The Betrothed and the Novel 100.

So the two weeks off between posts shouldn’t be the norm, but it took me about twelve days to finish off Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Before I get to that book, though, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to explain how I choose some of these books, especially the classics.

I’m a lists guy, which is no surprise to those of you who read my ESPN stuff. I love lists and rankings, both for the debates they generate and, in the case of stuff like books or albums or restaurants, for the way you can work through them yourself. My favorite book-ranking is a book in itself, and probably one of the best gifts my wife has ever bought me: The Novel 100, by Daniel Burt. The book itself contains Burt’s rankings of the 100 greatest novels ever written, with a four-page essay on each book that summarizes its plot, discusses the author and his influences, then talks about how the book was received at the time it was published and how it is viewed today.

When I got the book, I was all cocky and thought I was so well-read and probably had already read 30-40 of the books on the list. I was wrong – I was only at sixteen, and had never even heard of close to half of the titles. This, of course, was a personal affront, and a challenge not to be declined, so for the last two-plus years I’ve been plowing through the books, a few of which (Lawrence’s Women in Love, James’ The Ambassadors, the latter of which I didn’t even finish) were duds but some of which are now among my all-time favorites, including The Betrothed.

(I’d like to publish the list of titles, without his essays, and if I can reach Prof. Burt I’ll do so. In the meantime, I believe the top 10 are Don Quixote, War and Peace, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, and The Tale of Genji.)

The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) is one of the earliest historical novels, the greatest novel in the canon of Italian literature, and a work that was influenced by and then in turn influenced a number of great English writers. The story revolves around the engagement between two young peasants, Renzo and Lucia, whose wedding is blocked by the local lord, Don Rodrigo, who saw Lucia in the street and has decided as part of a bet with his cousin that he will seduce Lucia for himself. Renzo and Lucia flee and end up separated, leading to two story lines that eventually connect again in the end.

That plot (separated lovers) isn’t all that uncommon, but Manzoni adds two wrinkles to make this novel unique. One is the introduction of some amazing secondary characters, including the Nun of Monza (based on a real person) and the fiend only known as the Unnamed. Each of them receives his or her own short story within the novel, and while I ordinarily find that sort of thing distracting, it works here because those stories are themselves very compelling.

The other twist, one I didn’t care for as much, was a very long digression in the novel’s last third where Manzoni describes the twin tragedies that hit the Italian states and particularly Milan in the late 1620s, when the novel is set. Milan was first beset by a famine that was largely caused by idiotic economic policies (like arbitrary price ceilings), and then was hit by the Black Death, introduced by invading soldiers and facilitated by the inaction of the local governments. It is a withering criticism, one that makes Manzoni something of a literary forerunner of Friedrich Hayek, but it is more history than story, and the tangent from the main plot line is extremely long.

The writing itself is crisp, and a lot of aspects of the prose and the story reminded me of Tom Jones, another book on the Novel 100 and my favorite picaresque novel. It’s a bit overlong due to that late bit on Milanese history, but otherwise well worth its heft.

Recent books

Ex Libris is a novel by Ross King, the author of the bestselling nonfiction book Brunelleschi’s Dome, which told the story of the design and construction of the basilica on top of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. Set in England in the 1600s, Ex Libris is told from the perspective of a widowed bookseller who is asked by a peculiar widow to track down a unique manuscript that her father had rescued from Prague during the Battle of Prague in the Thirty Years’ War. Although King’s attempts to work 16th-century English styles into his prose dragged the novel down at times, the plot was definitely compelling and he managed to strike a nice balance between evoking the time period and grabbing your attention with action sequences, with a nice history of the printed word mixed in. It’s like a Da Vinci Code for non-morons.

