The Wages of Rice Pudding

Rice to Riches, an opulent, ultramodern New York City café modeled on Italy’s innumerable elegant gelaterias, makes just the kind of foamy, creamy rice pudding I don’t like but many people prefer. That’s all it makes: twenty-one kinds, scooped from bowls behind glass cases just like in a gelateria, and doled out for sampling in tiny plastic spoons. It’s very stylish comfort food, and a stylish young crowd has found it. In the nearly four years since Rice to Riches opened, customers have become loyal to a core of fifteen or so of its whimsically named flavors, like Coconut Coma and Sex, Drugs, and Rocky Road.

Loyal enough to keep an expensively appointed café near SoHo in business—or apparently enough. Two years ago Thomas Spota, the district attorney of Long Island’s Suffolk County, had the café’s owner, Peter Moceo, who gave his occupation as “rice-pudding entrepreneur,” arrested along with nineteen others, including Moceo’s father, for promoting “probably one of the largest gambling operations ever in Suffolk County”—one that handled $21 million a year,. According to The New York Times, authorities investigated whether the café was used to launder some of the profits. In pre–Super Bowl raids, police reportedly found nearly $30,000 in cash at Moceo’s café, $413,000 in the ceiling of his father’s house in Brooklyn, and gambling records in his condo at Trump Tower, where a concierge allegedly worked as a runner for the ring. Moceo’s father’s lawyer told the New York Post that his client had been a bread deliveryman and lived on his pension. He is believed to own 119 Florida condos, and had pleaded guilty and received probation in a 1996 gambling case.

How had Moceo chosen the name for his café? “It just popped into my head,” he told me when we recently spoke (after he demanded to know who I was and why I was calling). The case was a “personal issue that’s behind me,” he said, adding that he comes to the shop, which has never closed during his legal battles, every day. (At the time of this writing, the trial was pending.) He spoke enthusiastically of the constant flavor development he oversaw (the holiday rotation included Kiss My Anisette Xmas Pudding), and of the success of the overnight-delivery mail-order department, which promises to “supply the sweetness” if “someone you care about is sad or struggling” (“you supply the love”).

I ordered Understanding Vanilla, in a “sumo”-sized plastic tub, forty ounces (the minimum order), which cost $49 with shipping. It arrived in Boston in excellent condition, swaddled in multiple ice packs. I could tell that the ingredients were of very high quality, and included none of the thickeners used in most commercial puddings—the texture, light and creamy even after shipping, was an impressive achievement. But the vanilla was overwhelming, tasting more like cream soda than the slew of expensive Tahitian vanilla beans that Moceo said went into it.

A later tasting at the store, with its numerous video screens and its wide oval plate-glass window and ovoid counters, impressed me with the quality, purity, and inventiveness of the flavors. I’d recommend the purest, Old Fashioned Romance, as a beginning order, perhaps in time for Valentine’s Day. Or, in the spirit of how the café found its way into the news, you might try the first of the winter flavors: Don Cappuccino. —C.K.