Editor's note: Allison Robicelli is one half of the beloved mom-and-pop Robicelli's bakery and the co-author of Robicelli's: A Love Story, with Cupcakes. She's dropping by this summer with dispatches of the food-filled adventures she'll be taking with her family this summer. First up: where to to find a seafood platter the size of your head near the Bronx Zoo.
Let me tell you a cold, hard, indisputable fact: there is no emotional stress in your life that cannot be fixed with monkeys. One of my first acts of parenthood was becoming a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society, aka the gatekeepers of the city's zoos, so I could have constant simian access.
Kids won't stop crying? Let's go see some monkeys. Worried about making bills? Monkeys can fix that. Worked 20 days in a row on 6 hours of sleep a night and your apartment is a craphole that's covered in moving boxes, Legos and dirty socks? Bring on the goddamn monkeys.
With our bakery open on the weekends, and the kids in school Monday through Friday, we don't get many days where the four of us can have the sort of quality character-building experiences that are so integral to a child's formidable upbringing. But come summer, we get two, maybe three days a week where we are all off at the same time. That means 24 days where we need to overcompensate for all our shortcomings as parents the rest of the year, and you bet your ass we're not going to be doing any boring crap like "watching TV."
No, we are turning up our parenting to 11! We are getting in the car and going to that museum, that historical site, that roadside burger shack we've heard about a thousand times but never found the time to go to! We are going to see monkeys and you will enjoy them and grow into better adults for it, god damn it!
Which brings us to the Bronx Zoo, where planning is essential. Every time I attempt to see it in its entirety in one day, and every time I fail. You absolutely need to plan ahead and understand what your priorities are. You don't need to be spending 20 minutes taking pictures of a rare deer when it means you're missing out on valuable monkey time.
You also want to plan ahead and bring your own lunch, because though the zoo is practically perfect in every way, the food is borderline inedible. (Not only that, but the bees have also located the food courts on the zoo map, and have built their hives accordingly. Last time I was there I spent 20 minutes running in a circle screaming at the top of my lungs while eating a dried up cheeseburger.)
After six hours of trekking around 265 acres, the kids were ready for dinner by 4:30. This is when it occurs to me that we may very well be close to a place that's been on my food bucket list for damn well near forever: City Island, a small island off the Bronx which is technically part of New York City but by all accounts resembles a small New England fishing village. I cannot verify this as fact, as I grew up with an agoraphobic father who believed vacations were for suckers who were "too stupid to stay put," so I've never been to any small New England fishing villages. It did, however, look a lot like Dawson's Creek, so I will say the analogy is pretty accurate.
When kids enter the picture, your food bucket list has to change. There is no Eleven Madison Park, no waiting on line for fancy-pants brunch. Trying to convince the boys that spending the day exploring food malls in Flushing results in nothing but hours of screaming and wasted food. Nose-to-tail is out and farm-to-table is pushing it. Hell, sometimes there is no table. Sometimes you find yourself parked in a shady spot feeding your kids bagel chunks from the bottom of your purse.
City Island, though? That's an attainable dream. It's the type of place you can visit in a sleeveless Budweiser t-shirt, rip apart crab legs with your bare hands, and wipe the schmutz from your hands off on your cut-off jorts. It's the type of place littered with salty-named restaurants with people stumbling out of them, beet-red either from the sun beating down on their decks or the pitchers of margaritas that seem to have replaced all the drinking water.
Google Maps showed it was only a 15 minute ride from the zoo, but with traffic, it would take at least an hour. No matter. The kids got their character-building sea lions and monkeys; mommy and daddy were getting lobster. We drove straight down the center of the island until we could drive no further, where we found Sammy's Fish Box. And it looked exactly like you'd expect a place called "Fish Box" should.
There is wood paneling and large mirrors covering the walls, pleather banquettes with cheap stained glass fixtures dangling over them, fishing nets on the walls, aquariums next to the ladies room, and seashells everywhere. The waitress continually referred to me as "sweetheart." My kids were given coloring books and cups with lids; bread and pickles arrived immediately so I wouldn't hear whining about how hungry everyone was. I initially winced at the $24 price tag on the lobster roll, until a runner passed by with one and I learned that their "roll" was in actuality an entire loaf of Italian bread.
This restaurant was so stereotypical, it was flawless.
I will let the crappy cameraphone picture of our meal tell the next part of the story. I present to you, the seafood platter "For Two":
My husband's hand is in that shot for scale. My husband is 6'6".
I'd like to make you a list of what was included in this platter, but somewhere halfway through the eating I think I may have blacked out. I think there was fried shrimp? I think our boys devoured those early as I was fussing with a king crab leg. I remember them greedily grabbing piece of lobster out of our hands as we released it from its shell. I scooped up yellow rice with clam shells and slurped it down with one hand, the other hand greedily swiping all the chunks of snow crab I could before the rest of my family could get any.
There was no speaking during the meal. There are no phones, no Instagrams. You do not make eye contact with other tables at Sammy's Fish Box. You just get in there and get the job done.
You wear the goddamn lobster bib.
As I mentioned before with the zoo, the smart thing to do before an epic day of family adventure would be to plan. Spontaneity has always been my forte, but that does occasionally leave you in a position where you have three extremely happy, sleepy boys full of seafood in a hot car that's practically parked on the BQE during a traffic jam on the way home. You need to plan to stifle your rage as they slip into contented food comas, while you desperately try to stay awake and keep everyone in the car alive. You need to plan to buy an air freshener to hang from the rear view mirror.
A symphony of lobster farts is a small price to pay for a day spent with the people you love, building character. And making eye contact with a baby gorilla. That was most excellent.