I enter the Italian restaurant with trepidation. I’m not really in the mood. In fact my friend Marlene and I had spent the last couple of days talking about how much we crave a good bowl of French onion soup. However, it was beginning to drizzle, it was past two o’clock, and I hadn’t eaten anything that day.
Plus, I have a toxic romance with the cheap Italian restaurant in London. You know the place I am talking about – where the waiters’ shirts are not very clean, the tablecloth is flimsy, and the wine comes only in carafes of Pinot Grigio and Chianti, and the awning is either yellow, green, or blue. Verdi or Britney Spears is on the stereo, and the menu assures you of arrabiata and bolognese.
I say toxic because recently, every time I go, it’s disappointing…in a soul destroying way. Violently pink pastas, frozen pea garnishes. Just the other night, I had a garganelli — heavy, pale, soft — with porcini and cream sauce that tasted of glue. The owner served us was quite a mysterious figure, thin, with melancholy eyes. “I don’t see his partner,” Marlene’s husband remarked in a worried voice. Her husband used to be a regular. “Perhaps the partner’s dead,” Marlene whispered. (Marlene has romantically morbid inclinations, part of why I like her.) When I didn’t finish my garganelli, the owner insisted on giving me free dessert – pannacotta with strawberry jam. I don’t like Italian desserts. “I think he may kill himself,” Marlene said sadly. I had nodded.
I look around. Cheap tablecloth – check. Blue awning – check. It is two thirty in the afternoon, which is, in my opinion, the perfect time for such a place. There are two or three other slightly shabby customers, the kind you find in Barbara Pym novels, penny-wise types indulging in a splurge. The only other table is a group of elderly men who have just ordered dessert and also another bottle of wine. I’m starving, so when a waitress comes by with a plate of olives, I devour them, even though they are from a jar, pitted, soft, and salty. I look around hopefully for at least a glass of water, which doesn’t appear. Sighing, I turn on my Kindle, that slab of plastic that I adore beyond reason. (It used to be that I bought used books for 30 cents. Now I spend 10.99 on a download.) I’m reading Julian Barnes’ Pulse, his collection of short stories.
I love Barnes. Also, I love the Julian Barnes that clever people don’t enjoy. I have a fondness for the blokey, bourgeois, suburban Barnes. I prefer Talking It Over and Before She Met Me to Flaubert’s Parrot. I loved Lemon Table and Nothing to be Frightened of – NTBFO is a lovely, smart rap on the head after your own father has kicked the bucket; Lemon Table just took my breath away. Barnes, as I’ve explained to a few men, is the macho writer for women – he provides us insight into the male psyche without being relentlessly intellectual the way that men tend to like.
Have you read Pulse? The stories traverse the same themes as Lemon Table and NTBFO (aging, memory, death, love and its absence, with lots of breaks for meals in between). They are intimate, natural, and a bit rude. They are about characters (often suburban and middle-class) in long-term relationships, facing mortality and frequently disconnecting. The stories are sometimes comic, at times harrowing, and if this sounds familiar, it should. The dialogue is expertly done, because this is Barnes, and dialogue is something that Barnes does incredibly well. Sometimes he has nothing but, like in Talking it Over and Love Etc. and currently, in the recurring story, “At Phil & Joanna’s.” Of course, I am harder on writers/artists that I like. For instance, I would have minded Midnight In Paris less had Woody Allen not directed it. I enjoyed Pulse a lot more than Midnight in Paris. With Pulse, I’m just mildly disappointed. But this is unfair. I am reading Pulse hoping to get that same rush that I did when I first picked up Talking It Over all those years ago.
No one has been by. The elderly men have monopolized the waitress and the man who seems to be the owner, all over a bottle of vin santo and tiramisu. I contemplate maybe grabbing a sandwich across the road. Finally a waitress puts a menu in front of me.
I ask, somewhat testy. “Can I have a Diet Coke? And maybe a glass of wine?”
“Em,” says the waitress. She is very beautiful, and looks like a young Linda Evangelista. I am from New York, and where I come from, young Linda Evangelista waitresses can’t wait tables and have a haughty attitude. “What wine?”
“Can I have a glass of white wine?”
“Em… What white wine?”
