Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A life measured in pizza

Note: below is the first chapter of an upcoming e-book for home pizza bakers. As Rubber Pancakes fans, you’ll be the first to know when the book is available for download.

I love pizza. By that, I mean I love pizza.

There were a few years when the kids were little that things were typically insane. Work, school, sports, band rehearsals, music lessons, karate classes … the typical daily chaos of the young American family. And we ate pizza on average two nights a week.

After a few months of this, one day Beth apologized for the fact that we so often depended on the skills of the local pizza baker to supply the evening’s small slice of allotted table time.

I remember looking at her like she had two heads. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “I could eat pizza five nights a week!” She had nothing to worry about. It was no overstatement. That’s how much I love pizza.

Of course, in the real world, eating pizza five nights a week is not such a practical plan. It would be a quick trip to lost money and gained pounds. (But, how cool would it be?)

Oh, well. We can dream of a universe where pizza is less costly. Maybe some day, in a life after this one. But in our particular corner of the cosmos, we play by the rules. And pizza is an occasional treat, timed near gym workouts to pay the piper. Sigh.

Although I haven’t done the research, I expect most Americans see pizza as a commonplace, ubiquitous thing. It is, to a degree, especially if you live far from the East Coast. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s near to a religious experience. For starters, I’m Italian and I live in New Jersey. That gives me a huge advantage over much of the rest of the population. New Jersey might be about the best place on the planet to be a pizza addict. By proximity alone, we’re under the influence of two of the world’s greatest pizza towns: New York and Philadelphia. And both have hundreds of examples of really fine pizza.

At the risk of sounding like a snob with a superiority complex, I pity the folks in California and South Dakota and Iowa and – who knows where? All those places where “pizza” refers to a slab of dense, mushy bread topped by sugar-sweet sauce and overloaded with fat, salt and pasteurized processed cheese. The stuff that’s churned out by faceless Fortune-500 chain conglomerates with shareholders to reward.

If I had my way, the FDA would force those outfits to call their product what it is: pizza substitute.

Now I’m not saying you can’t enjoy pizza in places where it’s not truly understood. In fact, millions do. All over the map. But that’s the dirty little secret of the pizza-industrial complex. If all those unschooled millions knew what pizza is really supposed to taste like, the conglomerates would head into chapter 11 faster than you can say mozzarella.

But that’s a topic for another day.

I can’t reconstruct the day I ate my first pizza. It was probably before I learned to walk. But this, I can guarantee. It was really good pizza. Because 1) mass-produced pizza substitute didn’t exist back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And 2) Once it appeared, Italian-Americans living in New Jersey won’t eat it. Ever. Under any circumstances. Period.

No, my first pizza was either one my dad stretched himself, topped with homemade spaghetti sauce and baked up in our own kitchen. Or it was a thin, crisp, perfectly balanced masterpiece of flavor nirvana, hand-tossed and baked in that magical little Dante’s inferno that was our neighborhood pizzeria’s oven.

So is it any wonder I am so particular about it?

Even under the most routine and commonplace circumstances, in my life, pizza was always special. A celebration. A full-blown riot of texture and flavor that makes your taste buds sing and gives you one more reason to thank God you were born human on planet Earth.

Especially at Grandma’s house. Oh, man. I could write volumes on how good my grandmother’s pizza was. I’ll save that for future chapter. Suffice to say, it was heaven on earth.

As my young brain developed, it was permanently suffused with pizza perfection, coming from every angle. So it was no surprise I jumped at the opportunity to learn to make it myself, both for fun and profit. I was a professional pizza baker before I had a driver’s license. Although my career has since shifted from pizza man to wordsmith, I still look back with wonder at those early years of exploration and adventure – learning how it was really done in the backroom and blazing stone ovens of that neighborhood pizza joint that employed me.

It was nothing short of black magic. There, I learned to harness the power of yeast. I mastered the unique skill of rolling a dough ball, just tight enough to make the perfect pie after a day of rest in cold storage. I watched my teachers, haggling for better quality cheese and tomatoes. And under their watchful eye, I practiced the black art of doctoring: tricks of the trade we employed to finesse industrial tomato products from their prison of pedestrian mediocrity.

We weren’t making gourmet pizza. There was no such thing, in those days. We were a bunch of young, adventurous guys, none higher than middle management. We had little or no say over what got delivered – those decisions were made over our heads. But we cared. We did everything possible to force a pretty good pizza into existence from crates of nondescript ingredients, delivered to the back door via tractor-trailer. Whether we had the authority, I’m not sure, but we made decisions about how to handle the stuff, once it came off the truck. And it’s the reason our pizza was just a little bit better than that of the guy across the street (and a million times better than the chain joints). It was a life lesson that stuck. Do your best with what you have, even if that means breaking the rules.

So began a life-long odyssey in search of another trick, technique or revelation towards a better way to make really good pizza. And with 30 years of knowledge and experimentation under my belt – I can make this statement, with confidence: if I could invite you over some night, you would find the pizza I make at home among the best you’ve ever had.

Thus begins our journey. Stick with me. In future chapters, we’ll explore together what separates good from great in the world of pizza baked at home. You’re in an enviable position. Whether you’ve never made pizza at home before or you’ve been at it for a while – I will help you make it amazing. The ingredients are not exotic. In all likelihood, everything you need is available at your local supermarket. That wasn’t always the case – but today, we live in a world of shopping diversity and that’s a boon to the home pizza maker.

Just like in the backroom of my childhood employer – it’s all in the decisions you make on how to handle your ingredients. And I’ll unlock the secrets for you, one step at a time, as we take the journey together.

To be continued ...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why hike the "A.T.?"

First, let me set the stage. Stripped to its core, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the southern mountains consists of the following, more or less: First, rise at dawn and climb a steep, uphill mountain path, for, say, four hours. Next, clamber down the other side, two hours or so, and try not to make like a snowball. Repeat. The next day, start the cycle over. Rain or shine, wind or snow.

Oh, and did I mention? Do it with 45 pounds of food, water and survival gear strapped to your back.

Only the pathologically upbeat would describe what you do in between all this recreational activity as sleep. Before dark, you put on your plastic underwear*, slip into your plastic sleeping bag and zip yourself into your plastic tent. Utterly, physically, mentally exhausted – you shut your eyes and try, optimistically, to take a nap.

Because a nap is all you’re going to get. Fighting the mountain doesn’t end at sunset. All night, every 20 minutes, you wake up, disoriented and with heart pounding to either A) rearrange yourself after you and your plastic sleeping bag have slid into a small ball at the downhill end of the tent or B) yell at the bears to get them out of your campsite.

And you’re truly off the grid. There’s not much of a safety net, at least where we hiked – 40 miles on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Cell phones don’t work. If you have a serious heart attack, you might die. Simple as that. You might survive, depending exactly where you are, if you get lucky with a cell phone and if there are people around to hike to help. But that’s not a thing you can really depend on. And you could easily be dead before the good Samaritans get to civilization.

If you fall and break a leg (easy to imagine where the trail meanders inches from heart-stopping cliffs and ravines) you may or may not get out alive. You could freeze to death, take a snakebite, die from dehydration or starve after bears steal your food. The Appalachian Trail is a tutti-frutti variety pack of opportunities for demise.

Sound like fun? Trust me, it’s not. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So the obvious question becomes – why? All the standard responses. The hiking is in some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery that exists on the East Coast. The Appalachian Trail (or AT, as aficionados prefer) is a true enigma. It runs over 2,100 miles through 14 states, Georgia to Maine. Largely intact, in the form its forward-thinking planners and builders devised back in the mid 1920s, it’s mostly wilderness. Yet it rarely strays more than a few hours’ drive from the country’s most densely populated megalopolis.

And it’s bona fide, Katy-bar-the-door wilderness. At least it feels that way. What struck me – besides the natural beauty of largely undisturbed tracts of woods, rocks and mountaintops – was the quiet. There are few places so close to so many people where you can experience what the earth sounded like before we started building highways, electric refrigerators, cell phone towers and godforsaken leaf blowers. (Don’t get me started on that infernal engine of Satan.)

When you’re out there, there are times when all you can hear are bees working the meadow flowers, trees creaking, an occasional bird squawk. And that’s it. No backdrop of motors, sirens, fans, phones and all the rest of the cacophony of chaos that we have grown accustomed to, every day. The world is a deafeningly noisy place once you’ve heard the quieter bits of the AT.

But solitude isn’t enough reason to risk your life and forego indoor plumbing and a warm bed. You can experience that kind of solitude on a half-day hike, humping nothing more than a bottle of water and a Snickers bar in your Sponge Bob rucksack.

There are the views, of course. When you finally do get to the top, the vistas are nothing short of astonishing. From the top of Max Patch, for example, the AT hiker is treated to an indescribable 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge, the Blacks, the Smokies and more – stretching as far as the eye can see.

