Until recently, dining on Mulberry Street meant suffering through bland penne alla vodka or lackluster veal Marsala. But then quietly over the past year, the stretch of pavement between Prince and Spring transformed into a veritable oasis for omnivores.
The most recent addition, Rubirosa (235 Mulberry Street, 212-965-0500), harkens back to when red-and-white-checkered tablecloths ruled the ’hood, but it elevates the classic red-sauce cuisine of yore. The pizza crust, thin and crisp like flatbread, shatters in your teeth with a loud crunch. The classic pie ($15) impresses, and the vodka-sauced version ($16) even more so, but most enticing is the one topped with bright broccoli rabe, roasted garlic cloves, and thinly sliced sausage. Bitter, sweet, salty, and gooey—what more could you want, save maybe an antacid chaser?
Almost directly across the street sits Torrisi Italian Specialties (250 Mulberry Street, 212-965-0955), a tiny gem of a space. Getting a table come dinner-time is frustrating because the shop doesn’t believe in reservations, and the line already stretches partway down the block at 5:30. Pretension runs high, too—the nightly $50 multi-course prix fixe won’t accommodate menu substitutions for vegetarians, kids, dietary restrictions, or allergies. But enjoying the fare without the fuss and wait (or at least only a 20-minute wait) can still be had. How? Lunchtime sandwiches.
The Italian combo ($10) delights with its five types of meat, plus cheese, pickled peppers, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes. And moist turkey breast may seem like a contradiction, but Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s version tucks the succulent herbed bird inside a roll ($9) or hero ($11). When all that meat and bread prove too overwhelming, gobble up the zippy eggplant caponata ($4). Pocked with capers and roasted red peppers, this tangy and sweet delight tiptoes into the realm of dessert.
A few steps down Mulberry, you’ll find Balaboosta (214 Mulberry Street, 212-966-7366), which shifts gears toward the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. The eatery’s name means “the ideal or perfect housewife” in Yiddish—the type of formidable lady who runs a tight ship in the home and kitchen. But chef-owner Einat Admony, who also owns falafel snack shop Taïm, isn’t creating a shrine to herself. No, she’s celebrating her aunt, memorialized in a large black-and-white photograph in the center of a stark white wall in this homey neighborhood place, where the cooking surpasses the typical corner joint’s.
Small plates and appetizers shine, not totally surprising since mezze (dips, spreads, and tiny bites) are a mainstay of Middle Eastern fare. No longer health-food fodder, quinoa ($7) pairs up with slivers of preserved lemon, whole chickpeas, and dried cranberries. OK, maybe it’s still healthy, but now it can call itself sexy. Smoky eggplant bruschetta ($9), festooned with an herb salad and a touch of silan, beats any version found on the streets of Florence. And with the delicious pizza topped with carrot purée, goat cheese, and cilantro ($11), you’ll experience a grassy fresh burst amid the sweetness followed by a lingering heat.
Mains don’t excite the palate like the starters, though. Orecchiette with wild mushrooms, sautéed kale, and ricotta ($20) is unmemorable and overcooked, while the breast meat of the half-chicken under a brick ($22) is as dry as the Negev (though the dark meat remains succulent).
The Levant is an up-and-coming wine region, but its bottles don’t dominate the offerings, probably because the list emphasizes sustainable, organic, and biodynamic practices over geography. But do try the land of milk and honey’s 2008 Clos du Gat Har’el Cabernet Sauvignon ($65). Then pit it against Lebanon’s Massaya’s Bekaa Valley 2007 ($37), and you can attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict (at least from a beverage standpoint). For any other problems—or at least those that can be assuaged with food—well, that’s what a Balaboosta is for.