When aspersions are cast upon the locavore movement, as they often are these days, it’s usually owed to perceived elitism, the steep tabs that folks associate with devout practitioners like Chez Panisse and Blue Hill, and a stubborn refusal to accept the rutabaga as a foodstuff you can build a meal around come February. Happily for ecominded misers, the local-and-seasonal school of cooking has had a trickle-down effect, making farmers’-market menus available everywhere from East Village rathskellers like Jimmy’s No. 43 to outlying pizzerias like Roberta’s (261 Moore St., Bushwick; 718-417-1118), where Greenmarket-inspired improvisations like wilted sucrine lettuce flavored with artisanal bacon are offered alongside quirky wood-fired pizzas topped with things like spring garlic and basil pesto.
The U.G. would also like to draw your attention to the downwardly mobile efforts of chefs like Peter Hoffman and Marc Meyer, both of whom spun off cheaper—if not exactly cheap—versions of their popular locavore establishments this year, offering barnyard-on-a-budget specialties like, at Meyer’s Hundred Acres (38 Macdougal St.; 212-475-7500), chicken-fried rabbit ($18, and made from contented bunnies, no doubt), and lightly battered fried squash blossoms ($11). At Hoffman’s Back Forty (190 Ave. B; 212-388-1990) you can wash down your grilled Catskills trout and cilantro salsa verde ($18) with milk-bottle mini-carafes of wine that go for the bargain rate of $9 to $10. (We have heard distressing reports, though, that the bean counters at Hundred Acres have seen fit on occasion to break their self-imposed $20 price ceiling, and on behalf of cheap eaters everywhere, we beseech them to come to their senses.) Another green-minded offshoot, Community Food & Juice (2893 Broadway; 212-665-2800), has transported its sibling Clinton St. Baking Company’s blockbuster blueberry pancakes to Morningside Heights, where it tosses its heaping house salad with North Fork greens from Satur Farms ($10) and shakes its martinis with organic gin and garnishes them with organic olives, and also offers a decent Oregon white wine whose sales, naturally, benefit the dwindling wild-salmon population. The common denominator of these places, besides good intentions, is the grass-fed burger, usually accompanied by hand-cut fries and boutique bacon and cheese.
Arepas and Empanadas
Typically cheap and almost always tasty, these stuffed Latin American snacks have been turning up all over town of late. At the excessively woody Habitat (988 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint; 718-383-5615), chef-partner Ashley Engmann makes four flaky varieties of empanadas and serves them two to an order with greens ($6 to $7). We’re partial to the pickle-packing Cuban ($3 each), which has not only survived the transformation from sandwich to stuffed pastry, but might, dare we say, even benefit from it. Melissa Fox is another master of the empanada art, and plies her trade at her hacienda-away-from-home A Casa Fox (173 Orchard St.; 212-253-1900), where the best stuffings are spiced beef and tomato, and pulled pork studded with caramelized onions ($5 apiece, or $8 for a curiosity-satisfying sampler of six minis).
Empanadas are typically wheat and baked; arepas are usually corn and griddled or fried. Except, that is, at Shachis (197 Havemeyer St., Williamsburg; 718-388-8884), where both are made from corn flour and bountifully stuffed. Shachis’ empanadas are smaller and deep-fried, and its denser grilled arepas enfold various fillings to make ten delectable sandwiches, of which the most delectable is the pabellón ($6), encasing savory shredded beef, plantains, black beans, and cheese—all the elements of the Venezuelan national dish save the rice. This classic combination can also be found across the Pulaski Bridge at Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave., Astoria; 718-937-3835), where the stuffed corn cakes are more compact, the cilantro-garlic sauce addictive, and the avocado-tinged reina variety the apotheosis of a chicken-salad sandwich ($5.75).
Who could have predicted that this year would see a mini-boom in great pizza-making as well as the reemergence of the Manhattan slice as a citywide contender? And who would have thought that the pizza story of the year would be about two cousins from Staten Island, Sal Basille and Francis Garcia, who took one of those pedestrian-counting clickers over to a seedy strip of East 14th Street one day, and after determining—click, click, click—that foot traffic on the block was sufficiently robust, set up a humble little slice shack called Artichoke Basille’s Pizza & Brewery (328 E. 14th St.; 212-228-2004)? The place became an instant hit among not only pedestrians but also celebrities, including that old slice hound Keith Richards, who tottered in one night, tucked into various items on the menu, and then leaped up on the counter as if it were a coconut palm tree and gave an impromptu performance on his air guitar. Now the lines are long and the wait is up to an hour, some say. But when the Underground Gourmet stopped by one recent afternoon, there was no line at all. A paper-plate sign taped to the door and referring to the pizzeria’s unique signature topping read no artichoke pies until 5:30. This unfathomable gumbo of creamed spinach and artichokes really has no place on top of a pizza, but it does have its fans. The thing to get, though, is the $3.50 Sicilian slice—a colossal square of crisp-edged dough fairly oozing with a sweet-and-tangy tarp of tomato sauce and four types of cheese. If there’s room at the counter, you can wolf this substantial specimen beneath a weird, toothy portrait of the Kennedys. Or if, like us, you enjoy dining alfresco with rivulets of orange grease dripping onto your shoes, there’s a concrete ledge a few doorways down that serves as a rustic picnic table.