A Winter in New York
“Was I right or was I right?”
Bobby links his arm through mine as we pass beneath the illuminated red, green, and white “Welcome to Little Italy” arch and find the place alive with street vendors, drumbeats, enticing smells and throngs of people as far as the eye can see.
My landlord-slash-best-friend has twisted my arm into spending the afternoon with him at the Feast of San Gennaro—an Italian food and culture festival that, according to Bobby, New Yorkers look forward to every year—knowing my love of food is just about the only thing strong enough to entice me from the safety net of my apartment these days. To say I’ve become a New York homebird since I pitched up on his doorstep nine months ago is something of an understatement. I arrived desperate for change, dreaming of the New York I knew only through my mother’s favorite movies. It’s laughable really, knowing what I do now, but I genuinely thought there was a chance I’d land a job filling pastrami sandwiches in Katz’s Deli, or that there might be an Iris-sized hole waiting for me in the bustling kitchens of the Plaza.
Neither were hiring, as it turned out. I wasn’t even brave enough to stick around at Katz’s Deli long enough to ask—the queue was crazy-busy and so long it was out the door and wrapping the block. The Very Tasty Noodle House was hiring, though. Bobby Han hadn’t long inherited the entire building, from his swish top-floor penthouse down to the ailing noodle restaurant at the bottom, even though he’d never so much as touched a wok in his life. I like to think that my brilliant mother walked beside me in spirit as I trudged the darkening New York streets fresh off the plane, turned down by place after place. Blind instinct guided me along Chrystie Street and straight into the path of Bobby Han, who at that precise moment was sticking a chef needed notice in the dusty window of his restaurant. Within the hour I’d accepted not only the job but the keys to the minuscule, old-fashioned apartment above, recently vacated by his ancient noodle-queen aunt. My pokey home is the buffer between the penthouse Bobby shares with his husband, Robin, and the ground-floor restaurant, a sponge to soak up all the noise and cooking smells so they can live in peace without the faint linger of peanut oil on their clothes or their Egyptian cotton bedsheets.
What I didn’t realize back on that first day was that I’d also just found the biggest platonic love of my life. Bobby has turned out to be best friend and big brother all rolled into one gloriously loud, sarcastic package, human gold dust for a lonely girl starting again over three thousand miles from home.
This afternoon’s rain-laden sky does nothing to dampen the atmosphere at the festival and there’s an infectious energy and buzz in the air that carries people from stall to stall, tasting, savoring, collectively groaning in pleasure.
“You were so right,” I say, drinking in the carnival of color and noise. “I want to try everything!”
We pause to observe the golden statue of Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples, a brief tranquil moment before allowing the throng of people to carry us farther along the street.
“We need to start with sausage,” Bobby says, steering me toward an impressively large catering truck bedecked with fluttering Italian flags. Rings of sausage sizzle on huge metal plancha grills, ready to be chopped and loaded into rolls piled high with slippery onions and peppers. I watch in fascination as an aproned guy behind the grill curls the sausage with fast, skillful hands, and another chops and fills sandwiches with the confidence of someone who has done it a million times before.
“Food of the actual gods,” Bobby says, ordering two.
I’m so ready for it when I take it from him. It’s how I imagined, only about a hundred times better.
“If I eat all of this I’ll be stuffed,” I say.
Bobby is already more than halfway through his. “But you’re still gonna, right?”
I nod, not even sorry. The sandwich is smoky and rich, heaven in a bun. We walk and eat, soaking in the atmosphere, the low background hum of generators adding an air of fairground. People shout and laugh, a market-day-like jostle, and I feel myself relax into it, enjoying the change of scene. And what a scene it is. Glittered streamers and lights span the buildings over our heads, and everyone milling around below is here for the same thing—to feast. It speaks to my chef’s heart in a language I understand, and it jolts me how much I miss creating new dishes and the joy of watching people eat. Cooking up bowl after bowl of noodles is soothing in its own way, but I’m really just trying to imitate the authenticity of Bobby’s aunt rather than pave my own path or come up with my own dishes. Being around all this creativity and culinary joy reminds me what drew me to kitchens in the first place: the heat, the urgency, the deep satisfaction. I miss it all viscerally, another piece of me temporarily lost because of Adam Bronson. There are lots of those pieces—my career, my self-worth, my confidence, the things that made me feel like me.
I imagine them all lined up on the shelf of an emotional lost-property office waiting for me to reclaim them. I will. I am. Slowly, but I am.
We follow the sandwiches with sweet, ricotta-stuffed cannoli and I lean on Bobby, laughing as I swoon.
“This was your best idea yet,” I say.
“I have lots of others,” he says. “Just say the word.”
I appreciate his unpushy nature a great deal, he’s such easy company to be in. I know he worries I don’t get out enough. He’s probably right. In truth, the dentist is probably the social highlight in my calendar. It’s not that I’m the reclusive type, per se, just that I was at rock bottom when I arrived in New York and it’s taken some time to rebuild myself. Maybe that does look reclusive from the outside, especially against the bells-and-whistles backdrop of New York, but it’s been restorative for me up to now. I’ve got Bobby and Robin, and there’s Bobby’s niece Shen, too. She’s the kind of nineteen-year-old who could run the world in her lunchtime if she so chose, but prefers to serve noodles to Bobby’s customers between taking classes and dancing her way across the city every night. She’s a pretty decent chef too, always happy to take over at the stove if I need a night off, which isn’t very often. And then there’s Smirnoff, who isn’t technically my cat or Bobby’s; he’s lived in our building longer than either of us and seems to have full jurisdiction over where he parks his furry orange behind. Some nights he chooses my sagging green armchair, while other nights he’s full stretch on Bobby’s windowsill, watching the street shift down below. And then there are nights when he doesn’t come in at all. I like to imagine him scaling the zigzag metal fire escape to prowl the perimeters of the building or visiting a glamorous Persian for a late-night booty call. In reality he’s probably on someone else’s sofa eating someone else’s food—he’s pretty shameless when it comes to taking what he wants. We should all be a bit more Smirnoff.
Music cranks up from loudspeakers just along the street, and Bobby tugs me by the hand to follow the herd, crooning an almost-impressive rendition of “That’s Amore” as we go.
“You have to see this,” he says, finding us a spot on the sidelines. “Meatball-eating competition.”
The crowd parts as he speaks, clapping as they allow a line of waiting staff bearing huge silver trays of meatballs to march through the center toward a raised stand where a line of contestants sit ready for battle.
“I wonder how someone becomes an eating-contest champion,” I marvel, gazing along the everyday faces of the men and women each about to consume enough food to feed a small village.
A sequin-clad woman gives a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then they’re off, stuffing as many meatballs as they can into their faces, washing them down with bottle after bottle of water. The crowd goes mad for it, shouting encouragement, and I watch as the contestants eat with varying degrees of gusto, sauce on their chins and T-shirts. It’s crazy, over-the-top and feel-good, a gluttonous celebration of this vibrant Italian corner of New York.
Afterward we buy bracing shots of limoncello and cardboard trays of hot, sugared zeppole, stepping off the sidewalk into the tiled doorway of a closed shop for shelter as the heavens open.
“I’ll admit it. This was fun.” I rest my backside on the traditional wooden window ledge. I’m warm inside my jacket, potent alcohol sliding into my bloodstream.