Discussion in 'Food & Cooking' started by jim berman, Feb 19, 2006.

  1. jim berman

    jim berman

    Likes Received:
    Professional Chef
    Twice monthly I roam the fluorescent drenched aisles of Borders for the undiscovered land. Great food essays. Fantastic regional cooking tomes. Heck, this is where I found Jeffery Steingarten and John Thorne. I no longer live near the Old Santa Fe Trail Bookstore nor within a hop, skip or long jump of Books for Cooks. So, hands on at Borders is what it is; more tangible than Amazon, less romantic than comatose with The Epicurean in my oversized, well worn blue “Dad’s chair.” This day was unlike all others. No kids in tow. No papers to grade. Just an abundance of time to trawl. Today would be my epiphany. Really! It dawned on me that, upon further examination of the food and cooking literature at Borders, that this section resembled NASCAR racing; everything looks the same and the results are almost always predictable. I know nothing of car racing other than the accidents and the finish line make the headlines: little substance and too much hoopla. The same can be said of most (not all!) of what lines the shelves between the bathrooms and the over priced, acrid coffee at Borders. Now, that is a lot to be said about contemporary food writing and writers. Therein itself lies the problem; the food writers are a product of society, the food scene and our smorgasbord of restaurant offerings. Where is the safety? Where is the love? Where is the family table?
    I am not speaking in absolutes nor am I even close to being an authority on neither food nor food writing. I am a cook and I read. So, I am the only voice in my head related to me that knows anything about food. What strikes me most is that there is no fire on the shelves, in these words bound between the flashy cover, black and white photos and praise from noteworthy chefs.
    Fire. Love. Drive. Passion is the catch-term for chefs, chef wannabes and restaurateurs, the world over.
    “Where’s your passion, kid?”
    “You have to have a passion to succeed!”
    “I have a passion for food,” I have heard a thousand or more times, over the past 15 years. But where is the enamored devotion to suckling at the fountain of bubbling marinara? Where can this be found in this hallowed mega store? Is it the fault of the merchandiser? Probably not. Supply and demand, and all. So where does the supply come from?
    I wanted to settle down with a big, punchy inspiring, chunky book of love. The likes that can be found in a heaping bowl of gnocchi, or garlicky greens that leave a puddle of oil. I wanted to forego the paragraph-length verbiage for each menu item, proud of their organic and seasonal PC pandering. I can enjoy Day Boat Scallops seared and drizzled with wasabi foam, if I have to. Everybody has to be ‘cutting edge’ and inventing. My palate can’t keep up with it, nor does it want it to try. However, I want more than the formula places have to offer. More than what formula coffee table books have to offer. Its all been watered down. The food scene is a compendium of trend or so dramatically muted that common folks are dazed by a lackluster melancholy and don’t know any better. There are beautiful places and books from beautiful places with their beautiful people and leather bound menus that appeal to the one-percent of the “I saw the American Dream and it is me” crowd.
    So, as I sit in Borders and mourn for bread crumbs on the table, a one page menu in a plastic slip cover and wine served in a juice glass, I yearn for good food that is as inspired by love as the soul is inspired to reach out through my gullet and beg for satisfaction. Damnitalltohell, I do not want comfort food. I don’t want nouvelle. I do not want Lonestar. I want good, real food that makes me passionate all the while filling me so close to the rim that I can’t do anything with my newfound lust.
    There must be something to fate. One of my students is part of a family restaurant.
    “When are you coming to the restaurant?” Cristina asked almost daily.
    “My anniversary is coming up. We’ll check it out then,” I told her.
    “Well, it isn’t fancy. So maybe you want to check it out another time,” she said over her shoulder.
    Isn’t fancy, eh? Family run, huh? Perhaps, just perhaps this might be the answer. It isn’t a chain. “No credit cards or reservations, either,” Cristina told me.
    We opted to try Ristorante Attilio on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington on a Friday. Good friends in tow, we had to stop at an ATM before going in. Weird, these days, to do so. Maybe this was going to be too much of a casual experience to bring along our lawyer friend and his Ritz-Carlton employed wife.
    Crowded at 9 o’clock on a Friday, we waited in the small, cramped section between the 5-stool bar and the basement door. We had plenty of time to read the 1 page menu.
    Smelts. Hot Peppers. Green Beans and Potatoes. Spezzatto. Ravioli. Gnocchis. Lasagna (VERY SPECIAL, in caps!) Porkette. Manicotti.
    Could this be? No descriptions. No origins of each and every ingredient. No address for the farm supplying the free range, hormone-free, left-handed, yellow-feathered bottle-fed chickens. “VERY SPECIAL” is the only descriptor.
    The carpet is well worn. The paneling is dark. There is a neon light glowing from one corner of the room and glare from the owner’s head is glowing in another corner. Cristina leaked to her dad that this is an anniversary dinner.
    “A bottle of spumante for you,” as he poured into the mismatched glasses. We sipped as we waited. No Vueve Cliquot. No Moet Chandon. Good!
    The debate carried on over the table as to what we needed to eat, what we wanted to eat and what we most certainly could not do without trying. We settled on garlicy greens, fried smelts, pepper shooters, hot peppers and green beans with potatoes. The crusty bread arrived wrapped in the requisite paper napkin. I am home! We quibbled over the best of the appetizers. There were no agreements. Everything was amazing. The smelts were perfectly crisp. I mean perfect. The beans sung a beautiful harmony with the potatoes. The pepper shooter was fiery and alive. The greens, I must confess, would have done me well as my last meal. I mean it. So much flavor and so very little fuss. Just good. Good food. Good folks to be around.
    I had to have the raviolis. I know all the pasta is home made, as evidenced by the “All Pastas are Home Made” on the back of the menu. Attilio (“T,” to family) would not lie. But, I yearned for gnocchis.
    “Sure!” our waitress assured me, that isn’t a problem. “A lot of people can’t decide on one, so they order both,” she went on. My wife ordered the Lasagna, “Very Special.”
    Was it! Little meatballs nestled amid the layers of paper thin pasta. Not meat sauce. Little meat balls, no bigger than a New Jersey blueberry. Proscuitto, cheese everywhere and truly historic sauce.
    My gnocchis and raviolis were as amazing. Slathered in sauce, the gnocchis were light, not mushy and full of that earthiness I had been craving. The raviolis were equally amazing. The pasta was delicate and the cheese filling was luscious. Our guests ordered the same as my wife and I, so the sampling was kept to a minimum; which was a good thing. I really did not want to share!
    The two carafes of chianti were perfect. Juice glasses, and all. And although I had eaten nearly my own weight in pasta, or so it seemed, spumoni all around! There was no more room for anything else. It had to be a melt-able dessert or the explosion that surely would have occurred from my overstuffed belly would have been quite the mess. Worth it, but messy nonetheless.
    We felt like family. “T” spent time with us; he told us of the 20-year history of his place, the inspiration for his food.
    “This is what we ate home,” he said “this is all my mother’s food.”
    So, it is love. You see, the food came from a kitchen, a home, a family. No watered-down, no ‘lite,’ no ‘fancy.’ I am eternally grateful to my student. Her family is responsible for restoring my faith in humanity. Or at least in restoring my faith in dipping my toes into the pool of eternal tomato sauce, every now and again.
  2. shroomgirl


    Likes Received:
    Professional Caterer
    wow...where is the enamored devotion to suckling at the fountain of bubbling marinara