“Do you have a wine list?”
“A wine list?”
“Em.” She scurries away.
I call after her. “And can I have a Diet Coke?”
I know, wearily, what I am going to get. It’s a toss-up between mozzarella and tomato and prosciutto e melone for a starter; for a main course, either the penne alla nonna (eggplant and more mozzarella, melted) or the spinach cannelloni. I will decide at the last minute. Either way it will taste the same. The diet coke has no ice, is warm, and has a lemon quarter crammed into the narrow glass. The house white wine is a pinot grigio from Umbria.
I turn to the story “Gardner’s World,” and I have to confess it makes me smile. It reminds me of my parents, who really love to garden. It also reminds me of myself, because the main character is a reluctant gardener and shuffles, wearily, with his wife to all the nurseries, waiting in the car if possible. The main character has grown up with two gardening parents.
“Are you ready to order now?”
I look up. Linda has been joined by a small and bony female, with an attractive monkey face. Agatha Christie used that phrase to describe a character – some young heiress expensively and exotically dressed — and it’s stuck in my head ever since. I’ve decided on prosciutto and melon and penne alla nonna.
I open my mouth. I hear myself say, “I’ll have the grilled calamari.”
My mind is screaming in protest. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” In my life, at home, I am surrounded by calamari lovers. My mother, especially, is a calamari pusher; she will get the calamari even if we’re at a sports bar in Cincinnati Ohio. I’m always the one who says, “Can we please not get the calamari?” Once, when I was seven years old on a beach in Barcelona, I had the perfect calamari, pulled out of the ocean and seared on an outside grill until the surface crackled. It is unfortunate for the other calamari in my life, as nothing can ever compete with a memory.
“And then… “ Now my heart is pounding; it is dangerous, when I am like this. My eyes go to the most esoteric thing on the menu. “Linguine with sea bass. And a side of the zucchini.” Monkey face gesticulates wildly to Linda. She is saying “Linguine alla spigola” and saying wild, frantic Italian things. My heart sinks. I have made a mistake. One woman once told me that her therapist used to put a menu in front of her and force her to pick out an appetizer, main course, and dessert, in under a minute. I frequently think of this story. I’m not even all that crazy about fish. I believe that people order it in restaurants because they want to be healthy.
The owner joins the two waitresses – who are still hovering. It has become quite a party. We contemplate each other. They are grinning, so I grin back. Finally, the owner says, “You have to excuse… she is,” he points to Linda, “How do you say? We are trying her out.”
I nod. “Of course, I understand. We have all been there,” I add. “I know how you feel,” I say. “I have been in your shoes. Si.” As I don’t speak Italian, I’m trying very hard not to do the American tourist thing of speaking English in a foreign accent, loudly, and slowly. I am failing. Also the last statement is kind of a lie. I worked in the food service industry for two and a half weeks at my college café, making hummus sandwiches.
They’re still standing. “Um,” I say, “also, can I get some water?”
They are stung to life. The three of them vanish, and immediately my water is produced. It is not just a glass of water, but a tall pitcher with three lemon halves bobbing on its surface. Within minutes, the calamari is set before me.
“Pepper?” says Linda.
There’s a light, timid dusting.
“Can I have some more please? Some more? Plenty of pepper? A lot?”
“Good, good,” says Linda, as she cranks. “You like a lot on this. I too.”
She glows when she says this, and gives me a lovely, nervous smile. Oh bless you, I think. If we were in New York, you would be such a bitch.
The calamari is no Barcelona calamari, but it is decent. It is slightly bitter from the char of the grill, astoundingly fresh, and I like the chili. I ask for lemon, which appears with alacrity and a smile, eight lemon quarters on a saucer; (There seems to be a lot of lemon in the kitchen today). I eat three pieces, place my knife and fork to one side, and my plate is immediately whisked off. (The first book I read when I arrived in Dublin was Darina Allen’s Ballymalloe Cooking, over a bacon sandwich at a coffee shop that had low wooden tables, stacks of well-thumbed cookbooks, and excellent cappuccino. For some reason, I perused, very carefully, the chapter on etiquette. According to Allen, if you are just taking a break from your food, leave your utensils crossed. If you are finished, align them and put them to the side. After all these years, I had no idea, and now I’ve been doing it with the mania of the newly converted. It really works.)
