Miracle of the Twelve Meatballs

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Gentofte, Denmark. November 2017.

I was in the kitchen of my boyfriend’s mother Jeanette’s home, stirring a splash of vodka into caramelized tomato paste with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of rosé in the other. Her jolly Swedish “companion”-slash-”boyfriend” Hans turned up the volume of their radio and started humming along to the jazz trumpet flowing from it. He held his glass under the spigot of the boxed wine on the counter and refilled it.

“I think you should add more,” he frowned, looking over my shoulder.

“I’ve already added two more tablespoons than I should’ve,” I told him, stirring vigorously, “Are you sure?”

“It’s a vodka sauce! More!” he urged, handing over the bottle of vodka.

There was no sense in arguing. I poured in a couple of good glugs with abandon and adjusted the heat. The tomato paste began to loosen. Hans lifted his glass and continued humming along with the music.

Sure, it was gray and positively miserable outside but, by George, life–yes, life!– was happening on the inside. We were determined to make sure of it!

I was woken up that morning by the steady and ruthless rumbling of rain pelting the window of our guest room. The barren trees were succumbing to every whim of the winds. I’d never felt more grateful to have shelter over my head. It was while observing this dreary scene that the vision of creating a red-sauced Italian supper came to me–the kind of meal fit for a mafia boss! With pasta! And meatballs! And a crisp green salad with shaved carrots and a vinegary dressing! And a rustic loaf of country bread! After weeks of subsisting on a practically monastic diet of dark rye bread, pickled herring, and boiled potatoes, I was craving extravagance–and, well, color.

When I came downstairs, Hans had just returned from his morning walk with their two Swedish lapphund dogs at the church cemetery and brought back a bag of various Danish pastries. Jeanette was perched on her usual corner of the sofa, under a knitted wool blanket and thoroughly engrossed in a morning talk show. I told Hans of my menu ideas over a cup of Nescafé. It would be a dinner party, I said, for the four of us! He began to get excited and suggested we check out a recently opened grocery store the next town over for ingredients. Suddenly, a little afternoon adventure was on the books.

Although the house belonged to my boyfriend’s mother, his sister Pia and her own two grown children, Veronica and Marcus, also lived there, along with the daughter’s then-boyfriend and their dog. So, it was a full house. But everyone led their own lives, as though they lived on separate properties, like a small village under one roof. They rarely sat down for dinner together, so when I shopped I was shopping for four–my boyfriend, me, his mother and Hans.

I figured a package of pasta and enough ground meat for a dozen meatballs would suffice. It would adequately accommodate a round of second helpings, which was certain to happen. I picked up a small head of lettuce, tomato, red onion and carrot and placed them in our cart. Salad, after all, was really just a gesture towards having vegetables on the table, as it was not a common occurrence on their dinner table. Meanwhile, Hans went to the bakery section and chose a nice boule with a crackly golden-brown crust.

Once we got back home, the cooking commenced. Hans did all the chopping as I prepared the pasta sauce and meatballs. He told me that he once owned a small French restaurant in Sweden when he was young and showed off his knife skills on an onion. It fell open, magnificently diced. When the clock struck four, he mischievously poured wine for us. “For some reason, the food always turns out better when chef drinks while cooking,” he chuckled. “Are you sure it’s not only when the guests are plastered?” I laughed.

As the meal was starting to come together, we opened the glass china cabinet and pulled out the special serveware that Jeannette normally reserved for the holidays. As I set the table, I thought about how life can easily become an endless stream of monotony if you’re not vigilantly present. Sometimes we get so accustomed to how things are that we end up going through the motions instead of really living. My thoughts were interrupted when my boyfriend popped his head in to say: “Since you guys are preparing such a feast, I hope you don’t mind if I invited the others to join us.”

Hans and I looked at each other, sending all sorts of signals to each other with our eyes. There was too much to process in that moment. Who was rightfully entitled to extend invitations? We looked at the food we’d spent all afternoon preparing and, instead of a feast, it appeared to be a piddly arrangement of provisions.

