It is 1963 and I am sitting in my grandfather’s kitchen in Baltimore, watching him make canapes. I am only 6 years old, but I am looking forward to them...maybe not so much the egg with anchovy but definitely the chicken salad. There are pre-dinner drinks with hors d’oeuvres every night in my family, quite frequently extended beyond the hour, and if my mother is cooking, often resulting in whatever is in the oven being forgotten until the house starts to fill with smoke (we eat it anyway...or at least try to. She is quite sensitive to comments about her cooking. For a long time, I actually thought “smoked” was a euphemism for overcooked or burnt, and I wouldn’t even consider ordering anything “smoked” off menus until I was about 14 (people actually pay for burnt food? You’ve got to be kidding me.)
But burning meat never happened when my grandfather was cooking. He was a renowned local home chef who loved to cook, eat and drink extremely well. His speciality was terrapin. I used to love it when baskets of live terrapin would arrive directly from the Chesapeake and sit on the front porch until the next Saturday, when the handyman would lug them down to a specially built “playpen” in my grandparent’s cellar, where they lived out the rest of their days crawling around on a bed of straw. Terrapin escapes from their bushel baskets were common, and neighbors would often call saying they had spotted one in their backyard. My sister and I (and any other neighborhood kids hanging around) would be dispatched to locate the wayward creatures and bring them back, which frequently took hours, as we lived in a neighborhood with lots of woods and trees. I am sure my grandparents knew that we were the same kids who on more than one occasion engineered a few of the escapes to give us something to do.
Terrapin day was always a big deal because it meant that “important” people were coming for dinner....terrapin wasn’t an everyday dish, and the preparations were extensive. The turtles had to be cooked in the basement because the smell is overpoweringly putrid and those who weren’t involved in the cooking had to leave the house for several hours to get away from it. I can still gag just remembering the smell, and it’s been close to 45 years since my last whiff. People came from all over the east coast to learn to cook terrapin from my grandfather, always on a Saturday. They would head down to the basement, and stand around a huge metal vat for hours, burying their noses in large glasses of Scotch, while the poor terrapin stewed in their own vile juices. In the evening, after the cooking class, my grandparents would host large dinner parties, featuring terrapin as the piece de resistance. My sister and I were not invited to these parties, and we would stay at home with a babysitter, which made us very happy, because we had previously bonded with the terrapin while they were in their playpen, and the thought of eating them made us sad. Plus, “important” people were synonymous with old and boring. One of the important people who came to eat terrapin, I learned when I was old enough to appreciate knowing, was Winston Churchill. Apparently, he loved it. Sorry I missed that one, although if it meant eating terrapin, I would still take a pass today.
Fortunately, there was more than just terrapin cooking at my grandparents, and I was happy to eat most of it. There was a cook from southern Maryland named Annie, who had been with them for years and did the everyday cooking, and for special occasions, would make Maryland Beaten Biscuits, which are super labor-intensive and utterly delicious with a glistening slice of just-off-the-bone Smithfield ham, which I will always prefer to serrano and prosciutto. Her oyster bisque and sauteed rockfish were other winners. Each summer, my grandparents would go salmon fishing on Anacostia Island, then their catch would be canned and sent back to Baltimore, and we would have salmon salad sandwiches instead of tuna throughout the year. Giant wheels of Oka cheese would also arrive from Canada as well, and I learned to love stinky cheese at an early age while my friends all ate Velveeta.
Even Harry the cat ate well (for a cat). Named after Harry Truman, he existed solely on a diet of fresh kidneys, which came from the Lexington Market downtown and were carefully cut up and stored in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar in the front of the refrigerator. Harry got a lot more of my grandfather’s attention than I did, and that’s probably one the major reasons why I never liked cats. Another specialty of the house was Crab Imperial, made with an ungodly quantity of Chesapeake Bay jumbo backfin lump crab that would probably cost about $100 a serving today. My grandfather considered the famous Maryland steamed crabs to be a waste of time and energy for so little reward, and I didn’t have my first one until I was in my teens and eating at a friend’s house. Cases of champagne were brought in for all holidays and there were always crab salad canapes on hand to go with it. Champagne and crab salad are a world class combo and when I make my grandfather’s crab salad on occasion now, it never fails to win rave reviews.
