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Loved to Love You


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 03:46 PM

hspace="8" align="left">by Chris Amirault

Dear Al,

I've been thinking for months about whether or not I should write this letter. Should I just let our relationship drift into nothing, without regret or remorse, failing to memorialize what we once had? Or should I take a deep breath and remember those magical moments we once shared, all those years ago, and tell you what it's like to have it all slip away?

I was just an ignorant, insecure college kid when you took me under your confident wing. That first night, I grabbed the cash I'd hoarded, put a suit jacket over a collared shirt, and walked eager and anxious down to your place. I could smell your smoky perfume blocks before arriving: it intoxicated me.

That first visit set the romantic, glorious tone for all that followed. When I walked in I was told about the wait. I smiled at your flirtatious no-reservations policy, your dare to find a better place in town, wait or no. As I sat there for nearly an hour, your teasing wait became a dance of seduction.

I sat down at the bar and mumbled something to the bartender. He didn't know me from Adam, but he treated me like a cousin, considering my naive questions about Italian wines with care and letting me try a couple tastes before pouring one glass into a little tumbler—"the sort of glass they use in Italy," he told me. Cute, unpretentious, and full of taste: that little glass encapsulated everything wonderful about our relationship for years.

And the food: I remember exactly what I ordered that first night, the world famous grilled pizza margherita. When it arrived, I chuckled at its sloppy exuberance, spilling over the plate that was too small for it, and its cockiness. Dough crisped and blackened on the grill, cheese and San Marzano tomatoes splattered on top, a sprinkle of scallion julienne, oil, salt and pepper—that was it. One bite, and I was in a full-on, head-smacking, seeing-stars crush.

I came back to my apartment that night swooning; a roommate's boyfriend was there, snickering when he saw my flushed cheeks. He was always one step ahead of everyone else I knew when it came to food, talking about what Jeremiah Tower was doing at Stars before I had heard of California Cuisine, and never failing to express his skepticism about the Lydia Shire/Jasper White Boston restaurant "renaissance." In particular, he was utterly jaundiced about Al Forno's "New Italian" cuisine, and upon seeing me he jumped with his coked-up, staccato delivery into the middle of a conversation we hadn't yet started.

"Oh, I bet Kyle treated you right, huh, got the little glasses 'just like back in the Boot,' with some Nebbiolo or Lachryma Christi or some such shit, got you all wet and wanting while you waited an hour."

My cheeks flushed further. "Yeah, an hour."

"At least. Probably got the pizza, right, didn't you."

It wasn't a question, but I answered. "Sure."

He laughed. "Pizza margherita.... Did you like the scallions? Real 'authentic,'" he mocked, making finger quotation marks. "Fucking scallions. Wait 'til you see the cilantro. Christ." He ambled off.

"Whatever," I said, then I wandered into my room and fell back on the bed, dizzy and happy. I admit his words nagged at me—in particular I couldn't figure the cilantro reference. But no matter: our courtship was instant and our relationship sealed forever. I knew I loved you, and I was sure that you loved me.

+ + +


For years I tumbled through bliss, and our nights together fell into a wonderful pattern. I'd arrive right at 5 p.m., trying to be on time so that I wouldn't have to wait while you focused on other people. Sure, I wished I could guarantee we'd spend time together by making a reservation, but heck, you were busy and couldn't be bothered to take my name and number. You were unique, and your idiosyncracies were part of your charm.

Once I sat down, looking over the river to the lights of the power company and the hurricane barrier, we'd consummate the glory of our relationship all over again. Everything I ate seemed executed perfectly just for me, and all staff there sought nothing else but our happiness.

And what form that happiness took! Fiery habanero sausages whose juices commingled with littleneck clams to make sweet heat explode in my mouth. Fleshy, thick steaks cooked blue directly on red hot coals, sitting in slices across mashed potatoes laced with butter. Rustic crusts encasing luscious fruit that changed with the seasons of our romance. Like our relationship, all of the dishes were rich, intense, satisfying, and overwhelmingly good.

Soon your family would recognize me when I walked in and smile, knowing that I loved you just about as much as they did. Not that they ever knew my name—I wouldn't have wanted them to go to such trouble—but they seemed to know me through and through just by looking at me. I remember when George came by one night as I sat at the kitchen table, asking me how everything was going. The food was great, as it always was in those days, and we got to talking about Lucky's, your Frenchified sister restaurant with which I had flirted with years before.

"Did you ever think about putting that cassoulet back on the menu?" I asked.

George looked up and smiled. "Damn, I haven't thought of cassoulet for years and years," he said. He stood up and squeezed my shoulder. "Cassoulet back on the menu. Interesting idea."