“I don’t like this,” he sighed, “It’s quite rude.”

“Yes,” I concurred, “On so many levels.”

After a moment, I said, “It’s not that I don’t want them to join us. I just like to be prepared.”

“Exactly,” he said, shaking his head, “I always like to make sure there is enough food for everyone.”

It was time to re-assess and reset our attitudes. I knew that my boyfriend’s sister Pia was on a vegetarian diet at the moment, so she wasn’t going to have any meatballs. But would a bit of pasta and salad be enough?

Hans held up the remainder of the carrot and asked, “Shall I put this on her plate?”

We both laughed and harmony was restored. Hans reset the table and I began plating the food. Pia and her daughter ended up joining us for dinner. Not only was there plenty of food but there were even leftovers. Somehow the meal seemed to multiply as we were eating it. Marcus came home from work later and made himself a plate, wolfing down two meatballs that were miraculously still on the table.

The saying “little is much when God is in it” never rang truer.

Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Octopus, Sea Urchin and Breadcrumbs

CECCONI'S
8764 Melrose Avenue
310.432.2000


Sea urchin pasta is easily one of my top picks as a fantasy last supper but, I have to admit, it's not exactly an original idea of my own. It was an idea I picked up from lounging around at Italian art dealer's loft in West Chelsea years ago (when I still lived in New York). Most of those random nights in the city were a blur, but this one in particular stood out because of the fantasy last supper conversation. 

The whole thing began when I shared that I'd recently read an interview with Eric Ripert in which he revealed that his fantasy last supper would be something like meditating under a banyan tree and then eating a dozen oysters. What a Zen answer, Eric Ripert. Anyway, that somehow evolved into everyone taking turns sharing what their fantasy last supper would be.

While I can't remember what I said–or what anyone else said that night–I do remember what the hostess said:

"I'd be on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea with my best friends. We'd all go diving for sea urchins, swim back to the boat and open them up. I'd cook spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and then we'd dump our catch into the pasta!" she said, while waving her cigarette around. "And, of course, there would be very good wine."

With that, she conjured up a timeless image of la dolce vita; a life of leisure, nature, and friends. 

Since then, from time to time, I'll have an insatiable craving for sea urchin pasta and nothing else will do. Cecconi's rendition uses spaghetti alla chitarra tossed in a silky sea urchin sauce with slices of grilled octopus. It's an oceanic splendor that whisks me away to the turquoise waters of the Italian coast by the forkful... In other words, give me sea urchin pasta and then give me death!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sliding Doors Effect

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In the movie Sliding Doors*, timing is everything. The story begins when Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is shown running down a set of stairs to catch the train. For the rest of the film, her life is split into two parallels based on whether she makes it or misses it, which is enough to make you evaluate of all of the coulda, woulda, shouldas in your own life. When life seems to splinter into different storylines, what you're experiencing is The Sliding Doors Effect.

This past weekend, I schlepped back to New York for an old college friend's wedding. My best friend offered up the sleeping alcove in her East Village apartment, which she calls "The Cubby." I hadn't been back since I moved out to California in 2013. Sadly, though, it was to be a very short trip: I was due to arrive on Friday night, and was already departing by early Sunday afternoon, so I thought this trip would be a nice and easy in-and-out.

Our original plan for Friday night looked like this:

 1. Drinks at Virginia's
2. 10 p.m. dinner reservation at Lupa 
3. Go home and go to bed straight-away because...

Saturday's activities looked like this:

1. Early coffee session at Sant Ambroeus Soho
2. Go to an 11:00 a.m. Pilates class
3. Lunch at Pietro Nolita
4. Go back home to get ready for wedding

In regards to Sunday, I'd have just enough time to squeeze in brunch with another friend before scooting off to the airport. 

As you know, nothing ever goes according to plan. What can I say, I was in New York with my best friend! We were bound to stir up some mischief. And, boy, did we! (We ended up staying out until 7:30 a.m. both nights, which was obviously not planned.)

