“Do not try to eat in the grad ghetto,” pleads a friend, when I tell him of my desire to venture up State Street. “You will find nothing, and probably die.”
But with spring on the horizon, and adventure in our bellies, the insurmountable seems possible. Thus we begin at the beginning of our tale…
Once upon a time, three undergrads, with nothing but their wits and a tattered copy of “The Menu,” ventured up to the area between State Street and Mansfield Place to see what they could see and eat what they could eat.
Even though it’s not quite noon, the lunch rush has already begun at Nica’s Market (603 Orange St.): The checkout line sweeps down both of the aisles, and the deli counter is packed with grad students clamoring for their sandwich orders. For those in the know, Nica’s is the real deal of gourmet markets. In a space not much bigger then a studio apartment, Nica and crew manage to include just exactly what you want to eat. Ciao Bella Gelato fills the fridge, olive oil comes in a large serve-yourself vat, the cheese selection is the best in town, and the produce isle is a colorful hodgepodge of fresh mesclun and ripe berries. A prepared food/deli counter provides lunch options — there’s an extensive panini menu ($6-8), and their eggplant or chicken parmesan subs come loaded onto a crusty Italian roll ($5-6). For our crew, a breakfast spread of sticky buns dripping with walnuts and ice cold glass bottles of Orangina do quite nicely.
Breakfast accounted for, my dining companions and I venture farther for a hearty tavern lunch. At Christopher Martin’s (860 State St.), an upscale Italian restaurant is separated from a fully stocked tavern under the same roof, which serves its own mid-priced lunch and dinner menus. With sleekly impersonal decor and several well-dressed older men watching sporting events at the bar, Christopher Martin’s is exactly the sort of place found in airports and Hilton Hotels. But the food is just the sort that you wish you could find everywhere. The calamari ($9.50) is slightly soggy and oddly dressed with olive oil and red pepper, but the mozzarella sticks ($5.50) and potato skins (served with huge hunks of bacon at $8) are just the sort of appetizers which make bar food so satisfying. Their burger ($8) is well-cooked to a true medium rare and loaded with toppings. Good bar food aside, the real lunchtime surprise comes from the grilled goat-cheese salad ($9) where mesclun greens dressed in a tangy citrus dressing cut through the crisp, creamy goat cheese chunks for a surprisingly gourmet rendition of the usual ranch-soaked side.
Bellies full and ready for a slight hiatus, we head off to Marjola Pastry Shop, one of the only bakeries in the New Haven area. Sun streams in through the glass storefront, the open kitchen area is full of baking, and our hopes are high. Marjola offers everything from cakes (almond breakfast tortes and apple custard cakes) to kitschy Easter cookies with pastel-colored ducks. We dig into some of their pastries ($2-4), which include a custard-laced fruit tart and a chocolate almond cake shaped magically into a little bunny, complete with creme eyes and almond sliced ears.
For once my dining contingency is silent. “This kind of sucks,” someone finally interjects. Everyone agrees. A homemade chocolate chip cookie soothes our crushed dreams, as we pause briefly to mourn, and then move on.
For dinner we stick to a safe bet, Modern Apizza, the graduate student’s answer to Wooster Square’s Pepe’s. With a slightly thicker crust than Pepe’s thin crust giant, the brick oven pies range from $5.75 for a small plain to $18.50 for a large pie with multiple toppings. Though the cheese pizza at Modern is good, the trick to a true Modern epiphany is simple — just load on the toppings. The pepperoni is thin and flavorful, the mushrooms are fresh, and the Vegebomb, which comes loaded with spinach, mushroom, broccoli, olives, peppers, onions and garlic, looks like a terrifying mass of green but is actually fresh and flavorful.
Our intrepid band is full, but not by any means finished without a nightcap and some pub food. JP Dempsey’s (974 State St.) is the sort of place you always imagined as your college hangout — the perfect dive bar, lifted straight off the Jersey Turnpike. There is a family atmosphere about the place: The three old men sitting at the bar joke with the bartender by name, and the shells of their complementary peanut stash litter the floor. The beer selection is average, but Dempsey’s is all about the food, which takes up three fold-out pages of menu and two chalkboards of specials. Their “Famous Buffalo Wings” are $6.95 for an order of seven, while the Cajun chicken sub is $9.95 for a tasty sandwich. The highlight of the evening (and perhaps the entire day) is the nacho fries ($8.95 for a half-order), which are loaded with cheese, chicken and nacho toppings and could potentially feed a small army.
Our day on the other side complete and with more literal then metaphorical notches in our belts, we decided it best to phone a taxi rather than dare the trek back to main campus. So maybe the journey to grad ghetto is more than a small feat, but it seems that in life, perhaps the best eats (though apparently not the best bakeries) are off the main streets.