Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The mob scene in the drawer

My first fascination with the junk drawer was based almost entirely on the fact that I thought my mom was calling it the "drunk" drawer.

I knew that "drunk" had something to do with liquor. But since my mother drank hardly at all, I first wondered whether the drunk drawer was the permanent effect of some one-time bender she went on and if it now served as a cautionary tale she was sharing with her offspring. Sort of like, "See, kids, this is what happens when you hit the hard stuff." ...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Conversion by canoli

I haven't the heart to tell them — these people who took me in 10 years ago, who have fed me countless generous servings of delicious Italian food and who allowed me to marry one of their own. I haven't the heart to tell them that the best cannolis I've ever eaten are served at the Village Oven in West Stockbridge.

If you were me, you wouldn't tell them either.

I buttoned my lip on Saturday as my wife, son and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Italian section of the Bronx known as Arthur Avenue. It is there that my wife's extended family — the Delbellos of New York — gather annually to eat, greet and stock up on food in preparation for Easter.

I owe my appetite to these people. Years ago, my stomach was a mere serf, bound to a world ruled by the Burger King. They found me, performed CPR on my taste buds, proselytized me with a wedge of pecorino romagna, and paved a future for me lined with prosciutto. Me — Irish and as out of place on Arthur Avenue as a beach ball on a ski lift — I'm one of the family now.

Which is why I haven't the heart to brag of the fine selection of Italian olives at Guido's in Great Barrington.

By the time we got down to Arthur Avenue, nearly 40 members of the clan were taking up 14 tables inside Mario's restaurant.

Even the young ones, the nieces and nephews, can discuss the "airiness factor" of pizza dough with an expertise bordering on the archeological. They can debate the bitterness of broccoli rabe with a sensibility bordering on the botanical. They can speak of the proportions of garlic and oil in a marinara sauce with a wisdom that borders the mystical.

Who am I to tell these people that the best Italian bread I've ever tasted is not the famous sesame loaves of Arthur Avenue, but the ciabatta loaves from Berkshire Mountain Bakery? 

Let me explain. My mother comes from the McCabe clan of County Tyrone. For me, an Italian meal used to consist of spaghetti tarred and feathered with Prego and processed parmigiana. My mother once announced she'd make pizza from scratch; she used Bisquick. I'm not saying my childhood was "Angela's Ashes," but it kinda tasted that way.

I've come a long way. My wife and her family have taught me that good food is simple, fresh, preferably vine-ripened and locally produced. Now, I make lasagna from scratch and hum peasant songs from Naples. I don't understand a lick of Italian, but I'm certain those forlorn singers with the concertinas are not pining for the love of a woman, but rather of the lost ragu of youth.

Such sad strains are not heard on Arthur Avenue, because there's nothing to be sad about. It's the voice of Louie Prima that comes cartwheeling through every open doorway, including (I could swear) Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Indeed, how could one be sad when DeLillo's has just placed a tray of fresh-baked sfoglia-telle in the display case? With all this happiness, how can I possibly brag about the fact that where I come from, you can now get sopprasata at Price Chopper that rivals that of Tino's on Arthur Avenue?

But the thing is, it just doesn't taste as good without a few Delbellos at the table.
More than 75 years ago, my wife's great-grandfather, Augusto, a family doctor from Harlem who bartered his services for live chickens, discovered this tiny, Italian crossroads in the Bronx, one of the few places on the continent where you could find authentic Italian foods.
My wife's grandmother, the beautiful Eleanor (Augusto's daughter), 94, the matriarch, still tends her own tomato plants on Long Island. Six years ago, on Arthur Avenue, she tried to force-feed pizza to our newborn, though the kid didn't even have a molar with which to defend himself. It was Arthur Avenue boot camp for the newbie.
"Come on," she said, pleadingly, "it's pizza."
Nana, as she is known, had my wife pledge that our son would grow up knowing his cousins. And she said, "Pass on how special this family is."
He loves his cousins, and now he'll eat a bowl of pecorino Romano with a spoon.
He's become intertwined with the family line, along with Arthur Avenue and all its food, all of which form the double-love knot that holds the world in place.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Berkshires, clockwise

The inspiration sprang from a late-night bull session in which plans are hatched and brain cells are snatched — and from mention of the irrefutable truth that people just don't circumnavigate like they used to. ...