My next visit required a wait. It seemed that a few parties actually had managed to acquire reservations, but I shrugged my shoulders and grabbed a menu on the way to the bar. I spied the cassoulet on the "Big Plates" list, and eagerly ordered it to eat on a wobbly barstool. When it arrived it was just as I had remembered it, all velvety beans and tender meats. I was so happy to see and smell it that I barely noticed the leafy sprig of cilantro resting atop the toasted breadcrumbs.

+ + +


I don't remember when everything started to change. Sure, for years my friends acted surprised when I said I was going, asked me what I could possibly see in you. But when you're in love you don't see what others see, do you?

When did I first notice that we were crushed into a cold corner of the bar while others walked past us to take that four-top that had been empty for half an hour? When did the chatter of the waitstaff get so loud that I had to block out conversations about hair cuts and inept landlords? When did the once-charming tables, so many and so wee that I often sat elbow-to-elbow to other customers, become subtle jokes about packing us in like sardines? When did the prices for the cheapest items—$8.95 for mashed potatoes—become outrageous? And what's up with that .95 suffix?

It's hard to say when I saw those things in a different light. But I know exactly when things tasted differently than before, exactly what clinched my dismay.

My wife and I walked into the spare dining room right at 5 o'clock the other day, looking for a special treat after a rough few days at work. We decided on the basics: some calamari frito, a shrimp and mushroom salad, and a mushroom duxelles pizza. Nothing worked. The calamari sauce was a one-note acid that couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the squid. The pizza had boring, raw button mushrooms sliced too thickly atop an inept crust that, if I were the jealous type, I'd have sworn had been prefired and finished on the grill. The salad had the same lame mushrooms, combined with a few shrimp and some olive oil that didn't know what to do with each other. The food wasn't inedible; it was merely, sadly indifferent.

The more I looked, the more I noticed that everything else was just wrong, too. The server didn't know how to pronounce "duxelles," and the chef, given the bland puree, was similarly unclear about its meaning. The bread arrived after everything else did. Our water glasses were empty much of the meal, despite a very slow room and a gaggle of servers chatting with each other at station. Once, when filling my glass, the server grazed his armhair across my nose just before trying to take away my plate—which still had food on it.

The entire experience was pockmarked by the sorts of failures of attention to detail that had never happened before. Or had they? I wasn't sure; my head was spinning.

And then I noticed, sitting forlorn on the salad serving plate we had barely touched, a long, lonely sprig of cilantro. It had no leaves on it.

+ + +


As I walked out, I felt a fool. It couldn't be more obvious: I didn't matter to you anymore, and I probably hadn't mattered for a while. I hated to admit it, but my friends were right. The thrill was gone.

So I say adieu and wish you well. You'll find others, I'm sure, who will fall under the spell of a freshly grilled crust or a briny clam's bite. I'll be happy for you both. You certainly deserve it, and even a glimpse of your past glory would be enough for most people. Once, it would have been enough for me, too.
* * *

Chris Amirault (aka, well, chrisamirault) is Director of Operations, eG Forums. He also runs a preschool and teaches in Providence, RI.

#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 07:34 AM

Chris, in Alan Richman's recent GQ pizza roundup (being discussed here), he ranks Al Forno #18 in the country and specifically highlights the grilled pizza with roasted eggplant. Have you had it? Is/was it good?

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#3 Chris Amirault

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 08:23 AM

Knowing Richman, I trust that it was excellent when he had it. I also cannot trust that it will be so if I were to try it. I'm more convinced than I was when I wrote this piece that they're prefiring crusts now and then -- and there's nothing better to dampen one's desires than prefiring, I'm sure we'll all agree.
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#4 Pam R

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Posted 27 May 2009 - 10:01 AM

Chris, this is such a great Dear Al letter. I think most of us have had a favourite restaurant that we continue to go to long after it's prime is over. I know I've had restaurants I've loved that I kept making excuses for until I realized that either they were no longer what they once were or that, perhaps, my taste had moved beyond what they were dishing up.

Have you found another restaurant that you can love now as you once loved Al?

#5 Chris Amirault

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 07:02 AM

I've loved many restaurants for many reasons. However, I've been in love with only one restaurant in all that time: Al Forno. In New England, the restaurant is legendary for putting Providence on the culinary map when it opened in 1980 and remaining at or near the top of its game for decades. Writing in the International Herald Tribune back in the day, Patricia Wells called it the best casual dining restaurant in the world.

