It’s been going on for years. This thing
I’ve got with Al. That’s Al Fresco. Al Fresco the picnic guy.
We met in a park. I was a teenager. He was older. He cut a fine figure standing there holding a basket.
"What’s that in your hand?" I wanted to know.
"It’s a picnic basket, lady, just a picnic basket," he said, then strolled away. I caught up with Al later that day. His face looked greasy and a few crumbs clung to the corner of his mouth.
"It’s you," he said.
"Yeah, it’s me," I said. "Three hours older and just as hungry."
Instead of his hand, he offered me a drumstick.
"Go on," he said. "If this isn’t the best chicken you’ve ever had then my name’s not Al Fresco."
I took one bite. Then another.
"That’s damn good chicken," I said. Al smiled.
"I knew you were my kind of dame."
Every summer I get a postcard from Al. Kilimanjaro. Nepal. The Great Wall of China. "Here’s to more picnics, baby," he writes. His cards are never signed, but I know they’re his by the greasy thumbprint.
Here are a few Al-worthy items from delis, gourmet shops and cafes near Prospect Park, as well as the Greenmarket, which I would put in my picnic basket for the next time he wanders into my life.
Adam Loparnos bought the Prospect Avenue Deli in Windsor Terrace two years ago and my gastronomically deprived neighborhood thanks him. All the takeout dishes are made daily on the premises. The chicken cutlet, pounded thin, crisp at the edges and just salty enough, makes great picnic fare. His macaroni and cheese is about as close to the boxed kind as a home-baked apple pie is to a Hostess snack cake. His egg custards, creamy and just sweet enough, come in tiny, old-fashioned foil cups.
On Saturdays, you can see people leaving the deli with one of Loparnos’ breakfast sandwiches - eggs and house-made corned beef is the neighborhood favorite.
When I asked him which brand of coffee he uses for his rich, iced brew he hesitated and said, "Um, I buy it from a neighborhood guy."
Al would approve of Adam. He likes a man who knows when to keep his mouth shut.
I can see Al strolling through the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Panama hat tilted just so, starched white shirt, baggy pants. I’d take him to Buon Pane and Focaccia Inc.
Each morning, owner Barbara Olson bakes her fabulous breads and they’re still warm when she unloads her truck. Her round loaves with the vegetable toppings are great for a picnic - the bread is chewy and dense and the toppings - I’m a fan of the moist eggplant, hummus and artichoke - will give your picnic a little je ne sais quoi.
We’d buy one of her round breads and one of her crusty sourdough loaves and then head over to the Cato Corner Farm’s booth for a piece of their all-natural, artisanal cheese. Elizabeth MacAlister and Mark Gillman produce their cheeses on a farm in Connecticut. Their Black Ledge Cheddar is very sharp, nutty and firm.
Al loves sweets so I’d take him to Bread Alone. Their baked goods are made without preservatives and taste like they just emerged from a loving mother’s oven. Cranberry walnut or chocolate chip hazelnut scones are somewhere between a moist cookie bar and a crumbly scone, and their lemon poppy seed pound cake is delicately lemon flavored.
Pack a picnic basket with delicacies from Chez Isabelle and let your senses transport you to Paris. The aroma of butter, sugar and cheese that floats out the cheerful yellow door of owner Isabelle Dubois’ tiny shop is reason enough to visit this charming patisserie.
Her quiches are sublime. Sold in slices, the crusts ooze butter and the fillings - spinach with goat cheese, a hearty mushroom, ham and Swiss or fresh asparagus and ham - are to dieters what Hustler Magazine is to teenage boys.
Ditto for the tuna, goat cheese and caper pain bagna sandwich and the oven-warmed croque monsieur - a croissant filled with ham, Swiss and a splash of bechamel (white) sauce or the croque madame - turkey, Swiss and bechamel sauce.
Dubois’ fresh fruit tarts are heavenly, and so are her cookies. But it’s the pear bread pudding, creamy and heavy with ripe fruit, that would bring Al to his knees.
Nalie Elsebaie took over D’Vine Taste in Park Slope a year ago, and ever since, she and her brothers have been delighting the neighborhood with their Lebanese delicacies. In the back kitchen I watched one brother roll grape leaves around fragrant, lemony rice filling. Every imaginable olive, firm and perfect, is sold here; the green Mexican olives in harissa paste pack a wallop. Salads like artichokes with long stems in olive oil or pickled garlic with cornichons seem light years away from coleslaw and macaroni salad.
Two of Elsebaie’s savory lamb pies made with ground lamb and spices in a soft bread triangle or her tangy spinach and feta cheese pies with a cold glass of wine could make me forget picnics past. (With the exception of my picnic with Al of course.)
Al’s a steak and bourbon kind of guy, so he’d probably pass on Naidre Miller’s vegan pizza or her egg salad made with soy mayonnaise. His loss. Both are tasty and the egg salad has chopped scallions that give the salad crunch and spiciness.
Naidre’s enormous prosciutto and smoked
mozzarella (ham and cheese to Al) on peasant bread is the kind
of butch sandwich he’d savor. The baked goods in Naidre’s cafe
come from well-known purveyors like Eli’s and Ecce Panis.
I’d see more of Al if I served him the blueberry angel’s food cake with a cup of Naidre’s house blend iced coffee.
Chez Isabelle, 427 Seventh Ave. between 14th and 15th streets in Park Slope, (718) 832-0127.
D’Vine Taste, 150 Seventh Ave. between Garfield and Carroll streets in Park Slope, (718) 369-9548.
The Greenmarket, Grand Army Plaza between Prospect Park West and Eastern Parkway at the northwest entrance to Prospect Park is held every Saturday from 8 am to 4 pm. For information, call (212) 477-3220 or e-mail www.cenyc.org.
Naidre’s, 384 Seventh Ave. between 11th and 12th streets in Park Slope, (718) 965-7585.
The Prospect Avenue Deli, 1269 Prospect Ave. between Reeve Place and Greenwood Avenue in Windsor Terrace, (718) 871-2117.