A question that gets asked around a lot is ‘what’s your favorite dish?’ and for the most part my answer varies depending on what my stomach says in that moment. Are we talking about my favorite dish when I dine out in the City or my favorite dish for when I cook up a feast at home for myself and friends? Nonetheless, it always changes and for most people it stirs the pot of some creative juices. The thought of my favorite dish is enough to put me in a pre-food coma state or send me into post meal siesta.
I was born and raised in Connecticut by French-Italian parents who loved food. Ever since I could remember I was always surrounded by food. Now, you’re probably thinking I ate bread and cheese and ate pasta all the time like some traditional French-Italians would; however, some of that is not entirely true. My family was quite fit and very sporty and we traveled all over New England to compete in swimming and running events. Every Saturday; and for the most part it lasted all day, my siblings and I would spend our time helping our parents with the garden we had in the backyard. We had everything from tomatoes to carrots, pumpkins in the fall and all types of greens, herbs; mint and parsley to fennel and basil and occasionally lavender and rosemary. It was heaven on earth to say the least. I could remember a time when we all sat at the dinner table on a Saturday evening ready to consume something delicious that we prepared all day for and my mother in a panic forgot to add garlic one time to one of her homemade dressings, “Max, can you run out back and grab a couple cloves of garlic!” My mother screaming at me, but with a slight tone of love. At 6 years old, I knew which vegetables were what and what time of the season they grew, something I believe children nowadays completely lack.
My childhood was divine like the tomato sauce my mother made from scratch to the occasional sip or two of homemade wine she had been processing upstairs in our attic. Last night, I had a flurry of flashbacks when I sat down had a bowl of freshly homemade pasta and a glass of Pinot Noir from Burgundy. I don’t think there is a better combination of food and wine then this. They marry and compliment each other so well that this has to be my favorite dish*. (the asterisk is there because this answer usually and occasionally changes).
My grandparents arrived in the United States on Ellis Island in 1934. My father side came from the northern regions of Italy bringing over their traditions of pasta making. My mother’s side came over from the south of France keeping their traditions and ways of cooking with them. Call me a foodie, but I find it remarkable that you can be from any part of the world and learn a set and skills in the kitchen and travel to another part of the world and carry those same exact skills with you and then influence those around you and possibly change the evolution of food, one dish at a time.
So, back to my favorite dish – Pasta, but what kind of pasta? There are varieties of pastas and most people will agree and say that pasta came from China and most recently I had someone tell me it came from India. However, the only pasta that is closest to my heart has to be no other than Spaghetti and of course homemade. A warm plate of perfectly made Spaghetti topped with a freshly homemade tomato sauce and freshly grated parmigiano will send you into that food coma I was telling you about early. All this food talk has been making me hungry, damn! (Excuse me, while I take a break and cook something up really quickly.)
Let’s rewind and go back 20 years earlier, I was 7 years old and every Saturday afternoon, somewhere between having a break from the garden because it was too hot outside and having a glass of my mother’s lemonade or being yelled at my father for taking a piss onto my neighbors tree, my mother would go inside with the tomatoes she collected from the garden and prepare her classic and never failed tomato sauce. Rumor has it she was never given a recipe from her parents who probably taught her how to make the sauce and when I moved out to New York City years later, I asked my mother for that recipe and she said “I can’t tell you, my son.” Now, I thought this was strange and thought why can’t you give me a recipe? I didn’t think it was all that serious, but it was because she simply didn’t have one. It was all in the moment. A maestro, a jazz player, a poet my mother was. It blew me away. She would look at the sauce, taste the sauce, smell the sauce and then know in that moment if it needed more or less of an ingredient. Now, you might be saying “well, of course she had to taste it and know if it needed more or less.” Well, my mother made tomato sauce different from your mother. We prepared our sauce from scratch for starters, so it ended up cooking longer. The house ended up smelling like garlic and onions at first. Your eyes would be watering if you walked past the kitchen. If you heard my mother breathing through her mouth, you knew that she was cutting onions and by all costs stay clear from the kitchen (tip: breathe through your mouth when cutting onions). Again, this was all before “organic” was a trend too.
Still in the pursuit of my mother’s tomato sauce recipe I searched the internet for recipes, but nothing came close to the taste that she made. On that same phone call with my mother she told me to come home for one night and I would watch her prepare the sauce and I can take any sort of notes that I can. The very next day, I hopped on a train at Grand Central Terminal and made my way to New Haven where I was picked up by my father and younger brother. They were glad to see me as well as I was glad to see them both too, but they knew I was coming home and had a mission to figure out this sauce. It blows me away that I never asked my mother how she prepared the sauce and now that I think about it she always asked me and my siblings to stay out of the kitchen whenever she was in their cooking. It was like her private island and no one was allowed on until she gave permission. Her oasis was the kitchen.
On the car drive back home, we stopped for a couple slices of pizza at our favorite little ma and pa pizza shop, Domenik & Pia’s. My father has been going here since he was a kid and would walk to the pizza shop at five years old during his lunch break at school (how the times where different back then). I will write more on this pizza shop in coming days you won’t want to miss this. Pulling up to the house I noticed the front door was opened and inviting me in with the most delicious scent on this earth; the aromas of garlic and onions sautéing in extra virgin olive oil. I breezed by my sister with a hello and a smile and made my way into the kitchen without hesitation. I was a bit upset that my mother had started preparing, but she told me that I didn’t need to be here for her to prep the onions and garlic.
In the back of mind, I thought, ‘is she still hiding something from me? What else did she put in there? Why couldn’t she wait for me to come home?’ Maybe I was a bit paranoid because I was after the perfect sauce since I was now on my own living in the Big City. After my parnionia had fadded away and was blocked out by the aromas and lingering scent of sautéd garlic and onions and the roasting of juicy tomatoes and the sound of crushed salt and pepper I began to take notes, not with a paper and pen, but with my eyes. I took it in and learned this way and it would be the only way to learn and the only way to get better at making this sauce from scratch.
In that moment, it all came together. To seal the deal, my mother place her Le Cruisenet lid and set the temperature to a low flame. We walked away from that stove, both learning that food is a process, and you are always learning about the food as well as yourself. It is a play on life. You’ll never know how it’s suppose to go, but when you are in that moment you’ll feel infinite.
My mother and I walked away and sat outside in the back patio and both enjoyed a nice glass of pinot gris on a warm fall evening. We talked about my adventures in New York City and laughed about the past.