So, there I was, at 9 years old, turning into a little food fanatic. I ate shad roe and sweetbreads, knew how to pronounce hors d’oeuvre and meuniere, and ordered my meat rare in restaurants. Thanks to my parents’ dysfunctional relationship, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place, in the kitchen, watching Annie cook, learning about food from my grandfather, and eating it all up. For all the bitching I have done about my fucked up parents and being a neglected child, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. I could have been forced to eat the terrapin.
I wake up with a bad hangover sometime in February, 1974. A really terrible hangover, actually. No, a really KILLER hangover. What is that on the wall? Holy Mother of God..I didn’t...did I? I cover my eyes with my hand and peak out between my fingers. Yes, I did. This is going to be a tough one to explain to my mother. My sweet, innocent mother. Of course I am not talking about my birth mother, but my new, Italian mother. Mamma. Oh sweet Jesus...what was Mamma going to say?
Nothing, it turns out, as Mamma was up a the crack of dawn to go to Pisa to buy fresh seafood for lunch, which was at least a 2 hour drive each way, according to my new sister, Mirella, who helps me clean up the mess I don’t even vaguely remember spewing on my very white bedroom wall. Mirella lives across the street from me and Mamma and Babbo, with her husband and little daughter, but came over this morning to ask why she hadn’t seen me leave for school yet. The reason is self-explanatory...and mostly, thank God, just red wine. We manage to scrub it down to a barely visible pinkish stain, then Mirella goes to call the school to tell them I’m not “feeling well”. Truer words were never spoken. She then tells me to go back to bed, which I do, and she goes home. When I wake up, it is lunchtime, Mamma is back, and from the look she gives me, I can tell Mirella has ratted me out. Some sister she is turning out to be.
Babbo, on the other hand, seems quite amused. He is already seated at the table in the kitchen and he looks, dare I say it, proud of me. I sit down and he picks up the wine and winks. He holds the bottle over my glass, waiting. I don’t really want any...my head is still pounding, but then again, I sort of do. I nod to Babbo. He fills my glass. I take a sip. Mamma appears with a huge bowl of brodetto, sees me with the glass in my hand, and rolls her eyes. Another happy lunch at the Giamberi family table. The brodetto is passed and I help myself to a lot of it.
It is nothing short of stupendous. There’s shrimp, and fish, and langoustines, and mussels. Some octupus or calamari. The broth is light and fresh and tastes of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and of course, the sea. I use piece after piece of Tuscan bread to mop it up. The bread is salt free, pure, simple, and dense. When I use it to get at the last bit of salty olive oil lingering in the empty salad bowl, it puts me in a nirvana-like trance. I think I am becoming addicted. For dessert there is a piece of amazing local cheese and of course Babbo insists I have some more wine with it. As I finish the cheese, he brings out the grappa. Mamma leaves Babbo and me to have a man to man chat while she cleans up. Well, chat would be stretching it a bit. I’ve been in Florence for just two weeks and I only know a few words of Italian. We say “buono” a lot and toast each other.
As perfect as the brodetto may be, it can’t hold a candle to mamma’s chicken liver crostini, nor come close to her carbonara. Then there is her ribollito and the first time she cooks a bistecca, I almost pass out from pure bliss. I have not had so much overwhelmingly delicious food since my grandfather was still cooking. I spend all day and every day in Florence eating, and when I am not eating, I am thinking about eating, and when I am not thinking about eating, I am thinking about drinking, or drinking. Life doesn’t get much better than this for a not quite 20 year old kid.
After lunch, I drag my sorry hungover butt into school, although I must admit the wine and grappa has helped. The delightful and eccentric caretakers of the building (Mario and Lidia) also run a small cafe inside the school and I order a cappuccino, which, when either one of them makes it, is always a sublime work of art. When it arrives at my table, I immediately decide to bag Italian class, because I am late as it is, plus the teacher, Maria Pia, is a raving bitch. She is also the Head of School, having a long term affair with the married Program Director, and I suspect, taking a cut from Mario and Lidia’s cafe as well. We do not like each other at all. She knows I busted her with the Director as they came out of some cheap pensione on the Via della Belle Donne, across from which I had found an incredible place for stuzzicchini.
