Thursday, December 11, 2008

Too Much Information

I tried writing this post with a catchy title, woven with news and personal observations. But it just wasn’t quite right. Too many ingredients on my plate. So let’s try again.

The Italian wine trail has taken me to the Hill Country of Texas this week, from Temple to San Antonio, to New Braunfels to Driftwood to Austin. I’m ready to be back home in my own kitchen, in my own town.

After some days in California, where the best food I had was sushi, I found myself in Italian restaurants this week. One was for a dinner meeting with Andrew and Maureen Weissmann, who are opening an Italian place next year in San Antonio. They get it.

Unfortunately the restaurant we were at, the folks in the kitchen were trying to impress him. So they sent out plates that were jammed with too much information. Gnocchi with tomato sauce and fava beans and cheese and, and, and. Like the chef at the table said, “Just keep it fresh, simple and sourced from a quality place.”

And it is that simple. If only folks in the kitchen would get out once in a while and see what the rest of the world is doing.

Italy is constantly being caricaturized, whether it be our food, our wine, our song, our legends. And the Italians who came to America starting 100 years ago, wanting to please their new parent country, bowed and bent and danced their little jig until now what they are presenting as Italian is barely noticeable. We had quite the conversation over a bowl of ragu this week, in the home of a recent-return from living in Italy, one of the best meals I’ve had this month. But our discourse took us over the laundry list of excuses restaurateurs use to explain why they can’t cook like mama did at home.

“Our customers want more food on the plate.”
“They ask for more garlic, we don’t want to use that much.”
“We have to give them a side of spaghetti; they’ve come to expect it over the years.”

And on and on.

Odd, when I talked to chef Weissman ( at the place with the swollen plates), he simply said “ I will do it as I feel it needs to be done. I know I can’t go wrong if I stick to the truth.”

This week we had lunch at a pizzeria napolitana, the owner sat down with us. But before he did we ate. I ordered a pizza with prosciutto and arugula, one of my favorites. As the pie was being set before me I picked up a scent of truffle. From an early experience with white truffles in the 1980’s ( I basically OD’d on the smell of truffles from driving them around in my car for two days, selling them) I have an aversion to them. Or rather, I have a loathing for truffle oil that doesn’t use good quality truffles or oil. And then some kitchen cheerleader bathes a dish in the stuff, making it stink like a Virginia City whore.

My dining partner saw this look on my face. I know he was just a little bit worried. Here we are in an important account, and I'm showing phenolic pain on my face. But then a waft, the angels tail, floats up and whispers in my ear, “give it a try, make sure.” Two wonderful things happened. It was real oil, real truffles, and it was applied with a deft touch. Perfetto.

After, we’re sitting around the table tasting and talking with the owner, Doug Horn. His place, Dough, came out as need for him to deliver a product that in Italy is basic, wonderful and a necessity. And yes, I’m sure from time to time he gets folks coming in looking for a double cheese pizza with extra pepperoni. But then he gets the wandering pilgrims who just want to dip their hand in the holy water, genuflect and get a moment away from the endless missionary work.

His list is 100% Italian wines. He gets it too.

So San Antonio has hope. Austin, in this moment, under the uber-microscope of authentic Italian-ness, let’s say we need a dose of Speranza's to rouse them from their deep freeze. But that was then and times have changed.

Exactly! Times have changed. So why the big plates and the 5 times mark-up on wine and too much garlic and overcooked pasta with too much going on in the bowl? Why are we still settling for salmon and short ribs as something quintessentially Italian?

Let me say this, to anyone who have scanned down this far on the post: If you are in the wine and food business, tear out a page from Andrew Weissman’s play book, “just keep it fresh, simple and sourced from a quality place.” You can’t go wrong if you stick to the truth.

"Ohh, there must be some easier way for me to get my wings."


Marco said...

You almost sound like a foodie;>)You hit on a fundamental thing. It's so true about keeping it simple and sourcing good fresh ingredients. Entrees that have a paragraph and a half description. It's extreme this and extreme that. More on the plate, more garlic, more salt, extra cheese. Caspita! At least some people get it.

Unknown said...

Re: the chef's “just keep it fresh, simple and sourced from a quality place.” Very true.

The entire basis of every episode of (Gordon) Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares -- BBC version -- is that verbatim quote. Going back to 2004, as I recall. Can't go wrong.

...Hospitality Billy

Word Verification: compasoy,
"COMP a soy"
noun: commercial soy product,
used in Chef BoyArDee Spaghetti, suitable for this thread.

Tracie P. said...

"sometimes the spaghetti like to be alone"


viNomadic said...

In San Francisco, Massimo & Lorella struggle sometimes to do pretty strictly Sardo home cooking. They are recovering wine-businesspeople, matter of fact. We bonded from first meeting, because they worked on a cruise ship & their first date was in port in San Juan. It truly is a home away from home. He's been saving a bottle of so-so Zin from Lake County for two years, waiting for me to round up a few blogfriends...

Anonymous said...

The problem with the wine business -- and the restaurant business -- is that the people in charge think simple means crappy. Plus, it's very obvious when you overcharge for something that is simple.

Simple doesn't mean crappy. Simple means simple. Does a dinner get any better than roast chicken, green noodles, a green salad, and a bottle of wine that you like? Especially when you eat it with someone you like a lot? Nope.

Maybe, after the restaurant shakeout that is coming, the ones that survive will understand this. And, almost as important, maybe the people who write about wine and food, who currently think simple is crappy, will adapt Alfonso's philosophy.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks everybody...Marco Disastro, DoBi Gimignano,BK Broiler, Aunt B,
DJ Residual Sugah, and "Mudgie"...good comments...though I'm still trying to figure out the compasoy thingie...maybe Marco will 'splain it to me when cell phone service is resumed on the lunar landing base ;/

Marco said...

compasoy is a new fusion-mashup of Haitian kompa and Japanese sacred music involving low sodium soy. don't ask. it's still evolving.

Unknown said...

AC...compasoy was my word verification in Blogger's comment moderation. You know, so that you know the comment came from a human being, instead of mysteriously simple, crappy robot.

Marco, however, had the better answer. Then again, he's more plugged into the psuedo-vegetal diaspora than I.

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