For a time, a meal there would make you believe such an outrageous claim was possibly right. Sadly, nothing lasts forever....
Chris Amirault
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#6 vice

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Posted 28 May 2009 - 10:17 PM

I, too, feel the pain of a lover deceived. When I was a teenager working in one shitty kitchen or another, a cook friend of mine and I used to lavish plenty of our hard-earned dough on Al. On so many nights, perfection came in one form: pizza and a tart for two (scratch that, for one). Yeah, there was always something in between the two, but do I remember those dishes some ten years later? Nope.

Time has passed and I haven't seen Al in 6 years or so. One would think I'd have gotten over it by now, but no. The last time we were together - it had been a while - I was hoping nostalgia would be enough to carry me back to those good times. Well, I could blame that night on expectations inflated by memory. Nostalgia has a way of kicking you in the ass. Yet thinking back I'm pretty sure it was Al's fault. Now I'm sitting on the opposite coast imagining my trip home come September, and one question lingers: will I be weak and go back one more time? Maybe. Probably. Will Al make me sorry? That question will have to wait.


----


Chris, I think I've finally hit upon one thing that could cure us of this affliction. Those pizzas are dead simple to make, and oh so more satisfying when you do it yourself than pay $18 (or whatever they're charging now) for a pre-fired crust. It's all in Cucina Simpatica, or online many places these days. I whipped one up tonight with grilled ramps standing in for those "fucking scallions". But hey, you know what, I fucking like those scallions - they were what was on top two nights ago. Now I just have to perfect the tart, and I'll be over Al for good...
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#7 David Ross

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 11:19 AM

What a wonderful story. While the food and service no longer live-up to your first taste experience of the grilled pizza margherita--your memories of that night will last forever. It's just hard holding onto the memory of a delicious flavor from the past while realizing that you'll never experience that same taste again.

#8 Chris Amirault

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Posted 08 June 2009 - 11:53 AM

Yep, it's true: loved and lost. Surely I'm not alone in this sad, sad world....
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#9 snowangel

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 03:58 PM

Yep, it's true: loved and lost. Surely I'm not alone in this sad, sad world....

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Dude, one of the things I've learned over the course of my life is you can't go home again. Some memories are best left as they are -- don't try and recreate them.

In fact, I never, ever try and replicate the most special meals -- be they at a restaurant or at home. Some parts of the memory of what made that meal so special were the time and the place and the people -- the time in your life, the place at that time, and the other folks at that time. Oh, and the food!

I'd just rather create new memories that leave one as breathless.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#10 Chris Amirault

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Posted 29 June 2009 - 07:13 AM

Now I just have to perfect the tart, and I'll be over Al for good...

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Vice, I have found that the recipe in Cucina Simpatica, their cookbook, is easy and rock solid. I usually blast the heat, myself -- tasty char or aggression, I'm not sure.

As for grilled pizza, well, the gang's working on it over here.
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#11 vice

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Posted 29 June 2009 - 07:42 AM

Now I just have to perfect the tart, and I'll be over Al for good...

View Post


Vice, I have found that the recipe in Cucina Simpatica, their cookbook, is easy and rock solid. I usually blast the heat, myself -- tasty char or aggression, I'm not sure.

As for grilled pizza, well, the gang's working on it over here.

View Post

Good to hear, Chris. As it happens, I have some dough maturing in the fridge right now that will have a date with some coals later this week. Now I just need to pick up some scallions...
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#12 Chris Amirault

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Posted 13 July 2009 - 01:22 PM

Well how's about that: Brian Kingsford, who ran the kitchen at Al Forno for many years, is serving grilled pizza at Bacaro (where I attended a wedding yesterday).

The birds, they sing! The violins, they play!
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#13 vice

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Posted 13 July 2009 - 11:49 PM

do tell, how was it? i'm going to be back for a week in september, so i might stop in to see for myself.
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#14 Chris Amirault

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Posted 14 July 2009 - 04:17 AM

A slightly cold version (carried around the busy room by servers) of the pies I remember from the good old days. My wife and I took a bite each and said, "That's it."
Chris Amirault
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#15 kismet59

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Posted 23 August 2009 - 10:41 AM

I really loved your article.

Having owned - and closed - a restaurant I know well the life cycle of intense hyper-care - hitting your groove - coasting - inattention - exhaustion - frantic scramble and then finally done.

All restaurants have cycles and it has been my experience that the length of the cycle is exactly as long as the owner or managements team's enthusiasm and love for the concept.

#16 Chris Amirault

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Posted 24 August 2009 - 07:55 AM

Thanks, kismet59. That cycle of restaurant life makes me all the more appreciative of the great years I had with Al Forno -- and those with several other places I've been grateful to dine at all these years.
Chris Amirault
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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts