Self-Portrait with Spaghetti
A brief memoir of an ongoing love affair with Italian restaurants.
I don't require a hypnotist to recover the memory of the first bowl of spaghetti I ever ate in my life. My Grandmother and mother made noodles and macaroni back in Yugoslavia, where I was born, but nothing else that could remotely be described as Italian. In my mother's family, garlic and olive oil, two of life's peerless delights, were regarded with horror as something people of suspect ethnicity and class coated their food with. It was on a pizza pie that garlic in obscene quantities first entered our home when we came to the United States, in 1954. As for spaghetti, it may have been served in a bowl, but it came out of a can bought at the supermarket. True, my father would once and a while bring home a bottle of Chianti, some Genoa salami and provolone cheese, but these he consumed mostly alone with his own thoughts, since my brother and I were hesitant to share in this ritual of which my mother openly disapproved. With my parents' marriage collapsing, I did not realize when I moved away from home at the age of 18 that I was eventually going to find a surrogate home in Italian restaurants.
In August l956, I found a job at the Chicago Sun-Times and a small apartment near Lincoln Park. I had a high school diploma, but only enough money to go to college at night. I ate most of my meals in greasy spoons until a fellow I worked with took me to a Chinese restaurant and eventually to an Italian one.
Before I go any further, let me point out the obvious. Waiters and waitresses make all the difference in Italian restaurants. They are curious: Who's this kid eating with such a huge appetite and always leaving a good tip? They banter with you and comment on the dishes you order. In time they become your teachers in what is going to be a lifelong study. Since I was only in kindergarten, I learned about such basics as garlic bread, green and black olives, anchovies, minestrone, lasagna, veal Parmesan, sausage and peppers. I was a teacher's pet, you might say, willing to try anything and liking everything I tasted. If I was flush, I would order a second plate of spaghetti with meatballs to the delight of the waiter and the owner. In those days, gluttony was still regarded as a proof of robust health. The basic philosophy was, the more you ate, the happier you were. I didn't need convincing. I went back to my Italians every chance I got.
After I moved to New York in l958, I lived in seedy hotels and furnished rooms in Greenwich Village and worked at various odd jobs, from bookkeeping to selling shirts in a department store. At first, since I was short of funds, I passed my lonely evenings roaming the streets and reading the menus of Italian restaurants in the area. Most of them served the usual fare, but there were one or two places with tantalizing, unfamiliar dishes, like fried artichokes, linguine alle vongole and sautéed calf's liver, that I was going to try as soon as I had money. I have a distinct memory of being asked by a courtly elderly waiter if I wanted my spaghetti "al dente" and thinking he was suggesting a sauce named after the great Tuscan poet of Heaven and hell. The waiter, Guido, who became another mentor, was wary of my enthusiasm until my ardent desire to be initiated into the mysteries of capers, funghi porcini, tripe and squid, and the glories of Barbaresco and Barolo wines, could not be doubted any more.
I made most of my discoveries alone. The hard-drinking crowd of painters and poets I hung out with at the Cedar Tavern, the White Horse and the San Remo had little interest in fine cooking or, come to think of it, in cooking of any kind. With me, the more I drank, the hungrier I became. Also, I preferred wine to whiskey or gin. In those days, hardly anyone else did. I remember badgering people, even offering to pay so we could go out and eat. Women were more impressed if you took them to a French restaurant uptown. Nevertheless, we were all likely to end up in my favorite Italian place, where I would tell them the story of how Marcel Duchamp, in his early, impoverished years in New York, would eat for lunch every day a bowl of plain spaghetti with butter and cheese accompanied by a glass of red wine. Perfect, I thought.
Italian restaurants are schools not just for epicures but also for aspiring cooks. It took me years to reach the high school level in Italian gastronomy and to begin to dream of university. For years, as I groped my way to higher wisdom, I bought cold cuts, cheeses and olives in Italian groceries on Bleecker Street, until one day I started cooking pasta, grilling sausages and inviting friends to my place on East 13th. In the l950s and l960s, almost no one in literary circles knew how to cook, so these modest efforts of mine received extravagant praise. From thenon, each time I tasted something in a restaurant, I'd wonder how it was made, what spices were used, and recollect other occasions when the same dish had come out differently.
Living in a small village in New Hampshire, as I do now, I find cooking Italian food a way of carrying on that comparative study. This might be a tautology, but a meal that does not cause an outpouring of memories is not a memorable meal. I don't know how other poets imagine their muses, but my muse is an Italian cook. Give me a bowl of spaghetti and I'll write you a poem.
Going to a restaurant is always an adventure. An unforeseen, mouthwatering something may lie in store. The closest I can get to authentic Italian food near my home is a place in Portsmouth called Anthony Alberto's, where I can have a fine meal and be inspired. As I read the menu at Alberto's one night, it struck me that it sounded like a passionate, lascivious declaration of love. I went home and wrote a poem--or more accurately, I shut my eyes and imagined a menu.
My chicken soup thickened with pounded young almonds.
My blend of winter greens.
Dearest tagliatelle with mushrooms, fennel, anchovies,
Tomatoes and vermouth sauce.
Beloved monkfish braised with
And green olives.
Give me your tongue tasting of
white beans and garlic,
Sexy little assortment of
formaggi and frutti!
I want to drown with you in
red wine like a pear,
Then sleep in a macédoine of
wild berries with cream.
It is their unhurried air that makes Italian restaurants congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion. You linger over a glass of red wine, some fresh figs and a plate of cheese at the meal's end, alone or in the company of friends, while the place empties. Outside, there are the lights of Manhattan or the tugboats in Portsmouth Harbor. You say to yourself happily in such moments, This is how life ought to be. The waiter or the owner may bring a grappa eventually to remind you of the lateness of the hour, but they do not rush you. Hell! You may as well have another round, this time insisting that they join you, and, of course, they are most likely to agree.
Charles Simic, a poet, essayist and translator, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990. His latest volume of poems is Jackstraws (Harcourt Brace).