Fridays Under $40: Long Lost Friends

Posted on: July 24th, 2020 at 5:09 am by

Photo: Sara Graham

In our new Friday column, “Fridays Under $40,” contributor Sara Graham hits the streets to find cheap eats and affordable things to do during these weird times.

We may not be able to get to a Broadway show anytime soon, but we can get some live entertainment and a $4 glass of wine. Where? Puglia. The iconic Italian restaurant is celebrating its 101st year on Hester Street, and though the shout-singing and napkin-waving inside (during pre-COVID times) always had me wondering “wtf is going on in there?,” tonight I’m bringing friends from Brooklyn here. As one-fourth of a double date, Puglia seems like an inexpensive place for our foursome to catch up, with no wait (yes, some places in the LES are indeed booked on weekends) and outdoor seating with plenty of space.

They were one of the last restaurants to reopen in Little Italy. When Phase 3 arrived without indoor dining, their outdoor seating situation popped up, complete with a picket fence, wild flowers and bundles of firewood.

We sit far from other diners and our table features a centerpiece of hand sanitizer and a picture frame with a QR code for patrons unready to touch menus. Our friendly, masked server asks us about drinks and we get a $16 bottle of house white. I can not recommend it, but I can tell you that’s practically nothing when split by 4 people, which means you can go in for the $26 of Beringer Chardonnay if you decide to get another bottle.

We swap self-isolation stories (our friends’ enjoying the relief of car ownership; my rollercoaster job loss and regain) as an impossibly large serving of warm bread and whipped butter arrives and we order a selection of appetizers: the fried calamari ($12.95), stuffed mushrooms ($7.25) and a Caprese salad ($9.50). Seriously, these prices are straight from the ‘90s.

Photo: Sara Graham

The live entertainment starts—Jorge Buccio on keyboards and Debbie Ente on the mic—two stalwarts of the Puglia scene who perform Italian American favorites and disco classics and I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard (or seen) live music. Debbie reminds us, it’s been four months. She’s wearing a fabulous body-con dress and white pumps and I notice the importance of elegance in the everyday. When the bill comes, (along with a shot of limoncello, on the house) we’re shocked at how affordable it is. We tip generously and vow to return, especially knowing that there’s live music Thursday through Sunday, all summer long.

Puglia, 189 Hester Street
Total Cost: $12.40 per person
Hours: 11:30 am – 9:30 pm; Saturdays 11:30 am – 10:30 pm

Photo: Sara Graham

We have a hankering for ice cream and take a stroll to Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. There’s always so much to choose from (durian! black sesame! red bean!) and even a blue-corn-chip cone, but I go with boring banana in a cup, because that’s what I’m craving. The generous scoop comes with a chocolate Pocky. We walk uptown towards the Williamsburg Bridge. The streets are still quiet. It doesn’t feel like summer, yet here we are.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, 65 Bayard Street
Total Cost: $6.50
Hours: Daily 11 am – 10 pm

Photo: Sara Graham

It’s a gorgeous night, so when we get to the foot of the bridge, we decide to keep walking and talking with our friends. Six months worth of catching up can’t be done over appetizers and ice cream alone. They share a great tradition they’ve developed called “Chance Cinema,” where you put movie titles on paper in a jar and randomly select one to reduce endless scrolling on Netflix, which they intend to do when they get home. The city is glistening and I breathe a sigh of relief thinking about all the things we can still do.

Delancey at Suffolk Street
Total Cost: free

Total cost of walkabout: $18.90
Costs recorded do not include tip. Tip generously. Wear a mask.

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