Most, if not all of you know this about me. I know some people say that in reference to their way back relatives with no real idea of what it means. But I say it with pride and ownership, having been raised in a fairly traditional household with a Nana who still holds true to all of the things she loved about her parents, who were from the old country. Nana use to swear at me in Italian when I was younger, because I was a little shit, and made the best food, I have ever tasted, in my life. She still does, I just don’t get to taste it as often. Our holidays, when my family was speaking (Italians are also extremely hard-headed and sometimes stupid) were huge gatherings filled with food, children and very loud noises. We would have lamb on Easter, fight over artichokes at Christmas and everyone would swoon over Nana’s pasta with meatballs. (NO OREGANO!) There is something about this old woman who I love dearly and even though we never stood barefoot in the kitchen while cooking for hours together (she had no patience for that), I learned most of what I know from her and my mother. I have taken her to Italian restaurants in the past which have made her pissed and she has been extremely rude to the wait staff because of it. But I think that I have found the place that would make her heart melt, as if her own parents were standing alive in front of her once again.
Last Friday, Josh and I, finally were able to have a night out together. And thank God, because we were about to kill one another. Having a two-year old can be a very complex time and we were feeling especially stressed out. We talked about going to The Front Room again, because I loved it so much but then we decided on The Grill Room, however on our way we bumped into The Corner Room and stopped to look at the menu. Now, before I go any farther, all of these restaurants are owned by the same gentleman: Chef Lee Harding Smith. And although I gave him tremendous credit for his two restaurants that I ate at and loved, I was unsure about this one. I mean, could he master authentic Italian after being great at so many other things? I wasn’t sure. Lots of people boast it but then don’t follow through. I looked over the menu in a tedious fashion, really trying to decide if I would want to eat here. Most Italian restaurants are disappointing and make me furious. I didn’t want to waste our night out. But when someone walked in front of us, opened the front door and I saw inside. I instantly knew, this was the place.
It was relaxed but well done. There was fresh cheese hanging from the antipasti bar. There were huge knives hanging above the bar. And a line of cookbooks, clearly used and abused, but so charming, lining the way to the bathroom. The hostess escorted us to our seats, which were at the antipasti bar and there in front of us, was Chef Lee Harding Smith, slicing tomatoes, looking cool and relaxed, flying under the radar. I saw before me, fresh prosciutto being sliced to order, a big plate filled with beautiful heirloom tomatoes, more cheese, and just fantastic food all around. He was warm and welcoming and summoned the manager to help us select a bottle of wine. Now I am pretty familiar with my Italian wine, I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. The one area I am not especially familiar with is Sicilian wine but I really love everything I have tried from there. I wanted to stay within that region. She came over to us, and I don’t remember her name because I was just too overwhelmed by everything around me, and seemed to instantly pick up on what we wanted. She recited the names of these bottles so beautifully that I wanted to ask her to read them to me all night. We chose the one she recommended and it was utterly fantastic. Light, refreshing, it cleared our palettes after every sip. It was wonderful. That immediate attentiveness drew me in and I knew it was going to be a great meal.
To start we had the antipasti, a board filled with house made ricotta, mozzarella cheese, prosciutto, salami, olives, etc. It was an amazing spread. The ricotta melted in my mouth like sweet cream and I literally wanted to lick the board. With that, we ordered the caprese salad, also with house made mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil, with bountiful, authentic olive oil drizzled over it. Several times, our server told us that the items we were eating were from their farm which tickled my farm to table fancy immediately. It let me see that this Chef was more than just a great man with big ideas, but someone who knew what really mattered when it came to serving wholesome food. The menu is set up in traditional style with the primi and the secondi, although you can choose a full order of pasta and skip the meat. I wanted to do it all, so I did. I ordered the Bolognese, which I never ever ever do, because never ever is it ever good anywhere I go. But I just had a feeling that this was going to be it. Traditional Bolognese is not hamburger thrown in some sauce which is ridiculously disgusting but a mixture of sausage, pancetta, etc. You should taste several meats working together harmoniously. When it arrived, I knew it was for real. I could tell by the color of the meat. It smelled divine. And I scooped up every bite with a sense of joy like no other. All I could think of was Nana and how she would love this. It was the lightest, brightest, most delicious Bolognese I had ever tasted in my life (other than Nana’s, obviously). Then, just about the time I was about to roll off of the stool into a food coma, came my meat course. I had chosen chicken parmigiana. Now, I know I could have been more adventurous but here is the thing, I judge all Italian restaurants on this one dish. How they cook the chicken, how their sauce tastes, tells me a lot about who they are and what they are doing. Josh ordered the Cornish hen I believe with polenta mashed and green beans. Anyways, everything was fantastic. The sauce was as sauce should taste. It was like eating fresh tomatoes. The chicken was crispy and perfectly cooked. There was just the right amount of cheese. I mean, it was heaven.
While eating all of this perfection, I had the opportunity of watching all these glorious things being prepared before me. I don’t even know that Josh and I had much of a conversation, we were so amazed by what we saw before us. To be able to sit and eat right in front of the Chef that crafted the three places I love the most, was glorious. I can say in full confidence, this is my new place to eat. And as soon as I get a chance, I will be taking Nana here to share this gem. She will love it. It will make her feel at home.
Italy has seemed like a trip we have prepared for, forever. But eating here, made me really excited for it. It was like a preview into my vacation, which is happening in like two short weeks.
It’s rare that someone can strike gold three times in a row, but this Chef, has done just that. His food is simple but complex, delicious, delightful, attainable and lovely. And beyond that, his wait staff is perfect and his managers are spot on. It was the best date night I could have asked for. Far exceeding my expectations.
It made me feel like I was in Nana’s kitchen.