Today’s food story is brought to you by Ambra from The Good, the Bad and the Italian. Ambra is a Sydney-based arts project manager in the cultural/not-for-profit sector and specializes in communications, marketing & producing public programs for festivals & government agencies. Born in Trieste, Italy but whisked away to Australia as a baby, she has a special interest in working with diverse cultural and linguistic audiences, especially the Italian community.
A recent essay in the New York Review of Books got me thinking about memorable Italian restaurant experiences.
Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has written about the joys of discovering Italian food. The writer is Serbian-American and his mother didn’t cook Italian food at home in the 1940s-50s: he learnt everything he knows by eating in restaurants years later in Chicago and New York.
His piece Spaghetti Lessons attracted criticism from a disgruntled reader (himself of Italian heritage) who accused the writer of “absurd clichés and stereotypes” in his recollection of Italian restaurants and the heady places they took him to. Readers’ comments were as entertaining as the story, with most contributors agreeing the cranky comment writer took it all too seriously. Simic was simply recalling that dishes like fried artichokes and sautéed calf’s liver were a revelation to him.
My mother (and at times my father) always cooked delicious Italian food at home, but there was something special about eating at our regular haunts in the late 1960s and 1970s in Sydney’s inner west and on trips back to Italy.
My homage is not only to the food in these family-run Italian restaurants, but to the proprietors, waitstaff and clientele who created the atmosphere.
- to the owners of the Sicilian restaurant where we ate our lasagne al forno or scaloppine alla pizzaiola … thanks for allowing your pre-teen daughter to go-go dance along to the jukebox tunes like there was no tomorrow. A meal with a bonus floorshow is always great value.
- to the waiter at the Venetian restaurant in Stanmore who greeted us with a smile every Friday night when we ordered our fritto misto platter … thanks for giving me extra scoops of gelato when you were feeling happy after backing a winner at the racetrack.
- to the wily 70-something gent in the trattoria in Trieste who regularly complained to the waitress about his minute steak having the texture of old shoe leather. And to her for patiently returning it to the kitchen every time … thanks for a sitcom in the making.
Add to these the many other Italian dining experiences that offered us a piece of theatre and the portfolio of memories is rich and bountiful. I can’t eat any of these dishes nowadays without having flashbacks. Although I prefer not having to cut my minute steak with an electric saw.
There’s perhaps a touch of sentimentality in Simic’s essay as these types of restaurants may be a dying breed, but his affection for them and his gratitude to his mentors for his “education” is endearing.
As one of the readers says “I didn’t pick that [cliché] up from the article. Now, if you want to talk about the movie Moonstruck…” And I’d have to agree with him.