One of my newspaper bosses, my favorite newsroom personality ever, liked to bet on horses at the racetrack or play some cards in Vegas. He said he gave himself a budget, and since he didn’t smoke or go to the movies or play video games or have an expensive car, that this was his hobby.
I have a similar past-time that overwhelms me with guilt sometimes. I love to go out to eat. It’s my stress relief. I also love to cook, so you think I’d spend more on groceries and less on restaurants.
I’ve tried. I’ve cut the landline, canceled the Internet, lowered the thermostat, only bought meat on clearance and cat food when on sale. I can run a lean household. But I can’t resist the allure of a family meal in a fun restaurant.
Twice this week I was reminded why. A great meal is a lot like a mini-vacation. Without jet lag or clogged ears or piles of dirty laundry or traveler’s diarrhea.
And sometimes, you’re a mile away from home.
Like this penne with vodka sauce:
We all have that neighborhood restaurant we’ve been meaning to try. For me, it was George’s Pizzeria. I never really noticed it until my daughter moved from the elementary school to the intermediate school. We finally checked it out and were impressed by the prices, the quality of the food, and the efficient but understated soft sell of the staff as they met our needs.
Once we left, I couldn’t stop thinking about trying their penne with vodka sauce. So, I returned this week after a long pre-Easter day in retail.
You notice things the second time to visit a restaurant. I anticipated this and looked forward to discovering some nuances to this small, plain pizzeria. It was unexpectedly busy for the before-dinner hour. My daughter and I ordered drinks. We watched the hustle and bustle and customers came, some stayed and some picked up their food and left.
After a few minutes, a staff member ran to us. “Did anyone take your food order?”
No. He apologized so genuinely and honestly I didn’t mind because the atmosphere was like hanging out in someone’s kitchen. My daughter adores calimari. I ordered her an appetizer. I ordered my pasta, which is a $10 dish, asking if they could add chicken and broccoli.
It was the best meal I’ve had in a long time. The broccoli was fresh, not frozen. The chicken was real, not processed. (And they put so much in there I kept joking that I couldn’t find the noodles.) The sauce was smooth and no one ingredient overpowered. The texture was creamy but amazingly light.
My daughter devoured the calimari, despite the fact that it was the “hoops” kind and not the baby squid shape that she prefers. I enjoy calimari, but I still can’t bring myself to eat anything breaded in its original full-size form and shape.
My husband joined us late, so my daughter and I had dessert. I asked for coffee and they brought it in a New Orleans mug from the French coffee market. The Francophile in me was tickled.
When I went to pay the bill, they asked if I wanted more coffee. I declined as I do need to sleep eventually. They offered to prepare some “to go” since they had brewed me a fresh pot!
We were there two hours. I chatted with my family and enjoyed three courses. It was the most at ease I’d felt in a long time. It was the same feeling I get when my traveling companion and I find a special restaurant overseas. Like vacation.
I had a similar experience today. I finally visited Full of Crêpe in South Bethlehem. I had some delightful concoction of Brie, ham, and raspberry jam. Soooo good.
It was like being in Paris. Except the staff was helpful. And crêpe was served in a restaurant not on the street. We shared a dessert crêpe.
The crêpes came in a fancy cardboard sleeve with perforations so you could eat in without having it flop all over. Each time you ate more, you tore down the sleeve. I couldn’t get the hang of it. I took the sleeve off and ate out of the tissue paper. Like Paris. Except I didn’t drip cheese all over myself.