My first culinary memory, the first time I realized that food could be deeply meaningful, is coming home from 3rd grade to find my dad making pasta from scratch in the kitchen. He was laughing and singing and there was fettuccine hanging everywhere. In the deepest recesses of my memory, I can envision seeing an after school special around that same time in which a kid comes home to find his dad with a strange woman. The boy is both crushed (for the obvious reasons) and shocked (because he realizes that his parents have whole lives he never knew about). The pasta moment between me and my dad was similar in that way, although far more innocent. My dad’s affair was with Italian food.
The pasta roller looked like something you might pick up at an estate sale. (Years later, my dad would buy a new one and cut a notch out of our kitchen table to make it mount-able; it was the closest my parents ever came to a divorce.) The pasta itself hung in long strands from a rack, which I’d always known as our clothes-drying rack, but was now serving its true purpose. On the stove, a red sauce bubbled — gravy, as you’ll often hear Italian-Americans call it, though my dad never used that term. It was blood-colored, thanks to copious glugs of red wine. Hopping onto the counter for a closer look, I saw a few bay leaves in the pot. My dad could make due without ingredients, he had the ability to improvise as a cook, but I never saw him make a red sauce without using bay leaf.
The day after I found my dad giddily making pasta, our extended family gathered for baked fettuccine with red sauce. The dish was covered in mozzarella, similar to the classic baked ziti or baked spaghetti recipes that you’ll find at first communion parties in outer Brooklyn. I remember liking it, though not as much as a liked Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. (Forgive me father, I was young.) But even if I didn’t get it at the time, I can still clearly picture the joy this feast brought to my uncles and aunts. Here again, it hit me: Food can mean something, and it can connect people.
I don’t think this is unique to my dad’s particular brand of East Coast immigrant community-influenced Italian food. Turn on any episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and you’ll see him talking with locals from Iran to Australia about how food and alcohol build community. But I do think that the modern food movement sometimes strays from this sweet spot. In 2016, much of our food culture seems narcissistic. Every dish starts to feel like a chef looming over your shoulder, begging you to take a picture for Instagram or to tell everyone you know about the mushroom foam. The restaurant business is hard, so I very much get the desire to stand out through presentation and technique, and I often find myself liking that sort of food, but it can be redundant. We need variation.
That’s where the classic Italian restaurant comes in. It’s a major gear shift from the world of “so hot right now.” In fact, most old-school Italian food seems to fly directly in the face of every current food trend. Connection is still at the center of every experience.
Last week, Vince Mancini and I chatted about what defines the Italian restaurants we both love. Red and white checked table cloth isn’t mandatory. Some preparation of veal probably is. So are baked dishes like my dad’s fettuccine — bonus points if the place serves baked manicotti or cannelloni filled with sweet ricotta (double bonus if the ricotta is flecked with flat-leaf parsley). Unless you’re in landlocked city, spaghetti alle vongole ought to make an appearance. Also, the minestrone should have beans in it.
But what’s the point of me gushing about a certain type of cuisine or restaurant, just because I feel culturally tied to it?
Well, I guess I’m just not sure that we, the food obsessives, are really utilizing our options. Are we mixing high brow and low brow? Fine dining and street food? Old and new? Or are we just celebrating places with semi-random subject-ampersand-subject names? Whisk & Ladle. Pearl & Ash. Grain & Gristle. (All real, much-buzzed restaurants, by the way.)