The Big Over Easy is Jasper Fforde’s first novel outside of the incredible Thursday Next Series (which started with The Eyre Affair, a book to which he pays backhanded homage in TBOE). Humpty Dumpty – who is in his sixties and is living in Reading, England – well, make that “was,” because he’s been murdered. Detective Jack Spratt and his new assistant, Mary Mary, are on the case, which involves a visit to the imprisoned gang leader Giorgia Piorgia, a sighting of the serial killer The Gingerbread Man, and some magic beans. It’s typical Fforde, broad, farcical, witty, but I will say that it wasn’t as brilliantly madcap as the Thursday Next books. I was at a bit of a disadvantage, since I can’t say I know my nursery rhymes that well, but the society-page description of the wedding between the Owl and the Pussycat was one I understood.

The Catholic Church, by Swiss theologian Hans Küng, was a fascinating read as he broke down the various points in the Church’s history where various popes, emperors, or other power-brokers imposed some of the various rules, practices, and doctrines which still exist in the Church today, and which Küng argues are a major reason that the Church is in disarray. The refusal to ordain women, the opposition to contraception, and the doctrine of papal infallibility all postdate Christ’s life and the founding of what is now the Roman Catholic Church by hundreds of years. He also has a very critical take on the reign of Pope John Paul II (written two years before John Paul died) that runs in stark counterpoint to the hagiographies that greeted that Pope’s death.

Finally, The Invention of Clouds, by Richard Hamblyn, was a very good if unusually conflict-free history-of-science book. I say conflict-free because these books usually involve some massive stumbling block that keeps the protagonist from quickly (or ever) reaching his goal of fortune or fame or just contributing to scientific progress. Luke Howard came up with the first reliable method of identifying different types of clouds, using the same three basic terms we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, and stratus) at the core of his system. The concept was an immediate success and Howard, a quiet, religious family man, became a celebrity in spite of himself, culminating in a correspondence with the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Invention of Clouds is a quick read, mostly well-written and with lots of interesting facts, but that lack of some conflict or foil left the book feeling a little light. One little highlight is the description towards the end of how Howard’s system of nomenclature led to the modern phrase “on cloud nine.”

Note: I’m turning on comments for this thread as a sort of test to see how much I really need to moderate it. As long as it’s not too much work, I’ll leave them on for all book threads and will try to participate myself. Thanks for coming by.

Back to Arizona.

Not much new food-wise on this trip – just two new restaurants that I managed to hit while otherwise stuck in chain-restaurant hell. Line Thai, on Bell Road in Sun City, jumped out at me as a non-chain place, although it’s not exactly a hole-in-the-wall either, with a big, brightly-lit dining room and a pretty extensive menu.

Anyway, I went for the pad thai (spelled phat thai on their menu), and also added a “salad” the Thai name of which I can’t hope to remember. It was actually a dish of finely chopped chicken that had been sautéed with lemongrass, mint, chili powder (just a little), and scallions, and was served with cilantro and with sliced green cabbage wedges. It was good, not great, with a pleasant but mild flavor that unfortunately didn’t do enough to disguise the plain taste of the chicken. The pad thai was excellent, with an earthy sauce, shrimp that didn’t taste like they went from the freezer to the wok (which happens way too often, even in “good” Thai joints), and a nice hit of spice from what I presume was either chili powder or a chili sauce.

The big hit of the trip was a relatively new gelateria in Scottsdale called the Gelato Spot, on the corner of 3rd Ave and Scottsdale Rd. This is the newest of the chain’s four locations, and the gelato was very good. The texture was excellent, smooth with no granularity found in a lot of cheaper gelato places. They do keep it very cold, too much so, so that it was harder than the gelato you’d get at a really top-notch gelateria or at any gelateria in Italy. The chocolate flavor was superb, not too sweet with a nice cocoa flavor, while the caramel flavor was fair with a weird sour undertone, almost like a cheesecake flavor.


Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: Downtown Houston is something of a disaster, at least over by Minute Maid Park. That area is particularly decrepit, with abandoned buildings ringing the stadium. I walked across the street from my hotel to the ballpark, but didn’t feel safe walking anywhere else in that part of town. I drove up to Market Square in search of a restaurant that turned out to be closed for dinner (it’s only open three hours a day, 11-2 – great business model), and that area is also ringed by abandoned buildings, not to mention the ultimate feel-good establishment, the bail bondsman, which I passed on the way there.

