Dinner with Ronnie.

summer eggplant

Segui il tuo corso et lascia dir les genti
(follow your own road and let people talk)

Dante

We had had too much to eat, and, in all likelihood, too much to drink. The wine was metered, though, by our thin wallets, since we had splurged on the food, which was pricey, even then. Crammed into our booth were 6 of us, maybe 7: a social worker, who would – much later- be called to seminary; two doctors, still in residency. I can’t remember the rest. Twenty-five years is a long time.

What I’m certain of is that we had tucked ourselves into a space designed to provide generous accommodations for 4, tight quarters for our larger assembly. I’m also certain that it was summer – July or August – and that we were tanned and casual in the way summer encourages. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday, no promotion or other, similar kind of celebration. No one had children at home, no babysitters waiting to be paid. And no one was going home with anyone else that night, at least not with anyone from our table, so the evening was just friendly in an ordinary way, without the politics of sex.

We all liked to cook, and to eat; occasionally we liked to eat something we wouldn’t, or couldn’t cook at home. And while we could certainly, any of us, make linguini or eggplant parmigiana, none of us could come close to preparing a meal like we enjoyed that night, even if we’d had all the recipes. So we ate every last clam, ravioli and bit of eggplant with gravy, the weight of it anchoring us to our seats even after we’d settled the hefty tab.

We were sitting there, stuck, when he came from the kitchen, as he often did at the end of the night to make his rounds. There was always at least one person from a local Who’s Who list. It was that kind of a place, a hot spot where business and personal affairs were conducted.

He visited our table last, and we were surprised that he stopped, but glad. It was a great and unexpected honor. We were nobodies. He was somebody.

How was your dinner, he asked, and we gave the appropriate response, along with appropriate sound effects. He looked us over carefully. You need grappa, he said, and walked away. We shifted uncomfortably, uncertain about what would happen next. We were ready to go, just unable to make our bodies move. Abbiocco. And now we couldn’t leave without being rude.

He returned a few minutes later, still in his white coat, holding a clear bottle of clear liquid and enough small glasses for the table, including himself. Someone protested, held up her hands, shook her head. Trust me, he said, just a sip or two and you’ll feel brand new; you’ll go home and sleep like a baby. He filled her glass along with the rest of them. He pulled up a chair.

He made his own grappa, he told us as he was pouring, and he always included peach skins and pits. This was the only secret he shared. No, it wasn’t on the menu or available at the bar (it was 1992). He held his glass up for a toast; we drank. Better than Ouzo, I thought, which was my only frame of reference at the time.

He started talking as if we were old friends, all of us, himself included. He told stories about the old country, about family dinner, about cooking and gathering for meals. His grandfather, who was also named Rinaldo, had come here, to Memphis, because it was warm and sunny, like Tuscany. Tomatoes need hot sun like that, he told us. You can’t make good gravy without good tomatoes. And salt, as much salt as in the sea. We traveled there, with him, thousands of miles and years away, in the space of 15 minutes.

He nodded at us. Better, yes? And we did feel better, lighter. Come back and see me, he said. Then he cleared our glasses and went back to his kitchen. We drove home, and slept like babies.


Food | Week of July 10, 2017

Marcella Hazan’s Simple Meat Pasta
(her recipe calls for veal; I use turkey)

Omelet with Arugula Salad

Sea Scallops with Brown Butter, Capers & Lemon

Tomatoes Niçoise | Chicken Breasts with Lemon

Curry Noodles with Shrimp

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    “Twenty-five years is a long time,” but it’s amazing, isn’t it, how a particular meal can live so long in one’s memory. I wondered, when I saw the obit that you posted on Facebook, whether the Memphis Grisantis are related to the Louisville Grisantis who also had acclaimed restaurants in the same era.

  2. Oh My God! That was a delightful memory! I could so see it! Right down to the 6 or 7 of you crowded into that booth! What a wonderful experience that you can take with you for the rest of your days. Maybe he knew you needed Grappa in more than one way! ❤

  3. Beautiful and touching tribute. ❤

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