Cheap *ss Lunch #11: The Best Thing You'll Eat (for $10) All Year
Reading Time: 4 minutes
It isn't often that a new student-friendly restaurant opens in the Stuyvesant neighborhood. The general trend has consistently been in the opposite direction, with the pandemic putting the final nail in the coffin for a sizable number of already struggling businesses. Perhaps the only notable exception is 16 Handles, whose BOGO Sundae Wednesdays regularly attract hordes of sugar-starved teenagers. Yet even that victory was tainted, emerging from the ashes of the only bubble tea joint within a ten-minute walk from Stuyvesant. But now, just three blocks from the school building is a restaurant standing against the seemingly overwhelming tide of inaccessibility and gentrification, one which offers high-quality lunch at perfectly reasonable prices: Cicci Di Carne.
This unicorn of an establishment can be found at the edge of Brookfield Place, with a great view of the Hudson and only a short jaunt up to the well-kept seating area on the second floor above the complex's main plaza. The menu chiefly comprises a concise, but more than sufficient, list of sandwiches, split by the preparation of their fillings into cold "Panini Freddi" and hot "Panini Caldi" sections. No matter which of these delectable offerings you choose, each will invariably come on a flat, expertly toasted Italian bread. These starchy wrappers are light and springy, holding everything in with grace while also striking a delicate balance between a good solid chew and an unnecessarily overworked jaw.
The staff is warm and friendly, ready to passionately describe the various menu items and offer their well-calculated recommendations along with complimentary pieces of dark chocolate. One thing they will undoubtedly suggest is the roast beef sandwich. A meat lover's instant favorite, it is a high stack of warm and succulent slices of beef tucked between their house bread, accompanied by a salty beef broth for your dipping pleasure. In the same vein is the Porchetta, with a heavenly scent and a configuration reminiscent of a Banh Mi. Layers of flaky pork almost like more substantial bonito flakes, a bright orange chili-flecked mustard that leaves a peppery haze on the tongue, and a crunchy topping of arugula for a multi-dimensional texture all serve to arouse, but not overwhelm, your tastebuds, leaving an electric hum of flavor throughout the mouth.
Another "Panini Caldi," the tuna is sublime, its mayo-moistened shreds packed alongside lettuce, sweet-and-sour pickled pepperoncini, and tomato that could trick you into thinking it's summer. The bright tang of those peppers effectively plays off the varied chunks of tuna, lending a crunch and sharpness as the fish slides effortlessly through copious amounts of well-calibrated mayo.
An aroma of pesto heralds the butcher-run restaurant's only vegetarian option for a main course, a Caprese which can only truly be described by the phrase “Bussin.” The pesto, which produces so pleasant a smell, is smeared on both halves of the bread, bookending the refreshing slices of crisp tomato, lettuce, and a creamy mozzarella with a rich umami flavor. While the beef is of excellent quality, the Porchetta delicious, and the tuna a wonder of richness and acidity, it is the Caprese which is truly outstanding: a beautiful taste experience with top-notch ingredients that creates a symphony of reassuring taste, unable to be beaten.
The best strategy is to show up with at least one friend since a sandwich and side split for two people (and the staff will eagerly provide doubles of all the utensils and other eating implements) results in an adequate weekday lunch for about $10 each. Alternatively, sandwiches can be purchased for around $13 apiece, and sides for around $7, but isolating either one can result in an imbalance of food or price.
For the side dish, the first option is the polenta fries—steaming and cheesy sticks of slightly undercooked cornmeal with grainy interiors and a healthy dusting of salt, sharp pepper, and warm spices on top. The real hit of this order is the container of Truffle Ketchup that arrives alongside, which would turn the world into a utopia if it replaced all the Heinzes and Red Golds. If you would prefer a more vegetable-based counterpoint to the meat and carbs of the sandwiches, both the Artichoke Arugula and Burrata Caprese salads rely heavily on a bed of unadorned fronds of arugula to extend their slightly skimpy toppings. The Artichoke is roasted and then chilled, cold and silky with an almost briny edge to its melt-in-your-mouth layers, including chewy breadcrumbs, parmesan, and a reasonable—though certainly not unique—balsamic dressing threatening to deaden the complex European flavors of the rest of the dish. The Burrata Caprese has perhaps less of a clash of the subtle and ostentatious, sticking to a classic tried-and-true formula. Notable for a subtle shift from a mozzarella-like exterior to rich inner cream, the "Caprese" label resulted from the addition of sliced grape tomatoes.
The service at Cicci Di Carne is excellent, with plenty of to-go packaging, a sturdy bag bearing their spot-on graphic design, free chocolates, and if you're lucky, free cappuccinos if they're testing the machine. Beware, however, of their no cash policy: you'd best have at least one debit or credit card handy in your entourage. Cicci Di Carne is being hosted by Brookfield's Test Kitchen so they won't be here forever, though you can expect them to linger for at least a few months. You'd better head on over as soon as you can—catching this exquisite food before it ships off to Italy again may be the best decision you make all semester.
When exiting past the scanners, take the stairs immediately to the right of the school doors and head over to the main entrance. Walk four blocks from there down North End Avenue, and hang a quick left once you get to the water. The address is 250 Vesey Street, Suite 107B, but navigating to the corner of North End and the Battery Park Esplanade will skip the confusion of stumbling through the warren that is the Brookfield Place/Oculus complex.