Then Came the Meatballs…

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It was one of the best meals of my life.

I was new to Woodlawn C&P, my most recent place of employment. We were across the street from a rustic Italian joint called Firehouse.

Appropriately enough, the building itself used to be a firehouse; back when pictures were just black and white, and a giant rail car ran through the streets.

Matt, the chef and owner of the restaurant was around a lot during the beginnings of WCP, so one day he said, “Come to dinner tonight, I’ll take care of y’all…”

I wasn’t used to industry talk. We had been saving for a night out, anyways.

Hannah and I got dressed up well, or maybe she did, and I just did my best.

My favorite server Stephen, which I didn’t know at the time, was serving us.
“Hey, I work over at Woodlawn…Matt told me to come in and I think we’re just gonna leave it up to him!”
“Sure thing.” said Stephen. His presence helped the entire place feel warmer.

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I don’t think anyone at the time knew I was any good at cooking (not even me), or that I knew what good food was supposed to taste like. I had been reading cookbooks and memoirs about kitchen life, and I was still antsy to soak it all in.

I watched the inferno in their gorgeous wood-fired oven lick the top of the dome where they would cook pizza and mussels and bread. Wood smoke on food is amazing, if you didn’t already know that.

For the life of me, I can’t remember everything we ate.

But it began with fried cauliflower. Like most of the meals I continued to eat at Firehouse, it always started with fried cauliflower. Nutty, brown, and the first bite was always too hot, but you bit into it anyways. Served with lemon crème fraiche, it was the most comforting thing.

Sliding over our cocktails came a few more dishes. Romaine hearts, with anchovy, lemon and shaved pecorino. Bruschetta with chevre and acorn squash.

Then the pizza.

Neapolitan style. Almost gooey-like in the middle, as it should. 6-8 minutes max in that blazing hot oven, and they are done. It was a simple but perfect margherita. Basil, light tomato sauce, and buffalo mozzerella. Doused with a bit of good olive oil before hitting the table, and with a pinch or two of chili flake to taste.

I was almost full.

Then came the meatballs.

Three rich, fatty, sweet balls of meat that I’d never had come close since then. Braised in a light tomato-rosemary sauce with lucinato kale and a hunk of pugliese bread.

Hannah was done, but when someone is giving you the whole nine, I ain’t stoppin’.

We did it.

We ate all the food.

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Then came the digestif.

And then some sweets. Perhaps one of their pot de crèmes or tarts. I can’t quite recall, I think I was so blissed out that I lost some subtle conciousness.

If Matt read this, I know he would probably shake his head, and downplay how dramatic it was to me.

They comped our entire meal that night.

Not only was it a gesture of thanks, but it was a welcoming. I was becoming part of a bigger family.

It was this meal that taught me how good and simple and close to home food could be.

It changed how I cooked at home. It changed a lot more than that. It set the bar for what I wanted for myself.

I kept going back. For cauliflower, for meatballs, for the pizza. Each time, throwing my hands in the air (at least in my head) and submitting to the whole damn thing over and over again.

It allowed me to venture into other places that took just as much care of their food. I was spoiled rotten, I tell ya. Rotten.

Yes, it was one of the best meals of my life. And I will hold it deep down with all those good things that make me want to be a better cook, and how all the work they put in, came out to me on that table.

 

soft heart.

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As a kid, my mom and Gran would tell me that I was “tender-hearted” that maybe, this was the reason I would get worked up over little interactions, or respond really big to seemingly small things.

But I suppose, if I’m honest, I’ve always paid attention to small things.

I’d go to bed sometimes, making myself sick with how the next day would happen. Like I had some control over it — that maybe, if I worried about it enough, the outcome would be surprisingly better, or that I’d be able to handle it.

Sometimes it was. Sometimes, those things never even came close to happening. I’m still learning how to handle this.

I was reminded of this today while reading about pizza.

Specifically, very traditional Neapolitan style. The kind cooked quickly in big, beautiful stone wood fired ovens. Blistered outer crust, perfect pull to the dough and what they call cuore dolce, which means, “soft heart”.

This is the difference in other styles of pizza that I love, but not everyone likes. It’s not gooey. It’s cooked. But just enough to melt the buffalo mozzarella that sits on top. If you try picking it up like a slice of Dominos, bad things could happen. You gotta cut it with a knife, and sort of, fold it in a bit. Some folks eat it with a fork, which is fine. I’m sure there are many schools of thought on the matter.

But a pinch of chili flake, quickly wilted basil, mozzarella and San Marzano tomato is possibly the most perfect pie. In its simplicity, it is all I want on a cold night. (And these days, it gets COLD.) Not to mention, a nice drizzle of dark olive oil right as it comes out the oven.

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I am lucky enough to live a block away from a  place that does it just right. Specifically the blistering on the crust. It’s important because I think it’s a good sign that the oven is hot enough (some get as hot as 800-900F), which is why they cook so fast. When the bubbles that form on the outer crust char, it adds a bitterness to the whole thing, which I assume is the whole point. A lot of folks aren’t cool with a somewhat charred crust, but I say nay. Try it. It’s done that way for a reason.

One of my first real burns as a cook was from tossing in a piece of white oak into a 600 degree pizza oven, and coming a bit too close to the brick near the opening. And as cooks know, burns suck even more when you still have be near heat.

I came away from that memory thinking about the cuore dolce.

How one works to get this in their final product.

A soft heart.

I bring it back to when I was a kid. And how things got to me, and now even as an adult, the characteristics I had as a kid transfer.

They sort of look different, ya know? I am lucky to be fitting better in my own skin. It’s taken a long time. But I am a big softie. No doubt about that.

And I’ve had to work at protecting that when I need to. That’s a hard balance.

But I work on it.

As a pizzaiolo learns to find the hot spots, to read the dough, to blast it with heat in the dome before bringing it out to settle. There is intuition. Gentleness in how it is handled.

There’s a lotta love in pizza.

And there’s a lotta love in them soft hearts.