Fred A. Bernstein

This Store Sells Rice Pudding -- Nothing Else

Rice to riches? Or rice to ruin?

Published in The New York Times, March 27, 2003


RICE pudding is comfort food.

But not for Peter Moceo.

''Ask my wife,'' said Mr. Moceo, 43. ''I don't sleep; I'm up all night thinking about rice pudding.''

What should be the perfect palliative for a city on edge has become, for Mr. Moceo, an obsession.

Yesterday, after more than two years of tossing and turning, he opened what is probably the world's only rice pudding parlor. Mr. Moceo, who grew up in Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, and now lives in the Trump Tower, named the shop Rice to Riches.

In a basement kitchen at 37 Spring Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets, Jemal Edwards, once the pastry chef at Montrachet and Nobu, is busy turning out 18 flavors, from pineapple-basil to pistachio-sage. Upstairs, at a counter shaped like a giant grain of rice, customers pay $4.50 for eight-ounce portions. Exotic toppings (including one made with Vietnamese pandan rice flakes, fried with cardamom, lemon grass and ginger) add 25 cents. For the opening-day crowd, there was a Portuguese special with cinnamon, lemon and port-soaked currants.

No detail was too minor to keep Mr. Moceo awake. He designed plastic dishes to match the flavors. ''Your limes and your pistachios go here,'' he said, pointing to a stack of green containers. He came up with ominous flavor names like Coffee Collapse, Sesame Survivor and Chocolate Cherry Crime Scene. ''I spent a lot of time,'' he said, ''looking for words that would go together.''

The store's design, with its impressive glass portal (also shaped like a grain of rice) and space-agey interior of orange and white Lucite, consumed Mr. Moceo. (For months, a sign outside apologized for delays, promising ''fast food, slow construction.'')

The shop's flat-screen televisions play videos of Mr. Moceo's seven-pound white Maltese, Fidget. Scenes that Mr. Moceo had hoped to include, with Fidget battling larger dogs for rice pudding treats, were cut when it became clear that Fidget couldn't act.

Mr. Moceo, who said he once owned a restaurant called Bally-hoo's in Smithtown, N.Y., originally wanted to open a sit-down restaurant featuring only rice dishes. After struggling with the concept for months, he said, he flew to Italy to relax. As he ate intensely flavored desserts in Florence's stylish gelaterias, inspiration struck.

But when he got back to New York and began researching rice pudding recipes, he said, ''my friends didn't understand where I was going with this.''

Worse, ''landlords refused to rent to me, because they didn't see how I could pay the rent selling rice pudding.'' Mr. Moceo, who declined to say how much he has spent on the project, said it was ''less than you'd think -- I did most of the work myself.'' He had ''no partners, no investors.''

He said he hopes to sell 400 to 500 portions of rice pudding a day.

''Everyone,'' he said inaccurately, ''loves rice pudding.''

He then amended his statement to say that anyone who dislikes rice pudding has probably had only the diner version, which he said lacks both taste and texture. His pudding is made with firm-grained sushi rice and expensive flavorings like Boyajian lemon oil, which is made with 66 lemons per ounce.

''The main thing for Pete is getting the flavors super-intense,'' Mr. Edwards said.

In an early tasting, Chocolate Cherry Crime Scene had the texture of molten lava and the taste of a chocolate cherry cordial. Bottomless Pear packed a jolt of anise, and the mix of textures -- tiny grains of pear with larger grains of rice -- gave the tongue a workout.

Mr. Moceo spent more than a year building the shop's elaborate kitchen, designed to produce nothing but rice pudding. ''All of this equipment, and you can't even toast an English muffin,'' sighed Mr. Edwards.

Working at a long row of single-burner stoves, Mr. Edwards brought gallons of sweetened and salted milk to a boil in an oversize saucepan called a rondo.

''We're ready for rice,'' he told an assistant, who began pouring about four pounds of parboiled sushi rice into the pan. Mr. Edwards estimated that it would take 38 minutes for the rice to cook, but, he said, ''you can't predict exactly; you have to wait until it has just the right jiggle.''

When the jiggle was right, Mr. Edwards folded cream and eggs into the mixture, creating what he calls rice pudding base. Later, he would add the ingredients for Sesame Survivor, which include light brown sugar, dark brown sugar and Joyva tahini paste. Other flavors require fruit reductions. For these, Mr. Edwards depends on a large kitchen scale and a calculator; he knows, for example, that a raspberry mixture is done when it is down to precisely 12.91 kilograms.

But the rice has to cooperate. ''Sometimes it will puff up, and sometimes it won't, and you can't quite figure out why,'' Mr. Edwards said. When oils coat grains of rice, they will not expand properly, he said. So oily ingredients are added only after the rice is cooked. The final step is folding in whipped cream.

''I had a suspicion that rice wasn't easy to work with,'' Mr. Edwards said, ''because when I was at Nobu, I would see apprentice chefs spend months doing nothing but rice.''

The finished pudding is moved to a Traulsen blast chiller, which cools it to 40 degrees in 40 minutes, Mr. Moceo said. Then it is stashed in a walk-in refrigerator as big as some studio apartments. The shop serves the puddings cold, but they can be warmed in a microwave on request.

Mr. Edwards, now 36, entered the world of rice pudding in 2001, when Mr. Moceo was trying out recipes with a succession of chefs in a commercial kitchen he had rented on 11th Avenue. Nothing was off limits, including vinegars and mustards. Some of those flavors will reappear as specials, Mr. Moceo said. He is planning pumpkin rice pudding for Halloween and Champagne rice pudding for New Year's Eve.

Already, Mr. Moceo has plans to open four more stores in Manhattan, and to supply restaurants through a larger kitchen than the one on Spring Street.

And he plans to expand his menu, slightly. ''I have some really good ideas for pairing teas with rice puddings,'' Mr. Moceo said.

Yesterday, several customers noted that they were on their way to Mass for Lent.

''Nobody gives up rice pudding for Lent,'' Mr. Moceo said. ''Not yet.''