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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

When You Go Shopping, Please Remember To Bring Your Brain


Your Brain Gets Lonely When You Leave It At Home

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

It's really hard to express primal scream therapy in print, but I do feel better, thank you. What's got me bugged now, you may ask? I'll tell you. In one word: idioti. (That shouldn't be too hard to translate from Italian.) Specifically, people who step out the door and leave their brains behind. This results in them going to shops, stores, restaurants, gas stations and the like in a completely brainless state. Not good, people, not good. Bad for society and bad for your brain. The poor thing gets lonely when you leave it home alone. Let me illustrate my point by relating some examples of folks shopping while brainless.

I just got back from my local Pizza Hut. (Yes, sometimes I get desperate.) I had ordered my pizza online, paid for it in advance, and timed my trip to the local store so that I could just whiz through the drive through window to pick it up. That was the plan, anyway. What I didn't take into account was the moron who pulled up to the drive through window just ahead of me to place his frickin' order and WAIT FOR IT!! I sat there in stark disbelief for several minutes as it slowly dawned on me what was happening. Fortunately, there was no one behind me, but still I can assure you that backing an SUV out of a severely curved drive through lane without benefit of a rear view camera is no picnic. I went inside, ranting about already being old and only getting older sitting out there behind that fool. I picked up my rapidly aging order, which was ready, of course, and the transaction took me all of thirty seconds; a thirty second transaction I could have accomplished from my vehicle were it not for some random idiota who left his brain at home.

Then there's the grocery store checkout. Here's where the brain-free phenomenon is really prevalent. First let me share how I handle the checkout experience. I bring my loaded cart to the checkout stand and place the contents thereof on the conveyor. When I'm done, I pull the cart forward and through so that anybody behind me can start doing whatever they need to do. Then – and this is the tricky part, apparently – I get out my wallet and remove my credit card and any store rewards card or coupons I might have. That way, when the cashier hits the total, I can immediately hand over the discount card, the coupons, and the payment for the purchases. Ideally, while I'm doing that, the next person in line is going through the same procedure and thus the world continues in an orderly fashion. Sadly, such efficiency gets all bolloxed up and grinds to a halt when the nitwit in line ahead of me – and there's always one ahead of me – waits until all the groceries have been totaled and most of the order is bagged before they even give the first thought to the fact that they are expected to pay for it all and start to make slow, lugubrious progress toward their pocket or pocketbook. After locating their wallet, they spend half a minute or so figuring out which form of payment to employ. They know they have a discount card, but either can't find it or don't seem to have it with them, forcing the cashier to use an alternate means of obtaining the information. If they have coupons.....somewhere.....well, all bets are off. And if they are still stuck in the stone age and are writing a check, you might as well get comfortable because you're going to be there for awhile. Instead of having pre-written everything but the amount on the check while they were waiting, they wait until the cashier presents the total before they even begin searching for their checkbook. Then they have to find a pen and fill out the check and wait while the cashier processes and approves it, which usually involves rummaging around for ID......all this while you stand there watching your ice cream melt. What is it the Boy Scouts say? “Be prepared?”

Oh, and before we leave the supermarket, how about this: you need a brain in order to be able to read, right? Okay. So I guess that when five lanes are open and four of them are clearly marked "Full Service" while the fifth one reads "Express Lane -- 12 Items or Less," only a brainless dolt -- like the woman at my local market earlier this afternoon -- would unload an overflowing cart full of groceries onto the "Express" conveyor while I stand in line behind her with eight items in my cart. I actually moved over to a "Full Service" lane, not too quietly proclaiming something about the sign as I did so. The cashier at the "Express" lane grinned and the one at the register to which I moved outright smiled and said, "We're not allowed to say anything." To which I replied, "Maybe not, but I sure can." 

How about the line at the fast-food place? Lot's of empty heads there. You can easily spot them because they are the ones who wait until the counter person says, “May I help you?” before they look up at the menu and proceed to stare at it as if it has somehow miraculously changed since they were in yesterday. Or perhaps since 1958. And, of course, you're stuck behind them, watching your lunch hour tick away while they ponder this most ponderous decision.

