(Sometime, two weeks ago.)
Beast: Who is this “Aaron” guy anyway?
Foodie: He’s the student that I met in Italy who lived with those other students who were all great and now he’s the chef in NYC who was also on Iron Chef that one time. Remember?
Beast: Sort of. How long is he going to stay with us?
Foodie: A night, or two.
Beast: How old is this kid?
Foodie: Actually, I think he’s going to turn 28 tomorrow. I saw it on Facebook.
Beast: He’s older than I am?!
Foodie: (Pause.) Oh fuuuuccccckkkkk. This all feels so wrong all of a sudden.
Foodie: Our age difference. Oh god. I’m old enough to be your teacher.
Beast: You were only a teaching assistant, not a teacher. (Pause.) Fine. “Aaron” can stay with us. But tell him he can’t go into my music room. I don’t want this kid touching any of my instruments.
You’ve certainly heard me speak of how I lived in Italy for a year. I was a teaching assistant at one of the many schools in Florence where American students come to spend a semester to make and learn about art. My job was to assist the art history professor, who happens to be one of the most eccentric characters I’ve ever met, with marking papers and conducting field trips,which included visiting museums and sites in places like Ravenna, Pisa, Arezzo, Venice, Naples, Urbino, Siena, Rome and Tivoli.
You know how that one guy wrote a book and said something about it being the best of times and the worst of times? Well, Italy was sort of like that for me. It was the worst because nearly as soon as I arrived, I got dumped, which was the end of a pretty long relationship.
I was devastated. I was alone in a foreign country with no T.V. Can you imagine? After work, which included grueling days of looking at some of western civilization’s most important works of art and architecture, I found the best remedy for my melancholy state was watching movies on my iBook. I passed all of January and February lying in bed each night after dinner, watching my entire DVD collection over and over again with my computer resting on my stomach, and a box of tissues on the nightstand.
In between bites of prosciutto, olives, fennel-specked taralle, and sips of cheap red wine, I found that I would inevitably see myself in every character, and my life in every plot-line. I may have been overly-sensitive at the time. I say this because now I can watch Die Hard without crying. I cried while watching the original Star Wars trilogy back to back. That goes for the trilogies of Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, and the Godfather too.
Anyway, my poor, dear roommate (and one of my best friends) Michelle suffered through my sad spells with great poise. That woman sat up with me at our little kitchen table drinking wine, eating delicious smoked mozzarella di bufala, robiola cheese, prosciutto, and finocchiona and listened to my confessions and my amateurish philosophical musings. That time continues to be special–sacred even–for both of us and I will not mar it here by trying to recount it further.
There was one morning in the middle of my sad, sorry slump that I had to be up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning for a field trip to Siena and I called my mom and complained about not wanting to go to and how annoyed I was and how stupid everything was. My mom rarely disciplines me but then and there she said, “You’re complaining because you don’t want to go to Siena. SIENA. Think about that for a moment.”
She was right of course. But all I wanted to do was watch Sense and Sensibility again because that was me! Marianne Dashwood was me! (Also, Elinor Dashwood was me. And the character played by Hugh Grant in the movie was me.)
After that, I began to see the city, and my job, in a new light. Helping me along with that was a group of students who lived up the street from me and Michelle on Via Ghibellina. They were just the loveliest bunch! Other students tended to not pay attention during field trips but these guys would often be up front and centre. They’d even ask questions!
We were also able to have a little giggle, with all due respect of course, over some of the things that the Professor would say. This woman, who most likely knows the city of Florence better than anyone else (when president Bill Clinton was visiting, the Whitehouse called on her to take him around. She politely declined, because she had a field trip to lead), left America in the early 1970s after completing her PhD and has pretty much been in Italy ever since. That might explain why she has a funny way with words: she’s essentially Italian, except she retains some thirty-year old American tactless sentimentalities, like calling Asians orientals, for example. And when she led the the students through “forbidden” Pompeii, which includes some pretty shocking wall paintings that explicitly depict sexy things, I actually wrote down some of her remarks in my journal (where I also wrote a lot poems about my feelings and emotions and stuff like that.) Here are the best ones–and remember, she voiced these words without a hint of irony or humour.
On the right, you see is a very huge male part.
These were the women’s quarters and the women were good for working and they were good for sex.
I’m used to talking about Madonna and Child’s and these are not, definitely not, Madonna and Child’s.
You might say that this is to get the action going (about a dildo).
The dwarf creeping across the floor really reminds you that this was built for human proportions.
You get the idea.
Anyway, this fantastic group of students invited me over for dinner a few times, and I had them over for an Easter feast I believe. Long story short, Aaron is one of the students–and the one who used to cook for us all–and he came to stay with us last week.
As soon as he arrived, he parked his car out front of our house and walked to Roncesvalles to do some exploring. Meanwhile, I rode my bike home from work and decided to make a quick pit-stop into the cheese store on Roncesvalles. Do you know happened next? I ran right into Aaron! He’d already sampled some Polish delights and had himself a coffee.
At home, while we waited for the Beast to get home, I opened up a bottle of really bad Ontario riesling, which I had bought to show him how great Ontario riesling could be. We drank it anyway, and in the little sun room Aaron began to tell me what he’d been up to for the last six years. I could listen to his kitchen stories until the cows come home–especially because they include people who I read about every week in the New Yorker and the New York Times or who I know of through watching Top Chef for the last four years. I was in heaven, squealing with delight over the gossip and intrigue.
And then the Beast got home. At first, it was like two gorillas checking each other out.
Beast: Hey man.
Then there was a moment of silence as they examined each others beards. I stood timidly on the sideline, like a cameraman filming a nature show in Kenya, just waiting to see what would happen next.