The linguine spigola appears. No frills, just pasta heaped on a plate, and quite a lot of it. Someone is behind my shoulder – it is the man, this time – grinding pepper with vigor.
“This,” he says, “is my favorite.”
The pasta, when I put it in my mouth, is incredible. It makes me want to hum. I feel a little dizzy and close my eyes.
“You like it?” the man says.
I smile and he leaves me alone.
I discovered the London Italian trattoria when I was eighteen, when life is delicious and you are hungry for it. I remember, in particular, a restaurant around the corner where I lived. I would try to go once every other week, when I could afford it. I had three tables – one by the window facing the street, one in the corner where I first ate grilled sardines and veal ossobucco, and a larger table which was located in the back room, down a flight of stairs, where I ate a real Dover sole on Thanksgiving Day (as opposed to the sole in the States, which is still very nice) and it was filleted for me tableside. (Come to think of it, I ate a lot of fish in those days.) The fact that the restaurant was mostly empty did not mean that the staff were surly and waiting to push you out the door because they wanted to talk on the telephone or go out drinking; rather, being one of the only customers meant that your dish was lavished with attention – by three or four people up front and at least two people in the back.
My linguine is simple – the menu states that it is tomatoes, onion, white wine, fish, parsley. There is nothing unexpected, except for how much pleasure it gives me; after all, I have had pasta with fish before. Yet it takes away that bit of chill that has been nestled inside of me all day, perhaps all week. There is the clean crunch of parsley, and the faintest reverberation of chili, a heat in the back of my mouth. The pasta is very thin linguine, almost the width of spaghetti but flat, but cooked so my teeth can feel each strand. There is a verdant, flowery, exuberant burst of olive oil, and plenty of slippery, sweet butter. I can taste citrus – I think that the owner remembered that I liked lemon. The bass is just a bit of brine and texture, but like the calamari, it is sweet and fresh. I would imagine that this dish isn’t ordered very often, but is an impractical offering that is on the menu because it is close to the owners’ heart. I flash back to the night before with Marlene. There had been a special chalked up on the blackboard, fazzoletti — handmade semolina pasta torn into handkerchief shapes, with salt cod. It had caught my attention because it was so incongruous to the rest of the pizzas and pastas on offer. I had dismissed it as being too cerebral for that time of night. In retrospect, I made a mistake, and I suddenly have a desire to find that sad-eyed owner, beg his forgiveness by ordering his fazzoletti.
With my next mouthful, an eerie thing occurs. Suddenly, I can hear all the conversations around me, as if a switch has been turned on. It is like in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Faithful John”. Faithful John eats an apple, and suddenly he hears the chatter of the ravens and the ants. The table of elderly men have been talking at the same volume all this time, but now I am privy to what they are saying. Overlapping voices, six of them, tipsy, older, male. In fact, they sound quite a bit like Barnes could have written them. I stare at the Kindle, no longer really reading, and otherwise absorbed.
“…The thing about Ian, is that I never got a sense of what, in those last days he had, of what he was living for.”
“You don’t understand,” his friend counters. “Ian was my best mate. He had my back, always. Ian always had your back. When I came back from Clevedon that time…
Another man chips in. “I’ll tell you, when Ian went to Spain, he had half a million pounds. He came back five years later with absolutely nothing. They must have spent 150 thousand a year. And that was back in the eighties. A hundred and fifty grand.”
“Was that with the first wife?”
“No, that was with the second.”
There is a pause.
“It’s not a bad place, this.”
“… I remember I brought vodka and she looked at me and said, could you have brought anything cheaper?”
“We can’t drink vodka, nowadays, can we? God I miss vodka. Do you remember – what was that drink? What was it called? Light and light?”
“That’s it. Light and light.“
“I was at the fairground with my granddaughter the other day. Do you remember when we were young, when fairgrounds had real dwarves?”
A chair scrapes, an older man crosses my vision and disappears down the stairs. The voices go quiet, wait for him to vanish completely, and then come back again, more serious.
“He’s alright, isn’t he?”
“Well I think it’s a progressive thing.”
“At least he didn’t collapse under the table. Like he did that time at the chip shop.”
