>> Wednesday, April 11, 2018

107-12 70th Road
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 544-4600

If there's one thing that this blog advocates for, it's for the inclusion of more restaurants to the area. Good ones. Fun ones. Cool ones. Ones that might make people in Manhattan or Brooklyn go "hey, nice." Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Numero 28 Pizzeria, the rather highly regarded minichain that sells upscale wood-fired pizza recently opened a Forest Hills location and I decided to go... four times.

Numero 28 is sort of like a cross between the gastropub feel of Station House and the Italian restaurant feel of Tuscan Hills with a thin crust pizza menu a la Nick's. The exposed brick walls, Edison bulbs, and glowing ball table lamps are youthful and cool, but the dark woods and red leather seating along the wall between the bar and the open hearth wood-fire oven lends an upper-class atmosphere to the place. As a result, Numero 28 is able to appeal across age demographics, alienating no one but those with little kids.

On none of my four trips to Numeo 28 did I order standard Italian entrees, so if that's what you're looking for a review of, then I hate to disappoint you, but you're gonna be disappointed. I did, on the other hand, try two of their appetizers and both were very good. The first appetizer, the Polpo Alla Griglia, a grilled octopus leg with Brussels sprouts over a butternut squash puree was more than very good. It was amazing. It was tender, lightly charred, exploded with flavor, and both Lutsy and I absolutely loved it. The other appetizer I tried, on a subsequent excursion with my parents, was the Sicilian Rice Balls. The rice balls, which are filled with a meat sauce and mozzarella cheese, are about halfway between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball,  come in a group of three, and are served in a little bowl of sweet marinara sauce. We all liked them very much, and I'd certainly get them again. My parents were happy to have tried them but weren't swooning. "I prefer the ones we had in Sicily," my mom remarked. First world problems notwithstanding, I predict that you'll enjoy them.

In no particular order, I tried seven pizzas from Numero 28. All were good even if I didn't like them. Case in point, the Marinara pie was particularly awful, but that's my fault because I was a schnook and didn't read the description. Others out there might say "hey, this is loaded with anchovies and capers and doesn't come burdened with pesky cheese? Who could ask for more?!" That said, I'm sure it was a good pizza. It's just that I'm the wrong market for such a dish. On the other side of the spectrum, the Numero 28, a white pie with speck and mushrooms, was insanely good. I wish they made a red pie version because, at the end of the day, red pies are where my heart is. Speaking of white pies, aside from the Numero 28 the white pies, across the board, were weaker than the red ones. The Salsiccia e Friarielli pie, which comes with spicy Italian sausage and broccoli rabe (gotta have my dark greens), and the Pere, which is a Gorgonzola pie topped with walnuts and thin spices of pear were both just okay. The Salsiccia was understandably bitter, but also kinda dull. I'd absolutely get it again, mind you, but I'd want to get it with a companion who is ordering a red pie so we could split the two. Meanwhile the Pere, which one would expect to be sweet, wasn't. Indeed, it was somewhat bland. I really can't recommend the Pere, but Numero 28 can fix it by adding a drizzle of honey and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. THEN I think it'd be great.

The Margherita pizza is the closest to a standard plain pie that I saw on the Numero 28 menu, and it's not going to disappoint you. The marinara is sweet, there's just enough fresh basil to give you that amazing aroma without turning the pie into smelling like a dry goods store, and they don't skimp on the cheese. Skimping on the cheese is the biggest threat to a good margarita pie and Numero 28 loads the pie down with fior de latte (the go-to cheese on most of their pizzas). If you want something with a little bit more oomph, the Fricchettone and Rustica pies are great. The Fricchettone is loaded up with kale, sausage, basil, and two kinds of cheese and honestly is just heaven on a plate. The similarly optioned Rustica uses green pepper, which I thought made the pizza a little less complex and interesting on the tongue. On the plus side, it's easier to pronounce, especially after two glasses of malbec.

Margherita (top) and Pere (bottom) pies
Fricchettone pie
Numero 28 pie
Marinara pie
Rustica pie
Salsiccia e Friarielli pie
Having now sampled a rather large swath of Numero 28's pizza menu, I can state unequivocally that they know what they're doing. The pizza is most similar to Nick's in theory, but not in practice. Nick's is where I'd go for a more traditional pie if I want that pie in this style. Numero 28 is more specialty-focused. There's no basic cheese pie; no pepperoni pie; no plain white pie. And while they have a "toppings" list where one could presumably build the pie of their choice, since there's no basic cheese pie to build it on, the toppings section seems like a waste of menu real estate. Plus, as I alluded to before, Numero 28 isn't really kid-friendly. I'm not saying that they'll kick you out, but Nick's with it's bright lights and big booths is way way better for families with children.

