Friday, October 8, 2010

Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

My first job was washing dishes at a family restaurant.  I was 13 years old, and I loved every stinking, filthy minute.  It was nasty work; scraping people's leavings into the giant drain, rinsing the plates and cups, loading the racks that slid into the industrial dishwasher.  The steam from that machine would curl my hair, and the dishes coming out burn my hands.  I'd slip and fall on the greasy floor of the line while stacking clean plates.  The cooks would laugh at me from their stations.  But I was proud of myself.  Even at that age, I knew any job worth doing, was worth doing well.  I suppose I have my parents to thank for that.

I worked my way up through that restaurant; from dishwasher, to hostess, to waitress.  I made a lot of friends.  I made a ton of money in tips (and oh, how I should have appreciated all that dough, with no bills to pay).  I dated one, or two, of the cooks over the years.  I had fun.  I also developed an understanding of how much work it takes to make a restaurant good.  "Pre Prior Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance," was the owner's favorite saying.  How can that not stick with you?  It was the first restaurant I worked in, but several others followed.  Usually Italian, or run by Italian families.  One was an Italian restaurant, run by a large Persian family.  Either way, my love for carbs was evident early on.

I am unable to separate myself from those experiences when I'm in a restaurant.  I haven't waited tables since college, but I find myself deconstructing, all the same.  Do the employees look happy to be there?  As the customer, do I feel welcomed, and appreciated?  Does the menu make sense; or even if it's a bit challenging, am I excited to try something I've never had before?  For God's sake, is the place reasonably clean?

I am most critical of the servers.  Having done the job for so many years, I can't help it.  Do they smile at me?  Do they impart the necessary information about the menu, without making it a Broadway production?  Do they care if my glass is empty?  Do they know when to stop talking, walk away, and let me enjoy myself?  It's a delicate balance to strike.  I know it when it's done well.

I have found a haven from the over-analyzing at Il Terrazzo Carmine.  I discovered this place relatively recently.  I've ordered carry-out for the office,  I've lunched at the bar, and I've eaten in the restaurant.  Every single experience has been flawless, from the moment I walked in the door, to the second I stepped outside, my belly full, a smile on my face.

Soup & Salad:  Carmine's has great soup.  The Tuscan White Bean has been my lunch choice several times, as has the Minestrone, and the Shrimp Bisque.  They are all delicious.  They serve a salad I order frequently; Insalata Di Pollo Suprema.  It has the perfect balance of grilled chicken, fresh greens, candied walnuts, and a little bit of sliced provolone.  This salad is the bomb; enough chicken to keep you full until dinner-time, without a heavy dressing, or other fatty garnishes.  I also enjoy the Insalata Mista.  For such a simple green salad, it's surprisingly delicious, and the various lettuces exceptionally fresh.

Pasta:  The Fettuccine Al Pesto Con Gamberi is so good; tender fettuccine, with robust pesto sauce, and delicately grilled shrimp.  The Ravioli Di Capriolo... on a cold and windy Seattle day, there is absolutely nothing more comforting than this meaty, venison ravioli.  It's topped with a decadent veal sauce, that is spiked with wild mushrooms.  Where do you even see that on the menu? 

Staff:  The people who work at Carmine's make it a very special place.  When I ate in the dining room, I immediately noticed the professional, white-coated servers.  Ours spoke Italian as his first language, and has worked at Carmine's for more than 10 years.  He was classy, knowledgeable, and just the tiniest bit aloof.  This is no diner-slouch slinging hash, he is a Pro.  The hostess introduces herself by name when I call-in orders.  Carmine himself will come to say hello, and shake my hand.  I can barely remember the last time I saw this much regard for the customer.

The Bar:  Not only is the bar a perfect place to sneak away for a solo lunch, the bartender is my hero.  He manages some regular take-out orders I place for work, and takes care of me when I have the chance to get away myself.  He's one of those people that makes my life easier, and I appreciate him immensely for that.  On those rare days I stay for lunch, he's quick to make me feel at home; laying out a pristine white cloth over the bar for my plate.  We chat as I get settled, but he's content to leave me to read while I eat.  This guy gets it.  Oh, the guilty pleasure of silence.  Only someone who waits on other people all day can understand how precious that is.

A Typical Lunch:  Mid-week.  It's chilly, and raining.  I slip across the street to Carmine's.  The bartender recommends the special, says it's his favorite.  Pappardelle pasta, tomato sauce with spicy Italian sausage, and pretty little lumps of fresh ricotta.  As the words are spoken, all pre-conceived notions of lunch disappear.  I enjoy a piece of fresh, crusty bread, sip my diet coke with lime.  Ah... quiet.  Nobody's asking me for anything.  I'm reading a novel.  The experience is delicious, despite the fact my food has yet to arrive.

The pasta appears; holy Christmas on a plate.  It's one of the most perfect dishes I've ever eaten.  Pappardelle is a wide noodle, about an inch or so.  Perfectly al dente, it pairs beautifully with the spicy sausage, and bitty pieces of ricotta.  The pasta wraps itself luxuriantly around the meat and cheese as I twirl my fork.  Every bite is the perfect blend of pappardelle, sauce, sausage and cheese.  Sublime.

If it wasn't clear, I'm in love.  If you live in Seattle, or are visiting, and are looking for excellent Italian food, impeccable service, and a blissful dining experience.... look no further.

On top of all this, and likely more charming to me than others...  Carmine's takes me back to the old days.  I can't help but feel nostalgic.  I wish I was going out with the staff after work.  We'd count our tips, have a cocktail, smoke a cigarette.  We'd reflect on how busy we were, or how slow.  We'd talk trash, about who dropped a plate that night, or burned themselves on the grill.  Or who had the most demanding customer.

My restaurant days feel so long ago, but my appreciation for the people who do the work will never fade.  There is so much more involved than one might realize, if you've never stepped on the other side of that line.  When it's done well, it is a work of art.  That's what Carmine's is to me.