If you are like me, you’re drawn to restaurants that offer meals you can’t duplicate in your own kitchen. When it comes to steak or Italian entrées, however, my ability to prepare these foods at home rivals any restaurant’s versions. Moreover, I save a chunk of money by cooking and eating at home instead of paying overinflated restaurant prices for steak or pasta that may or may not be above average.
Every American man seems to consider himself the consummate grill master, though his wife and children may not think so. Fortunately for me, my wife and kids have openly agreed that I do know my way around an open flame—to some extent. I consider myself the consummate master of nothing, but I can operate a grill just well enough to satisfy my family’s taste for grilled steaks and chops in the comfort of our own home.
I grew up in an Italian family and consistently consumed delicious meals prepared by three generations of exceptional home chefs. The preparation and cooking techniques needed for a homemade Italian entrée to receive a “Bravo!” review probably just run in my blood—but after decades of Sundays spent eating what my grandfather called “sugar and strings”, my blood now probably consists of at least 25% pureed tomato.
I remember my indoctrination as a toddler into the land of the culinary unknown, when I first tasted anchovies, olives, and pungent cheeses. An early introduction to bold flavors tends to give an Italian a fearless palette. In fact, during my lifetime I have consumed the majority of edible pig parts, and more often than not have enjoyed each and every one. One family joke we still tell is that if the pasta sauce does not contain knuckles, neck bones, or some combination of pig parts, it must be because someone invited respectable company to join us for dinner.
While I claim to have some measure of inherited expertise in preparing Italian food, I must exclude pizza, which I still don’t know how to make from scratch. Even if I did, I don’t own the infernal 800-degree brick oven needed to bake a pizza. So where pizza’s concerned, I don’t mind forking out twenty bucks to any of the many local pizza parlors that have the know-how and equipment to do a pizza right.
I grew up in Homewood, where pizza lovers still argue over whether Dave’s, New York Pizza, or DeVinci’s is the best, without realizing how fortunate they are to have three outstanding pizza choices within a radius of one mile from each other. Other local neighborhoods likewise have their fair share of family-owned, authentic pizza joints.
Nevertheless, I must admit that I do, on occasion, order a pizza for home delivery from a national chain. As substandard as home-delivered pizzas can be, they are still superior to any pizza I would attempt to create in my own kitchen. The pizza-making gene apparently skipped my generation.
When I was a child, my great-grandmother, Nonna, used to make all her pizzas from scratch. That’s when I first fell in love with the notorious anchovy. Nonna also baked her own bread and made her own fresh pasta, both of which I can do, but only if you hold a gun to my head.
Sometimes I wish I could threaten the teenagers making the pizzas in most pizzarias. It’s almost the only way to ensure that enough anchovies top your pizza. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if I order an anchovy pizza, I might just be a person who happens to like them? No doubt the cook thinks my anchovy pizza looks and smells disgusting and tastes ghastly. That would explain why my anchovy pizza cooks use only one anchovy for every two slices of pizza. When these same cooks prepare a pepperoni or sausage pizza, however, they cover every inch of the meaty-mighty pizza with these toppings. The meat-loving masses want sausage and pepperoni, so load those pizzas up! Okay, I admit I’m not your typical mass consumer, but please top my pizza with as many of those rank, salty fishes as possible. You’re not making it for yourself; you’re making it for me. So make it the way I would—if only I knew how.
Even if I took the time to learn pizza-making skills, that time would be spent in vain, given the fact that I just don’t have the necessary equipment and cooking utensils. No brick oven and no wooden spatula the size of a canoe paddle to maneuver the pizza in and out of its inferno.
The enormous size of kitchen equipment and utensils in certain restaurant kitchens is astonishing. Ever eaten at a Chinese place where the kitchen is visible? The woks are as large as garbage can lids. Is it any wonder you and I can’t reproduce the mouthwatering flavors from the Chinese restaurant at home in our piddly little wok-shaped pans we bought on clearance at TJMaxx?
And what about the ancient Chinese culinary secrets the mystic chef tosses around with his two-foot-long, brass-and-bamboo spider strainer? Those secrets are never revealed to you or me, so out to dinner we go. We dine at outstanding ethnic restaurants because of our irresistible urge to taste and attempt to identify those subtle, seductive, secret flavors from past generations.
It’s a bona fide, undeniable endorsement of any ethnic restaurant in which the patrons are an identical match to the menu’s ethnicity. It’s as if the diners are proclaiming, “We’ve enjoyed these foods our entire lives in our native countries and can even make them ourselves at home. But the indispensable King Cook in this kitchen exceeds even our highest standards.”
My once-favorite Mexican restaurant in Birmingham changed its name and its owners long enough ago so that I can share the following story without embarrassing anyone. Even though the place served excellent Tex-Mex food, I was constantly on the lookout for a different place with more authentic Mexican food with the same savory flavors as my then-favorite restaurant.
One Saturday I decided to try lunch at Taqueria Valencia, which still operates in its original location at the intersection of Highways 119 and 31, between Hoover and Pelham. I entered the restaurant and noticed almost immediately that the owner of my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant was treating his entire family to an authentic Mexican lunch on his day off. The smile and the nod exchanged between us needed no translation. I knew I was about to taste the real deal. You can, too. Don’t be intimidated by the Spanish language on the menu. It’s all good. In fact, it’s better than good—it’s great grandma’s.
Birmingham Weekly welcomes Dee Marcus, who will write food centric commentary for us. Please send your comments to email@example.com