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Overstuffed Italian Heroes in Queens — and Other Cheap Eats

Plus, solid quesadillas and Middle Eastern in East Village

Nothing like a cold hero on a warm afternoon in the backyard of Leo’s Latticini.
Nothing like a cold hero on a warm afternoon in the backyard of Leo’s Latticini.

Three Great Cheap is a weekly series from critic Robert Sietsema that seeks to find and popularize New York City’s most interesting and inexpensive food in the five boroughs and beyond. Find the back catalog here. Also consult the bigger cheap eats guide, with maps, walking tours, and other resources.

Cafe Rakka

Lamb shawarma sandwich in a pita with greenery held by a hand.
Lamb shawarma sandwich
One of several vegetarian specials
One of several vegetarian specials

This old-timer has lingered near the corner of First Avenue and St. Marks Place for nearly 35 years, over time going from being nominally Syrian to nominally Egyptian. The Middle Eastern menu is mainly predictable, served at a handful of tables with a view of the kitchen, where the sound of sizzling kebabs and frying falafel emerge. In summer, tables spill out onto the sidewalk; well-fed patrons linger over their beers, lost in conversation until nearly midnight every day of the week

Vegetarian fare is a particular boon, and a series of complete meals along the lines of Japanese bentos allow you to select several dishes, among them stuffed grape leaves, a smoky babaganoush, moussaka, and — giving the meal an Egyptian spin — the fava bean stew called foul mudammas. Meats are also up to par, including a lamb shawarma that, at $7.50 per pita sandwich, must be accounted quite a bargain. Desserts like baklava and bird’s nest also consistently good and fresh tasting. 81 St. Marks Pl., between First and Second Avenue, East Village

Taqueria y Fonda

Carnitas quesadilla
Carnitas quesadilla

The small dining room at this Manhattan Valley favorite that dates to 2002 was thronged at lunchtime. Diners watched soccer on a screen fixed up near the ceiling as the cook in the front window grilled meats and poultry for tacos, sopes, and other antojitos, warming the flatbreads on the griddle. Most of the soccer fans were chowing down on was the humongous burrito this place is famous for, so big the profuse ingredients tumble out the ends of the flour tortilla, which can’t be completely folded over. But the more frugal will fix on the quesadilla. The quesadillas are nicely stuffed, with a choice of over a dozen fillings, including several forms of offal as well as chicken, chorizo, and carnitas. They’re also a great value at $7.95. 968 Amsterdam Ave., between 107th and 108th streets, Upper West Side

Leo’s Latticini (Mama’s of Corona)

Wildly overstuffed heroes are the forte of this deli counter attached to a classic, century-old Italian cheese shop, where homemade ricotta and mozzarella are the bases of many sandwiches. You’ve never tasted fresher cheese at this place with that has no website. Chicken parm and Virginia ham with mozzarella heroes are predictably great, as are the frittatas and pasta dishes, but to honor Mama Nancy DeBenedittis, who died in 2009, why not order her signature sandwich? It arrives piled high with prosciuttini, salami, mozzarella, mushrooms, and pickled peppers. Eat it in the delightful backyard. 46-02 104th St., at 46th Avenue, Corona

Mama’s special hero, cut in two so the cold cuts, cheese, and red peppers are visible
Mama’s special hero

Leo's Latticini

46-02 104th St, Corona, NY 11368 (718) 898-6069

Cafe Rakka

81 Saint Marks Pl, New York, NY 10003 (212) 982-9166 Visit Website

Taqueria Y Fonda

968 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025 (212) 531-0383 Visit Website