Thursday, January 21, 2010

Under the Prodigal Sun

You've been warned: This is a long one

“Why is it again that you don’t like air travel, Ace?” my friend Hank would ask me. Hank, christened Enrico, grew up in a rough and tumble time of scratching out a living doing something he hated, but persisted, for the sake of keeping food on the table and a roof over his family’s head. He made a tidy amount of money and was in the process of indulging himself over travel. This week he was in Vietnam, eating noodles in Ha Noi.

“I don’t know Hank, my legs are too long. And I always seem to get the fellow who, as soon as the plane lifts up, he drives his seat back as far as he can for the duration of the flight.”

And so it was on my recent trip to the West Coast. I had the obligatory knee-cruncher in front of me. The dark stars aligned for this flight, and I had a yappy Chihuahua woman seated next to me, all the while barking out orders to her elderly father two rows ahead of us. To my left was a large young man with a sensitive stomach who specialized in projectile vomiting. And to round out the Four Horsemen of the American Airlines Apocalypse, there was spawn of Satan, who practiced his blood-curdling screams all the way from Dallas to San Francisco, and as soon as we landed, proceeded to fall asleep (renewing his strength to accompany me on the return flight, I kid you not). Something special in the air, oh yes, I would say.

Fair enough answer for my amico Enrico as he slurps his pho and blogs far away from the wine trail in Southeast Asia?

Once I was on the ground and away from the circus of distractions that particular airline has become, my native state took me under her wing and tried to soothe her prodigal son.

San Francisco will always be a place of my youth. It exudes health, vigor, excitement, possibilities. I was in the mood for oysters and Muscadet, so I proceeded to dispatch a slew of the briny creatures before heading up to wine country. The oysters shined, but the Muscadet needed to go into assisted living. As I passed the endless vapors of chocolate from the Recchiuti brothel of cacao, I resisted their siren charms in the hopes of finding a good espresso.

A young Italian at the bio-organic counter brought me back to equilibrium. Recalibrating. Back on track.

The past few days I have had some incredible food and wine. Almost by accident. I couldn’t plan this kind of thing back home. But Northern California is more like Italy to me than Texas. Always will be. My tribe headed West for a reason. And why was it I went to Texas? Oh yes, the “f” word. Freedom. I had nothing but time to lose, 30 years ago.

Highlights of the food
The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma. If this restaurant were a woman, I would beg her to let me marry her. I would give up wine to eat the chicken they served me. Fortunately I found a California wine from a pal, Pellegrini Carignan, to see me through. One of the best chickens I have ever eaten and I loves me my chicken. First I set my allocation of calories by ordering the heirloom radish salad. Subtle. Crunchy. Filling. Spicy. The anchovy butter was a naughty but nice touch. The Makers Mark Manhattan was a bit of a gunfight with it, but it worked. Everyone lived.

Under the chicken, a bed of roasted squash, carrots, parsnips. Dessert to me. The bird was sex, drugs, satori, and salvation. I would rob a bank to pay for it. I would give up chocolate. Or blogging.

A day later, at the little Italian spot on the other side of the square, Della Santina’s, a cup of tortellini in brodo was as good as any I have had in Italy. I reckon I still need to eat at someone’s home in Emilia Romagna before I throw down that gauntlet. A glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo was bright and steely. That wine would have been good with those oysters two days before. Somewhere else I have noted the Greco and the Grenache. Read back on them if you missed it.

Sardegna and Corsica, Sicily and the Marche, were the drivers at the impromptu bachelor(ette) party I had with my Cheese Diva, Paula, and her lively entourage. Some days I am Italian Wine Guy and sometimes I am Hoja Santa Farmer. Who says we have to be one thing?

But back to the Girl and the Fig. And the guy and the girl

I was seated at a little two-top in the corner, a perfect perch while I nursed my bourbon. In they danced. The server sat them at this little table in the middle of the room. Front stage and center. They didn’t object; they were happy to sit there. The woman was glowing. Her date, a man in his mid-50’s but elderly looking, didn’t seem the right match for her. But she would have nothing to do with anyone else’s ideas of who she should be with. She was smitten. She laughed, was giddy and pleasable. She gazed at this man as if he were a god. She was head over heels in love with him. Observing this couple would be my dessert. She touched his hand, looked him in the eyes. He was her true love. But the guy? Had he seen this before? Was this just one more love in a lifetime of loves, no lesser nor greater than the preceding love? Or the next one to come along? I have no idea, I wasn’t looking at him. The woman was youngish, mid-30’s tall, dark haired, Asian. She ate, she drank, but she feasted on her love. It was quite wonderful to watch. And it paired so well with the Carignan.