Oh, and while we're at the fast food place, if you had your brain with you would realize how incredibly rude it is to be talking on your cellphone while you're in the process of ordering or paying. This is actually true at the grocery store as well or anyplace where face-to-face human interaction might occur. Dust off your brain and put yourself behind the counter. How would you feel if the person you were trying to help by taking their order or ringing up their purchase was so completely engaged in talking to someone miles away that you – standing right there in front of them – might as well not exist? And it's not just the rudeness factor: your engrossment in your electronic conversation usually impacts those in line behind you, too, slowing down service and subjecting others to intimate details about your affairs that they'd probably rather not know. If my phone rings while I'm working with a cashier, I quickly excuse myself and answer the call by saying, “Hold on a second. I'm ordering lunch” or “paying for groceries” or whatever the case may be. I then put the phone down and continue to interact with the person standing in front of me. I figure they are already waiting on me, so I'm not going to make them wait for me.

I love the convenience of an ATM. And that's just “ATM,” by the way, and not “ATM machine.” The “M” in the acronym “ATM” stands for “machine,” so by calling it an “ATM machine” you are actually saying “automatic teller machine machine.” And why, unless you are an operative within the Department of Redundancy Department, would you need my “PIN number?” Wouldn't my “PIN” or “personal identification number” suffice? Why must it be my “personal identification number number?” Hmmm? Same thing applies to may car's “VIN number (vehicle identification number number)” or the “UPC code (universal product code code) you might find on the back of an “LCD display (liquid crystal display display).” But I digress.

Back to the ATM. Assuming I'm doing what most people are doing, i.e. using the machine to get some quick cash, I don't understand how I can accomplish the task in under forty seconds – yes, I've timed myself – while it seems to take others forty minutes. Again, remembering to bring your brain to the banking machine helps a lot. Because, see, if you do that, you'll have your card in your hand as you approach the device rather than waiting until you get to the keypad before you start fumbling for your wallet. I can drive up, get out of my car when necessary, slip my card into the slot, enter my PIN, select “English,” select “Withdrawal,” opt out of getting a receipt, punch in my transaction amount, remove my card, collect my cash, and be back in my car in less than a minute. That is, of course, unless some boob got there first. Said boob took an eternity to extract a wallet from its place of concealment and an infinity to locate their ATM card within the wallet and is now staring at the screen as if it were a control panel aboard a space shuttle. Boob will finally decide upon a course of action and the course will invariably involve doing a week's worth of banking business that could have and should have been done at an actual frickin' bank. Then they will meander back to their car and sit there while they check over the transaction record, count the cash, put their card back in their wallet and return the wallet to their pocket or purse before putting on their seat belt and starting up the car, engaging the transmission, and s-l-o-w-l-y pulling away, leaving me sitting in my car with my electric razor, shaving off the beard that has grown during what should have been a less-than-a-minute-long transaction and popping my blood pressure pills as the steam from my labored breathing fogs up my windshield.

Walmart is a place my wife and I both love to hate. Either of us would rather be subjected to Ernest Tubb singing opera than to shop at WallyWorld. (If you're unfamiliar, find any classic Ernest Tubb tune and you'll immediately understand.) But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and it's best to just prepare in advance for the cadre of the clueless you will doubtless encounter within the walls of Walmart. I'm not talking about the obvious “People of Walmart” people, the ones you see online in all their outlandish fashion glory. No, I mean the regular folks, your neighbors and fellow citizens who do to the aisles of Walmart what kids in the '50s and '60s did to the parking lots at the malt shop, the drive-in, and the pizza parlor. I go to Walmart when I need something I can't conveniently find somewhere else. “Low prices” be damned, I would rather pay a few pennies more and not be driven to a state of nerve-wracked, drooling catatonia. There is no price tag on my sanity. And the people who drive me insane are the ones who view Walmart not as a place to shop for goods and get out but rather see it as a social gathering venue in which they all mill about, narrowing the already narrow aisles, talking to friends they apparently haven't since since at least earlier today and discussing at length everything from Junior's soccer practice to Mom's “female” problems. All completely oblivious to their surroundings, a direct result of having left their brains at home. If they had brought their brains to Walmart, they would realize that there are people there who want to get what they came for in a swift and orderly fashion without having to take on aspects of Alabama's Harry Gilmer or some other famous halfback adept at broken field running. Shop like you mean it, people! And if you absolutely must engage in a coffee klatch in the cereal aisle, at least have the common sense and common courtesy – both of which are extremely uncommon anymore – to pull your cart out of the middle of the aisle so people who aren't part of your gabfest can get by. I always carry bail money to Walmart in case I need it.

