps of caramelized ice cream. Lunch came with an angiogram.
What’s the most outrageous behavior you’ve ever witnessed at a restaurant?
Crazy things don’t happen in restaurants, they happen in nightclubs. But I went to a press preview of a Rocco DiSpirito steakhouse [Tuscan] that opened on the East Side, and they were so anxious to make sure that everyone was taken care of. They were overly fussy — every few seconds someone would come to move your salt shaker or fill your drink or fix your napkin. It was so disturbing; they were OCD on everything on the table. It was a little batty. But the food was great once it came and they stopped fucking around with it.
There was so much fuss made about [Rocco’s] mother’s meatballs. But I’m Italian and my mother’s meatballs are the best in the world. His mother’s are not even in the top 10.
Having grown up in Brooklyn, what do you think about how much of a culinary mecca it’s become? Are there any restaurants you’d go back for?
I’m from Bensonhurst. It’s never been fabulous and never will be fabulous, and that’s what I love about it. It’s just a place to live. The second Brooklyn began to be fabulous, people were like, ‘you need to come here,’ and I was like, no I’ve waited my whole life to get over that bridge. You can’t convince me that that’s where I need to be. I get so panicky about food that I need to know it’s coming — what if the train gets stuck?
Is there anything you wouldn’t eat?
Oh gosh, I’m the wrong person to ask. I should have a reality show called Iron Stomach. It’s food — what’s so horrible? Though I don’t like creamy sauces. Someone once invited me to their house as celebration of me, and I was so honored. And then she came out with a sausagey casserole and white cream sauce. I have to admit I wasn’t pleased. It was like an I Love Lucy episode where I was looking for a potted plant. But I politely ate some of it.
I’ve only turned down food once in my life, at the Edison Cafe. It’s a very conventional, reasonable, pre-Broadway show place to go. I ordered a leg of lamb thinking it would come out as a leg, and it came sliced up with tons of yucky gravy. They were very nice about exchanging food. I got chicken instead — you can’t go wrong with chicken.
What do you think of the fried chicken craze?
It’s kind of perverse, but nothing new — in the ’90s there was the comfort food craze. This is just the newest variation of the same thing. I would just as soon go to KFC; plus, I have coupons. It’s just so good — there are so many choices. But I don’t care, just give me a bucket with slaw and a muffin.
Where do you like to go for a slice of pizza?
God, I had pizza in Miami and I was shocked. I came running back to New York. They don’t know how to do it outside of New York — the crust is like cardboard. It’s cliche to say Ray’s in the West Village, but they really do turn it out.
So no fancy Neopolitan pizza for you?
I’m Italian American — I grew up with lasagna and meatballs and any attempt to fancify that strikes me as wrong. A basic slice it really works.
How about your favorite steak?
My favorite steak is the Knickerbocker’s. It’s steak on the bone served with a wedge of iceberg with blue cheese and a sorbet medley.
Is there anything you’ll only eat when no one else is watching?
No, I’m pretty much out of my closet about everything. I eat such grotesque things at home that it’s hard to imagine something hiding, though I do keep a big bucket of Spice Drops from Walgreen’s. I end every day with mouthful of spice. It’s amazing — 26 ounces for $2. I wake up with nice breath and 10 cavities.
Is there a food that you could eat everyday for the rest of your life and not get tired of?
Ooh, I’m a big starch person, so any kind of pasta, except if it has cream sauce. I also love soul food like collard greens.
Where do you like to go for soul food?
I’m not that thrilled with the Pink Tea Cup, though I’m sad to hear they might be in trouble. But Mobay on 125th. And Sylvia’s, though it’s slow.
Are there any restaurants that are particularly good sources for gossip or news?
I can’t really say. I’ve never been plugged into the restaurant scene for fabulosity or gossip. The owners protect their clients and they’re not going to tell you anything.
Are there any foods or restaurants that have helped define New York as a city for you?
Pretty much what I said about the steak and iceberg, but also anything my mother made: anytime she made a massive Italian feast for me and my friends, she set the bar so high.
I guess when I went to Astoria — a friend of mine lived there and had a birthday dinner at a restaurant. Of course, I had to get over my xenophobia that everything’s in Manhattan, so it did open my mind a little bit. And I did go to a Russian restaurant in Sheepshead Bay. I was sad that I don’t drink because they kept bringing out bottles of vodka. The blini was extravagant and delicious. But food unfortunately has never spun my head around; it’s just something that’s always there. It’s life, but it’s not my religion.