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I was out eating when I heard that my father had died. Drinking, actually. But the place where I was — standing on a patio in a warm rain at ten o'clock at night, surrounded by new friends, a stiff whiskey in my hand — served food, too, and nothing important that has happened to me since I was fifteen years old has happened in the calm and quiet that important moments probably deserve. Food and booze and restaurants and bars and kitchens have been at the center of everything for as long as I can remember — the hot, wet, steaming, vital core of my every experience. Eating. Drinking. Cooking. Standing on the dock with a cigarette in my hand and my boys arrayed around me.
I was on a plane within hours, and don't remember the flight at all. I spent the next ten days in Rochester, folded back into a life and a lifestyle that was like stepping back into a shed skin — familiar, if a bit small and tattered. The first thing my mom did was try to feed me. People had been bringing food all morning and the fridge was already full, as were the counters and the coffee table. She'd begun using the oven as overflow storage — packing it with pastries and loaves of handmade banana bread and rolls and trays of cookies. The first thing my brother did was press a drink into my hand: Jameson whiskey that, forever after, will taste like grief to me.
We never stopped eating. We never stopped drinking. I would have a glass of whiskey in front of me by 11 a.m., and the sandwiches weren't far behind. One friend made sausage and peppers, the best I've ever tasted; another delivered chicken French and beans and greens; a third pulled pork and mashed potatoes. And we also went to restaurants — more than I can count. Cheeseburgers with hot sauce from a stand that I love; salami and prosciutto at an Italian deli down the street. We went out for rustic aged-dough pizzas done by a friend of my brother's who runs a restaurant downtown; drank my dad's favorite beer. On our way to pick up suits for the service, my brother and I discussed food and restaurants, planned for pho and roast duck and more cheeseburgers. Food was what we talked about when we couldn't talk about Dad. On our way out again, passing like barely recovered trauma patients through the thin crowds of weekday shoppers, I said to him, "I can't believe we just bought the ties we'll be wearing to our father's funeral," and then neither of us said anything for a little while.
I came back to Denver, shattered. My mom and brother and I had planned to get back together soon, two, maybe three weeks later, after we'd all settled back into work and a life, minus. They would come out to Colorado to visit, to get away from Rochester, to take a break. I picked them up at the airport, and they weren't on the ground an hour before we were back at a restaurant — pho and Vietnamese coffee to take the edge off of traveling — and then on to Marczyk's for survival rations. The next day, we had breakfast at the West End Tavern in Boulder, on our way up to Rocky Mountain National Park because my father had always loved the mountains — so now someone had to appreciate them in his absence. We ate and we drank, because that's what people do when something awful and incomprehensible has happened, feeding the body and hoping that the more esoteric parts of ourselves will somehow recover from their terrible wounds in the meantime. We eat, sometimes, just to keep the body going while the heart convalesces.
Dinner was my choice — to my eternal regret. We'd run through some options, but everything seemed too fancy or too relaxed or too dodgy. So we settled on Italian, because Italian is where we tend to settle when not everyone wants sushi or soul food or pie. And we settled on Mark & Isabella because it seemed to fit the bill: neither too formal nor too casual. And more to the point, it's run by Mark Tarbell, and across a dozen or more meals, I'd never been disappointed by his first Colorado restaurant, the Oven. Mark & Isabella, which opened this past January in the space once occupied by Chama, just a block from the Oven in Belmar, is Tarbell's Italian-American restaurant: family food and comfort food and everything "passionately prepared by hand," according to the website. "Should be good," I told my brother. "This guy, he's a good guy."
From the outside, with the sun just set and a winter chill in the air, Mark & Isabella was beautiful, with a patio fire going and light spilling out onto the sidewalk. Amid the scattering of two- and four-tops inside, tables were rearranged for our odd number (five of us, along one of the curving banquettes) and menus were distributed.
Mark & Isabella's menu features classics from the Italian-American canon. Spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and hand-cut pappardelle with a solid ragu. There are a few slight departures — french fries dusted with parmesan cheese grated soft as snow, panko-breaded mozzarella sticks, gazpacho and burgers — but the overwhelming thrust is East Coast Italian, street-corner Italian, neighborhood Italian, with an emphasis on big portions and lots of apps. Some of the entrees have names: "Izzy's Meatballs" and "Marco's Baked Ziti." That caused some concern. I've long theorized that a restaurant that names its plates or in some way identifies them as more than simply "meatballs" or "ziti" is trying to pull something. Unless Izzy and Marco are in the back, I'm not interested. And even then, I'm not all that interested: What I wanted were Mark Tarbell's meatballs and ziti.
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