But that’s not enough reason. As you’re making that 4,600-foot trek to the top of Max Patch, one of the things you see is the bloody parking lot. You can drive nearly to the top of Max Patch, for God’s sake.

The hiking is, at best, arduous and at worse, unimaginably terrifying. If you’re not in shape when you get there, you’re going to have a miserable time, especially if you’re only doing a few days – not enough to get into condition as you go. The trail is occasionally smooth and level, but more often gnarled with roots, rocks and poison ivy. Blisters become your constant companions. And an extra bonus comes in autumn, when we did our four days – acorns. By the thousand, each a ball bearing underfoot, ready to acquaint you up-close-and-personal with the Newton’s laws of acceleration in the style of Wile E. Coyote.

And that’s where I landed (no pun) when I finally came up with a decent answer for why? You do it, because it’s hard. It’s what psychologists describe as flow: true happiness that results from a challenge towards a goal, requiring intense concentration to the complete exclusion of all else.

For me, the concept describes the AT experience nearly perfectly. You’re in the zone, so to speak. You have to make your next destination, be it a shelter, gap, mountaintop or checkpoint. Nothing else seems to matter. Time is distorted. You focus exclusively on putting one foot in front of the other – and not just anywhere, but in the exact right spot that hopefully won’t send you hurtling down the ravine. The activity becomes its own reward.

And it’s you against the mountain. You either come out in one piece to hike another day, or you don’t. There’s something comforting about that kind if binary finality. It’s a black and white world we rarely get to glimpse in the daily negotiation of life – governed by so many shades of gray.

I think that’s what makes the AT special. And possibly a popular motivation for the thousands who try it each year – some going full-Monty in an attempt to hike all 2,100 miles in one go. (My hat is off to them.)

In a hyperkinetic, hyperconnected, 24/7 world, the AT is a place where you can simply be. And at least in our little corner of the world, precious few places can stake that claim.

*Everything you wear on the A.T. is synthetic. It's a safety issue. Cotton takes forever to dry, in the event you hike through a downpour. And wet means cold.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fallor ergo sum: I err, therefore I am

I was flattered to receive an invitation this weekend to a Christian men's retreat, known as Marked Men for Christ, in Spring City, Pa. It's a somewhat mysterious phenomenon – one participants describe with exclamations like, “I can't tell you anything about it. But you gotta be there!”

Well, I can't tell you anything about it, either. Because I never made it.

The buddy who invited me told me just a few things – the essentials. One, he stressed: don't be late. If you're late, you don't get in.

For whatever reason, the retreat started at 6 on a Friday evening. In a location you can't get to without driving through the megalopolis chaos of the Philadelphia suburbs. That's why I gave myself three hours for the  two-hour trip. It wasn't enough. My first screw-up. Then I got lost. Twice. OK, three times. But who's counting screw-ups?

If you ever want to feel completely and utterly powerless, get lost in the Philly 'burbs at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Crawling along in a strange landscape of roofless concrete tunnels, you eat car exhaust and stare at the clock, praying for a miracle that never comes.

I'll spare you most of the details. Apparently I was on some no-stops-allowed grand tour of eastern Pennsylvania, arranged by a demented tour guide. Exton. Pottstown. Malvern. Downingtown. Frazer. Blue Bell. Norristown. King of Prussia. West Chester. I did them all. (All except Spring City, that is.) A few, more than once. Dehydrated, exhausted and ready to have a breakdown, at one point I actually thought it would have been nice to be run over by a dump truck. I would have welcomed the opportunity to lay down.

I know what you're thinking. No GPS? Right. I was on the bike and the bike's not set up for it. I might be asking for that for my birthday this year. (That was a hint for Mrs. Emma.)

I shot another 20 minutes finding an exit to stop and call the guys, tell them where I was and ask if I should keep going. Any grace on the don't-be-late edict? They didn't answer their phones. I called the venue manager. He answered his phone. But he couldn't help. He wasn't at the venue. He was at his son's baseball game.

Praying for divine directional intervention, I re-re-reread my directions and got back in the saddle. After one final wrong turn, I was back in Philadelphia. At 6:45. On the Schuylkill. Smelling mufflers. Feeling dreadful, discouraged, disappointed, defeated and depressed. I threw in the towel and headed for home.

Since my prayer for finding the right route had gone unanswered, instead I asked for some lesson in all this.

After a few hours of dreamless sleep, it was answered, graphically. Over morning coffee, I discovered Kathryn Schulz, the Crazy Wrongness Lady, as she ruefully calls herself.

