Day 23: Italy
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I’m still full. But what did you think would happen when a guy who was raised on his mother’s Italian cooking would be writing about a day of Italian food on his mother’s birthday? Let’s just say there were a lot of carbohydrates involved and I’m probably qualified to run a marathon today if only I could get up off the couch. So how serious is my family about Italian food? It all starts with my Sicilian grandmother who, once living in the United States and getting old, was having some health issues. She couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs on her own. My mother decided to take her to a cleansing health clinic where she cut out white starches and drank a lot of things like wheatgrass and carrot juice. When my mother went to pick her up, she said “Look!” and trotted happily down the stairs all by herself. My mother was blown away. She looked at my grandmother and said “So are you going to keep this diet up?” to which my grandmother replied, “And give up pasta? Never.” She didn’t last much longer after that. Our family crest, if we have one, may as well read “Live a healthy life, but only if you’re really living. And you better like spaghetti, God damn it.”
MamaBites and I are supposed to meet for lunch, but she’s running late because of some work obligations. She really wants me to try this restaurant Terroni , because they are one of the few places in Los Angeles with what could be considered Sicilian food. We arrive for lunch at three-thirty in the afternoon, which sounds pretty dangerous when you consider that her big Italian birthday dinner starts at seven. But if there’s a day to gorge on Italian food with no regard whatsoever for personal safety, today is it. “We’ll just get a quick bite,” she says. “Something light and quick.” We order an appetizer and two pastas, go through four glasses of wine, the entire bread basket, an espresso and a cappuccino. But that’s what happens when you put my mother and I in an Italian restaurant— some Sicilian gene kicks in that says “You want to be fat, happy and ready for a nap. Trust me.”
My maccheroncini Geppetto— homemade rigatoni with dandelion greens, sausage, fontina and parmigiana— is a nice balance of rich with bitter, but a tad heavy for the occasion. Mom’s spaghetti al limone is delightfully refreshing, but deceptively rich. If you look closely, the pasta has a thick coating of cheesy goodness, but the acid from the lemon keeps it nicely in check. Our appetizer, the serrano prosciutto, burrata and grilled artichoke is a simple and well composed treat. After finishing our surprisingly expensive wine (twelve dollars a glass) and caffeinated beverages, it’s time head out and get ready for tonight, but this is definitely a restaurant whose other dishes I’m interested in trying.
(Author’s note: after the completion of the previous paragraph, I almost threw up. Yes, I’m hung over. If I can drink two glasses of wine for lunch, what the hell do you think happens at dinner?)
GirlfriendBites finishes wrapping a framed picture from the Ecuador post that my mother liked and it’s almost time to head over to the restaurant. Brunello Trattoria in Culver City has given us their private back room for the evening and, due to our family’s longstanding patronage of their family’s long history of restaurants, they’re letting us bring our own wine with no corkage fee. Feeling like this evening is on the fancy side, I decide to wear a shirt with buttons. GFB and I arrive at the restaurant and people are already schmoozing and drinking wine. They serve their delightfully thin pizza margheritas, whose light, flavor-packed marinara sauce and gooey cheese come together to make something truly addictive. We realize I’ve been eating their pizzas, at one restaurant or another, since 1990. That’s eighteen years of pizza by either Bruno or Tonino, beginning when I was eight years old. Tonino tells me that he’s opening a pizza place soon and I can’t help but get very excited.
The group of family and friends, now somewhat intoxicated, decide to sit down and start ordering food. After several drunken toasts and clinked glasses, plates of calamari salad, Caesar salad, arugula salad and caprese salad all find their way to the table. Everyone knows that I’m going to be writing about this, so that means I get to wander around the long table like a vulture (homeless person), swooping down with my talon (fork) and picking up poor and unsuspecting prey (lettuce). This restaurant does simple extremely well, so light, citric salads mixed with the appropriate amount of wine is currently a very good thing.
GirlfriendBites is exchanging business cards, strangers are flirting, politics are discussed, wine is flowing and people are having a great time. The entrees roll out and it’s time for me to once again go out on the attack. Chicken cacciatore, spaghetti al salmon, gnocchi vongole, spaghetti vongole, orecchiette with sausage, risotto with radicchio, spaghetti with artichokes and vegetarian lasagna. Everything is delightful, but there’s something about the marinara at this restaurant that flies back in time to my childhood, picks me up and takes me to Italy. I could drink this stuff by the pint, but when you put it on their pasta, I could be eating it in a burning building and never notice the temperature change. As a Venetian man once told me “The two things that most people do to ruin pasta are overcooking and under salting.” At Brunello, this is clearly not a problem.
So how do you know if you had a proper Italian meal? If it started at seven and ended at eleven, you probably did okay. Ours would have gone later, but people wanted to run home to their Tivos and catch the Presidential debate. After everyone is gone, mom, GFB, my stepdad Jimmy and my sister wind up standing outside the restaurant and chatting for another twenty minutes before we get in our cars. We talk about how in previous years, our birthdays had occurred at fancier restaurants with just the family joining. But tonight was about so much more than just good food. Tonight was about celebration of the people we love, the flavors that comfort us and the experience that will stand out in our memories. A raucous gang of drunken colleagues, gesturing with outstretched hands and stuffing their faces with pasta sounds like a pretty good evening to me. But before we can finally bid addio , my mother decides she wants to go through the camera and forcibly delete any photographs which she deems unflattering. On any other night I would probably roll my eyes and tilt down my head like the eight year old I sometimes revert back to, but tonight, I guess I’ll let it slide. Happy birthday mom.
7605 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Food Breakdown: 4 glasses of wine, 1 appetizer, 2 entrees
Distance From My House: 5.4 miles
6001 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
14 16 bottles of wine, 8 appetizers, 3 pizzas, 15 entrees
Price: Probably a lot
Distance From My House: 1.6 miles