A business associate recently took me to lunch at a high-class Italian restaurant in Manhattan, the kind of place where the waiters speak the native tongue and the menu includes entrees like gamberoni alla griglia con i fagioli toscani. Whatever that is. No spaghetti and meatballs.
He ordered ravioli with truffles. There were five on the plate laid out like backgammon pieces. I ordered salmon, and it was as small as one of those “fun size” mini-candy bars that kids get at Halloween from the neighborhood cheapskates. The bill, however, was more than my monthly car payment and we didn’t even have vino, although there was a basket of bread sticks, which I calculate cost approximately $10.37 a stick.
Nevertheless, this restaurant was definitely the “place to be.” Tables were filled at midday and everyone looked important, or at least tried to look important. Sometimes it’s tough to distinguish between the two. I was so impressed I wanted to take a selfie in front of the sign, with breadsticks poking out of my ears and nose.
As we left, I collared the owner and said, “I’m Italian and that meal was better than my mother’s home cooking.”
I lied. On Saturday I went to confession.
He smiled broadly and slapped me on the back like we were true paisans. My compliment clearly made his day, but I’m sure I’ll pay for it when I meet my mother again in heaven. I hoped that fib might prompt him to give me a gift certificate or a free glass of grappa. No such luck. Not even a stale breadstick.
When we were growing up, our Italian-American family never went to an Italian restaurant, and one time I had the audacity to ask my father why. He looked at me with a pained expression as if to say, “Tu sei stupido!” Loosely translated, “Did I raise a doofus?”
Then, he grumbled, “You nitwit, nobody will make it better than your mother.”
Years of dining, much of it regrettable, taught me he was right. My mother was one of the unheralded great cooks of her day. Better than Nigella Lawson, Bobby Flay and Paula Deen combined — and certainly classier. My mother never would have served a meal like those salmon bites or put out a plate of five small ravioli.
It was an insult to leave her table hungry. You were supposed to be “stuffed.” I know that isn’t keeping with the protocol of Gourmet magazine, and it’s probably déclassé in Manhattan, where you’re supposed to fill up on breadsticks. But what can I say? We grew up in a place called Pine Rock Park. The leftovers our dog devoured were better than what most people eat in New York City restaurants.
I like to think ours was a uniquely Italian-American experience. PBS could have done a documentary about us. But those good old days are gone, which brings me to my wife — a lovely woman, a charming woman, a woman who will admit she hates to cook even though she recently started preparing gourmet dishes for our dog.
Sandy, who is English by birth, was raised by Italians who taught her the secrets of fine cuisine, among them, homemade pasta, manicotti, ricotta pie, braesaola, frittata, Bolognese sauce, straciatella alla Romano soup and pane cotto. The unfortunate part is that even though she knows the secrets, she refuses to share them.
My father was right when he said I’ll never find someone who cooks as well as my mother. The ravioli, the veal parmigiana, the pot roast, even the meatballs, which were fried, never baked. On Saturday morning, we’d gather around the stove and eat them right out of the frying pan before she could put them in the homemade sauce, where they simmered for hours.
But there’s a scandalous family secret that even my father never knew, and I can’t let PBS find out about it. In her later years, my mother lost patience with all that home cooking, and our standard of living declined. I blame it on too much television.
Instead of spending her Saturdays making sauce — “gravy,” as we peasants called it — she began to dilute her famous formula with a jar of Ragu and then slip the empty jar, wrapped in a paper bag, into the garbage so he wouldn’t discover what she did.
My father never knew. This deception went on for years — so who was the doofus? I just hope she went to confession.