She taught me the phrase, fallor ergo sum. It's a quote from St. Augustine, paraphrased. It means, “I err, therefore I am.” He wrote it 1,200 years before René Descartes penned his more famous “think” version.

Kathryn teaches a valuable lesson. To be human is to be wrong. Embrace it. Own it. Celebrate it.

Watch her TED Talk. It saved me from a weekend of negative energy, ill-spent in self-loathing. Instead, I'm embracing my fallibility. I'm grateful for getting home safe. And I'm celebrating the unexpected gift of a free Saturday.

I think I might transplant tomatoes. Hopefully I won't screw that up.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

It's official. I'm an old coot.

When you get to be my age (206), it's inevitable to have an old-coot moment. It's when you realize that just about everybody you know is younger than you.

It usually starts with people in authority. One day you notice you're like 1,000 years older than your doctor, your pharmacist, your letter carrier and that 12-year-old policeman riding his bicycle through your neighborhood. You know, the guy with the helmet, the gun and the baseball cards in the spokes?

None of those lit the light bulb for me. Like most guys, I just continue pretending I'm still 18 and leave it at that. Fantasy is a wonderful aid to mental health.

No, for me, it wasn't the kids' teachers or the motor vehicle clerks, the cable guy or the President of the United States.

It was Dr. McCoy.

When I was a kid, watching Star Trek, DeForest Kelley was older than my dad. By nine full years. In my mind, he was always the old doctor, aging along with the Star Trek franchise. I hadn't given DeForest Kelly a thought in years. I'm not much of a Trekkie. Liked the original series (most of it), never got into any of the new series and thought most of the movies were disappointing. (Though I did like Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto's reprise of Kirk and Spock on the big screen.)

So when the original Star Trek popped up on my Netflix, I thought - hey, that would be fun. The garish sets, makeup and costumes. (Acid-trip colors were the way to go in 1966, when color TV was brand-spankin' new.) The bizarre props. (Remember the salt shakers?) The camera tricks. The creators' vision of 23rd-century electronics, all obsolete by about 1980. And Bill Shatner's inimitable 60s TV style. It's a kick.

Then Kelley showed up. And I my inner coot came of age. Holy crap! I'm older than Bones!

Kelley was 46 when the show originally aired. Even the old doctor is younger than I. And he was the eldest member of the original cast, IMDB tells me. Gee, thanks. Pretty soon he'll look like those one of those kinder-cops on a bike.

It's OK, not all is lost. I may be older than most of the world. But there's one demographic I can depend on to keep my young man fantasy alive. At least for a few more years.

There's always the Supreme Court.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Play Golf to help Haiti

Hi, gang. A quick announcement - a buddy of mine is among the Hope for Haiti Team, from First United Methodist Church in Cape May Court House. They have been traveling to work in Haiti periodically since the 2010 earthquake.

They repair and build homes, volunteer as health care workers and do whatever else they can to help.

The new focus is finishing a new building for the Ecole Henri Christophe primary school in Bayonnais. There, 600 children grades K - 8 receive much more than education. The school also provides food, clothing, clean water and employment. It's a vital part of the community and its recovery.

And here's an easy way for you to help. To raise money for their 2013 trip, Team Haiti runs a Golf Tournament. Basic info below. I also scanned their registration form - the quality is so-so but it is printable and readable.

Thanks and please share with any golfers on your e-mail list.



From First UMC Church, Cape May Court House

the Second Annual
Hope for Haiti Golf Tournament

Friday April 19, 2013
Avalon Golf Club
Noon registration, dinner at 6 pm

$125 per player
Early-bird discount - $50 off foursome if you register before April 1

For details and sponsorship information,
call Cherie Champion: 609 602 5664,
or the church office: 609 465 7087.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The best sandwich I ever ate

By Sal Emma

I've had some really great sandwiches. On merits alone, the top of the heap would be fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and big, tender basil leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a slab of tender, crusty, deeply flavored Italian bread at Manganaro's in New York. Sadly, those sandwiches are no longer being made as Manganaro's closed their doors after some 90 years in business. But that's another story.

This is not a food review. It's about people coming together in times of peril to do what they can to help.

As most of you already know, after Hurricane Sandy I spent some time in Manasquan, N.J. helping cousins Mike and Christina Notaro clean out their flooded home to make way for the work crews to pull the floor and soaked drywall. It's heart-wrenching work, as much of what we dragged out to the curb were irreplaceable memories: scrapbooks, photos, yearbooks, special toys. But in spite of the emotional, difficult task before them, Mike and Christina are taking it in stride and showing admirable strength and grace. They are safe and staying with relatives until the work is done.

