By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
I learned to cook by eating, by perpetually falling in love with the dishes and preparations of other cooks. I was never a particularly creative chef, but I was a superlative mimic. Italian, the first cuisine I tackled, came easy because I'd grown up eating it and had a range of reds, whites, scaloppini and ravioli to draw from when the chef slapped me down in front of the ten-top range and said "Make sauce," with no further instruction than that. It was a cinch. I knew Italian like a second language.
But French was different. Escargot? Côte de boeuf? What the fuck? I'd never tasted anything more French than fries and toast, so I had to build myself a flavor lexicon, fast, which I did by eating myself stupid -- tasting this and sampling that and learning from the inside out how a dish was supposed to be once all the cooking, seasoning and plating was done. Luckily, I'm a quick study: In my first few weeks, I'm pretty sure I set back the clock of fine cuisine by 200 years.
Tastebud blindness -- that's what I was suffering from when I first made the jump from Italian to haute Frog. The chef could give me a recipe, a picture, a textbook, whatever, and I could make a côte de boeuf, but it wouldn't be a good côte de boeuf, because I had no idea what a good one was supposed to taste like. People cooking Italian in any city west of the Mississippi, where there isn't an ingrained tradition of eating good Italian, have the same problem: How can cooks make a proper alfredo, arrabbiata or Marsala if the closest they've come to one is a glossy centerfold in Food Arts? They can't. Hence the profusion of very bad Italian for a thousand miles in every direction from my house.
Gamberi e cozza: $8.95
Canneloni con pollo: $8.95
Pollo alla Roberts: $10.50
Pollo saporito: $9.95
Pollo firenze: $10.50
But Cafe Jordano knows good strip-mall Italian. And that's what the kitchen cooks, every day but Sunday, for crowds who've come to understand that the Olive Garden is not the be-all and end-all of Italian food, no matter how many free breadsticks the grinning waitron hands you.
Sitting on the high-backed wrought-iron chair, closed in by the mustard walls, surrounded by couples and families, attended to by the friendly, happy, accommodating floor staff -- the small army of servers needed to get us all watered, fed and sent on our way -- I finally surrendered my empty soup cup. Then I chased my blues away with gamberi e cozza alla Franco, big, sweet shrimp and a raft of black mussels in a brandied tomato cream sauce. The sauce was thick, monstrously heavy, brightened by the bitter spike of capers, grounded with a smokiness that tasted of flamed liquor and coddled tomatoes. Alla Franco? Not hardly. My schoolboy days are long gone, so I know from alla Franco now, and this was purely alla Romana.
I chased the seafood with homemade potato gnocchi in red sauce, each of the seashell-looking thumbs of pasta rolled by hand, crimped under a fork, bathed for thirty seconds in scalding hot water, then buried under a basic red gravy and a thick cap of baked mozzarella. Still hungry, I had the cannelloni con pollo e asparagi: more homemade pasta, hand-formed and stuffed with chicken sausage, laid with (admittedly limp) stalks of asparagus and smothered in a tomato cream sauce that came from the same mother as the sauce attending the mussels, but brought up differently. No brandy, no capers, and a fresher, more solid tomato taste.
Still not satiated, I ordered cannoli. These were great cannoli, beautifully simple in stiff shells, with a sugary mascarpone cream that hadn't gone flat or gritty or chalky through repeated breaking or seizing and reconstitution at the hands of an inexpert pastry chef.
I couldn't wait to eat my meal all over again.
So on Saturday night, we joined the crowds staking out the joint early and made the first seating. I gorged myself on Italian crostinitopped with prosciutto and mozzarella, then a plate of ravioli that, despite its reputation as a staple, a standby, had received just as much care, with a sauce that was a solid red -- not watery, not oily, neither too sweet nor too spicy. As fine as that sauce was, though, I couldn't resist swirling bits of the ricotta-stuffed ravioli in the thick and cheesy alfredo slopping up over the edges of my wife's plate of chicken and spinach fettuccine firenze.
Cafe Jordano's menu is a riot of flavors and colors. There's not a ringer in the bunch of elegantly composed, plainly presented dishes. I keep going back thinking that this time, for whatever reason, the food won't be how I remember it. That the artichoke hearts in the saporito can't be as sweet as I recall, just barely kissed by wine in a hot pan. Or the pollo alla Roberts ("Bob's favorite"), with its tender, poached and pounded chicken buried under a cardiopulmonary horror show of butter and wine and heavy cream and three different kinds of cheese, can't possibly be as good as I remember it -- because I remember it as one of the most luxuriously decadent plates I've had in a lifetime of chasing luxury and decadence on the plate. Only it is that good every time, with the kitchen pulling off a composed sauce so tough and heavy that it's unbreakable, yet buoyant enough that eating a whole bowl of it won't make you feel like you've swallowed a bowling ball.