Thursday, March 13, 2014

It’s An Intimate Experience
In the summer of 1967, when I was 16 years old, I fell in love. In Spain. With a dancer. I never knew her name, she never asked me mine. We were together for one night. I never felt her hand in mine, never was touched by her lips. It was better than that. She wore a red dress. She twirled her firey soul around me. For two hours, I was enthralled by her mystery and passion. She sang, she clapped, her shoes drummed the hollow wood stage. She was Flamenco.

You have a chance to find yourself thus enchanted the evening of April 11, when two great artists spin their magic in Twisp.

Eric and EncarnaciĆ²n, guitarist and dancer comprising Flamenco Seattle (flamencoseattle.com), will perform on the Tappi stage during a night that will include an Andalusian-inspired dinner and Spanish wines.

After a brief, colorful explanation of Flamenco, its origins and expressions, house lights will dim and the mesmerizing EncarnaciĆ²n, accompanied by the world-class guitar artistry of her partner Eric Jaeger, will dazzle guests with two thirty minute sets of dancing, singing and playing. Dinner will follow.

Cost for the evening is $70/person, not including tax and tip. Doors open at 6:30 for a welcoming pour of sparkling wine, and appetizers. Flamenco performance will begin at 7 p.m.. Dinner will follow at 8, featuring an array of dishes, including recipes inspired by the cultures of southern Spain and the Mediterranean. Dinner wines will include varietals of old Spanish vines.

The evening is by reservation only. Join us by calling John at Tappi: 509-997-3345.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

There is this soul, this essence of my family that comes through me when I cook for you. My mother at the stove and my father waiting at the table; my sisters helping in the kitchen with the windows steamed and night outside on a dark late November evening; electric burners ticking, pots steaming, the sound of thick red sauce simmering, heavy bubbles bursting on the liquid tomato surface, and the fragrant steam coming off the pot; and salted water rolling beneath vapor plumes that rattle the tilted lid; and my mom’s small silhouette under the stove hood light. She stands there stirring pots while life rises and falls around her: I am a child with my Nonna sitting just out of view, her heavy-muscled legs spread and solid under a grandmother dress and apron as she peels apples into a bowl for pie; then I’m a teenager and my grandmother is dead many years and I and my sisters grow without being asked, back and forth from high school and colleges, always coming home to have dinner with mom and dad; my arc shoots me over the mountains into Methow soil, where my own family takes root and grows while my parents age and my sisters follow their own trajectories to New York and San Francisco and Austin, always tethered to my mother’s kitchen and my parents’ dinner table, the simmering pasta water and warm room, and in my memory no one is speaking, only the sounds of all of us together working in the kitchen to bring dinner into being, my father’s chair scooting under his weight tight to the table where he waits for us to join him, Charlotte making salad, the wooden tools clapping against the wooden bowl; Angela and Linda cutting bread and warming the pasta bowl with a ladle of boiled salted water; and I am standing in the doorway, watching it all, breathing it, closing my eyes and listening, calling to all those I grew up loving and all those I’ve loved since — all of us called to the table, to my parents’ table, a seat for everyone: my children and all the children and their mothers, and all the women I’ve loved; my best friends since childhood, all the elders, every family who has ever stepped through our front door and all those who have invited us to their tables, and my Nonna Carlotta and my grandfathers Emilio and Antonio who spoke to me, speak to me still, from photographs, all of them with me, standing behind me, called to our table, every time I cook for you.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

flames

9/29/13

I feed my sorrows to the fire.

Last January I lost my beautiful son, William. My daughter Anna lost her beloved brother; their mother, Laura, lost her younger child; our families lost a precious part of who we are, who we have been, and all that we could have become.





The loss is bottomless, unfathomable. It is a dark well where my heart is cast down. What suspends the hopeless tumbling is my work before the fire. Working with fire these past months has saved my life, perhaps; certainly it has preserved my life’s equilibrium. The flames purify my grief.

Build a fire; stare into the flames, feel its heat on your face. Let it dry your eyes.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Danish, with French roots, from Tuscany & Patagonia

Winemaker’s Dinners at Tappi in Twisp just keep getting better and better.

In mid-July, wines from two hemispheres will be poured in multi-course meals on two consecutive nights.

Hans Vinding-Diers, winemaker both at Argiano, the centuries-old estate at the heart of Montalcino, Italy’s SuperTuscan movement, and Bodega Neomia de Patagonia, an enclave of prize-winning international style winemaking in Argentina, will entertain and educate guests July 14 & 15.

