Kara Kimbrough Readers’ questions on restaurant recommendations often extend beyond our state borders. Accepting an invitation to join a large group of friends in New York City for a pre-Christmas trip created the opportunity to share new culinary adventures. After all, New York is home to some of the world’s best restaurants. More than a few were on my bucket list. I was surprised to learn a trip to NYC can be affordable, even if, like me, your travel budget is limited. Here are the top highlights of my trip, including cost-savings and most importantly, bucket list restaurants that exceeded my expectations. 1. New York City has a reputation for being an expensive place to visit. During my pre-trip research, I found out our hotel, Sheraton at Times Square, was located directly across from New York and Company. It’s the official marketing organization for New York City. Recommendations on the best hotels in all price ranges, lists of thousands of restaurants, transportation, attractions and “all things New York City” are located on one comprehensive site, http://www.nycgo.com, as well as social media platforms. From my personal experience, purchasing a CityPASS is the best way to see NYC. It offers a significant cost-savings on the entry fees to most of the city’s top attractions. 2. Now to the first restaurant on my list: Junior’s Deli. The recipe for NYC’s Junior’s Famous #1 Cheesecake is one I’ve replicated for several Easter dinners. Sampling cheesecake, along with a corned beef and pastrami sandwich or anything, really, at the 70-plus year-old landmark, has been a frequent daydream. On the second day, my dream came true. Sitting at the old-fashioned lunch counter was surreal, especially when a jovial New Yorker seemed fascinated with my southern accent as I placed my order. Junior’s exceeded my expectations and then some. Check out Junior’s website at: http://www.juniorscheesecake.com to drool over the restaurant and bakery menus or order a cheesecake. 3. Checking off restaurant bucket list items still allowed time to join the group for special meals and events. These included stops at Sardi’s, a 90-year-old theatre district staple at which I sampled delicious cannelloni; Bryant Park Grill, a lively, upscale eatery where I enjoyed tangy Moroccan lemon chicken and the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center for a late-night dessert of flaming baked Alaska after the famed Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. Surprisingly, Trump Tower Café proved to be an affordable brunch spot for carb-loading on authentic New York-style bagels and cream cheese and blueberry scones before a brisk morning walk in Central Park. 4. The #1 item on my New York bucket list was to dine at the famed Carmine’s Italian Restaurant. The much-anticipated celebratory meal on Saturday evening was the perfect antidote to a sobering visit to the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Side note: I highly recommend a visit to this extraordinary museum. Located on eight acres at the World Trade Center site, the heartbreaking story of 9/11 is told through historic footage and displays, authentic artifacts and personal stories and voice recordings of loss, recovery and hope. At the site of both towers are reflection pools containing majestic waterfalls encircled by walls inscribed with the names of 9/11 victims. Overall, the museum is a must-see destination for all Americans. 5. Finally, to the culinary highlight of my trip. Three friends and I were fortunate enough to score a scenic window table at Carmine’s. As throngs of people scurried through Times Square in the bitter cold, just inches away we settled in for a sumptuous meal of hearty Italian classics. For starters, we almost – but not quite – felt like we were back in the south when we learned platters were to be shared family-style around the table. We soon learned Carmine’s takes large portions and sharing to an entirely different hemisphere. Watching aromatic, steaming platters of meatballs pass by enroute to other tables created unparalleled food envy. As a result, we bypassed a long list of appetizers and went straight for the pasta. Carmine’s mammoth homemade meatballs made of beef and veal and served in marinara and ragu sauces over pasta was the unanimous choice. For a pasta-lover like me, it was my idea of food heaven on a platter. It’s hard to accurately describe the amazing pasta dish in a few words. Suffice too say, I’ve been dreaming about the juicy meatballs, tangy sauces and delicious pasta ever since. I’ve ordered a copy of Carmine’s cookbook, but like Junior’s cheesecake, I don’t anticipate my version turning out as delicious as theirs. Pasta and meatballs would have sufficed for a meal, yet we couldn’t resist ordering another recommended dish, chicken parmigiana. Expertly-breaded chicken had been pan-fried to a crispy, golden brown, then topped with melted mozzarella and Romano cheese and served over marinara sauce. So yes, it surpassed all recommendations. Carmine’s also serves seafood, steaks, veal and other Italian delicacies. But they “had us at pasta,” so sampling the remainder of the menu will have to wait until a return trip. Visit their website at: http://www.carminesnyc.com. 6. If you’re considering a trip to NYC but need to stick to a budget, you’re in luck. Special promotional packages are most prominent during the coldest winter weather. If your schedule allows, the next few weeks are a great time to go. NYC Winter Outing runs Jan. 21-Feb. 9, offering significant cost savings during Restaurant, Broadway and Must-See Weeks. Hotels also offer the most attractive rates of the year during this time. Check out details at nycgo-com/nyc-outing. Or, drop me an email and I’ll pass on more restaurant recommendations and trip tips. Like me, you’ll leave NYC with memorable cheesecake and meatball memories.