Roving thoughts and provocations

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Spaghetti Lessons

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Lombardy region, near Brescia, Italy, 1976

I don’t need to be put under hypnosis in order to recover the memory of the first bowl of spaghetti I ever ate. I came to Italian food late. My grandmother and mother made noodles and macaronis, 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 that garlic in obscene quantities first entered our home. 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 in a while bring home a bottle of Chianti, some Genoa salami and provolone cheese, but these he mostly consumed alone, since my brother and I were hesitant to share in a ritual that my mother openly disapproved of. With my parents’ marriage collapsing, I did not realize when I moved away at the age of eighteen that I was eventually going to find a surrogate home in Italian restaurants.

In August 1956, I found a job at the Chicago Sun-Times and a small apartment near Lincoln Park. I had a high school diploma, but no money to go to college except at night. I ate mostly 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 say that waiters 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’d chat with me and comment on the dishes I ordered. In time they become my professors in what turned out to be a life-long 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. Fifty years ago, eating a lot was still regarded as proof of robust health. The philosophy of life 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 1958, I lived in seedy hotels and furnished rooms in Greenwich Village and worked at various odd jobs, everything from being a bookkeeper 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. I was going to try them 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, squid, and the glories of Barbaresco and Barolo wines could not be doubted any more. It took me years to reach the high-school level in Italian gastronomy and begin to dream of university. As I ate my way into higher wisdom, I also learned about the culture that came with the food. “Italian restaurant” is really a misnomer, since Italy is a land of many distinct regional cuisines. That knowledge came to me piecemeal. Bollito Misto, for instance, that delicious dish of boiled beef, veal, sausage and potatoes which I ate in a place on Thompson Street, came from Northern Italy and spaghetti alla carbonara from Rome. Then there was the music. If there was a radio, a jukebox or a portable record player behind the bar, I heard operatic arias and popular songs. As often happens in Italy, one says to oneself in such moments, this is how life ought to be.

Most of these discoveries I made alone. The hard-drinking crowd of painters and poets I hung out with at Cedar Bar, White Horse, and San Remo had little interest in fine cooking. 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 for their meal, so we could go out and eat. Women were more impressed if you took them to a French restaurant uptown. Nevertheless, we usually ended up in my favorite Italian place where I would tell them how the great 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, which also happened to be all I could afford for the two of us on that particular night.

Italian restaurants produce not only epicures but also aspiring cooks. I bought cold cuts, cheeses, and olives for years in Italian groceries on Bleecker Street until one day I started cooking pasta, grilling sausages, and inviting friends over to my place on East 13th Street. In the 1950s and 1960s almost no one in literary circles knew how to cook, so these modest efforts of mine received extravagant praise. From then on, each time I tasted something in a restaurant, I’d wonder how it was made, what spices were used, and recollected other occasions when the same dish had come out differently. Now that I live in a village in New Hampshire, cooking Italian is a way of carrying on that comparative study. This may 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 mine is an Italian cookbook.

It is their unhurried air that makes most Italian restaurants congenial to everything from flirting to a rambling philosophical discussion. You linger over a glass of red wine and a plate of cheese at the meal’s end, alone or in the company of friends, while the place empties. Outside, there may be the lights of Manhattan or the tugboats in Portsmouth harbor. The waiter or the owner may bring a grappa eventually to remind you of the lateness of the hour, but he does not rush you. When you finally get up and leave, it’s out of consideration for him, but also out of genuine panic that you might be crazy enough to ask for another bowl of pasta or some of that grilled squid on a bed of white beans you enjoyed so much.

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