aria wine bar, west village

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photo credit: aria wine bar

First off, Aria Wine Bar might be my new favorite date night destination. Cozy tables, candles, and a really impressive menu of small Italian bites and fantastic pastas.

Macaroni and cheese isn’t really an Italian pasta dish, but I had heard raves about the version here, so, of course, we had to try it. You guys: it is phenomenal. They use a perfectly-al dente elbow pasta, which as you might know, is my favorite for mac and cheese. The cheese blend is an unusual one: Montasio (a hard cheese from Northern Italy), Parmesan, and Taleggio. Although you might think the pungent Taleggio would overwhelm the sauce, it instead just adds a kick of tang which is more than counterbalanced by the saltiness of the Montasio and Parm. I’m pretty sure all of these cheeses are suspended in a traditional besciamella, which IS very Italian.

The dish is covered by another layer of melty cheese on top, with perfect speckles from the broiler. There’s also truffle, as you can see the in the photo, but, to be honest, I couldn’t really taste it and didn’t think it was necessary.

All in all, I would definitely call this a destination mac.

Aria Wine Bar, 369 W. 51st St. 212-541-9241

almond, flatiron

photo via almond's instagram

photo via almond’s instagram

You guys! Exciting news! We have a new member of the highly-elite destination mac club. Everyone, meet Almond‘s macaroni and cheese.

This mac fires on all cylinders for me: its sauce is very rich and creamy without being one-note, the pasta is not too soft, and, as an added bonus, it has truffles and prosciutto. Generally I like my mac virgin, if you will, but the truffles and salty bite of the prosciutto really worked well for this dish and made it way more multi-dimensional. I also enjoy any mac that takes a spin under the broiler (especially when it’s in an adorable ceramic ramekin), there’s nothing like digging into that crust.

If I have one criticism, it’s that I don’t love penne as a mac shape. Plenty of my favorite spots use it, but I find that the standard elbow makes for a much better pasta-to-sauce ratio.

Regardless, this place is absolutely worth a trip. And the portion is big enough that, if you’re not almost six months pregnant (hiyo), you can definitely share.

Almond, 12 East 22nd St., 212.228.7557

murray’s cheese bar, west village

When I try to put how I feel about Murray’s Cheese into words, I’m left utterly speechless. It is my Disney World. The cheese selection, is, of course, outstanding. The made-to-order grilled cheeses make me go weak in the knees. I can spend 10 minutes just debating what flavor of artisanal ice cream I want to take home. Don’t even get me started on the yogurt.

So, yes, this place knows its dairy. And while the actual cheese shop has a bake-it-yourself variety, I recommend moseying down a few storefronts to try the hot and bubbly mac and cheeses at Murray’s Cheese Bar, their full-service restaurant. This week, I was lucky enough to partake in a tasting of all four of their offerings while having dinner with Murray’s owner Rob Kaufelt, who is probably one of the coolest humans I’ve ever met. I urged him to consider writing an autobiography, so stay tuned on that front.

Now, on to the macs:

Murray’s Classic

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This is the mac that sailed a thousand ships. When I asked what cheeses were included, Rob looked at me grimly and said he’d have to kill me first. BUT! I can tell you that, among others, there is Comte and Irish Cheddar in the mix. All of Murray’s macs use what looks like radiatori pasta, which is an uncommon choice. But, the shape is really rather ingenious because all of the ridges can hold a lot of sauce (and Murray’s sauce is rich and thick, so it clings well). Murray’s also bakes their pastas, so the texture veers towards a softer bite, which is extremely satisfying when you have nugget-like pasta like a radiatori. The classic is probably the mildest out of all the varieties on offer.

Pulled Pork

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Looking for something a little heartier? This carnivorous mac features tender pulled pork with English Tickler Cheddar and pimento. I am a big advocate of salty, powerful cheeses in my mac sauce and this is a wonderful marriage of two superb specimens. But, hey, I would expect nothing less from a restaurant that sources its cheeses from the preeminent cheese shop in the city (the world?). It’s also especially mouth-watering when cheese sauce is as orange as this one.

Roasted Ramp Pesto

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I may be one of those pesky foodies who gets all hot and bothered about ramps. But, seriously, have you tried them in pesto? So, this limited-time mac (ramp season is woefully short) combines two of my great loves. It nearly brought me to tears. While the sauce is pesto-based, it’s still spectacularly cheesy, and gets a nice sharp kick from the garlicky alliums. I’ve never had a mac quite like this one. Go try this now, before it’s off the menu.

Cinco de Mayo 

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Another limited-run creation for the holiday, this featured chorizo, cilantro, pico de gallo and avocado. Unconventional? Yes. But the chorizo, not too spicy and very flavorful, imbued the cheese sauce with spices that you’re unlikely to find in other mac sauces. It was creamy, tangy, spicy and, of course, cheesy. I’m not sure what the cheese blend in this variety was exactly, but I’d guess there was some sharp cheddar in there. It doesn’t matter: it was rad.

Huge thanks to Rob for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat cheese with me. I hope it won’t be the last time!

Murray’s Cheese Bar, 264 Bleecker St. 646-476-8882

brooklyn bowl, williamsburg

photo via Yelp

photo via Yelp

Confession: I only go to Brooklyn Bowl to eat. Second confession: I only like to bowl with the gutter bumpers up.