Seats at the multi-course dinners — which will feature regional recipes prepared by chef John Bonica — are by reservation only, on a first-come-first served basis.

The entire restaurant will be dedicated to the Vinding-Diers dinners; regular service at Tappi will be suspended those nights.

Cost for the dinners, covering four courses paired with the wines, will be announced by July 1. Tax and gratuities will be extra. Reservations for both nights will cost less than each night purchased individually.

Vinding-Diers is Danish, born in South Africa and raised in France, who worked 44 vineyard harvests by the time he was 40. He is an internationally acclaimed winemaker in Tuscany, Italy and Patagonia, Argentina, where he partners with Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, owner of Argiano, to produce award-winning vintages.

Saturday’s Tuscan dinner will include five Argiano wines:
Non Confunditor IGT (Cabernet Sauvignon/Sangiovese/Merlot/Syrah)
Rosso di Montalcino DOC (young Sangiovese)
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (aged Sangiovese)
Solengo IGT (Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot/Syrah/Merlot)
Suolo IGT (Argiano’s oldest Sangiovese)

Sunday’s Patagonian dinner will feature four wines from Bodega Noemia:
Bodega Noemia Malbec (Malbec, 80-year-old vines)
J. Alberto (50 year-old Malbec/Merlot)
A. Lisa (Malbec/Merlot/Petit Verdot)
Noemia “2” (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot)

The Sunday dinner will be the first time that non-Italian wines ever have been poured at Tappi.

The Argiano estate was built in 1580 near the Altar of Janus, ancient Roman god, and was at the heart of the Super Tuscan revolution 30 years ago. Under the leadership of Cinzano and Vinding-Diers, Argiano continues to craft some of Italy’s most finely-structured and elegant wines.
All cultivation at the estate and the vineyards is organic.

In 2000, Cinzano and Vinding-Diers found a property in the high mountain desert of Patagonia, land first irrigated nearly 200 years ago, then planted with Malbec nearly 100 years ago. Malbec, the lesser known French grape which can play a supporting role in the blending of Bordeaux, has ascended its potential to become the king of South American wines. Today, Bodega Noemia de Patagonia is farmed according to strict organic and biodynamic practices.

Friday, April 27, 2012

flames

Do you remember your first fire? Do you remember how you built your first fire, where you were? Were you alone? Did someone teach you?

Do you build fires these days? In a Weber barbecue? In a heater stove in your house? Do you handle split seasoned trees, with gloves or in your bare hands? How does the wood feel in your grip? What’s your technique: How do you build a fire?

I’m inviting you to write me about your experiences with fires — not the destructive blaze that reduced a home to charred remains; and not the inferno that ran faster than wild animals through a forest. I am interested in hearing about your experience with a personal fire, the intimacy of building a fire for cooking or for warmth. I’ll receive your reports and publish some of them here, on the blog. Send them to P.O. Box 1275, Twisp. Wa. or my email address, johnbonica@centurylink.net.

My wood-fired oven is a centerpiece of experience at Tappi, and keeping a fire there is part of my job that is solitary and gratifying and fascinating.

The fire in my oven lives and leads and follows. It’s a wild thing in my dining room. It can be ferocious or quiet, flare suddenly or wait patiently. Interacting with that fire in my oven, where temperatures range from 700 to 1200 degrees during my work, is an intimate experience. Reflecting on the power of fire in my life, and my encounters with it since childhood, has been a surprisingly deep experience as I write this.

Fires are memories. They flicker and warm me, now sixty years old in my sixty year old house on Burton Street in Twisp, as I sit at my desk feeling the propane stove radiating behind me and watching through my patio window, glorious spring morning sun warm the backyard.

When I was seven I burned up army men in the basement. My cousin Tony was 18 months younger and trusted everything I said; so when I brought out the shoebox of plastic soldiers and a matchbook and led Tony downstairs into the old furnace room at 44 Summit Rd in Tacoma, where we grew up, he followed me. We piled the green guys in a pyramid and I struck the match. The flame was mesmerizing, the stink nauseating, and the waxy hardened puddle of green stuck hard to the concrete floor. I learned my first and strongest lesson about fire as well as taking responsibility for my actions. After my mother caught us, I tried to fake her out by pointing my finger at Tony; She didn’t stare at me long, but it was long enough to squeeze a confession; I can still feel a guilty flutter when I remember blaming my dear, innocent cousin.