After dropping off my bags at her apartment, we did, in fact, partake in fabulous mezcal cocktails at Virginia's, and were halfway through our casarecce with shortrib ragù at Lupa when occurred to me that I owed someone a visit–an artist friend who I had missed while he was in L.A. last month.

"Do you want to meet my friend?" I asked from across the table while texting him on my phone, "He's really cool." 

"'Kay," she replied, taking a sip of red wine.

And so, at midnight, we landed ourselves at a corner bar on the Lower East Side with two artists. After a round of drinks and introductory chatter, we were spontaneously swept into a cab to go dancing at The Blond. "Let's burn off the pasta!" we screamed to each other as we bopped around the floor. After that, we all stumbled down to my huckleberry friend's gallery in Tribeca and smoked Glamour cigarettes while discussing art and drinking cheap whiskey in plastic cups. At some point, I cried. And then we hung out at an apartment somewhere. Next thing we knew, it was 7:30 a.m. 

It was one hell of a night. 

Needless to say, we missed our morning coffee, Pilates class and lunch the next day. The weather turned cold. Sometime around 2 p.m., we both stood in front of a ramen shop in the East Village, staring at their picture menu with bleary eyes. 

Me: What's the difference between these pictures?

Best friend: I can't tell.

Me: I think it's the egg.

Best friend: (long pause) Yes... Yes, it's definitely the egg.

Me: Is it weird that I want the egg with the non-spicy one but no egg with the spicy one?

Best friend: (glazed eyes)

"Is this normal?" my best friend's husband asked her, "Do you guys stay out until seven in the morning when you visit her in L.A.?"

"No... It's not like that at all," she replied. "We usually just cuddle in bed and tell stories."

Our reality would've turned out completely differently had we taken a taxi home straight after dinner. What a difference a text makes.


*It's an oldie from 1998, but still remains one of my favorites. Gwyneth cut her hair into a modern pixie cut for this film and I thought it looked so chic that I went out to the salon right after I saw it and requested it for myself. I was seventeen.

A Quiet Birthday Pasta Extravaganza

I find myself being drawn to low-key birthday celebrations more and more every year. All I wanted this year was to have a very good pasta dinner with my boyfriend and his niece who's visiting from Copenhagen. I chose Angelini Osteria because of their specialty dish–linguine with Santa Barbara sea urchin, a favorite of mine–and also because it's small, family-owned, and anti-trendy. 

Everything we ordered was fantastic and reminded me so much of the osterias I dined at when I traveled to Italy years ago. During my first visit to Milan, I remember that a friend recommended we meet for dinner at "one of the best restaurants in the city". Like a typical New Yorker, I dressed to the nines, thinking it would be a glitzy and glamorous place. Instead, I found myself at a discreet restaurant in an alleyway where I stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the locals who were quietly dining in their cashmere sweaters and loafers. 

It's been some time since I've gotten dressed up like I used to. This past Thursday night, I wore an oversized black cashmere sweater (a birthday gift from my beloved earlier in the day), black leather pants, and simple black suede strappy sandals. I find that there's a certain elegance to feeling comfortable.

We all shared the linguine with sea urchin–which appeared as a special on the menu, the lasagna, and the bombolotti all'amatriciana. I forewent wine for water the entire evening. For dessert, there was a hefty serving of tiramisu with a candle on top. The waiters sang "Happy Birthday" to me in their charming Italian accent. By the time I blew out the candle, my birthday wish had already come true.

 

Chateau Marmont

Photo by my friend Ana

CHATEAU MARMONT
8221 Sunset Boulevard
323.656.1010


Whenever we can't figure out where to go, we always choose Chateau Marmont. It's a place where the scene more than makes up for the food–not that the food is at all bad, but one doesn't come here for the cuisine as much as for the visual buffet of beautiful people on which your eyes can feast upon. I always enjoy having a catch-up drink or dinner here because they somehow mastered dispensing the perfect amount of heady L.A. glamour make you feel rewarded for simply having a night out. If you decide to increase the level of debauchery from there, it's all up to you. In that case, order spaghetti bolognese from room service. It'll hit you in all the right spots.