By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
We ordered big. Rounds of drinks, far too many apps, entrees for each person and then extras just in case. The wine list at Mark & Isabella is good-sized, and there are also custom cocktails. Maybe my first dirty cherry soda off that list was poured too strong (or perhaps I was distracted by the company and the still-fresh ache that seeing them represented), but it took a while for me to notice the problems that, in retrospect, were apparent as soon as the first plates hit the table.
Prosciutto and melon is impossible to fuck up, a ten-second lay-up for even the most brain-damaged of kitchen crews. Or so I thought. At Mark & Isabella, ours came in a block, the delicate meat lying like a brick — not beautifully fanned, not in a jumbled pile of wisp-thin slices — because it'd been peeled straight from the wax paper and dropped onto the plate in a perfectly portion-controlled wad, without so much as a splash of oil, a grind of black pepper, anything. The melon (cantaloupe) was underripe and ugly. On the side came four hand-formed balls of goat cheese, fingerprinted and tasting dusty, which matched the (supposedly) sweet melon and salty prosciutto about as well as chicken would a rock.
The fresh mozzarella with basil, tomato and balsamic vinegar was made with day-old cheese at best, with thick-cut slabs of tomato as dimly tomato-flavored as anything I'd get at the King Soopers across the street from my house, and with cheap balsamic endowed with all the subtlety of a vinegar-flavored sour ball. A plate of grana padano, splashed with honey, came with nicely grilled and oil-soaked crostini — but what, exactly, are you to do with spears of bread and a hard cheese save eat one, then the other, lick the honey off your fingers and wonder at the strange vicissitudes of menu design?
The fries, at least, were decent — nicely golden-brown shoestring frites speckled with parmesan — but the mozzarella sticks tasted like pale Silly Putty dipped in tomato paste. I've had better at bowling alleys. And I haven't been bowling in a dozen years.
Still, while I made conversation and saw to the equitable disbursement of mozzarella, tomatoes and bread, I noticed none of this. I ate because eating was all I could think to do, was what we had come here for, was all any of us had done recently that'd been remotely pleasant or comforting. Wine glasses were refilled. Plates were cleared. A part of me recognized that something was elusively wrong with just about everything that'd been set before us, but, critical faculties momentarily stunned, I couldn't say exactly what it had been.
Now I can. The purpose of appetizers is to take the edge off a hunger, to tamp down the worst cravings beneath tiny bites of the best the house has to offer but to leave the main appetite untouched. As the empty plates were walked away from our table, I knew only that I felt hungrier than I had before eating.
Shortly, I would discover that those few blown apps really were the best the house had to offer.
Against all better judgment, I'd ordered Izzy's Meatballs with crispy polenta and marinara sauce. If Izzy is a real person, I want to punch him (or her) right in his (or her) head. To name an entree and then to blow it so completely was a double insult; bad enough that the plate was poorly executed, worse still to think this might've been deliberate on the part of an actual person with an actual name. "Awful" is too gentle a word to describe what was set in front of me, too kind to capture how it made me recoil after just one taste, breaking through the hundred other things I had on my mind just then and finally setting off the alarm in my head. The meatballs — Izzy's meatballs — were sour, tasted of a charred pan in which old garlic had been left to rot, fell into wet, miserable pieces at the merest approach of my fork, and looked like they'd been put together by a chimp with serious motor-control issues. The sauce was broken and bleeding grease into a slick at the top of my plate. The polenta beneath the meatballs tasted like paste when I was able to find a bite that hadn't been soaked by the terrible sauce, like eating the skin on top of paste, doused in oily tomato slurry, when I wasn't so fortunate. The single redeeming feature of the plate was that it had been served hot. And the sharp piece of plastic I found in it (like the corner clipped off a plastic bag full of awful) was one of the less offensive things about it.
That was just one main. Just mine. If anything, the spaghetti and meatballs were worse, because the kitchen had been given the opportunity not just to ruin the meatballs and sauce again, but also to drown a pasta with that sauce. When Laura stabbed a fork into her bowl of pappardelle with meat ragu, the entire pile of handmade noodles came out of the bowl in a single clump. My mother's chicken parmesan was burnt beyond the point of edibility, its edges black beneath the veil of sauce with which the kitchen had so skillfully tried to hide its shame. And virtually everything on the table except our glasses of water was over-salted so badly that even I — a man who lives for salt — had to say, "Wow, yeah...that's just too much."