Last but certainly not least, let's stop by the gas station. Most everybody these days pays at the pump. Most, but not all. There are still those who, for whatever reason, pay cash. I do it myself sometimes if I'm only getting a couple of bucks worth of gas for the lawn mower or something. This, of course, involves leaving your car at the pump and going inside the building. And that's fine. Go on in there and pay for your gas, then come back out and pump it. When you're finished, move your car out of the way so the six cars lined up behind you can access the gas pump. That's what your brain would likely tell you to do if you had it with you. Only a brainless idiot would go inside to pay for his gas, get some cigarettes, buy a few lottery tickets, grab a drink, pick up some chips, snag a candy bar, pop into the rest room, and then get into an extended conversation at the cash register with ol' Billy Roy who just happened to be in there doing all the same things. I know they call it a “convenience store” but it's not just there for your convenience. Think about the people sitting outside in their cars waiting for you to finish your all-important business. It might be raining or snowing, it might be hot or cold, they might be late for work or trying to get home for supper, But, of course, you can't think about such things if you left your brain at home.

Earlier I alluded to having a brain in your head at all times as being important to society, which the dictionary defines as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community.” And etiquette – or “good manners,” as the country folk say – is defined as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in society.” So it's not all about me. It's not all about my rights and my privileges and my ability to do whatever I want to do anytime and anyplace I want to do it. It's about what's best for the “aggregate of people living together” under a “set of rules.” And whether you're religious or not, the greatest of those rules is the one that tells us to respect our fellow human beings and to treat them in the same manner in which we would expect to be treated ourselves. And that requires thinking. Thinking about others. Thinking about whether or not something you're doing is creating a problem for somebody else, whether it be in a checkout line, a grocery store aisle, or a gas pump. The kind of thinking which requires a brain to be present at all times. Ergo, your brain should be like an American Express card: don't leave home without it.

I'll see you at Walmart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cheesecake Factory's Failed Four Cheese Pasta


Good Thing They Don't Call Themselves “Pasta Factory”

You ever wonder why some restaurants choose to name themselves some sort of “factory?” In this day and age of “handcrafted” and “artisan” goods, doesn't the “factory” designation ring a little industrial and uninspired? Dictionary.com defines a “factory” as: “a building or group of buildings with facilities for the manufacture of goods; any place producing a uniform product, without concern for individuality.” Hmmm.

We recently decided to spend a Cheesecake Factory gift card my wife had received for her birthday from a coworker. We'd never been to a Cheesecake Factory before and, after this past weekend's experience, we will likely not be going again. At least not for anything other than the cheesecake.

The atmosphere and décor at the restaurant we visited were stunning; very art-deco and upscale. And we were impressed if somewhat nonplussed by the twenty page menu. That said, let me offer a little insider tip: elaborate window dressing like dramatic décor and gargantuan menus are rapidly becoming passé in the industry. They are holdovers from an era when “if you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit” held sway. Give me a little hole-in-the-wall place with a single page menu of extraordinary food and I'm a much happier camper.

Anyway, we were shown to our table promptly by a smiling hostess and immediately attended by a very friendly, personable, and knowledgeable server. So far, so good. Undaunted by the daunting menu, my wife decided to go a little outside her usual comfort zone and try the Chicken Pot Stickers, classic pan-fried Asian dumplings served with a soy-ginger sesame sauce. I opted to stay close to my Italian roots and go with the Four Cheese Pasta, a dish consisting of penne pasta in a marinara sauce with mozzarella, ricotta, Romano and Parmesan cheeses, topped with chopped fresh basil. Of course, the server asked me if I wanted chicken with my pasta because Americans simply can't wrap their heads around the idea that pasta is a dish in and of itself and that Italians do not mix chicken – or any other meat – in with their pasta. So I politely declined the offer.

Our beverages arrived quickly and we were presented with a basket of delicious assorted breads while we were waiting.

My wife's pot stickers surprised, pleased, and satisfied her very much. Despite the typically Brobdingnagian American restaurant portions, she cleaned her plate quite effectively and was ready to move on to the signature cheesecake offerings.

It was not, however, love at first bite for me. In the first place, the dish came with a rather unappealing glop of wet ricotta and chopped basil on top. The consistency of the ricotta was such that I at first mistook it for sour cream. After I mixed it into the sauce, turning the red marinara rather pink in the process, I was ready to dig in. Well, my mama always taught me that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all, so let me say that the bread was delicious.

