(first published 8/7/09)
It's been an interesting week, culinarily speaking. Last Saturday I was lucky enough to engage in a stellar and legendary birthday meal with a friend at the wonderful Anteprima in Andersonville--food there is always solid if not spectacular, presented non-esoterically and simply by a food runner who knows what it is he is serving to you, and the service is always completely gracious and comfortable. In fact, I have the strange honor of having never left the restaurant without being the last table in the entire place. They do a good job of making you feel at home.
BUT this is not about promoting Anteprima. Let us begin with a bit of backstory. In the book Heat by Bill Buford, he tells of the great writer Jim Harrison and the chef Mario Batali consuming, over the course of one evening, a formidable amount of wine:
Mario reminded Harrison that they'd drunk twenty-eight bottles when they'd last met. "There were other people," Harrison protested unconvincingly. "They weren't drinking," Mario corrected.
This exchange occurred at the Blue Ribbon Brasserie in Greenwich Village in New York, a bit of a chef's Mecca, open all night, serving top-notch food (somewhere I was lucky enough to go at 3:30 am one fine January morning and consume sweetbreads, bone marrow with oxtail marmalade, escargots and perhaps several oysters along with several bottles of wine (sadly, not twenty-eight) with two friends and a woman who, in a flash of human decency, I had invited along with us, as she was standing at the entrance, hopelessly waiting for a spot for one person, much as I had done the evening before. I asked if she'd like to be the fourth in our group, which she immediately jumped on...given the moment back, I'd have not taken the chance as she ended up being one of the more obnoxious people I've ever met.). But reading about this huge consumption (talk about obnoxious) inspired the desire to "accomplish" similar feats, though I feel it's pretty impossible for a couple of relatively normal guys to drink even a case of wine and eat all the accompanying food as well. So we thought it best to get a group together and order one of everything off of the Anteprima menu, something that's been in the works for a couple of years now. This year though, due to our judgmental exclusion of those deemed not up to the task, as well as the fact that my birthday was on a Saturday and everyone I know works in the restaurant industry, it was just my friend and I, a lone duo against the odds. We didn't manage the whole menu, but boy did we feast:
-Homemade testa (a sort of headcheese, testa being the Italian word for head);
-Pan-fried sweetbreads with capers, parsley and lemon--my favorite protein ever;
-The obligatory veal meatballs in saffron-tomato sauce;
-Deliciously spicy orecchiette (ear shaped pasta) with homemade Merguez and dandelion greens (named for their shape: dent de lion, or, "lion's tooth" in French);
-Bucatini (tube shaped pasta, buca being Italian for "hole", with house made guanciale (basically a bacon made from the jowls of a pig);
-A crab and sweet corn risotto;
-Another order of sweetbreads, thank you very much;
-A hanger steak grilled over wood, served with simple wax beans and a salsa verde (a great sauce for meat made from a variety of things including parsley, vinegar, garlic, olive oil, sometimes anchovies);
-Wild Alaskan Salmon served with a smoky ragout of sorts of chanterelles (a type of wild mushroom) and corn;
-A whole roasted Porgy with tiny little roasted potatoes;
-The Cornish Game Hen, something I insist on having each and every time I am at Anteprima, simply grilled with a brick on top of it and served with a spicy rapini (otherwise known as broccoli rabe, nice and bitter and sour) and a couple of lemons. Simple simple simple, and one of the best dishes in the city in my estimation;
-Why not throw on another pasta, this time the tagliatelle (long strips of pasta, much like fettuccine, the name coming from the word for "cut" which serves as a root word for the term "tailor") with a proscuitto ragu;
-And dessert: a perfectly creamy lemon panna cotta (so hard to hit that perfect spot without too much gelatin);
-Creme di Lampone ("raspberry cream") with berries and almonds--a delight;
-And what better to finish with than two glasses of what was called "Greek Moonshine" sent to us by the restaurant. Indeed, it was a bit blinding and scorching and all that makes a moonshine great. (I used to go to a winter party each year when I lived in Boston; and every time, the same bottle of "WV Shine"--moonshine made in West Virginia and bottled in an old orange juice bottle--made its way up from the basement and got passed around. I think only about a couple of tablespoons were drank each year amongst about 10 people--only those brave enough to drink it and even they pretty much just touched it to their lips.)
And did I mention we got cannoli on the way to the restaurant at the Sicilian pastry shop Pasticceria Natalina just down the street? I mean, it was gonna be closed by the time we got out of dinner!
All in all, it was a tremendous way to spend the evening and after a bit of a walk, the ol' stomach was fine and ready for some late-night birthday libations. Which I indulged in. All in a night's work of building up to the legend of Jim Harrison.
Whew. It's impressive, reading back over that. Moreso, it's making me really pumped up and hungry. And it isn't all about gluttony; it's about having a really good time with people you care about, and enjoying some of the fine, edible crafts we have available. A couple years later, Jim Harrison is still cranking out books, I'm still reading them, and I'm still nowhere near his formidable skill level, in a literary or gustatory sense. Good thing I've got a birthday every year.