Friday, April 28, 2006

Why do they call it Charlie Brown?

I have no idea why they call it Charlie Brown, but were they to call it Piccola Puglia or da Giovanni (not that the owner’s name is Giovanni, as far as I know) I might never have bothered to write about it. In my blog, the fact that there’s an excellent Pugliese/Tuscan restaurant called Charlie Brown in a non-touristy residential neighborhood of Milan is something worth writing about.

I’ve eaten at Charlie Brown on two occasions with my friend Claudio Chianura, whom I first met on the bus from Bangalore to Mysore, neither of which is in Italy or rhymes with amore. It is a neighborhood place for him, just around the corner from his apartment. It’s known as a pizzeria, but they have a reasonably large menu of Pugliese and Tuscan specialties (I’m guessing there are partners from both regions), so you could probably call it a pizzeria-trattoria.

I was bowled over the first time Claudio took me there. They have a fabulous antipasto buffet, with a copious array of hot and cold items. I remember particularly the exquisite alici—fresh, white anchovy filets, lightly marinated, sweet and delicate in a way unthinkable in canned, cured anchovies, and similar to the Spanish boqueron; the alici clung to the back of my mind with great tenacity for the couple of years between visits. They were given the place of honor on my antipasto plate the second time around.

Claudio was born in Puglia, so the first time around, post-antipasto, I dutifully followed his suggestion and tried a Pugliese specialty, cavatelli with broccoletti, simply prepared with olive oil & garlic. If such simplicity appeals, and you’re in New York, I strongly suggest you head over to i Trulli (also Pugliese) for their excellent cavatelli with broccoli rabe and almonds.

The second time, two or three years later, we went with a group of musicians and improvised music promoters after a concert that Claudio had co-produced. As you enter the restaurant, the daily specials are displayed on a presentation table. This time I spied an offering that I coveted and said to Claudio, “That suckling pig has my name written on it.” Claudio looked perplexed. His English is pretty good, but sometimes an idiom will creep up and take him by surprise. He looked closely, but the name Peter Cherches was nowhere to be found on the little porker’s skin. So I explained the phrase to him. Now, if I can ever get him to visit New York, Claudio can say, “That pastrami sandwich has my name written on it.” The roast pig, by the way, was memorable, as were the attendant roast potatoes.

In addition to the cavatelli, Claudio recommends the octopus with potatoes in tomato sauce and the horsemeat ragu, with your choice of pasta. Charlie Brown is at Via Spartaco, 37, Milan, 20135; Tel: +39 0255010609. We may never know why they call it Charlie Brown, but Claudio informs me that there is another, completely unrelated, pizzeria in the neighborhood called Snooppy. Why they spell it that way, we may never know.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Memorable Menu

In an effort to create a two-post racial harmony motif, I take you back to 1986, in Chicago.

I had gone to Chicago with dancer Katrinka Moore and fellow writer Donna Ratajczak to perform our collaborative piece, “Love Me Like a Bitter Pill,” at a trendy club called Joz. Donna was a University of Chicago alum, and we stayed at the loft of some friends of hers in town.

The night after our performance we went out to a blues club with several of Donna’s local pals. Another friend of theirs was the harmonica player in a band that was appearing at a club on the West Side. This guy had an interesting story. He had dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy at an Ivy League school to make a go of it as a full time blues harp player. Now he was living his dream.

Chicago’s South Side is the neighborhood that’s most associated with the blues, but the West Side has long had its own estimable blues tradition, exemplified by the late Magic Sam. At the time of our visit the South Side was a traditionally black neighborhood, but parts of it were racially mixed and much of it was gentrifying, for better or worse. The West Side, on the other hand, was the most notorious slum in town. Its residents were almost exclusively African American, and mostly impoverished. It was an extremely high-crime area. In the danger department, the cliche New York analogy would have been the South Bronx. White folks rarely ventured to the West Side.