With that out of the way, I would like to note that Brooklyn Bowl is probably one of the most fun locations in all of New York. You can drink! Eat! Listen to live music! Bowl (with the bumpers)!

But, my favorite part about this multi-hypen pleasure palace is the macaroni and cheese. I would swim across the East river to eat this. It’s one of those dishes that you always order to share while people are (ostensibly) there to bowl and drink beer. But as soon as everyone takes his or her first bite, you end up ordering about three more so that everyone can have a fourth helping.

This is absolutely destination mac for me. What makes it so good? The cheese sauce is a mix of aged provolone, mozzarella and cheddar and THEN they add an onion confit for a salty-sweet kick. They also use shells instead of macaroni, which works wonders for capturing the rich sauce inside.

The broiled top is crunchy, but the pasta underneath is still swimming in cheese. It’s just pretty close to perfect.

Brooklyn Bowl, 61 Wythe Ave., 718.963.3369

blue smoke, gramercy

photo credit: melissa hom

photo credit: melissa hom

When I first moved to the city, I was very fortunate to have a best friend who not only worked for Mario Batali, but later Danny Meyer (shout out to Trinity College!). One of the best perks of this (for me), was being able to call her at work and ask her to bring home some goodies for dinner. When she managed events at Meyer’s Blue Smoke, it was both a dangerous and delicious time in my life. While the entire menu is pretty rad (I’m looking at you, chocolate layer cake), there’s no doubt that their best item — and best selling — is their macaroni and cheese. It also gets bonus points for holding up pretty well after a subway ride.

What I love about this particular mac is the sauce. When it arrives at your table (or on your couch if you’re lucky), the top layer is spotted like a rich bechamel. Underneath is a superbly creamy, velvety sauce that coats each elbow noodle. The key to the sauce’s unctuous quality is that it’s actually made without flour: the base is composed of onions, garlic, vinegar and heavy cream (and some secret ingredients scores of people have tried to uncover to no avail). A mix of American and Cheddar is then added, ensuring a super melty, almost stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth thickness. Finally, each batch is broiled to order, meaning you never get a bad rendition.

I mentioned earlier that I had “destination macs.” This certainly falls under that category and is always one of my top recommendations when someone asks for suggestions.

Blue Smoke, 116 East 27th St., 212.447.7733

beecher’s new york, flatiron

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photo credit: rina jordan

If you read any “Best of” lists involving macaroni and cheese (which you probably do if you’re reading this blog), it’s likely that you’ve already come across Beecher’s. While the original shop is across the country in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier opened his second location in NYC in 2011, much to the delight of people like me (and you!).

Beecher’s is notable because it’s not just a restaurant, but, first and foremost, a working cheese shop. You can actually buy all the cheeses used in their mac and cheese and make it yourself, if you’re so inclined. But, let’s be real, here; they do such a damn fine job of making it themselves, I’d rather just do the eating.

Onto the mac: there’s no humility here. Beecher’s markets their mac as World’s Best Mac and Cheese. Do I concur? Well, I’m hard pressed to ever pick an absolute favorite, but Beecher’s has entered the vaunted territory of “destination mac” for me.  What makes it so good? Their proprietary cheese blend: a mix of their Flagship (kind of a nutty Cheddar) and Just Jack cheeses. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you can’t find this mac anywhere else because you honestly can’t; no one else has these cheeses. The sauce coats the penne perfectly and the nuttiness of the Flagship makes this truly unique.

Insider tip: unless you’re picking up a frozen box to go, try and snag your mac from a fresh tray at the steam table. It’s worth it.

Also! For those of you outside of Seattle or NYC, you can even order it online.

Beecher’s New York, 900 Broadway, 212.466.3340

macbar/delicatessen, nolita

Delicatessen_Mac Classic_Photo Credit Delicatessen

For mac connoisseurs like myself, the fact that New York offers multiple establishments that just serve my favorite dish is reason enough to never leave the City. My two favorite mac-specific restaurants are S’mac and Macbar, although there are a few new joints that I need to sample.

The above bubbling skillet comes from Delicatessen, which is next door to Macbar and owned by the same team. All of the macs (and they are legion!) that are served at Delicatessen come from the petite, noodle-shaped Macbar shop, so I thought I’d combine both of these spots into one post. One note: when you order it at Macbar, they come in this sweet (also) noodle-shaped vessel:

Macbar_The Classic_Frances Janisch

As you can tell from the above picture, this is a super cheesy situation. The mac pictured here is The Classic, which is made with elbow macaroni, Cheddar and American cheeses. I’m not sure if they use a bechamel base, but my guess is they might because the sauce is fairly thick. The duo of cheeses means you get a solid crust on top from the Cheddar, but it’s still pretty gooey due to the American. While this certainly isn’t as light (well, as light as macaroni and cheese can be) as the version from Birds and Bubbles, I can snarf this down faster than Hometown Bar-B-Que’s. For only having two relatively-mild cheeses, the flavor in this is quite strong.

I love Macbar mac and cheese so much that it was actually the last thing I ate before I went on my wedding diet. And while the Classic is a damn fine basic mac, my favorite might be the Mac Quack, which is made with duck confit, fontina and caramelized onions. Are you drooling yet?

Macbar, 54 Prince St., 212.226.0211