Wednesday, August 11, 2010
the perfect italian...
it's 8:05 Sunday morning, August 21, 2010.
having coffee at the dining room table leading onto the deck
only 5 feet away a carolina wren is singing loudly to attract
it's mate to the food I've scattered across the deck
(a daily ritual)
while 4 hummingbirds chase each other around
the ever-present feeder I have filled with nectar.
it's a scene played out through the open back door
where the freshly-painted-pale-yellow deck contrasts
beautifully against the background of lush green forestry.
it's idyllic and I'm made aware yet again how very very
fortunate I am and how far I've come from the days
of my youth eating White Castle fare with my mom and dad.
we were a fairly poor family but I was too dumb to notice.
my parents' idea of "dinner out" was a cheap burger joint.
we rarely ate out and in fact I never tasted a steak until
sometime in my early twenties when I lived on my own.
but there was a small local restaurant in Covington,
Kentucky where we occasionally dined; a place I will never forget.
it was called the Anchor Grill.
for me, an impressionable kid, the Anchor Grill was
an enchanted magical hideaway full of imagined exotic intrigue.
the red walls were covered in some sort of velour fabric
with several large sport fish hung on the walls:
a sail fin, a tuna, covered in netting in dynamic poses
while an early version of a disco ball made little round
wavy circles of light dance around the walls as if by magic.
in the small dark room there were comfy 4-person vinyl booths
each one with it's own 50's-style portable jukebox.
the little jukebox with the rounded glass front and rows
of letters and numbers was itself a thing of beauty.
I loved leafing through the selections, popping in my
mother's quarters, and playing the hits of the day.
when the 45 rpm record slowly extended out on metal arm
which then flipped it on it's side and then on to the turntable,
something magical DID happen.
in the corner of the room hung a glass enclosure about as big
as a large computer monitor but in a box shaped like a tiny stage.
a curtain opened up to reveal a bandstand with perhaps 12 little
figures, each with an instrument and positioned as if in a Big Band.
as the sound of "Beyond The Sea" would pour from the booth's
speakers the figures would sway back and forth like a living orchestra.
the effect was stunning to me and I never tired of it.
as I said, for me the Anchor Grill was an enchanted wonderland.
but in reality it was pretty much just a greasy spoon diner.
it's still there today.
I visited the Anchor Grill a few years back.
it's much the same as it was with obvious wear and tear.
I would have given a golden Parker Fly Signature Model
to haven taken that little bandstand home with me.
it's filled with dreamy pleasant memories.
anyone who knows me well knows my obsession with dining.
food is my favorite dish, or as I once said back in the days
of the Bears' constant touring: food is the best thing you can
have on the road that isn't illegal or immoral.
there was a family story that went like this:
evidently my mother breast fed me for two weeks
after I was born before the doctor realized
her breast milk was not nourishing me.
he said I was literally starving to death!
perhaps that explains my feeding obsession.
I'm sure of one thing: if I don't get a decent meal at least
once a day I become a real cranky monster.
and so it is my favorite thing while touring
(other than playing the show)
is to seek out a fine dining experience.
I like all types of food but I'm not an adventurous eater.
I tend to stay with things I know I like, but gradually over
so many meals in so many restaurants around the world
out of necessity I've developed a more varied palette.
the safest choice for me is probably Italian food,
where I can always find something to love if it's good.
apart from a very few great authentic Italian restaurants
established and run by real Italian families here in the U.S.
I think most Americans have no idea what real Italian tastes like.
I've always believed you had to eat in Italy to experience
the real flavor and passion of Italian food.
so much of it seems to be about the freshness of the ingredients,
perhaps even something to do with Mediterranean sun and soil,
and the manner and the setting in which the food is served.
so I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself alone
on a sunday afternoon before our second show in Buenos Aires
in what I considered the perfect Italian restaurant
eating the perfect Italian meal.
a large open room is filled with tables with white table clothes
sitting in skewered positions from being quickly shuffled around,
each armed with the prerequisite tall wine glasses, vinegar and
olive oil, silverware, pepper mills, and soon enough, fresh bread
while waiters in white shirts and black vests scurry everywhere
shouting things and balancing silver trays of deliciousness.
as as bonus attraction there are large-pane windows overlooking
the nearby river and the room is full of warm sunlight,
over-powering smells, and patrons in their best sunday clothes:
families with children and grandparents, couples with furs and suits,
older men nursing espresso and cigars, and: me.
for some reason I don't really mind eating alone in a nice restaurant,
I've gotten used to it after all these years.
I order a coke with lots of ice (what else) and a glass of the house
white wine, always as delicious as any choice I'd make on my own,
in this case a perfectly light pinot grigio-tasting white.
my first waiter speaks no english so getting him to understand
"butter" goes so so but he brings over a chubby friendly waiter
who does speak english and seems happy to see me.
after some chit chat about the menu he warns me not
to order too much because the portions are family style (large)
so I settle on (what else) a great-sounding pasta.
a few minutes pass as I enjoy one of my favorite things:
italian bread with butter and a glass of white wine.
I could gladly make it my entire meal but soon enough
my entree arrives with a slight fanfare, served from a platter
table side, looking gorgeous and it is delicious!
though I can't stop myself from gorging on the pasta,
it is so amazingly flavorful,
after digesting for a few more enjoyable minutes I do
something rare for me: I decide to order desert:
vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and a cappuccino.
the ice cream arrives looking like two chocolate turtles in love
because each scoop has been covered in a shell-like glaze
of bittersweet chocolate. mmmm.
and the cappuccino is frothy and excellent.
so now I'm thoroughly satisfied and beaming with joy
as I ask for my check and my friendly waiter scurries off.
the true proof of a great Italian restaurant comes next
when unexpectedly he returns with a vase-like vial
of lemoncello and pours me a shot into a frosted shot glass.
to quote the old man on Pawn Stars: that's class.
it's a million miles traveled since the Anchor Grill.