They say the “dining scene” in the city has never been stronger. The vibrancy of the eating scene, however, is less discussed and a bit shakier (by pop math, less discussed i.e. in the news = less important). One need only stand on the corner of 9th and 2nd to be convinced.
Veselka, which occupies this corner, is a Polish/Russian eatery and a longtime neighborhood staple. They serve pirogies and borscht and a long menu of similarly bland – borscht has yet to hit it big – Eastern European dishes. As tends to occur, ethnic neighborhoods shrink and shrink and shrink like a crummy shirt until (no pun)– the true sign of a dead end – they’re referred to as “pockets”. Veselka exists in one such pocket, a row of Polish bakeries and funeral homes and secret societies spreading a few blocks along 1st Avenue.
The bakeries and so on seem pretty genuine, or at least high on the dirty-brown-brick-angry-old-Polish-man scale, but Veselka looks and feels like a clean diner, such as one you might be happy to see by the side of a highway during a long family road trip. The clientele, however, is a cross-section of youngish downtowners and the NYU student showing the parents his favorite lunch spot.
Veselka the roadside diner only throws into relief the borough’s lost memories, as if someone jumped in with a giant eraser and wiped out pages and pages of urban history. When rootless, we often turn to food to find our way and these days chefs have dug up roots, but those from a little earlier than Veselka’s.
These cooks have descended pilgrim ships: farming and growing and carpentry and brining and pickling and cheese-making and vodka-making. Admirable activities all, but taking a cab to eat where some guy has spent the afternoon churning his own butter feels a bit disorienting. The more stuff he does from scratch, the weirder it feels, almost like a Polish grandma might feel on lower 2nd Ave. The following recipe brings us back to a just-right time and place.
This meat-heavy “Sunday Gravy” recipe, from On Top of Spaghetti, is a staple pasta sauce over here. What I love about it is the rich variety of meats, which necessitates two bowls, one for sauced pasta, the other for the meat.
Sunday Gravy w/ Sausages and Meatballs (from On Top of Spaghetti)
Makes enough sauce for 6-8
¾ cup olive oil
3 center cut pork chops (about 1 ½ pounds)
1 ½ pounds Italian sausage
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 ½ cups canned tomatoes
6oz tomato paste
rind from a piece of Parmesan
1 pound spaghetti
salt and pepper
- Heat oil in a large pot and brown the meats. Remove to a bowl. Add onions and garlic and brown a bit. Season with salt and pepper and scrape bits from bottom of pot.
- Return meats to pot along with 4 cups water and everything but the meatballs and spaghetti. Bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer, cover and cook about an hour. Add meatballs and cook about 20 minutes.
- To serve, remove meats to a platter. Cook pasta, toss with sauce, and add to a second platter. Serve with grated cheese.
12 oz ground beef
4 slices crustless sandwich bread cut in cubes
¾ cup milk
1 cup grated pecorino
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper
1. Mix all ingredients. Chill in fridge for a bit. With wet hands roll into 1-inch balls.