Azuma is a high-end sushi joint in the Market Square area, and by high-end, I mean that only one person who worked in the place spoke Japanese, and the restaurant was more about ambiance and selling booze than it was about the fish. But unlike most of the other restaurants I saw in a walk around Market Square, it was open, had customers, and didn’t look like a front for the Lithuanian mob or something. (Most ominous was the “Irish pub” that had one customer, a cop, sitting out front. In fact, the sheer number of cops I saw around Market Square made me wonder what the hell goes on around there that requires that many cops in a two-square-block radius.)

Anyway, Azuma’s food didn’t live up to its ambiance. I went with an “Asian mixed greens salad,” which was a mesclun salad with asparagus added, and enough dressing to drown a rhinoceros. Once I was done spattering dressing all over Market Square – you try eating vinegar soup with a pair of chopsticks – I turned to the sushi. The spicy tuna rolls didn’t contain mayo (bonus points), but the tuna itself was fishy, and the chefs hadn’t removed the blood-line portion of the fish. It was also too spicy for my tastes, but that did have the benefit of making me forget that it tasted fishy. The salmon was better and was clearly fresh, but didn’t have much taste of its own, lacking that slight sweetness that good sake should have. I also tried a fish called escolar, which had a good smooth texture but tasted something like Styrofoam peanuts. Add in one serving of unagi and the total came to over $30.

Friday morning I headed to a restaurant featured on The Hungry Detective, a Food Network show aimed at finding “off the beaten path” restaurants and a new addition to my Save-Until-I-Delete list on the Tivo. The Breakfast Klub is just what the name says – a breakfast joint that serves up eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles (with fried chicken wings, the house specialty), and what I have to say is the best breakfast biscuit I have ever had. The thing was pillow-soft, almost like cotton candy, with a tremendous butter flavor and just a hint of a buttermilk tang. Seriously, a box of those vs. a box of Krispy Kremes … wars have started over dilemmas like that. (I’ll take one box of each, thanks.) I went back the next day to try the waffle, but was disappointed; although it was made on a Belgian-style griddle, it was a traditional batter, so the finished product was dense and a bit dry, and I was surprised that it wasn’t sweet. The eggs were good the first day but divine the second, cooked but not overcooked and still moist when they reached the table. I’d also take the country sausage (a little tough, but with outstanding flavor) over the bacon (nothing special). But the biscuits – seriously, I’d beat you to death with a butter knife over the last one.

The other pleasant surprise of the trip was, of all things, the restaurant in my hotel, the Inn at the Ballpark. Because the hotel and its Ballpark Café (okay, no points for the name) are right across the street from Minute Maid, it made a perfect spot for me to jump over, grab lunch, and get back during the one-hour breaks between games. And it turns out that the food there is very good, especially because they’re clearly using fresh ingredients for everything they make. At my first visit, I went for the default option, the grilled chicken sandwich (served with roasted red peppers on focaccia), and was amazed to find that unlike most grilled chicken breasts, this one wasn’t cooked within an inch of its life. It had a perfect brown sear on the outside, and the inside was fully-cooked but still moist. The shrimp BLT – I ordered the fried shrimp sandwich (which sounded like a makeshift po’ boy), but the waitress screwed up my order) – was also delicious, with shrimp that were also cooked properly, as well as sliced avocado and bacon. The restaurant makes its own potato chips, and I’d bet that the French fries were cut on-site as well.

The kicker for me was the Sunday breakfast, which is usually a disaster at good restaurants. I ordered off the menu – if you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, you know why – and went for the yogurt/fruit plate. I ended up with a 10″ plate full of fresh fruit, a dish of yogurt, and a blueberry muffin that had just been made. The waiter thought I was done with the dish with the last bite of the muffin on it, and I nearly broke his wrist to keep him from taking it. But what impressed me the most was the fact that the executive chef, Oscar Mejia, came out and manned the omelette station himself. I told him how much I’d enjoyed the food over the past few days, and he gave all the credit to the people who work for him in the kitchen.

