A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

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ROC National Diners’ Guide: The People’s Zagat’s!

I’ve talked before on The Big Ceci about my obsession with restaurants. I worked in the industry for most of college, and that experience left me with a deep, unshakeable love for restaurants. I love the celebration and specialness inherent to the ritual of going out to eat. I love the anticipation of walking into a new spot and taking in the scene for the first time. And when I used to work at a restaurant, I loved that, too–the pace; the way, on a good night, you built momentum until eventually you were flying around the floor like the Energizer Bunny; the camaraderie you built with the other people in the building who were crazy enough to be doing it with you.

But the restaurant industry is also deeply complicated, and there is nothing simple about loving it. Issues run the gamut from class and accessibility to questions about what it means that people in the U.S. are eating out more than ever. And close to the top of the list of those issues is worker exploitation. “Loving restaurants” starts to get real murky when the person on the other side of the kitchen door has worked 30 hours so far and is only two days into their week–and is getting paid less than minimum wage.

Which is why I’m excited to take this opportunity to spread the word on The Big Ceci about a free new publication to keep you informed about what’s going on behind the kitchen doors at the restaurants you visit – the ROC National Diners’ Guide 2012!

In ROC‘s own words:

“WE ALL ENJOY EATING OUT.

“Unfortunately, the workers who cook, prepare, and serve our food suffer from poverty wages, no benefits like paid sick days, and little or no chance to move up to better positions. When the people who serve us food can’t afford to pay the rent or take a day off when they’re sick, our dining experience suffers.

“The newly released ROC National Diners’ Guide 2012 provides information on the wage, benefits, and promotion practices of the 150 most popular restaurants in America. The Guide lists responsible restaurants where you can eat knowing that your server can afford to pay the rent and your cook isn’t working while sick.”

The guide is available for free download here.

Sam Sifton and the “Post-Natal Unicorn.”

Okay…it’s confession time over here on The Big Ceci. I’ve held this in for far too long, and I need to get it out – and what better venue than a new blog about radical food?

Here’s the truth: I love the NY Times Dining section. And in particular, I love Sam Sifton.*

I’ve always enjoyed the particular brand of writing that is characteristic of restaurant reviews: biting wit mixed with attention to detail, all under the umbrella of obsession with food. And as a former server, bartender and host, I especially love reading restaurant reviews because they pay attention to the tiny details of service and hospitality that I used to take so much pride in when I worked in restaurants.

At the same time, I struggle with my love of restaurant reviews and the critics who write them. Elite restaurant reviews seem to represent everything that I am critical of when it comes to foodie culture – an entire industry built around fawning over, in great detail, expensive meals that are inaccessible to the vast (and I mean vast in the vastest sense of the word) majority of New York City. What could be more snobby and less politically palatable than a review of a meal that costs $295?

This is why I was thrilled when I came across a hilarious “review” by Sam Sifton of the famous avant-garde Spanish restaurant, El Bulli. The review, entitled “El Bulli is the Greatest Restaurant in the World,” is actually a parody of the worst offenders in the snooty food writing world (in particular, he is targeting NY Magazine food critic Adam Platt‘s article about his visit to El Bulli, entitled – seriously – “Last Supper of the Food Hacks”). Sifton’s satirical piece pokes fun at the absurdly pretentious tone that defines so much food writing, and includes such gems as, “We drank the fermented milk of a post-natal unicorn and ate monkey brain with shirred Dodo egg, spring dolphin mousse, mercury-braised carrots and an entire fistful of saffron.”

I loved Sifton’s article because it represented something I’d never seen before: a restaurant critic commenting (through satire) on the potentially problematic nature of his work.

None of this is to say that Sam Sifton is a revolutionary. But…at the end of the day, in a sea of $295 dinners and pork belly paragraphs, “El Bulli is the Greatest Restaurant in the World” is pretty damn refreshing.

*In writing this article, I learned that good old Sam used to be a NYC public school teacher – of social studies, no less! (Blog readers who I do not know: I am a social studies teacher in NYC.)