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.