One last note on Houston – while flying out of IAH, I grabbed a chopped beef sandwich at Harlon’s BBQ, the only non-fast-food chain dinner option I could find, and for a quick airport meal, it was pretty good; the meat wasn’t dry and didn’t taste or look like it had been sitting for hours. Out in the world I’d demand better, but by the low standards of airport cuisine, this was pretty good.

Watertown eats.

My wife and I recently got the chance to go out for dinner without our daughter for the first time in about five months, but neither of us was interested in heading downtown, so our options for a nicer meal were somewhat limited. We decided to try Porcini’s, an Italian restaurant in Watertown very close to our favorite little restaurant in the area, Strip-T’s.

It was a mistake.

The main meal was fair; my wife liked her veal saltimbocca, but my veal piccata wasn’t pounded thin enough and the sauce was very tart, meaning that it didn’t have enough butter to balance out the acidity. But the gigantic failure on Porcini’s part was their tiramisu, which we decided to split. It looked like it was done correctly, but after one bite each, we realized that the cheese-custard was sour. It overwhelmed the taste of the dessert, and I thought they might have skimped on the ingredients by using cream cheese instead of mascarpone (an imported Italian cheese that has a texture similar to American cream cheese, but a much milder and smoother taste). So I asked the waitress if there was cream cheese in it. She asked the chef, and came back to tell us that yes, the tiramisu contained a “mixture” of cream cheese and mascarpone (which I took to mean that it had 98% cream cheese and 2% mascarpone). I pointed out that that “wasn’t exactly traditional,” and she just shrugged her shoulders.

She didn’t take it off the bill. I took it out of her tip.

And for what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of any restaurant that cuts corners on ingredients. I don’t care how good your chef is; if the ingredients suck, so will the finished product. Porcini’s cuts corners on ingredients. That’s a dealbreaker for me.

My wife pointed out that we should have just gone to Strip-T’s, which is a much more casual, mom-and-pop type of restaurant that specializes in ridiculously fresh fish. We wanted to do something a little more upscale, but as often as not, upscale just means a higher price, not a better meal.


Naples didn’t offer many hidden-gem restaurants of the sort that I particularly like to hit when I travel, but there were two spots worth mentioning, one on each end of the price scale.

Driving towards the hotel (the Naples Grande Resort) from the Fort Myers airport, I caught a glimpse of a place called Tacos Ardiente in a strip mall just before I got to the hotel. Since almost every other restaurant I saw on Pine Ridge Road was a fast-food restaurant or casual-dining chain franchise, I was pretty sure that I’d need a place like that to keep me sane. It was good enough the first day that I went back for a second. I can’t speak to authenticity, but their tacos were outstanding, and unlike any I’d had before. I tried both the chicken and steak tacos; the steak ones had more flavor. The tacos were served in a soft flour shell with lettuce, shredded cabbage, cheese (although naturally I had them leave it out), and a fresh tomato salsa; they went for $1.99 each. I also ordered a small side order of guacamole (50 cents), which tasted homemade. So the damage for one meal, including a Jarritos tamarind soda, was about $6 including tax.

I saw a few good comments on chowhound about a sushi place a mile or two north of the hotel on US-41 called Sushi-Thai. I’m usually wary of sushi-plus-non-Japanese-food restaurants, but this is Florida, and beggars can’t be choosers. I stuck with sushi and was pleasantly surprised. The salmon was very fresh and mild-tasting; it didn’t have the slight sweetness of Pacific salmon, but it still had good flavor and boded well for the rest of the fish. The unagi was excellent, although it’s hard to screw it up. The spicy tuna maki was a treat, as I’d never had it prepared this way before: Rather than tossing finely chopped tuna with a spicy sauce (sometimes containing mayo, making the whole thing wretched), the chef made a plain tuna maki, cut the roll into eight pieces, then drizzled a hot chile pepper sauce over the top of it. The taste of the tuna really came through in a way that traditional spicy tuna rolls don’t allow. I also splurged on fried shumai, which were just lightly browned and not even a little bit greasy.