There is another silence. Their friend reemerges from downstairs. I try to study him from the corner of my eye. He doesn’t look all that bad, although he drags one foot behind him. Still, he doesn’t look on the verge of collapse. I would say that some of his friends look rougher. I wind another strand of linguine against my spoon. You don’t get spoons in proper Italian restaurants in New York, because it isn’t authentic. Still a boy taught me how to do it when I was twenty, and I have done it ever since. I enjoy the lazy deliberateness of the ritual.
I once discussed with someone how everyone has a sappily fond recollection of the place you were when you realized, “this is who I am going to be, for the rest of my life.” Parts of you will shift, soften, and grow hopefully wiser, but all the parts are present. London, for me, was that place. Later I will walk back to my old neighborhood and find out that my trattoria is still there, with its battered yellow awning and its sandwich shop next door. All these years, I had been writing and talking about this place, and referring to it in the past tense. It is similar to discovering that someone has not, in fact, died. Although it is closed until five PM, I peek through the windows and see that there is still the same back room, with the steps that lead down.
It is with great reluctance when I finally align my fork and spoon and put them to the side of my plate. When I stand up, the old men are still there.
One of them has a train to catch. He has been talking about his train all through my linguine, but he hasn’t moved.
As I pass their table, he says, “I’ll tell you what it is about a three hour train ride. The first part, you feel great, it’s like a dream. The second part is normal, and the third part is bloody awful. And all those people are looking at me and they’re praying that I make it.”
On the sidewalk, I open my purse just to reassure myself that my telephone, my Kindle, my keys, and my credit card are still there. This is one of the things that I have noticed about getting older, that I leave more objects behind. I must be light-headed from the Pinot Grigio, because I find myself telling myself that in fifteen years time, I will wander back into this restaurant on exactly this sort of gray, thin day. Monkey Face and Linda Evangelista will not have aged, and the old men will be in their corner, draining the last of the vin santo. I know that will recognize them from their voices.
Linguine alla spigola
(Linguine with seabass)
LINGUINE ALLA SPIGOLA
4 oz bronzino fillet, skin on. ** see note, above.
3 tbsp olive oil
½ onion, diced fine
½ fresh red chili, minced
1 anchovy, finely minced.
1 garlic, minced
Two handfuls of parsley, chopped, stems reserved and chopped.
3 tbsp tomato paste
4 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled and diced; or 3 tomatoes, or 4 tinned plum tomatoes
½ cup white wine
6 oz linguine fini
4 tbsp of cold butter, cubed
zest of one lemon
Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium high in a heavy bottomed pan until smoking. Season the bronzino generously with salt and sear it for two minutes per side. Remove the fish to a plate and remove the pan from the heat. Add onion, chili, anchovy, garlic, pinch of salt, and parsley stems to the oil, and let it wilt slightly in the residual heat. Add one more tbsp of oil, add pan back to heat, and reduce heat to medium. Cook until the vegetables are translucent, and then add tomato paste, and cook until you can smell the tomatoes cooking. (about 1 ½ minutes). Add fresh tomatoes, turn heat back up to medium high, and cook for another minute. Add white wine, and reduce for two minutes.
Remove the meat off of the bronzino, flake and add to pan. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer for two minutes, just until the flavors mingle.
While the sauce is cooking, heat 2 1/2 quarts of water until boiling, salt generously, and then add the linguine fini. Cook for eight minutes, but start tasting after six. You want the linguine to have quite a bite.
If you have removed the sauce from heat, return to heat, and put on medium-high/high heat.
Remove two ladles of cooking water and reserve. Drain pasta and add to pan, tossing. Add one ladle of cooking water, toss to coat. Continue to cook (the sauce should be quite watery, if not, add more cooking water), shaking the pan, until the pasta is firm but tender to bite. This should take 2-3 minutes.
Remove pan from heat, stir in cold butter, then chopped parsley and the finely grated rind of one lemon. Grind pepper to taste.
