Saturday, May 13, 2006

Rubbing Shoulders In San Francisco

I came to San Francisco to get away from being “ethnic”, and guess what? It did the opposite. It allowed me to know who I am and realize that I am rubbing shoulders with others, equally ethnic.We definitely are cross-pollinating each other with all that friction, most of it good. Where else, on a whim, can you decide what type of cuisine you want to cook, and within minutes be where they sell every component of it? I am essentially a European cook, but I love thinking about making other kinds of dishes because I can. Having traveled a good deal, I find the scale of our Bay Area to be just about perfect for finding all the riches tucked away here and there. Even in large metropolitan areas (maybe Manhattan is an exception), it is very hard to find not only the depth of goods with which to cook but the diversity we relish here.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live, work, and cook in San Francisco. Being away from here reminds me how good I have it. I especially love the exchange of greetings, food talk, and friendliness of most of the vendors I frequent. When buying meat, fish or fowl, I still love to go to the young butchers and ask them "How do you cook yours". They don't have the panache of the older ones or the opinions, but it is fun and every once in a while, enlightening.

What is it like to be "ethnic" in birth, upbringing, milieu, influence, and above all, what is the experience? In my case, it started with my presence on earth, the thirteenth child born to Sicilian immigrants. My father came to America in 1915 as an adult schooled in the conventions of peasant village life in Campobello di Licata. My mother came here five years after. Even as peasants in the truest sense of the word, they were both highly accomplished cooks, my father being distinguished in that he had the classic European apprenticeship training to be a chef - and so he was. My mother, daughter of the owner of a trattoria in Términi Imerese, my nonna Serafina LaPaglia, cooked, served tables, crocheted tablecloths at a level that in these days would make her an artist.

I learned to cook as an apprentice to my father. I had no choice; that was made for me even in the liberated days of the thirties of the last century. Now, being a Chef is an intellectual, academic pursuit (can a parvenu be close behind?). Can I forget the smells and tastes spoon-fed a little at a time over years of development, and finally to maturity? Hardly. Can one define "ethnic" by smells, tastes, textures, social constraints, and insularity? Yes.

When I came to San Francisco in the middle 1950's I was enchanted by the views, the hills, of course the cable cars, the formality of folks on the street, usually sporting hats - real ones. But the sight, smell and taste of the Italians when there were any in North Beach, and the Chinese in the next blocks on the edges brought me to the mat, so-to-speak, drawing me back into all the things I thought I wanted to move away from at home with the family. This gave new meaning to the word renaissance.

The live crabs on the wharf, the bread in bake-ovens on Grant Avenue, the incredible array of fresh fish in dozens of varieties bought from the scowling Chinese who did not understand one word of my fairly fluent Italian. But waving hands and exchange of paltry dollars made it all happen. I bought, for very little, all the things I loved to eat, and certainly loved to cook.

San Francisco Bay Area still has a preponderance of fresh and diverse food compared to much of the U.S. Imagine having a hard time selecting which of a dozen herbs to use with that live crab yet to be cooked; the pig's feet ready for stuffing and curing; the thirty or forty types of bread made by dedicated bakers, one slightly better than the other one; the fruits from small orchards in the East Bay; greens from Peninsula farmers; wine in such abundance and diversity as to be embarrassing. Imagine that.

Myself, I find it amazing how people in this dining habitat still do not understand regional Italian cooking. Yes, it exists, no matter what you heard. That all courses are equal is a mystery to most who encounter a true Italian meal. A primo piatto is just that, a first dish. A secondo piatto is not the main event; there is none, it is simply the second dish. There, you have it. No course is more important than the other, just different.

I eat “out” only 5 or 6 times per year of late. Acquerello has both high style, and regional Italian dishes, and a civilized dining room; I favor the regional dishes. In the skilled hands of Chef Suzette Greshem-Tognetti, and the best Maitre d’ around, Giancarlo Paterlini, it makes for good eating. I also like Absinthe Brasserie for the atmosphere, but mostly for the food. Chef Ross Browne’s dishes are tasty and light and the style is right for enjoyable dining (he has left since I wrote this and I have not yet returned). I like the ricotta gnocchi and occasionally I get some sent to me – including the plate!

I find inspiration from the foods of other cuisines, but I am not a tinkerer; I am the slavish monogamous spouse to food I grew to know as sound, historically important, authentic, but utterly delicious and completely suitable for today's taste. How nice to be able to cook in the style of a hundred years ago, and still please the crowds. Sure, I may put vegetables on the same plate as the meat now, but each element that goes on is a stand-alone entirely correct dish in itself, and certainly, delicious. This, I guess, is my contribution to novelty.

My ethnic identity is reinforced almost daily. With the old ingredients I know and love like devoted friends come other treats from the land of my progenitors; citrus-kissed olive oil; tomato extract so powerful one lick equals five lugs of the perfect fruit; bottarga, salted tuna roe, mixed with garlic and pasta, or sprinkled on bruschetta; Veneto cheese coated in hay and flowers, left to age in barriques stuffed with walnut leaves; pistacchio-studded mortadella best ingested like an edible handkerchief dropped into your mouth; fruit mustard so sweet it turns your blood to syrup tempered by fiery hot mustard oil; amarena cherries to eat with a spoon or dolloped on ice cream; of course, chestnut honey to drizzle over perfect Gorgonzola dolcelatte. I can get all these here, and I am not only glad, but also proud.