When a generous friend offered to drop off dinner in the early weeks of the pandemic, my mouth watered at the prospect of a home-cooked meal. “You are getting a visit from my friend Lou,” my pal texted.
On the designated date, however, things took a cryptic turn when my friend couldn’t tell me exactly when Lou might be at the house. Where, oh where was he — and dinner? Just as I was about to order delivery, the doorbell rang. Dinner arrived — courtesy of UPS.
I opened the mystery box, foggy with dry ice, and came face-to-face with Lou, or rather his legacy: deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Chicago. My friend had no idea I used to sling pies at a Pizzeria Uno, the inspiration for Malnati’s, nor did he know my affection for deep dish, acquired in my youth. While mountains of takeout have dressed my dining room table since March, a familiar taste of the Midwest probably did my spirit, if not my waist, the most good.
“If you have warm bread and cheese melted on it, I mean, I want that all the time,” says Marc Malnati, chairman of the pizza company his father started almost 50 years ago. “In uncertain times in particular, you can count on that to make you feel good.”
There’s science behind such sentiments. “Food will remind us of people who cooked for us or we ate together with,” says Shira Gabriel, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. “It gives us a sense of connection and reinforces the bonds — bonds to other people and other places.” Hence the “zillions” of pictures of what everyone is eating online, she says.
Joe Ariel knows all about connecting comfort food and people who crave it. Seven years ago, he launched Goldbelly after trying to ship some of his favorite memories from his college days in the South — hot chicken from Nashville included — to New York. Back then, his menu listed no more than 50 products. Today, Goldbelly offers 15,000, curated by a team of food scouts. Name a famous dish, and, chances are, Goldbelly can send it your way. Since March, business has shot up “200 to 300 percent,” Ariel says. In a sign of the times, about 100 restaurants that work with the company have transformed their dining rooms into fulfillment centers for their own Goldbelly orders.
Looking for a way to connect with friends or family that doesn’t involve Zoom or social media? Let the gift of food be a bridge. Here are six suggestions — iconic dishes from across the country — to get you started.
Ask Alan Rosen what distinguishes his family’s New York-style cheesecake from the competition, and you get an earful.
“I could tell you it’s the heavy cream, 40 percent butterfat. I could tell you it’s because of the paddle attachment we use. I could tell you it’s the water bath. I could tell you it’s an old-fashioned rotating oven.” Okay, okay, Alan. We get it. “It’s a labor of love,” says Rosen, whose grandfather, Harry, opened Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn in 1950 — “Election Day, 70 years ago” — and whose bestseller splays across a thin cushion of moist sponge cake.
Smooth, creamy and thick, Junior’s cheesecake relies on the same recipe created by the restaurant’s original pastry maestro, Danish-born Eigel Peterson, and arrives in a box whose orange- and white-striped design dates back to the early days of the business. The product is also sold in a miniature, muffin-size version, 18 indulgences per order ($62.95) — great for sharing but sans the signature sponge cake base. Rosen prefers customers order the whole round, even if it requires a little work. “I like cutting a cake,” he says.
386 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn. Order through juniorscheesecake.com, 800-958-6467. Plain, three-pound cheesecake is $43.95 plus shipping or via goldbelly.com for $59.95 with free delivery.
Langer’s pastrami sandwich
Chowhounds recognize No. 19 at Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant in Los Angeles as one of the finest sandwiches in America. To eat it, even far from its source, is to embrace a legend. The double-baked rye bread comes with a crackle in its crust. The coleslaw is crisp and creamy, and the Russian dressing, zipped up with relish, is a role model. Then there’s the pastrami, cured to the specifications laid out by Albert Langer back in 1947: long-steamed, hand-cut against the grain — the perfect union of fat, meat, smoke, spice and attention. Completing the package, literally, are slices of Swiss cheese, providing mellow resistance, and some snappy pickles, meant to be eaten on the side.
Don’t expect a sky-high, can’t-believe-I-ate-the-whole-thing sandwich. Seven ounces or so of pastrami is the right amount, “so you can bite into it,” and catch all the flavors of the sandwich, says owner Norm Langer, whose father passed down all his deli secrets. The most important of all, the son shares, celebrates consistency: “Give customers the same thing today you gave them the day you opened.”
Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza
When you’re working with only a handful of building blocks, each one matters. Malnati’s seeks out tomatoes from California that are at their reddest and sweetest before canning them to preserve their summery charm. The pizzamaker gets its super-stretchy cheese from a small dairy in Wisconsin, and it incorporates butter into its thin and flaky crust. Sink your teeth into a round, and you’ll experience what chairman Marc Malnati calls “bite-ability,” the right amount of crunch and smoothness.
Malnati’s late father, Lou, learned the ropes at Pizzeria Uno before rolling out his namesake restaurant in Lincolnwood in 1971 — “an Italian opening in a Jewish neighborhood on St. Patrick’s Day,” the son says, repeating the oft-quoted family joke. While the business has grown to include 60 establishments, the chairman refuses to call the enterprise a chain; each branch subscribes to the same neighborhood ethos. Employees seem to like working there. A quarter of them have been with the brand for more than a decade. Customers seem to appreciate the labor. Five million pizzas were sold last year, more than half of them shipped.
1120 N. State St., Chicago (flagship location). 312-725-7777, loumalnatis.com. Order at tastesofchicago.com, 800-568-8646; or goldbelly.com. Two 9-inch deep-dish pizzas are $66.99, including shipping.
Central Grocery’s muffuletta
My last stop in New Orleans before heading to the airport took me to Central Grocery in the French Quarter for a muffuletta. As I suspected, one of the city’s most famous eats has lots of like-minded fans. “Half the sandwiches we sell wind up on a plane,” general manager John Coscino says of the classic created by the market’s Sicilian owners in the 1920s.
As I remember it, the round loaf of sesame seeded bread packed with three meats, two cheeses and the storefront’s housemade olive salad never touched down in Washington. The spectacle, tightly bound in butcher paper and tape to keep the lot together, was that seductive. So it remains, even when the sandwich is tackled far from the source. The bread is big enough to hold what amounts to a deli case — salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheese — and dense enough to keep the olive salad — fragrant with capers, garlic and oregano — from going soggy. Indeed, the only thing the classic oozes is nostalgia.
Louie Mueller Barbecue’s brisket
And a medal goes to . . . Louie Mueller Barbecue in Central Texas, which the James Beard Foundation named one of America’s Classics in 2006 — the first barbecue spot in the state to be inducted into the tastemaker’s hall of fame. The revered brisket is a beast that calls for a party. Merely slicing into the beef channels Flinstonian cookouts for some of us. Beneath the black, coarse-pepper crust awaits meat imbued with oak smoke, beef so tender it falls away from your knife, but clinging with heavy charred bark.
If there’s anything missing from the order, it’s the joint’s soot-stained walls and a jukebox that hasn’t made a sound since the 1970s (but whose likeness has graced several album covers). Otherwise, the brisket places you squarely in tiny Taylor, Tex., where Louis Mueller created his first pit after World War II, using steel cut from decommissioned Navy ships. A stretch, you say? Take a deep breath. Your house should smell like barbecue country.
Faidley’s crab cakes
Years ago, a son of Baltimore turned me on to what I now consider to be the standard-bearer for crab cakes. While they are best eaten at the source, in Baltimore’s Lexington Market, Faidley’s hand-shaped, never-frozen, jumbo lump crab cakes are what I now send to friends and family who can’t make a trip to see me. Instead, the East Coast comes to them.
Matriarch Nancy Faidley, 84, put her stamp on the long-running family fish business in the 1980s when she designed the signature seafood dish, made with blue crab and saltines, hand-crushed to the size of a dime, and finished with a robe of mayonnaise, mustard and more. (Old Bay is sprinkled on top, naturally.)
Since February, Maryland crab has been out of reach. The state’s handful of processing plants are working around 20 percent capacity, and the majority of the Mexican specialists who pick the meat from the crabs are waiting to receive their temporary work visas, says Damye Hahn, Nancy’s daughter and a fourth-generation employee. Meanwhile, Faidley’s has been sourcing its jumbo lump crab from the same species from around the gulf. Should fans hold out until more of the fattier Maryland crab becomes available? “I wouldn’t wait for it,” Hahn says. Her mother’s special sauce makes the dish, she says, and because of it, most people can’t tell the difference. Hon, I’m raising my hand.
203 N. Paca St., Baltimore. 410-727-4898. Order at faidleyscrabcakes.com. Each 6 1/2-ounce crab cake is $16.95, plus shipping.
Correction: A previous version of this story included the incorrect number of Lou Malnati’s locations. There are 60. This version has been corrected.
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