UPPER WEST SIDE — Foodies gave their taste buds a workout Friday night, sampling treats from 35 Upper West Side restaurants at New Taste of the Upper West Side.
The first night of the annual food festival drew more than 1,500 people to a packed a tent on Columbus Avenue and West 76th Street, where chefs served up mass quantities of menu items dubbed "Comfort Classics."
Neighborhood mainstay Isabella's came armed with 15 gallons of sauce to top 2,000 Sicilian-style meatballs. The Baconery, an online store that's scouting for an Upper West Side location to sell its bacon-infused baked goods, fried up more than 100 pounds of the crispy pork product for the onslaught of diners, who paid $95 a head for all you can eat and drink.
New Taste of the Upper West Side is sponsored by the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, which donates some of the proceeds to Citymeals-on-Wheels.
Some of the funds raised at the event will go toward a street beautification project on Columbus Avenue.
Aside from raising money, New Taste of the Upper West Side also raises the profile of Upper West Side restaurants, which suffered from less than celebrated reputations for years, said event chairman Donnie Evans.
"The Upper West Side has emerged as a very strong restaurant neighborhood, and that was not the case years ago, so you just have to focus one time a year on that," said Evans, who noted that when French Laundry veteran Jonathan Fraser opened Dovetail in 2007, critics said such a high-quality restaurant could never survive on the Upper West Side.
Friday night was all about celebrating the neighborhood's burgeoning culinary scene. A long line formed early at the Luke's Lobster table, where buttery shrimp rolls were eagerly snapped up. Diners praised the spinach soup with yogurt at the Greenmarket stand and the ribs from Virgil's Barbecue.
Some ticketholders also waited on line to get books signed by Adam Richman of the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food," while others crowded around the Ditch Plains stand to get photos taken with chef Marc Murphy, a judge on the Food Channel show "Chopped."
But the real star was, of course, the food. Some named Isabella's meatballs their favorite dish. Chef John Lictro said his secret ingredients were freshly ground beef, pork and veal and freshly picked basil and parsley.
Instead of parmesan, Lictro uses pecorino romano cheese "for extra salt," and instead of bread crumbs, he uses freshly baked brioche and heavy cream.
"It makes the meatball light and airy," Lictro said. "My grandmother used this recipe 80 years ago."
Attendee Anne Cunningham said the mouthwatering line-up was enough to steer her off course from the light, healthy diet she's embraced since losing 60 pounds recently.
"I cheated a little tonight," Cunningham said. "I had what I don't eat. I won't do it again until next year."
Forgoing her usual vegetable and high-fiber fare, Cunningham said she chowed down on burgers from Big Daddy's and "lovely" smoked salmon on pumpernickel from Barney Greengrass.
Now in its fifth year, organizers have tweaked New Taste of the Upper West Side in response to feedback from attendees, said Barbara Adler, executive director of the Columbus Avenue BID.
"Every year it gets better in little ways," Adler said. "We listen carefully to what people tell us and try to be responsive." This year organizers brought in DJ Phresh to play "upbeat music," Adler said.
The party-like atmosphere grew as the night wore on and the freely poured alcohol took effect. Some turned their attention from food to other appetites, with groups of young men and women eyeing each other.
"It's an easy way to meet people," said Julie Litinger, 26, adding that she was already taken, but thought the event held promising possibilities for singles. "If you see a guy nodding over a certain dish you can say, 'Oh is that good?' It's easy to strike up a conversation. It's easier than a bar."
But others said the food-focused atmosphere didn't make for an ideal pick-up scene.
"There's a lot of good-looking young people here," said Melissa, a 28-year-old attendee who scored a free ticket and declined to give her last name. "But I don't like to eat in front of men."