My Sicilian grandmother, Angela Zagame Bonica, also built hot fires in the basement of that house, but she tended her’s in a cast iron stove in the laundry room. That stove was in the house in ’48 when my parents bought it; the house itself dated to 1886, the same year Angela Zagame was born. The stove — as I remember it — could have been that old. Not to say it was rickety; it was not. On the contrary, it was as stout as a stump, and burned with an even severity. Nonna, for that’s what I called my grandmother, was not much of a cook. But she stoked a long hot blaze in that black stove, opening its heavy door to a bright yellow and white fire within, simmering a Sicilian tradition, vino cotto, a heavy black sweet syrup that we prized for holiday treats. Vino cotto was the only concoction I remember nonna bothering with; she was too impatient to spend much time cooking — maybe an egg if she couldn’t wait for my mom to cook for her. Vino cotto simmered in a commercial size kettle on that stove, Nonna keeping the fire crackling and the cast iron ticking with its deep even heat for three days while the raisins bubbled away to a thick liquid as black as licorice. The big pot’s exhalations varnished the walls of the room with tackiness that snagged dust from the wood bin.

I learned to build a legitimate, outside fire at the bottom of a seam of wilderness, the great gulch, that ran through the middle of Tacoma, where I grew up, using cedar bark and twigs and deadfall. Kneeling, palms open on the damp earth, my left cheek so close to leafy decay that it brushed my skin and its deep scent filled my nose, I watched the match flame flicker and catch. I blew softly into the tinder pile listened to the small crackle of fire coming to life. Those first fires were an exquisite intimacy for a young boy, and in some mysterious way, freeing. They lighted my path.

There have been other beautiful and memorable fires; and they were usually solitary, shared with no one, light and warmth in the intimacy of being alone in the woods. In the cedar grove on Lost River, in the throat of the canyon a day’s walk above Monument Creek, where I spent days solo with a black dog and a fly rod, there was the small snapping fire of cedar twigs. I kept a low flame to sizzle the skin of the two small wild cutthroat I ate in September’s late afternoon light, with a cup of whiskey and spring water to help warm me after a day of wading. Another year, further downstream, I built a larger fire — maybe ten inches across — in a ring of stones, canter-levering the six inch cast iron skillet I carried, along with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, a ripe tomato wrapped in a heavy sweater, and a sweet yellow onion: the dimensions of Lost River trout, a dish I built in seclusion on my favorite drainage in the world, a vivid and well-seasoned meal which never tastes as good as it does there.

Friday, November 18, 2011

basics

11/18/11

A few weeks ago, during a busy late-summer night at Tappi, two women — one about my age, the other old enough to be my mother — sat at Table 3, my favorite little two-top that’s tucked into the corner underneath the old map of Venice, the one that used to hang in my parents’ study on Mercer Island. That map, like other framed mementos in the restaurant, is one of my treasures: it reminds me of where I came from — not especially Mercer Island, but those other islands at the head of the Adriatic, where my mother Emma’s family lived and worked for generations.

From my work at the pizza oven, I can scan the dining room. It’s one of my favorite features of Tappi’s layout. It’s reassuring to watch my staff take care of our guests and I can, over the course of the evening, study faces for clues of how well we are doing our jobs.

As the light outside faded and Tappi’s interior came into focus in the windows’ reflections, I could see the beauty of the older lady at Table 3 in the Rembrandt colors on the glass. She reminded me of my mom: warm and lively eyes, hair tastefully styled, well-dressed, graceful in age. An old-world atmosphere surrounded her, like a subtle and rare perfume. I was drawn to her, something familiar and sad, and I made certain I had a free moment — and my hands were clean — when she stood up to make her way to the door. I came around the counter to thank her for coming in. When I said hello and she asked if I was the cook, she took my hand in hers and, ever so gently, pulled me closer. Her eyes welled-up and looked directly into my own as she said, “I haven’t tasted sauce like that since my grandmother died.”

We are all connected, sometimes in unseen ways; and, sometimes, food brings us together.

---

This week, I’d like to spend time telling you about three Tappi essentials nestled into the regular menu that are consistently guests’ favorites; they are also my favorites, and the centerpiece recipes of Tappi cuisine.

It’s difficult to get far in any Italian kitchen without making sauce. What I mean by that is tomato sauce. In my family, we called it, simply, sauce.