Look, I'm not a big one for complaining to the kitchen. Generally, if I don't like something, I don't finish it and I don't go back. But this was different. This was so egregiously awful I had to say something. The last time I remember being so offended by a dish was about fifteen years ago when some chain steak joint served me a fettuccine Alfredo rendered absolutely inedible by the heavy-handed adulteration of nutmeg and God knows what else in the sauce. At the Cheesecake Factory, the sauce was inoffensive enough, but the pasta was simply the worst I'd ever been subjected to from either a professional or a home kitchen. Although properly cooked for texture, it was indescribably bland. There was more salt in the tears I shed over this affront to Italian cookery than there was in the water in which the pasta was prepared.

In case you have never read anything that I or any other Italian cook has ever written about cooking pasta, you have to, have to, HAVE TO add generous amounts of salt to the water in which you cook the pasta. Some cooks say to “aggressively salt” the water. Others will tell you the water must “taste like the sea.” In any case, salt is essential to flavor in pasta. And that flavor must be imparted during the early cooking process when the pasta is opening up to release its starches and absorb flavors. Once the pasta is cooked, no amount of salting will give it flavor. Salting badly cooked pasta after the fact will only result in salty-tasting but otherwise bland pasta. And that was most definitely the case here. I literally took the top off the salt shaker in an attempt to infuse some semblance of flavor into the pasta set before me, but it was impossible. I had my wife try a bite. She could taste the sauce and the salt I'd dumped onto the noodle, but she agreed that the underlying pasta was hopelessly underseasoned.

I spoke to the server who sent over her supervisor who sent over the kitchen manager. I wasn't trying to be an obnoxious jerk; I genuinely wanted to know if this grievous, flagrant abuse of perfectly good pasta was the result of some corporate policy limiting the use of salt for “health reasons” or if it was just a preposterous lack of experience in the kitchen. Hey! It happens. I had to retrain one of my restaurant cooks once because he was using half-teaspoons of salt where half-cups were called for.

I think word about me must have made it up the line because the first question the kitchen manager inexplicably asked when he arrived at the table was about my occupation. I told him. And he admitted they were, indeed, required to “control” the use of salt in their kitchen. (Sigh) Why is it nobody understands that pasta only absorbs a minuscule amount of actual salt from the water? That the rest of the salt goes harmlessly down the drain? That nobody's going to get hardened arteries or have a stroke as a result of eating properly seasoned pasta? I don't know. (Sigh)

My wife properly explains that restaurants are really over a barrel on this issue. There are some salt-nazis out there who will raise holy hell if they taste the slightest hint of salt in a dish. “What are you trying to do, kill me?,” they screech. And then you have folks like me on the other side of the equation who will crucify a cook for attempting to bore my palate to sleep with bland, tasteless food. Working upward from the lowest common denominator, some restaurants choose to properly season food and suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously palate-numbed masses while others – apparently including Cheesecake Factory – opt for pandering to them.

At any rate, the kitchen manager went on to explain that they followed fairly standard restaurant procedure in that they par-cooked big batches of pasta first thing in the morning, stored it in the reach-in until needed, and then finished it portion by portion in hot water and sauce before serving. No problem. That's the way I've done it, too. BUT, the pasta gets its flavor in the first few minutes of cooking. If the water in which the noodles were par-cooked wasn't salty enough, all bets are off when you reheat them. He told me he was going to go back and taste the water they were using to reheat the pasta. Too late, dude! The damage was done by the prep cooks this morning. You get a little wiggle room with something relatively fine like capellini or even regular spaghetti. But with big honkin' pasta shapes like penne, you just get flavorless, bland, inedible chunks of chewy cardboard. And that's what I was served – in a four-cheese marinara sauce with a wet glop of ricotta.

But on the bright side, the chocolate mousse cheesecake was decadently delicious. And, as I said, the bread was good, so the meal wasn't a total loss.

I know I'm an opinionated, hyper-critical old fuddy-duddy when it comes to Italian food. And I know Cheesecake Factory is a very popular place. The one we went to was packed to the doors, so obviously somebody likes it. My wife liked it. She's now a confirmed consumer of pot stickers. And who's to say the next Cheesecake Factory down the road might not have a kitchen a little less stringent in its “control” of salt? The fact remains that for my money – even though it technically wasn't my money – it all amounted to a rather disappointing dining experience. Except for the cheesecake: I'll definitely go back for the cheesecake.

Which is why, I guess, it's a good thing they don't call themselves “Pasta Factory.”