After a dinner of fantastic takeout ribs from Lem's (of the South Side), six or seven of us crowded into a car and drove over to the West Side. We spotted the club, which was called Purple Rain, presumably in honor of the Prince film, and parked about a block and a half away. It was indeed a blighted neighborhood, with burnt-out buildings everywhere you looked. As we walked toward the club several people on the mostly deserted street admonished us, in concerned tones of voice, “You folks take care of yourself around here.”

The club was a ramshackle place that had the look of a Mississippi juke joint. I believe the club’s name was hand-painted in purple above the entrance.

As we walked through the door everybody in the place looked our way. Except for two of the musicians, we were the only white people in the place, and at thirtyish somewhat younger than most of the clientele. A man with grey hair got up from a table where he was sitting with several other guys and asked us if we’d like a table. “I guess,” someone said, and to our surprise he asked the other guys to get up. Then he got a rag and wiped the table. At first we figured he worked there, but it turned out he was a regular customer who just wanted us to be comfortable. I felt a little weird about displacing the people who had been at the table before us, but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, the whole time we were there people came over to ask us if we were doing okay, if we were having a good time. Everybody was going the extra mile to make us feel at home.

The featured performer was Tail Dragger, then completely unknown outside the West Side scene, but now a recording artist on Chicago’s legendary Delmark label. Tail Dragger is a Howlin’ Wolf protégé, and his moniker was bestowed upon him by the Wolf himself. Like Howlin’ Wolf he sings in a gravelly voice, and that night in 1986 he worked with a wireless mike, at times slithering across the floor snakelike as he sang.

The guy who had cleared the table for us came over and introduced himself as “Top Hat.” He invited the women in our party to dance with him, and he danced with the grace one would expect of a man named Top Hat.

We all had a ball. It was one of those experiences you never forget.

Nor will I ever forget the menu. Purple Rain wasn’t really a restaurant, but limited food service was apparently available. The handwritten menu hung behind the bar. It read:



Wednesday, April 19, 2006

My Neighborhood Melting Pot

I mentioned El Gran Castillo de Jagua in a previous post. This greasy spoon is one of the best rice & beans joints in the city, but another reason I love it is for the vibe. New York may technically be an integrated city, but frankly there are few eateries where you’ll find such a consistent racial mix. The restaurant is on Flatbush Avenue at Carlton Place, which is on the cusp of Prospect Heights, a largely African-American middle-class neighborhood, and Park Slope, a relatively affluent, mostly white neighborhood. In addition to blacks and whites from the surrounding neighborhoods, the restaurant draws Latinos from all over the city, as I learned from a Boricua who lives in upper Manhattan and a Cuban from Queens, both great fans of the place. The clientele is as diverse in age and economic class as it is in race. The food is great, the staff is nice, and I just get this warm & fuzzy feeling from a place where everybody is so welcome and at home. In fact, it was on the subject of El Gran Castillo that some old friends revealed their true, unfortunate colors. This white couple, who lived in the neighborhood for a while, once mentioned that they stopped eating there because they always felt uncomfortable, like they weren’t welcome. Talk about projection. They eventually moved to the suburbs, where I’m sure they’re more comfortable.

Apparently there are a number of restaurants in various places called El Castillo de Jagua, or variants thereof, including one in Havana, all named for a famous castle in Cienfuegos, Cuba, though the keepers of my Castillo are Dominican, and I guess you'd call the menu Dominican-Cuban. The beans of choice are habichuelas (pink beans), a cornerstone of Dominican cuisine, rather than the more characteristically Cuban black beans. El Gran Castillo does make a great Cuban Sandwich, one of the best. Their rotisserie chicken is very good, but even better is the broiled chicken, in natural juices with plenty of garlic. Their rice dishes, like arroz con calamares en su tinta (squid with inky rice) or arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) are excellent too. Large bowls of soup, at about $3.50, are ample enough for a light meal, and vary by day, with chicken always available, most of them overflowing with starchy vegetables like yucca, plantains, potatoes and carrots. I once took a couple of San Francisco foodie friends there for, among other things, the deliciously caloric mofongo (actually a Puerto Rican dish), and after that all sorts of people started visiting Brooklyn from the Bay Area, demanding I take them to El Gran Castillo. All right, one other couple.