By the way, the best quote from the GM meetings belongs to Jeff Angus of Management by Baseball fame: “Alcohol is the humidor of conversation.”

Four days in Phoenix.

The trip to Phoenix didn’t produce any story gems like the St. Louis trip did, but it definitely had its share of good eats, even if I did make a few heretical stops at chain restaurants.

I arrived too late to get to Scottsdale Stadium in time for batting practice, so I shot up Scottsdale Road to a sushi place called Sapporo that I’d been to three times before and considered one of the better sushi joints I’ve been to in the U.S. (It’s also the place where I was when I learned that Darryl Kile had been found dead in his hotel room, something that came back to me when I walked over to the spot in the restaurant where I stood when I took that phone call.) I sat at the sushi bar, figuring I wanted to eat as quickly as possible to get to the game on time, and ordered Too Much Sushiâ„¢, a problem I tend to have when eating alone at sushi restaurants. I also went for their house salad, which turned out to be a lot more ornate than the typical green salad you get in sushi places but with the same ginger dressing, which is really all that matters. The sushi was good but slightly disappointing; I thought the sake (salmon) was a little bland, and the unagi(freshwater eel) wasn’t slightly warm like it usually is. The spicy tuna rolls were very good, but could have been a bit spicier. Anyway, I was pretty sure I’d exceeded my per diem – I’m responsibly for anything I spend over that amount – on just one meal, but when I got the bill, it was $21. Turns out that everything is discounted for happy hour, making that meal the best sushi deal I’ve ever gotten. I know Tony Bourdain warns people to run away from “discount sushi,” but this particular discount is OK.

Café Carumba, a rare high-end restaurant that serves all three meals, was a major find for breakfast, and I wish I’d had a few more days there to work my way through the breakfast menu. I hate doing the eggs/sausage-or-bacon thing every day while I travel – once per trip is usually enough – but it’s hard to find an alternative. (The hotel wanted $10 for its crappy buffet; I wasn’t warm to the idea of giving them $10 for a container of yogurt and a stale pastry.) At Carumba, I did do the eggs-sausage-toast bit, since it’s my usual test dish for a breakfast spot. The sausage patties were delicious, probably house-made, lightly spiced and not too porky. The eggs were overcooked, although I have to admit that they were generous with the portions; apparently the menu’s reference to “two eggs” meant ostrich eggs. The rosemary potato wedges were a little dry, but the flavor was excellent. But what caught my eye was the yogurt-and-granola dish for $5, enough to pull me back the next morning. I don’t know where the granola came from, but it was superb, not too sweet (since the yogurt is already sweetened – I don’t need a sugar rush at 9 a.m.) and with a little cinnamon, and the bowl was topped with a sliced fresh strawberry. That, an English muffin that turned out to be free because the server forgot to bring it out with the yogurt dish, and a cup of hot tea (they serve Tazo) ran $9 with tip. Whenever I get back to Phoenix, my first breakfast stop will be at Carumba for their migas, which they make with chorizo sausage; my failure to try them stands as my major food regret of the trip. Heavy, spicy food isn’t really the ideal breakfast in my book, but this is the sort of sacrifice one has to make from time to time.

Wednesday’s lunch was a trip to Phoenix Ranch Market, something of a religious experience for people who like to cook; it’s a huge Mexican grocery store that also features a large food court. Any time I walk into an ethnic restaurant or store and find it packed with members of that ethnicity (and, therefore, not with people who look like I do), I figure I’m in the right spot. Indeed, despite the fact that the woman who took my order was so flustered by the prior customer’s inability to make up her mind that my burrito ended up an all-carnitas version instead of carnitas with rice and beans, I’m still a huge fan. That plus an enormous tamarind juice that I couldn’t finish ran $7, and I left with three Mexican cookies that cost $1 – two were just like oversized Italian butter cookies, and the third was a cocol, a sort of Mexican sweet bread (not sweetbread) flavored with anise seeds that didn’t thrill me. The food court also offered ice cream, cakes and other pastries, and plenty of other lunch options like enchiladas, tacos, etc. The carnitas, by the way, were served without any sauce (which may be traditional, but it was new to me), but had all the flavor of an excellent barbequed pulled pork.

