Most of the time, I focus my food blogging energy and digestive juices on obscure ethnic eateries in NYC. But once in a while, I run across amazing food in unexpected places–like Des Moines, Iowa or Talkeetna, Alaska–and I feel obligated to share my surprise (and smelly belches?) with the world.
My lovely naked fiance and I visited the Rockland County “village” of Haverstraw–just north of Nyack along the Hudson River–for a three-day break from NYC. We’d never been to Haverstraw, and figured that we’d stay in a fantastic B&B, spend our days hiking at High Tor and Hook Mountain, and then eat overpriced pretentious Hudson Valley yuppie food at night. I hate overpriced pretentious yuppie food, but I figured that it would be an acceptable sacrifice, if it meant that we could spend some time away from the mayhem of the city.
And guess what? I had it all wrong. Haverstraw, formerly known as the brickmaking capital of the world, is a mostly working-class town, featuring a gravel mine and a gigantic oil-fired power plant. No silly, pretentious food here. Not even in the prettiest cafe in town.
For our first Haverstraw food shock, we stopped by a seven-table tacqueria called Tacos Marianita, thinking that we’d enjoy another mediocre east-coast burrito. Nope. This was roughly my 200th attempt at eating Mexican food in NYC and DC, and I finally found a spectacular plate of huevos rancheros, a jaw-droppingly tasty green salsa, shockingly fresh horchata, and the best chicken mole I’ve eaten east of the Rockies. In a Rockland County restaurant with exactly zero yelp reviews. Huh?
And just to keep the Latin American hits rolling, we spotted a Peruvian restaurant called Maura’s Kitchen on our way through Nyack the next afternoon. We raided the steam table for a massive plate of roasted chicken with cilantro rice and canary beans, along with an equally massive plate of seco norteno, absurdly tender beef stewed in cilantro sauce. We washed the whole mess down with a gigantic glass of fresh chicha morada, a lightly fermented punch made from pinapple, lime, and purple corn–already one of my favorites from a previous visit to a Peruvian restaurant in NYC. The crazy thing? The food might have been every bit as good as the stuff I ate at Urubamba, my favorite spot in Queens. Huh?
In an attempt to recover from our shock at finding such great Peruvian and Mexican food in the Hudson Valley ‘burbs, we ducked into a place called Bella Rose Cafe. We weren’t hungry. We just wanted to soothe our bulging bellies with a bottle of wine.
And completely by accident, we found my new favorite New York Italian restaurant.
Here’s the thing: Bella Rose Cafe is a gorgeous place, with exposed Haverstraw brick and high ceilings and classy artwork and artfully chosen music… and places that look like Bella Rose usually serve overpriced pretentious food. And I hate overpriced pretentious crap.
But don’t be fooled by the classy decor. The friendly, charismatic brothers who own Bella Rose serve their Italian grandma’s recipes, and every platter of food is designed for the appetite of a hulking bricklayer. The meatballs and grilled polenta border on divinity, and most of the desserts–espresso brownies, nutella cake, and fresh biscotti, among other delights–are baked onsite by the owners’ Italian mom. The lasagna is probably the best I’ve ever eaten, and the “regular cut” is roughly the size of my Manhattan apartment; for $2 extra, you can order “John’s cut”, which includes a gigantic meatball and is probably the size of my mother’s farm in Iowa. If you leave Bella Rose Cafe hungry, you screwed up.
The craziest thing is that the prices are incredibly reasonable. Sandwiches (including an Italian grilled cheese with prosciutto and red peppers) start at $6.95; most of the (gigantic) entrees range from $9 to $15, including prosciutto-spiked asiago mac-and-cheese for $8.95 or an epic platter of lasagna for $14.95, including salad or a cup of soup. The beer/wine/liquor options are carefully chosen and inexpensive–a great bottle of pinot grigio from a small Italian vineyard costs less than $25. There’s a happy hour with $2.50 beers, and a creative array of liquor-spiked coffee drinks for $7. We ate there three times in less than 48 hours. It was that good.
Maybe I’ve been ruined by Manhattan, but nothing about Bella Rose seems normal to me. You can sit around drinking a cup of non-overpriced coffee all day, or you can get bombed on excellent-but-inexpensive wine, or gorge yourself silly on some amazingly inexpensive homemade Italian food. And no matter what, nobody is going to look at you funny for occupying a table for several hours. If anything, they’ll treat you like family if you hang out all day. That’s not normal. And that’s a huge compliment.
Bella Rose Cafe
11 New Main Street, Haverstraw, NY
10 West Street, Haverstraw, NY