Go there, eat well, and feel optimistic, at least for the duration of a meal.

El Gran Castillo de Jagua on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Chinese Restaurant Dream

I had this dream last night.

The information was somehow imparted to me that I could save a life by visiting a certain restaurant in Chinatown. How I learned this I don’t remember, nor do I remember whose life I was supposed to save. What is certain is that I accepted the mission.

I set out for Chinatown filled with a sense of urgency. I was not familiar with the restaurant–let’s call it Wing Kee since I can’t remember what it was called in the dream. Neither was I familiar with the street it was supposed to be on, and I know Chinatown very well. I anxiously wandered the streets of Chinatown in search of the unfamiliar restaurant on an unfamiliar street. I knew that until I found the restaurant and went inside a certain person’s life was in danger. I did not question how I could save a life by simply going to a restaurant.

Finally, I decided to ask for help. I went into a restaurant I had never been inside before. There were a couple of waiters up front. I asked them if they knew the street and the restaurant I was supposed to find. “Yes,” they said, “let us show you.”

We walked out of the restaurant, and between it and the restaurant that had been adjacent to it only moments before was an alley. At the end of the alley was Wing Kee. It looked like something from the fifties. It had a gaudy faux-pagoda motif and signs painted on the picture window in that old-fashioned pseudo-Chinese lettering. But what was most startling was the glow, like the glow from a U.F.O. in a fifties science fiction film. The glow flooded the alleyway. I started walking toward the restaurant. Halfway through the alley, enveloped by the glow, I turned around and took a brief glance back. The waiters who had shown me the way were nodding their heads and smiling knowingly.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Zeisen Pesach

I’d like to wish my Jewish readers a sweet Passover, and may all your seders be worth writing home about.

While we’re on the subject, though, there’s one thing I’m curious about. It has to do with Passover desserts. People have to find kosher-for-Passover desserts for their seders, and that often means flourless cakes or macaroons. I’m fine with macaroons, but I don’t get the Passover cake thing. Why bother with a cake you wouldn’t give a second look any other time of the year when there are plenty of other acceptable desserts—sorbet, for instance? Is it to remind us that our ancestors in the dessert couldn’t have good cake? As far as I know, there’s nothing in Jewish law or tradition that stipulates a second-rate cake for a seder. For Jewish foodies I suspect that finding a respectable substitute cake that fits the rules is a challenge they rise to, even if the cake can’t. All in all, it makes as much sense to me as the mock pig’s intestine made from wheat gluten I once saw in the freezer of a Chinese vegetarian shop.

Friday, April 07, 2006

What I had for lunch today

If you’ve been here before you’re surely aware that this is not a “what I had for lunch today” kind of blog. But the combination of things I did have for lunch today and the questions they made me ask have led me to write this.

At about ten minutes to noon, my boss, an orthodox Jew, came by my desk and dropped off a disk-like object wrapped in aluminum foil, announcing, “A Friday latke.” He had brought latkes back for the whole group from his favorite midtown kosher place. For some reason he was in a latke-giving mood.

The latke was pretty good, albeit quite greasy. It was biggish, but not big enough to constitute an entire lunch by my standards. So a little later I decided to call John’s Shanghai, on West 46th, to order some takeout crabmeat and pork soup dumplings (xiaolongbao or shao lon bao). I headed over to the restaurant and they were ready shortly after I arrived. When I got back to the office and opened the container I was disturbed to see my dumplings sitting in a little pool of soup. Apparently the soup had leaked out of the dumplings in transit. To make matters worse, the skins had become mushy from sitting in the liquid, even if only for a short while. I had never done xiaolonbao as takeout before, and it appears that they just don’t travel well.

But dumpling quality aside, the crux of the matter is: why did I order them at all? I started to think about this. I had never eaten latkes and xiaolongbao for the same meal before today. Was there a significance to what I had ordered at this particular time? Had I, a Jewish atheist, perhaps ordered an item that contained both pork and shellfish, two kinds of treyf, as a hostile reaction to my boss’s latke offering? Was it a slap in the face of religious orthodoxy? Was it an “up yours” to management? Or maybe even both?

