IL BAMBINO AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR ASTORIA’S NEXT TWO DECADES, (34-08 31st Ave., Astoria, NY): We were in town a couple of months ago and walked past this place while it was being readied for opening. The guy we spoke to sounded Irish. The menus were for panini and Northern Italian small plates. I said to L., this isn’t Astoria food — it’s hipster food. When I lived in the neighborhood during most of the ’90s, it was always supposedly on the brink of becoming trendy, but whenever someone tried to open a cafe or bar or restaurant catering not to one of the entrenched immigrant and ethnic groups but to young professionals and fresh-out-of-college hipsters moving to the neighborhood, it flopped. The Brick Cafe, which opened shortly before I left the nabe in 1999, was perhaps the first exception, and even it drew somewhat on neighborhood tropes (mostly tad Italian food, glass-enclosed sidewalk cafe) so as not to feel too alien.

Things have changed. Friday night we went there for a bite and the place is not flopping. Apart from the two of us, every other table was occupied by a big party opening bottle after bottle of wine (BYO for now) and ordering a steady stream of plates. We got a neat little broad-bean-chorizo-pesto salad and split a terrific panino ($8) of prosciutto, fig spread and gorgonzola. The party taking up the rest of the place looked like midcareer publishing types. The music was indie rock, the staff multiculti. In otherwords, there was nothing Queens about the place. It was pure brownstone Brooklyn. The surrounding stretch of sleepy 31st. Ave seems to be becoming Park Slope with its “Himalayan” Teahouse (ersatz Zen food, half sort of Himalayan if you squint, half pilates-instructor Japanese) and that fusiony, interesting Japanese place down the street.

I have mixed feelings about this. The food was delicious, the place was fun and inviting, and I suppose the emerging critical mass of transplanted college grads means we might not have to leave the neighborhood constantly for a social life. But it also means it’s only a matter of time before many of the things that have made Astoria so applealing for many years now — the stable, multigenerational family character, the vibrant ethnic businesses, the tight sense of community — begin to give way to Everyplace Else. Italian bakeries will give way to “artisianal” breadmakers with less soul and prices three times higher, neighborhood shops will go upscale, the cafes where you can forget about work and converse for hours over coffee and baklava will get free wifi and industrial scones shipped in from New Jersey. On the other hand, with all these native English speakers, the neighborhood might get a decent bookstore. (GRADE: A MINUS)

THE PASTRAMI FROM MUNCAN FOOD PRODUCTS (near 44th and Broadway, Astoria, NY): Across the street from a Bosnian butcher shop, a few blocks from an Italian salumeria, Muncan specializes in Central and East European smoked meat products. Run by what I understand to be a Romanian from Serbia or something like that, they’ve got mititei, dry sausage, blood sausage, bratwurst, weisswurst, Hunagian, German and Croatian styles of salami, bolognas, hot dogs, several headcheeses, beef and lamb basturma, smoked ribs, pigs’ feet, pigs’ ears, slab bacon, pork shanks, veal loaf, pork loaf, pork butt, and just so you don’t need to make too many other stops besides picking up some beer or vodka or slivovitz or raki, they’ve also got a few kinds of burek, loaves of bread and wheels of kashkaval.

It could take years to try everything, especially if I don’t want to die of a heart attack, but I can tell you that this one kind of Croatian dry sausage we tried was quite good, and more importantly that the beef pastrami is just plain extraordinary. It’s firm, juicy, smoky, garlicky, peppery and not excessively salty. Crusted in spices and the thinnest layer of fat, it’s an absolute marvel. I called L. at work to tell her about it as I sliced bits off for breakfast.

“It’s off the hook,” i said.

“Did you just say ‘off the hook’?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, god,” she said to a coworker. “S. just used the phrase ‘off the hook.’ Get on the phone. Tell Amy what you just said.”

“Hi Amy.”

“Hi.”

“This pastrami from a place down the street? It’s off the hook.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Sure, she laughed then. Shortly after getting home, though, she tried some.

“Oh, my, god. This is… off the hook.”

“I told you.”

We finished off the rest of the slab with some rye bread and mustard.

“That was off the hook.”

Oh, and at $6.99/lb. I’d have to be an idiot to buy supermarket cold cuts ever again. It sure is nice that the Cold War, bad IMF and World Bank policy and strife in neighboring Yugoslavia brought so many people here from the Balkans during the 1990s. Yum. GRADE: A PLUS

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