When I got the call, I pretty much made a beeline for Manasquan, with two stops in mind. Mike asked that I try to find some big plastic containers to hold the small stuff they were putting into storage. They were in short supply (everybody else at the New Jersey seashore had similar plans.) But I managed to score a few. And, figuring the work crew would be up for a snack, I stopped at our locally-famous Frog Hollow for a dozen of the world's greatest donuts.

My plan was to find a Wawa closer to Christina's house and grab a box of hot coffee to go with the donuts. Two problems: first, I never found a Wawa. Second, even if I had succeeded in locating one, it would have been closed for lack of power. So the crew didn't get their coffee. But the donuts were devoured with relish.

I was also planning to get my lunch at that Wawa stop, since I had jumped into the car as quickly as I could. So I never got my lunch. No big deal, in the grand scheme of things. I've done without many times before. And I could always grab a donut. In fact I wasn't even thinking about food until the sandwich brigade arrived.

I was surveying the damage, chatting with Mike and helping the other men haul soaked furniture out of the house. A small cadre of young moms and their pre-teen children arrived, on foot. "Anybody hungry?" they asked. They had baskets of handmade sandwiches, bottled water and probably some other goodies.

It was at that moment that I realized how hungry I was. “Wow! That is so nice. May I have one?” I asked. “Help yourself. Take two,” came the reply. They had spent a fair amount of time putting those sandwiches together and they were thrilled to have some customers. They even had a modest variety, ham, turkey, not sure what else. I imagine they were eager to empty out their powerless fridges before the stuff started going south. She gave me a sandwich and a bottle of water and moved to the next house.

This was a sandwich I’d never, ever make for myself. Turkey, American and mayo on puffy white bread. It was squishy and bland and uninteresting. And it was the best damned sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

At first, I thought – how could it be this good? It makes no sense. Well, I was starving, right? Not so fast. I thought the same thing. Then remembered that earlier this year, I broke a 24-hour fast with a big, drippy, stinky hoagy. I don’t particularly like big, drippy, stinky hoagies. And even though I was famished after the fast, I didn’t enjoy that hoagy much more than I would have on a normal day. It had to be more than just hunger.

I think it was because the sandwich was made with love. Made by people honestly concerned about both their neighbors – and people like me, the strangers in their midst. That’s what made it sublime.

That simple, pedestrian sandwich is a graphic reminder of the potential we have to do good when trouble strikes. These women knew they couldn’t undo the flood damage or magically restore the power lines. So they did what they could. They met around a dimly lit table in a broken house and assembled sandwiches for a broken neighborhood. It was a small gesture, an easy task, a no-brainer. Yet their accomplishment took on awesome power, bigger than any of us. They were sandwiches imbued with the power of God himself.

No wonder they tasted so good.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The terrible restaurant I can’t wait to go back to

Recently we had a strange and delightful restaurant experience. A friend gave us a gift certificate. We knew absolutely nothing about the place so had no real expectations outside the standard restaurant drill. Let’s say it was bizarre, from the get-go.

First of all, it’s in a crappy strip mall. I know, what strip mall isn’t crappy? But this one is really crappy. Dog ugly when it opened during the Reagan administration. Today, dog ugly with 350,000 miles on it.

We walked through the front door into what only the most hopeless optimist could call a lobby. It was about 4x4, with a cloth curtain separating the dining room. Essentially, a boardwalk photo booth. We stood there a good five minutes without anybody acknowledging us. Finally, Mrs. Emma stuck her head through the curtain and caught the waiter’s eye.

He seemed nice enough, but was hapless and overwhelmed in a way that made him fairly brusque. “Do you have a reservation?” was our greeting. No hello, welcome or sorry-to-make-you-wait. Once we told him we did indeed have a reservation (10 minutes ago, by this point) he disappeared, without a word.

So we waited, without instruction or encouragement.

Restaurants make my “never go back under any circumstances” list after three strikes. But it takes most Jersey shore restaurants the better part of an evening to swing and miss three times. Lousy atmosphere: strike one. Cruddy service: strike two. Mediocre food: strike three.

Tonight, I'd called strikes one and two inside the first 10 minutes. Before we even left the photo booth. Which by now was crammed with more equally confused hopefuls, pressing in to get out of the torrents of rain overflowing the potholes in the parking lot.

After at least five more minutes, he returned and pointed us in the general direction of a table.