Wednesday’s dinner and Thursday’s lunch were at chain restaurants. I was in Peoria and options were limited. We’re just going to pretend that those meals never happened.

Friday was the best eating day of the trip, which is typical, since it was also the last eating day of the trip. Breakfast was the aforementioned yogurt meal at Carumba. Lunch was an unusual plate at the Blue Adobe Grill in Mesa, less than a mile from their ballpark. The food is New Mexican cuisine (as in, from New Mexico), and the quality was extremely high. But apparently I’m not a huge fan of the red chile, at least not the varieties used in the cuisine of New Mexico. The carne adovada enchilada had a perfectly good piece of slow-roasted pork that came in an extremely bitter and somewhat spicy red adobo sauce. I’m told that this is normal. Why people would willingly eat something so bitter is beyond me; the only things that should taste that bad are medicine. The bitterness overwhelmed the spiciness and the sweetness that I think lay hidden underneath. I don’t think this is a fault of the cook; I think this is how it’s supposed to taste, and suddenly I’m not so sure that a week in Santa Fe is on my list of vacations to take. The red chile rice was better, with less bitterness but less heat, and the “shredded” beef taco (served on two soft corn tortillas with shredded cabbage) was excellent; the beef was more pulled than anything else, and it was a pleasant surprise to have a taco that wasn’t made with ground beef cooked within an inch of its life. The meal’s highlight was actually the smoky green salsa that came with warm tortilla chips to start the meal. I was tempted to take the salsa with me, but my only potential vessel was a pant pocket, and I thought the salsa might ruin my cell phone.

Friday’s dinner was my one meal with companions, Jeff Erickson of Rotowire and my occasional comrade-in-forks Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. Looking for a quick meal between BP and the game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, we hit Honey Bear’s BBQ, a rather, um, unassuming little building on Van Buren just west of the 202. Smoke was pouring out of the back of the building, and once I determined that the place was not on fire, I took it as a good omen. I got greedy and went for the pulled pork, baked beans, and peach cobbler, which ran about $9 including a drink. The pork was excellent, very tender with good smoky flavor, and Joe and I had an extended discussion on the sauce, eventually concluding that the cook was going for a pan-American sauce, with some vinegar (North Carolina), mustard (South Carolina), and sweet (Memphis) flavors coming through. The beans were also plus, with bits of their hot links inside; Joe had a hot link sandwich, and gave it a thumbs up. Their links are hot but not killer-hot and were extremely juicy. The cobbler was good, although the layers of dough ended up a little gummy from sitting there while I ate everything else. Jeff got the ribs and thought they were good, but not as tender as promised (they claim “You don’t need no teeth to eat our meat!”). It was an incredible find by way of Google Maps and Chowhound, and I was still full three hours later.

Next year’s goal will be a chain-free trip to Phoenix. I’m optimistic; there are a lot of good eats to be had in that town, and I think I only scratched the surface of the Mexican scene.

Eating in St. Louis.

When I travel, whether for work or for vacation, I take one aspect of the trip very seriously: Eating. A bad meal is a wasted opportunity, so when I’m headed out of town, I do some homework to make sure I hit the best local spots. This week’s trip was to St. Louis, a town known for doing things to ravioli that would get them arrested in most of Italy.

