Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Old New York: Christmas is Served, at Rolf's German Restaurant

By Mitch Broder

The angels appeared to be tooting, but there was no way I could have heard them, what with all those other people chattering away on our branch.

Still, I couldn’t help liking my afternoon in the tree, even if I couldn’t help expecting an icicle to fall and puncture my head.

Anyone who will listen knows that I get sick of the holiday season around the time that the first bag of candy corn arrives at Duane Reade. I blame this on years of working at newspapers where every story written after Labor Day began: “Christmas came early for...”

I used to look forward to going to, say, Rockefeller Center. Now I almost look forward to not going to it. But Bob Maisano said his place is different. He said I must come see it. And he was right. Christmas came early for me, at Rolf’s German Restaurant.

Rolf’s is not a restaurant with a Christmas tree. Rolf’s is a Christmas tree with a restaurant. It is a place packed with ornaments, lights, fake pine, fake ice, and fake snow, such that you don’t feel like you’re around a tree; you feel like one’s around you.

The dominant feature are the ball ornaments, in clusters of red and gold. Also the icicle ornaments, aiming squarely at your head. Also the tiny lights, of which Bob says there are 85,000. Every feature is dominant. Everything glistens or glitters or glows.

Walk around, if you can, and you’ll pick out the dolls and the sleighs and the tooting and fiddling angels, and maybe the three Santas swigging Merlot. And none of it’s junk. That is, none of it’s cheap. Bob says that the thousands of pieces are mostly nineteenth-century German antiques.

Last year, I chatted with Bob on a sultry summer’s day, when the crowd at Rolf’s, besides me, consisted of Bob. When it’s hot, people withdraw from jaeger schnitzel and smoked bratwurst. That’s why Rolf’s needed Christmas. That’s why Christmas there lasts for three months.

It wasn’t like that in 1968, when Rolf Hoffman opened the place. Back then, the patrons were satisfied with glowering waitresses in dirndls. It was Ben House who decided to fortify the holiday décor when he and Bob took over, after Rolf died in 1981.

Ben started off cheap. Bob says his taste ran to dollar-store silver garlands and animated polar bears swigging martinis. “You wouldn’t know if it was a restaurant or a store that sold Christmas decorations,” Bob says. “He loved Christmas decorations. … It seemed like the business was secondary to that.”

Ben died in 1996, and Christmas fell to Bob. He bypassed the dollar stores in favor of New England antique barns. He added stuff each year, and his tree became a destination. “If we didn’t have this Christmas here,” he says, “we wouldn’t have this business here.”

Rolf’s perked me up, at least until I hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” And perking people up, Bob says, justifies the six weeks of installation.

“Maybe they had a bad time somewhere. Maybe they had a bad day at work. And at least they walked in here and had a moment of happiness.”

Find happiness at Rolf’s German Restaurant, at 281 Third Avenue, between 22nd and 23rd streets, in New York City.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New in New York: Warm Up to the Cup at Meatball Obsession

Meatballs in a cup are a treat for anyone dining in New York
By Mitch Broder

When it’s hot, you want a cup of ice cream. When it’s cold, you want a cup of meatball.

When you look at it that way, you may begin to grasp the logic behind the Home of the Original Meatball in a Cup.

Meatball Obsession offers those dining in New York a casual way to taste the obsession.
The Home is Meatball Obsession, which looks like an ice-cream stand except that instead of ice cream containers it has meatball pots. It serves you a cup with a giant meatball in the flavor of your choice, with the toppings of your choice and Parmesan bread instead of a wafer.

It opened in time for summer, since it is clearly up for a challenge, but it is now embarking upon its maiden meatball season. It has unveiled new items, new toppings, and a new meatball, and it is waiting to see you having yourself a little Italian meal walking.

In keeping with popular practice, it provides you with three steps toward acquiring your optimal movable feast. Step 1 is “Indulge Your Obsession,” which means “Choose Your Meatball,” which means you can have Beef, Turkey, Pork Sausage, or the new Chicken, in Sunday Sauce.

Step 2 is “Choose Your Style,” which means that if you don’t like cups you can have your meatball stuffed in the Original Pocket Sandwich. Step 3 is “The Toppings,” which means that you can complicate your meatball with flavorings from Locatelli Pecorino Romano to the new Sautéed Peas and Onions.

A lineup of dutch ovens simmer the meatballs for those dining in New York at Meatball Obsession

You get a single meatball — in either format — for $4; you get one topping free and others for 50 cents or $1 apiece. To expand your options, there are now ravioli, and to complete your meal there are now cannoli, which come from Arthur Avenue but get assembled in the store.

It may all sound a little detached, but be assured that, in fact, it all came straight from Grandma’s kitchen. The Grandma was Anna Mancini, and her grandson is Daniel Mancini, who has spent his life obsessesed with her meatballs, which is why he brought them back.

“One of my favorite memories was waking up every Sunday morning to the wonderful smell of her meatballs and Sunday Sauce cooking on the stove,” Daniel says in his meatball credo. “Sunday afternoon our home was full of family and friends enjoying the feast my grandmother prepared.”

Dining in New York you will have a hard time resisting Meatball Obsession

He had a career running clothing companies but ditched it to make meatballs, which he has since sold in stores under the name of MamaMancini’s. But he also wanted to sell them hot, so this year he opened his meatball stand. He didn’t come up with the cup. Grandma did that, too.

The city, of course, has been in a meatball phase for a while. The phase has given us, among other things, The Meatball Shop and The Meatball Factory. No meatball source, however, has been quite as accessible as Meatball Obsession’s color-coded pots and open window.

Nothing goes better with meatballs then fresh bread at Meatball Obsession in New York

I had meatballs. I had Beef and Turkey. (I had them before there was Chicken.) Both of them were excellent, and the sauce was delicious. Two or three make a good meal. You get two for $7.50 and three for $10. You get a 10 percent discount on 50, but my limit is 45.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous before we opened Meatball Obsession,” Daniel says in the credo. “Would people not want a meatball in a cup?”

So far people have wanted it. And more are bound to want it, because meatballs always look better in December than in July.

When dining in New York try not to mistake Meatball Obsession with an ice cream stand

Roll with it at Meatball Obsession, 510 Sixth Avenue, between 13th and 14th streets, in New York City.