Rice to Riches, New York City
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — January 21, 2011
In one of those great historical coincidences, New York’s first pizza restaurant, Lombardi’s, which we have reviewed on this site, is directly across Spring Street from Rice to Riches, New York’s first and perhaps the world’s only dessert emporium devoted solely to… rice pudding. Nothing else. Just rice pudding. 20+ flavors of it. Flavors that range from intense to subtle to exquisite to intriguing. You name it, Rice to Riches has got it. The greatest collection of rice pudding anywhere, in all its sloppy, gloppy, glorious goodness.
Rice to riches is your one-stop-shop for all your rice pudding cravings.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
And the place has been a hit since its opening in 2003. Each day, lines of rice aficionados stretch out the door and down the block. Rice to Riches was a public relations and business phenomenon right from its opening day. Perhaps you’ve seen a Rice-to-Riches’ cameo in a Sex and the City episode, or in the movie Hitch, where Eva Mendes partakes of some superb goopy offering from this unique, futuristic-looking establishment.
The mastermind behind this epic paean to rice pudding is Peter Moceo, Jr., who grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and later lived in the Trump Tower. Moceo was co-owner of a restaurant called Bally-hoo's in Smithtown, New York. When Balley-Hoo’s began evolving into a nightclub, Moceo sold out and for a time was a developer of Florida hotels.
The lettering on the glass counter reads, “legally sin,” and that's pretty much sums up the flavorful overindulgence at rice to riches.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
Moceo was still fascinated with the restaurant business, however, and wanted to open a high-end sit-down restaurant offering rice dishes exclusively. After months of profound meditations on the idea (and probably discovering that a New York restaurant called Rice had already existed for six years) he journeyed to Italy for a breather. Encountering the flavor-charged gelato and other scrumptious desserts of Florence’s sheik gelaterias, Moceo had his eureka moment. Rice was too broad a theme, Moceo realized, but offering a spectrum of rice pudding flavors in the world’s only rice pudding parlor would be perfect.
Moceo returned to New York and started scrutinizing all known rice pudding recipes, he said, much to the confusion of his friends. He suspected that rice wasn’t an easy dish to work with after seeing how chefs-in-training would spend months doing nothing but practice rice preparation. At first glance, rice pudding doesn't appear to be a complicated dessert to make from scratch, since it consists, essentially, of rice, milk, and sugar that is simmered in a pot on a stove. In actuality, of course, it isn't a quick dessert, particularly if one aspires to producing a gourmet-level result. Rice exercises “free will” on occasion, displaying a strange uncertainty when it comes to “puffing up” during cooking. Even the slightest coat of oil will prevent the grains from expanding correctly, which means that any ingredients containing can only be added to the mixture after the rice is cooked to perfection. So, in 2001 he rented a commercial kitchen on 11th Avenue in Manhattan and conducted rice pudding recipe experiments in cooperation with a series of chefs. He concluded that people who say they hate rice pudding are referring to the “diner version” of it, which lacks the kind of taste and texture of which rice pudding is capable if the proper (and expensive) ingredients are used. Moceo decided his puddings would be made with firm-grained sushi rice (which takes about 38 minutes to cook) and seldom-encountered flavorings such as Boyajian lemon oil, each ounce of which is distilled from 66 lemons.
Rice to riches' puddings are based on high quality, fresh ingredients, such as the firm-grained sushi rice pictured here.
(Photo © Zbigniew Ratajczak | Dreamstime.com)
Moreover, as he searched for a suitable location, skeptical landlords refused to rent storefront space to Moceo, wondering aloud how anyone could make the rent by selling rice pudding. When he did find a location, at 37 Spring Street in the part of Manhattan now known as Nolita (“North of Little Italy”), Moceo found himself doing quite a lot of work on the project himself. Indeed, he spent over a year constructing Rice to Riches’ sophisticated kitchen, dedicated to the production of gourmet rice pudding.
Moceo placed the Rice-to-Riches kitchen in the basement, and into that kitchen he lured the former pastry chef at Montrachet and Nobu, a talented fellow named Jemal Edwards. Under Edwards’ culinary inventiveness, 18 flavors for rice pudding were planned for opening day. (Some think that the Rice-to-Riches’ makeover of rice pudding has resulted in something that more resembles risotto, but that is another matter.)
Rice to riches Humorously recommends the following: “eat 2 rice puddings a day and a sensible dinner.” a sign reads, “limit: 500 rice puddings per customer.”
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
In the meantime, Moceo, who was also fascinated with design, came up with the futuristic look of the place. One critic compared the generally orange and white Lucite interior to repurposing the sets of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Others are reminded of the old Jetsons cartoon series. The store's architectural features include a striking elliptical glass portal shaped like—not surprisingly—a giant grain of rice. The Rice to Riches logo is made up of a pair of rice grain-like ellipses. An ellipse can also be found recessed into the shop’s ceiling. There are elliptical door pulls. In fact, there are no actual corners anywhere in side; nothing but curved walls and counters. The main counter is (would you believe it) elliptical and 25-feet long. There are neon-backlit sections of brown and orange resin, a 7-foot long communal table coated with white acrylic, and there’s a white leather booth that encompasses three smaller round tables.
The graphics firm Hassenstein Design and Berlin photographer Idris Kolodziej enhanced Moceo's amusing concept with colors taken from some of the rice puddings (such as cinnamon red, coffee brown, mango orange, apple green). Graphic artist Susanne Hassenstein digitally massaged a Kolodziej photo of whipped cream into a mountain range, and some other fanciful digital image creations are scattered about the emporium.
The whole project, from recipe experimentation to architectural and décor design and construction, took two years. (For many months, contrite signage at the construction site commented, “'fast food, slow construction.'') Rice to Riches finally opened on April 1, 2003.
Visitors to Rice to Riches may get the feeling that they’re dining in a cross between a gourmet shop and a laboratory aboard the International Space Station. Certainly the exacting recipes for each of their marvelous concoctions fit right into such a scenario. (Example: a batch of their raspberry fruit reduction requires the use of a kitchen scale and calculator to ensure that it comes down to exactly 12.91 kilograms.) Permeating the atmosphere, of course, is the powerful sense of design. Moceo’s talents even include copyrighting—he came up with the names of the flavors and many witticisms seen on the walls. (“Eat right. Exercise. Die Anyway.”) Moceo’s sense of design extends right down to the reusable, ultramodern containers and plastic cutlery that are in artistic syncopation with the flavors.
rice to riches' containers are durable, reusable, and have a sort of space-age tupperware chic quality to them.
(Photo © richard grigonis.)
The containers, incidentally, come in five sizes:
Diva (6 ounces) Serves 1 (Available in the following 4 flavors: Cheesecake, Chocolate Chip, Cinnamon Raisin Caramel.)
Solo (8 ounces) Serves 1
Epic (14 ounces) Serves 1 or 2
Sumo (40 ounces) Serves 5
Moby (80 ounces) Serves 10
Rice to Riches will ship a Sumo sized (40 ounce) container of rice pudding anywhere in the country.
Rice pudding was once relegated to a déclassé dish that flourished in hard economic times, made from leftover rice from the previous night’s meal. Thanks to Rice to Riches, however, rice pudding has been transformed into a sinfest for your taste buds. Enjoy a pizza at Lombardi’s, then walk across the street for some gourmet rice pudding at Rice to Riches. What else could be so exponentially yummy?
Remember—“stressed” spelled backwards is “desserts”!