Side notes to the management: please lose the TV over the bar. NASCAR and negronis do not mix.

Each individual pie is about 12 inches in diameter, which is enough for one person to eat without stuffing themselves to bursting, and costs an average of $17. They also make pies for "couples" that are bigger, and "family" sized pies that are about a yard long.



>> Thursday, March 8, 2018

72-38 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 520-5199

A late lunch brought Lutsy and I to Xin Taste a few days ago. We wanted cheap, good, fast, and not burgers. Neither of us had been to Xin Taste, the pulled noodle spot on Austin Street. Pulled noodles have become quite the trend in the last year, with restaurants popping up across the city; Chinese cuisine's answer to ramen. It makes sense. I won't get into politics, but life ain't cheap. Hence, the rise in demand for dining options that are. Enter Xin Taste. Huge portions and not a burger in sight.

Xin taste is small. It has just a few tables and one long counter. If you're like me, your inner nerd emerged began and you immediately thought of Blade Runner. If only it was pouring rain, pitch black out, and the cars flew. Definitely grab a seat along the wall, watch the chef through the window make the noodles from scratch and whip them like jump-rope stretching them out, and enjoy the coziness of eating at the only noodle bar in the area.

Lutsy and I both ordered soups with thin noodles. She ordered Roast Pork La Mein Soup, and I ordered the House Special La Mein Soup. All of the soups come with your choice of beef broth or clear broth. "The clear broth is pretty tasteless, but the vegans like it" said the girl taking our order with a no-accounting-for-taste look on her face. "Sometimes, they even just ask for plain hot water." I told her we'd go with the beef broth.

The soups both came loaded with cilantro and scallion and with a hard-boiled egg and some additional veggies. Throw in some hot pepper or vinegar and let your sinuses open up while you smell that deliciousness. The bowls are big. I'd say you get a solid quart's worth for your money. The main difference, if not the only difference, between our choices was the meat. The House Special comes with a variety: spare ribs, roast pork, roast beef, and sausage. I was most surprised by how good the sausage was. And if anyone ever asks you if you should throw your spare ribs into a soup, you now know that the answer was yes. The one downside was that the cuts are cheap and by the time the soup was done there was a little collection of fat or bone or cartilage to throw away on the side of the tray. All the same, this was a great bowl of soup. I couldn't wait to return.

So I did. I came back a few days later by myself to try a stir fry. I chose the Roast Pork Dao Xiao Mein (the wide noodle). Again, the amount you get is massive. The couple next to me, as they were leaving, remarked how full they were and probably won't need anything else for the rest of the day. This is clearly a common response. The wide noodles are thick and doughy and they stick together into delicious globs. The meal is essentially a stew. It's thick and syrupy. There were mushrooms, tomato, bok choi, and sprouts along with my roast pork, but not nearly as many as I would have liked. More vegetables are always a plus in my book, especially with a dish as starch-heavy as this. That doesn't mean it wasn't good. Even though I preferred the soup, and will likely stick to soup at Xin Taste from now on, I all but licked my plate clean.

"So how is this soup different from ramen?" Lutsy asked as we left. Well, I told her, it's hard to explain but you'll see for yourself when Tamashii opens up down the block.

Each bowl of soup or stir fry dish ranges from $10 to $13.



>> Thursday, January 11, 2018

110-60 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 487-4500

"Arrivederci Ovo Sodo," was what I thought to myself as I stepped into Tuscan Hills' new location. Ovo Sodo, Tuscan Hills' more casual sister, was my favorite Italian restaurant in the zip code that didn't have "Tazzina" in its name and I was sad to see it go. It was bright and airy and relaxed, had a great brunch, and, most importantly, made the "OvoSodo" Pizza. But a lack of packing in customers meant that Ovo Sodo was not long for this world. Meanwhile, Tuscan Hills wanted a better location. As it turns out, being smack halfway between Continental and Union Turnpike was less than ideal.

