For celebration lunch today we have Greektown of Detroit, Barbuto of New York, and Howdy Richards of Freeland to thank.
What are we celebrating? Being alive. Being together.
In a few weeks we will go back to Italy for a month or so. It will be deep green primavera over there. We’re already talking about favorite restaurants and favorite local dishes that await us, anticipating what’s coming in fresh from the fields and the sea, ready to taste the new local Sangiovese. Here we get busy in the kitchen every day; we shop and cook and eat long lunches in. There we hop in the car, drive the local hills, and eat long lunches out.
Before we go, even though the food is a dream in Italy, I begin to feel nostalgic for a home-cooked lunch. Because, as hard as it may be to believe, what we cook and eat here is easily as good as what we order and eat over there.
The main course at lunch today was grilled lamb chops. In San Marino and throughout Romagna, when you order lamb you usually get something called castrato.
Google that word and you find references to choirboys and opera, to castrated boys who sweetly sang soprano in the church and on the stage. In “All Mouth and No Trousers,” writing for The Guardian, Samantha Ellis observes, “Pope Clement VIII admitted castrati into the papal choir in 1599, quoting as justification St Paul’s directive: ‘Let women be silent in the churches’.” The procedure for neutering of 8-year-old boys was referred to a “orchidectomy,” rendering the mature male “tall, beardless, and tending to fat,” with “otherworldly” voice.
In a trattoria over there, the castrato you are served is probably castrated mutton. When the meat is good, it’s excellent. But it can be tough and fatty and gristly. In contrast, here we enjoy loin chops that are thin and tender and tasty.
For a few years after we were married, Tizi and I often went to a local restaurant called The Parthenon in Detroit’s Greektown. We went to eat lamb chops that were cut thin and grilled to perfection. Since then, we have continued to insist on thin. Nick, our local butcher friend at Plum Market, cuts them ⅜ of an inch. Seasoned with garlic salt and pepper, grilled over medium heat (5-7 minutes) they are well done, delicate finger foods. Nick cuts a dozen. That’s barely enough.
For side dishes today (“contorno” as they say in Italy) we were all homage. A couple leftover long-cooked artichokes, an homage to my mother-in-law.
The zucchini at the newly opened Nino Salvaggio have been perfect–fresh, free of scars and bruises, just the size we like. Today we resurrected a dish we had all but forgotten: shaved zucchini lightly drizzled with olive oil and dusted with a light snow flurry of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The first time we had this dish was about ten years ago at Barbuto. The zucchini are shaved and served raw. At Barbuto, for a little color, they also shave yellow squash (and they grate aged pecorino). Lacking the yellow and the pecorino today, we went all green. With the oil, not vinegar. A little lime juice. Yow.
Snapping asparagus at the sink, I thought of Howdy Richards. Who’s Howdy? His actual name was Harold. I think he was Harold Richards II, a kid from my hometown who walking along a path next to the Tittabawssee River one summer morning looked down and pointed at something growing in the weeds. “Hey,” he said, “wild asparagus.” He broke off a stalk and took a bite. The rest of us looked on. We probably had Twinkies on our mind. “It’s good,” Howdy said, crunching away.
Where I grew up, it was not unusual in late Spring to see cars stopped at the side of a country road and the drivers down in the ditch, cutting asparagus. I think back now, with a mixture of awe and horror, at the fact that, down by the river at least, those asparagi were growing in a dioxin floodplain. And the ditches at the edge of corn, bean, beet, and wheat fields, must have been fragrant with herbicide and pesticide runoff. Awe and horror. Today a platter of five minute asparagus–a little oil, sea salt, and fresh ground pepper–made us feel all right.
We ate and were filled today. A celebration lunch. An homage lunch. Friends in Italy, before eating, will lift a glass for a toast and say, Durassa. This pleasure at the table, this pleasure being together, May it last.