Monday, August 31, 2009

Italian Restaurant and They're Dropping Like Flies

Had lunch this week at a new (five weeks old) Italian restaurant run by cousins of my friend, Riccardo Fabi from New York.  Riccardo suggested that I visit their new enterprise, Taste Unique.  Stefania and Lawrence are Italian.  She’s from Umbria.  He’s got an American father and an Italian mother.  When his parents divorced, he had the great good fortune to go to Rome with his mother.  There are far worse fates than growing up in Rome, my absolute favorite city in the world, as most of you know.  Some of the greatest food I’ve eaten comes from that glorious city, and Stefania and Lawrence have created an enterprise that celebrates la cucina.  It’s a lunch-only place, but they also sell many Italian specialties, both frozen and fresh to take home. 

Stefania is the cook in the family.  I brought two friends in for lunch on Tuesday and from the second we walked in, we were caught up in the full embrace of these two delightful people.  Then they served us lunch! Wow. This is delicious, robust and filling Roman fare.  Because of my friendship with Riccardo, and his lovely wife, Rita, we were spoiled rotten by this lovely couple.  Where to begin?

How about the foccacia?  This is heavenly stuff, served hot and drizzled with a delicious, slightly peppery extra virgin olive oil and a light dusting of sea salt.  The plate was piled high--way too much for the three of us.  It came with a platter of salumeria that included traditional sliced salami, a rich mortadella, two other types of locally made salami, including one memorable one studded with fennel, and a spicy coppa.  Halfway through the plate, Lawrence brought us a fresh pile of foccaccia—not because we had consumed the first pile, but because he was concerned that it had become cold!  We could have stopped there, but no, we had entrees coming.  As the food was being prepared, we enjoyed a great get- acquainted conversation with Lawrence first, and then Stefania as they alternated between us, the kitchen and the other patrons at this tiny little 10-seat restaurant.  Lawrence said, "we're not really a restaurant."  I guess that's true because they have a freezer and refrigeration case full of the items they sell for take-out such as Amatriciana sauce, and other pasta sauces, a traditional lasagna bolognese, cannelloni three ways, two different ravioli, fettuccine, and desserts such as a ridiculously sinful tiramisu, and fruit preserve crostata.   My companions are serious about food, and we talked about local tomatoes (canned out of season lack that deep tomato smell and flavor of Italian tomatoes from near Naples), and how they are using local suppliers for vegetables and other staples.  

Tom ate a delicious potato pie with cheese and prosciutto. It was rich and dense and it is on my list for my next visit.  Joe tried the lasagna, with its béchamel sauce, and pronounced himself very satisfied.  I couldn't decide between a casserole of orrichiete (sp?) with ricotta and pancetta or the beef filet with a balsamic sauce, which Lawrence said had just come out of the oven.  "Then try a half portion of each," suggested Stefania. How could I say no? The pasta dish was new to me, and I must ask her about its origins. But it was a big, heavenly mouthful (the pasta was tender, but not mushy). The meat arrived tender and rare inside, with the dark, slightly sweet/acidic sauce to cut its richness.  It came with sliced zucchini with tomatoes and onions--sweet, the zucchini cooked properly but still slightly crunchy.  

We passed on dessert, but Lawrence wouldn’t take no for an answer. He brought out three spoons on a plate with heaping two-bite portions of the tiramisu.  Lawrence was worried the coffee soaking liquor might be too strong.  Not for me by a long shot--one of the best versions I've eaten.  We had coffee from the Bialetti, sweetened--a perfect end to a gorgeous lunch.  

The small space is very handsome with tables and some paneling repurposed from the Douglas fir floors repurposed from their renovated house.  The handsome beams that drop down from the ceiling are from a deck demolished from the same renovation--so they are perfectly in tune with the "green" aspects of living here.

Prices are very gentle, and they don’t have a liquor license yet.  No matter, I don’t drink at lunch anyway.  Between this spot and Nicholas for Greek and Lebanese specialties, I’m thinking Portland offers lots of possibilities for exploring a wealth of ethnic foods.  Thai and Vietnamese restaurants abound, and someone suggested a Senegalese restaurant for a future visit. 

I'm having lunch with a publisher friend here again on Friday, and with a cookbook author pal on September 1.  

While Ted Kennedy’s death yesterday didn’t surprise, it did underline that so far in 2009, a shockingly large number of celebrity deaths has occurred.  Michael Jackson, Walter Cronkite, Farrah Fawcett, Robert Novak, John Hughes, Eunice Shriver, Robert McNamara, Karl Malden, Beatrice Arthur, David Carradine, Dom DeLuise, Andrew Wyeth, John Updike, Riccardo Montalban, and Ron Silver are just a few of the big names who are no longer with us.  I’m not as familiar with sports figures, but we also lost James Whitmore, Betsy Blair, Pat Hingle, Edmund Purdom, Sidney Chaplin, Maurice Jarre, Patrick McGoohan, Claude Berri, and Tharon Musser from films and the theater; Fleming Findt, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Ekaterina Maximova, Pearl Lang, and Eva Evdokimova from the world of dance, Hildegard Behrens, Sandra Warfield, Ezio Flagello, Betty Allen, Sir Edward Downes, Schyler Chapin, Dame Heather Begg, Vivian della Chiesa, Lukas Foss, Deboprah Riedel, Anne Brown, Les Paul, John McGlinn, Molly Bee (“I Saw Mommie Kissing Santa Claus”), Dame Margreta Elkins from classical vocal, instrumental and pop music; the writers Marilyn French, Hortense Calisher and Fleur Cowles, TV pitchman Billy Mays; PR man, Lee Solters; politicians Corazon Aquino, senators Jack Kemp and Clairborne Pell; fashion muse Maxine del la Falaise; porn star, Marilyn Chambers and master French pastry genius, Gaston Lenotre, and it’s only August.

I really admired John Broder’s fair and balanced obituary in today’s New York Times.  Despite the disaster of his private life, Edward Kennedy’s ability as a lawmaker has made him a legend in Washington politics.  Will we ever have as committed a liberal in the Senate again?  I rather doubt it. 

Since writing this, I have read the distressing news that Dominick Dunne and Sheila Lukins of The Silver Palate have died.  Lordy!

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