Actually, we called it “The Sauce”. It is basic and noble and must be a seamless integration of all its ingredients — the herbs, the spices, the vegetables and the starring fruit, the oil and, the most important ingredient of all, time — the time to cook and the time to mellow. My sauce isn’t ready for guests until it’s been on the stove for a day. A workday comes to mind, eight hours, with maybe a few hours of overtime. The heat must be patient, but steady, with a little reposo: a midday rest from the exertion of alchemy. Let it rest over the pilot light.

The Sauce provides the perfect medium for Emma’s Lasagna, the hearty layer upon layer of fresh egg pasta sheets, mozzarella, spinach, bechamel, and spinach. When it comes to the table, you should be tempted to eat it with a fork and a spoon.

I’m really happy with the Sugo Filicudadi, the ripe plum tomato sauce that dresses the Game Hen Cacciatoro. This sauce reminds me of the remote island in the Tyrrhenian Sea where my father’s people come from. In my early twenties, I took a break from college studies and removed myself to Filicudi. I was missing something, I didn’t know what; so, taking my mother’s advice, I followed my intuition to Filicudi.

The island was a primitive place back then; it is still as wild, at its heart, as the Methow. The sugo I make for the Cacciatoro (I’m both hunter and cook, although these birds are farm-raised) is very similar to the quick sauce Zia Pepina made throughout the week. Zia Pepina was ageless and small and quick, and always dressed in black. A distant cousin of my Grandfather, she told me the only stories I know about him, and when I found myself in an unheated loft above the sea with winter coming on, Zia Pepina and her son Stephano took me in.

The ingredients for this sugo came from Zia’s wild and prolific garden. Plum tomatoes hung by their vines from the loggia — rough-hewn logs in an overhead framework that support shade-giving bougainvillea. The red fruit was harvested a few days before full ripeness and suspended to consolidate the sugars out of the intense skin-burning Mediterranean sun. Black olives from the trees lining the upper terrace were brine-cured in a bucket outside the kitchen door; I dipped for a glistening handful often, to add to the sauce or to eat from a small chipped bowl, with a piece of bread and a glass of wine, after a morning of pulling fish traps. The capers and onions and garlic all came from the many terraced gardens surrounding the house.

Although Zia usually simmered fresh rock fish in this rich blend of whole tomatoes, black olives, onions, capers and oil — seasoned generously with sea salt, black pepper, and oregano , and a pinch of hot pepper — it works very well with the game hen at Tappi. In fact, the brightness of tomato and caper blended with the hen’s sweetness is a lively mouthful. We’re serving the Sugo & Hen over penne pasta. After a few minutes’ roasting time in the wood oven, the plate is a hot and satisfying meal.

If any of my creations at Tappi tempt me to stake a proprietary claim, it is the cuscino. It is so delicious, so satisfying, so habit-forming, that my friend Orlando wants me to open up a Cuscino Store in the Piedmont. There, he says, we would sell only cuscini to unsuspecting Italians, and we would become rich. The Tappi cuscino is made-to-order oven bread, a round cushion of crust and air and chewy interior, that can come to the table in a variety of ways — with oven roasted tomatoes, with chevre, with both, or simply, as always, in a generous bath of extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and pungent dry oregano.

So, two sauces and the bread. Honestly, if a guest asked for just these — a bowl of sauce and cuscino for dipping — and a glass of wine for dinner, I would know I’ve met a kindred soul.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Autumn Memories

Twenty-two degrees at 6:30 a.m. in Twisp, an hour before sunrise, with an expected high today of 47. A couple days of drizzle in the past few weeks and now these low temps have turned the Methow Valley’s deciduous riverbanks and ravines to apple red, pumpkin orange, and squash yellow. Bathed in the still-warm honey sunlight of autumn, these are the Methow’s glorious days. Snow in the high country brings the peaks of the Sawtooth and the Pasayten into sharp white relief against our desert blue skies, reminding us that winter is moving in for the next four months.

So we make ourselves cozy. We pull out our favorite sweaters, scarfs and heavy socks — mine are thick soft wool in every case. Build a fire, brew a strong steaming cup of Blue Star coffee, and pull out dog-eared cookbooks for a leisurely read in a good chair. That’s what I’m doing this morning.

I’m working my way through my mother Emma’s recipe cards, the beloved looping cursive script penned a generation ago, that outline the framework of dear and delicious childhood memories. 

Mom spent a lot of time in the kitchen every day. But when autumn stepped toward winter, and the kitchen windows steamed between the frost outside and the stovetop simmerings within, she wore her apron from dark to well-past dark.

In the weeks that follow, I will share with you some of those memories, and the recipes that go with them.

Happy November.