Sunday, April 24, 2011

Perfect Meals

I turned...well, /older/ this week, and I celebrated with dinner at Bella's. This South Tampa eatery is a perennial favorite, and while toasting over a glass of Prosecco and a bowl of homemade noodles with peas and basil, I had occasion to think about perfect meals.

To me, a perfect meal denotes great food in the perfect context. The timing, ambience, service, and spirit of the meal must at least equal and at best surpass the quality of the food itself. It may surprise anyone who knows me that I'd rank /anything/ as important as the food, but I've had stellar food under miserable circumstances. In such instances, context taints the meal. By contrast, a perfect scenario can elevate the humblest cuisine to the status of "perfect meal."

Here are, in no particular order, a few of my Perfect Meals:

On our honeymoon in Florence, Dori and I stumbled into a tiny eatery down the street from our pensione. We were staying far away from the more ritzy or touristy parts of the city, and this joint was suitably "local" in feel. Our young waitress was so earnestly adorable that we still think of her and wonder what she's up to. She delivered to us mammoth plates of spaghetti alla scoglio, rich with chile-spiked olive oil, pungent with garlic, and piled high with briny clams and mussels. We were poor, young (well, one of us was!), and giddy with love, and nothing before or since has captured that essence as faithfully as the Florentine spaghetti.

Having successfully escaped Delaware after five miserable years, we never imagined that we'd miss anything from the First State. But we do miss something: Ali Baba's, a casual Lebanese place on South College right by the University. In grad school, this place was a divine gift--inexpensive, healthy, unusual, delicious, and suitable for a casual lunch or a take-your-parents-out-when-they're-in-town dinner. We ate there more than once a week. Last year, we drove to Maryland to visit my folks, with a side trip to Philly to see my sister. Full of great city food and exhausted from driving and walking, we nonetheless stopped at Ali Baba's on the way home (2 hour detour not really being "on the way") and grabbed late-night take out: eggplant salad, fattoush, Lebanese gyros, hummus, and ice-cold pear nectar. We couldn't even begin to eat it all, but it was a beautiful, joyful meal. And the waiter remembered me!

I recently attended a conference at Georgetown University, which put me in my old DC stomping grounds. As will surprise exactly zero members of my family (and Caron), my first thought was not about my paper or my outfits, but about when and how I might fit in a meal at Jaleo. I used to eat there with my mentor professor as a tender undergrad before performances at the Shakespeare Theater next door. I had no idea it was run by a celebrity chef, just that it served the most sophisticated and exquisite food I'd ever encountered. I /pine/ for this food, these beautiful tapas, nearly every day. So after I delivered my paper, we broke for lunch and headed off on a brisk walk to Jaleo. The food was, as always, transcendent (grilled octopus with pine nut praline, patatas bravas, wild mushroom risotto, smoky mussels), but it was the smart, witty, company and the day of melding my past and present lives that made this lunch stand out against all my other trips. I'll never forget a moment of it, and I'll never have another tapa or watch an episode of Made in Spain without being transported directly back to that bliss.

What are your Perfect Meals?

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