words patricia lidis | images cebe loomis & rawan hadid
I heard a woman on the subway say, “I want to go to the supermarket. We must see the supermarket.” Her friends, puzzled, asked her why. I listened in. She said, “I want to see the large sizes.” In France, people buy fresh loaves of bread and poultry so that they enjoy their dinners that night. In New York, busy bodies order Fresh Direct and InstaCart, take-out, or buy as many groceries as they can carry on the L train so they don’t have to shop for another week. Of course half the food goes bad. The subtleties of life in New York have their own special qualities. Like praying that the hip-hop dancers on a moving train don’t kick you in the face with their Adidas high-tops.
I went on a search to find the Mediterranean in New York. Typically, Astoria, Queens is associated with the Mediterranean community, being largely comprised of ethnic Greeks, Arabs and Malts. The shops on Steinway Street are littered with hookah lounges where pungent grape tobacco can be breathed in liberally on a warm Friday night. Natives of Lebanon serve coffee to their friends and eat ripe fruit on the benches of Rainey Park, where there’s a beautiful view of the East River bridges crossing to Manhattan. Astoria is a mixture of ethnicities, and has a lot of apartment complexes filled with older generations seeking a break from congested downtown Manhattan. The Euro Market on 31st St and 30th Drive has an array of cured meats and beer. In the warm seasons, the Astoria Flea is a hot spot. It offers fresh fruit and veggies, just like in McCarren Park or Union Square. And it incorporates many staple foods beyond the Mediterranean alone, like sugar-dusted jelly doughnuts, Philippine bibingka, and brisket sandwiches. The market is worth a visit. It is simply decadent, diverse and full of life. The Mediterranean goes beyond Astoria, however. There are bric a brac and valuable objects from Syria, Greece, Sicily, Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean coast found all around greater New York. You just have to look.
Several flakey melt-in-your-mouth pastries can be found at the Turkish dessert shop on 2nd and 51st called Güllüoglu Baklava and Cafe. The shop itself is set up in a modern way, not really discernible from any other coffee shop in Manhattan. But inside, traditional Turkish tea is served in decorative silver cups, cheese borek, menemen with feta is housemade. Kalustyan’s grocery on 28th street is a great place to bring a little piece of the Mediterranean home with you to remind your friends and family of life back east. They even have the national Aryan drink. It’s a slightly carbonated yoghurt drink, lightly salted. Probiotics are healthy, and abundant in Turkey. But this drink is a particularly special find.
I visited Fresco Gelateria with the hope to have authentic Greek ice cream. However, while the service and ice cream was friendly and delicious, their ambience fell away from the warm Mediterranean sea and into the sound of busy typing on American computers. Nanoosh at Union Square has creamy hummus warm grain salads, and wooden chairs, but fails to deliver the feeling of a salty sea breeze.
Thick olive oil and a beautiful array of spices can be found in Chelsea market. Their truffle salts make your kitchen smell like a mushroom factory. Bright red and purple bohemian fabrics are seen in Soho. The City Quilter has great quilts in Flatiron. A salty wet breeze of the islands in the Mediterranean is found in the East Hamptons. The water there is clean and warm for swimming. The sand is white and hot, but easy to mold with the kids. The sun in August will burn your skin if you sip your cocktail for too long just like if you were on the sands of Sicily. It’s just a two hour drive from the city, and it’s ideal for a picnic with the family. The rides of Coney Island have that care-free element of a vacation, just being silly and letting ice cream melt on your tongue.
If you take a ferry to Shelter Island, Sunset Beach Hotel is an island onto itself. The South of France is transported to New York State – Andre Balazs’ latest stateside outpost dots the adjacent beach with marked yellow Veuve parasols and serves cocktails that transport you to Cote D’azure. Yes, there are beautiful people, no there aren’t as many yachts.
My search for an authentic Mediterranean borough didn’t start and end with one neighborhood in New York. It was found in sounds of Astoria, the food in Turkish stores, and the sands of the Hamptons. The Mediterranean is the laughter coming from your throat while you cook baklava, or the Ayran you drink at the park. It’s the little things that take you away, and New York is the center of its own gravity, affording a little bit of “there”, right here.