The combination of pasta and fish is certainly not a new one. The recipe I remember was from Marcella Hazan, when she cooks fish heads in the sauce, removes the meat from the cheeks, and then passes the rest of it through a sieve. This is an intensely savory sauce, well worth the effort. I found it online, here. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/dining/06codrex.html
Along the same lines, you can, for this recipe, buy an entire seabass, cook it slowly with the tomatoes, thereby extracting as much gelatin from the bones and the skin. Then remove the meat and add back to the sauce, and pound the bones and skin through a sieve.
However, the owner of the restaurant (Melodia) said that the chef used fillets. It is a lot quicker, fresh tasting, and very nice. It is more practical and also more appropriate for a summer afternoon, because as much as I am coming around to fish, I am not sure I want to taste it in the back of my throat for the rest of the day.
The menu had said fresh tomatoes, but the pasta that I had, had a rich mouth feel that I associate with canned. I use a combination of tomato paste and fresh tomatoes, which I don’t blanch to remove the skins, but simply peel with a knife. It is summer and the tomatoes are sumptuous. My version is lighter tasting than the original because of the fresh tomatoes. Should you want that warming, rich flavor, use canned tomatoes. Use canned tomatoes in the winter anyway.
The restaurant used linguine fini, which in my mind is the perfect noodle. It is thinner than ordinary linguine, but flat so that it better absorbs the sauce.
Also, I am on a recent kick of cooking pasta in smaller quantities. I like how the noodles absorb the sauce, and the general ungainliness involved in the final assembly. The recipe will make enough to serve 2 people generously, or 4 people for an appetizer. You can double it.
Most importantly, I had the linguine alla spigola in London, and duplicated it in my kitchen in Dublin. In England, Ireland, and most of Europe, seabass is European seabass, sometimes known by its Italian name bronzino, and it looks like this:
- European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax)
Sea bass in the United States is black or large mouthed bass. (At least where I am from, I grew up on the East Coast of the United States.)
Black/Large mouthed bass looks like this:
- Black or large mouthed bass (Centropristis striata)
They are different fish.
On cooking the linguine:
— My dried pasta technique has remained largely unchanged for the past several years, for which I mostly credit Bill Buford’s Heat.
1. For the sauce, I start the aromatics (i.e. chili and onions and garlic) in cold oil, which I gradually bring up to temperature with a pinch of salt. In this way, they have time to mingle, sweat, and otherwise get to know each other. Also they do not color too fast.
2. I go a bit lighter on the water – the recommended amount is 4-6 quarts per pound of pasta. I use four quarts for a pound of pasta, but two quarts for ¼ pound; 3 quarts for ½ a pound. In a pot measuring eight inches across, the water should come up to 2/3 the height of the pasta. Then you swirl the pasta around until it succumbs.
Also I generously salt my water. Two or three hefty pinches should do it, or two teaspoons per 4 quarts.
3. I cook my pasta quite al-dente, start testing after eight minutes for dried spaghetti and linguine. You want the pasta to be firmer than firm, so you can bite through it without any problems, but it is chewier than you would like. Then, I add the pasta to the sauce, reserving a couple of ladlefuls of pasta water.
(If one remembers anything about Heat, it is Buford and his pasta water. He asserts that it is because of pasta water that even the simplest pasta (like bavette alla cacio e pepe) will never taste as good at home as it does at a restaurant like Lupa. The pasta water at restaurants like Babbo and Lupa is never changed, so goes from being clear to gloppy during the course of the night. It is in Buford’s words, “yucky-sounding but wonderful.” And while one cannot replicate this pasta water without cooking forty orders of pasta, the salt and starch in the pasta water you get at home is, once you use it, still a revelation.)
When dealing with small quantities of pasta, you can easily scoop up the pasta and add it into the sauce. With larger quantities, you have to drain the pasta, so don’t forget to remove your pasta water before.
Your sauce should be simmering. Then add the pasta, toss. The sauce should still be quite wet, so usually you will want to add a ladleful (or two) of pasta water. Continue to let the pasta simmer in the sauce until it is cooked through.
Then I almost always add butter – and a good heaping amount of it. I know this can be unconventional, but I like the sweetness and slippery mouth feel that butter endows.
At this point, you may want to add even more pasta water. You’ll be amazed by how thirsty the pasta is. The starch from the pasta water will give the sauce a creaminess, and allow it to adhere to the noodle. Once you start putting it in, you will wonder what you ever did without it.