The thought of a book about New York food being written by an Englishman seems odd, until you remember that its author, Russell Norman, also penned Polpo , which focuses on the cuisine of Venice. Whereas a native New Yorker might look on the wonders of the city (and not just the culinary ones) with a blasé attitude, an outsider can appreciate them with fresh eyes.
In the introduction he writes, “My love affair with New York started many years before I first visited the city, through the cop movies and bad TV shows of my 1970s childhood. From afar, the place was mesmerising, and I became increasingly intrigued. I had never thought of a city as a character before, but here was one that seemed vital, visceral, assured, arrogant, cultured, dangerous, sexy and elegant all at once. By the time I finally landed at John F Kennedy Airport in 1999 I was well on the way to full-blown obsession. On the flight I had felt disproportionately nervous, not because of the usual flying jitters. I was apprehensive about meeting the long-term object of my long-distance infatuation ... My first encounter with New York did not disappoint ...
“As my tourist’s sensibilities evolved, I learnt to see the city as a native might; not looking up in awe at the skyscrapers, bright lights and monuments, but with a horizontal glaze, appraising the streets, the sidewalk, the people, the shopfronts, the doorways, the windows and the businesses behind them. I also started to think about how I might possibly capture something of New York’s intangible mojo, bottle it up and bring it across the Atlantic ... I was amused that the origins of many classic American dishes were, in fact, Italian. Meatballs, pizza, macaroni cheese. I wondered whether a scruffy small-plate joint serving strong cocktails and Italian/American comfort food with a scratchy blues soundtrack was the sort of place people might like in London.”
The result of Norman’s obsession is Spuntino, a small, 27-seat place that opened in London’s Soho in 2011, and which doesn’t accept bookings (it doesn’t even have a telephone).
Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes comfort food. The food in Spuntino is what I would call “fancy comfort food” – it’s probably not what you’re going to throw together while hanging around the house in your pyjamas while it’s pouring with rain outdoors, but it’s not so high-end that you have to wonder what it is you’re eating. It’s comfort food that you can serve to company. The dishes featured in the book include eggplant chips with fennel yogurt; duck ham, pecorino and mint salad; soft shell crab and Tabasco mayonnaise; red gurnard, samphire, cucumber and borage; cornflake chicken; strozzapreti and spicy sausage; oxtail, cavolo nero and mash; bourbon and vanilla French toast; and bourbon, pecan and chocolate cake.