Friday, December 03, 2004

Mandatory end-of-work-day reflections

Today we served 60 people. This is not special. What IS special is that tonight Il Posto hosted a dinner for the Culinary Institute of Italy.

60 portions of carpaccio, 60 portions of fish, 60 portions of duck, large amounts of limoncello ice, and meringue cake later, the night ended. We all got marched out in front of the people in our pristine whites, and got an applause. It felt good...for the five or ten seconds that it lasted. It was nice, people recognized me afterwards when I was going home, patted me on the back, and said the food was superb. It's good to be appreciated.

However, for years now, on and off, someone has given my family panatone, or Italian Christmas cake. Every culture has something like this, I believe in North America the simple term is "fruit cake" (or possibly "building materials"). In Czech Republic, they make a walnut cake (of walnut flower) with raisins, that's almost more of a bread (my babicka [grandmother] makes this PHENOMENALLY well...but I can't for the life of me remember the name). In Italy, they make a moist cake that tastes of lemons, cinnamon, and brandy with bits of cherry and raisin in it. By the time my family ends up digging into it most years, the panatone has attained the state of matter that usually presages bread becoming croutons for caesar salad.

But GOOD panatone. Moist, chewy, just beautiful. It honestly brought the magic of Italian food back to me, which is something I haven't experienced in a very long time. Oh, I get good Italian food, for sure. The guys at work make some phenomenal stuff (hell, I make some damn good pasta as well, though I don't do the pasta station), but in general the Italian restaraunt industry is inundated with cheap schlock that's billed as authentic. I'm sorry, but East Side Mario's just doesn't cut it, nor do many other of the franchises. Sure, many of them are decent and cheap (actually, ESM does amaze me sometimes with the quality their kitchen manages to put out, but it does tend to vary from franchise to franchise), but they don't...hell, they don't have that magic of a really really GOOD Italian restaraunt.

One of the key signs to a good Italian restaraunt is something run by an Italian (not to say that all those run by Italians are good, as Tony Bourdain so aptly shows in his novel Bone In The Throat), or posessing an Italian chef (once again, not to say that this is an absolute prequisite either...seeing as how most of our kitchen is from East Asia). I's hard to define. A really good Italian restaraunt has this quality to its thats often not visible. The food is often plain looking, acting in and of itself as presentation (maybe with a sprig of herb or a bit of lemon). Its in simplicity that the true nature of the food is found.

Really, when it comes down to it though, its hit and miss. Like any restaraunt, Italian places vary from place to place, and even from night to night (I am reminded of the day we got HORRIBLE liver in and didn't realize it till the first plates started coming honestly couldn't tell there was anything wrong until you put it in your mouth). But the good places have that magic to them that all really good food has, that feeling of utter contement, that you've done just the right thing by coming here.

To segue into a story:

My best frind Ian and I went to the opera one night, and went out for dinner afterwards (or possibly before...I'm not entirely sure which). We went to one of my favourite Greek restaraunts, Penelope (for Torontians, its the Greek place across the street from the Hummingbird Center, right next to Biff's). Its entirely possible this may have been the first time I ever went there (I really can't remember). This place is owned, run, and crewed by Greeks, and the food is seven shades of fantastic. I ordered my usual lamb shank (always spectacular), and Ian ordered moussaka (kind of an eggplant lasanga). His moussaka came with these potatoes that they put with most dishes, that are done with garlic and lemon and some other herbs.

Penelope is one of those places where the food's got magic to it. I've never been dissapointed...and neither was Ian. Conversation was a touch difficult at times as he was shivering in pleasure at the table when he tried the potatoes. To be honest, that was my first reaction to them as well. Just...beyond words.


...and this is all just a round-about way of saying that panatone returned the magic of Italian cuisine to me. The fact that I hadn't really eaten all day may have contributed to this as well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know the feeling on that, man. Speaking as the son of a man who owns and runs one of the most well-regarded Italian restaraunts in Northern New Jersey, I can most certainly say that there's a certain something special about some places that just bring the food alive for you.

And, really, I can only think that it's heart.

- jason

1:24 p.m.  

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