We were by no means rich when my parents started a weekly tradition of schlepping my sister and I out to an Italian dinner on Friday nights in the destitute town of Desert Hot Springs where we lived prior to my junior high years when my stepfather found business success and a move for our family out of that strange place. The light at the end of our weeks was the five minute car ride downtown to the tiny corner restaurant called Capri where our paper place mats were printed with a geographical boot and the skinny breadsticks in the water glass that sat center on our table were the first things we frantically grabbed for knowing the snap of them between our teeth harkened our favorite meal.
It wasn’t long before our Friday sojourns taught us we would rather have the veal marsala than the child’s play bowl of regular old ravioli. We loved the sauce that covered the paper-thin cutlets and tangy mushrooms, oftentimes soaking our garlic bread in the leftover puddle to cap off the meal before dessert. Dessert was always, without a doubt, real cappuccino ice cream, before the drink cappuccino became another borrowed trendy American drink in all the cafes in the late nineties. The ice cream was black as night, bitter, and studded with exquisite little sugary nuggets of dark and caramelized crushed coffee beans.
Although there were no red and white checkered tablecloths in the place, it was still a joint bustling with Italian home-style hospitality and we came to know the owners very well including the grandpa of the clan who prided himself on bringing in osso buco whenever good cuts of shank were available in the Southern California butcher’s sphere.
That experience informed my knowledge of what a good neighborhood Italian joint should be – not a place for the gourmet white napkin or the perfect epicurean pizza; nor even a place of necessarily authentic cuisine. It was a place where you could count on a favorite dish made the same every time and handed over by your favorite server, and time and again could find comfort in a classic take on a dish based around love, family and pasta.
When I was an adult I opened up the Friday night ritual to my daughter with our weekly stops at a new place called Caffé Italia, a spaghetteria where the Italian foreign exchange students I had loved talking passionately with in high school now commandeered their own versions of massive pizza pies and the best oversized fennel meatballs around – not to mention my daughter’s favorite lemon sorbet frozen in real halves of lemon rind. We would sit for hours under the stars of paradise desert nights talking with Manuela and her sisters as we watched them birth babies, raise kids and keep whipping up special versions of ricotta stuffed shells that made us drool.
Recently, I found another version of this while visiting the desert again on the most unlikely street of El Paseo – more known for its high-jangle department stores, May-December romance diners and a new flagship pizza emporium by Wolfgang Puck. A friend of mine who used to wait tables at 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro and consistently turned me on to amazing discount bottles of red wines that tasted four times their worth just so happened to be the new general manager of the place called Pizza Vino and had my favorite bottle of Sean Minor pinot ready upon my arrival with a friend. It wasn’t long before I realized that the place could certainly become my contemporary version of a hometown Italian regular as the feel good dishes started to arrive amidst a constant flow of all sorts of other people. There were nice flat bread pizzas with salty, yeast crusts – the polpette meatball version being my favorite with lots of the small pork and beef globes quartered across my pie revealing nice and juicy pink insides – and a dish of fried zucchini squash blossoms stuffed with cheese and drizzled with honey.
Imagine my surprise when at the end of the meal I ordered the cappuccino ice cream and was presented with a generous bowl of the same exact ice cream I remembered from my youth but had not been able to find on many other effort-driven hunts.