Unfortunately I was not blessed with a culturally Italian family (or a cultured one, for that matter) nor a mother who could improvise in the kitchen to fool anyone of her blandly Russian/Romainian roots with the ability to conjure only the spirits of Belle 'd Matzo Ball and the Baron of Brisket every (Jewish) holiday season.
Italian food, good Italian food to me is like Faulkner. Let me be perfectly clear when I allude to this: many people claim to have read Faulkner, yet "The Sound and the Fury" to most reminds them to download the latest The Fray album off iTunes rather than wax allegorical about drawing parallels from the Shakespearean play (sneeze Macbeth)
from where the novel garners its title. Italian food is complex, deeply rooted and often its rustic roots are rinsed off too thoroughly leaving patently shiny yet completely uninteresting result...Covered in red flavorless sauce. Good Italian food uses its long history and deeply entrenched notions of homemade texture and freshness to create frescos Giotto would be proud of.
One recent Saturday night I found myself in Georgetown at Papa Razzi
, stood up. Well, actually I was acutely aware of my would-be companion's last minute flight to the north country but I was already seated and hungry. My interest in "Italian" chain restaurants is generally limited to the salt-crusted, crack-infused bread sticks at Olive Garden, and the occasional craving for a Pizza Hut meat-lovers supreme. That is, to say, I'm not certain real Italians would be caught dead eating at such establishments. I have had the beau with the Italian gourmet mother (to date attempts to be adopted for the purpose of technique and recipe development while no longer dating their sons have failed), I have traveled to Italy for the singular purpose of eating gloriously well, and I have my favorite amoeba sized mom & pop Italian dives in South Philadelphia...chains don't quench that thirst.
Throwing caution/judgment/prejudice to the wind I sat down at the bar and opened the wine list. To my surprise, Papa Razzi has not one flight of wine tastings, nor simply one per "wine color" as is often the case, but an array of flights arranged neatly by bouquet and body. When my "light and fruity rosso" trio arrived I was giddy at the carefully selected and organized wines samples each distinct yet superbly matching the 'light and fruity" categorical label.
Valpolicella, Allegrini, Veneto: fresh cherry aromas with hints of raspberry, cherry and cola. Easy on the tannins.
Barbera d'Asti, "Vobis Tua" Volpi, Piedmont: Strong aromas of strawberry and raspberry, with hints of coffee bean. Not nearly as bitter as it sounds.
Pinto Nero, Borgo Magredo, Friulli: Cinnamon, clove and cherry with hints of pomegranate and strawberry.
I requested the Insalate Caprino which came with mixed greens, tomatoes, goat cheese, and fennel lightly tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette Mario Batali would breast-feed his spawn with; crisp, refreshing, and pungent. An excellent way to start a flavorful meal.
Next, I was greeted with my entree of Gnocchi Di Sorrento. Generally, I find gnocchi falls in the extremes, those being god-awful and heavenly. I wasn't looking for innovation so the small potato pasta in pink pomodoro sauce and mozzarella seemed like an easy pick. What arrived smelled tasted so organically pure yet deep in richness and crisp flavor. The gnocchi were angel topped clouds encased in a luxurious tomato, cream and basil sauce and lifted to shuddering glory by fresh molten tributaries of mozzarella. That wistful look Rafael painted on those pudgy cherubim, this meal was the inspiration for that look.
Tiramisu. Oh dear sweet tiramisu, how you have been brutalized by the TV dinner-swilling masses taking your lovely layers and making them one unitedly bland taste, rather than letting your triumvirate of espresso-soaked lady fingers, fluffy zabalgione, and a pungent waft of cocoa come together at the table to form a force so strong North Korea is considering embargoes. No, sadly the American public has been subject to a rouse, a trap and has been led astray into believing that tiramisu is a mixing of flavors. The complexity of Italian food can be seen in the strata of ingredients and how they are each wonderfully represented in one dish. Papa Razzi does tiramisu justice, showcasing the delicious flavors individually and freeing the dessert from its shackles of mediocrity and blandness.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, a mother in Tuscany is proud.