Good-bye Sonoma - Onward through the rain to the City
Washed out roads took me on a back-run jaunt through fields and hills until the sun poked out and 101 popped back into sight. An aging poet-rocker throbbed about her life on the radio. I had no pressing appointment, just responding to some emails and setting up appointments for the next month.

My bubelah from Dallas, Dave, called. Dave grew up in the Bay area, and he was the shadchen who got me and my wife Liz together, back in the day. He “felt” I was in California and wanted me to stop by O’Flynn’s place in the Marina to pick up some rare Pinot Noirs. As luck would have it, the shop had a sign, "back in an hour." I wouldn’t wait.

That evening, my Cheese Diva sends me an email – meet @ La Ciccia @ 7:30. Driving through the Noe Hill neighborhood reminded me of a time long ago when I knew a woman who lived there. She pursued me to the point of stalking me. I looked around as I parked, hoping she was a faint memory. Still, a tingle from the darkness of a city that took me from an all too serious childhood to a reluctant adulthood. Inside the little trattoria, a table waited with plates of fregula with tuna heart, pasta with bottarga, pane carasau and baby squids in vinegar and oil. The Cheese Diva had arrived early, and she and her entourage were getting their drink on, starting with a Vermentino. Soon, bottles of Pecorino and Nerello would clatter with the dishes and the cacophony of the crowd. Everyone was talking to everyone else. Glasses of Prosecchi were handed around, and the faint dialects of Cagliari and Sassari wafted from the long tables. I couldn’t have found a better place if I had been looking for it, but the Cheese Diva has the knack for food, for adventure, for early adaptation. Once, in Italy, I showed up at her place in Montalcino with a case of Chianti (oh, the blasphemy). Her response was to cut up a slew of rabbits with wild mushrooms (is there any other kind in the area?) and create a feast into the late hours of the night. I know with food, cheese and wine, I’ll never go hungry around the Cheese Diva.

This night, Sardegna was in full bloom. Sardegna was the missing sunlight that had been absent from the Golden State for some days now. The wine, the cheese, the pasta – all was bright and shiny now.

Pouring out of the balmy café into the steely saber of night, I took a deep breath. “Ladies,” for there were three of them and one of me, “let’s take this sorry bachelor(ette) party for a fallen friend to the wine bar and drink on.” And so, with the aid of a smart phone and a dry car, we plunged through the Mission district towards Terroir.

Inside, the proprietor unearthed a bottle of stinky Corsican red. Perfect. Wild grape tattooed with bitter amaro attitude. Sting was bleating on the speakers. This wasn’t a slammer – lentamente.

Many folks, from Alder to Alice , Dr P , Cory and Eric, have told the story of Terroir better than I can. They had just reopened, and the place was rustic and simple and perfect. The stinky red – forged from a French-influenced mindset that makes a Sardegnan look low-key – exuded an isolation that doesn’t often reach the outer world. My friend, Eugenio once said, “Alfonso, you know those islanders,” as if I knew right then and there what he meant. I didn’t. But I do now. I am an islander – many of us live on islands of our own making. But this wine, the Patrimonio, twelve hours later I am still tasting it. I am so glad I didn’t order a Barolo or even a Barbaresco. No, the final act of the wine guy lost on the trail in the sunless sunshine state was best left by accepting this mysterious slow-churning red wine.

Can a wine love? If it can, could it love the way the woman loved that man at the Girl and the Fig? If he was unaware of it, couldn’t we be as unaware as well? Would that not be a tragedy to have a wine reach over and touch one and to not be touched by it?

I must be more sensitive to that possibility. There are so many wines waiting to open up and share their light. And their love.

If not, I’ll always have the Girl and the Fig. And the guy and the girl. And the chicken, that marvelous chicken.


Jeff Siegel said...

Thanks, big guy. I'm flying on wine business today. You really cheered me up.

Paula at Mozzarella said...

Loved reading all about the fun we had and can't wait for the next chapter!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

So you're in Sonoma and you don't check in with the ol' HoseMaster?!

Probably best.

Do Bianchi said...

really looking forward to getting to hang with you in "my" California, Ace. One of these days we'll make it up to Bay area together...

Alfonso Cevola said...

Jeff- You're a tough guy = you'll beat the odds

Thanks Paula - love hanging with you in great foodie destinations

Sorry Ron - I will next time and we'll hang out!

Jar- can't wait - hope the sun comes out - you know what they say, it never rains in Southern California

Marco Lungomare said...

My eye spotted that Skurnick Etna Rosso on the table. I could go for a bottle or three.

Tracie B. said...

the girl and the fig! i remember that salad...

pls make it stop raining, btw.

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