A fellow student comes into the cafe and asks, without even first saying “buona sera”, which I find incredibly rude and for which Maria Pia would probably suspend him, “what the fuck happened to you last night? Rather than call attention to his rudeness and not wanting to offend him in any way, because I know he is holding some killer hash just in from Spain, I suggest a gelato at Vivoli, to which he instantly agrees. We stroll downtown and I successfully avoid any mention of the previous evening, memories of which are now slowly coming back, by directing his attention to the numerous food stores, stalls and vendors along the way, who’s specialties I had previously scoped out. I extoll the virtues of panini with porchetta and fritelli de riso . At Vivoli, we order strawberry gelatos, which we eat while walking toward the Arno and Ponte Vecchio, detouring to buy some delicious almond cookies at the Mercato Centrale along the way. At around 4, he suggests getting something to drink, I say I am probably ready for a Moretti, and at 7, after a few beers each and a pre-dinner bottle of wine, we meet up with some fellow students at yet another unbelievable trattoria, and so begins another typical evening on the Syracuse University Semester Abroad Program-Florence Campus. Much later that night, as I dunk a biscotti into some vin santo, I am still sober enough to hope that I won’t be seeing it again.
It is August in 1997 and we are drinking champagne at Marconi’s in Baltimore, my favorite restaurant in the world. We are seated in the front room as usual; the back room is considered a bit of an insult by regulars, and given that 4 generations of my family have been eating here just about weekly for over 70 years, we always feel entitled to a table in the front room, although if the truth be told, they probably haven’t had a big enough crowd to have to seat anyone in the back for the past 10 years.
Every major passage, big or small, happy or sad, we have commemorated with lunch or dinner here. When my parents got (bitterly) divorced and my father re-married, Marconi’s was part of an unspoken agreement...my father and his new wife would not come to Marconi’s on days when anyone from my mother’s family was eating there, and
no one from my mother’s side would eat there on days when my father was eating there. Friday’s belonged exclusively to Mom’s side because they were there first. Today we are celebrating another passage, a sad one, but drinking champagne nonetheless.
We begin debating what to order, although we never stray far from the
usual. Al, our waiter, hovers attentively in the background. I don’t know how long he has been there but it has been since before I moved to Mexico ten years before. Al is Latino and we began speaking in Spanish together shortly afterwards on my infrequent visits to Baltimore, where Marconi’s is always my first restaurant stop. Before Al there was Paul, who waited on my grandfather for most of the 40 years he was a regular there. Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, who owned it until age and ill-health required a sale to the current owner, Peter Angelos, the businessman who also owns the Orioles. He clearly likes snapping up Baltimore institutions and Marconi’s is right up there with the best. It is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in town and was H.L. Mencken’s regular haunt.
Of course, considering the hot, humid, and hazy Baltimore weather, we will start with ice cold vichyssoise. Although we have all travelled a bit and probably had better versions, we are not going to admit to it, especially today. The Marconi’s chopped salad is also required eating, so our debate really centers around two choices, the Lobster Cardinale or sole tartar, the former being a large boiled lobster with the meat removed, bathed in a sherry cream sauce then served back in the shell, and the latter being simply grilled sole with the best tartar sauce on the planet.
Al brings fresh, crusty bread wrapped in a linen napkin and unsalted butter carved into rosettes (my father always salts his butter before eating it and it always annoys me, but he’s not here today, for obvious reasons). He takes our order, and considering the occasion, we all opt for the sole. And another bottle of champagne.
The food at Marconi’s can best be described as traditional Italo-Continental, with a Maryland twist. There are always crab cakes on the menu, and rockfish in season, as well as spaghetti marinara, chicken tetrazzini, and for dessert, biscuit tortoni and vanilla ice cream with, and I am dead serious here, the world’s best chocolate sauce.
More champagne arrives and Al fills our saucer shaped glasses that were so popular in the 40’s and 50’s to the rim. After he clears the vichyssoise he reappears with a large wooden bowl with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, anchovies, hard boiled egg, parsley, and mayonnaise, which he chops with steak knives and serves with freshly ground pepper. This is without a doubt the finest salad I have ever put in my mouth. I used to make a fairly credible version of this at home when I was about 12 or 13, but somehow lost the touch and started ending up with a bowl of soggy mush, so I gave up trying.
The sole arrives and it is just as expected. The four of us share a bowl of creamed spinach and an order of friend eggplant. Plus another bottle of champagne.
Dessert ends on a bittersweet note, despite the champagne and the ice cream with the hot chocolate sauce. There are flights to catch, lives to go back to, and for me and my sister, lawyers to meet and belongings to be gone through. We will miss our mom, no matter how bad she was at the mom thing. The sole tartar was her favorite.
(Marconi’s closed in 2004 with Peter Angelos citing financial reasons and promising to re-open it soon in another location. We are still waiting.)