I had hoped that the new Tuscan Hills would absorb some of the Ovo Sodo elements (both design-wise and menu-wise), but that was not the case. It's all but a carbon copy of the original location; its decor is darker and subdued. More romantic and has that more traditionally Mediterranean look. If Ovo Sodo was where you would meet your girlfriends to split appetizers and gossip, then Tuscan Hills was where you would take your girlfriend on her birthday.

So I took my girlfriend there on her birthday.

Lutsy and I were led to a seat by the window where I patiently waited until the table in the middle of the photograph above this paragraph emptied and was reset so I could take a decent shot. As we drank our wine and poured over the menu, I found myself straining to find something to order that seemed unique to Tuscan Hills. Prosciutto wrapped asparagus doesn't make that list and Lutsy and I have learned that fried calamari should be reserved for New England bars, covered in jalapeƱos, and served alongside a hoppy IPA. So, in skipping the old standbys, she chose the Rustico Bruschetta, a mushroom bruschetta with mozzarella and truffle oil, and I ordered the Fagioli All Uccelleto, a braised and crusted spicy sausage over cannellini beans and cherry tomatoes.

Sadly, the bruschetta was a miss. Serving it on a small cutting board was cute and certainly "rustic", but serving it on a few leaves of lettuce was somewhat pathetic and sucked all of that rustic cuteness right out the door. "You gonna eat your salad?" I said after the dish was finished. Lutsy did not reply. Still, we didn't come here to gripe about poor garnish choices, we came to eat, and this particular bruschetta made us wish that we had eaten something else. I can't beat it up and claim that it was inedible, because that's far from the case, but it was dry and bland. The dish needed something else, like a cream sauce between the mushrooms and the cheese. Something to moisten it up. On the other hand, the sausage was very good and much larger than I was expecting. If all you want for dinner is an appetizer, this is the one to get. The sausage, as expected, had a little bit of bite to it, and it paired very well with the almost creamy beans and tomato. Add in the lack of unnecessary lettuce leaves and it's win win win!

For the main course, Lutsy was debating between the lasagna and the Pici Alla Fondelli, fettuccine with olives in a wild boar meat sauce. The bold font might have given it away but she opted to try the lasagna another time and chose the pici alla fondelli. This was the better of our chosen two entrees. The fettuccine was phone-book-thick; they say it's fresh-made). The meat sauce was delicious, and I think there should have been more of it. Wild boar in general is a bit like a gamey cross between pork and beef, and this was no exception. So if you're a meat sauce fan, enjoy wild boar, and like having every third bite explode with the bitter tartness of an olive, then I highly recommend this dish.

Initially, I was planning to get the wild boar as well, but in order to sample more of the menu, I went for the non-pasta option of the Pollo Al Peperoni, a massive, pounded flat chicken breast with mashed potatoes in an onion pepper cream sauce with balsamic drizzled on top. When one flattens a piece of meat like chicken breast, because it's so lean, it's hard to keep it from drying out when it cooks. As a result, the chicken was not as moist as I would have liked. But the sauce, which was rich and thick and filled to bursting with flavor, more than made up for it. Add that heavy sauce to the very thick mashed potatoes and you have leftovers coming home with you. The portions at Tuscan Hills are not small.

We thought about dessert, then decided on going to Martha's instead, possibly meeting up with some friends who had basically been locked out of their apartment and were holed up waiting with some cake. But the friends left before our meal finished and, stepping outsidem we remembered just how cold 14-degrees actually is. So we went home, as dessertless as an Atkins diet plan.

If you liked the old Tuscan Hills, then you'll like the new one. It's a total fold-over from the original location, but this spot is less cramped. I hope that they bring back the build-own-pasta that they used to have (unless I just made that up, in which case they should add it to the menu), and I hope that they resurrect the pizza menu from Ovo Sodo, especially the  OvoSodo pizza, because that pie was perfection. In the end, Lutsy and I had a good time. The staff was very friendly, the wine pours were large, and the service was pretty good. The food was good, though I regret to say not amazing. There's an intimacy to Tuscan Hills that very few restaurants in walking distance have, save Jack & Nellie's and Reef and I'm sure that we will be back at some time in the near future. There were more hits than misses, and the prices (while not low) are decent. As a neighborhood Italian restaurant goes, it's a good spot.

Appetizers overall average $12, pastas average $18, entrees average $24. Three glasses of wine, two appetizers and two entrees, plus tax and tip came to $105.



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