Sunday, June 24, 2018

After Bourdain: Serendipity

Via Appia


Memorable meals and extraordinary food discoveries happen by chance.  With just three nights in Rome and a forgettable Michelin one star meal at the Hassler Hotel we hired Mimo, a driver we had met at the airport, for a truncated tour that would hit he usual suspects, as in the Colosseum with the car running and throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain from a moving Mercedes. He drove a Mercedes wagon. Later we meandered south along the Appian Way in mid-afternoon July. Rome in July was a rookie mistake for which we may be forgiven. Dusty, humid and hot are among the adjectives that come to mind. You may stay at the Hassler, one of the great city hotels in the world, tomorrow night for the munificent sum of $1,500. If you have to ask the price, Binky, you can't afford it.



Pollo al Mattone


As we came abreast of an unprepossessing stone farmhouse Mimo asked if we wanted to have lunch. Famished and hallucinating by this time we gave him a hearty thumbs-up. We were seated in a capacious interior courtyard with just one other party, a besotted Italian couple. We ordered a bottle of Fontana Candida Frascati from the namesake town nearby. I knew the label since it was the house white at Davio’s back home in Boston. We enjoyed the bracing wine and watched as a whole butterflied chicken was placed in a cast iron skillet, weighted with a large brick and pushed into the 800-degree wood-fired oven. The chicken arrived russet brown and so crisp it seemed pan fried. The skin was caramelized, yet the meat was supremely moist, even the breast. The contrast was extraordinary, like a  charred steak with a cool red center. The juicy bird was served with a simple salad, potatoes roasted in the pan juices and a platter of halved figs which were in season. It was Italy. It was perfect. I was happy .

I won't forget that chicken, the rustic setting or Mimo’s company. Which speaks to my axiom that great meals are comprised of what you ate, where you ate it, how you were treated, and who you were with at that hallowed moment. When the whole is greater than the sum of its parts it will be etched in your mind forever. 

Being a service guy, the most important component, the one without which it can’t be a great meal, is and will always be how you are treated. I opened fifty restaurants during my forty years in the restaurant business and service was my obsession. Some would say it still is. In every one of those fifty I trained front of the house staff on the sweet science of service. While I covered the pillars of a rewarding dining experience; giving the food, the drink and the atmosphere of the place their fair due I lingered and lingered some more on hospitality. I expressed my belief that you may forget the specific menu item you ate even if it was outstanding, as I have sometimes done, but you’ll always remember how we are made to feel.

A decade later I learned the name of the revelatory chicken at the osteria with no name on the Via Appia. I was seated next to the Executive Chef of the Sheraton Boston Hotel on a flight from LA to Boston. We were talking about restaurants and great meals and I began describing the unforgettable chicken dish we'd eaten outside Rome in 1984. He told me it was called Pollo al Mattone meaning chicken under a brick.

A year ago, miracle of miracles, Chicken Under a Brick appeared on the menu at Andy Lynch’s Common Fire, one of our go-to restaurants here in Taos. Same iron skillet. Same brick. Same wood-fired oven. Same Pollo al Mattone only closer.

4 comments:

Daryl Black said...

Do I dare say bravissimo? Not even knowing if that is correct, I need some superlative for this wonderful blog, Steve, about one of your many meals in Italy. I love the photograph of the Pollo al Mattone, and your description of it, as well as your background as a restaurateur. The Via Appia image is evocative and wonderful! All topped off by the fact that the famous chicken is now available at Common Fire. How sweet is that?

Terrific blog that makes me want to be there.

Anonymous said...

YUM just about sums it all up. A wonderful memory and thoughts about memories to come.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks to both of you. I must acknowledge that I had to find images of Via Appia and of Pollo al Mattone on the web. I have no clue where or if there are any of my photographs from Italy, and for that matter England or France from our maiden voyage in 1984. In future posts I will own up to that fact in the post. I may or may not shed the reference to Bourdain in the title of upcoming posts. His passing prompted this series but moving forward it's really about what I've seen, will see and what I think about it. What do you think? After Bourdain or all Immel?

John Farnsworth said...

Let’s eat!