Well, they just started talking mostly. About everything. I couldn’t get a word in edge-wise. I did, however, do a pretty admirable job of bringing the Beast up to speed on Aaron’s New York City culinary adventures since he’d returned from Italy. In a singular breath I blurted this out:
Foodie: So, like, when Aaron got home from Italy he totally realized he’d rather be cooking than making paintings and besides, he found cooking more creative anyway and he loved it so much that he marched himself into August, Tony Liu’s restaurant (at the time) that’s smack-dab in the middle of Greenwich Village on Bleeker Street, you know, right near all the Marc Jacobs shops? And after a few years there he went on to A Voce and not too long into that stint his old boss Tony Liu gave him a call and asked if he’d be part of his team for Iron Chef America! Can you believe it?! They didn’t beat Mario Batali and Co., but man oh man did they put up a good fight! And the secret ingredient was opah, which is like this huge fish that’s really popular in Hawaii. And then after A Voce, Aaron went onto work at Susur Lee’s Shang in the Thompson on Orchard Street and that was followed by a position as sous chef at Torrisi–a restaurant in Little Italy that was opened up by two Cafe Boulud alumni! And the place got these amazing reviews from Sam Sifton at the NYTimes and in New York Magazine, and now there are line ups every night and they serve Italian American food using locally sourced ingredients so like, instead of getting mozzarella from Italy, they get it from somewhere in the State. Isn’t that great? The place was even the featured “Table for Two” in an August issue of the New Yorker.
Beast: Can we eat now?
Aaron was actually in town on some very specific business: turns out he’s just recently left Torrisi in order to pursue a little idea that’s been swimming around in the back of his head for years: he wants to cook Jewish food, but not the kind of Jewish food that’s served in New York’s most famous delis, like Katz’s or the Carnegie. Those places all get their pastrami, latkes and matzo balls from the same industrial supplier rather than making them in-house . Aaron wants to do Jewish food with a little more love than that. In fact, a place in his Brooklyn neighbourhood recently opened up called Mile End that’s run by a married couple–Montrealers in fact–and after a couple of talks, it turns out that Aaron is going to be the chef there!
We had research to do. The three of us headed straight to Caplansky’s, a deli in downtown Toronto. We all got sandwiches–the Beast and I chose smoked meat and Aaron chose the pickled tongue–plus an order of knish
and an order if kishka.
I’d never had either. They were good. Actually, they kind of tasted the same to my Gentile palate. The Beast said the kishka tasted like stuffing. My sandwich was really good, but I don’t know anything about deli food. I do know, however, that the best smoked meat sandwich I’ve ever had was at Schwartz’s in Montreal. This was something that Aaron would hear over and over again in Toronto: “Smoked meat? Well, you have to go to Schwartz’s. It’s the best.” This kind of food really is polarizing: I’ve heard people verbally slay Caplansky’s food and others defend it down to the last matzo ball. Aaron was like a bookish anthropologist as he ate away, observed, and kept his opinions to himself.
That is, until the next day. Aaron went back to Caplansky’s on his own and tried some more food, including their matzo ball soup, which he admitted was the saddest example he’d ever sampled. He also visited the Art Gallery of Ontario with my membership card, and dropped into a dumpling place on Spadina, which he chose from all the other spots on account of seeing a man walk into the store with a whole pig slung over his shoulder. But when he Googled the name of the place, once he was sitting inside and had placed his order, he discovered it had been recently shut down by the city on account of a little rat infestation. Regardless, the dumplings were good. In fact, he noted that they had an interesting sort of dusting of cornmeal on their exterior and the only other time he’d seen dumplings like that was in Susur Lee’s kitchen.
We all convened at home that second night. The Beast and I wanted to take Aaron for a few of our favourite snacks. We made our first pit-stop at Ali’s Roti–a West Indian Roti shop on Queen Street West.
Not everything is a hit here, but their doubles–lightly curried and stewed chickpeas stuffed between cloud-like, tumeric-laced fritters–make the Beast and I swoon. And they’re only $1.70 each! If I’m working at night, the Beast will often make a meal out of consuming 4 or 5 doubles. He says they’re the most reliable food treat in the entire city.
Aaron’s verdict? He loved them. Whew.
Since Aaron couldn’t get to Montreal this trip, we had to take him for poutine at Poutini’s. This place is a delight to visit on a lazy Saturday afternoon, or a rainy Tuesday night. But pass it on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening after midnight and there’s a line that snakes out the door of club kids needing a fix of fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Poutine, especially when it’s made well, is hard not to like. We shared a large one and it disappeared pretty quickly. I kept telling Aaron it was chicken gravy. I could tell he looked skeptical so I asked. It turns out I am occasionally wrong: they use beef gravy, just as Aaron suspected.
We ended our evening with an Italian meal at the restaurant where I work so I can’t provide details or photographs because that would tarnish my professional image. Suffice to say, we three had a lovely meal, with plenty of lively conversation and lots to drink.
Aaron left the next morning. Not long after, the Beast called me at work to tell me that there was an article in the National Post that very morning about Mile End, the Montreal delicatessen where Aaron now works. And you do you know what restaurant was featured in the New Yorker’s Table for Two that week? Mile End!
I’m counting the days until I can visit this Brooklyn deli, which was just voted the best deli in New York by the Zagat guide.
Anyway, sorry about being a bit self-indulgent in this post. At least I didn’t reproduce one of the haiku poems I wrote while walking around Pompeii listening to sad Icelandic music on a Discman or something, although those poems are pretty amazing. And sorry about the iPhone pictures: I left my camera at Giovanna’s house weeks ago now. I was taking pictures of her newborn baby. To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that she hasn’t found the time to return the camera to me yet.
Caplansky’s: Foodie ** Beast **
Doubles from Ali’s Roti: Foodie **** Beast ****
Poutini’s: Foodie: *** Beast ***