Back to Basics and Batali (Indie 30 – Day 11, Feast)

Back to Basics and Batali (Indie 30 – Day 11, Feast)

BootsnAll promptFor some of us, food isn’t just a part of our travels, it’s the reason why we travel. Whether you travel the globe to try new foods and use food to form a deeper connection with the culture or just eat to live, food plays a big part in the travel experience. Share a food-related story from your travels or describe your best meal.

We’re jumping into the Wayback Machine for this post, folks. Because, guess what? I am a serious foodie. And some of my first motivations to travel were food related. My first memory of having a travel dream comes from watching a PBS cooking show called the Frugal Gourmet when I was about four years old. Dad and I would watch his show together often. I remember one particular episode when he was splashing around Venice, Italy during a flood. It looked so beautiful and mysterious, damp, misty, and delicious. I was desperate, even then, to go there. I wanted to walk along the canals of Venice in a pair of bright pink galoshes and my Little Mermaid raincoat.

Another television personality that nurtured my love of cooking, travel, and all things Italian was Mario Batali. He joined the Food Network in 1995 and that was probably the year we started watching his show. I can’t find a clip of that original show online, but I seem to remember a white kitchen. The whole set was very white save for Batali’s fiery hair and the myriad of dishes he cooked. Batali not only sparked a passion for Italian cooking in me, but in my whole family.

When we lived in the Adirondacks my parents, brother, and I would take the train to New York City often, especially before 9/11/2001. A day trip usually unfolded somewhat like this: very early train from Albany, cab to Little Italy, lots of walking, a hearty Italian lunch, taking in some new sight like the Intrepid Museum, and then a train ride home.

Sometimes we would stay for the weekend, too. It was then that we tried some of Mario Batali’s restaurants. Once we did the tasting menu at Babbo and another time Lupa. I was young when we did this, less than 15 years old and my brother 13 or less, but we still loved these meals having been raised with an appreciation for good food at a young age. Even as a child when I disliked salads, I loved my Dad’s Caesar made in a big wooden salad bowl with a fresh dressing of anchovy paste, olive oil, garlic, and lemon.

As I was so young, the details are faded, but the joy of the memories lingers. From Babbo, I remember elegant lighting and shades of cream in the walls, tablecloths, plates, and pasta. It was comforting, similar to the white I remember from Batali’s first show. I remember the different shapes of pasta: flat, angular pappardelle, tiny, round orecchiette, and folded tubes of garganelli. I remember how full I felt after dinner as my brother and I fell asleep on the pull-out couch of a room at the Millennium Hilton. The next morning, I was surprised to be hungry for breakfast as I gazed out the window at the Twin Towers just across the street.

My memories of Lupa are very different but equally delicious. The restaurant is darker and earthier in shades of brown and orange. We sat in the back of the restaurant near the kitchen door. I remember lots of plates – big, small, square, round. I remember half a dozen sardine fillets on a silver tray. After a few moments debate I placed one on my tongue. It was cold and salty with just a taste of lemon. It tasted like the sea. It was perfect and I sat back for a moment to enjoy the new taste before helping myself to another. For dessert, there was something dark chocolate. A small torta, perhaps? I don’t remember it by sight. I recall the feeling of the hearty sneeze the first bite induced (as good dark chocolate always does to me). And I recall how it tasted: dense, smooth, and so incredibly chocolate without the hindrance of too much sweetness that you get in a candy bar or storebought birthday cake. I think it was the first time I realized there was a depth of flavor to chocolate beyond its sweetness.

The next day, on the train home. We met Mario Batali. I heard his voice first. I knew it instantly from the hours I’d spent watching his shows with my family. I didn’t say anything at first. Who would believe me? I thought. But then I saw him walking away from us up the aisle, bright orange clogs and all and I tried to point him out before he disappeared. I failed. No one believed me. They thought I was crazy. But luck was with me and he strode back up the aisle. One of my family members said, “she’s right” with a tone of total shock. Mom fished a Lupa business card from her purse and awhile later my brother and I ventured back to find his seat and ask for a signature. We interrupted him reading the newspaper. I stutteringly told him we had eaten at Lupa the night before and our whole family enjoyed his show. He was gracious and signed our business card.

I was the most awe-struck I have been in my entire life. To this day, I love that memory except for the twinge of guilt that I didn’t also ask him to say hello to my parents who did everything for my brother and me and let us meet one of their favorite chefs without them. That signed business card is now the centerpiece of a collage of business cards and matchbooks in a fishbowl at my parents house. Everything is shoved in their at random except that signed card, which is centered on the broad side of the glass bowl, signature facing out.

Since those meals at Lupa and Babbo, I have had many great meals from the excellent bistecca fiorentina at Osteria dei’ Benci in Florence, Italy to my brother’s “just throw anything in there” omelets that always turn out well (especially when blue cheese is involved). But those meals Batali’s restaurants have shaped my appreciation for food and my judgement of a good meal. The memory of that sardine reminds me what one can do with a few simple, fresh ingredients, which, more than anything, is what I look for in the food I most enjoy eating.

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