Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Carbonara Here We Come

Oh where, oh where do we start? Put me down for one Holy Week rant, and let’s get this thing going.

It started out in San Francisco. I was with a winemaker and his importer having lunch at a fashionable Italian-styled spot. The place was buzzing with winemakers, importers, industry hacks, the whole lot. The wines were spot on, I was half-expecting Dr. Vino to saunter in wearing a “No Spitzer, No Spoofalated” T-Shirt. That would have been apocalyptic enough.

When the server asked us what kind of water we wanted, and then grimaced when I suggested something “local”, I reckoned this would be a lunch in search of a kicker.

And then I bit into one of three small pork meatballs ($15 – sans pasta). There must have been $2 worth of salt in that bowl of polpette. The toilet back at the hotel was broken, so I figured I’d probably be in for an interesting night. Salt- water - more water, a long night.

We finished with a bitter espresso, “They need to clean the machine,” one Italian remarked.

Somewhere between lunch and dinner I was staring out at Alcatraz when my phone rang. Southern Wine and Spirits had announced they were setting up shop in Texas, and a very worried sales rep was asking me what was going on. Why ask me? I would be the last to know. The very last one.

Still in the City and dinner plans had been made. Again at a very trendy Italian-styled dinner spot. We arrived early and were asked to stand outside, away from the empty tables and seated diners. I ran down the street and bought my mom a loaf of sour dough bread. Buying time. Never, ever to get any respect from any quarter.

Finally our lottery ticked paid off and we were six, squeezed into a table for four. And we should be happy to have been lifted out of the mire and into the land of the chosen ones. At a table nearby I spotted two women enjoying their night out and each other even more. San Francisco, how that city can take such a common occurrence and raise it to a level of curiosity, only to have it veer off the plastic-fantastic expressway into some field of visceral abandon.

Back to the table, and heated conversation among food and wine ‘sperts, when plates arrive. Again, a dish saturated with saline excess. Doesn’t anyone in these upscale kitchens taste their food? Are they all smokers who cannot imagine a palate that looks for other flavors, other pleasures? I was thankful for high acid wine from Italy, to counter the constant cauterizing my tongue was enduring from the American youth in the kitchen. Pigato saves the day.

A day later, in chichi Hollywood, again one of the hot spots of Italianista food Meccas. We sit, we order, we’re served, and again I feel like I am working the salt mines in Trapani. What in hell is going on in these highly regarded kitchens in California? I haven’t taken in this much salt since I spent a summer body surfing the rip tides of Newport and Huntington Beach.

A week or so later, back in the saddle. Home for a few weeks. Again, importers making their visits for meetings, working on the wine lists, pressing palms, the blocking and tackling of the daily business. Here we wouldn’t be assaulted with the common white seasoning. Here is where we’d get head butted with the black pepper grinder. Surprise again.

We go into another swank Italian-styled spot. Hard to get into. Cool. Utre’. I decide to take a ride down memory lane and order Roman inspired things. First, Carciofi alla Romana. I’ve spent time in Rome, hunted food in the ghetto. A plate of what looks like deep fried palmetto bugs arrive sitting next to a milky looking liquid that resembles nothing I want to put in my mouth. What happened to my artichokes Roman style? It looks like it made its way here via the Colosseum and some gladiator’s trifecta.

And then the Carbonara arrived. Now, many years ago I was a waiter in a restaurant that had table service. I wore a tuxedo. Wore three of them out. And I wasn't a "tuxedo" person at the time. I must have made a couple of hundred Carbonara’s. When someone ordered it, instead of the Fettuccine Alfredo, I was so pleased with them that I would prepare their Carbonara as if it were their last meal. So when a huge bowl arrives ($18) and there appear to be four, maybe five bites, I am a more than a bit disappointed. First bite is cold. Second bite is warmer, but not acceptable. I motion to the server to take my plate and warm it up, per favore. He looks at me and asks me “Just that small amount?” I answer, “It isn’t my fault it’s small, please warm it up.” He walks away, peeved that I interrupted his suck-up session with a local celebrity chef who made it to the finals of Top Chef. She was his reason for being here, not some old fart who made a gazillion Carbonaras, correctly, and was griping about it being cold. After he had eaten most of it. Yeah, whatever.

Waiter-gush boy goes back to kneeling at the table of the cute young chef-as-customer. Micro-warmed up plate of Carbonara (now 2 bites left) comes to counter and is set down. Managers, runners, pizzaoili saunter around the orphan bowl. My waiter is now entering a coma over his rapture with 15-minutes-of-fame-celeb-chef. I will never see the two bites ($9 worth) in a warm state. Finally, a manager figures it out, with a little hand waving from our table.

He brings it to our table and asks me, “Just that small amount?” I answer, “It isn’t my fault.” Now go away and guard the espresso machine, make sure no one turns it off before the restaurant is closed, like the last time when I was there with three very disappointed real Italians.

The two remaining bites of Carbonara were D.O.A. I managed one bite and then surrendered. There would always be Nutella and grappa at home if I was more hungry than tired.

What is it with dessert that makes servers so damn happy? It’s like a ticket taker on a train with one more stop before he gets off for the night. Happy, happy, joy, joy. Give me a break. Several espressos are ordered and then I understood why the machine should have been turned off. Weak and bitter, like this rant.

Two more weeks till Vinitaly. I can hardly stand it.


Anonymous said...

You are the salt of the earth, my friend. Please give me the names of those places in Californy or maybe a salt block would do. It certainly would be less expensive. I would have had to include some expletives in the rant.

Anonymous said...

Well you asked for it by requesting "l'eau municipale". I don't know what happens to Italian cooking on its way to the West Coast. Maybe it's time spent in Chicago. By the time Carbonara gets here it has metamorphed into a dish of army green peas, raw garlic, and congealed pancetta grease on cold sticky pasta...maybe with a little grated Parmesan from that Green cardboard shaker and some black pepper ground with a flourish by an ancient whitehaired waiter. Best to stick with the bistecca.

Bella Baita Marla said...

Very humorous and on the mark rant.

Anonymous said...

Is salt the barrique of the food world?

Unknown said...

All well and good, AC, but what the hell was Casey wearing?!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Michele- If salt is the barrique, what does that make garlic, Micro-Ox?

BK- nice try, not sure if I'd make that my final answer. Swing, batter...

Unknown said...

Nice hit. Heading for second base now....

Alfonso Cevola said...

BK- yeah, sure...with that little fois-grounder ya hit? only thing better would be a Texas-leaguer pop fly.....keep on swingin' bruddah-man...

Anonymous said...

Next time you visit S.F.... come over the Golden Gate bridge, and I'll show you the Redwoods, fine walks, food and the company of an old Pasadena friend.

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