January 14, 2009
I wanted to comment on Andrew’s recent post—a Dear Clusterflock that posed the question “Where/what was the best meal you have ever had?”—but had to gather some information first. And the story I want to tell is one of a meal I never had. My friends Rick and Teel Sale (poet, artist; writers; world travelers, and two of the most compassionate and insatiably curious people I have known) told me this story. I’m sure I will leave some of it out and perhaps get some details wrong, but here it is.
They were in Venice in 1978 and decided to walk about one late afternoon to find a place to eat dinner. They had heard tales of wonderful seafood to be had in Venice, but had so far found it all far too expensive in the restaurants they visited. They walked down narrow streets and found a small café/bar. Above it was an apartment balcony covered with night blooming flowers. They went in and saw that the place had only four tables and a bar. A boy sat playing chess with a sailor—beating him soundly by the looks of it—and another sailor sat drinking and reading a newspaper at the bar. The owner came out; he was a short but large man, balding, and he wore a rather soiled white apron. Teel asked him if he made a fish soup. The man paused, and then asked how long they could wait for it. Rick and Teel told him—as long as it took, they were in no hurry. Wine and bread was brought to the table and then the man emerged, apron-less, from the kitchen, carrying a large basket; he nodded at them and walked out.
The owner returned in about half an hour with a huge fish overlapping both sides of the basket, which also contained a mass of greens and several bags of clams and shrimp and other things. This he took to the kitchen, and soon the most wonderful smell wafted out to the diners. The owner’s sons (one of them the chess player) and wife all hovered at the kitchen door, cooing sounds of delight. After a while the owner came out with a great platter—the fish cooked whole on the greens—and a large bowl of freshly made fish stock. The kids followed him, all saying “Papa! Papa you did it! You made it!” He cut portions of the fish and put them in shallow bowls, then spooned the broth on. It was astonishingly good. And Rick and Teel’s portions had scarcely made a mark in the great fish’s bulk. Soon neighbors had trickled in, drawn by the aroma, and the owner served family and friends from the platter, pouring wine for all, adding broth to bowls, bringing more bread. He even brought out a bottle of brandy he had made himself and poured small glasses all around. Rick and Teel had a wonderful time, but had begun to worry a bit about the cost, which hadn’t been noted ahead of time, but when the owner brought the bill the amount came to six dollars. They said it occurred to them later that the place was probably more of a bar than a restaurant, set up for a usual fare of light meals. But something had inspired the owner on this night. I asked Rick and Teel if they thought the man’s soup was something he had made in the past, in another place, and perhaps the man thought they had heard of it and had sought him out specifically for that reason. But they didn’t know.