The primary objective of this week’s mission was to sample Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard, the legend of which extends well beyond St. Louis; Alton Brown even stopped there in one episode of his recent series on road food, Feasting on Asphalt. As AB does, I do, so I had a printout from Google Maps in my laptop case before I even boarded the plane to Missouri, showing me the route from my hotel to Ted Drewes’ one year-round location. Everyone (AB included) said to get a “concrete,” a blended custard thing that stays in the cup when it’s held upside (although I was warned by the girl who served me that that trick only works for a minute or so, but not once it starts to melt … I must look like a guy who can’t tie his own shoes in the morning). But with all apologies to the members of the Drewes Militia, I wasn’t impressed. The texture of the custard was outstanding (an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is average, 80 is Hall-of-Famer caliber and 20 is Joey Gathright’s power), but the flavor was a 45 at best. I even went twice and got a different flavor the second time, but was let down again. The chocolate flavor tasted like vanilla custard laced with bad chocolate syrup, while the custard in my Oreo® concrete was way too sweet.

Hodak’s fried chicken was a bigger success. I’m not sure why they bother with the menu. Do people go there for something else? Ridiculously good value, too, with two half-chicken-with-fries plates plus two iced teas (yes, I went with a friend) plus tip coming to $18.

The morning I left St. Louis, I stopped at the Goody Goody Diner out on Natural Bridge Road for breakfast, since it’s on the way to the airport and I wanted to have a big breakfast since I’d be in the air through lunchtime. I was already a little skittish about the area when a possibly inebriated woman asked me for fifty cents on the sidewalk in front of the building – okay, maybe the fact that the neighborhood looks like Tikrit on a good day didn’t help – but I went in anyway.

And then came the stares.

That sort of thing happens when a short, skinny white guy carrying a book and wearing an outfit entirely from Banana Republic walks into a working-class diner where all but three of the forty-odd people in the joint are African-American. I sat at the counter, and when I discovered it was Waffle Week, I was sold – waffles are definitely my favorite breakfast food, which does not mean I only have them for breakfast, and I’ve had a hankering for a good waffle since I had a dynamite one at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis back in July. I ordered one of the specials, which included a waffle, two eggs (scrambled, always), and sausage. When the dishes came – there were three sausage patties on the plate – the gentleman next to me said, “Damn!”

I figured this was just another sad case of breakfast envy, something I’m all too familiar with. That’s when someone else gets their breakfast and you realize that you should have ordered what he ordered. So I asked the guy, “What?”

“You hungry!”

I guess short, skinny white guys don’t usually eat much at Goody Goody. (By the way, the food was excellent, with the eggs cooked perfectly.)

But back to the abuse of ravioli. Turns out that there’s a local specialty dish called “toasted ravioli” – ravioli that have been breaded and (by the taste of things) fried, served with a tomato sauce that tastes like it came right out of a jar. I suppose in a world where Twinkies and Oreos are fair game for the fryer, I can’t necessarily complain about fried ravioli, even if it offends my sensibilities as a native New Yorker and an Italian-American. But a funny thing happened when toasted ravioli were on menu in the press dining room. A woman brought out a catering tray full of the things, and I asked her if they contained cheese (because I avoid ricotta). She gave me a smirk and said, “No,” then turned away. I stood there for a minute, because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she thought this was a strange question. So I asked her, “There’s no cheese in the ravioli?” And, again with the smirk and a look that said “you stupid tourist,” she said, “There’s no cheese in ravioli. There’s cheese in tortellini, but there’s meat in ravioli.”

Now, before lactose intolerance ruined a perfectly good love affair between me and stuffed pasta dishes, I grew up eating ravioli, usually bought fresh from Pasta Buona in Smithtown, New York, and while you could buy meat ravioli, the default option was cheese. In fact, that’s the case everywhere in New York, and when I’ve seen them in Italy, the filling is usually cheese or cheese with spinach. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to take this guff from some Midwestern girl who looked like her ancestors might have been named Olaf and Inga.

So I said, trying to match her smirk as best as I could, “Oh, is that how you do things around here.” The moth went right for the flame: “Why, where are you from?”

“Italy.” (Which is, of course, not true.)


Okay, not the most ethical way to win the argument, but it was effective. Besides, you can’t do those things to ravioli and get away with it.