Guinness World Records gave official recognition last month that Briton Robert Garside had successfully jogged around the world.

Jogged? Come on.

If such were the guidelines in the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan — who feared sea serpents and falling off the edge of the earth — could've moonwalked it. Where's the danger? Where the adversity?

So this was the inspiration: circumnavigate Berkshire County by car and (here's where it becomes treacherous) do so within a mile per hour of the posted speed limit (which is how I travel these days since one more speeding ticket will increase my monthly car insurance bill to roughly the gross national product of Guyana).

With the Toyota in turtle gear, we set off on a recent morning — one of those early-April, seasonally schizophrenic mornings — my co-pilot, Doug, me, our western Massachusetts Jimapco map, and a dream. Doug's task was to count how many motorists either rode roughshod upon our bumper, passed us in a no-passing zone, or ran us off the road in some Berkshire backwater only to be discovered weeks later by the state K-9 unit. My task was to drive and to do my best to keep Doug from regretting he wasted his day off.

Our course began on Route 41 in Housatonic, traveling clockwise around the county, as close to the borders of New YorkVermontFranklin and Hampden counties, and Connecticut as seemed sensible (that is to say, Mount Washington and Clarksburg, you're on your own, which is probably how you prefer it). I figure we traveled more than 120 miles. It took about four hours.

A mere 20 minutes into the trip, Doug was getting carsick. (My generation, they have no discipline.) I tried to push him on. "Doug, be strong." I backtracked on Route 20 into Pittsfield and bought him some McDonald's. He suckled on that a bit and was happy once again.

By the time we hit Williamstown, Doug had depleted his reserve of cow jokes (including, "What do you call a cow that gives birth? Decalfinated").

And my nerves were shattered from the angry motorists who had been chewing up my rearview mirror along Route 43 in Hancock.

After a break in North Adams, where I rubbed some Ben Gay onto my gas-pedal foot, we puttered up onto the Mohawk Trail, the Berkshires' top shelf, where the county holds for safekeeping such lovely curiosities as the town of Florida.

By Savoy, Doug began getting testy, partially because no one had flipped us the bird yet, and partially because I controlled the radio. I could smell a mutiny.

"Just hop on 8A back to Pittsfield, and let's go home," he said.

I fended it off. "Careful. I'll drop you off in Peru — and not the one with the white sand beaches and Incan ruins."

By Becket, I was seriously second-guessing the value of citizen social science.

But midway through Becket, things brightened. We were traveling at the posted speed of (I think) 30 mph on (I think) Bonnie Hill Rigg Road, when a Camaro — as if sent by Central Casting — came grumbling up behind us. And yes, it wove in and out of the rearview, as Camaros were manufactured to do. And yes, it vroomed-vroomed and tried to take us out at the knees. And yes, I'm pleased to say that as it passed us, the young man driving made an obscene gesture with his longest finger.

"Doug, old boy," I said, "does that help?"

"Yeah," he said. "That was perfect."

The trip was a cakewalk after that.

Triumphantly, we turned onto Route 23 in South Egremont, where the town fathers prefer motorists get out and push their cars down Main Street but will settle for 15 mph. We were feeling a little cocky, in fact, and downshifted to 15 mph. We waved to the people as if we were on a victory march up the Champs-Elysées.
Soon enough, Doug and I were back to our starting point with promises not to hang out again for a long while.

Here's the tally: 17 aggressive tailgaters, nine passings in a no-passing zone, many hands flailing expressively, but only one bird.

Here are the conclusions: Nice area, these Berkshires. Really. He travels slowest who travels alone. Berkshire County is not round, but in fact, rectangular, just as everyone thought.

And, finally, if given the choice of circumnavigating the Berkshires again, I'd rather fight a 16th-century sea serpent.