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I have worked at my share of Italian restaurants over the years and eaten at even more.

The first (that I worked at) was Umberto’s, which used to be in Pioneer Square next the Kingdome. For those that don’t know, the Kingdome was the home to Seattle Mariners long before we had Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park with it’s Gawd-awful pink sign), but I digress. The Kingdome has been gone so long now (via a staged explosion that will remain a historical event) that many of the (newer) current residents of Seattle, might never have attended a ball game at the “Dome”..

At the time, I lived down the block from Umberto’s, in a loft overlooking Waterfall Park. I loved going to work each day, which was less than a 3 minute walk through (back then) fresh air.  I was usually welcomed into the space with the enchanting (and delightfully fragrant) smell of garlic, still cooking.

Our clever chef welcomed in the lunch crowd by first, heating several pans of olive oil with chopped garlic, then immediately walking about the restaurant, infusing it’s tantalizing smell around each table before opening the doors for service.

It was at Umberto’s that I perfected my cooking of swordfish (after an emergency visit to the kitchen while preparing my first roof top dinner party; our chef helped me make the sauce 30 minutes before my guests arrived; a sauce I still prepare today (except using fresh orange juice rather than from concentrate).

I also learned to make my favorite pasta, radiatori pepperoncini which kept me baffled by how damn good it was, how light it seemed and (later learned) how bad it was for my fat watching, calorie counting, 1990’s  twenty-something-self. I ate it anyway, demi-glacé, heavy cream and all.

Next up was The Poor Italian, a humble, family-owned place where Grandma was the main chef in the kitchen and all recipes were hers. Well she was the owner’s-wife’s-mother and well, he was kind of a jerk. The staff was very close though and we all felt a little bit like family.

We hung out together, ate together and generally looked out for one another. The music for dinner service came from a CD player behind the service bar, where each of us had to keep feeding it, one CD at a time; the good ‘ol days.

The Poor Italian is where I was introduced to Stan Getz, along with an “almost” affection for some opera. I also learned how to properly pound a chicken breast for Italian chicken classics and the most delicious way to make calamari (calamari steak, doré-style).

As it turned out, I didn’t learn “Grandma’s” technique well-enough because even though calamari doré was my favorite thing on the menu, when I cooked it for my future husband, while we were still dating, it went immediately into the trash. This was one of only a few meals that went the same way in 27+ years. Needless to say, I have never made it since. No complaints being heard either.

I moved on to Ristorante Buongusto, a neighborhood joint owned by two Italian brothers who couldn’t have been more different from one another. One was the executive chef, a smart-ass, loud-mouth womanizer, whose wife left him for another woman. The other was the front-of-house guy; sweet, elegant and wildly charming; his wife was none of those things. The food was un-fussy but superb. Buongusto gave me an appreciation for simple food with lots of flavor. I learned of a mixture called battuto which consisted of olive oil, chilis, garlic and herbs which was used for dipping bread. Tom loves this. I also learned to make tiramisu, aglio e olio and fresh puttanesca sauce, plus gained a lot of fond memories of the neighborhood where my husband and I first lived for years before and after we were married.

Then was my time at Italia. I adored working at Italia. Italia was a lovely, quaint, authentic restaurant/retail venue owned by then, Mayor Paul Shell. It was located in a terrifically quaint building clad in brick, ivy and history, just north of Pioneer Square. It was there that I learned how to make tomato sauce that was authentic, pepperoni pizza that was superb and appreciate sweet breads without knowing what they actually were at first. I ate the sweet bread pappardelle every night for a week before realizing I was eating, well, you know. Talk about an education. If you have to look it up, don’t. Just go to a great restaurant and try it.  Poor Tom ate that pepperoni pizza every night I worked, after I finally came home late at night, no wonder he has reflux.

What I will pass onto you, from my experience, is this:

Restaurants will always be a fabric of our society, even in the wake of the current pandemic that is threatening their very subsistence.

The fabric is different now, that much we know. The question isn’t will they go on (?) but how (?) and in what form (?).

I hope the generations that are yet to come will be able to find the same joys that I and many others have found in the existence of restaurants, both working and dining.

I hope they continue to be a “necessary business” because they make all of our lives more educated, civilized, social and enjoyable.

Salute!

As a last word, I will also say this:

All you need to know about making great food is to keep it simple, keep it real and the rules are not always best to be followed.

Are we Italian?

What’s not Italian about my medallion?

I have the wink down! Still working on the paw gestures.

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Spaghetti Aglio e Olio + some…

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio is a traditional Naples staple. Garlic is sautéd in olive oil and chili flakes before tossing with fresh cooked pasta. As delicious as this is, it is far too simple for me. Here I have combined the simple preparation of that dish with the added flavors of my beloved radiatori pepperoncini. The combination of techniques results in a highly flavorful and fully satisfying pasta dish that you can tweak to your own liking, by removing or adding ingredients at your whim.

  • Author: Stacey Bender
  • Yield: 2 servings 1x
  • Cuisine: Italian

Ingredients

Scale

1/2 lb fresh spaghetti

1/4 cup olive oil

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 tsp chili flakes

5 pepperoncinis, sliced

1/4 cup fresh, diced tomato

6 oz torn or cubed roast chicken, skin removed

1/2 cup veal demi-glacé

a few tablespoons heavy cream (indeed)

12 oz grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or to your liking)

1/4 cup chopped, fresh parsley

Instructions

Cook the pasta and drain (saving a little pasta water if you prefer to use that over demi-glacé or stock.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil to hot, but not burning and add the garlic and chili flakes. Cook a minute or two, being careful not to let it brown.

Add the tomatoes and pepperoncini, then the chicken; cook another minute or two.

Add the demi-glacé (or stock or pasta water) and heavy cream.

Simmer a few minutes to thicken.

Stir in the pasta to coat and heat through.

Toss in 1/2 the parmesan and 1/2 the parsley to coat.

Divide amongst warm pasta bowls and garnish with the remaining parmesan and parsley.

Notes

For the pepperoncini, you could substitute fresh chopped chilis, such as jalapeño or you could use a roasted hot pepper, such as from the brand “Jeff’s Garden”.

For the chicken, you could also grill, poach or sauté fresh skinless, boneless chicken breast, or omit it altogether for a vegetarian meal.

I’ve also omitted the pepperoncini and used Nicoise olives instead if you prefer to keep it on the not-so-spicy side.