I’ll try to set the scene. The place is about the size of an average family room. Into that space were crammed several dozen tables and a full restaurant kitchen. Whether the dining room was in the kitchen or the kitchen was in the dining room is academic. It’s all one space, so you gaze down the line as the chefs noisily flambé and sauté. The aisles were maybe 18 inches wide. So every time somebody walks behind you, he kicks your chair. Distance between tables: an inch and a half. I’m not exaggerating. Imagine cafeteria seating, with really nice décor.

Already annoyed by the photo booth, now I’m on a slow burn. By the grace of God, one of the women sitting next to us read my expression.

“Never been here, huh?” she asked. She could spot a virgin. When we confirmed her suspicion, she said, “Don’t worry. It’s worth the chaos.” I could only hope, though I was already fully expecting the inevitable cherry atop the standard crappy restaurant sundae: lousy food.

Since you’re basically sitting in the laps of the strangers next to you, it’s natural to strike up a conversation. On one side, a couple from Philadelphia with a vacation home in Longport. “We pretty much eat here every week in the summer,” they told us. On the other, a party of four including a CIA-trained* casino chef from Beesley’s Point. “I hardly ever eat out,” he said. (It’s hard to please a chef, especially at the Jersey shore, the food mediocrity capital of the world.) “But this place, I keep coming back to.” Their testimony was encouraging.

Waiter Boy returned briefly with the water pitcher, a saucer of virgin olive oil and a few thick slices of crusty bread. He rattled off the specials, then abandoned us once again. It’s a BYOB, but I had to resort to opening my own. Fortunately we both carry pocketknives for such a circumstance. With no way to summon him for seasoning, we borrowed some red pepper from the next table.

The menu was sparse and a bit pricey. $12 appetizers, $30 entrees. $6 for bottled water. But very interesting. Authentic Italian – not your typical Americanized version, red sauce slathered on everything from shrimp to spumoni.

Finally he returned. From the specials menu, the figs sounded too good to pass up so we ordered them. Main courses: chef’s daily potato gnocchi for Mrs. Emma and spaghetti with white clams for me.

Apparently, once your order is in, the place gets down to business. The figs arrived with surprising speed. Fresh-picked plumpers, stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, wrapped in speck ham (a smokier, sweeter, juniper-infused version of prosciutto) oven-roasted and finished with a balsamic reduction glaze. We dug in.

Oh. My. God.

In his Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, chef and author Michael Ruhlman documents both cooking and dining at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry in California's Napa Valley. I read it aeons ago. (Great read, I recommend it.) One thing stuck with me. A word a French Laundry diner used to describe how Keller’s culinary artistry made her feel: giddy. I remember thinking: well, that’s one word I’ve never used to describe my response to restaurant food. But wouldn’t it be cool?

I’d be lying if I told you the figs made me feel any less. If we’d had another loaf of bread, we’d have eaten the whole thing, sopping up the glaze. I resisted the temptation to lick the plate. But the thought crossed my mind.

Then, the main courses came out.


Mrs. Emma’s gnocchi were light, delicate, supremely flavored and perfectly balanced. A harmonious sauce of fresh red peppers, mushrooms, white wine and who knows what else. Amazing.

My pasta with clams? The absolute best I’ve ever had. Period. And that includes outstanding homemade versions created at the hands of gifted old Italians.

And here’s the best part. I have no idea why they were the best I’d ever had. I couldn’t put my finger on any one voice in this magnificent symphony of flavor. It was sublime. The apex of culinary craft. Call-the-cops, Katie-bar-the-door perfection.

Even though I was briefly disappointed by the pasta's state of doneness. A few ticks short of al dente, it was nearly crunchy. But that was only the first bite. The chefs had preheated the bowl and compensated with perfectly undercooked pasta. By the time I'd released the clams from their shells, the pasta had finished, precisely where it should have. That takes skill.

Those of you who know me know I hold restaurants to a crazy high standard. Like the chef with whom we shared a table – they almost always let me down. Let’s face it. When you pay money to eat out, shouldn’t the food to be better than what you can make on your own? I guess it’s the price you pay for being a pretty good cook. Most restaurants fail. Predictably.

Not this one. The atmosphere was goofy and the service was spotty. Who cares?

The lady was right. Worth the chaos. And then some.

Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking
Plaza 9 Shopping Center
1333 New Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
609 646-8189
Reservations recommended but walk-ins welcome to try their luck. 

*The other CIA: the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world's most prestigious chef schools.