The question (featuring Caramelized Pear Bruschetta with Asiago and Cardamom)
My spine straightened as if I had been selected by a teacher to give the solution to a algebra problem I didn’t know.
“Hi… um… buona sera.”
“Buona sera,” the waitress said softly, dipping her head and eyes respectfully, a pen in one hand and notepad in the other.
Pointing to places on the menu I began my order.
“I definitely want the rigatoni alla Norcina to start…and…the insalata rucola at the end…”
I should have stopped there. The Norcina pasta is an Umbrian treat, made with local sausage (they had just had their sausage festival), wine, cream, pecorino, and a sprinkle of shaved truffles, also local. It was the perfect selection for this restaurant in Trevi, Umbria. Pasta and salad were all I truly wanted and more than enough food, but my vacation-entitled waistline would not be limited to primi and insalata only. A secondi was my right as a traveler, dammit.
My brother and his girlfriend were readying themselves to give their order. My mom, Jill, was nodding while reviewing her menu; my dad took a sip of wine with a proud papa sparkle in his eyes; Francis dipped a crust of bread into a ramekin of spicy local olive oil.
“and the snails,” I declared, with a nod and a this is what I’ve decided on and I’m standing by it pout.
My mom gasped as if I’d ordered a bowl of tiny toilet plungers, my dad took another large gulp of wine, Francis said, “the WHAT?”, and the waitress beamed as if she couldn’t wait to run back to the chef and tell him that someone had finally ordered the snails.
I have a problem.
I’m terrible at eating out.
And I need to vent my grievance with myself because it makes no sense. I love food. I love to eat. I can sit on my couch, poring through cookbook after cookbook, my mouth watering with eager anticipation of preparing every recipe and then devouring it all.
But sit me down in a restaurant and I fumble for the answer… “What is the perfect meal for this day?”
There are moments when I’m over-stimulated by social circumstances (as is often the case for introverts like me in busy restaurants). I’ll see something on the menu that brought me comfort years ago and leap toward it. I’m thinking specifically of the ziti alla vodka that I ordered in Little Italy in the Bronx a few months ago when Francis and I started our journey to New York and then Italy.
The comforting memory is from over 25 years ago, in Los Angeles. I was hired by Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber to create a meal for their anniversary. Vodka sauce was all the rage in the late 90s and they inhaled my spicy version, oohing and ahhing like I was giving them a full body massage. Late that night, I whipped up a batch for myself and ate ziti alla vodka in bed, feeling triumphant over the career that would actually take me decades to master. Seeing that dish on the menu stimulated the impulse to recreate that feeling. But here’s the thing… ziti alla vodka is an American dish, not at all authentic to the Southern Italian pasta with “gravy” that Dominick’s specializes in. It sits on the menu for people like me who, lost in a sea of spectacular options, grabbed onto the life vest of cream sauce. My tablemates frowned at my choice as we were sharing three different plates of pasta. The ziti was both mediocre and humiliating. I should have known better.
A week later, I was determined to right my wrongs in the foodie city of Naples. Francis and I were whisked away from the Naples Centrale train station by a chatty taxi driver. Due to local a futbol game, we soon sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic while the driver prattled on about churches and ragus; old pizza ovens and pickpockets; speeding scooters and historic monuments. I wish I’d pressed record on my phone like a student in a lecture hall. Neapolitan tips and factoids were flying toward us like dollar bills in a cash grab machine, coming in too fast to hold on to any of them.
After dropping our bags off at the monastery-turned-Hotel San Francesco, carved into the side of the hill of San Martino, we started to walk down into the Quartieri Spagnoli. Led by GPS we descended into the belly of the beast, misunderstanding every direction my phone chirped out through the dark cobblestone residential streets. We had accidentally come down a steep street instead of the stairs that my phone guided us to and we were about a block off every turn. Finally, we found the restaurant area, and the highly recommended place we were searching for was closed. More desperate for A meal than THE meal we plopped down at a table for two in the first place we saw. Reviewing the menu, I ordered the fried pizza, a Naples specialty that the taxi driver had eagerly recommended. The bald waiter snorted. I frowned, knowing on some level that my bad ordering luck would continue. Moments later he returned with Francis’ vegetarian pizza, its blistered crust and bright red sauce making my mouth water. Then he placed my fried pizza– as large as a dachshund, nose and tail of pizza overhanging the plate by inches– in front of me with the same judgmental smirk he’d had when I’d ordered it. I wanted to give him the finger, again my righteous vacation appetite declaring that I knew it would be large (the taxi driver had warned about that) and I deserved a meal that big. But it was terrible. All cheese and fried dough. If “melted” was a flavor, this would have been epic, but it was bland and never-ending. The few morsels of Francis’ pizza were the highlights of the day and I sat with bloated disappointment in myself once again. Fried pizza was destined to happen in Naples one way or another, but I hated that I lost the first meal of our short trip to that mess.
I don’t always blame myself. Sometimes it’s the restaurant’s fault. Grabbing a late-night meal at my jazz drum-playing brother’s gig last month, I ordered the garbanzo bean salad in an effort to not load up on calories after 9:00 pm. They delivered a bowl of garbanzo beans to the table. A. Bowl. Of. Garbanzo. Beans. The salad had maybe 4 slivers of chopped red onion and an inch of cucumber added to it with a squirt of lemon juice. 4 cups of chickpeas are not what I thought was coming my way… and not what I would recommend for a comfortable late-night dinner. Luckily, the band was loud.
So what is the answer to the perfect meal for any day? I can handily guide my clients toward the solution because I know on most days what’s in season, what’s thrilling, what’s comforting, and what my skillset can handle, but I completely lose track of those variables when I’m in a restaurant.
The snails, by the way, were a challenge for me be more adventurous in my ordering. I’ve eaten snails before, delicious critters bobbing along in pools of salty garlicky butter (insert predictable disappointed cardiologist joke here). I ordered them because I was trying another approach, a new tack. They tasted exactly like teeny tiny fishy toilet plungers. I choked down two bites and pushed the bowl away. Fail.
Luckily, two days later when we were in Trani, Puglia with my mother Liz, she and I simultaneously ordered the same appetizer, “Caramelized pear bruschetta!”
I thought, it must be the right choice if we’re both drawn to it so fervently, and I was right. It was so outstanding we went back the following day and had it again. Finally, my intuition led me to satisfaction! Hope it satisfies you, too.
Caramelized Pear Bruschetta with Asiago and Cardamom
Makes 12 toasts
- 1 boule bread, cut into slices and then halved
- Drizzle of olive oil
- 2 pears, skin left on, cut into slivers
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ pound wedge of nice asiago cheese (the one I used here was a rosemary olive oil asiago) cut into slices
- Preheat oven to 375. Drizzle olive oil over slices of bread and bake for 10 minutes or until it starts to toast but doesn’t get too brown.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the sliced pears. Keeping the temperature medium low, add the brown sugar, cardamom, and salt and saute for a few minutes to caramelize the pears. Watch your heat because it can get smoky quickly if it’s too high.
- Turn the oven on to broil. Lay the caramelized pears and whatever sauce has accumulated in the pan on the toast points and broil for about 5 minutes watching that the cheese melts and the toast does not burn.
- Sprinkle with parsley or rosemary to garnish.
And happy Yew Year!!!