These, I’m afraid, are questions that cannot be answered.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Pasta Breakdown

I lost it at Pathmark, in aisle seven, pasta and rice. I don't know what happened; I just broke down. I was trying to choose a pasta. I wanted fusilli, and De Cecco is my favorite brand, but they didn't have any De Cecco fusilli. They had De Cecco ziti, De Cecco linguine, De Cecco spaghetti, and De Cecco rigatoni, but no De Cecco fusilli. The only fusilli I could see was Ronzoni, and I don’t care for Ronzoni. I didn't know what to do. Was I more committed to fusilli or to De Cecco? Should I buy the Ronzoni fusilli in order to satisfy a craving for fusilli, or should I choose an alternate shape from De Cecco? I wondered: how does one choose among ziti, linguine, spaghetti and rigatoni when what one really wants is fusilli? And then it happened. I started screaming, uncontrollably, at the top of my voice. I am sure it was the kind of scream that could be described as "blood-curdling." I clutched my cart, which already contained a quart of 1% milk, a package of toilet paper, four cans of King Oscar kipper snacks and a Hillshire Farms kielbasa, and I began to scream a blood-curdling scream, crying at the same time, for I don't know how long. People were approaching, but also keeping their distance. "Sir, are you all right?" I heard. I still had the presence of mind to think, through my screams and cries, what a stupid question to ask somebody who is losing it. "Somebody call the police," I heard. "No, call an ambulance," I heard another voice say. "Call Bellevue," I heard.

A man in white, maybe he was the butcher or something, grabbed my shoulders. "Mister, please, calm down," he said. My screams must have scared him off, because he let go of me and backed away.

I couldn't really see, everything was a blur, but I could feel the presence of people all around me. Then came the words, through screams and cries, "Get away, get away, get away from me!" People were scampering in all directions. The next thing I saw was the hospital ward that surrounded me, and a bunch of nuts, my ward mates, some giggling, some moaning. Great, I thought, I'm Olivia de Havilland in "The Snake Pit."

I had apparently been given a sedative, or a tranquilizer--I don't know if there's a difference. I felt groggy, but otherwise fine. I remembered just about everything that had happened in the supermarket, up until I had, apparently, blacked out, but I couldn't figure out why it had happened. Pasta has never had that effect upon me before. A nurse noticed that I was awake and approached my bed.

"Mr. Cherches?"

Obviously they had gone through my wallet. "Yes," I said.

"Mr. Cherches, do you feel well enough to speak to a doctor?"

"I suppose so."

About a half hour later a doctor arrived. He looked like Leonard Nimoy. No, make that Martin Landau.

"Mr. Cherches?" he asked.

I thought: since I've been here a large percentage of what has been said to me has been my own name. "Yes," I said.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

I was feeling fine. "I don't know," I said.

"Do you remember what happened?" he asked.

"I started screaming in the pasta aisle, and then I blacked out," I said.

"Yes," he said. "We'll continue this later. We don’t want to overdo it. Get some rest."

I wondered how much rest I had already gotten. My watch was gone. It was replaced with a plastic bracelet that had my name written on it, spelled wrong. I looked around the ward. There was no clock. I yelled out, "Hey, anybody got the time?"

The next thing I knew, these three big, ugly orderlies were battering me with clubs, two more orderlies with bad skin and swamp breath were putting restraints on my arms and legs, a doctor with coke-bottle glasses and a hideous grimace was sticking a long needle in my left arm, and another doctor, a chubby dwarf, was sticking an even longer needle in my butt. All the while, Martin Landau was taking notes and cackling.

Then, all of a sudden, I was back in the supermarket, in aisle seven, pasta and rice. I was trying to figure out what kind of pasta to buy. They didn't have any fusilli in my favorite brand, and I didn't like the brand they did have. I began to wonder what would happen if, unable to make a pasta decision, I broke down and started to scream uncontrollably. I picked up a box of De Cecco rigatoni and put it in my cart.